Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 5: November 1939


In many ways, this vacation in the Golden Age is the closest I’m likely to come to time travel. I recall back in my senior year in college at the University of California, Riverside, taking a wonderful class on the history of film with a professor named Carlos Cortes. One of the things that he emphasized as we spent hours watching old films was that you could learn much about the society of the time by the films they made. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me sooner, but it resonated with me at that moment and ever since. And indeed, going through these yellowed issues of Astounding, I often try to put myself into the mindset of a youngster reading these issues as they hit the newsstand. But it is difficult to do. Consider this issue, in which the first significant mention of the war in Europe is made. Campbell writes, in the IN TIMES TO COME section:

This is the first issue of Astounding to be finally assembled since Europe lost its temper. An item of science-fictional interest might be mentioned. Dr. Hahn, discovered of the uranium fission reaction that lends hope to the possibility of atomic power, is, of course, a German scientist. Since his announcement was made last January, hundreds of paper prepared by frantically researching American, English, French and other scientists, particularly including Dr. Fermi… have appeared. Dr. Hahn and his co-workers have been publicly silent on the subject.

May we hope that attempts to release the unimaginable energy locked in uranium atoms, on a useful scale, remain completely and unmitigated failures until such time as the family fight in Europe is concluded?

Such sentiments put into perspective what most scientifically-minded people must have been struggling with as this issue went to press. Kind of puts things into perspective when you look at it that way.

The cover of the November issue is another Rogers cover for “Gray Lensman” (spelled correctly on the cover this time), but I am underwhelmed by this cover. I’ve liked most of what I’ve seen of Rogers work so far, but this cover, the second for Smith’s serial doesn’t jump out at me like the last one did. Furthermore, I cannot for the life of me figure out which scene in the story is depicted in it.

Campbell’s editorial in the November issue, “Robots” is his impression of, well, robots. But I don’t entirely agree with his definition. He speaks of pretty much any machine that does the work of a man (and presumably, a woman, although Campbell doesn’t say this) a robot. For instance, he writes,

Then there are telephone switching robots. They do not have queer, jointed arms and fingers that push plugs into jacks, eyes to see light signals or ears to hear numbers, but they are most assuredly robots.

I think Campbell takes the definition of robot a bit too far, but this is the kid in me who grew up reading about robots, and who is still disappointed that the vision of robots as given to me by Asimov hasn’t really come to pass. Nevertheless, I don’t consider a phone switch a robot for the very reason that it is doing something a human was never designed to do. People built cars and eventually, machines replaced much of that labor on the assembly line and I would consider those machines robots because they are doing tasks that were once human tasks.  But a phone switch? No, that’s just a simple machine to me.

This issue once again contains 6 pieces of fiction, a serial, a novelette, and 4 short stories. There are also two science articles. And once again the lead story in the issue is Smith’s serial, part 2 of “Gray Lensman”.

Part 2 was much better than part 1, in my opinion. Things moved faster, there was more happening in the story. And yet, infuriatingly, Kimball Kinnison still seems to be infallible. He is the perfect hero. Perhaps this is what audiences of 1939 wanted, and it is understandable with the gathering storm in Europe brewing into a shooting war, a universal savior, a hero for everyman. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, Superman was born the year before and offered much in the same, but even Superman had his flaws. Kinnison has none and the only time the other characters become the slightest bit annoyed with Kinnison is when he turns out yet again to be right.

In addition to being perfect, no one tries to argue with Kimball. He suggests something and everyone around him fawns over him, “By god, Kinnison, you’re right!” The scene that really bothered me is where Kinnison wants to build a special spaceship and wants to call a special council meeting to discuss his plan. He asks his chief if it is “QX” (okay):

“Certainly it is QX with us. You’re forgetting again, aren’t you, that you’re a Gray Lensman?” Haynes’ voice held no reproof, he was positively meaning with a super-fatherly pride.

“Not exactly.” Kinnison blushed , almost squirmed. “I’m just too much of a cub to be sticking my neck out so far, that’s all… and I don’t want to spend that much money on my own responsibility.

Yuck! And then the chief goes on to tell Kinnison just how financially sound Patrol on Tellus is:

“We have an expendable  reserve of over ten thousand million credits.”

Please! I like stories to have some hurdles to overcome. I like characters who are imperfect, have flaws, struggle. Kinnison and the Patrol have none of this.

