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?