Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 2: August 1939

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I think there is at least one physical difference between my vacation in the Golden Age and what people who lived through it experienced: the smell of an ancient pulp magazine. I always imagined that when Isaac Asimov was reading the latest issue of Astounding, it had that same aromatic fragrance as the issue that I hold in my hand, but on closer consideration that simply can’t be right. For instance, I can pick up the April 2011 issue of Analog, rifle through the pages just below my nose and there is a scent, but it is the scent of fresh, clean, young paper. But when I crack open the August 1939 issue, more than 70 years of collected odors seem to melt off the pages. There is a certain staleness to that smell, sure, but anyone who has been in a used book store knows what I am talking about. Some people hate it, but to me it might as well be ambrosia There is also a sweetness to the smell and I have no idea where that comes from, perhaps the result of seven decades of oxygen burning away at the pages. Whatever it is, when I finally put the magazine down after reading it for longer than ten minutes, the scent lingers on my fingers and it is delightful.

I really felt like a kid reading the August 1939 issue. Given my busy days, I found that I mostly read this issue before going to sleep in the evenings. I would crawl into bed with the magazine and a booklight, and then pull the covers over my head so that the light didn’t disturb my wife. And I sit there for an hour or so each night, in this magical place, with the book light warming the pages, and the age-worn, pulp-scented pages filling my makeshift tent with those wonderful smells. I could almost imagine that any moment, my mother or father would walk through the door and catch me reading instead of sleeping and urge me harshly to turn off the light. It was all very exciting.

The August 1939 issue contains 3 novelettes, 4 short stories, the first of a 2-part serial, and a couple of articles, along with the usual reader departments. Campbell’s editorial in this issue is a short one, filling just a single page, and focuses on a comment in one of the letters from the previous issue. The letter writer wants science fiction writers to think up more things for inventors to invent. Campbell writes a brief, but interesting summary of where he thinks science fiction has been successful in this regard. He concludes with:

Science fiction has produced a multitude of suggestions for things the future needs. The thing that is lacking is the thirty-odd years of development that come between Kitty Hawk and the Yankee Clipper.

The lead novelette in August is “The Luck of Ignatz” by Lester del Rey, and it is for this novelette that the cover of the issue was done by Virgil Finlay. I’m far less an art critic than I am fiction, but I can’t say this was a particularly moving cover for me. The story by del Rey, however, was pure fun, and I had the most fun I’ve had so far on this vacation reading that piece. Beginners who want to write science fiction often learn from others that part of what makes a good story, what makes the characters come alive, are the challenges that they have to overcome to reach their goal. del Rey’s story is perhaps the epitome of this. Jerry Lord, the main character of the piece, has left Venus with a zloaht: a Venusian pet, a kind of snail-lizard, name Ignatz. Within its home swamp on Venus, Ignatz brings its master good luck. However, anywhere away from the swamp, Ignatz brings those around him nothing but bad luck. In trying to get back to Venus, therefore, Lord and those around him suffer nothing but trouble in trying to overcome the obstacles thrown their way by this interesting ability the zloaht have on those around them. Despite the ending being just a little weak, this was my favorite story in the issue.

The next piece, “Heavy Planet” is a short story by a “new author” named Lee Gregor and if that name isn’t familiar to science fiction fans today it’s only because it was the pen name of a somewhat more familiar name, Milton A. Rothman (1919-2001). The basic plot of the story is simple: on water-world, one of the natives witnesses as spacecraft crash into the ocean and goes to investigate. What makes the story interesting is that the planet on which the spacecraft crashes is obviously much, much larger than Earth and the gravity is far, far stronger. Ennis, the protagonist of the story can easily tear through the metal of the crashed spacecraft and from this, deduces that the planet from which it came had a much weaker gravity. In fact, the skin of the natives is stronger than the steel of the spacecraft. The plot hinges on the fact that (somehow) Ennis discovers the spacecraft has an atomic powerplant, something that has been hypothesized by the natives, but never produced. It is up to Ennis to keep this a secret from the enemy tribes on the planet until his own people can get to the ship and learn it’s secrets.