That said, I enjoyed part 2 much more than part 1. I enjoyed some of the plotting that Kinnison did to infiltrate the drug syndicate, but at the same time, based on how Smith described it, months and months must have passed while Kinnison was going underground to establish his cover. And yet, I felt like it was only taking a him a week or so. And he did this at least twice in part 2.

There was a prophetic passage about medicine:

Wonderful diagnosticians and surgeons, these Poesenians–can see into the patient without taking them apart. In another few centuries every doctor will have this sense of perception.

Here Smith was only a few centuries off. He was essentially describing MRIs and fMRIs.

There was one passage that confused me, regarding Dessa at the very beginning of part 2. Smith writes,

Not of her wonten, highly effective technique of bringing into play the s. a. equipment with which she was so overpoweringly armed.

What the heck does “s.a.” stand for? The only thing I could think of is “sex appeal” but that the standards of 1939 would not allow Smith to literally spell this out. If anyone out there knows what this means, please tell me.

Still, part 2 was a definite improvement over part 1 and ended on a good cliff-hanger just as Kinnison is about to go into his first miner’s binge.

Next up “Misfit” by Robert Heinlein and this turned out to be my favorite story in this issue. It is the story of people who didn’t fit in on Earth, taken into the C. C. C. (cosmic construction corps) to be put to useful work in space, often doing mining jobs in the asteroids. The plot is fairly simple but three things make this story stand out.

First, this seems to me to be the first true piece of hard science fiction that I have come across so far in my vacation. Asimov’s “Trends” from the July 1939 issue might be a close second, but Heinlein was still way ahead of Asimov in this story with his realistic portrayal of space flight, even up to the impressive level of detail he went through in describing the spacesuits the crew would wear out on the asteroid. It is a very different piece of fiction from “Life-Line” (August 1939), which bordered on fantasy.

Second, the main character, Libby, was well drawn. He was what today we’d call autistic, or a savant, and Heinlein did a very good job portraying his rather incredible mathematical ability. After solving a complex calculation in his head:

–“If the chief quartermaster says you’re right, Libby, you’re right. How did you know?”

Libby flushed miserably. “I… I don’t know. That’s the only way it could be.”

Dustin Hoffman should get the role when the movie is made.

Libby is a sympathetic character, one to whom I can easily related and that helped make the story enjoyable. He grew on the crew as much as he grew on me.

Finally, the story while simple in nature, showed an impressive evolution of style and ability from “Life-line”. As a reader, I could see clearly that Heinlein was getting better, where other writers were perhaps less even, and it might even give me a glimmer of what he was to ultimately become (were I not blessed–or cursed–with foreknowledge).

I wasn’t impressed by Wesso’s interior for “Misfit”, but an art critic I am not. Well, not much, anyway.

Following “Misfit” was the first of the two science articles. “Space War Tactics” by Malcolm Jameson was a deliberate follow-up to Willy Ley’s excellent “Space War” (August 1939). I was interested in this piece mainly because I thought Ley’s “Space War” was so good. Jameson’s piece focused on tactics (think “Top Gun” in space) and while interesting, I don’t think it was nearly as good as Ley’s original. Jameson clearly has military experience in this area, but his piece read much more like a rigid journal article than a more informal piece I’m used to seeing in a science fiction magazine. Nevertheless, if you could get past that formality, I think there is a lot of good science in his tactics and it will be interesting to see if any future stories incorporate what he has to say.

The next story in the issue was “Spacewreck” by Oscar A. Boch. I’d never heard the name before and neither a Google search nor a search of the Internet Speculative Fiction Database turned up any results. If any of you fellow vacationers know something about this fellow, I’d be interested to hear it.

The story was about a space captain why was recently dumped by his girl, and who was heading out to captain another luxury space cruise. They were heading to Ganymede where a strange invader was destroying the cities there while another headed for Earth. Meanwhile, the captains ex shows up on the ship with another man and it sends the captain into a kind of tailspin. In the end, however, the Invading ships are destroyed (by crashing into them).

The overall story (invaders, the crashing, etc.) was a little too farfetched for me, but there were some things I liked about the story, nevertheless. There was a great subplot that had to do with an alcoholic beverage called poinaud which distorts the time sense and has its consumer going from super-slow motion to super-quick nearly at random. It was on this drink that the captain became intoxicated after discovering his girl on this ship and it led to some pretty amusing scenes.

