A variety of writing commitments have been keeping me very busy these last two weeks and so I’ll keep this introduction brief. Here we are, 40 episodes into my Vacation in the Golden Age and “new” writers continue to make their debut in the pages of Astounding. George O. Smith is the new guy this month. And while these new fellows spring on scene, others begin to fade, if only temporarily. This month’s issue contains the last story by L. Ron Hubbard for the next five years.
In between are a good stable of regulars and reliables. And in a rare treat, there are two science articles in this issue, on by Willy Ley and the other by R. S. Richardson–and both are excellent.
Editorial: The Last Stand
Science fiction is not about predicting the future. It is about exploring possible futures, looking at the ways that technological change impacts society. Indeed, outright prediction can be dangerous because in get it wrong, it can lead one to believe the effort is not worthwhile. Bold predictions in turbulent times can be the most difficult to make. So I suppose John Campbell can be forgiven some of the rather remarkable predictions he makes in his editorial for the October 1942 issue. America has been engaged in the war for nearly a year at this point. It’s navy is being reconstructed. So it is, perhaps, natural for Campbell to de-emphasize the importance of naval vessels. For instance, Campbell predicts the end of the battleship because it is so vulnerable to attack by air. He hedges a bit. He says that a battleship with improved technology could make a comeback–and this, too, is understandable. Campbell would want to be in a supportive position at the time the United States Navy is once again fully functional.
Campbell clearly sees the possibility of the airplane and the power it has, but throughout the course of the rest of the editorial, much of which goes into detail on the functional operation of propeller-, jet-, and rocket-driven engines, he makes two predictions which surprised me.
First, Campbell says,
But this war is the last stand of the winged airplane, the flying machine that, like all early developments of a mechanical nature, is a hard, complicated way of doing a simple thing.
Campbell believes that the jet engine will soon take over–and in this he is right–but his caveat has it that the nature of the jet engine will ultimately eliminate the need for the wing. And if you look up into the sky today, you will see that seven decades later, this is still not true.
Second, and perhaps even more remarkably, Campbell offers this prediction of the jet engine:
The increased efficiency of the jet-type ship will have another interesting effect; at lower cruising speeds–down around five hundred m.p.h.–the jet-type ship would be very nearly noiseless, whispering along with not much more than a rustle of wind.
He goes on to argue that at higher speeds, the sounds would be like thunder. As anyone who lives under the approach to an airport knows, jets are not noiseless and it seems an odd prediction to make for someone who has a pretty good understanding of the engineering and physics involved with the engine. And it illustrates why bold predictions like that can be a little foolish, even in hindsight. Campbell lived into the age of the jet plane. I wonder what, if anything, he said about them once they became more common place. Did he ever complain about the noise?
Lunar Landing by Lester del Rey
Blurb: it was to rescue the first man-carrying ship to land on the moon that they’d made the voyage. But, though only one aboard knew it–not at all the ship they thought they were to rescue.
Firsts are big for story-telling, and no place is this more evident than in science fiction. In the fall of 1942, mankind was still more than a quarter of a century from setting foot on the moon. We had yet to break the sound barrier (something to which Campbell makes reference in the preceding editorial). But science fiction is all about firsts. Isaac Asimov’s first Astounding story, “Trends” (July 1939, Episode 1) was about efforts at the first manned rocket to the moon. Now Lester del Rey gives it a try. And rather than focus on the mechanics of getting there, or the political implications of landing on the moon, del Rey creates a convoluted mystery for us.
A rocket with three men was launched to the moon, but crashed. The men have been stranded there for months, without contact. So a second rocket is sent to discover their fate, and, if they are still alive, bring home the original crew. The crew of this second rocket is made up of six people, three men and three women and the story is told from Grey’s point-of-view. The early part of the story is very interesting because of del Rey’s attempts to make the flight to moon seem realistic. In this he does a credible job. The story opens with Grey waking from a dream in which he is falling–a side effect of flying in zero-gee. But Grey and and the rest of the crew are zipped up into sleeping sacks, which is more or less how things really worked on those Apollo flights. They also have a drink, and drink from straws in a special container because the liquid otherwise condenses into a sphere.
