Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 9: March 1940

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There is a satisfying symmetry, reading the March 1940 issue in the month of March. It makes me feel somehow more connected with a fan who, 71 years ago may not have gotten his or her hands on the issue the instant it hit the newsstands, but may have gotten it in time to read it during its cover dated month. Somewhere, 71 years ago this very instant, some fan was reading the final letter of that issue, and who knows, perhaps prepared to do a writeup of their own.

The March 1940 issue was a fun issue. There were no remarkable stories, but there were not bad stories either. Instead there was a wonderful mixture of six pieces of fiction that made for delightfully entertaining reading. And when you get right down to it, that’s what Vacations in the Golden Age should be all about.

In addition to being a fun issue, it was an issue that contained at least three surprises for me, each of which I will reveal in due course. There were two novelettes in this issue, three short stories, and of course, the conclusion of Heinlein’s “If This Goes On–“. There were also two science articles, one long and one short.

The cover of the March issue–by Gilmore–shows Uranus eclipsing the sun, a scene taking from Nat Schachner’s lead novelette, “Cold”. This is a special cover because it is the latest in a series of covers on the planets of the solar system. It is the first such cover that I have encountered on my Vacation and I thought it was a well done cover painting.

Campbell’s one-page editorial this month, “Not-So-Dangerous Experiment” centers on experimenting with radioactive elements and perhaps I misread him but I got the sense that he was arguing they were fairly safe to play with. He writes, for instance, that in experiments in igniting the various radioactive elements,

 

So far no one has succeeded in burning his fingers.

This gave me pause for I immediately thought of Marie Curie, who almost certain died as a result of over-exposure to radiation. Now, perhaps Campbell was not focused on the radioactive part but ignition itself (there was a fear that setting off an atomic reaction would ignite the atmosphere). Perhaps, but it was unclear to me in this particular piece of his.

The lead novelette for March is, as I mentioned, “Cold” by Nat Schachner, and this piece presents the first of the three surprises I mentioned. I really liked this story–a lot. This came as a big surprise to me since I intensely disliked the two other Schachner pieces I’ve read to date, “The City of Cosmic Rays” and “City of the Corporate Mind”. It reinforced something very important to me as both a reader of science fiction: never give up completely on a writer, for they will be bound to surprise you.

Schachner’s piece is the story of five men on the moon of Ariel–innermost moon to Uranus (and thus the cover illustration) whose job it is to supply their respective planets with Armorium, an element which supplies for the energy needs of Mars and Earth. These five men are like brothers, but when it seems that the supply of Armorium runs dry, and their respective planets decide to attack one another to gain a stronghold on what remain, they too become on edge, wary of one another’s motives. They are held together by Enos Abbey, a man highly respected on both Earth and Mars. And they have the assistance of a once-human race of Venusian troglos, who help them in their mining and who attempt a revolt. After personal struggles are overcome, and when the moon itself is on the verge of being attacked by the forces of Earth and Mars, a new cache of Armorium is discovered and war is averted.

But the story is so much more than that. There is a real depth to all of the characters, especially the narrator, Jimmy Ware. You can see the brotherhood they have established, the harmonious working conditions, early in the story. And then Schachner slowly beings to remove the bricks that underpin the stability of those relationships, and does so to excellent effect.

A couple of items in the story amused me. For one thing, Armorium is represented as element 99, something today we call Einsteinium, but which wasn’t actually discovered until 1952. Another item was a quote that sounds remarkably familiar to a modern audience:

I was a wild, scatter-brained youngster with a yen for shoving a spaceship where no one else had been fool enough to go before…

I wonder if Gene Roddenberry ever read this piece?

The illustrations for the piece were clearly done by Kramer. His interior style has become very recognizable to me–although strangely he was not credited on the title page of the story. Probably an editorial oversight.

I really enjoyed this story. It was my favorite in the issue. If it had any faults it was that the ending was a little rushed. We never did find out what happened with the revolting Venusian Troglos. And I’m not sure that the title was a good fit. Sure it was cold on that moon, but I think a more evocative title would have worked better than just, “Cold.”

