Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 8: February 1940

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Vacations as wonderful as they can be, often seem trivial when held up against world crises. Here I am romping through the Golden Age while the people of Japan are facing a disaster not seen since 1945–the very middle of the Golden Age that I am exploring. I wanted to take a brief moment, therefore, to provide a link or two to organizations which are accepting donations to aid in the disaster relief:

Science fiction spans the world and it was only about 4 years ago when the World Science Fiction convention was last help in Japan. And now, back to our regularly scheduled episode.

I’ve described my process for going through these issues before. I try and get in at least 25 pages of read each day and do so at times that are most relaxing–often at lunch during the work week, where I can forget about all the stresses and strains of the day job and disappear into Golden Age stories. As I read, I take notes. These notes are made up of thoughts that occur to me while I’m reading. Sometimes they relate directly the the piece that I am reading. Sometimes they are reminders, for things like passages I want to quote. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to some readers so see what the raw notes looks like. To that end, I’ve put my raw notes for the February 1940 issue up on Google Docs, and anyone interested can take a look at them. I’d suggest you wait until you finish reading here if you want to avoid spoilers.

Campbell opens the February issue with an editorial on psychology called, “It Isn’t Science–Yet!” Really it is a piece on the psychology of masses and it seems to presage a number of things that Campbell will later pursue. Early in the piece, Campbell writes,

 

Psychology isn’t a science so long as a trained psychologist does–and must–say, ‘There’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.’

It seems to me we have come a very long way, given that today, much can be predicted about a person’s behavior, even from something as simple as their social networking footprint. Nevertheless, Campbell goes on to say something which I found particularly interesting:

 

Because, naturally, if you have a human, or group of humans, doing the deciding–a really good psychologist would, by the very action of his science, be able to make them react to selected stimuli in a selected way.

To me, this seems to presage part of the basis of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, in particular, the invented science of psychohistory. The “group of humans doing the deciding” of course is the Second Foundation. And yet we are more than two years from the first Foundation story, more than two years before the day that Asimov rushes excitedly into Campbell’s office with the idea for the fall of the first Galactic Empire and rise of the Second. It is clear while this idea “caught fire with Campbell” since the germ of it was already in his mind.

Brass Tacks showed up at the beginning of this issue and there were a number of interesting letters. In response to a letter by Lawrence Miller of Norfolk, VA, who asks, “On second thought, couldn’t you give us some more Don A. Stuart? Please? ‘Forgetfulness’ was just about perfect”, Campbell responds with the following announcement:

Stuart’s in retirement. But Astounding or Unknown will get his stuff if anyone does.

Of course, Campbell could say this authoritatively since Campbell and Stuart are one in the same. Nevertheless, this seems to be quite an announcement, buried in the letter column and it will be interesting to see how–if at all–fans react in future columns, considering how popular the Stuart stories were.

Incidentally, Mr. Miller and I seem to be in agreement in our assessment of most of the stories he covered, which I’ve found to be pretty unusual. Here is a fan of the late 1930s/early 1940s who has similar tastes to a fan of the early 2010s. Its rather remarkable to me when I think about it.

I just have to get in a quote from fan Donn Brazier regarding Hubbard/Engelhardt’s “General Swamp, C.I.C.”. Mr. Brazier writes, “General Swamp, C.I.C. takes the prize as the dullest tale of the year.” Readers who have been following along on these episodes will understand why Mr. Brazier’s sagacity amuses me.

In response to a letter from Arthur A. White, Campbell mentions that “Ignatz may be back.” He is referring, of course, to the creature from Lester del Rey’s “Luck of Ignatz”, the lead novelette in the August 1939 issue, which I enjoyed so much. I haven’t peeked ahead and I know little enough of del Rey’s work to be uncertain if Ignatz ever returns–this despite have volumes 1 & 2 of The Best of Lester del Rey on my bookshelf. Like the fans of the time, some elements of this vacation are as new to me as they were to them.

