Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 14: August 1940


On the plane ride home from L.A. on Saturday I was reading the August issue of Astounding and the woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “I can’t help but notice what a cool cover that is on your magazine.” The cover this month, by Rogers, is for Lester del Rey’s lead novelette, “The Stars Look Down” and it really is one of those cool Golden Age rocket-ship covers that people outside the genre tend to recognize. She told me her husband was a huge science fiction fan and I briefly explained my little project. She seemed more impressed that the magazine I was holding was 71 years old than about the project itself. I pointed to the Camel cigarette ad on the back of the magazine and I think she got a laugh out of that, too. And with that quick bit of socializing complete, I was able to return my Vacation, which turned out to have a few good stories this time around.

The August 1940 issue contains 7 pieces of fiction and 2 non-fiction articles. There are two novelettes, four short stories, and of course, the conclusion of the two-part serial, “Crisis in Utopia”, which I will admit at the outset I didn’t even attempt to read. (Those of you following along from last Episode will recall I couldn’t get very far into this piece.) One of the two articles, is part 2 of L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Science of Withering”.

Campbell’s 1-page editorial this month, “Wanted: A Chronoscope,” is one of those brief essays in which I am not entirely sure of the point Campbell is trying to make. I’ve read that this was sometimes the case with Campbell. He would write long letters that took a while to get to their point and even then, you might not be sure there was one. (Asimov wrote of receiving what he thought to be a long rejection letter from Campbell for a nonfiction article. He sent the article on to another magazine only to find Campbell asking him whatever happened to the revisions he’d requested. What revisions?) It seems as if this brief article is talking about robots fighting battles on behalf of mankind, but a second read makes me think it is more about the economics of war. Both topics are as relevant today as they were 71 years ago. He argues that throughout history, the capital of war has been manpower, but that is beginning to change and that in some way, machines are taking over. Manpower still makes up an enormous amount of war today, but we know that there are things like drone aircraft, to say nothing of game theory encroaching upon that manpower. But it still takes manpower, indirectly, to build those drones and to develop and apply things like game theory, so I’m really not sure I understand Campbell’s argument.

The first story in the issue is Lester del Rey’s lead novelette, “The Stars Look Down.” When I think of good, entertaining, golden age science fiction adventure, del Rey’s story is the kind I have in mind. It is the story of two men, once friends and now competitors, competing to build the first spaceship. We find Morse to be the protagonist of the story, with Stewart being the villain, if you can call him that. I say that because as the story evolves, you learn that these men still hold a mutual respect for one another despite the trials and setbacks that they’ve been through. This is a story that I think is prototypical of the Campbell golden age, one in which the men and woman doing the discovering, leading the exploration and adventure are real people that we can recognize. They are emotional beings, with fears and faults and bravado and desires that go beyond the bounds of any one person. Stewart’s own son aligns himself with Morse in this battle between two men–that’s just how personal this is.

In some ways, del Rey foreshadows the reality of spaceflight. While it is not corporation that compete at the dawn of space travel but nations, it is the competition that is key. The story told in “The Stars Look Down” is as much the story of the first space race as it is the story of two men striving to be the first to explore the bounds of space. These men strive for not weeks or months but for years to achieve their dream, something that we saw with the actual moon missions, but something that I think was fairly new at the time. Indeed, in his afterward to the story in The Early del Rey, he writes:

It was supposed to be a conflict of ideology between the two men, without all the melodramatics. It should have been. And I wanted to show that the usual science fiction idea of two men building a spaceship in a few months was utter rubbish.

dey Rey also points out that,

Campbell accepted the story and paid a bonus on it, though he failed somehow to notice I was a great action writer.

As a reader of the 21st century, I cringed a little when I read the description of the Chinese cook, who ends up playing an integral part in the storyline. It was both racist and stereotypical. Interestingly, while I know that this was a fairly standard practice, I haven’t encountered it very much in this Vacation, until this issue, where I encountered it in a couple of stories. Despite that, I had a lot of fun reading this story, and once again, del Rey does not disappoint.