As if in contrast to the Schachner’s “Cold”, the next piece in the issue was P. Schuyler Miller’s “In the Good Old Summertime”, a story that takes place in the hot jungles of Venus. I liked this story too, the second surprise in the issue since the first Miller story I encountered I couldn’t even finish. The story was about a man who wanted to be the King of Venus–and was too blinded by his desire to see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

There is a great paragraph toward the opening of the story which sets the mood of the planet well:

Besides, it wasn’t so much the heat that made Venus unbearable for most people. It was the humidity. The rays of a swollen sun fought their way through a miles-thick cloud blanket and were trapped. The planet stewed. Curls of vapor rose from every patch of water. Fetid mist crawled over the jungle, rank with the stench of rotting vegetation. Huge insects buzzed heavily past–carrion feeders most of them–following the freshest clue to death.

But the thing that really made this a strong story was its protagonist, Joe Guilder, who was a despicably unlikeable person. I say that as a compliment to Miller’s ability to successfully pull of such a character without overdoing it. We go through the story in Guilder’s head and have to deal with his infernal prejudices along the way,

Guilder had been in the native village for three months and he was a king and god. And that was how things should be. It was the white man’s destiny to lord it over all others, only back on earth they were getting ideas about world-brotherhood and internationalism.

But as the story unfolds, and Guilder treats those around him like pawns in a game, we begin to see that fatal flaw–that he really can’t see the forest for the trees. And when winter ends and summer begins on Venus, he soon finds himself unable to cope with the climate and that was his ultimate demise.

Next up is the issue’s second novelette, L. Sprague de Camp’s, “The Emancipated.” This story is clearly the second in a series of stories. Campbell virtually indicated as much in the blurb he wrote for the piece, but even without the blurb, it would have been clear that there was a story that preceded this one in which the bear, Johnny Black was given the Methuen treatment: the means through which animals brains can be altered to support intelligence.

In “The Emancipated”, the title term refers to those animals that have been “freed” of their animal ways of thinking and enlightened with the treatment. But it takes on a second meaning as the chimp, McGinty attempts to free the animals from the bonds of what he sees as human oppression. Whether or not it was intended as such, I took this to be a humorous piece. It was witty and the banter between the various animals was at times almost hysterically funny. There is a scene in which various people are preaching their philosophies in Columbus Circle and McGinty interrupts and of course, a talking chimp takes the attention away from the Marxist making his speech The Maxist proceeds to get very upset about this intrusion of his right to make is stump speech, repeatedly asking the police officer on scene to remove McGinty, and frustrated when the officer tells him he has no basis for removing him. It is a scene thick will irony.

I’ve enjoyed ever de Camp story I’ve encountered thus far and each one is always a little bit different in style. This one was humorous and reminds me of a story that Harlan Ellison tells of de Camp. At a Hydra Club meeting de Camp was wandering around in the background of various conversations taking notes. Finally, someone asked him what he was doing, and it turns out he was writing down what he thought were the funny things people were saying–in an effort to decompose what makes something funny.

The first science article in the issue is a lengthy piece by Jack Hatcher called, “Fuel for the Future”. The article literally asks the question that many science fiction fans and critics still ask to this day, in jest or derision, depending on which side you’re on: where are the food pills that science fiction has promised? Hatcher then goes on to answer his own question, demonstrating why there will likely never be a pill substitute for a full meal. He decomposes what makes up our diets, what can be made by the body as opposed to what must be gotten from outside. He also provides an analysis of food intake to show why you cannot physically fit 3,000,000 calories into a 1 gram pill.

Yes, you read that right, a daily intake of 3,000,000 calories.

Of course, this was before calories became a common and public measurement of food intake. Once this began happening, it was quickly realized (I assume) that dealing with 7-figure numbers was too much for the average person. What we call a calorie today is actually a kilocalories: that is, 1,000 calories so that we speak of a 3,000 calorie diet as opposed to 3 million.

Why does this apply to science fiction–beyond the question of food pills alone? Hatcher correctly points out that if we are ever going to get out into space and stay for a lengthy period of time, we are going to need to take food with us in some form or another. To do so most efficiently requires an understanding of what the body needs–what it can produce with raw materials and what it has to get elsewhere. In this sense, it made for a very interesting article on a limiting reagent for space travel. And it will be interesting to see if any stories follow on that take up this theme.

