I thought I'd take a break from my all-too-sporadic reviews of pulp novels to discuss a really good pulp science fiction story: Raymond F. Jone's "Human Error", originally published in If Worlds of Science Fiction in April 1956 and available for free download (links provided below)
Story: In the near future, the first space station, in orbit around the Earth, gets knocked out of orbit when a shuttle, operated by a highly skilled pilot, miscalculates, and runs into it, pushing it out of orbit. The subsequent disaster, with shuttle and space station crash landing near San Francisco, creates a public furor calling for the end of the space program. The cause of the disaster: human error on the part of the pilot.
General Oglethorpe, the earthside base commander in charge of the space program, recruits Dr. Paul Medick, an expert in psychology and psychometrics, to head a project to get to the central problem with proceeding with space exploration: how to eliminate human error. Oglethorpe believes that there should be a way to make men more mechanical, operating with the consistent perfection of the machines which they operate. Medick believes that there is more to human nature than mere biological mechanism.
Conflict develops between Medick and Dr. Nat Holt, an expert in electronics and instruments, who agrees with the General's mechanistic view of human nature. Additional pressure is added by Congress considering de-funding both Medick's project and the space program, Senator investigators planning to visit the base, and a rabble rouser leading a mass of protesters to gather outside the base, bringing unwanted press scrutiny to the efforts of Mendick's "Project Superman". With the clock ticking, will a solution be found .... and which view of human nature will prevail?
Positives: One doesn't expect to come across a pulp science fiction story addressing such lofty subject matter as the question of whether humans are fundamentally mechanistic, rational beings, or emotional -- but this one does, and it deals with the questions it raises with some philosophical insight -- but with a pretty decent pace which kept me reading as well. Pick it up for a story of scientists fighting against a deadline to solve a crucial problem -- and stay for the philosophy.
Negatives: Above all else, this is a story of ideas. Each character exists to articulate a particular view on the issues raised, and usually consists of nothing else except a brief description.
Evaluation: If you are looking for a delicately nuanced psychological perspective of intelligent scientists grappling with a difficult research problem under time pressure .... why are you reading a pulp science fiction story in the first place? The characters are flat and two dimensional. That said, this is a story of ideas, and although it doesn't explore all its ideas with the depth and richness they merit, it probably does as much as could be done within the constraints of genre expectations and requisite page count for a digest-style science fiction magazine of the day. This story won't win any converts to science fiction, but to those who are already fond of the genre, it fulfills all the requirements for such a tale and raises some interesting ideas, as well.
Assessment: Recommended -- for fans of thoughtful science fiction.