Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 10: April 1940

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This week’s episode appeared at 3:15pm Eastern Daylight time. I wrote the episode last night and scheduled it for early release today. I am completely offline today, taking my one opportunity each year to free myself from the bonds of the Internet and give myself 24 hours to not think about it. I’ve done this recently on my birthday and today happens to be my Jack Benny birthday. I was born at 3:15pm and this post was scheduled to be symbolically “born” at the same time. Since I’ll be offline today, I won’t see any comments until tomorrow, but rest assured I will read them eagerly first thing tomorrow morning.

We are now 10 episodes into this Vacation in the Golden Age, and I must say that the Rogers cover for the April 1940 issue is one of my favorites so far. It was pained for the lead serial, L. Ron Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” and it conveys much of that power of that story . I’ve noticed that I am beginning to be able to spot Rogers’ covers without peeking at the credits. Aside from the soft tones he tended to use, the figures in his images are the key giveaway in my mind. And in this cover, the small band of survivors are just so tiny compared to the dark and dangerous world that surrounds them.

The April issue was an uneven one for me. It opens with Hubbard’s astonishing “Final Blackout”, about which I will have more to say shortly, and goes downhill from there. Even the repeat authors whose stories I’ve already encountered on this vacation (all of them in this case) don’t hold up to works I’ve previously read. The only improvement in my mind is Hubbard, and how he improves!

Interestingly, and unlike the editorials for issues containing “Gray Lensman” or “If This Goes On–”, Campbells editorial this month makes no mention of “Final Blackout”. His one-pager, titled, “Let’s Make It Stronger” is a simple plea for more science articles.

We want informal, accurate articles on every field of science. They aren’t to be the dry-as-dust, scrupulously unemotional reports of technical literature, because, by all that’s holy, an unemotional scientist isn’t worth two hoots anyway. He’s got to be interested in what he’s doing, and determined to make that blasted pile of junk yield results, whether it wants to or not. If he doesn’t get a thrill out of getting somewhere, why get there in the first place?

I’ve thought that the articles Campbell has published in the first ten issues of the Golden Age–this issue included–have been generally excellent. Willy Ley is clearly a fan favorite and R. S. Richardson is my favorite, so I’m not exactly certain what’s behind the plea.

The first piece of fiction in this month’s issue is part 1 of L. Ron Hubbard’s serial, “Final Blackout”. Campbell blurbed the story as follows:

A novel of grim and desolate power–the tale of that day when “the lights of Europe” go out finally in a new barbarism. Not half a dozen stories in the history of science fiction can equal the grim power of this novel of the end of this war.

Up until now, I haven’t been impressed by the Hubbard stories I’ve read and I’ve been particularly unimpressed with his pseudonymous Engelhardt stories. But so far, “Final Blackout” has completely turned me around and shown me not only how good a writer Hubbard was, but what a good storyteller he was . This is the Hubbard I’ve heard so much about, and “Final Blackout” stands as my favorite story in the issue, by far. Whereas E. E. “Doc” Smith tells stories of almost superhuman men hurtling across the galaxy fighting clear cut enemies, Hubbard’s piece is darkly muted, with real characters, real men, people I could meet on the street and chat about the weather or current events. There are no starships or robots or attacking aliens. “Final Blackout” is almost an alternate history, written slightly ahead of its time, examining the grim possible consequences at the end of the Second World War.

The main character would seem to be the Lieutenant, to whom we are introduced in a preface that describes his upbringing and how he came to lead his men. And yet we are kept at a distance from this man. In part 1 at least, we never learn his name, we know him only as The Lieutenant, and we are not in his head, but are watching him from just outside, as distanced from him as he is from his troops, perhaps.

The descriptions of desolation that Hubbard gives us are chilling:

 

They had come to a broad valley matted with young trees. Here and there stone walls showed brokenly in the undergrowth; less frequently the gashed sides of a house stared forlornly with its gaping windows. Pounded into the earth by rain of a dozen years lay an ancient tank, its gun silently covering the clouds which scurried south.

That last image, “an ancient tank, its gun silently covering the clouds” was impressive to me as a writer. And the desolation that comes across was rather reminiscent of scenes in Saving Private Ryan when the small band is march through quiet fields, littered with destruction, on their quest to find this missing soldier.