The story also had a pretty good opening that hooked you right away, despite its otherwise far-fetched plot:

Captain Glenn Stacie got a copy of the first news the world had about the Invader while he was coming in for a landing with the Princess of Mars, and showed it to Gale who was waiting for him in the Administration Building.

Something that bothered me, however, were the names of the two lead characters: Glenn Stacie and Jim Gale. Boch always referred to them as Stacie and Gale and it made the gender of the characters somewhat confusing, since both names are epicene. This was not a bad story and it had some good moments. Boch seemed to have potential for writing some humorous scenes. I wonder who he was and what happened to him.

Boch’s story was followed by a terrific science article by L. Sprague de Camp called, “There Ain’t No Such!” The article was all about the strange creatures found right here on Earth and their even stranger habits. It was just the kind of thing a budding science fiction writer should read to give him or her the necessary expansion of imagination required for coming up with some truly inventive aliens.

From this article, I could see a writing style that would ultimately influence Asimov’s nonfiction, and in particular his science essays. Asimov was very fond of de Camp and especially his nonfiction. He adored Willy Ley, but between the two, it was de Camp’s style that influenced him more and that is evident in this piece–which, incidentally, is itself a serial. Part 2 of “There Ain’t No Such!” will be concluded in the December issue.

“This Ship Kills” by Frederick Engelhardt (a.k.a. L. Ron Hubbard) was almost my least favorite story in the issue. I say “almost” because I actually managed to finish this one. I am beginning to fel that I have a bias against Hubbard when he writes as Engelhardt. In “This Ship Kills” a captain takes a job onboard a ship which seems to be haunting an in which accidents are constantly taking place. If he can successfully get the ship to its destination, he will get a stake int he company. People hear voices on the ship and those voices almost always lead to their death.The crew attempts to mutiny and the mutiny is put down again and again. Ultimately, we discover that the structural components of the ship are picking up radio signals in space of the “Perils of Paulette” radio show. Those are the voices that people are hearing.

The opening of this story was pure pulp:

The intense blackness of a Northern California winter’s night hung like a pall over the busy spaceport atop lofty Mount Shasta, but even it paled before the black fury that masked the rough-hewn features of Captain Guy Helmuth.

That is just a little over the top for me, and the rest of the story followed suit. And while I did think the ghost and haunting were effective at making the story more interesting, I was disappointed by the “solution”. This was a puzzle story that made use of radio shows being sent into space, but I don’t think the ending was all that effective. That said, I liked this story better than “General Swamp, C.I.C.” (August-September 1939).

Next up was “Habit” by Lester del rey. This story was essentially horse-racing in space, taking away the horses and replacing them with rockets. It was similar in theme to “Forces Must Balance” by Manly Wade Wellman (September 1939), minus the political overtones. I think del Rey’s story was better than Wellman’s, but was not nearly as good as del Rey’s previous piece, “The Luck Of Ignatz” (August 1939). In this piece, Len, the narrator is working on a rocket to enter into a race and Jimmy, a friend of Len’s late father (who also raced) is trying to give him some advice about the circuit and how it is “fixed”. I think del Rey overdid the use of “habit” with Jimmy’s character. He’s always mentioning how this or that is just a “habit” and it not only gets repetitive, but as a reader, you start to feel like you’re being beaten over the head with it.

The writing in the piece is clear and easy to read, and the way in which Len beats the system to win the race (ultimately by using Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot around and pick up speed–the way Voyager I and II did decades later) was creative and prescient. The story was fun, but beyond that, it doesn’t really stand out.

The final piece of fiction in this issue was “Power Plant” by Harl Vincent, the story of the building of the first commercial power plant. I marked this as my least favorite story of the issue, but it deserves a caveat: I couldn’t finish it. I could barely get through the first few pages without becoming woefully weary. Far too much technical detail, and far too little story, despite the elements of sabotage that were hinted at. I feel bad about not finishing the piece, but I also look at it as a fair criticism, and in going through 120 issues of the magazine, there are bound to be stories that I simply can’t get through.

The BRASS TACKS (once again at the back of the issue as opposed to the middle) had a few things worthy of note. First was a letter signed by one Bob Tucker, science-fictionist. The letter was your run-of-the-mill fare but I wondered if this might not be the Bob Tucker of science fiction fandom. Certainly the age would be about right.

