Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 6: December 1939

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Earlier this week, the space shuttle Discovery made its final launch into space. With 38 missions under its belt and more than a year spent in space, Discovery is indeed the workhorse of the space shuttle fleet, and retirement for that fine steed is well deserved. The launch took place while I was vacationing in December 1939 and it made for a fascinating juxtaposition. There I was, reading stories about adventures through space two decades before the first satellite was launched, and yet those stories were every bit as thrilling and exciting as watching the launch of the real thing, on what most people felt was just another ordinary, run-of-the-mill “flit” into space (to borrow a term from Kimball Kinnison). Knowing that many astronauts and scientists were influenced by science fiction in their youth–perhaps some of the very science fiction stories that appeared these Golden Age issues–well, it’s an added bonus, and goes to show that science fiction’s influence is felt far beyond its typical caricature as a backwater genre of little green men and ray guns.

The cover of the December ’39 Astounding, by Gilmore, depicts no little green man, but instead, Xtl, the giant red man from A. E. Van Vogt’s, “Discord in Scarlet”. Xtl stands out alarmingly on that otherwise dark background. Indeed, the cover is almost a reversal of the Graves cover for “Black Destroyer” (July 1939). In that one, recall, Coeurl was painted black on a red background. Whether or not this was intentional, I don’t know, but I liked the cover and it was at least a relief to have a cover that was not for “Gray Lensman”.

Red and black is a theme for the issue, it seems. In Campbell’s brief editorial, “Ad Astra, Et Cetera” he briefly discusses the two-color illustrations that accompany Van Vogt’s lead novelette. Campbell indicates that while he’d like to promise Astounding will contain two-color illustrations going forward,

Probably it won’t. This is an experimental issue, made possible even so by a gradual accumulation of factors which you have seen creep in month.

The “et cetera” portion of his editorial is a couple of paragraphs on how, according to the letters coming in, the October issue of Astounding “was the best in the history of the magazine.” October, of course, had part 1 of Smith’s “Gray Lensman”. The lineup for the December issue did not look bad either, with 6 pieces of fiction, 2 novelettes, three short stories and part 3 of “Gray Lensman”. In addition, the issue contains part 2 of L. Sprague de Camp’s science article, “There Ain’t No Such!” Unlike the previous 2 issues, “Gray Lensman” was not the lead story this time around, and so I will get to it in due course, since I approach these pieces in the same order that I read the magazine–that is cover-to-cover.

photo.JPGOpening the December issue was A. E. Van Vogt’s, “Discord In Scarlet” which turns out to be a loose continuation of the adventurers from his first story, “Black Destroyer”. Only this time, they find a different enemy to fight. It was for “Discord In Scarlet” that the tow-color illustrations were done. You can see an example to the left (click on it for a larger version). This piece also proved to be my favorite in this issue. Van Vogt, in his second story proves to have a style of writing distinct from virtually everyone else publishing stories at that time. While still pulpish, there is an imagery in his words that make me think of writers like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Consider the open lines of the piece:

Xtl sprawled moveless on the bosom of the endless night. Time dragged drearily toward infinity, and space was dark. Unutterably dark! The horrible pitch-blackness of intergalactic immensity! Across the miles and the years, vague patches of light gleamed coldly at him, whole galaxies of blazing stars shrunk by incredible distance to shining swirls of mist.

As I said, some pulp remains, but that opening line, oh what an opening line, almost poetry and yet it gives the reader an inkling of the eons that Xtl has been roaming and implies the distances he has traveled. As the scene progresses, you get the idea that Xtl is indeed a very alien creature, more so even than Coeurl, who is soon referenced by the crew of the ship. That opening scene with Xtl floating through the emptiness of space calls to mind an enormous sea creature plodding through the depths until colliding with a submarine.

And of course, the crew reads this creature all wrong:

A regular red-blooded devil spewed out of some fantastic nightmare; ugly as sin–and probably as harmless as our beautiful pussy last year was deadly.

Xtl, of course, can manipulate matter at the most fundamental levels. Doing this allows him to pass through the hull of the ship and stalk the crew therough the wall so that the story is not only a space adventure but a kind of ghost story, too. Whereas in “Black Destroyer” the underlying theme was Freudian psychology, here the theme appears to be peasant mentality vs. city mentality as a way of predicting the behavior of intelligences. The crew wrongly assumes from Xtl’s behavior that he is the former.

