Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 11: May 1940

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Sometimes, it seems, that a theme develops within an issue. These days, those tend to be called what they are, “themed issues” of one kind or another. But I haven’t run into this explicitly so far in my little Vacation. However, in the May 1940 issue, two themes seemed to emerge, neither of which is specifically called out anywhere in the issue. But they are there if you look for them. The first theme is stories involving asteroids and the second theme is stories involving narrators who are, well, not very nice people. Don’t worry, I’ll point them out when I get to them.

Campbell’s editorial this month, “The Perfect Machine” was not particularly insightful in my opinion with one exception that was certainly not intended. The title itself semaphores Campbell’s later obsession with all kinds of nonsense, perpetual motion devices like the Dean Drive or the Hieronymus Machine. In the essay, Campbell argues,

There is one machine in use at the present time that is, on that basis [it converts one form of energy to another, or one product to another, with one hundred percent efficiency], ninety-nine percent perfect. It converts one form of energy to another at 99.98 percent efficiency.

He is talking about a transformer and even here, I’m not sure that isn’t exaggerating a bit. Regardless, he is clearly optimistic in this essay that true perfect machines will be possible in the future, conservation laws to the contrary.

Overall, this was another fun issue. In particular, it was an issue of seasoned stars of the genre, the key word being seasoned. The July 1939 (Episode 1) issue had stories by Isaac Asimov and A. E. van Vogt, but those were among their first stories and they were by no means seasoned stars at that point. The May 1940 issue, however, contained stories by Clifford D. Simak, Nat Schachner, Jack Williamson and Raymond Z. Gallun to say nothing of L. Ron Hubbard. The issue contained two novelettes, four short stories, and part 2 of Hubbard’s serial, “Final Blackout”.

The Rogers cover for Phil Nowlan’s “Space Guards” was nothing special, but then as you will see momentarily, neither was Nowlan’s story. “Space Guards” was the lead novelette in this issue, and if you recall from the last episode, it was all Campbell talked about in the “In Times To Come” section. Of course, the news came in two parts: that Nowlan (who created the Buck Rogers cartoon) had worked out an idea for a series of stories to write for Astounding, but that he died after completing the first one, that first one being “Space Guards”.

Campbell called “Space Guards” a short novel and indeed it makes up the first 50 pages of the issue. But I have to be brutally honest here: I was only able to get through the first 25 pages. Nowlan may have been an outstanding cartoonist and Buck Rogers was most certainly wildly popular, but this piece has to rank among the poorest pieces of fiction I’ve come across so far on this vacation. I really hate saying it, and yet it is how I feel. I struggled to get through 25 pages and finally gave up because I felt like I was avoiding the story and wasn’t getting anywhere. The story itself (what I managed to read of it) is about 2 members of the space patrol who are sent after an evil villain in the jungles of Venus. Barely a page into the story, this piece of dialog was the first warning shot across my bow:

“Cap Schudder will be sore.”

“He’ll blast off, of course,” Linda admitted. “But his bark is worse than his bite. He doesn’t demand the impossible. And after all, we don’t know whether we’re even within a thousand miles of Tiger Madden’s mysterious hidden kingdom.”

That last bit really jarred me, for no one, not even a hero in a science fiction story talks like that. And to make matters worse, Linda and Bob were too self-congratulatory. The story quickly grew mawkish and uninteresting in my opinion. It will be very interesting to see the fan reaction at the time, which I imagine will be much different from mine. First, a popular writer just died. Second, Campbell really plugged the piece. But what is even more remarkable to me is that this story seems to be clearly below even Campbell’s standards–so why did he take it in the first place? What it for the name of the creator of Buck Rogers? That seems very un-Campbell-like, but I am hopeful that some of my reliable commenters out there will know the answer. Obviously, this was my least favorite story in the issue.

Next up was “The Last of the Asterites” by Joseph E. Kelleam. I was looking forward to this story because I thought Kelleam’s story, “Rust” was the finest story Astounding produced in the second half of 1939. Of course, this yarn didn’t hold a candle to “Rust”, but it was still a pretty good piece. It is also the first of the “themed” stories that I mentioned. The story takes place far in the future on the asteroid Ceres, and so this story makes of the first of the “asteroid” themed stories that appear in this issue. The story is about the decaying of human society on this asteroid, long forgotten. The main character, Alph has been passed down secret knowledge from Old Nathan. Humans have split into two species that don’t like each other very much. Eventually, Alph meets Myra who is of the other species but the two take a liking to one another. In the end, however, they are doomed and Alph has to use his secret knowledge to destroy the asteroid by crashing it into the sun, and in so doing, destroy what is left of this sadly distorted humanity.