But beyond these realisms, the story quickly devolves into a kind of quixotic mystery. The crew finds, after landing on the moon, that their own rocket is damaged. They will need to find the other rocket to be able to repair their own. Once they set out, the story is not much more than a series of one “startling revelation” after another. The crew discovers both plant (lichen-like) and animals on the moon. They discover the wreckage of a rocket–but not the one they were looking for. How could that be? Turns out there was an earlier rocket, from the time just after the Great War (yes, World War I) and they learn this from one of their own crew, Alice Benson, who, as it turns out was sweethearts with the man who brought this other rocket ot the moon in secret. It further turns out that Alice made her way onto this mission in order to seek out her lost love–and did so by becoming the owner and C.E.O. of Atomic Power.
The revelations don’t stop there. The eventually find the rocket they were looking for, but the crew is missing. They eventually discover that first contact was made with yet another alien species–the Martians!
“Lunar Landing” made for a decent lead novelette, but what there is in the story is purely ephemeral, a 1940s version of LOST, with twists and turns to keep the reader interested, but without adding any other real value to the story.
Much of the mood-setting that appears in the story–the ponderous trips across the desolate surface of the moon, the stark shadows and grim Earth hanging overhead–may have come from the fact that del Rey wrote this story based on the cover painting. As he wrote in THE EARLY DEL REY VOLUME 2:
During my visit to Campbell… he’d shown me a cover painting by someone named Munchausen (sic). It was one of the “astronomicals” Campbell liked to use ocassionally , showing a rather crude rocket and several figures standing beside a sort of cliff on the Moon, with the Earth above and a flaring sun in the sky. He suggested that I might like to do a novelette around the cover, about 20,000 words.
Campbell was supposed to send del Rey a copy of the cover, but never did. Later, he wrote to del Rey asking for the story, which was going to be due soon. But del Rey was waiting for the cover. So when he received Campbell’s letter at 9am and thought up a plot,
I came back to my room, picked up the Olvier, shoved paper into it, and began writing. I never got up until the last of those 20,000 words was down. Then I grabbed a hasty bite to eat and rushed back to switch typewriters and begin retyping it all. I took the finished manuscript down to the main post office and put it in the mail at ten o’clock that night.
Such is the life of a pulp science fiction writer in the early 1940s.
Warrior’s Age by Peter Risk
Blurb: A moment’s glance at a distant age–a different culture–and an episode based on a different philosophy of life–
“Warrior’s Age” is one of those stories that people seem to want to point to when they refer to “pulp science fiction.” This tale, which takes place nearly one thousand years in the future, reads like an adventure story that might have appeared in Astounding ten years earlier. The story opens as follows:
Fresh green shoots were pushing up through dead grass, and gnarled trees were losing their ugliness as tiny leaves shrouded them that spring of 2942, but there was no responding lift in the hearts of Dan O’Keefe, soldier of fortune, and the lithe amazon, Barbara Doone, as they drew rein on the rim of the wooded foothills that overlooked savage New York.
The story spirals down from there and about 3 pages in, I couldn’t take any more, though I tried. (“It seems so hopeless,” said the girl, her tired brown eyes, in which latent fires blazed, taking in the city’s cracked buildings and numerous inhabitants, which moved like ants in the distance.”) I did, however, get curious about the author, Peter Risk. “Warrior’s Age” is the only story listed under that name in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has nothing on him, and a general Google search turns up only references to the October 1942 Astounding and nothing else. I can only assume that Risk never wrote science fiction under this particular name again.
The Second Solution by A. E. van Vogt
Blurb: Any fact which is of importance to mankind that is discovered by one man would, almost certainly, be discovered elsewhere, somehow, by another man. One man discovered that the ezwals were intelligent–and nearly lost the knowledge and his life. Another, far away–
A. E. van Vogt is back with a kind of sequel to “Co-Operate–Or Else!” (April 1942, Episode 34). In this story, a crew is returning to Earth with two captured ezwals, but there is a problem on board the spaceship and it looks as if it will crash in northern Canada. They crew must abandon the ship in the lifeboats, but there is a dilemma. The ezwals will likely survive the crash and reign terror on Earth, so they must be killed before the ship crashes. One crew member is selected to do this. He manages to kill the mother, but the child survives.
