Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 1: July 1939

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Golden ages never take place in the present. They either take place in the form of some collective memory of the past, long after the events of the targeted time have transpired, or the take place in some imagined future. The exception may be science itself, for at least I feel like I’ve grown up in a golden age of science. But when the July 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction hit the newsstands, I doubt that any of the readers of the issue felt that science fiction had entered into what is now known as its Golden Age. I doubt the authors or even Campbell himself felt that a Golden Age was upon them. To the people picking up that issue, it was just another issue of a science fiction magazine, steadily improving in quality ever since Campbell had taken over a few years earlier.

What makes it an extraordinary is not only the quality of the stories in the magazine, but who was writing them. Two “new writers” appear in the July 1939 issue, a fellow by the name of Van Vogt, and another fellow, by the name of Asimov. In the next issue was a new writer by the name of Heinlein and in the issue after that, the debut of yet another new writer by the name of Sturgeon.

There were already a number of highly respected writers appearing with some regularity in Astounding at the start of the Golden Age: Jack Williamson, who at this point had been selling stories for 11 years. There was E. E. “Doc” Smith, L. Sprauge de Camp, Nat Schachner, and Nelson S. Bond. Some of these writers would ultimately fade away. Some of them would grow to new heights. But it was during this time that science fiction would earn its stripes and become something truly remarkable.

We are more than 70 years distant from that July issue that inaugurates the Golden Age. Both science and science fiction have come a long way. As a vacationer in the Golden Age, I had to keep this in mind, something I wrote about briefly the other day. But I have to say, it was still with a real thrill when I sat down with my copy of the July 1939 issue, with the famous Graves Gladney cover, cracked open the magazine, and jumped nearly three quarters of a century into the past–and far, far into the future.

Even the ads were worth a look. The inside cover ad for Listerine, boasts, “Listerine Ends Husband’s Dandruff in 3 Week!” Another ad tells me how to be a radio expert and make $30, $50, even $75 a week. Some things change. Some things stay the same.

The July 1939 issue contains 3 novelettes, 4 short stories, and 2 articles. The Readers’ Department lists the Editorial, In Times To Come, Analytical Laboratory (which was still fairly new at this point) and Brass Tack–the letters column.

Campbell’s editorial in this issue, “Addenda” is a follow-up to his editorial “Jackpot” that appeared in April. It is an entirely science-based editorial discussing the rapid changes in atomic power that were happening–so rapid, in fact, that the purpose of the editorial was to correct errors and discuss knew experimental knowledge discovered since the previous discussion only 3 months earlier. And Campbell ends his editorial by somewhat prophetically predicting a new occupation:

If they can start it–it wil go. If it goes, it is self-limiting by self-dispersion. The techniques needed for balancing it at a commercial, usable level are not developed, but that is the province not of the atomic physicist, but of the new technician yet to come, with a new type of degree. The A.E.–the Atomic Engineer.

An editorial like that can’t help but provide the context of where you are, as a vacationer in the past. This was written years before an atomic weapon had been detonated or a nuclear power plant constructed. Seventy plus years of scientific progress does not exist here, in this almost alien world. Reading the editorial put me just in the right mood to continue on.

I wonder, in the history of Astounding/Analog, how often the lead story–the one that gets the cover–has been taken by a brand new writer? If there is someone out there who has these figures, I’d be interested, but I’m too busy reading the issues to compile them myself. The cover of the July 1939 issue depicts a scene from the beginning of A.E. Van Vogt’s novelette, “Black Destroyer”, with the catlike creature, Coeurl, looking down at the recently arrived science team. At the bottom of the cover, the words: BLACK DESTROYER by A. E. Van Vogt. Campbell must have thought the story particularly special to give the cover to an unknown writer.

And it was a good story. It was the closest thing to a mood piece in the issue. What I liked about the story was that we get to see part of the action unfold from Coeurl’s point of view, a kind of intelligent beast. I couldn’t help but think of Jack London’s White Fang when reading this story, with Coeurl playing a kind of viscous nemesis. The writing was a little distracting, very pulpish at times. Strong on adverbs and adjectives and with colorful attributions that today, all beginning writers are taught to avoid in favor of “he said” or “she said”.  But there were some remarkably descriptive passages, too, for a first time author:

Hopelessly, Coeurl crouched, an enormous catlike figure silhouetted against the dim reddish skyline, like a distorted etching of a black tiger resting on a black rock in a shadow world.

