History can be brittle. The cover of the January 1940 Astounding shown above is my copy and you can see it is rather worn. It is much worse off now than when I started. Of all of the issues I’ve read so far, this one was in the worst condition with the cover flaking in endless cascades of pulpish snow, many of which are now embedded in the seats of a couple of United Airlines A320 aircraft. And this, despite my usual practice of keeping the issue that I am reading in a zip lock freezer bag at all times, except when I am actually reading the issue.
Nevertheless, despite the condition of the cover and the slightly waterlogged pages, I liked the January 1940 issue a lot. It is certainly a promising opening to a new year in science fiction and the first full year of the Golden Age. The issue contains 6 pieces of fiction: two novelettes, three short stories, and of course, the conclusion of Smith’s “Gray Lensman” which, I’ll be honest up front, I was underwhelmed by. There was also a nonfiction piece, “Transmutation, 1939″ by Jack Hatcher and a book review by L. Sprague de Camp.
Campbell opened the issue with what I’ve come to think of as a “double”-sized editorial because it is two pages rather than one. “Inconsequential Detail” is a moderately interesting piece on patents, and what makes an invention new as opposed to an improvement over an existing design. The most interesting thing about the essay was the context it provides to a reader vacationing in the Golden Age from 70 years in the future:
The announcement that planes of speed greater than five hundred miles per hour are now possible, because of a slightly different wing-shape, means that a second major and revolutionary discovery has been perfected
The context in which I read this essay was apt, since I was sitting on a United Airlines A320 aircraft somewhere north of 35,000 feet and tooling along at a crisp 500 knots or so on my way to Los Angeles. I was surrounded by mostly business travelers for whom this 5-hour trip across the continent was routine (I was once one of them) and yet I was reading a flaking magazine 70 years old, and reading about a revolutionary change to the design of an aircraft wing that would ultimately make cross-country travel significantly faster. While Campbell’s discussion of patents was esoteric, the subject matter as applied to the vision of the future is just another example of how science fiction and its practitioners helped shape that future.
The lead story in the issue was Harl Vincent’s “Neutral Vessel” for which the Schneeman cover had been painted. Seven issues into this vacation I am finally becoming familiar with the different styles of the artists that graced the covers of Astounding. Rogers does nice work there, but I wasn’t impressed by Schneeman’s illustration taken from a key scene in Vincent’s novelette. I like the stuff that Schneeman does for interiors–and in writing that line, I recognize that I am now no better than the critics in the Brass Tacks columns that have amused me these last 7 episodes.
I enjoyed “Neural Vessel” and while it wasn’t my favorite piece, it was a great piece to start out the issue. It is a classic science fiction puzzle story wrapped in a rather exciting adventure. The “neutral vessel” is question is the Spirit of Terra, a kind of interplanetary cruise ship captained by Jeffery Brands, and on its way from Earth to Venus. The problem is that Mars and Venus are at war and the Martians, treacherous people that they are, sabotage the Spirit of Terra so that it is constantly accelerating and on a collision course with Venus. At the speed it is traveling, and mass the spacecraft displaces, a crash into Venus could devastate the planet.
The story comes complete with intrigue. The beautiful Zona Phillips appears to be a pawn of the Martians, especially after her father is murdered and she manages to escape from a holding cell. But it turns out she is just concerned for her love, Tommy Blake, whom she has snuck aboard to marry and who is stationed on an observation station 100 miles above Venus’ atmosphere.
This is a well told “hard science” story. Vincent makes an attempt to make the science real, and while I didn’t try to reproduce them, some of his calculations of speed and mass seem reasonable given his imagined power source for the space craft. There are an interesting and engaging characters and although I found the coincidence of Zona being onboard a vessel that happened to be sabotaged a little far-fetched, I think overall the story worked well. In particular, the solution was creative–using the engines of the lifeboats to force the out-of-control spacecraft just enough off its course to miss Venus.