The theme of Campbell’s editorial this month was most likely due to the fact that it was also the theme of the lead serial in this issue, Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On–”  The serial is a two-parter and takes place in a world in which the United States is under the control of an authoritarian religious dictatorship and in which an underground is sowing the seeds of rebellion. Campbell blurbs this story as follows:

The second NOVA story Astounding has offered–a story so exceptional in its presentation, so powerful and logical, that is wins the rare NOVA designation.

I’d never heard of this NOVA designation before. I did a Google search and found that A. E. van Vogt’s “Slan” was the first serial to receive a NOVA designation but that doesn’t make sense since “If This Goes On–” is a serial and it runs before “Slan”. If anyone out there knows more about the NOVA designation, especially what Astounding story received the first NOVA, please post it in the comments. Google was of very little help in this case.

The story itself I felt was terrific. In his third piece in Astounding, Heinlein is already proving himself to be a master storyteller and a master at subtle world-building. World-building is something that many new writers struggle with because it must be subtle. You have to show, you don’t want long exposition that explains the world to the reader. It needs to be woven into the narrative, part of the fabric of the story itself. For example, the first two paragraphs of Heinlein’s story:

It was cold on the parapet. I slapped my numbed hands together, then desisted for fear of disturbing the Prophet. My heart was not at ease. I felt a vague unrest, not accounted for by the chill night air, nor by the long, fatiguing watch.

I was young then–a legate newly graduated from West Point, and guardsman in the Angels of the Lord, personal guard of the Prophet Incarnate.

Heinlein didn’t have to explain that this was a theocracy. It comes across in the storytelling. The world-building is like this throughout the first piece and the reader gets a very grim picture of this almost unrecognizable–but frightening possible–world that he describes. This is the first serial I’ve come across where, upon finishing it, I was tempted to break out the March issue and just keep reading. I couldn’t put it down and I am racing through this write-up so that I can open up the March issue and continue where I left off.

This was also the first piece that is recognizably Heinlein to me. In it, I see elements of future stories and characters, in particular The Moon Is  a Harsh Mistress, whose theme also centers on revolution. There are glimpses of what is to come in future characters, Podkayne and Friday come to mind. Also, this piece reminded me somewhat vaguely of C. M. Kornbluth’s 1952 story, “That Share of Glory”. All told, I think it was a fantastic story thus far, and it was certainly my favorite piece in this issue.

Up next was what I thought an amusing first piece by H. B. Fyfe called “Locked Out”. The story was simple enough–about an astronaut on his way out from Mars to the asteroid belt who has a run in with a small meteor. When the astronaut–sole person on the spacecraft–goes out onto the hull to check out the damage, he finds himself locked out of his spacecraft. It seems ridiculous on the face of it–and it seems that way to Tom Keith, too, until he realizes that if he can’t get back in, he’s a dead man.

Despite being an amusing story, I had some problems with it. For one thing, since the story was written there have been more than 275 space missions in which people went into space and I don’t think there was ever the threat of any of them being locked out. Of course, Fyfe’s story was written a generation before manned spaceflight, but even so, while many other stories of the era carefully consider redundancies, backups and manual overrides, Fyfe’s story did not. Also, for the bulk of the story the only character is Tom Keith–who must talk to himself so that the reader can understand what is going on, which gave a very artificial feel to the piece. It takes a very skilled writer to pull of scenes involving only one character. It is difficult. (Some of the best one-character scenes I’ve ever come across, incidentally, take place in the works of Barry N. Malzberg who seems to pull this off effortlessly, often through unbalanced characters who have or think they have some kind of impending insanity. So it can be done well, when in the right hands.)

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with the story, however, is that despite being a puzzle story, the ultimately solution of which was chemical in nature (building an acetylene torch to burn through the hatch), the solution was not given as part of the main action of the story. Instead, the main action ends abruptly and we find Keith in a bar describing how he solved the problem. I think the story would have been more effective if we had been there to see it.

But as far as I can tell, this was Fyfe’s first published science fiction story and while I had never heard of him, he seems to have gone on to publish stories fairly regularly during the 1950s.