Van Vogt had much better control in this story, switching point-of-view between Xtl and the crew, and generally avoiding arbitrary viewpoint switches the way he did on “Black Destroyer”. He also anticipates genetic engineering. In one line there is a reference to “the biologist who perfected the Xtl race”. In the end, the crew are forced to abandon ship in order to save themselves and send Xtl back to the depths of space. While I think that Coeurl from “Black Destroyer” is still the better villain, “Discord in Scarlet” is the better story.

Next up is “Thundering Peace” by Kent Casey. This is the first Casey story I’ve read and I wasn’t overly impressed by it. Perhaps that is the danger is reading the letter columns. His recent stories were criticized pretty heavily in past issues so I came into this piece with a bit of a bias. It is not a bad story by any means. It is the continuing story of a war between the people of Earth and Uranus. It seems that the people from Uranus were once earthmen, but over time they changed. Up until now, Earth hasn’t outright attacked the planet but the time is ripe to do so.

Ultimately this is a science fiction puzzle story and I generally like these, but the modern day puzzle story has more to it than this one did. Despite being a space adventure the solution to the puzzle is entirely chemical–they cause a massive storm on Uranus (thereby gaining the title, “Thundering Peace”) by essentially setting the outer layer of the atmosphere on fire. Also, in the days of space shuttle launches and decade-long robotic expeditions to the outer planets, the fact that John West, Captain Mowbrey and Dr. Von Theil can make a day trip to Uranus and back is a little hard to believe.

Following “Thundering Peace” is Nat Schachner’s “City of the Corporate Mind” yet another tale of Sam Ward, Beltan and Kleon, three companions from past, present and future. When I first read Schachner’s “City of Cosmic Ray” (July 1939) I didn’t realize the story was part of an ongoing series and I criticized it for that. But I didn’t like the story and I didn’t like “City of the Corporate Mind” either. In fact it was my least favorite story in the issue, and truth be told, I couldn’t get through the whole thing, try as I might.

The underwater city is part of what seems to be a hive-mind and somehow, the 3 companions piece out what’s going on almost at once:

This is the ultimate totalitarian state, the goal toward which Earth’s evolution was obviously working. A single corporate existence in which human beings are but mechanical cogs, specialized in function and obedient to a common purpose.

Reading that line, I immediate envisioned Harlan Ellison’s world in “Repent Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman” but even that wasn’t enough to pull me through the story. I think the problem was that there was nothing in the story worth discovering. Sam Ward, Beltan and Kleon always seemed to know exactly what was going on without any visible effort on their parts. Besides that, some of the descriptions of the City and its inhabitants were very familiar, something like what you might expect to find in the motion picture Metropolis. I would love an opportunity to read a Schachner story that does not take place in this universe. A lot of fans like his stories, but so far, I’m not one of them, I’m afraid.

“Sculptors of Life” by Wallace West was the most modern piece in the issue. In this story, Marion Onethreenine and Frank Sixfourtwo are “life scupltors”. They create bodies for people whose old bodies are dying and then transfer their memories and personalities from the old bodies to the new ones when the time is right. In this story is the germ for a whole subgenre of science fiction, through Algis Budry’s Rogue Moon and right down to Robert J. Sawyer’s Mindscan and Rollback, and probably countless others.

With the exception of the dialog, which is embedded in the time the story was written, the story doesn’t read like science fiction from the late 1930s. It reads almost like a modern tale perhaps because the focus of the story is not directly on the technology that allows the bodies to be created and the transference to take place, but also on the implications of such technology. There are two people, rich and powerful, whose are about to discard their old bodies for new ones. Both of these people have very questionable morals, and Marion and Frank take ethical matters into their own hands by attempting to transfer only the good parts of the personalities, leaving the bad ones behind to die in the old bodies–“murder,” as one of the characters points out. Of course, things don’t go completely as planned and in the end, go horribly wrong with a murder-suicide, and so the question becomes one of playing god with personalities as much as with bodies.