Next up was my least favorite story in the issue, “Moon of Delirium” by D. L. James. I’d never heard of James before and when I looked him up in ISFDB, I found that he published about 8 science fiction stories between 1936 and 1940 and then disappears. “Moon of Delirium” is not a bad story, but it competes against a strong program of stories and that works against it. It is the story of an expedition to the 4th moon of Saturn in search of thought-nuggets which conduct thoughts and which are in great demand. The problem is that no one that has set foot on the moon has survived the return trip home. There are spores that are not spores that infect the crew members and these are just part of the creature that uses them to capture its prey and use them as hunters for food.
The story is a good example of what today is something that new writers are often warned about, the “As you know, Bob,” method of explaining something technical in a story as opposed to making it a more natural part of the narrative. For example, after the crew successfully lands on the moon, the captain gives a speech:
You are all aware of what happened when that thing was turned over to scientists. They soon discovered it was thought-sensitive–capable of receiving and amplifying telepathic impressions–an element long sought by physicists. Enthusiasm waxed feverish over this astounding discovery. And during the years that followed, ship after ship left earth for this remote moon to collect the treasured nodules. But not one of them ever came back–
Aside from the As You Know, Bob nature of this particular dialog, it is also a little unbelievable that the crew would come all that way without being briefed on the mission, and that they would each be familiar with at least some of the history of what’s going on so that the captain wouldn’t have to spell it out for them.
Despite being the weakest story in the batch, there were some good story-telling elements here, in particularly when Eric Norm is overtaken by the alien and compelled to follow its will. I thought James did a good job of balancing Norm’s inner monologue with the disturbance in his psyche of the alien. It wasn’t a complete takeover and there was still some of his personality in there and aware of what was going on and I think it was well done.
“The Smallest God” by Lester del Rey is, I believe, the third del Rey story I’ve come across in this vacation, and I’ve come to think of him as a reliable story-teller. When his name appears in the table of contents, I can depend on him spinning a good yarn, and this story is no exception. It makes me wonder if this is how his contemporary readers felt. del Rey was an established name and based on the comments in the Brass Tacks, readers generally liked his stuff. Is my experience on this vacation, therefore, like that of readers of the early 1940s?
The interior art for this piece, by R. Isip, was the weakest in the issue, but I generally don’t pay too much attention to the interior art–or at least, I didn’t until I started reading the Brass Tacks columns and realizing how important it was to contemporary readers. However, I’d cut Isip some slack since this was not an ordinary science fiction tale. In fact, it seemed more contemporary fantasy than science fiction, but it is another example of del Rey’s range even as early as 1940. It is the story of a rivalry between Dr. Arlington Brugh and his nemesis Professor Hiram Hodges in their quest to create artificial life–that is, to find the chemical or biochemical ingredient that leads to animated intelligence.
As a reader, we learn early that the Hermes statue that is animated to life in the story is done through by alcohol softening up its tar interior. And in learning this, we come to understand that the point of this story is not the animation of life, per se, but the evolution of such animated life and how it would interact with the world around it. There is a great scene in part II of the story in which we experience coming to life from the point of view of Hermes:
What, where, when, who, why, and how? Hermes knew none of the answers, and the questions were only vague and hazy in his mind, but the desire to know and understand was growing. He took in the laboratory slowly through the hole that formed his partly open mouth and let the light stream in against the resinous matter inside.
In fact, as this scene progresses, I was struck by how similar in execution it is to the World Wide Web scenes in Robert J. Sawyer’s novel WWW:Wake, some 70 years later. In Sawyer’s novel, the World Wide Web has developed consciousness. In del Rey’s story, it is a little statue, but the progression is somewhat similar and there is a kind of logic to that progression that works well in both pieces.
Hermes falls in love with Brugh’s daughter (a kind of “Helen O’Loy” with the genders reversed) and it becomes the motivation behind all of his actions throughout the story. During the course of the story, Brugh and Hodges are antagonists of one another. Hodges has developed Anthropos, which is an artificial man but which has never been successfully animated to life the way Hermes was by accident. Various complications ensue, involving Hodges thinking that Brugh sabotaged his experiments (which to some extent, he did) but ultimately, the two are brought back together in friendship by Hermes. And in the end, Hermes is transferred into Anthropos and now has a “big” body with which he can use to attract Brugh’s daughter–except that she has run off to marry someone else.