I think that was all Gladney needed to paint his cover. At the time the story was written, I imagine there was some cleverness in the Freudian interplay in the story, with Coeurl and his kind feeding on the id of other creatures. With the knowledge I took back to 1939, I can certainly see that being perhaps a key element as to why Campbell bought the story in the first place, and perhaps even why Van Vogt wrote it. It was a little tiresome for me because it has been overdone in the seven decades since the story appeared, but I forgive it that since it was probably rather original in the genre back then. All in all, I liked “Black Destroyer”. I hadn’t read it before and I wasn’t disappointed by it. It turned out to be my second favorite story in the issue.

Campbell described the next story: “A new author presents a new type of obstacle that may face the first rocket-ship’s inventor–the minds of men did not always run as they do now.” That story is “Trends” and the “new author” is a 19-year old from Russia who, for the last 16 years had been living in Brooklyn, New York. His name is Isaac Asimov.

I’d read “Trends” before in The Early Asimov, but reading it again gave me hope and confidence as a writer. While the idea of the story is original and interesting–there may be opposition to space flight–the execution, the actual writing, is mediocre. Clearly the story was bought for its idea. But Campbell was the kind of editor who helped to develop writers and this was the Golden Age. And it gives me hope and confidence for the very reason that from a mediocre beginning such as this one, Asimov become one of the Big Three, and ultimately one of the most honored and respected science fiction writers in the history of the genre. “Trends” was Asimov’s third published story, but his first to appear in Astounding. (He’s sold one or two more but they hadn’t appeared yet.) The human brain seeks patterns. At the time of this writing, I have had two published stories and the third, “Take One For the Road” is soon to appear int the June issue of Analog, distant descendant of Astounding. Coincidence? Destiny? I think I can tell a good story but my own writing style is pretty plain, like Asimov. And yet, he rose from that youthful entry to the top of the field. And that is where the hope comes in: maybe someday, I can too.

Next up was a story by Nat Schachner, “City of Cosmic Rays” and it turned out to be my least favorite story in the issue. I knew of Schachner of course; that he was a hanger-on from pre-Campbell days, and to me that came through pretty clearly. The writing wasn’t bad (better, in fact, than Asimov’s) but the story didn’t really make a whole lot of sense to me, and the science, even for the time , was poor. Sam Ward, Kleon and Beltan were men from three different time periods, banded together to fight the forces of Harg and Ras. It was never clear to me why or how these three fellows were companions, how they traversed time to come together in this far future earth. For me, that weakness made the rest of the story difficult.

Then, too, the action on the floating city during the attack crossed over into the old Astounding Stories “superscience”. How the city “floated” (by magnetism) and how the three men seemed to survive the various hull breaches while everyone else around them were sucked off into space to fall “thirty miles” to their death was just too unbelievable for me. There was, however, a poignant passage relevant to the context of this first issue in my vacation:

“Each age has its good and its bad,” Sam observed wryly. “All ages tend to glorify the past, and call it golden. But in my time there were dictators and fanatical conquerers; there was war and starvation and cruelty.”

No doubt Sam was speaking of Schachner’s time and the gathering darkness of World War II and Hitler, and the Great War that preceded it.

“Lightship, Ho!” by Nelson S. Bond–another pre-Campbell Astounding author–had the elements of a good story. It had a good idea with a scientific basis that was ultimately used to save the planet. It was also the first story in the issue that didn’t come across as completely pulpish in its writing. But I had two problems with the story. The first was that the villain was a true villain and not at all what Campbell would later develop in his writers–an antagonist that the reader could empathize with to some extent. The story would have been stronger if we felt pity, felt anything for Red Armitage, space pirate. The second problem is one that probably didn’t plague readers at the time the story appeared, and that is once again, some poor science with respect to relativity and the speed of light. This is where being from the future make the reads a bit tough. Bond’s solution to the story, his “escalator” idea, while well executed, simply wouldn’t work based upon what we know of physics and cosmology. But you can’t fault him for information that wasn’t as concrete in 1939.

