Looking for the Abyss

James Corley

New Member
Jul 8, 2016
There’s a short story I read once, possibly on the internet, (maybe so long ago it was Usenet) but it’s always stayed at the back of my mind. I might have mis-remembered some of the details but the basic premise was this -

An awesome and seemingly bottomless chasm is discovered on an alien planet, it’s terrible depths are hidden by impenetrable clouds. The first explorers who attempt to descend succumb to the hostile environment and die in the attempt. But after a decade of trying suitable protective equipment and technology is developed that allows brave scientists to finally reach the marvels at the chasm floor. Ten years later a lift is built that allows dedicated thrill seekers to make short sightseeing visits. Ten years after that it’s replaced by a funicular railway that allows travel in comfort. After another ten years a luxury hotel is built on the abyss floor and tourists flock there to casually ignore the chasm's wonders beyond the picture windows as they sip cocktails in the lounge bar.

Well obviously the story was saying something profound about how technology shapes our perception of the world around us - much in the way the Victorian railways allowed people like Wordsworth and Ruskin to redefine the English Lake District as a beauty spot rather than a remote wasteland. Equally obviously it was written before camera drones made geological surveying a trivial task. But I remember it as an intriguing and well written story. Can anyone tell me the author and title?
I think I know this one, though there are some slight differences. Is it "Mouth of Hell" by David I. Masson?

Here's a passage towards the end, of which your post reminded me:

"Thirty years later Kettass, a hale septuagenarian, was taken down the Terraces' pressurized cable railway by his son-in-law, daughter and three grandchildren, and, looking through the triple transpex wall, gazed in silence upon the oozing magma from 700 metres' range."
Yes! Thanks for the lead. I’ve done some quick research and it must be ‘Mouth of Hell'. First published in New Worlds in 1965 (way before Usenet) when I was a regular reader of the magazine, then collected in 'The Caltraps of Time' along with 'Traveller’s Rest', both titles which ring a bell, and the clincher was the story itself is still downloadable from the excellent Dave Langford’s Ansible Editions website so I’ve been able to re-read it.

Well that’s what a few decades will do to the memory since the tone and details aren’t at all how I remember, but it must have had a powerful impact to stay with me so long (though I’m not entirely convinced my imagined version isn’t better).

Oddly when reading about David I Masson I discovered he was the Librarian at Leeds University when I was a student there, he may have date-stamped my books. If I’d known at the time I’d have asked him what Caltraps means.
I’d have asked him what Caltraps means
Normally a caltrap was two spikes of iron twisted around each other so when tossed on the ground, three spikes would rest on ground in a triangle and one stick up no matter how it fell. It would disable any horse that stepped on it. They work for cars. I think mentioned in "The Big Sleep"? Anyway one of the Philip Marlow stories.
Really really big ones are made by welding girders so as to make a barrier that tanks can't cross.

Basically a kind of near invisible "ambush" that might hurt anyone unsuspecting.