The scene in which the Duke comes looking for assistance for his village–and is suspected of having soldiers sickness and is shot by the Lieutenant without hesitation was disturbing and horrifying–and ultimately true to form. It couldn’t have been any other way in the dark times that Hubbard is writing about.

Eventually the group makes it to a village in which British soldiers (the Lieutenant and his men are British) have been capture and made into slaves. The scenes there too are both harsh and compassionate. We see not only soldiers but woman and children and their reactions to this madness is sometimes painful–and that is the power in Hubbard’s storytelling.

There is no evidence of science fiction in the traditional sense. As I suggested, this is a kind of alternate history, but it is also a true post-apocalyptic novel, a precursor to many others that will follow. (And while religion has not specifically played a role in the story so far, I thought often of scenes from A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. as I read this piece. It is distinct in its style and tone from anything I’ve read by Hubbard and I eagerly await getting to part 2.

Anything after a lead story like that is going to pale in comparison, unless you have a a truly special issue in hand. This issue was not one of them. The pieces are all by name writers, all writers whom we have already seen on this vacation. And the stories are good, but when held up against “Final Blackout” they tend to pale in comparison, no matter how good they are.

The next story was Ross Rocklynne’s “Unguh Made a Fire”. In this story, a Martian plague–obshor–has killed all of the Martian race except for 30 or so survivors who have taken to Earth at a time in the planets geological history known as the middle pliocene. There is only one woman among them and their plan is to make earth their new home, so that the Martian civilization can be recreated and live on. Their leader, Commander Talbo, initially assumes there is no intelligent life on the planet, but then they come across an ape-like creature with clear intelligence in its face. The Martians teach the creature, which they call Unguh from a sound it makes, how to make fire. During the course of their construction of a home base, the eventually discover that the plague is still with them and that they will all die. They don’t want the plague to spread to Earth and Unguh comes to the rescue here, accidentally, by setting fire to the Martian headquarters–fire will kill the disease, along with the Martians, once and for all.

This was a haunting tale with some understated writing that worked well for what seemed to borderline on a mood-piece. There was both a sadness and pride in the Martians, and what struck me as a I read was that this was a kind of reversed precursor to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles stories. Instead of man going to Mars, Mars was coming to man, but the same kind of sadness still existed. Rocklynne shows some maturity in this piece. While we don’t get into the head of Unguh, I don’t think that was the point. There is sadness in the death of any race, something echoed in Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” almost a year earlier. And something that still rings true today.

Up next was A. E. van Vogt’s “Repetition” which was rather different from his first two Astounding stories. It is the story of two men heading down to Europa. One of the men, Thomas, is a statesman looking into the feasibility of taking over Europa to secure more of its metal exports. The other man, Ray Bartlett seems to be acting as his guide, but is really intent on murder, as we quickly find out, in order to protect the people of Europa, who will be negatively affected by such a takeover. Bartlett is prepared to die to carry out their mission, but Thomas is a former explorer and though they end up on the cold moon far from civilization with no supplies and dangerous wildlife between them and the cities, Thomas is determined to survive.

This was my second favorite story in the issue, although I don’t think it held up to the standard van Vogt set with his first two pieces. This isn’t really a bad thing. He was trying to do something different here from the first two stories and I think fan expectations (certainly mine) are set high from those earlier pieces. This was a good story, but it also has to be compared to the remarkable Hubbard piece in this issue. (In a sense, even for an issue as “uneven” as this one, you are talking about stories by Hubbard and Rocklynne and van Vogt and del Rey and others. With names like that in a single issue, you know that Astounding was making waves.)

The title of the story “Repetition” comes form Thomas’s argument about survival on the harsh world. Bartlett keeps insisting they are doomed, but Thomas points out that men on Earth started out living in similar harsh conditions, they had to figure out how to make fire and kill animals for meat. This was merely a repetition of that early action. But I think “Repetition” takes on a double-meaning when compared with Nat Schachner’s novelette “Cold” from the March 1940 Astounding (Episode 9). The theme of both stories is very similar. Not only survival on a harsh world that supplies an important economic product, but also the striking of a fine balance between different cultures to maintain that survival. To a large extent, van Vogt’s piece is a repeat of what Schachner captured a month earlier so well. That van Vogt’s piece doesn’t really add anything new to the discussion is what diminishes it somewhat in my eyes. Certainly his writing style and storytelling is as capable as ever. Sometimes, timing matters, but the author can’t really be held at fault for that.