There is a charming scene as the two main characters are heading from the city center to their home in the distant suburbs. They take some kind of high speed train and the description at one point is alarmingly prophetic:

[they] found seats by the window and switched on the television screen in the back of the seat in front of them.

Perhaps not many trains have this but nearly every airplane these day (to say nothing of minivans) are equipped with these ubiquitous televisions.

I liked “Sculptors of Life”. I hadn’t heard of West prior to reading this story, but he was apparently already an accomplished science fiction writer at the time “Sculptors” was published, and would continue publishing science fiction through the 1960s.

“The Nova” by Edwin K. Sloat was the shortest piece of fiction I’ve come across on this vacation thus far, very nearly what we would call “flash fiction” today. And indeed, the point of the story was more of a demonstration of atomic principles than anything else. There was virtually no other literary elements in the story except the details about how two crew members defended themselves against a mutiny by setting off a massive explosion and using an asteroid to sheild themselves from the bulk of the radiation.

That said, the opening paragraph of the story was quite good–and could be used as an example of what editors are looking for when they say they want an opening that grabs them.

The mutinous crew abandoned the Andromeda slightly more than three light-seconds off Callisto and less than two astro-degrees of the regular Ecliptic freight lane. Bourne and Arkett waited quite a while after the crew took to the man shells before they cautiously unlocked the steel hatch and peered out of the freight hold along the deserted passageway. There was nothing to be seen except the crumbled body of an oiler lying nearby with head exploded to bits by a photon pistol blast.

Unfortunately, in the case of “Nova”, that was as good as the story got.

L. Srague de Camp’s conclusion to his 2-part article, “There Ain’t No Such!” was interesting, but not as good as the first part, and no anywhere near as good as say, R. S. Richardson’s article on astronomy a few months back. Nevertheless, the article was an interesting read in order to see the evolution in biological science in the last 30 years. And of course, the point of the article is the hope that science fiction writers will come up with ever more creative aliens. For as de Camp concludes, “If you want screwy animals, SEE YOUR OWN PLANET FIRST!”

If by now you are getting impatient to find out about part 3 of “Gray Lensman”, the wait is over. My guess is that when the December issue hit the newsstands, most readers turned immediately to page 109 and began reading breathlessly the continuing adventures of Kimball Kinnison–at least, that is what I gather from reading Campbell’s view of things. The truth is that I feel like “Gray Lensman” is getting better with each installment, and I thought that Part 3 was the second best piece in the December issue, falling just behind Van Vogt’s “Discord In Scarlet”.

In Part 3, we see Kimball Kinnison go undercover as meteor miner Bill Williams at Miners’ Rest. He does this to infiltrate the drug ring that leads up to Boskone. After some success there, he flits out to face the evil Overlords of Delgon who it would seem have teamed up with Boskone but are far more evil than even the Boskonians (according to our historian narrator). Eventually, he leads a team of men to destroy the Overlords, and succeeds, although his men have many casualties–and here, for the first time, we see a real human character in Kinnison. Up until now, he has been flawless and unquestioned in his actions and everything he does works out. But the sacrifice of these men affects him in a very human way:

“Twenty-two good men,” Kinnison said, harshly. “I murdered them. Just as surely, if not quite as directly, as though I brained them with a space-axe.”

He feels sorry for himself and for the men whose lives were entrusted to his command and this is a very real, very human emotion to have and perhaps because Kinnison had not had much emotion at all up to this point, it seemed a powerful demonstration. And yet it was the only one. Once Haynes talks Kinnison through this, he is once again back to his old self and leads another victorious strike against the enemy, this time with no losses whatsoever.

Reading part 3, I began to feel that there was something familiar about Kinnison, about the way things happen for him, how he takes matters into his own hands and without much cause for worry, things just work out for him. At first glance it seems like an incredibly lucky streak. And then you think it has something to do with this idealistic character that Smith has developed. But as I thought about it more and more, I circled around that familiar element until I hit on it the other night.

Kimball Kinnison is none other than a futuristic Ragged Dick, the bootblack serialized by Horatio Alger. I recall reading and loving that book in high school. Part of the reason was because luck always seemed to break in Dick’s favor. He worked hard, true, but so does Kinnison–or he wouldn’t be the Gray Lensman that he is. It would be interesting to see Kinnison’s life from its beginning. Was he a street urchin turned successful, like Ragged Dick? At this point, despite the ups and downs in the story, I am looking forward to the concluding episode.

