Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 3: September 1939

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The Golden Age of science fiction lasted nearly 11 years. That’s roughly 130 issues of Astounding. And while many of those issue are classics, there have to be at least a few that are, if not flops, certainly below par. I think that the September 1939 issue is one of those sub-par issues. My favorite parts of the issues was the science article and the letters column. Most of the stories in this issue were mediocre, although a few rose above the rest. But this is just the beginning of the Golden Age. The writers who will become giants in the field have yet to mature and reach their potential, and despite the fact that there are mediocre issues here and there, it is still a lot of fun to follow along, watch those authors evolve and blossom, and watch the Golden Age come into full bloom.

The September 1939 issue contains 2 novelettes, 3 short stories and a the conclusion of a 2-part serial. Two of those stories were fun, one wasn’t too bad. It also contains a wonderful article on astronomy that in my opinion, was the highlight of the issue. Campbell’s editorial, “Ending Year Six” is a brief description of the six years of Astounding under the management of Street & Smith. He writes briefly of some improvements, in particular improvements in the artwork appearing in the magazine. With respect to the authors appearing in Astounding, Campbell writes,

A story appearing over a hitherto unknown name is more apt than not to be one of the outstanding stories of the issue. H.L. Gold–John Berryman–A.E. van Vogt–and, I’m willing to predict, Don Evans, appearing for the fist time in the science fiction field in this issue.

Perhaps more than anything else, Campbell’s biggest contribution to science fiction was his ability to take these new writers, in whom he saw some measure of potential, and mold them into masters of the genre.

Campbell also discusses Unknown, which was introduced in this year and which was proving to be as popular as Astounding, but for a slightly different flavor of story. In fact, there is a wonderful full-page ad for the famous H. L. Gold/L. Sprague de Camp collaboration, “None But Lucifer” in this issue:

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Campbell concludes with a two paragraph-long plug for next month’s first installment of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman”. The most interesting part of his plug was this particular statement, which will now seem remarkably dated:

Judging solely by past experience, science-fiction novels seldom appear in book form. Further, back copies containing Smith’s stories disappear from the market quickly. We suggest that, if you miss “Gray Lensman” now, you’ll miss it for a long time.

I found that amusing, especially since today, almost the reverse is true: science fiction novels almost never appear in serial form.

The first story in the issue, and the one for which the Rogers cover was produced is Manly Wade Wellman’s “Forces Must Balance.” This is the first piece that I ever read by Wellman and I knew nothing of the man when I started, but I learned a few things about him from my trusted sources along the way. Most interestingly, perhaps, is the fact that Wellman won Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine’s short story contest in 1946, beating out the likes of Faulkner. How about that! “Forces Must Balance” is the inevitable story of a land rush in space, almost a space western, with various parties trying to reach a planet that will pass through the solar system and enter an orbit between Mars and Jupiter. That planet could upset the political balance and so who gets there first is crucial. Naturally, Wingate, the protagonist teams up with an outlaw to attempt to be the first to reach the planet.

The story is pretty good. I was entertained, but by no means blown away by it. In some places, the science was not very good, but in others, it was pretty savvy. For instance, there is talk of gravity assists (around the sun, and later, other planets) to pick up speed. I am a baseball fan an part IV of the story starts out with a clever baseball analogy:

An ancient player of baseball first pointed out that interstellar flight was a problem, not for a gunner, but for a batsman. A spaceship took off for a distant planet, but that planet was not stationary like a target; it moved swiftly like a ball from the hand of a macrocosmic pitcher…. Undoubtedly this pioneer comparison helped to bring baseball slang into the science of space navigation. Thus, “strike-out” meant a fatal miss of destination; “home run” a long trip from inner to outer planets; “yannigan,” an apprentice or minor spaceman, and so on.

The politics in the story seems clearly influenced by the darkening events in Europe, particularly when there is discussion of how the heavens might be divided up–certainly something that must have been on Wellman’s mind as the third decade of the twentieth century came to a close.

Next up was a piece by Victor Valding called “Atmospherics”, my least favorite story in the issue. It was the story of a man who controlled the climate in a dome environment. I liked the opening because it was slightly meta, with our hero Hugh Vendrome reading what appears to be a pulp science fiction story called “A Tale of Two Suns.” There were some hints in this story of a city that felt like what we would see later in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” stories, especially in his descriptions of Trantor. Mostly, it is a story about allegiances, and once again, there is some clear influence from the deteriorating world situation. My favorite passage in the story, however, brought back one of those some-things-never-change moments. Hugh is racing for an elevator:

Hugh’s thoughts were abruptly terminated. The two Earthmen had reached the passenger elevator leading into the sub-levels.