This story also contains a nice little passage toward the very beginning that delighted me when I read it:

Squinting space-blue eyes that had sought the azimuth through many a perilens were now glued to a printed page. Nose buried deep in a copy of the ever-popular Martian Tales, Gunner McCoy was once more living, vicariously, the glories of an adventurous past.

Just like I am.

There were two articles in the issue. The first was Leo Vernon’s wonderful “Tools for Brains” which asked the question, “Will machines ever be able to think?” a question that we are still asking today, seventy years later. The article was a delightful history of the development of calculating machines from the earliest history up to the then-present development of a rather sophisticated, room-sized machine at MIT. And yet in 1939, the word “computer” was never once used in the article, although punch-cards were referred to quite a bit. The second article was Willy Ley’s “Geography for Time Travelers” which began as a kind of story and evolved into a discussion of changes in landmasses over millions of years, and how those ancient coastlines were discovered. I liked Vernon’s article far better than Ley’s.

Ross Rocklynne’s “The Moth” was the second best written story in the issue. There was no pulp feel to it and the language and writing could have been from a genre writer today. It’s the story of two competing “aerospace” companies attempting to develop a new space drive. It is also the first story that I’ve come across to feature a woman character. (Not the last, however.) The story involves industrial espionage and some interesting ideas and I liked it well, except for the ending where once again, a distortion of true scientific principles make the solution seem rather improbable.  But that is a minor issue in this story. The characters, especially Harry Bournjeurs, are well drawn out, and Rocklynne uses a technique of telling the story through the eyes of Bournjeurs’s assistant which gives us more insight into his (Harry’s) character. The villain, Rimpler, is not as poorly drawn as Bond’s Red Armitage, but he’s still not what a modern science fiction writer would consider a realistic villain. But this is only the beginning of the Golden Age and Campbell has yet to develop his writers and make his preferences known.

The last two stories in the issue were both written by women, Amelia R. Long’s “When the Half-Gods Go–“; and C. L. Moore’s “Greater Than Gods”. I wonder if the deity theme was a coincidence? Long’s story, “When the Half-Gods Go–” is the tale of a Martian and Earth colony living on Venus. The Martians decides to show the Venusians that their stone god is not really a god and that it is the Martians that should be worshipped. The earthlings are trying to maintain the peace and it is up to an atheist to investigate what’s going on. The story is not a bad one, and the writing certainly is good, but I wasn’t particularly fond of it. I think there were a few reasons for this, some of them inevitable: the setting on Venus, for instance, would have been impossible if the story were written 30 years later, but again, Long can’t be held accountable for that. What really bothered me about the story was the ending, which I imagine was taken to be a clever twist, but which I felt like I saw coming a mile away: the indestructible Martian “god” is destroyed by the Venusians.

C. L. Moore’s “Greater Than Gods” is, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction in the issue. Here, at last, we have a character with whom we can empathize over the agonizing decision he needs to make. The story is philosophical and ponders the effects of the multiverse at a time before the phrase was coined and the concept was fully understood. Bill Cory is plagued by which of two woman he should write to in order to ask for their hand in marriage and his colleague and he theorize the possibility of knowing the outcome of each decision ahead of time. Somehow, Cory is able to see the future of each possible decision, live his life and see the lives of his descendants to their inevitable outcome. Neither path is appealing, but in the course of these visions, he becomes attached to his offspring, making the choice between worlds a difficult one. The science in the story is all about genetic engineering and modification: allowing parents to choose the sex of their offspring, a wonderful gift to the characters in the story, but something that would be (and is) controversial today.

It is never clear in the story if Cory is dreaming these futures and I think the ambiguity works well. Clearly there is influence, in this respect, from Baum’s Oz books. And seeing the possible futures in order to prevent them is lifted from Dicken’s Christmas Carol. Nevertheless, this story likely has influences right down to this very day. I can see elements of this story in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s episode, “The Inner Light”; as well as the motion picture, Sliding Doors. What makes the story all the more appealing is that finally, we come to a writer who has mastered story-telling without the pulp. The story reads like a modern day piece one might find in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. All of the characters are real people, well drawn, capable of holding their own. We get their opinions and viewpoints and we empathize with the painful decisions (and even descent into insanity) that Cory goes through. This is a masterful story by a woman who was already an established writer. It shows.

