Prometheus Rising

John Harman was sitting at his desk, brooding, when I entered the office that day. It had become a common sight, by then, to see him staring out at the Hudson, head in hand, a scowl contorting his face-all too common. It seemed unfair for the little bantam to be eating his heart out like that day after day, when by rights he should have been receiving the praise and adulation of the world.

I flopped down into a chair. “Did you see the editorial in today’s Clarion, boss?”

He turned weary, bloodshot eyes to me. “No, I haven’t. What do they say? Are they calling the vengeance of God down upon me again?” His voice dripped with bitter sarcasm.

“They’re going a little farther now, boss,” I answered. “Listen to this:

“‘Tomorrow is the day of John Harman’s attempt at profaning the heavens. Tomorrow, in defiance of world opinion and world conscience, this man will defy God.

“‘It is not given to man to go wheresoever ambition and desire lead him. There are things forever denied him, and aspiring to the stars is one of these. Like Eve, John Harman wishes to eat of the forbidden fruit, and like Eve he will suffer due punishment therefor.

“‘But it is not enough, this mere talk. If we allow him thus to brook the vengeance of God, the trespass is mankind’s and not Harman’s alone. In allowing him to carry out his evil designs, we make ourselves accessory to the crime, and Divine vengeance will fall on all alike.

“‘It is, therefore, essential that immediate steps be taken to prevent Harman from taking off in his so-called rocketship tomorrow. The government in refusing to take such steps may force violent action. If it will make no move to confiscate the rocketship, or to imprison Harman, our enraged citizenry may have to take matters into their own hands-’“

Harman sprang from his seat in a rage and, snatching the paper from my hands, threw it into the corner furiously. “It’s an open call to a lynching,” he raved. “Look at this!”

He cast five or six envelopes in my direction. One glance sufficed to tell what they were.

“More death threats?” I ‘asked.

“Yes, exactly that. I’ve had to arrange for another increase in the police patrol outside the building and for motorcycle police escort when I cross the river to the testing ground tomorrow.”

He marched up and down the room with agitated stride. “I don’t know what to do, Clifford. I’ve worked on the Prometheus almost ten years. I’ve slaved, spent a fortune of money, given up all that makes life worth while-and for what? So that a bunch of fool revivalists can whip up public sentiment against me until my very life isn’t safe.”

“You’re in advance of the times, boss,” I shrugged my shoulders in a resigned gesture which made him whirl upon me in a fury.

“What do you mean ‘in advance of the times’? This is 1973. The world has been ready for space travel for half a century now. Fifty years ago, people were talking, dreaming of the day when man could free himself of Earth and plumb the depths of space. For fifty years, science has inched toward this goal, and now . . . now I finally have it, and behold! you say the world is not ready for me.”

“The ‘20s and ‘30s were years of anarchy, decadence, and misrule, if you remember your history,” I reminded him gently. “You cannot accept them as criteria.”

“I know, I know. You’re going to tell me of the First War of 1914, and the Second of 1940. It’s an old story to me; my father fought in the Second and my grandfather in the First. Nevertheless, those were the days when science flourished. Men were not afraid then; somehow they dreamed and dared. There was no such thing as conservatism when it came to matters mechanical and scientific. No theory was too radical to advance, no discovery too revolutionary to publish. Today, dry rot has seized the world when a great vision, such as space travel, is hailed as ‘defiance of God.’”

His head sank slowly down, and he turned away to hide his trembling lips and the tears in his eyes.

Then he suddenly straightened again, eyes blazing: “But I’ll show them. I’m going through with it, in spite of Hell, Heaven and Earth. I’ve put too much into it to quit now.”

“Take it easy, boss,” I advised. “This isn’t going to do you any good tomorrow, when you get into that ship. Your chances of coming out alive aren’t too good now, so what will they be if you start out worn to pieces with excitement and worry?”

“You’re right. Let’s not think of it any more…

-- from 'Trends' - a short story by Isaac Asimov, 1940 (The Early Asimov)