Next was Leigh Brackett’s “The Treasure of Ptakuth” my least favorite story of the issue and one that I didn’t really like much at all. I feel kind of bad stating that since this is the second Leigh Brackett story that I really haven’t liked. But part of this Vacation allows me to watch writers evolved over time. Hubbard has been one example of this, as has Heinlein. Perhaps, going forward, Brackett will be another. This was a treasure hunt story, plain and simple, reminiscent to a modern reader of the Indiana Jones movies. Even in 1940, the idea seemed a bit overused, but what bothered me most about this story is that while every other story in the issue had a level of maturity to the writing that virtually eliminated the “pulp” from the prose, Brackett’s piece was thick with it and that made it really stand out. For example:

 

“By the holy saints!” swore Terence Shane, in a fury as black as his hair; “I’ll not be frightened from Ptakuth by any crawling scut that hides his face in the dark!”

Much of the story was written like that, something that today might be considered almost a caricature of a pulp science fiction story. I found it too distracting and coupled with the over-used plot, it was too much for me.

Next up was Willy Ley’s science article called “The Magic Bullet”. The blurb for this one read:

A magic bullet that goes hunting for a target to strike would be wonderful in war. There is one–but like most magic, it’s highly unreliable, and not half as deadly as it’s made out!

When I read the blurb I smiled and wrung my hands thinking that I would be able to write about how Willy Ley described heat-seeking misiles in 1940 and that they are alive and well today–and I was completely surprised that the “magic bullet” he referred to was poison gas. The article itself was a kind of history of poison gases used in war, particularly World War I, as well as a chemistry lesson in how and why they worked they way they did.  Of course, the blurb refers to how you don’t have to aim the gas at a specific target but allow the wind to take it so that it cannot be avoided–and that things like gas masks can easily thwart it.

I thought this was a fascinating read and it made me wonder, once again, why Campbell made his plea for science articles. Was Willy Ley getting tired of writing them? I don’t think so, seeing as how he was still writing articles when Isaac Asimov was doing his monthly science column for F&SF nearly a decade later.

“Reincarnate” by Lester del Rey was probably my least favorite del Rey story I’ve come across so far. It wasn’t a bad story, but compared to his others–and of course, compared to Hubbard’s tale, it just fell somewhat flat. It is the story of a man who was so badly injured in an accident with a nuclear reactor of some kind, that there was almost nothing left of him, but his brain. From that alone, a robot was created and he slowly gained the ability to see, hear, speak and make use of his metallic arms and legs to continue his work. When the accident happened, his was about to marry his curious girl, Joan. At the end of the story, it is revealed that Joan was injured in the explosion as well and she too is a robot. I thought that this was a kind of corny ending, and that perhaps del Rey had been working with this theme too much lately. Corny was the exact word that came to mind.

I mention this because when shuffled off to the bookshelf to look up what Lester del Rey had to say about the story in his notes in The Early del Rey 1, I was rather surprised to see that he wrote,

 

I’d learned from the rather corny ending of “Reincarnate” that forcing ideas was not a good thing in my case.

In fact, del Rey admitted to having rushed the piece, that it was toward the end of the year and the holidays were upon him and he rushed the ending and didn’t get to think it through enough. Well, it made me feel good knowing that I wasn’t the only one who thought the ending rather corny–the author felt that way as well.

The last story in the issue was Malcolm Jameson’s novelette, “Admiral’s Inspection” which was a fun story, but nothing remarkable. Mostly it was an example of a military technique for doing ship inspections–but taken into outer space. The writing was good, but the story was somewhat predictable in its outcome. I gathered, for instance, that the new officer, Bullard, would save the day in the end, and indeed he did. The idea was that the crew of another ship would inspect the Pollux and simulate all kinds of emergencies and contingencies that the crew of the Pollard would have to deal with while under observation. There were, however, a few amusing items.

First, at one point in the story, so many things are failing that I began to think of the famous Kobayahsi Maru test from Star Trek. Could this have been the germ that gave the various Star Trek writers the idea for that test?

Second, at one point, the executive officer says, “The Phoenicians much antedated the Americans. The latter were far more advanced. As a matter of fact they are credited with the invention of the first spaceship.” Of course, it was the Russians who put up the first “spaceship”, but this was 1940 and it probably looked at the time as if it would be the Americans.