Let me talk about the Brass Tacks–Astounding’s letter column. What fun it was to read those letters! For some reason, the letters are printed in the middle of the magazine. (I am used to either the beginning or the end.) They are pretty standard fare, fans rating stories, talking about what they liked and didn’t like. Two of the letters are particularly special. One letter, by a 19 year old Isaac Asimov defends his position against the love-interest-for-the-sake-of-love-interest in science fiction and it is a hilarious letter to read. The other, by an even younger Damon Knight is a scathing review of the illustrators of the magazine, worthy of any flame war on the Internet today:

…I have often vociferously asserted Schneeman is tops and Binder and Wesso stink. Especially Binder. So help me I could go on for pages and pages about how completely and utterly devoid of any useful quality his stuff is. I infinitely prefer no illustrations to illustrations by Binder.

Could you imagine something like that being printed today in a magazine? Online in discussion boards, sure, but even there the author of the post would be opening themselves up for retaliation.

There is another letter, from a fan, reviewing the best stories of 1938 and he says that Don A. Stuart’s “Who Goes There?” is the best. Campbell comments that in the tally for 1938, “Who Goes There?” did indeed come in first place. What I found remarkable about that is that at the time, very few fans, I imagine, knew that Campbell and Stuart were one in the same.

And since I’m speaking of story rankings, I should discuss the Analytical Laboratory. Campbell started it up not too long before this issue as a way for fans to provide ratings of the stories that appear. As I understand it, fans rank stories in order of best to worst. Since the best story always gets a #1, the next best a #2, and so on, the lower the score, the better the story when everything is tallied up. By the looks of things, the AnLab runs 2 issues behind so that the AnLab in the July ’39 issue was for stories in the May ’39 issue. That means that the AnLab for the July ’39 issue should show up in the September ’39 issue. I’m not planning on peaking ahead to see the results. You’ll have to wait for Episode 3 to find out what the fans of 1939 thought of the stories I’ve talked about. But you don’t have to wait for my rankings for this issue:

  1. Greater Than Gods by C. L. Moore
  2. Black Destroyer by A. E. Van Vogt
  3. The Moth by Ross Rocklynne
  4. Trends by Isaac Asimov
  5. When the Half-Gods Go by Amelia R. Long
  6. Lightship, Ho! by Nelson S. Bond
  7. City of Cosmic Rays by Nat Schachner

I’ll post the comparison of my ratings to the fans of 1939 when I cover the September issue.

I had a tremendous amount of fun going through this first issue in my vacation in the Golden Age and I’ve already started reading the August ’39 issue. You can expect my post on that issue, barring any unforeseen obstacles, on Monday, January 31. Stories, by Lester del Rey, L. Sprauge de Camp, a serial by Frederick Engelhardt (a.k.a L. Ron Hubbard), and a first story of a new writer by the name of Robert Heinlein. See you in a week.

19 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 1: July 1939

  1. Thank you for this. It is the best “What I did on my Vacation” essay ever.
    For the obsessives in your RSS feed, could you post the AnLab results for the May issue?

    1. Mark, here they are for the stories in the May ’39 issue:

      1. Special Flight by John Berryman
      2. Design for Life (article) by L. Sprauge de Camp
      3. The Day Is Done by Lester del Rey
      4. Employment by Lymon R. Lyon (pseudonym for de Camp)
      5.Melody for Moons by Kent Casey

      As it happens, I received the May ’39 issue in the mail today. It’s not part of my vacation since it takes place before the July ’39 issue, but I wanted it because “The Day Is Done” is among my favorite all time stories.

      In future episodes, I’ll be sure to post the AnLab results as part of the main article.

  2. I’ve been voraciously reading your episodes now since discovering them a few days ago. Currently I’m at episode 9. I thought I’d return here because I want to make a general observation. Your vacation I think is like the sci fi equivalent of the novel and film. Julie & Julia, as I’m sure you’re aware, the film is based on a modern day amateur chef/blogger, who plans to cook all the recipes from the Julia Childs cookbook. I can see a connection between yourself, a modern day sci fi writer, who is looking back on the golden age of Campbell, and trying to find out how this can ultimately help them to be a better writer, while entertaining the rest of us with your unique insights. A wonderful, worthwhile project, that preserves the past and looks to the future. Well done. Btw, time to think about optioning the film rights!

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