‘To Bring In The Steel’ by Donald Kingsbury
This story was published in Analog, reprinted by Terry Carr in his Best Science Fiction Of The Year and then again here in this supposedly definitive hard SF anthology. In Canadian Science Fiction And Fantasy by David Ketterer the story is briefly acknowledged as being “about maneuvering asteroids into Earth orbit and refining their ore.” Brian M. Stableford’s Science Fact And Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia goes further to describe it as a revamped and serious treatment of asteroid mining. Given this you might think you could guess the sort of story Kingsbury has written. You would probably be wrong.
A Heinleinian competent man with exceptional engineering skills and zero social skills is the second-in-command of an ore asteroid that is being refined as it is flown back to Earth. So far, so predicatable and there is indeed technical waffle about different types of fuel, the sort of nuts and bolts that make up hard SF. This has precious little to do with the actual story though. Instead the story opens with Mr Competent learning of his wife’s suicide. Since he hates and fears women this doesn’t bother him, however, it does leave the question of what to do with the seven-year-old daughter back on Earth who he has never seen. In an attempt to prove to himself that nothing is beyond his competency – and despite hating and fearing children as much as women – he decides to have her imported. (Despite being repeatedly told that the asteroid is an unforgiving environment where death lurks round every corner, there are plenty of children on board.) First though, he needs to put it to a vote of all the crew since apparently rigid hierarchies don’t work in such high-pressure hermetic environments and instead “village democracy” is much more preferable. This is, after all, how the navies of the world operate their submarine fleets… Anyway, they vote no on the grounds of, you know, the hatred and fear. He goes over their heads to the big cheeses on Earth – democracy in action! – and requests a governess.
This is where the story gets really weird because he doesn’t want any old nanny, no, he wants the most famous prostitute in California to be his nanny. This is not because he has a chronic case of blue balls but because he wants to deploy this whore of Babylon as a timebomb in the sealed community that had the temerity to oppose him. The narrative perspective slips from him to her and with it any hope that Kingsbury had been satirising Heinlein. No, he means it, although what exactly he means isn’t clear.
The story was published in 1978 when Kingsbury was knocking on fifty but he comes across as much older, baffled by these young people of today and hopeless mired in the Fifties. The big wigs apparently think nothing of My Competent’s request. What is a child’s welfare compared to satisfying the incredibly expense whims of a top manager? Perhaps they were also influenced by other factors: one of them physically “staggers back” when confronted with the “firmness of her boobs”. Kingsbury’s whore – who happily refers to herself thus – is foolish, easily manipulated, in love with her manager despite the fact he beats her, financially illeterate and a fake. Obviously she takes the job. In one frankly disgusting scene when they arrive at the it is made clear that she has taught the seven-year-old gain her father’s love my flirting with him. Needless to say she falls in love with Mr Competent at the end of the story having first proved her competency to him by saving him from a decidedly undramatic accident involving a floating mirror. Hard SF is no place to be a woman.