My second favorite piece in this issue was Ross Rocklynne’s “And Then There Was One” the title of which may very well have been a play on Agatha Christie’s recently published And Then There Were None a year earlier. The story is a kind of wish-fulfillment piece, where six captains of industry who are planning to band together to corner the food market and raise prices for everyone–are captured and brought to the interior of an large asteroid by a mysterious Voice. There, they are each given enough food for 5 days and told that in order to survive the 5 weeks they will be there, they will need to kill one another and take the food. Food provides the motivation in this piece. As Rocklynne writes,

What couldn’t be done with the food monopoly? Food ruled man!

While I can’t say this with certainly, it is possible that this is the first science fiction piece to deal with the theme of food politics–something which 70 years later is the theme of Paulo Bacigalupi’s Hugo-, Nebula- and Campbell-award-winning novel The Windup Girl.

Rocklynne can write well and it shows. There is no sign of pulp in his stories–and this was true of the earlier piece I read of his, “The Moth” back in the July 1939 issue. The piece actually had a very existential feel to it, especially in the arbitrariness of the killing. It reminded me of Sartre’s No Exit, being sealed into the asteroid to ponder one another’s ruthlessness. Then too, the story seems to presage some of what we find in Harlan Ellison’s famous “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” where a group of characters appear to be trapped in the belly of some deranged computer.

There is great tension in the story, you can almost feel these once powerful men breaking down under the strain of their punishment, each of them being killed off by others, one by one, until finally, only one is left. And we discover that the one remaining is the narrator we are introduced to at the beginning of the piece. This was a fun read and while I don’t think it quite rose to the level of what Heinlein’s story attempted to do, it was a better written piece in my mind and it makes me look forward to reading more Rocklynne in future issues.

Leigh Brackett’s “Martian Quest” was in my opinion the weakest story in the batch. It started off well enough, with an almost futuristic Grapes of Wrath feel to it, but it quickly got a little too preachy for me. Martin Drake was a scientist and with the Martians being relocated, they felt he had some ability to help them fend off the Khom, creatures described as follows:

Wicked triangular heads shot up from the ruined vines, horny reptillian heads framed in ruffs like Triceratops. Bodies two feet longer than a tall man raised high in ominous preparation on strong clawed legs, and tails–

What killed the story for me, however, was the was Brackett seemed to beat the reader over the head with the moral, “Only science has a chance!” Terra argues repeatedly. It was a little too much for me in a story that wasn’t particularly interesting in its own right anyway.

Willy Ley’s “Botanical Invasion” was the first of two science articles. It was not a bad one, and was a kind of extension of L. Sprague de Camp’s “There Ain’t No Such!” for the plant world. Ley imagines, through the first half of the article, that we are learning about these plants in the far future, living on other worlds like Venus and Mars and not realizing that these plants really could be from Earth. I found this gimmick unnecessary and it distracted me from the science in the article. de Camp, in his earlier piece, did not need such a gimmick and did a better overall job.

The second science article in the issue was “Luna Observatory, No. 1″ by R. S. Richardson and it was phenomenal. This was the second Richardson piece that I’ve read in Astounding and he is clearly a master of this form–as much as least as Isaac Asimov would become. Coming from me that speaks volumes because I love Asimov’s science-writing. In this piece, Richardson takes a simple premise and works out the details of its conclusion: that the best observatory we could build is one that would be off-world. But how could we do it?

Richardson covers every aspect and seemingly every concern in a style that makes you want to keep reading. His idea evolves into putting a telescope on the moon. How much would such an endeavor cost? He estimates that it would be at least in the neighborhood of $100 million and that’s discounting the travel that would be required to get the parts and people to the moon. According to WolframAlpha.com, $100 million in 1940 is the equivalent of about $1.5 billion today. The Hubble space telescope’s cumulative costs to date are estimated between $4-6 billion so at $1.5 billion, Richardson was in the right order of magnitude. It makes me wonder what Richardson, who died in 1981, would have thought of Hubble, or the James Webb space telescope.