“Wait up!” he called, “I’m going down! Hey!

But the door had closed. The old man swore softly.

Seventy years later, elevator etiquette (or lack thereof) hasn’t changed. It seems like once a week, I’m racing for the elevator at work and someone refuses to hold it for me.

The third piece, “The Last Hope” by Don Evans (to whom Campbell referred in his editorial) is the longest piece. While it is listed as a novelette, I’m certain today we’d call it a novella. Evans can certainly write. The story is an interesting one and it kept me reading, but it dragged on in some places for too long and might have been better as a shorter piece. It is a post-apocalyptic story, one of the earliest that I’ve come across. The world has returned mostly to forests with the remains of a few scattered cities strewn about. Olaf, the story’s protagonist appears to be the last young surviving male. He wanders into one of these cities, which is populated by very old men, scientists all of them, who are working on a kind of eugenics program to continue the human race. Olaf, being young and strong, is a perfect candidate for their experimentations and is captured via the use of a device which can read minds.

He soon becomes friends with one of his captors, Johnny, who doesn’t agree with the experimentation and does what he can to help Olaf escape. Various complications set in, especially when a young woman is discovered, Iola. At this point, I think the story seems to flag a bit. Iola, while strong-willed, is not a very well written female character and that makes it more difficult to find her believable 70 years on. Ultimately, she needs to be rescued, despite being a free-spirit and I think it shows a reflection of how women were still perceived as late as 1939. Then, too, the story descends into the now familiar Adam and Eve, last two people on Earth tale. It is certainly not a bad first effort for science fiction, and I’m eager to find out what more Don Evans produced and if Campbell’s predictions for him panned out.

The real highlight of this issue for me was R. S. Richardson’s article, “The Other Side of Astronomy”. Richardson was an astronomer at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and his article is a wonderfully written series of anecdotes about life as an astronomer, both the good and the bad. He has very down-to-earth descriptions of what it is like to be an astronomer on a day-to-day basis, but what is most fascinating are his descriptions of life on these mountain-top observatories in the early 20th century. Regarding the Mt. Hamilton observatory:

It was hopeless to try to keep the houses warm int he winter; often they became so cold water froze on the dinner table. Many of the dwellings had defective flues, and when the wind blew from a certain direction, the flames shot several feet into the room, filling it with soot and smoke. This often made it necessary to eat in hallways and bedrooms… Opportunities to visit San Jose were rare and astronomers had to be their own barbers.

He also has some interesting things to say about women in the astronomy field at the time:

Astronomical investigations frequently involve long calculations of a rather routine nature which are usually turned over to women computers. Wives who can’t keep their checking accounts straight would be appalled at the sight of mere girls taking logarithms, sines and cosines out of a trigonometric table as casually as one would look up a telephone number.

And on women as astronomers, he writes:

Rather curiously, astronomy attracts many women, the number of women graduate students sometimes exceeding the men. Although they do quite as well as the men, very few ever become professional astronomers. For after working eight years to get a Ph.D. degree, and acquiring an enormous amount of highly specialized knowledge, they almost invariably end up marrying one of the men students and become housewives.

The next story, a short piece called, “Masson’s Secret” by Raymond Z. Gallun was my favorite of the bunch. Despite being rather pulpishly written, it was a good story about the first attempt to put a man on the moon. The beginning of the story opened quickly and dramatically in a way that would keep a slush-reader today moving onto the next page, and it certainly hooked me. The tale opens with friends of the astronaut who went the moon listening in as he returns to Earth, almost certain to crash since his rocket won’t fire. We see this unfold through Dr. Charlie Masson’s eyes. Masson is also friends with Syd, a lawyer and Zada. The three of them are all friends of Brand Fanshaw, the astronaut whose rocket is hurtling back to Earth. Zada, of course, is in love with Brand and Masson is secretly in love with Zada. The rocket crashes and Brand survives, barely, but his brain is severely damaged. Dr. Masson performs “micro surgery” to repair the brain and then mysteriously disappears while Brand recovers. I really don’t want to give the ending away on this one, because I think it is an effective twist, even if some of the science in the story is dated.

(ETA: It was suggested that I don’t hold back the endings on stories like these because they are almost certainly hard to find today and holding back the ending from you is unnecessarily tantalizing. In the future, I will avoid doing this. In “Masson’s Secret”, the story concludes as follows: Masson disappears after Brand recovers. Syd goes to seek out Masson and discovers him living in an isolated cabin. Masson reveals to Syd the reason for his isolation: Brand’s brain was too badly damaged. His personality was gone, wiped away. Masson implanted a device that allows a remote operator to control Brand and Masson has been that remote operator ever since. And so, all of Brand’s speech, his movements, everything that is normally “voluntary” in a person is really Masson operating him behind the scenes. It means Masson is sacrificing himself to allow Brand to continue to appear to be the “hero” that the world needs. It also means that Masson’s love for Zada must be conveyed through Masson and that she will never know the truth about his love or what really happened to Brand.)