The story falls between the two other pieces I’ve read by del Rey so far on this vacation, but as far as entertaining and thought-provoking, is very well done. Moreover, del Rey doesn’t tell each story in the same style–or even base it on the same subject matter. His stories vary widely in theme and style and that is refreshing.
Jack Hatcher’s “Transmutation, 1939″ science article followed del Rey’s piece, but I must be honest, I didn’t read beyond the first page. Whether it was my mood or his writing, I can’t say but I was eager to get to the next piece in the issue. I promised myself that I’d get back to Hatcher’s article, but I never managed to do it.
The next piece that I refer to is Robert A. Heinlein’s “Requiem”. Like del Rey, this is the third piece by Heinlein that I’ve encountered on this vacation. Unlike del Rey’s piece, I’d read this story once before, back in the fall of 1996, and it stood out in my mind as my single favorite piece of Heinlein’s short fiction that I’d ever read. Upon rereading it, 15 years later, I was relieved to find that the story still stood up. It is still my favorite short piece by Heinlein and it was my favorite piece in this issue.
“Requiem” is the story of D. D. Harriman and his efforts to get to the moon before he dies. It is, in essence, a simple story but it is very well told, even slightly understated and that makes all of the difference. Harriman is a very rich man, but because of health issues, he is not allowed to fly into space–something he’d dreamed of doing ever since he was a boy. He ends up hiring two space jockeys and secretly funds them so that they might obtain a spaceship that can take him to the moon. He does this at the risk to his health, his wealth and his reputation, all of which are called into question during the course of this short piece. Ultimately, Harriman has to break the law and escape as a fugitive on the spacecraft in order to ensure his trip to the moon. He does so at his own sacrifice, making it to the surface of the moon, but dying there, propped up against a stone with the Earth hanging overhead for him to see. That penultimate scene brought me to tears the first time I read it–and it did so the second time as well.
Heinlein shows, thus far, a rapid maturity in ability from one story to the next, which perhaps explains his popularity and his meteoric rise. He does things in his stories that many other writers don’t–first and foremost of which is not beating the reader to death with overt world-building. He’ll just spell out what the characters are dealing with from their viewpoints and you get what’s going on in that world–as if through osmosis. At times it is, as I’ve said, just perfectly understated. When asked about his vast wealth, Harriman says he never started out trying to get rich,
I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen
Followers and fans of Heinlein will detect an early theme in that simple statement, one which was touched on in “Life-Line” and which is taken to its ultimate conclusion in “Methuselah’s Children”: longevity and the ability to watch the far future unfold.
I admired Heinlein’s technique for handling flashbacks in this piece, strewing them about but not explicitly noting them as flashbacks. You could tell simply by the context, and that, of course, is what he was a master at. There were also a couple of references to science fiction and its influence, including a line from Harriman’s point of view when he thought about going to the moon:
I read Verne and Wells and Smith and I believed that we could do it–that we would do it.
Considering that E. E. “Doc” Smith had been busily appearing in the last several issues of Astounding, that was quite a compliment.
Perhaps I have a sentimental place in my heart for old men who are making one last stand (I’ve written several stories on this theme myself) and perhaps that comes in part from my grandfather, but something about “Requiem” really moves me and has done so since the first time I read it. It might not be a masterpiece of Heinlein or science fiction, but it is in a class all its own.