The BRASS TACKS column this month was full of its usual praise and scorn. Most readers of the time didn’t seem to like “Rust” by Kelleam, which I so loved. In fact, saw only one letter praising that story as something rather extraordinary. The most interesting letter in this issue was a lengthy and fannish assessment of the magazine from the editor of Future Fantasisa. He reports loving Gray Lensman: “Gad, but can that man toss around the word,” he writes. He also is one who enjoyed “Rust” giving it 4 meteors. Oh, the name of this editor-fan? The letter is signed Ray Douglas Bradbury.

Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory for the November 1939 Astounding, with my ranking in parentheses:

  1. Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith (3)
  2. Tied:
    Episode on Dhee Minor by Harry Walton (6)
    A Question of Salvage by Malcolm Jameson (2)
    Space Rating by John Berryman  (4)
  3. Rust by Joseph Kelleam (1)
  4. Shawn’s Sword by Lee Gregor (5)

Interesting the three-way tie. I think even Campbell was surprised by that, but he also mentioned that “Gray Lensman” took first place by a longshot.

Here are my ratings for the December issue:

  1. Discord in Scarlet by A. E. Van Vogt
  2. Gray Lensman (part 3) by E. E. “Doc” Smith
  3. Sculptors of Life by Wallace West
  4. Thundering Peace by Kent Casey
  5. The Nova by Edwin K. Sloat
  6. City of the Corporate Mind by Nat Schachner

I will say that the first three stories are by a fair degree a cut above the last three.

Since this is the final issue for 1939, it seems as I should give a rating of my top-rated stories for the year. Keep in mind that this vacation started in July 1939 so I will only be giving results for the last half of the year, but for future years, it will include the whole year. I’ll list what I think are my top 5 stories with #1 being the best of the best. For the second half 1939:

  1. Rust by Joseph E. Kelleam
  2. Greater Than Gods by C. L. Moore
  3. Discord in Scarlet by A. E. Van Vogt
  4. Misfit by Robert Heinlein
  5. Luck of Ignatz by Lester dey Rey

The January 1940 issue contains the conclusion of “Gray Lensman” as well as stories Harl Vincent, Lester del Rey, and my favorite Heinlein story, “Requiem”. My copy of the issue is pretty fragile, but readable. I’ll be passing the 5-hour flight to Los Angeles tomorrow by reading as much as I can.

See you here next week!

8 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 6: December 1939

  1. Just before your vacation started, Campbell in the June 1939 issue was touting “Black Destroyer” and predicting that “the name of A.E. van Vogt will be among those of top favorites a year or so from now”. Well, JWC got that one right, as you’ll soon see in May.

    But then he goes on to list the “several new top-rank names” Astounding introduced during his time as editor: L. Ron Hubbard, H.L. Gold and Kent Casey.

    As I mentioned before, Hubbard makes the list on the strength of the copy he churned out for UNKNOWN rather than ASF. Horace Gold makes the cut for his man-in-the-brain-of-a-dog yarn “A Matter of Form”. As for Kent Casey I guess he is another one in a long line of JWC’s Dean Drives / Dianetics / Symbolic Hieronymus Machines.

    Very good call on Ragged Kim.

    1. Ragged Kim: I love it!

      Is May the first installment of “Slan”? I’ve read “Slan” in book form a decade or more ago and I remember enjoying it. It will be nice to have a second go at it. (Ditto for Heinlein’s “Requiem” which moved me to tears the first time I read it.) Wasn’t Van Vogt also in the Dianetics club? H. L. Gold went on to become a brilliant, if cantankerous editor at Galaxy, of course.

  2. I don’t want to fast forward too far into your vacation, but yes, I was refering to Jommy Cross. For a certain stripe of pre-war nerd, “Slan” was pure crack cocaine, and it solidified van Vogt name “as among those of top favorites”.

    And yes, A.E. lost an entire decade to the “new science of the mind” (just wait until you hit 1950 a couple of years from now). Nevertheless your vacation will cover practically every significant work of fiction by Van Vogt.

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