The story is well-written, despite some of the implausibilities of the plot. Of course, the two species of humans in the far future is nothing new and was done most famously in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. In some ways, Kelleam’s world is more brutal, where the enemies burn one another at the stake, something which Alph has no stomach for. Then there is Old Nathan, who we come to learn was the last of the scientist/engineers passing down this now “mystical” secret knowledge of an engine installed into the asteroid and how to use it in a last resort. The passing of the guard is a well-worn theme in science fiction but when done right it can be very effective. I don’t think we saw enough of Old Nathan and the relationship he had with Alph for it to be effective here, the way it was in, say, Harlan Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour”. Not  bad story, but nothing close to the magic of “Rust”.

Next came “Rim of the Deep” by Clifford D. Simak and I was particularly excited to read this one. I have an admission to make, when I read City by Simak, I hated it. I thought it was terrible. I am referring, of course, to the collection of stories that made up the City stories. I was surprised and disappointed that I didn’t like it because I so much enjoyed his novel, Way Station which I read earlier. I blame it on the fact that I read most of the book while sitting in the jury room of the Hollywood criminal courthouse, waiting to be called for jury duty. In fact, I am looking forward to a fresh read of the City stories later on in this Vacation. But getting to read a Simak story of any kind was going to prove interesting.

And you know what? I enjoyed “Rim of the Deep”. It wasn’t a masterpiece by any means but it was very entertaining, despite the fact that the plot was fairly predictable. The story centered around a newspaperman whose story put a crime boss in prison on Ganymede, only to have that crime boss escape from that prison and set his eyes on revenge. Of course, no one knows where in the galaxy this crime boss–Hellion Smith–is hiding. Could be anywhere. Meanwhile, our hero, Grant, gets sent to do some reporting on decompressions that have been taking place in undersea cities. This is the part that I really liked. While everyone seems to be writing stories set on Mars and Venus and the moons of Jupiter, Simak sets this story right here on Earth and in an almost equally impenetrable environment–the bottom of the ocean.

The story was written with a kind of detective/P.I. style that I took to be intentional, especially since it was different from what I remember of the style of other Simak pieces that I read. But the writing was not overly pulpish. Like I said, it was fun. Of course, early on, I guessed that the decompressions that were happening would ultimately be caused by Hellion Smith and his minions, their base hidden in the depths of the ocean and indeed that was the case. That part, at least, was rather formulaic, but even so, it was a pleasure to read the story and a relief as well. It helped to convince me that I should ignore my early judgment of the City stories until I can read them again.

Incidentally, I could tell a mile away that Kramer did the interiors for Simak’s novelette. I’ve really become adept at recognizing his style, in part because I like it so much.

Nat Schachner, whose story, “Cold” I loved so much in the March 1940 (Episode 9) issue, was back with another story, this one called, “Space Double”. Unfortunately, I didn’t like this one very much. However, the story introduces the second “theme” for this issue. It is told from the point of view of the villain, Al Barlow. Barlow recruits a roboticist to built him a robot that is an exact double of the captain of the Flying Planet for the purpose of ripping off the very expensive cargo that the spacecraft will be transporting. After getting the real captain out of the way, they get the robot on board the spacecraft and all is well until one of the crew members figures out that the captain in an impostor and puts an end to the charade and kills Barlow and his sidekick in the process.

I just thought this one was too unbelievable. Barlow didn’t seem all that competent to me and to have him pull off something this complicated was farfetched, to say nothing of the duplicate robot. Later, Heinlein would do much better with the “duplicate” theme in his novel, Double Star, and that set the bar for me as far as that theme goes. I did like the fact that Schachner tried to write the piece from the villain’s viewpoint, but it was ultimately an empty effort. We never really get inside his head and find out what’s going on.

Returning to the “asteroid” theme, we have Jack Williamson’s story, “Hindsight” which not only involves the asteroids, but also takes place from a villainous point of view–at least at first. It is the story of Brek Veronar who used to be William Webster, and engineer who abandoned Earth in favor of working for the pirate-dictator of the asteroids. The story involves a love triangle in the distant past, which probably pushed Willaim Webster to become Brek. The Astrach is going to attack Earth using the technology provided by Brek and it is a sure-thing win–except that at the peak of the battle, all is lost. And yet, Brek can control time to some extent and is able to change a small decision in the past–his girl going dancing with another man as opposed to him–which allows him to attend an extra class that will give him the knowledge he needs to win the battle in the future. And that transformation also helps transform the evil Brek back into William Webster–who ultimately sacrifices himself and the Astrarch to save Earth.