The story is told mostly from the point of view of the child ezwal, which indeed survives the crash (to say nothing witnessing the death of its mother) and then must protect itself from attempts to kill it on the ground. Ezwals, we learn, are not only telepathic, but intelligent creatures, something that they don’t want the humans to discover. However, throughout the chase on Earth, one man–Caleb Carson–a grandson to the man who discovered the world on which the ezwals live, recognizes their intelligence and acts to protect the ezwal. Eventually, a kind of stalemate is reached, with the ezwal agreeing to team up with Carson in order to protect itself and its kind in the future.
This was a particularly melodramatic tale. The writing seemed to me to be a step back for van Vogt, almost as if it were written at an earlier time in his life:
He spat with sudden, flaring hate that only partially overcame the sudden, enormous sense of aloneness in him. He must evade those dogs before he could hope to know even the remotest sense of comfort and security–and there was only one method by which he could do it properly.
But despite this style of writing, several interesting things arise out of the story. The first is the point of view. I liked the fact that we got deep into the ezwal’s head and saw things from its perspective. There was a kind of Jack London feel to this view point.
Second, and even more interesting to me, is the relationship between the ezwal child and mother. There was a kind of harsh tenderness there that was reminiscent of the opening scene of “Slan” (September 1940, Episode 15).
The predator-like chase was fun, but the ending did not live up to the twist endings I’ve come to expect from van Vogt. Indeed, I thought the coda was unnecessary in this case and the story would have been better ended with this “final” paragraph from the young ezwal’s point of view:
He was suddenly feeling very young and very important and very humble. For there had come to him the first glimpse of the greatness that was to be his in the world of ezwals, in that world of titanic constructions, the beginning of dynamic new civilization.
The Paris Gun (article) by Willy Ley
Blurb: Super-artillery, both super-size and super-range, has been tried. Sometimes, for special occasions, it works. Here’s the story of one famous super that didn’t prove out–the Paris Gun, of World War I. It was not, incidentally, the Big Bertha–that was a different, and successful, thing, a super-sized howitzer of short range but terrific impact.
Willy Ley is on a roll. Once again, he provides a fascinating article related to weapons of war (something of both interest and importance to contemporary readers) and does so in a way that integrates the history of the weapon with the engineering and science behind it. In “The Paris Gun,” Willy Ley delves into an incident during World War I in which the Germans attempted use of a long-range weapon against Paris, which they thought would–at worst–strike fear in the heart of Frenchmen.
One of the things that Ley makes clear in the article–something that seems to rub him wrong–is to make it clear that the Paris Gun was not “Big Bertha,” as it is sometimes referred. The two guns were very different types, Ley points out, and as he writes,
[The Paris Gun] bore no more resemblance to the original Big Bertha than does a hippopotamus to a giraffe. Even theoretically the two guns were as unlike as possible. It is one of the minor mysteries of history why some people insist on calling the Paris Gun “Big Bertha.”
One of the differences was that the Paris Gun was a stratosphere gun, shooting shells high up into the air, where they could travel farther because of reduced air friction at those altitudes. Ley discussed the angles as which the gun fired for optimum distance, which was steeper than other guns. He also told, in seamless fashion, how the attempt was made to locate the gun from where the shells fell around Paris.
Other interesting details was the bore of the gun itself, which was altered with each firing so that shells had to be numbered and fired in a precise order. This didn’t happen in at least one instance and the gun in question exploded, killing some of the crew. As in his other essays on weapons and ballistics, Willy Ley makes the subject easy to understand for a lay person.
Anachron, Inc. by Malcolm Jameson
Blurb: Anachron, INc. were merchants, not missionaries. They were traders whose outposts and trading stations were established across time from Egypt’s glory to Modern America. But Barry’s station was medieval France, and his goods were umbrellas and–miracles to order!