Interestingly, in his piece imagining in great detail the engineering of this telescope on the moon, there is no talk of computers or automation, for the simple reason that this is still a few years before computers. Instead, Richardson concludes,

Peering ahead, we can see the astronomer of tomorrow making routine trips back and forth between his comfortable office on Earth, with its computing force, library, and lecture rooms, and the observatory itself on the Moon.

“High Frequency War” by Harl Vincent was a pretty good story that opened with a kind of post-apocalyptical feel of the type that stories in Science Fiction Age in the 1990s had. That is to say, it read like a modern science fiction story. Like Rocklynne, Vincent can write well, without that pulpish patina to his prose. Nevertheless, the story didn’t strike me as spectacular. For one thing, there were elements of the story that were took vague: what was the war all about? Who was fighting? For another, things were tied too neatly into a bow. The fact that “Pinky” ended up being the real Dr. Buckley was a little too much for me to swallow, especially considering I wasn’t really sure why the fighting was going on in the first place. I liked this story better than Vincent’s “Power Plant” but in both pieces, I had difficulty following what was going on. In one piece, I could imagine it was me; in two, I begin to suspect the author.

“Bombardment in Reverse” by Norman L. Knight is the shortest piece I’ve come across in the vacation thus far, just a few pages long. It is the story of a silly war between two inept tribes, and a weapon that is being used which–it is discovered–shoots its artillery in time as well as space, so that the enemy is firing a gun a week after a battle, knowing where their opponents will be a week earlier. It was a fun piece to read, and I take it that it was written to be more amusing than anything else. I like how the story opened with a kind of forward of the type we will later find in Asimov’s “Foundation” stories:

The following narrative is an excerpt from “Galactic Chronicles,” a monumental work on extraterrestrial history by the Earth-both Martian historiographer, Ilrai the Younger, who flourished about 2600 A.D. He regards the tale as of doubtful authenticity and is inclined to classify it as merely an interesting legend. It is hereby reproduced as no more than that.

More than anything else, this story felt like the kind of thing that Campbell would ultimately turn into a “Probability Zero” piece–in which case it was nearly perfect.

The final story in the issue was L. Ron Hubbard’s novelette, “The Professor Was a Thief”. While I thought that the story itself was mediocre, it was a page turner and had quite possibly one of the best opening scenes in the issue with Patrolman O’Rourke reporting that the Empire State Building had just vanished. This is the style of writing I’ve heard so much about with respect to Hubbard. He could hook a reader and keep them reading along. The pacing of the story was good, too, and it had a completely different feel from the stories that Hubbard wrote as Engelhardt.

In addition, I thought Frank Kramer’s interior illustrations for “The Professor Was a Thief” were the best interiors in the issue. I like Kramer’s style and the illustrations were very well done.

And speaking of illustrations, I realize that I have neglected to mention the Rogers cover for the issue. I thought it was so-so, in part because once again I could not identify the scene in Heinlein’s story from which it came. I suspect it comes form Part II, but honestly, I don’t understand why they do this. I suppose that Rogers reads the entire piece and paints a cover scene, no considering which part it will run with. I will say, however, that the figure running toward the “camera” on the cover reminded me at once of the cover Rogers did for the September 1941 issue for Asimov’s “Nightfall”.

In our last episode, I mentioned how Campbell skipped the Analytical Laboratory because not enough time had passed to accumulate adequate results. He promised to report on both the November and December issues and he held to that promise. Here, then, are the AnLab results for November and December 1939. As always, my ranking follows each in parentheses:

November 1939

  1. Gray Lensman (Part II) by E. E. “Doc” Smith (2)
  2. Power Plant by Harl Vincent (6)
  3. Habit by Lester del Rey (4)
  4. Misfit by Robert Heinlein (1)

I’m surprised by the reception of Heinlein’s piece, but according to the letters I’ve seen in Brass Tacks, many readers felt that the character in that story was not believable because of the feats of math he performed in his head. Savants, apparently, were rarer, or less recognized for what they were 70 years ago.

December 1939

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

My opinions clearly matched better with the contemporary fans of the December issue.

