The Best Science Fiction Stories Ever Written: “Code Three” by Rick Raphael

WHO WROTE IT:

Rick Raphael, a journalist who tried his hand at sci-fi writing in the late 1950s. Information about Mr. Raphael is pretty scant on the web. I managed to find the following nugget of information here.

Rick Raphael (1919-1994) was an American writer and journalist who began publishing science fiction with “A Filbert is a Nut” for Astounding (magazine) in November 1959 and established a considerable reputation in the field with a comparatively small output of about ten stories, most of them assembled in The Thirst Quenchers and Code Three. Raphael was at his best when describing, in positive terms, the life of those who must deal professionally with a technological world.

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up.

WHERE IT WAS PUBLISHED:

The February 1963 issue of Analog Science Fiction & Fact. In fact, it was the cover story.

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WHAT IT’S ABOUT:

Following the Three Nation Road Compact, North America builds a massive network of superhighways. It’s called the Continental Thruway System, a series of autobahns which stretches from Atlantic to Pacific, from the southern tip of Mexico into the northernmost reaches of Canada and Alaska. Each of these thruways is five miles wide. The cars which run on them use neither gas nor tires. Ramjets power them, and they ride on cushions of air at insane speeds.

There are no gas stations or rest stops along these thruways: only the watchtowers of the North American Continental Thruway Patrol (NorCon) every 100 miles. NorCon operates as a sort of nationwide highway patrol (“supracops,” as Raphael calls them): a group of law enforcement and medical officers from the United States, Mexico, and Canada, who patrol the thruways in their giant armored cars, crossing over state lines and international borders as if they didn’t exist. These cars are more like spaceships than police cruisers: they have bunks so NorCon officers can catch forty winks, a relaxation area for dining and conversation, a medical bay for the treatment of injuries, giant fuel storage tanks, and of course, a cockpit right out of Buck Rogers.

Our story concerns a team of three of these blue-uniformed “Continental Commandos”: Patrol Sergeant Ben Martin, Patrol Trooper Clay Ferguson, and Medical-Surgical Officer Kelly Lightfoot. The three of them—the crew of Car 56—set off on their 10-day patrol of North America Thruway 26 West, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. On the way, it is their sworn duty to help broken-down motorists, arrest traffic violators, and save injured drivers from gruesome wrecks.

BIG QUESTIONS IT ANSWERS:

That synopsis of Raphael’s career at the beginning of this post said “Raphael was at his best when describing, in positive terms, the life of those who must deal professionally with a technological world.” That’s Code Three in a nutshell. What is the life of a highway patrolman like on America’s long, vast, mean, hazardous high-speed highways?

Think about it. Life is dangerous enough for a traffic cop or a state trooper or a highway patrolman in the 21st century. They could easily be struck or killed whenever they make a traffic stop. Just imagine trying to assist a car in the breakdown lane with cars zipping by you at hundreds of miles per hour. Imagine how lonely it must be for traffic police in Raphael’s story. They’re out on an extended patrol, like submariners, for days at a time. They’re living out of their giant patrol cars, eating store-bought food and getting little sleep…and cleaning up grisly accidents.

WHY I THINK IT’S GREAT:

Raphael did a splendid job writing Code Three. I was never once sucked out of the story by a poor turn of phrase or an inadequately fleshed-out detail. In fact, the story simply sizzles with details. Details about the characters. Info about the setting. Snippets about the weather (like Ernest Hemingway said, “Get the weather into the damn book”). And, to my delight, details about the giant armored police car in which our main characters ride. The story, like all good sci-fi writing, is a feast for the senses and for the imagination. There’s no purple prose, no ten-dollar words, just taut, declarative sentences. I feel like I’m watching a movie whenever I read this story.

Second, it does exactly what sci-fi is supposed to do, and it is exactly what all sci-fi should be.

What science fiction ought to do is hold a mirror up to human nature and reflect upon some aspect of the human condition in an extraordinary setting. In Code Three‘s case, the aspect of human nature under the lens is the American love affair with cars. There’s also the querulous 21st-century demand for faster and faster transportation and shorter travel times. Raphael imagines that jet-powered cars and miles-wide highways criscrossing the nation are the result.

What science fiction ought to be, as the man said, is “a human solution to an extraordinary problem.” That’s exactly what Code Three is. Faced with gruesomely high rates of accidents on the thruways, the three major North American nations create a joint law enforcement and emergency medical response task force. It can operate with complete autonomy and authority on the thruways with the help of their giant, well-equipped armored cars.

Raphael, despite only turning out ten or so science fiction stories in his lifetime, understood the genre well. His science fiction is character-driven, very human. Yet he never gets so wrapped up in character or story that he forgets that science/technology is the vehicle by which the story is told. Without science, a science fiction story is only fiction.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT:

Like Mad Max? You’ll more than likely love Code Three. And I’m not the first person to draw that comparison, either. Take a look at this book cover:

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If that doesn’t stir your imagination, I don’t know what will.

WHERE YOU CAN FIND IT:

Code Three appears in The World Turned Upside Down, a collection of stories which influenced the sci-fi writers David Drake and Eric Flint and the editor Jim Baen. It’s one of the best sci-fi anthologies I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few. You can find it on Amazon here.

Author: Andrew T. Post

Andrew T. Post is a science fiction writer, journalist, traveler, thinker, and blogger based in the Central Valley of California.

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