Next in the issue was a short story called “Rendezvous” by John Berryman, who we’ve encountered before in this Vacation back in Episode 4 (October 1939) with his story, “Space Rating”. I mention this because I’d put both stories in a similar classification, something I’ll call “space-flight procedurals”. In “Rendezvous” Berryman tells the story of a young ship captain, Bo Riggs, who is sent out on a mission that requires a rendezvous with his commander in order to get additional supplies of oxygen to make the return journey. Naturally, the commander’s spacecraft doesn’t show up at the agreed upon rendezvous point and a search is initiated. But how does one go about searching the incredibly vast amount of space for a single spacecraft?

It is for this reason that I call the story a procedural. While there is some meager character development (with the crew looking toward Riggs to make the right decisions, and uncertain as to whether to trust him), the bulk of the story seems to be about how one might go about executing a naval search procedure in space. Even the science takes a backseat in this piece. For instance,

Now they were there. They had arrived at that trackless crossroads in space, a million parsecs from any place a man could could dare call home, a million parsecs from so much as a liter of free oxygen. Until her own stores of the precious element were replenished, the Bear could not continue on the task of cataloguing which the Patrol had outlined for it.

Million of parsecs means more than three times as many light-years and so it is taken for granted in the story that faster-than-light travel exists. This again tells me that the emphasis is on the procedure of the search. The oxygen (or lack thereof) plays well into a story as something to add a time limit, a countdown to doom, as it were, but even so, the focus of the story is on the procedure for the search. This is not a bad story, but it’s outcome was predictable, especially with the commander insisting from the outset that they had no need to worry about missing one another at the rendezvous point. It was a little like those movies in which a young lass creeps into a haunted house to check it out, with everyone in the theater knowing exactly what was coming. I liked “Space Rating” better than “Rendezvous” but even so it was still a pretty fun read.

For the fourth time in this Vacation we encounter A. E. van Vogt, and this time, he’s back to his usual theme of strange creatures from space and their effect on the people around them. “Vault of the Beast” was a great story, and van Vogt is clearly improving his craft in this one. It could have been a spectacular story but the ending disappointed me for reasons I will discuss shortly.

The opening of the story is, in my opinion phenomenal:

The creature crept. It whimpered from fear and pain, a thing, slobbering sound horrible to hear. Shapeless, formless thing yet changing shape and form with every jerky movement.

It crept along the corridor of the space freighter, fighting the terrible urge of its elements to take the shape of its surroundings. A gray blob of disintegrating stuff, it crept, it cascaded, it rolled, flowed, dissolved, every movement an agony of struggle against the abnormal need to become a stable shape.

I can’t think of any other writer I’ve encountered so far in this Vacation with such vivid, emotional imagery. Hubbard comes close in “Final Blackout” but his style is completely different. When I read the opening paragraphs of van Vogt, I thought of Harlan Ellison in his prime, the opening of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” for instance.

This formless creature is on a mission to find a mathematician on Earth who can open a vault on Mars where another creature has been imprisoned. It quickly becomes apparent that this creature can change its form, imitating anything around it, including people. There is a price to this, however, which includes varying degrees of pain to the creature itself. Through most of the story, van Vogt spins a remarkable tale of this creature, with whom we become sympathetic, trying to find this mathematician. When they finally reach Mars at the end, the story continues to hold up, but as we get an explanation for decoding the key to the vault, things get a bit too mystical for my tastes and this one flaw in the story takes it from being van Vogt’s best so far, to just another good example of his writing. Here is an example of what I am talking about:

“Simply this: the Martians set a value on the flow of one ‘rb’. If you interfere with that flow to no matter what small degree, you no longer have an ‘rb.’ You have something less. The flow, which is a universal, becomes automatically less than a universal, less than infinite. The prime number ceases to be prime.”

It goes on and on in this manner for more than a page, getting more mystical and strange until I have no idea what the narrator is talking about. van Vogt might have known what he meant, but it is beyond my ability to make sense of it.