For the first time, my ratings for the February issue contain a non-fiction article. I’ve seen a number of fans rate articles in their listings to the point where they have made it into the top 5 in the Analytical Laboratory and I therefore decided that, should an article warrant it, I would rank it with the stories. I will try to do this only when I feel the article was really worthy. Thus, here are my rankings for this issue:

  1. If This Goes On– by Robert Heinlein
  2. And Then There Was One by Ross Rocklynne
  3. Luna Observatory, No. 1 by R. S. Richardson (article)
  4. High Frequency War by Harl Vincent
  5. The Professor Was a Thief by L. Ron Hubbard
  6. Locked Out by H. B. Fyfe
  7. Bombardment in Reverse by Norman L. Knight
  8. Martian Quest by Leigh Brackett

See you here next week!

13 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 8: February 1940

  1. I’ll go into more detail later, but the first “Nova” story was published in the December 1938 issue – H.L. Gold’s “A Matter of Form”.

    1. Thanks, Mark. It’s good to know that there really was a first story with a NOVA designation. I wonder what it was that made Campbell judge these stories to be so different? Given how much he plugged “Gray Lensman”, for instance, you’d think that would be a NOVA story, but it wasn’t and that says something about how careful he was in using the designation.

  2. In regards to your impression of Fyfe’s story: I think that what you may be missing (due to a longer perspective) is that “going into space” back in the 40s and through much of the 50s was viewed very much like “going out west” or “sailing the seas”; we’d build the minimally necessary technology that would allow us to “go”, and we’d “go”, figuring stuff out and making most of what we needed along the way.
    Concepts like redundancy, fail-safe, back up systems were yet to be truly developed (as engineering concepts). Check out The Green Hills of Earth for one example by Heinlein: Rhysling is blinded by having to manually control the reactor pile of the spaceship he is serving in.
    Automatic-shmatic; those guys were going to space if they had to strap rockets and balloons to a chair. They’d scoop oxygen out of the snowdrifts on Titan.
    Check out Campbell’s own “The Moon Is Hell” for a novel that seems to have been written as an exemplar of this concept: we’re men, hear us roar, we’ll tame the solar system by breaking it with our bare hands and bending it to our will (an idea filled with unbounded hubris and one that seems to be almost entirely lacking in our Jetsons-like push-button future world).
    In Space Cadet (Heinlein), the cadets learn how to use personal maneuvering units that are equipped with iron sites. And you know what? THOSE cadets would find their way safely back to the (wheel-in-space) space station following a disaster, while our own astronauts, equipped with the latest and greatest computer tech, probably wouldn’t even be able to turn their jets on if the electronics failed (let alone navigate using dead-reckoning).
    During Kennedy’s Rice University speech, he said “we choose to do these things…because they are hard”; but then we started trying to make them easier and easier and look at where that’s gotten us. Pioneering spirit? Perseverance in the face of adversity? Not.
    Enjoying the series btw as well. Can’t wait till you hit the “war years”

    1. Good points, Steve. Of course, I’m coming into this with foreknowledge that contemporary fans didn’t have so my view is a bit different when reading a story. I think there are a few exceptions, but that generally, you are right, and I can see Heinlein’s stories being a particular example of what you are talking about. I wonder when this started to change? When did stories begin to reflect the realities of what space travel would be like? Was it before 1962? Likely after I imagine, but it would be interesting to see this evolution.

  3. “I wonder what it was that made Campbell judge these stories to be so different?”

    Campbell had a specific purpose the three times (I think it was three times) he awarded a “Nova” to a story.

    Quoting as best I can off of a low resolution mircofiche reproduction of the November 1938 “In Times to Come” touting the H. L. Gold yarn: “It’s a novelette that is, I think, far above average in quality. “A Matter of Form” has a plot that is not fundamentally new, but one worked out with a degree of care and a close-knit logic unusual in the field.”

    In the following month’s editorial, JWC expanded on this theme: “The second item of interest this month is that little symbol on the title page of Horace L. Gold’s story. When the title “mutant” was introduced, I promised that each story so marked would have a new, basic idea. “A Matter of Form” does not have a new idea. In fact this basic idea has been familiar in literature for several thousands of years … Yet [this story], I think, deserves some special mark, some brief term of description that can tell you beforehand that a story unusual in manner of presentation rather than in basic theme is coming.”