“Heavy Planet” is mostly an action adventure story, laden with a pulp writing style:

 

Ennis tore at the controls, granite-hard standing out in bas-relief over his short immensely thick body, skin gleaming scale-like in the slashing spray.

Nevertheless, I did like the shift in perspective: as opposed to earthmen going to the moon or Mars and experiencing lower gravity, the story is told from the point of view of a native on a high gravity planet, trying to understand the material physics of this alien spacecraft from a low-gravity world.

The first serial of my vacation in the Golden Age opens in this issue, a 2-parter called, “General Swamp, C.I.C.” by a writer named Frederick Engelhardt, who die-hard fans will recognize as a pen name for L. Ron Hubbard. This was pure military science fiction, very light on the science fiction. The story (or the first half anyway) is about a revolt on Venus and an attempted suppression of that revolt (somewhat ironic reading in light of what is going on in Egypt at the moment). To me, however, it read like a rather dry listing of engagements and troop movements, attacks and counterattacks, something like you might read in an high school history text book. This surprised me since Hubbard is supposed to have been an outstanding pulp-writer (think: “Typewriter in the Sky” or “Slaves of Sleep”). I didn’t sympathize with any of the characters, even General Swamp himself, and my only hope is that part 2 will somehow redeem the story. We’ll have to wait until next week to find out…

There was at least one interesting bit in “General Swamp, C.I.C.” (the C.I.C. stands for “commander-in-chief”, by the way):

The two were standing in the command control chamber of the barracks, the brain of the Torgutkluck defense system. The center of the room was taken up by a huge relief map… electrically operated from the message room below. A huge televisor screen, capable of reflecting an entire battlefield, occupied one wall. Other individual screens studded another wall.

From here a commander could personally keep an eye on any engagement within a radius of five hundred kilometers. It was a tribute to the skill of the Corp’s signal engineers.

To me, this is Hubbard predicting CNN.

There were two science articles in this issue, one by Arthur McCann, the other by Willy Ley. Interestingly, the McCann article, “Isotope 235″, is not listed in the table of contents. It is a brief, but interesting summary of the problem of isolating U-235 for use in atomic reactions from the far more common U-238, which doesn’t work in a chain reaction.

The second article, Willy Ley’s “Space War” was absolutely absorbing and fascinating, completely unlike his dry article in the July issue. “Space War” is essentially about the physics of ballistics, e.g. guns and bullets, something about which I knew almost nothing before reading it. It is as relevant today as it was 70 years ago. Ley points out that every advancement is eventually carried into war. Guns were put on airplanes and eventually they would go on space ships, but what would be the best weapon on a spacecraft?  Ley touches on the physics of “ray guns” on spacecraft and how they would often be impractical due to the size of the power source and heat they would have to generate to be effective. He goes on to point out that regular bullets would still be the most effect weapon in ship-to-ship combat (something that the writers of the new Battlestar Galactica got right). This was an outstanding article, and I’d recommend it highly to anyone who can find it. In fact, about the only thing Ley got wrong in this article (so far) is that war in space was inevitable. In the 70 years since the article was written, we’ve seen more collaboration in space than confrontation, and that will hopefully continue to be the trend.

Campbell introduced the next short story with “A new author suggests a means of determining the day a man must die–a startlingly plausible method.” Well, the method did not seem plausible to me, but the story was still a good one, and focused on that trademark of science fiction–”what if this was possible?” What are the ramifications? The new author, by the way, is Robert A. Heinlein, and the story, his first, is “Life-Line”. I’d read this story before, sometime in the mid-1990s and I forgot just enough of it to make it an interesting read. The writing, from the beginning, was a grade above just about all of the other stories in the issue (de Camp, whom I’ll get to shortly, being the exception) and the story moved fast and kept you engaged. Somehow, I remembered the ending of the story very differently from how it actually ended.