I have grown fond of Malcolm Jameson’s stories, particularly his “Bullard” stories. At first I thought of them as simply “Navy-in-space” yarns, but they grew on me. For his last few appearances in ASTOUNDING, however, Jameson has set Bullard aside and focused on other things, and this month he provides a very good time travel story.
In “Anachron, Inc.,” the late war has ended in 1956 with the Allies victorious, but with worldwide devastation, destruction and depression. Most cultural centers have been destroyed, along with the culture they had preserved. Ted Barry is a returning veteran (a Commando) looking unsuccessfully for work until he is recruited by one of the few companies bucking the economic tide: Anachron, Inc. As a “contemporary” newspaper article describes the company:
The activities of Anachron may be regarded as the most bullish factor in the world today. It is an open secret that their acquisition of Gildersleeve patents under special charter from the Federated Government, they have been utilizing the Gildersleeve Heavy-duty Time Shuttle for intertemporal commerce. Thus all the wheat, steel aluminum, textiles and so forth that they export is definitely removed from today’s glutted world markets. Not only that, but we are receiving in return increasing quantities of such priceless items as book, old paintings, musical instruments, and many other things we have grown accustomed to doing without.
Barry and some others are trained for this task, where they will be sent into the past to open up new markets, trading good for the kind of things that are needed in the devastated 20th century. Unlike the bulk of time travel stories up to this point, Jameson’s story does not involve paradox because it is based on the alternate time line theory. As it is explained in the story:
“No reconciliation of the supposed time paradox is necessary… for no paradox exists. For every possible past there exists an infinity of possible futures of which a certain number may be considered probably. But once a complete past has occurred, there is but one resultant future, and both it and its past are facts immutable.
The rest of the story focuses on Barry’s–and his companions–efforts to open up a market place in medieval France. They must find clever ways to avoid paying the vast tolls and taxes so that they can still show a profit. And ultimately, they must assist a new abbot in demonstrating a “miracle” (using secret technology, of course). Barry is ultimately successful and is reassigned to an even better challenge in ancient Rome.
Commerce with the past is a new twist on time travel–at least for me. I’ve seen excellent stories that make other non-traditional uses of time travel. There is Robert Silverberg’s Up The Line, which examines time travel as a kind of tourism and the fallout from that. And there is Connie Willis’ “Oxford” time travel novels in which scholars go into the past to make studies of what really happened. Jameson adds a nice twist with the commerce angle. Even so, some of his process and setup for getting salesmen into the past presages much of the work that goes into getting historians into the past in Willis’ novels. Costumes and language. Learning the geography and history of the time–all of that is involved in sending people back in time–and all of it comes in handy.
This was a very different type of story from what I’ve come to expect of Malcolm Jameson, but it was one that I really enjoyed.
The Wabbler by Murray Leinster
Blurb: An old favorite of science-fiction returns–with a tale of a robot that had patience, a brain adequate to its task, and a slow-working, patient urge to self-destruction.
For the first time in this Vacation, Murray Leinster makes a brief appearance with the story of what Campbell’s blurb describes as a robot, but about which, after reading the story, I am not convinced. The story is told from the point of view of this “robot”, which Leinster refers to as a “wabbler.” He describes the robot as follows:
It and all of its brothers were pear-shaped, with absurdly huge and blunt-ended horns, and with small round holes where eyes might have been, and shielded vents where they might have had mouths. They looked chinless, somehow. They also looked alive, inhuman and filled with a sort of passionless hate.
I didn’t have to get far into this short story to recognize that what Leinster was describing was the life of a mine, dropped from an aircraft into some anonymous harbor where it waited patiently to bump up against the hull of some passing ship. Indeed, Willy Ley described mines just like these in “Death Under the Sea” (September 1942, Episode 39) just last month.
The wabbler waits and waits until it finally achieves its destiny:
It turned into a flaming ball of incandescent gasses–three hundred pounds of detonated high explosive–squarely under the keel of a thirty-five-thousand-ton battleship which at that moment was only halfway out of drydock. The watertight doors of the battleship were open, and its auxiliary power was off, so they could not be closed… In three minutes the battleship was lying crazily on the harbor bottom, half in and half out of the drydock.