The mix of letters for and against Engelhardt’s “General Swamp, C.I.C” were about even, but I’m sticking to my opinion of the piece regardless.

There was an amusing item in a letter by Thomas S. Gardner (who, incidentally, has had a letter printed in just about every issue I’ve covered so far) where he asks:

Could Don Evans be a pseudonym for Don [A.] Stuart?

Campbell’s response was:

Don Evans is not a pseudonym–certainly not for Stuart. That would make the whole thing kinda complex!

In that same letter, Mr. Gardner writes,

A word in regard to the novel in the last Unknown. “None But Lucifer” was so good that I asked two of my friends to read it–something I seldom do. It is next to “Sinister Barrier” as the best published in Unknown.

I’m really curious about this story now. Asimov praised it in his autobiography and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it. Do any of you fellow vacationers know where this story is collected?

The Analytical Laboratory for the September 1939 issue was reported. As always, by rankings follow in parentheses:

  1. Ether Breather by Theodore Sturgeon (2)
  2. Forces Must Balance by Manly Wade Wellman (4)
  3. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt (unrated)
  4. The Last Hope by Don Evans (3)
  5. Atmospherics by Victor Valding (5)

Clearly enough people thought well enough of “General Swamp” to get it third place in the rankings, but I still disagree. They are all wrong. No one seemed to like “Masson’s Secret” by Raymond Z. Gallun, which is what I ranked #1 for September.

Here are my ratings for the November 1939 issue:

  1. Misfit by Robert Heinlein
  2. Gray Lensman (part 2) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  3. Spacewreck by Oscar A. Boch
  4. Habit by Lester del Rey
  5. This Ship Kills by Frederick Engelhardt
  6. Power Plant by Harl Vincent

The December issue has part 3 of “Gray Lensman” as well as stories by A. E. van Vogt, Nat Schachner, Kent Casey, Wallace West, and Edwin Sloat.

See you here next week!


    1. Mark, thanks for the link. That’s terrific that it is available online. I don’t want to get too distracted from the Astounding fiction (I’m in the midst of Van Vogt’s “Discord in Scarlet” and enjoying it even more than “Black Destroyer”) but I’ve heard enough about NONE BUT LUCIFER, and seen it plugged enough in the ’39 Astounding’s to want to read it.

  1. About the Rogers cover: “I cannot for the life of me figure out which scene in the story is depicted in it.”

    That is because the scene won’t happen until the concluding installement. It is the projection tank in the flagship of Grand Fleet Operations: “seven hundred feet in diameter and eighty feet thick in the middle—over seventeen million cubic feet of space in which more than two million tiny lights crawled.”

    As for the mysterious “s.a.”, when “Gray Lensman” was published in 1951 the initials were gone from that sentence. Was it some sort of note by a Street and Smith proof reader that accidentally ended up set by the linotype operator? Whatever – I like your guess since it creates out of thin air a lost bit of pre-war American slang.

    1. Mark, the thought did cross my mind that the cover depicted a later scene in the story. It makes sense. Campbell seemed (in his various plugs of the story) so excited about it, that I could see him using both covers for the serial for the first two parts. Even if fans could have waited for the second cover, I don’t think Campbell could have. (In the December ’39 issue, with Part 3 of the story, the cover is for Van Vogt’s “Discord in Scarlet”.)

      That’s really interesting about the “s.a.” being cut from the sentence in the 1951 book. You are right, mine was a complete guess, but since they were talking about Dessa, the only thing that came to mind was “sex appeal”.

  2. In “Early Del Rey” Lester is very frank about the lasting value of “Habit”: “I wonder why Campbell bought it, or why he ever thought it deserved a bonus. [1 cent a word + 1/4 cent a word bonus] He must have been very hard up for short fiction on the day it came in.”

    Del Rey also goes into detail about the error he committed in calculating the centrifugal force of the spaceship whipping arounf Jupiter: “I’ve always prided myself on figuring things out, but this story doesn’t bear any degree of pride.”

    1. After your comment I pulled that book off the shelf and read what he wrote about the story. Hadn’t considered doing that before. I haven’t read much of Del Rey’s fiction, but he did write one of my all-time favorite stories, “The Day Is Done” (Astounding 5/39). That story, among several others of my favorites are memorialized in my story “Hindsight, In Neon” which was published in the April 2009 issue of Apex Magazine.


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