Third, the scene at the opening of the story with the crew playing “meteor ball” in space outside the ship had some eerie similarities to the Quidditch game played by Harry Pottter and his friends in those books and movies.

One not-so-amusing thing were the interior illustrations for the story. They were done by Rogers, who does wonderful covers, but I distinctly disliked his interiors for this piece.

There was no Analytical Laboratory in this issue, nor any mention by Campbell as to why it was left out. Presumably, it was a space contraint. I peeked at the contents for the May issue, and sure enough, AnLab for the two preceding months is listed there, so you’ll have to wait until next week (just like me) to see the rankings. Blame Campbell.

As for my own ratings for the April 1940 issue, you need wait no longer for those:

  1. Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard
  2. Repetition by A. E. van Vogt
  3. Unguh Made a Fire by Ross Rocklynne
  4. Reincarnate by Lester del Rey
  5. Admiral’s Inspection by Malcolm Jameson
  6. The Treasure of Ptakuth by Leigh Brackett

As I said, it was a fairly uneven issue and “Final Blackout” stood well above the pieces in this regard, and again, looking at the cast of writers, just having a cast like that says something about how strong the magazine was growing and how it was attracting the best and brightest of the time.

The In Times to Come page was unusual. I’d like to quote from the whole thing, but for space and time’s sake, I’ll paraphrase. It centers on the fact that the lead story in May will be “Space Guards” by Phil Nowlan. Nowlan, of course, is the creator of the Buck Rogers cartoon and Campbell was very excited about a new series of stories that Nowlan was going to write for Astounding–”Space Guards” being the first of them. And then Nowlan died before his story ever appeared in Astounding.

Permit me a brief moment to plug a story of my own. I’ve made three story sales so far. Last September, I sold a story to Stan Schmidt at Analog–which is Astounding after Campbell changed its name in 1960. That story is in the June issue of Analog which is now out and–it seems–in everyone’s mailbox but my own. If you are a subscriber to Analog, check out “Take One for the Road”. It’s my first Analog story and hopefully not my last. There is an indescribable pleasure in having a story of mine appear in the same magazine in which Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Williamson, van Vogt, Hubbard, Simak and so many others have appeared. It is also humbling to keep in mind that some day in the distant future, some young fan might be commenting on stories in Analog and come across my story. I wonder what he or she would have to say about it?

See you next week!

14 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 10: April 1940

  1. Due to the double whammy of Dianetics and Damon Knight, I used to dismiss Alfred Eaton as an inept pulp hack. It took Alexei & Copy Panshin’s “The World Beyond the Hill” to convince me that van Vogt was in truth “the most radical and visionary of the writers of the Golden Age.”

    Alexei Panshin has posted the entire chapter on van Vogt – “Man Beyond Man” – on his webzone. The section where he discusses “Repetition” (and SLAN, so don’t read too far ahead) is here: http://www.enter.net/~torve/articles/vanvogt/vanvogt3.html

    Jamie, the best way to experience that mad man van Vogt is how you are doing so right now: the original feverish versions of the short stories and novels as printed in ASF. When these yarns were later published in book form, van Vogt mutilated these dream visions to create “fix-up novels” and even revised the texts in an futile attempt to make their plots logially consistant. Witness the horror here: http://www.andrew-may.com/asf/fixup.htm

    1. Mark, I must admit that I am slightly tainted in that I read Slan in book form back in early 1999, but I am looking forward to reading it again in four or five weeks and studying it in more detail. But the rest of van Vogt is all new to me. I was kind of surprised that Campbell included “Repetition” so closely after Schachner’s “Cold”. They really were similar in many ways. Believe me, I’ve had a few rejections because the magazine had recently published a “similar” story to what I had submitted. You’d think Campbell would have held it for a few months. But my guess is that van Vogt was quickly a fan favorite and he was trying to deliver. Thanks for the links. I’ll check them out a little later when I have more than a few spare minutes.

      I get the Dianetics reference but not sure about Knight. Did he not like van Vogt’s work? So far I haven’t seen any letters of complaint from him. ;-) (There was an amusing letter from Asimov in this issue, however, that I neglected to mention.)

  2. “…not sure about Knight. Did he not like van Vogt’s work?”