The story itself is about a man, Dr. Pinero, who has invented a machine that can predict the date of a man’s death. Pinero is an interesting character, challenging authority in what would become typically of Heinlein’s characters. However, I imagined a remarkable similarity between this “doctor” and Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Insurance companies are trying to prevent the use of the machine because if it worked, it would wreak havoc on their business models. Heinlein explores several interesting avenues and side-effects of the device. I don’t want to give away the ending on this one because if you haven’t read it, you should. But I’d swear that the way I remember it ending was with Pinero giving a reading to one Lazarus Long, and on seeing the results, telling Long that the machine was broken and he couldn’t give him a reading. Long wasn’t even in this story, which goes to show you how far off I was.

Still, in the first two issues of the Golden Age, Campbell had printed the first (or very early) stories of Van Vogt, Asimov, and Heinlein. Asimov and Heinlein, at least, would go on to become two-thirds of The Big Three. A golden age, indeed.

Next up was a short story, “Stowaway” by Nelson S. Bond. I didn’t rate Bond’s story too highly in the last issue, and that carried over into this one. The premise of the story is a ship, making the run from Venus to Earth, but losing power in various systems. It turns out there is a stowaway on board with a pet that feeds on power sources. Bond hypothesizes, “Heaviside” that surrounds the earth, or as he describes it in the story:

What I saw gave me an oversized case of the shudders. Before us, now plainly visible in the perilens, was the outer crust of the Heaviside. And when I say crust, I mean crust. Because even though its ionized substance is tenuous it the extreme, it possesses definite matter, in energy form… Earth’s pioneering scientists must have been pretty dumb not to have realized, ages ago, that the Heaviside layer is nothing more nor less than a miniature replica of the same phenomenon which they identified through their tiny 200-inch telescopes as the solar “corona”

If the power is gone when the ship passes through Heaviside, it would be destroyed, and therein lies the crux of the story. How can the ship, drained of power, survive? But survive they do, through a kind of deux ex machina. Not a terrible story, but one for which I simply couldn’t dump my knowledge of modern astronomy to make it seem more believable.

Following “Stowaway” were two pieces by L. Sprague de Camp. The first piece, a page long science article, is not listed in the table of contents. It’s called, “There’s Just as Good Fish–” and it is about the discovery of a fish previously thought extinct for millions of years. The second de Camp piece,  a novelette called, “The Blue Giraffe” turned out to be my second favorite story in the issue. The story is an interesting one because the elements of science fiction lie mostly in the effects of radiation on mutations and biology and it is done subtly. The story opens with a son who discovers he’s been adopted and his father then tells him the story of why he was adopted. The story is fascinating. It is, in reality, an African adventure story that predates Mike Resnick’s Africa stories by five decades. It is a guided tour through the jungles of Africa and the discovery of a variety of creatures with strange mutations. Of all the stories in the issue, de Camp’s is the best written. There is no feeling of pulp writing or story-telling. It is a smooth tale that comes alive in your imagination so that you feel like you are right there with the characters on their journey. Abou the only weakness in the story was the ending, which returns to the father and his adopted son. I didn’t think the ending lived up to the full potential of the story, and almost would have liked to seen the beginning and ending left off, and just go on the wonderful journey through the African wilderness.

“Ultimatum From Mars” by Ray Cummings, was the shortest story in the issue. It was mostly political science fiction about how an Earth, seemingly backed into a corner by a threatening Mars, overcomes the threat and reverses the situation. The writing was fine, but I didn’t see much new here. Clearly, the theme of the story had to be a reflection of what was going on in Europe at the time, a kind of wish-fulfillment for how European nations would react to the Nazi threat. But this was an otherwise quiet piece, and one of my least favorites in the issue.

My least favorite story in the issue was the last novelette, “Pleasure Trove” by P. Schuyler Miller. The story itself was well-written, the writing up there with both de Camp and Heinlein. I just didn’t like the story. The opening scene was fantastic, but from there, it became mostly a “space western” and wandered off into realms that I didn’t find interesting or compelling. This disappointed me because, while I’d never read a Miller story before, I knew that he was a popular author. But this piece, at least, didn’t interest me at all.