Williamson does a much better job than Schachner at handling the villain viewpoint. But what I really liked about this story was the time aspect. It was not exactly a time-travel story, but it strongly implied parallel universes perhaps without knowing it, and talked about the future influencing the past as much as the other way around. For a 1940s story, it was pretty mind-expanding and that helped to make the story a lot of fun.

I went to look up the story in the Collected Jack Williamson volumes put out by Hafner Press. I have six of the seven volumes put out so far–and you guessed it: the one that I am missing is the one that contains “Hindsight”.

Raymond Z. Gallum, who wrote “Masson’s Secret” (9/39, Episode 3) which I enjoyed so much, had another story in this issue, one called “The Long Winter”. It is yet a third story that takes place from the villainous view point. The story takes place on Uranus where the first crew is outpost. The winter there lasts decades and is brutal. Our villainous hero, Jan Viborg is looking to kill off the rest of the crew (making it look like an accident) so that he can return to Earth taking credit for the discoveries of the expedition. Every so often, he must go out into the brutal weather to take some readings of weather instruments. When he goes out, he sets a rig up that will lead to an explosion in the shelter, killing everyone inside. However, he must get far enough away to avoid being injured and so he moves about 100 feet from camp, barely able to see anything except a single light to direct him back home.

Of course, when the explosion happens, the light goes out and Jan finds himself freezing to death in darkness, panicked and unable to find his way back to the shelter. Meanwhile, the explosion didn’t actually end up killing anyone and while no one realizes that Jan tried to kill them, by the time they pull themselves together and realize he’s still missing, it is too late, he is dead and buried in that methane snow.

This was not a bad piece by any means. Not as good as “Masson’s Secret” but still a pretty good story. It is dated, of course, knowing what we know of Uranus today, and it could have benefitted from a better understanding of Viborg’s motivations–for instance, why did the rest of the crew have to die? Was he psychopathic? But for a short piece it was both exciting and entertaining. Personally, I think Gallun semaphored the light too much. I knew as soon as he mentioned it that the light would go out (I didn’t know why) and that Viborg would be stuck in darkness (and serves him right, too!).

The last story in the issue was Part II of “Final Blackout” by L. Ron Hubbard and once again, it was my favorite piece in the issue. In this installment, we find our anonymous Lieutenant called back to general headquarters. He leads his men back circuitously. When he arrives, he is stripped of his command and separated from his men. But his men won’t have any of it and they mount a daring (and mutinous) escape and rescue and by the end of Part II it becomes clear that the Lieutenant orchestrated the whole thing from the start.

There is so much I liked about this part, but there were three things that really stood out. First, Hubbard’s descriptions of desolation were spot-on and brilliant. Take for instance, this:

Water tanks leaned crazily–great blobs of rust against the sky. Buildings were heaps of rubble, overgrown with creeping vines and brown weeds. Within a few years the place would be swallowed except for the few battered walls which made ragged patterns against the hazy dusk. Fused glass crunched under foot and twisted chunks of metal attested the violence of thermite bombs and shells.

To me Hubbard writes here as if he is painting a picture and I really think he does a remarkable job of getting across the image of this horrible, war-ravished world.

I also loved the scene in which the Lieutenant first returns to the headquarters and is questioned by the senior officers. Here, Hubbard does a great job of illustrating his view on the difference between fighting men and bureaucrats, and his distaste for the latter. You can see the dirt and crime on the Lieutenant as he speaks and his answers are brutally honest.

Finally, the scene in which the men rebel and decide to go after the Lieutenant is a fine example of a well-executed action scene that raises the tension in the story past the point of no return. The men are forced into a corner and then they kill the Captain. After that there is no turning back. They are committed and they fight as they would an enemy on the battlefield. It was very well done.

“Final Blackout” is, thus far, the best story I’ve read in the first five months of 1940 and I am eager to read the final part and hoping that Hubbard can maintain this outstanding story-telling through the end. Some of the best novels I’ve ever read are those that are so good, you don’t want them to end, and so far, this story certainly fits into that category.