There are two interesting things that came to mind in reading the story. The first was some of the description of the shapeshifting creature, which reminded me a lot of the shapeshifting Terminator in Terminator 2. Second is how this story is a precursor to a similar (and similarly remarkable story) by Joe Haldeman back in 2004: his novel Camouflage, which  also features a remarkable shapeshifting alien in search of something. Joe’s book won the Nebula in 2004 and I imagine van Vogt’s story might have won an award back in 1940 if an award had existing and the ending had not been so mystifying.

It’s funny how stories by various writers can affect you. A story like del Rey’s “The Stars Look Down” can make you sit back, smile, and say, yeah, this is what science fiction is all about. And then there are stories like “Done Without Eagles” by Philip St. John, which are mediocre, sentimental stories at best. I struggled with the story and even struggled with finding something to say about it. That is, until I looked up this Philip St. John fellow and discovered what those readers in the know are already smiling about.

Philip St. John is Lester del Rey.

The truth is, however, that finding out the story was by del Rey did be little good in improving my liking of the story. It wasn’t a stinker, it just wan’t my particular cup of tea. (Perhaps it is something about stories involving mutated or altered humans that turns me off, I don’t know.) But once I found out out it was del Rey who wrote the story, I had to know more so I looked at The Early Del Rey and there it was. Of the pseudonym on this story, del Rey wrote:

The story was easy to write and Campbell bought it. But this time there was no bonus on its 6,400 words. I wasn’t writing enough to make my name important, and the story was what he called a standard tear-jerker, which didn’t deserve a bonus.

He was planning to run it in the same issue with the long overdue “The Stars Look Down” and needed a different byline. How about using Philip St. John? Well this was a highly sentimental story and the St. John name were supposed to be used for stories that were not sentimental. But I couldn’t think of another name on the spur of the moment.

Next up was Clifford D. Simak’s short story, “Clerical Error”. The premise here was that copper was needed to help power the ships that crews used on the surface of Jupiter–and said copper was not sent on a shipment. Instead, another metal, mercotite, was sent by accident in its place, a”clerical error” that took place back on Earth and which meant almost certain death to those men exploring Jupiter. Ultimately, the crew survives thanks to the sacrifice of one unlikely fellow. This wasn’t a bad story but I had a really difficult time suspending my disbelief about the environment in which the story took place. We’ve known for some time that Jupiter has no surface (just as we know that Venus has no jungles) but I found this environment far less believable than a plush, hot, Venus. The story itself is well-written, and the more I read Simak’s short stories, the more I can see his influence on Isaac Asimov’s style of writing. It is clear, unadorned prose, quite the opposite of what van Vogt was attempting to do in his fiction. And yet, it works well, even if the story itself is rather unbelievable.

Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory for the June 1940 Astounding, and as always, my ratings are in parentheses:

  1. Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard (1)
  2. The Roads Must Roll! by Robert Heinlein (2)
  3. Testament of Akubii by Norman L. Knight (4)
  4. Deputy Correspondent by Harl Vincent (3)
  5. Carbon Eater by Douglass Drew (5)

It’s possible that this is the closest I’ve ever come to agreeing with the ratings of the fans of the time, our only difference being in the third and forth positions. I wonder if we will ever agree on the top five in order. That would be an interesting issue, indeed.

Here are my ratings for the August 1940 issue:

  1. The Stars Look Down by Lester del Rey
  2. Vault of the Beast by A. E. van Vogt
  3. Rendezvous by John Berryman
  4. Clerical Error by Clifford D. Simak
  5. Done Without Eagles by Philip St. James
  6. Moon of Exile by Harry Walton
  7. Crisis in Utopia, Part II

“In Times To Come” focuses entirely on the beginning of a new serial next month by A. E. van Vogt, called Slan. You may have heard of it. Campbell writes:

Next month starts another serial of that sort. A. E. van Vogt, because of circumstances that tied him up, sent in only the first three of four parts–and I was mad! The fourth part was delayed a week, and when it arrived–the pile of manuscripts around got left while I finished “Slan!” It’s a superman story–which tells you nothing, because there hasn’t been any like it before. This superman is a boy–a nine-year old boy that a world of humans is grimly determined to exterminate…

Perhaps an even better description is this half-page ad placed toward the end of the August issue:


See you back here in two weeks!