Next up is a piece by Sam Weston called “In the Day of the Cold”. While this wasn’t one of my favorite stories in this issue, it was still a good story and it goes to show the growing quality of all of the fiction appearing in Astounding. I can only describe the story as the first “global warming” disaster story I’ve come across. Or perhaps it is earth in the aftermath of a nuclear winter. The planet is mostly icy and frozen. It is riddled with earthquakes and tribes of men have resorted to barbarism for survival. There isn’t much to the story, other than that struggle for dominance and survival but at the very end of the piece, a metal object is discovered with all kinds of useful gadgets in it. And while the barbarians who find it can’t read the engraving on it, we the readers can:
TIME CAPSULE PLACED BELOW SITE OF NEW YORK WORLD’S FAIR, 1939
The story is well told, does not feel pulpish and is at least notable for its vision of a devastated, frozen planet earth.
As I said early on in this episode, I was underwhelmed by the conclusion of “Gray Lensman” which was the final piece in this issue of Astounding. I know that I’m probably in the vast minority here, and perhaps even more so for fans at the time, but I think that several of the stories in the January issue were far better than Smith’s conclusion to the adventures of Kimball Kinnison. A lot happens in this last part. It opens with a suddenly emboldened Admiral Haynes who acts for a change as if he is almost giving orders to Kinnison in an attempt to root out Boskonians from their base in the city of Cominoche–even if it means emptying the city. When that is done, Kimball calls on scientists to event something that is essentially an antimatter bomb that can be used to against the Boskonians. On the mission to do this, Kimball is captured and badly injured to the point where he seems all but dead. He has lost his arms and legs and it is only through some special ability to Lensman that he is able to regenerate and eventually fully recover (and much thanks, also, to his nurse, Clarissa).
Despite all that has happened to him, he goes out yet again, fully recovered to destroy the council of the Boskonians and–it would seem–their entire civilization. And yet you get the idea that the story is not yet over.
Looking at the entire story, I can see why fans fell all over it. It had to be spectacular for its time. And yet, in some sense, it was like a science fiction film today that is made up mostly of special effects. As I said last time, Kimball comes across as a “Ragged Dick”-type character where nothing really goes wrong for him, and where everything works out in the end–he even gets the girl. Where I see the true value in “Gray Lensman” is as a seed for future stories. Without Smith’s imagination in executing “Gray Lensman” I suspect that a whole host of science fiction stories might have turned out very different–or may have been lost forever. Isaac Asimov’s FOUNDATION stories clearly find some of their influence in “Gray Lensman” (at the very least, the notion of the mental abilities of the Second Foundation). Stories of galactic empires that followed probably got their start from Smith’s roots. For the FOUNDATION stories alone, Smith’s serial was worth its weight in gold, and its influence is felt directly and indirectly in the galaxy and universe-spanning stories we have today.
Brass Tacks this month was run-of-the-mill and nothing in particular jumps out, and as I can already see that I’m going longer here than I intended, I’ll pass on it this week and hope for something more interesting next week.
Those of you taking this Vacation with me know that I go in order and try not to peek ahead. Such was Campbell’s verbosity in his In Times To Come page, particularly his emphasis on two new serials, one by Heinlein and the next by Hubbard, there was simply no room left for the Analytical Laboratory. Campbell doesn’t quite say this. He has another excuse. To quote him directly, lest you think I’m cheating you,
Due to the short while the November issue has been on the stands at the time this issue was made up, this month, Analytical Laboratory contains insufficient data and will be postponed, giving a double laboratory next month.
I have not peeked yet at the results for November and I will report them to you as I learn them myself, next week when I post Episode #8.
Here are my ratings for the January 1940 issue:
- Requiem by Robert A. Heinlein
- The Smallest God by Lester del Rey
- Neutral Vessel by Harl Vincent
- In the Day of the Cold by Sam Weston
- Gray Lensman, Part 4 by E. E. “Doc” Smith
- Moon of Delirium by D. L. James
I’ve already verified that the February 1940 issue is in much better shape than January. That makes a big difference in the reading experience, as I have discovered. February contains stories by L. Ron Hubbard, Ross Rocklynne, Leigh Brackett, and Harl Vincent, to say nothing of part 1 of a serial by Robert A. Heinlein, “If This Goes On–“. See you here next week.