“A Chapter form the Beginning” by A. M. Phillips was my least favorite story in the issue. There were three significant problems with the story:

  1. It contained what seemed to be a short science essay at the very beginning (in a smaller font) that provided a context. It dealt with the different ancestors of homo sapiens and how they evolved. This was odd and distracting but I can only chalk it up to the fact that some of the complaints on Lester del Rey’s magnificent story, “The Day Is Done” (ASF 5/30) was that it didn’t seem to be science fiction. Therefore, this prefatory essay provided the science for the story that followed.
  2. The story was too much like del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” without being nearly as good. That had to be fresh in the minds of the readers at the time, and it will be interesting to see the reader reaction to this.
  3. The story seemed to be written for the sole purpose of illustrating the point in the essay that prefaced it–something that could just as easily have been done in a science article, especially in light of the bar that del Rey set with his earlier piece on the same theme.

Given these problems, I’m surprised that the story was included in the issue. And yet, the story was not bad. The writing was good and the scenes in which Nwug was locked in mortal combat with the Hunters were visceral, you could feel the adrenaline rush, could feel Nwug fighting desperately for his life. That aside, it still didn’t really seem to be a story to me but more an illustration of a scientific principle. I will be particularly interested in what, if anything, people have to say about this piece in the BRASS TACKS column in future issues.

Incidentally, I had no idea who Phillips was and I assumed him to be a scientists of some kind who wrote the story to make a point. I looked him up in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and found that he’d been publishing science fiction since 1929 and between then and 1947 published 8 stories and a novel and then disappeared from the genre, despite living into the 1990s. The only other thing I could find about him was that at one time, he was the president of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

Next up is “The Dwindling Sphere” by Willard E. Hawkins. This was another great story in this issue, a lot of fun to read, particularly because of the style i which is was written, which involved a series of diary entries written by members of a family over an increasingly long period of centuries. This story was one of the stories picked for inclusion in Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg’s retrospective volume, Isaac Asimov Presents The Great SF Stories 2 (1940). (And thanks go out to Barry Malzberg for providing me with the list of stories in that volume.)

The story is about the invention of a substance called Plastocene from which virtually anything can be made. It’s discovery in 1945 by Frank Baxter was an accident. Baxter didn’t care about its commercial properties but wanted to know what happened to the energy in the reaction. He could never figure it out. Nevertheless, his partner was able to make him a fortune with it and his family grew extraordinarily wealthy. About a century later is another entry from a Baxter, president of the richest corporation in the world, who has just discovered the older diary and is reevaluating his life’s work in light of his great grandfather’s ethics. Each jump ahead brings up farther and farther into the future, 2653, 10,487, and finally cycle 188,400-43, where people no longer understand the origin of the substance. But we discover in a startling twist that the Earth is now the size of the moon (the Diminishing Sphere) and of course that diminishment has to do with the production of Plastocene. While no one believes it, the continued use of the substance will ultimately doom the earth.

When I first read the story, I cleverly thought I saw where it was going–that the lost energy was being transferred into the future, somewhat akin to Gregory Benford’s Timescape; or that it was being shifted into a parallel universe as in Asimov’s The Gods Themselves or Sawyer’s Hominids. That this wasn’t what the story was about was a pleasant surprise. The story was as much about social responsibility as it was earth-shattering (literally) discoveries and that is what I think made it work so well. There is a very human side to this complex story . I can see why it would have been included in the retrospective volume.

Arthur McCann’s “Atomic Ringmaster” was a short piece on the invention of the cyclotron and its use to help identify the component atoms of a substance to a greater and more accurate degree than a mass spectrometer. Nothing fancy about this piece, it was straight-forward science explanation.

The final piece in the March issue was part II of Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On–” and this piece gave me the third surprise in the issue. For despite how good the first part was the second part fell somewhat flat. The opening chapter of part II was very good, with John Lyle’s escape in the rocket from New Jerusalem. And his escape from the rocket and subsequent trek into Phoenix were the high points of tension in the story for me. However, after that things dwindled rapidly. I think there were a couple of reasons for this.

First, once Lyle made it into the Cabal headquarters, I felt it was a foregone conclusion that the Cabal would be ultimately victorious in their revolution. Lyle is rapidly made General Huxley’s aid. The objection of Novak to the immediate attack against New Jerusalem added a marginal amount of tension and his logic was well-reasoned, I thought. But beyond that, the story seemed to break down into a series of strategic events much along the lines of what Hubbard presented in the dreaded “General Swamp, C.I.C.” We were no longer seeing Lyle’s thoughts on what was going on; instead, he was simply acting as our eyes and ears.