    I think the “Nova” designation was dropped because within a few months, Astounding was publishing a “Nova” – and a “mutant” for that matter – story is nearly every issue.

  4. Since you admire the stories of Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heartcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez del Rey y de los Uerdes (gimme a break, Leonard Knapp), here is a little tidbit from that November 1938 “In Times to Come”: “Lester del Rey – who wrote that very human story “The Faithful” – returns with a queer and rather unhappy little story of a robot who – not “that” – was too human.”

    So, even with only one published story, JWC knew he had someone special in his stable of writers.

  5. This is great, Mark. I recall Asimov writing about del Rey’s lengthy “sonorous” name, but I figured he was a exaggerating just a it. Of course, I’ve read “Helen O’Loy” but I’ve never read “The Faithful”. I need to start keeping a list of stories to read as a kind of companion to this vacation. When I can find the time. :-)

    BTW, I just finished reading the first piece in the March 1940 issue, something by Schachner, and here’s a preview: for a wonder, I loved it!

  6. And here is a little bit a supplemental reading: a letter from Campbell to Heinlein accepting “Vine and Fig Tree” (the original title of “…If this Goes On”) which is in turn quoted in Volume One of “Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century” by William Patterson [chapter 19].

    Warning: there is a slight spoiler to the March installment of “…If this Goes On”.

    [Quote:] The story, by practically all that’s good and holy, deserves our usual unusually-good-story 25% bonus. It’s a corking good yarn; may you send us many more as capably handled.

    But—for the love of Heaven—don’t send us any more on the theme of this one. The bonus misfires because this yarn is going to be a headache and a shaker-in-the-boots; it’s going to take a lot of careful reworking and shifting of emphasis.

    Ye gods man, read your own dicta at the end of the yarn as it now stands (incidentally, you don’t think, on the basis of the material’s own logic, we could print that safely, do you?) And consider the sort of reaction that yarn, as it stands, would draw down on us! Even after considerable altering of emphasis, it’s going to be a definitely warmish subject to handle.

    You say, in your concluding part, that religion is dogma, incapable of logistic alteration or argument. Evidently you believe that. Then, on that basis, what reaction would you expect this yarn to evoke in the more religious-minded readers? Your logic, throughout, is magnificent and beautifully consistent. That’s swell. I love it. Lots wouldn’t, you know.

    I’m reworking it, I’ll be forced to eliminate some beautiful points possessed of an incendiary heat, so far as controversy goes. Consider, man, the reaction if we let that bit about the confessional pass! As a useful adjunct to a dictator’s secret police, it undoubtedly is surpassingly lovely; as an item to print in a modern American magazine, it’s dynamite. That’s out like a light. . . .

    I genuinely got a great kick out of the consistency and logic of the piece. You can, and will, I’m sure, earn that 25% bonus for unusually-good stuff frequently. [end quote]

    RAH scholars can correct me, but I believe all that dogma dynamite was restored to “…If this Goes On” when it was revised and expanded for book publication in 1953 (along with the addition of some oblique sexual content that John and Kay would have immediately blue penciled).

  7. That’s pure gold, Mark. I just skimmed through my copy of THE JOHN W. CAMPBELL LETTERS (Vol. 1) to see if that letter is printed there, but it’s not. What was Heinlein’s reaction, I wonder? I don’t have REVOLT IN 2500 where I think the novel was first reprinted so I can’t check on the differences.

    BTW, I am going through the March issue in order, as always–and of couse, Heinlein’s piece falls last in this issue. :-(

  8. Well, I doubt we will never know Heinlein’s reaction since he destroyed most of his correspondence when he divorced his second wife after the War.

    A good article by – what do ya know – William Petterson on the differences between the Astounding and Gnome Press versions of “..If this Goes On” is here: http://www.whpattersonjr.com/pages/ifthisgoeson.aspx

    You probably don’t want to click until you reach the end of the March issue.

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