Reading the story today is almost like reading an alternate history, for we know that the first on the moon was Neil Armstrong and not Brand Fanshaw. “Masson’s Secret” puts the landing sometime in the 1970s. What’s remarkable, when you think about it is that the story appeared almost exactly 30 years before the first actual moon landing–and we are now more than forty years beyond that moon landing–and haven’t been back to the moon in nearly 40 years. That is certainly something that the science fiction of the Golden Age didn’t predict.

Brand Fanshaw was a renaissance man. He designed, built and flew the rocket to the moon. Obviously, way over-simplified from the reality, which took hundreds of the thousands of people a decade of work to pull off. But the real theme of the story–what is Masson’s Secret–is what does it mean to be alive or dead? And there are early hints in this piece of the larger theme that A. J. Budry’s touched on in his novel Rogue Moon.

I just have to quote Brand’s description of the moon as he describes it to the world before his crash:

“The Moon’s almost a dead world now. Though in the crater Copernicus I found some evidence of existing microscopic life. There is still some slight trace of water and air in the craters you see–at least, in Copernicus, where I landed. I found salt incrustations, and some primitive clamlike fossils, too. The big craters must have been salt lakes, fed by subterranean springs for a while after the volcanic heat cooled off.”

Next was my second favorite story of the issue, “Ether Breather” by Theodore Sturgeon. I loved the story from the first words because it’s opening was completely and utterly meta, describing the story “The Seashell” and its various rejections. Sturgeon’s story ended up being a tale of television technology and beings that lived within the waves that color broadcasts created. It was the best writing in the issue by far, and the story was enjoyable, but not quite as much fun for me as “Masson’s Secret” with all of its implications. Sturgeon’s story, however, was also funny, especially the scene in which the protagonists script is altered and broadcast, well, slightly differently:

Now his lines, as written–and I should know!–went:

“Rosalind… it is you, then, isn’t it? Oh, I’m afraid”–he grasps her shoulders–”afraid that it can’t be real. So many times I’ve seen someone who might be you, and it has never been… Rosalind, Rosalind, guardian angel, reason for living, beloved… beloved–” Clinch.

Now, as I say, it went off as written, up to and including the clinch. But then came the payoff. He took his lips from hers, buried his face in her hair and said clearly: “I hate your ——- guts.” And that “——-” was the most perfectly enunciated present participle of a four-letter very I have ever heard.

Ha! I laugh just thinking about it. It reminds me of how sitcoms these days can sometimes find clever ways to get around the network censors.

The final piece in this issue was the concluding part of “General Swamp C.I.C.” by Frederick Engelhardt. The nice thing about serials is that if you don’t like the first part, you don’t have to read the second part. And as you will recall, I didn’t like the first part of this military strategy story at all, and so I must admit that I decided not to waste my time on the second part. I am only slightly ashamed at this. My excuse is that there will, from time-to-time be stuff that I just don’t like. I read enough of the story to describe why I didn’t like it back in Episode 2. I am on vacation here and why further spoil that vacation with stuff I don’t like. Of course, there is risk here. The concluding installment might be brilliant. Well, if so, I won’t know it unless someone else tells me it is brilliant, in which case maybe I’ll reconsider my decision.

The Analytical Laboratory in the September issue lists stories for the July 1939 issue, which is the first issue that I read on my Vacation. I will list the AnLab results below as they appeared in the September issue. I will follow each listing with a number in parentheses, which is the place in which I put that story in my own rating of the issue. You can always refer back to Episode 1 for more information. Here are the AnLab results for the July 1939 issue:

  1. Black Destroyer by A.E. van Vogt (2)
  2. Greater Than Gods by C.L. Moore (1)
  3. Trends by Isaac Asimov (4)
  4. City of the Cosmic Rays by Nat Schachner (7)
  5. When the Half Gods Go by Amelia R. Long (5)

One of my criticisms of Schachner’s story was the seeming lack of background on the 3 characters, but I have learned (thought the letter columns since) that this is the third in a series of ongoing stories he’d written. Ah well…

Here are my ratings for the September 1939 issue:

  1. Masson’s Secret by Raymond Z. Gallun
  2. Ether Breather by Theodore Sturgeon
  3. The Last Hope by Don Evans
  4. Forces Must Balance by Manly Wade Wellman
  5. Atmospherics by Victor Valding

Since I didn’t read the concluding part of “General Swamp” I won’t include it on my listing.