    From “In Search of Wonder” by Damon Knight:

    “[van Vogt] is no giant; he is a pygmy who has learned to operate an overgrown typewriter.

    “Far from being a ‘classic’ by any reasonable standard, “World of Null-A” is one of the worst allegedly-adult science fiction stories ever published.

    “In general van Vogt seems to me to fail consistently as a writer in these elementary ways:
    1. His plots do not bear examination.
    2. His choice of words and his sentence-structure are fumbling and insensitive.
    3. He is unable either to visualize a scene or to make a character seem real.”

    1. Ouch! There has to be something more to it, some unspoken secret of the genre, something van Vogt did to infuriate Knight. None of the three stories I’ve read thus far justify Knight’s critique, least of all “Discord In Scarlet”. The plots of all three pieces seem fine to me. His word choices are vivid, especially in the opening of the stories. And I don’t see him as doing any better or worse with his characters than anyone else at the time. (Look as some of Asimov’s early characters for goodness sake! His first decent character was Susan Calvin.)

      It seems to me this is one of those dark areas of s.f. that people think is better left uncovered, but I think there is a great deal of value to understanding the history of our genre and I wonder if anyone knows what Knight’s real reason was for his excoriation. Of course, as we’ve seen from his letters, maybe that’s just the way he was. He had strong feelings about artists, too.

  3. Damon published that evisceration of “World of Null-A” when he was only twenty-three (shortly after Null-A was serialized in 1945). Perhaps there is no “real” reason beyond the fact that Damon was a hungry Futurian wanting to make a name for himself. “Cosmic Jerrybuilder: A. E. van Vogt” certainly suceeded in that goal, because that essay became Damon’s breakthrough work.

    Peace to the spirit of Damon Knight, but van Vogt’s stories shouldn’t be read as if they are one of Heinlein’s intricately worked-out lived in futures – they are instead mad dreams. Heck, “Repitition” opens with two men in spacesuits zipping through the skies above the surface of Europa. To quote Harlan, that’s just bugfuck.

  4. When you complete your Vacation you will have read the entire ASTOUNDING output of van Vogt.

    Doing a little rereading, I found that VV’s first wife died in January 1975. And that he married Lydia in October 1979. In the same Van reminiscence, he mentions that he was paid, in January 1939 for his July 1939 ASF “Black Destroyer”, a penny a word for the 12,500 words; Van Vogt has said elsewhere that Campbell was always prompt in paying for his stories. That $125 (plus other small savings) enabled him to marry Edna Mayne Hull on May 9, 1939.

    1. Mark M., I did note in the link that Mark S. provided that what I thought was Van’s 3rd story, “Repetition” was actually his fourth–he had one story in Unknown, but of course, that is outside the scope of this little vacation. Campbell always paid promptly, and in fact, his “acceptance letter” was nothing more than a check stuffed in an envelop. Good point about JWC prepping for the War. There are some letters of his in The Collected Letters of John W. Campbell in which he is rather plaintively asking some of his reliables (Hubbard in particular) for more stories, staying that many of his writers (Williamson, Asimov, etc.) have been called up or are in danger of being called up and not writing as much. Asimov wasn’t called up until just after the war ended, but in the duration of his brief service, he got only a single story written, which I believe was “Evidence”.

      I wondered about FINAL BLACKOUT being controversial since it was written at a time when the war was really ramping up. As I said, it is clearly not science fiction, but Campbell probably bought it because (a) it is extremely well-written; and (b) it imagines a grim future that results from all-out war, a kind of alternate history, or early post-apocalyptic story.

  5. “I thought this was a fascinating read and it made me wonder, once again, why Campbell made his plea for science articles. Was Willy Ley getting tired of writing them?”

    I believe that JWC was already preparing for the upcoming entrance of the US into the War abroad. And the resulting loss of many from his stable of writers, both fact and fiction. With Canada already at war, A. E. van Vogt, now living in Ottawa, worked a five-and-a-half-day-a-week job (not including unpaid overtime) at the Department of National Defense beginning in October 1939. Van Vogt has written about the long slog to write SLAN with that exhausting work schedule.

    And FINAL BLACKOUT, probably Hubbard’s most famous work, was extremely controversial because of the war in Europe. Hubbard would serve in the US Navy during WWII.

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