Nothing jumped out in this issues BRASS TACKS column. The letters were standard fare, ranking stories and critiquing artists, and listing their favorite authors and asking for more. Campbell goes out of his way in the “In Times To Come” column to emphasize that E. E. “Doc” Smith is returning to the pages of Astounding in October with a 4-part serial, “Gray Lensman”. He says it will be advertised extensively and that the issue will likely sell out quickly. In fact, in the August issue alone I counted 3 ads for the story, including this half-pager:

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I had a request last time to list the Analytical Laboratory results in each issue and so here are the AnLab results, printed in the August 1939 issue for stories in the June 1939 issue:

  1. The Morons by Harl Vincent
  2. The Hermit of Mars by Clifford D. Simak
  3. Design for Life (article) by L. Sprague de Camp
  4. Against the Legion by Jack Williamson
  5. When the Future Dies by Nat Schachener

And here is my ranking for the stories in the August 1939 issue:

  1. The Luck of Ignatz by Lester del Rey
  2. The Blue Giraffe by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Life-Line by Robert A. Heinlein
  4. Heavy Planet by Lee Gregory
  5. General Swamp, C.I.C. by Frederick Engelhardt (L. Ron Hubbard)
  6. Stowaway by Nelson S. Bond
  7. An Ultimatum From Mars by Ray Cummings
  8. Pleasure Trove by P. Schuyler Miller

In the September issue (which I have already started reading), I will report the AnLab results for July and I will include a comparison to my rankings so that those interested can see the differences. (I haven’t been looking ahead so I will be equally interested.)

Once again, I had a lot of fun reading this issue and I think I enjoyed my top three stories in this issue even more than the top 3 I ranked for July. Coming up in September, there is, of course, the conclusion of “General Swamp, C.I.C.” as well as a story by yet another new writer, and Campbell discovery, Theodore Sturgeon.

See you back here in a week!

14 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 2: August 1939

  1. A few notes:

    According to Sam Moskowitz, the Virgil Finlay cover is a blown-up fragment of a much larger painting. Finlay was so appalled by the result that he refused to accept a commission from Streat and Smith ever again.

    Your memory of “Half Life” is half correct. The scene of Lazurus Long getting is money refunded by Pinero is mentioned in passing in “Methuselah’s Children” – which will be showing up 24 weeks from now in your vacation.

    However, I don’t know if this callback was part of the magazine serialization, or was inserted by Heinlein in his 1958 revision.

    Finally, Arthur McCann is John W. Campbell — the Scot name is a dead givaway.

  2. Mark, thank you for helping prove I am not insane. As I was writing the post this morning, I kept thinking, gee, if I imagined that ending for “Life-Line” then it would make a good story, regardless. I’m so glad you were able to tell me that I didn’t, in fact, imagine it. I read a 1967 Putnam paperback edition of THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW in the mid-90s and that’s when I must have read Methuselah’s Children, and in the 16 years since, misremembered that one with Life-Life. What a relief!

    I can understand Finlay being upset. I wonder what the full painting looked like.

    Thanks for letting me know that McCann is another Campbell pseudonym. Makes sense now because topically, the article is an extension of his July ’39 editorial.

  3. Cool stuff! Living my teen dream you are — one thing though, I believe You’ve misspelled Sprague’s name on your lists. I once upon a lifetime ago corresponded with him.

  4. I’ve been looking for blogs covering “Golden Age” science fiction for quite some time and this is the first one I’ve found on the topic. I’m really looking forward to following these posts. A dream vacation indeed!

    1. Thanks, Steve. It has been a blast so far. Nothing like the smell of that old pulp (although at the moment, a cold is giving me a stuff noise and those pages don’t smell quite the same.) :-)

  5. Your recollection of Lazarus Long meeting Dr. Pinero is correct. Long recounted the story in _Time Enough for Love_.

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