The Brass Tacks was another highlight of the magazine and I feel like I could do an entire Episode or two on just the letter columns. In reading the letters this time around, I found myself wondering: could the authors of these letters, most of whom were simply science fiction fans, have imagined that their letters would still be read more than seven decades from the time they were first printed?

There are not one but two letters by Isaac Asimov in this issue. The first is a very long letter with a detailed review of the June 1939 issue. Keep in mind that this letter was printed two months after Asimov has a story in Astounding but he still sounds very fannish in his comments and criticisms. His second later was printed in the “Science” section of the letter column, and it was typically of the Asimov know-it-all (which he eventually tried to suppress with limited success in later life), correcting Willy Ley on a detail of Greek mythology.

There is also a letter by Damon Knight, very brief and to-the-point, providing (instructing?) Campbell with a table that tells him which artists should be used for which purposes, e.g. “Dold–good on weirds. Steer him clear of nude or seminude humans.” And of course, he doesn’t pull his punches: “Thompson, Marchioni, Gilmore, Binder, Kirchner, Wert, et. cetera–never, never, never!”

As I said, this wasn’t what I would consider to be one of those classic issues, but the letter column, Richardson’s article, and the couple of good stories I found helped to make up for that.

The October 1939 issue, which for months now has been plugged, is upon me. This issue contains part 1 of the 4-part “Gray Lensman” novel by “Doc” Smith. It’s a good thing I have all four parts. It also contains stories by Malcolm Jameson, John Berryman, Harry Walton and another Lee Gregor. And unlike my September issue, which was leaving flakes of pulp all over the place, my October 1939 issue is in nearly mint condition.

And you can read all about it in a week.

7 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 3: September 1939

  1. The scan of the ad for “None But Lucifer” demonstrates that there was a parallel Golden Age occuring in Unknown. I beleive for the first several months of your vacation, there is a better ratio of classics to filler in Unknown than there is in Astounding.

    Great work by Del Rey, Kuttner, Sturgeon, Leiber and Raymond Chandler (!!) was appearing in Unknown simultaneously with the issues of Astounding you’ve covered so far. de Camp in particular was on a roll in 1939 with “Divide and Rule”, “The Gnarly Man”, “Nothing in the Rules” & “Lest Darkness Fall” – along with “None But Lucifer”.

    So if “Gen. Swamp” left a bad taste in your mouth, note that L. Ron’s storytelling talents were much better showcased across the newsstand in Campbell’s sister pulp with “The Ultimate Adventure” and “Slaves of Sleep”.

    1. Mark, everything I’ve heard about Unknown indicates that in its brief run, it produced better fiction than Astounding. It was Asimov’s ultimate desire to have a story appear in Unknown, and he finally sold one, only to have the magazine fold in the paper shortages during WW-II. I’d love to go back to read some of those issues–but one big project at a time, okay? ;-)

      General Swamp seemed below par for what I have read of Hubbard, which granted is not a whole lot (“Typewriter in the Sky” and “Fear”). It makes me wonder: if it was so great, why was it published under a pseudonym? I haven’t been able to find an answer for this, but maybe you know.

  2. Jamie, I want you to see this Astounding project through to the very end and not get sidetracted by Harold Shea or the Gray Mouser. I really like the direction your survey is taking. It is not a wallow in nostalgia but a clear-eyed study of the entire contents of each issue.

    Anyway, if you thought obtaining back numbers of Astounding was pricey, take a look at what Unknown is now going for on Ebay. For instance, the bids for Nov 1939 Unknown with “The Bronze Door” by Raymond Chandler are pushing $100.00.

    I view L. Ron as Campbell’s go-to guy who could fill a 25 page gap in Asounding with something publishable on a few day’s notice. So I suspect Campbell was protecting L. Ron’s brand by hiding “George Washington on Venus” behind a pseudonym, since L. Ron was at the time associated with Unknown.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Mark. It’s been a lot of fun so far. I think you are probably right about Campbell using Hubbard in that way. It makes sense. So far I haven’t seen any issues of Astounding at nearly the prices that the Unknown’s are reaching, but I imagine the runs of Unknown were smaller so today they are worth more. It seems like the logical sequel to a project like this would be a run of Galaxy in the 1950s, but let’s see how worn out I am when this is all over. :-)

  3. You quote Sturgeon as writing, “And that “——-” was the most perfectly enunciated present participle of a four-letter very I have ever heard”

    that *very* seems like a typo.

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