    1. Steve, I read Slan before, about 15 years ago and I remember enjoying it at the time. But I’ve since learned that van Vogt “fixed-up” a lot of his stuff prior to putting it into book form so it will be interesting to see what the differences are (or if I can recognize them at all).

  1. Fun bit about Slan.

    My high school history teacher told us that he was a SF reader, by way of pointing out that, oddly enough, there was a gravestove in a local cemetery with the name… Slan.

    I went to find and read Slan not long afterwards (I was already an SF reader)

  2. In the summer of 1938, A. E. van Vogt casually picked up the August issue of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE FICTION in a Winnipeg drugstore. And read the first half of an included story while standing there. Finally, he bought the magazine and finished it at home.

    He had discovered AMAZING STORIES at age 14 (in 1926) and had for a time devoured every issue. In REFLECTIONS OF A.E. VAN VOGT, he wrote “… in my one-track mind AMAZING STORIES was the magazine of science fiction, and I was not interested in substitutes…Unfortunately, it was impossible to be interested in the AMAZING of that period; its stories were outright crud to me. As a result I really hadn’t looked at science fiction for eight years.” So this was his first encounter with an issue of ASTOUNDING, and a nonchalant flipping through its pages took him to Don A. Stuart’s ‘Who Goes There?’ The immediate impact of this story led van Vogt to immediately outline (in one paragraph) his own SF story, seeking to emulate “the mood and feeling” of the Stuart story. Unaware that JWC was Don A. Stuart, van Vogt sent him his outline.

    From REFLECTIONS: “Now, I felt pretty sure that if he hadn’t answered, that would have been the end of my science fiction career. I didn’t know it at the time, but he answered all such letters.” So ‘Vault of the Beast’ was the first SF story that he wrote.

    Van Vogt’s published writing career up till then had consisted of confession stories and radio plays. While the radio plays weren’t very lucrative, the confession stories could be. TRUE STORY offered prizes for submitted stories– At times, as much as $5000 for first place.

    The first story that he ever finished was composed at his “office” at the Winnipeg public library “…at the rate of a scene a day, for nine days.” And it sold as ‘No One to Blame but Herself’. It didn’t when a prize but he received $110. More stories of that type followed. One TRUE STORY did win van Vogt a first prize and $1000.00.

    Having submitted ‘Vault’, van Vogt wrote and sent along ‘Black Destroyer’. And in January 1939 he received a $125 check for the 12,500 words of ‘Black Destroyer’. It would be over a year later before the 10,500 word ‘Vault’ would be published in the August 1940 ASTOUNDING.

    From REFLECTIONS: “The enthusiasm accorded ‘Black Destroyer’ made it an outstandingly successful venture. You see, my confession stories had no author, from the standpoint of publication. The recognition they received was even less than with the radio plays. In radio, they said your name so fast that it was almost meaningless; but it was given. All my radio plays–and I sold about fifty of them altogether– fell dead as they came out the radio speaker. There was little to them; they were interesting but worthless. They sold at ten dollars each, although I got twenty-five for one and a few sold again in the United States, but my total income from fifty radio plays was six hundred dollars. It was not the way to make a living then.

    “Anyway, in writing stories like ‘Vault of the Beast’,’Black Destroyer’, and ‘Discord in Scarlet’, I seem to have tapped an hitherto unplumbed creativity. It was a surprise to me, although I took it for granted in a way. When I wrote ‘Vault of the Beast’, I felt completely at home in the medium. It didn’t occur to me at any time that I was or was not a great science fiction writer, but I never thought of myself as a neophyte, either.”

  3. Harkening back to the comments concerning Heinlein’s “Requiem” from the January 1940 ASF and the four line addition JWC added to it ending—

    When van Vogt published his short story collection AWAY AND BEYOND (1952), the ‘Vault of the Beast’ ending is shortened and revised.