There really wasn’t much science fiction in the story. Indeed, it felt much more like a literary story–although less poetic than what someone like Ray Bradbury would later produce. But I suspect Campbell printed it for two reasons. I imagine, first that he considered the story to be clever. And second, of course, was that it was written by Murray Leinster.
Late-Model Stars (article) by R. S. Richardson
Blurb: There’s a ban on new model cars, but the astronomers go on working out new model stars right along. They don’t make ’em, of course–but they do try to figure out how they were made, what makes them tick, and why.
This month we have not one, but two science articles. Willy Ley’s article focused on weapons on war. In this article, R. S. Richardson takes a look at thermonuclear reactions–not as weapons, but as the powerhouse inside stars. And Richardson describes this rather technical subject with the colloquial flair I’ve come to enjoy in his pieces. With a title of “Late-Model Stars,” Richardson jumps right into the subject like any car salesman:
Like to see some late-model stars? Fancy job that are the last word in energy generation and proton-proton reactions. Or perhaps you were looking for a good reconditioned model that has been rendering faithful service for the last twenty years. And did you have some particular type in mind? A red giant? A super luminous B? Could I demonstrate how smoothly our white dwarfs run this year?
With this introduction, Richardson delves into a technical, but understandable discussion of the cosmology and physics involved in the development of stars. He works through examples of constructing a star the size of the sun using the Eddington standard model. He discusses the history of the study of stellar evolution, touching on Russell’s Mixture, as well as point-source and shell-source models for stellar temperatures and luminosity. Through this all, he does it with his usual ease and flair. Willy Ley writes clear, fascinating articles, but Richardson brings a colloquial feel to his essays that Ley’s lack. Each time I read a Richardson article, I am more firmly convinced that Asimov’s colloquial science essays were more strongly influenced by Richardson’s style than by Ley’s.
The Beast by L. Ron Hubbard
Blurb: He was a professional Government hunter, and he had to get that strange beast–not simply because it was his ordinary duty, but because it had stolen from him something without which life was impossible–
Hubbard makes what will be his final appearance in Astounding for the next five years with “The Beast.” The story, which takes place on the jungles of Venus, is about a hunter who helps clear out the beasts that attack the natives (and others) so that they may live in peace. At the opening of the story, the hunter, whose name is Ginger Cranston, is attacked by some kind of beast and badly wounded. He is taken back to a village, where his physical wounds heal, but where the emotional ones do the real damage. His courage has been sapped by the attack. Cranston is a man who has never known fear. Now it virtually petrifies him. In order to recover his courage, he must find and destroy the “devil” that attacked him. And over the course of the next two or three pages, he does just that. The story concludes,
Ginger swung along the trail in the long, easy strides of a huntsman of standing. There were bruises and certain scratches that twanged a bit, but that sort of damage was of no importance. The great thing was–a thing Ginger now scarcely realized–that he had recaptured that quite intangible reality that had been stolen from him.
It seems to me that this is Hubbard’s weakest effort thus far in Astounding. I’m not sure why that is or why he decided to take five years off before his next story in Astounding. This story was “science fiction” because it was set on Venus, but the story could have just as easily been set in the jungles on Earth and been an equally dull adventure story. Or, as Alva Rogers succinctly states in A Requiem For Astounding,
It could just as easily have appeared in a general fiction magazine with an African locale as in Astounding with its Venus setting, and was really unworthy of the man who write “Final Blackout,” “Fear,” and other fine novels.
It is a puzzle to me how someone could write such a magnificent story as “Final Blackout” (my favorite from 1940) and then produce something as perplexing as “The Beast.” If anyone has ideas, or knows what was going on with Hubbard at the time, give me a clue.
QRM–Interplanetary by George O. Smith
“QRM–Interplanetary” marks the first George O. Smith story I’ve ever read. Fans of Smith will recognize it to be the first in a series of Smith stories now referred to as the “Venus Equilateral” stories. The stories take place on a communications space station. As Smith describes it:
Venus Equilateral Relay Station was a modern miracle of engineering if you liked to believe the books. Actually, Venus Equilateral was an asteroid that had been shoved into its orbit about the Sun, forming a practical demonstration of the equilateral triangle solution of the Three Moving Bodies. It was a long cylinder, about three miles in length by about a mile in diameter.