Second, I kept expecting (and hoping) that Sister Judith would return to the story–but her name is never even mentioned in Part II, and so she becomes a sympathetic character who simply disappears from the story.

Finally, and perhaps most annoying, was the epilogue to the story, which essentially spelled out the themes of the story in a clear and completely unnecessary manner,

Novak told me once: “There isn’t anything wrong with the minds of the American people; they just suffer from a tendency to sell their birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage. Each one values liberty for himself but is naively certain that his poor benighted brother needs protection. So we pass a lot of sumptuary legislation intended to protect the moral and spiritual welfare of our poor weak brethren. When it is too late, we find that in so doing we have surrendered our ancient liberties to a bureaucracy which tyrannizes us under the guise of protecting our souls.

How much more explicitly can it be spelled out? I want to say that perhaps Campbell threw in this passage, but no, this is pure Heinlein. The story would have been markedly improved if the “prologue at the end” were left off. It was not a bad story and I enjoyed it, but it just didn’t live up to what Heinlein had built magnificently in the first part.

Just a couple of items from the letter column this month:

  • A very prophetic backhanded compliment from a fan regarding too much Jack Williamson: “Mr. Williamson will still be using the ‘Green Girl’ plot in 1999 unless someone disuades him.” Of course, the fan had to assume that Williamson would still be publishing in 1999–as indeed he was, to our great collective benefit.
  • A letter from Arthur C. Clarke announcing that the British Science Fiction Society was going on hiatus for the duration of the war, as its members, himself included, were all being called to service. He promised to write again when the Society started up again.

Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory for January 1940 Astounding, and as always, my rating follows in parentheses for reference:

  1. Gray Lensman by E. E. “Doc” Smith (5)
  2. The Smallest God by Lester del Rey (2)
  3. Neutral Vessel by Harl Vincent (3)
  4. Requiem by Robert Heinlein (1)
  5. Moon of Delirium by D. L. James (6)

It is, of course, no surprise that “Gray Lensman” takes first place. It was clear that at the time, this was exactly what most fans wanted and loved and if I don’t feel the same way, it is only because I have a larger historical perspective. Had I been born in 1920, I’d be likely to be right there with them. What is surprising is that Heinlein’s “Requiem” took 4th place. As I think I remarked back in Episode 7, that is my favorite Heinlein short, a wonderful story that balances the science fiction with the human element in a graceful and skillful manner.

Here are my ratings for the March 1940 issue:

  1. Cold by Nat Schachner
  2. The Emancipated by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. The Dwindling Sphere by Willard E. Hawkins
  4. If This Goes On– (Part II) by Robert Heinlein
  5. In the Good Old Summertime by P. Schuyler Miller
  6. Chapter from the Beginning by A. M. Phillips

As I remarked at the opening, there was no superb piece, but no laggard either. That “If This Goes On–” falls to forth place is simply due to the fact that there were three other really good stories that moved me more than it did. It by no means indicates that I didn’t like Heinlein’s piece.

In Time To Come dealt entirely with the L. Ron Hubbard serial that starts up next month, “Final Blackout.”

See you here next week!

12 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 9: March 1940

  1. I think I like this cover best so far. I know it’d ruin their usefulness, but I’d be so tempted to frame all the magazines to showcase their lovely covers on the wall :D

    1. My little boy liked one of the covers–I think it was for the March 1941 issue. He would see the rocket on it and say, “Airplane!” It got so that whenever he came into my office, he’d point to the stacks of magazines and say, “Airplane”. Finally, I scanned in the cover. I printed out a copy for him to tear up however he’d like. I printed a second copy, frame it and put it up on the wall in his bedroom, by his crib so he could see it at night. Scanning = better than framing the entire issue.

  2. On Johnny Black: “The Emancipated” is the third (of four) of de Camp’s talking bear stories for Astounding – and the only one that has never been reprinted. JWC clearly loved these tales, since when the time came after the War to preserve in hardcover the best short fiction from Astounding – in the curiously titled “The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology” – out of all of de Camp’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, JWC gave the nod to another of the Johnny Black yarns (which you will encounter a couple of months from now in mid May).