    As published in ASTOUNDING—

    He gazed out across that grim, deserted valley of sand, and said aloud, pityingly:

    “Poor Frankenstein.”

    He turned toward the distant spaceship, toward the swift trip to Earth. As he climbed out of the ship a few minutes later, one of the first persons he saw was Pamela.

    She flew into his arms. “Oh, Jim, Jim,” she sobbed. “What a fool I’ve been. When I heard what had happened, and realized you were in danger, I— Oh, Jim!”

    Later, he would tell her about their new fortune.

    Versus the 1952 version from AWAY AND BEYOND—

    He gazed out across that grim, deserted valley of sand, and said aloud, pityingly, “Poor Frankenstein.”

    He turned and flew toward the ditant spaceship.

    More evidence of tampering by JWC? Or a bit of a ‘fix-up’ from the 1950’s van Vogt?

  4. In THE GREAT SF STORIES 2: 1940, Martin H. Greenburg introduced ‘Vault of the Beast’ with—

    “The shape-changer is among the most fearsome creatures in the canon of science fiction and fantasy. Here, A. E. van Vogt, one of the brightest stars of the 1940s, presents a most unusual shape-changer– a robot. “The Tower” which holds the key to the defeat of the Beast is one of the most memorable edifices in science fiction and rightly captured the imagination of the readers of ASTOUNDING. This was one of the most talked about and written about stories in the magazine’s history, both because of its qualities as fiction and its very strange mathematics. There was never an ultimate prime number like this one!”

  5. “There are two interesting things that came to mind in reading the story. The first was some of the description of the shapeshifting creature, which reminded me a lot of the shapeshifting Terminator in Terminator 2. Second is how this story is a precursor to a similar (and similarly remarkable story) by Joe Haldeman back in 2004: his novel Camouflage, which also features a remarkable shapeshifting alien in search of something.”

    The first broadcast episode of Star Trek, ‘The Man Trap’ on 9/8/66, is a vanVogtian mashup of ‘Black Destroyer’ and ‘Vault of the Beast’; a tale with the backstory and plotting of ‘Destroyer’ while providing the Coeurl-like creature with the shape-changing ability from ‘Vault’.

    1. Mark, wow, these are just great! Where to begin…?

      My recollection of the Star Trek, original series (with the exception of “City On the Edge of Forever” is vague at best, but I will now go back and watch “The Man Trap” to see if I can see the connection.

      The mathematics in “Vault of the Beast” threw me, as I said. I was also amused to find the “large” prime number mentioned in the story to be so relatively small today. Of course, the story was written in the era before computers and I had no idea it was written before “Black Destroyer”, which is itself just fascinating.

      I’ve heard from others that van Vogt took certain criticism and tried to “improve” his stories from it and that his “fix ups” were a reflection of his response to said criticisms. I don’t know that generally this is a good practice and I don’t think it was an improvement in the case of “Vault of the Beast”, which to me seemed just about the right ending for the emotional type of story that it was.

      As you know, in the September issue (which I am reading now), part 1 of “Slan” appears and I will talk about that in more detail in Episode 15, but I will say that I am surprised at how different the story feels from “Black Destroyer”, “Discord In Scarlet”, and “Vault of the Beast”. It is almsot as if the story was written by a different writer–which just goes to show van Vogt’s stylistic range.

  6. While van Vogt was receptive to criticism and took the most disparaging critiques with gracious good humor, the main reason for his fix-ups was to generate a steady cash flow.

    His Astounding writing output during the 1940’s was…well, simply astounding! At some point, you need to download the indefatigable Isaac Wilcott’s THE STORYSOURCE, a pdf bibliography of A. E. van Vogt–

    –Wherein all the contorted publishing histories of his many writings are documented in all their confusing detail. One of the features of this document is a listing of stories by magazine. Check out the index for ASTOUNDING. And be amazed at VV’s
    ASF resume, from July 1939 through June 1950.