Perhaps even more notable, is the fact that the asteroid is located at what we call a Lagrange Point for the Sun and Venus:
This was the Venus Equilateral Relay Station, sixty degrees ahead of the planet Venus, on Venus’s orbit. Often closer to Terra than Venus, the relay station offered a perfect place to relay messages through whenever Mars or Terra were on the other side of the Sun.
This story centers around a new boss, Mr. Burbank, sent to Venus Equilateral to help things run smoothly. Of course, trouble ensues, almost all of it caused by the new management. These include new limits to personal use of the communication, to say nothing of a slew of new taxes on things like cigarettes and candy. Don Channing, who has been on the station for a long time, complains about these changes, but to seemingly no avail. Things continue to get worse as Burbank makes cuts in staff and looks for other ways to save money. But he goes to far. Things reach a climax when he clears a bunch of weeds from an air plant. It turns out, however, that those “weeds” generated the oxygen needed on the station for men to breath and a quick solution has to be worked out by Channing and his men. He eventually solves the problem. Burbank is sent home and Channing takes over.
Smith writes with a wit and a humorous style. The story moves quickly, despite seemingly half of the novelette taking place inside a bar. And he chooses an interesting theme, integrating relatively “hard” science into what is essentially a rant against ignorant management, sticking their noses where they don’t belong. It makes me wonder if Smith ever had a boss like this and, unable to seek out direct revenge, turned his frustrations into a story.
Brass Tacks was nearly crowded out of this issue, with only three brief letters, but promises of 5 to 7 pages of letters in the next issue. One of the letters was by de Camp, but the only one of real interest this time around was written by a Mr. Bruce Massey, who wrote to complain about–clothing:
There is one thing I have to get off my chest before I go completely mad. How can the modern science-fiction writers have such incredible lack of foresight as to picture humanity decades from now still wearing the convention-bound and uncomfortable clothes of this period?
Mr. Massey goes on for a full column on this topic. But it seems to me that maybe the sf writers of the day weren’t so far off, after all. Styles changes, of course, but in form and function, our clothes seem more or less the same today–seven decades later–as they did in 1942.
Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings
There was very little room in this month’s issue for the AnLab ratings. Campbell mentions that back in the August issue, there was no space at all and the ratings for the June 1942 issue weren’t listed there, if you recall. However, he does mention briefly here that Isaac Asimov’s “Bridle and Saddle” (his second “Foundation” story) came in on top that month. Here are the ratings for the August 1942 issue.
|1. Waldo||Anson MacDonald||1.1||2|
|2. Jackdaw||Ross Rocklynne||2.9||3|
|3. Impediment||Hal Clement||3.1||4|
|4. Deadlock||Lewis Padgett||4.0||6|
|5. The Link||Cleve Cartmill||4.1||5|
In a way, I am much more aligned with fans in this issue that in most of the issues I’ve read so far. If you exclude the fact that I rated Willy Ley’s article “Bombing Is A Fine Art” as the #1 story in that issue, then my ratings after that matched the top three ratings of fans. Only the last two stories in the list were reversed in my ratings. I think this is the closest I’ve come so far to agreeing with the fans of the time.
Here are my ratings for the October 1942 issue:
- Anachron, Inc. by Malcolm Jameson
- QRM–Interplanetary by George O. Smith
- Lunar Landing by Lester del Rey
- Second Solution by A. E. van Vogt
- The Wabbler by Murray Leinster
- The Beast by L. Ron Hubbard
- Warriors Age by Peter Risk
In Times To Come
Campbell announced the winners of the last Probability Zero in this month’s “In Times To Come”: first place ($20) to “Time Marches On” by Ted Carnell; second place to L. Sprague de Camp; and third place to Joseph Gilbert.
Coming up next month: a lead “novel” by Cleve Cartmill and a new Probability Zero column are among what we have to look forward to. See you back here in two weeks.