  3. As for Heinlien, many of the structural and pacing problems you noted in the final quarter of “…If This Goes On” (including that redundant epilogue) were addressed when RAH revised and expanded the serial for book publication in 1953. The most interesting change is that the blithe mention of forced hypnotic reorientation for the masses after the revolution is explicitly rejected in the 1953 book.

    1. Mark, I don’t know if there are folks out there who look forward to these Vacation posts of mine, but I’ll tell you I always eagerly look forward to your comments. I guessed wrong on “The Empancipated”: I assumed it was the second in the series because there were clues that Johnny Black had just recently received the treatment. I find it amusing that the Johnny Black story is what Campbell picked but maybe he felt that the magazine lacked funny stories and these amused him.

      Regarding “If This Goes On–” I think I have the expanded version on my bookshelves somewhere so I’ll have to take a look and see how things compare. Did he ever return to the girl? To me that was a huge hole in the story. What happened to her?

  4. Judith is in fact mentioned in passing in part two of the ASF version – in the very last paragraph of the epilogue: “I found something that Judith and I liked better” (i.e. Textile drumming rather than work in the War department – and I don’t buy it for a second that John would happily choose to be a rug salesman: this is a case of RAH crudely shoehorning his character to fit into “Vine and Fig Tree” theme).

    In the novel “Revolt in 2100″, poor John Lyle instead receives a “Dear John” (in all meanings of the phrase) letter from Judith. With her out of the way, John then is free to hook up with one of Zeb’s cast-offs.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  5. Jamie, I’m rereading your earlier entries since I have since gotten my hand on some issues of Astounding and am enjoying your impressions as I read along. Something you said struck me–I’ll quote, “It is, of course, no surprise that ‘Gray Lensman’ takes first place. It was clear that at the time, this was exactly what most fans wanted and loved and if I don’t feel the same way, it is only because I have a larger historical perspective. Had I been born in 1920, I’d be likely to be right there with them.” You mention the timeframe, indicating that the time period might be some of the cause of the difference in opinion about the quality of the stories. But you imply what I think might be an equally important factor–the average age of the people reading the magazine. To a lot of teenagers, the Lensman stories are high fiction. You’ve mentioned a number of times that Damon Knight is sending in his opinions, and according to the dates I can find, he was all of 17 years old when this specific issue came out. Ray Bradbury was 19. The breadth and depth of your reading experience is one significant difference from the letter writers and voters of 1940, but your maturity may be another.

    1. Fred, the age factor is a good point, although I still feel like a 17-year old when it come science fiction. ;-) Actually, I think Damon Knight was 15 when he was sending in those letters, but Bradbury was 19. I sometimes wish that Bradbury or Fred Pohl would get wind of this site and comment because their insights–as fans who grew up with the Golden Age (and there are very few left)–would be invaluable.

  6. I love your vacation series Jamie. This is the first time I’ve been inclined to comment, and I’m writing from 2012. One year on almost from your original episode, but catching up fast! A couple of points. 1. On the subject of the title ‘cold’ this is surely a Campbell addition. You note that the previous Scachner stories were called ‘the city of…’ I think it’s well known that Campbell had a penchant for one word titles and so I would believe that it was he who gave the title it’s name, which is why it might not fit with the theme of the story.
    2. Some of the above comments put Ray Bradbury at 19 in 1940. If this is correct, then the description of Venus by Miller is very close in style to many of Bradbury’s descriptions, and so I suggest he was greatly influenced by stories like this. Go back and re-read ‘All summer in a day’ and you see a very close connection. Shame that Campbell published little Bradbury in Astounding, or maybe not as he ultimatley found a market elsewhere.
    Thanks again for an amazing experience, onto the next installment!

    1. Walter, thank you for the kind words. I never made the connection between Julie & Julia (my wife read the book and saw the movie, I believe, but I didn’t), but I suppose there is something like that in this. It has certainly been a lot of fun. I can’t believe a full calendar year has already gone by!

      Regarding Bradbury: he was indeed 19 or 20 in 1940. If he can hang on until mid-April, he will be the first author I’ve come across that is still with us. Not only that, he will also be the first author who I’ve actually met. So far, every writer who has appeared in Astounding from July 1939 – December 1941, whether fiction or nonfiction is long gone. So it will be kind of cool to finally get to someone who is still around. Bradbury’s first Astounding story will show up in Episode 37 (July 1942).

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