    When the rights to these ASF writings reverted to him circa 1950 he faced a dilemma. There was little way to make money with short stories, either anthologized or as part of van Vogt short story collections. As Isaac Wilcott writes in his STORYSOURCE section ‘Fix-up Novels’—

    “Novels, on the other hand, sell quite well even compared to short story
    collections and he decided the best long-term use for stories was to make them into novels. This usually entailed varying degrees of revision as characters and plot details were changed, and new “linking material” was added to better bridge the stories together into a more streamlined, cohesive whole.”

  7. On “The Stars Look Down”

    If you thought “You fella catchee li’l planet, fin’ allee same time catchee time makee free” was bad, the “’N’ I m’y allaow as she’s not bad, not bad atawl” I found was even worse.

    I can’t think of a single writer, outside of P.G. Woodhouse or Mark Twain, who could successfully bring off writing in dialect. And this is a flaw by no means limited to pulp authors – the printed editions of Eugene O’Neill’s plays are frankly unreadable with their huge swaths of mangled Swedish, Cockney and Caribbean transcription.

    But I am much more forgiving of made-up alien patois. Go figure.

    1. Mark, regarding dialects, I was always taught as a writer to stay away from them because, as you say, there are just so difficult to pull them off. I’ll tell you this, though. When I heard Harlan Ellison read “Midnight In the Sunken Cathedral” hot off his typewriter in 1995 at a talk he gave in Chatsworth, CA, he could do dialect like no one I’ve ever heard–and do it well.

      When Campbell starts included the additional scores in the AnLab, I will report them in the posts. I recall reading the method of calculation at one point, but I’ve forgotten how it was done, and quite possibly never understood it in the first place.

      And regarding “Quietus”, now that you’ve pointed it out, I can certainly see how it is sexist, but when I was reading it I was gripped by the story and this seemingly horrible series of misunderstandings that ultimately led to the disaster at the end. I should pay more attention because I have been thinking about women in these stories lately, and how their portrayal has been evolving over the course of the issues.

  8. “van Vogt might have known what he meant, but it is beyond my ability to make sense of it.”

    The is no possible way that the mathematical word soup justifying the opening of Kalorn’s time lock could ever make sense, not to van Vogt, or Campbell or anyone else.

    And that is a deliberate aesthetic choice. (Yes, I used “aesthetic” to describe van Vogt’s prose)

    The purpose of all that “the flow, which is universal, becomes automatically less universal, less than infinite” is to evoke in the reader’s mind, as he is rushing through the story, the feeling that he is witnessing the thoughts of a superman, experiencing something that is beyond the grasp of his own merely human intelligence.

    (And I assigned the pronoun of “he” for this typical reader since in 1940, the readership of Astounding was overwhelming male).

    And “rushing through the story” is the key to experiencing the magic of van Vogt. His stories are designed to be swallowed in one gulp, read at a breakneck speed, devoured as fast as those pulp pages can be flipped. That sense of wonder van Vogt invokes comes from the sheer speed which his sudden plot jumps, bizarre dream imagery, new ideas every few thousand words – all those (as the Cyberpunks put it) eyeball kicks – are thrust at the reader. To linger over these yarns, to put them under rational analysis – even to reread them! – smothers their effect, extinguishes their unique frenzied fever.

  9. If I remember, Harlan’s stories (at least the ones he wrote after 1960) are written “straight” ; it is when he performs his fiction (examples: “Laugh Track”, “Prince Mishkin, and Hold the Mustard”) that he lets loose his inner Catskill’s stand-up commedian with all those ethnic dialects and wild accents.

    1. Mark, yes that’s right. And I think the story is, “Prince Mishkin, and Hold the Relish”. Mustard might make it a different story. (You’ve got to love a story involving Pink’s hot dogs.)

    1. Paul, I lived out there for 20 years. One day I’ll have to tell you the story about how one of my best friends lived across the street from Ellison Wonderland (before I knew who Harlan was) and when I found out years later, I had to drive by just to confirm for myself that it was Ellison’s famous abode. It was.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.