There is nothing particularly juicy in the Brass Tacks this time around, although there is a long letter from one Ralph C. Hamilton praising the magazine quite eloquently. He gives several reasons why the magazine is so great, but I think this one says a lot about what set the Golden Age Astounding apart from its older self, and all the other magazines of the time:

There is a realism which, except for scattered examples, was heretofore unknown in science-fiction. Characters and individuals in the stories are acting more and more under given conditions as actual people would act under those same conditions. We have men whose actions and thoughts are vivid and real; we have stories which we can enjoy and experience vicariously–without the feeling that what we are reading is absorbing but dreamlike and unreal without vital significance.

I think this is true. More and more the characters feel real. The science gets better. The stories get stronger. This is science fiction building into something that makes it the remarkable thing it is today.

If you will recall from last week, there was no Analytical Laboratory in the April 1940 issue. But this month, the AnLab contains the ratings for both February and March 1940. I list both months below, as always with my rating in parentheses next to each item:

February 1940:

  1. If This Goes On– by Robert A. Heinlein (1)
  2. And Then There Was One by Ross Rocklynne (2)
  3. The Professor Was a Thief by L. Ron Hubbard  (5)
  4. Locked Out by H. B. Fyfe (6)
  5. Bombardment in Reverse by Norman L. Knight (7)

March 1940:

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

It is no surprise that Heinlein takes first place in both issues. And I’m glad to see that at least at the top of the lists I am generally aligned with the fans of the time (if you except Heinlein in March). I was surprised to see Hubbard’s “The Professor Was a Thief” rated in third place but I suppose the author’s name helps him in this situation.

Here are my ratings for the May 1940 issue:

  1. Final Blackout (part 2) by L. Ron Hubbard
  2. Hindsight by Jack Williamson
  3. Rim of the Deep by Clifford D. Simak
  4. The Last of the Asterites by Joseph E. Kelleam
  5. The Long Winter by Raymond Z. Gallun
  6. Space Double by Nat Schachner
  7. Space Guards by Phil Nowlan

Heinlein returns in the June issue with the lead novelette, “The Roads Must Roll”. Also stories by Harl Vincent, Norman L. Knight, and of course, the conclusion of L. Ron Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” which I am very eager to read.

See you here next week!

12 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 11: May 1940

  1. Notice how this issue of ASF is old school? Out of all the authors, only Kelleam can be considered a new writer: everybody else had already been publishing in the pulps for about a decade.

  2. The Alva Rogers book goes into some historical detail about Hubbard’s FINAL BLACKOUT.

    And about “…one of the truly legendary names in science fiction, Philip Francis Nowlan”. But gives no definitive answer why JWC published the sub-standard “Space Guards”.

    It is sometimes easy to forget that JWC was not yet 30 years old when the “Golden Age” ASF issues launched.

    1. Mark M., I think you hit on it when you said that it’s hard to forget JWC was still a young man. Reading these issues today I picture the seasoned editor as he appeared in the late 60s, and you’re right, to a large extent, he was still learning the ropes.

  3. JWC would hand out the same idea to several different writers and run the results he liked best. What we could be seeing in this issue is the result of Campbell barking out around his cigaret holder at Jack, Ray & Nat: “Gimme a space adventure story, but tell it from the point of view of the villian.”

    If this really happened, than Jack Williamson produced the best variation of this idea by far, with the have your cake and eat it too fate for Brek / Webster (no matter what happens, the baddies in the asteroids are doomed to be defeated by Earth, but the second time around, Webster becomes the great hero).

    1. As I am now into the July issue, I have had a preview of the AnLab for May and I was very surprised by the results of where Hubbard, Williamson and Simak fell in the rankings. I won’t spoil it for you though, but I will have more to say about it in Episode 13. :-)

  4. As for Simak, Simak wasn’t Simak yet.

    I suspect that Clifford felt he didn’t produce a decent SF story until he turned forty (1944).

    You will see in your vacation a very clear division in the quality of Simak’s fiction. There is the pre-1945 pulp work he knocked out after he got home from editing the newspaper (which besides SF in ASF includes Westerns and Air Combat yarns (along with the first few City stories)).

    And then, after the revelations of the horrors ou of Europe, the nearly unbroken string of compassionate, humanistic (and sometimes ugly and nasty) works that flowed out of Minneapolis from 1946 until about 1972. That was when Simak was Simak.

    1. As I said, I didn’t like the City stories when I first read them in that Hollywood courthouse jury room. However, I am looking forward to giving them a second chance. But I absolutely loved his novel, Way Station and there does seem to be a difference between the City stories and Way Station similar to what you describe above.

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