Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 12: June 1940

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Schedules don’t always cooperate. Although I say that these episodes come out on Mondays, I generally get them out on Sunday afternoons or evenings. But this week, my schedule simply didn’t cooperate with me. I put in a significant amount of extra time at the day job as I am in crunch time on a big project that wraps up at the end of April. This included being in the office all day on Saturday. Then too, the little boy was sick and I started feeling sick Saturday evening and through the day Sunday. None of this is meant as a complaint. In fact, it is a great example of why a Vacation in the Golden Age can be so valuable. It allows me small, temporary escapes from the stresses of the day job, allows me to disappear into a different time, jump back some seventy years into the past and fall into a story that takes me seven hundred years into the future.

But at the same time, it slowed me down a little this week and so this Episode isn’t getting posted until the very early morning hours of Monday, and for that, I beg your forgiveness. Hopefully you won’t mind. After all, this is another interesting issue…

There are only 5 pieces of fiction in this issue, probably because of two long novelettes, to say nothing of the conclusion of Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” serial taking up so much space. There are also two fairly lengthy science articles.

Campbell’s editorial in this issue, “The Old ‘Navy’ Game” is an amusing one in which our Editor Hero points out that “selling top-notch science-fiction seems to be the current Navy game:

It’s rather surprising, considering the total number of possible occupations, to realize that Robert A. Heinlein, Malcolm Jameson and Kent Casey are all graduates of the United States Fleet. L. Ron Hubbard belongs in the Navy list, too–he was in the Fleet Reserve Marine Corps, and belongs to a thoroughly Navy family.

He goes on to argue that it is the detail that these men derive from their jobs that really makes the fiction they write come alive. And yet Campbell is left wondering, “what the heck’s delayed the United States arm?”

Well, this was 1940, and in the big Army-Navy game that year, Navy shutdown Army, 14-0.

The Rogers cover for the issue once again looks as if it might have been done on a computer, so rich and clear are the colors. It depicts a pivotal scene in Heinlein’s, “The Roads Must Roll” but there is one thing about it that bothers me. There are 6 figures portrayed in the painting–and everyone of them looks identical.

“The Roads Must Roll” is the lead novelette for this issue and is another in Heinlein’s Future History series. Last month Campbell pointed out how Heinlein graduated from shorts (“Life-Line”, “Misfit”) to novels (If This Goes On–) so that “The Roads Must Roll” is his first novelette. The first page of the story contains an uncredited two-color photo, just like the kind that accompanied van Vogt’s “Discord In Scarlett”. I read “The Roads Must Roll” once before back in 1997 when I read Heinlein’s collected Future History series in The Past Through Tomorrow, but my memory of it was vague.

The story paints a picture of a United Sates in which moving, high-speed highways criss-cross the country and are controlled by a disciplined bunch of engineers and mechanics whose job it is to keep the roads rolling. The whole of society depends on these roads and any kind of shutdown is bad news. Of course, our hero, Larry Gaines, is faced not with just any kind of shutdown, but sabotage and rebellion. In many ways, this story exemplifies what Heinlein does with his fiction, tying it closely to politics and social movements of the time. (Asimov criticized Stranger In a Strange Land on this account.) Reading it brought two things to mind: first, that it was written before the creation of the Interstate highways, which didn’t come until after the Second World War. And second, the threatening shutdown of the critical roads and the response thereof reminded me of the Air Traffic Controllers strike in the 80s, during the Reagan years.

It was a good story, an entertaining story, and as it happens, my second favorite of the issue, but it suffered from a similar problem that If This Goes On– suffered from. It grew a little too preachy. And there was a piece of the story entirely out of place in my opinion. Begininning on p.14 and continuing for nearly three columns was a narrative history inserted between scenes that I imagined served to set the context for the story, but which I found completely unnecessary. It began with,

The Age of Power blends into the Age of Transportation almost imperceptibly, but two events standout as landmarks in the change: the invention of the Sun-power screen, and the opening of the first moving road. The power resources of oil and coal of the United States had–save for a few sporadic outbreaks of common sense–been shamefully wasted in their development all through the first half of the twentieth century.

On and on it goes in the same preachy, nature, telling us the history of the background without characters or flashbacks. It’s straight history and it’s literally inserted between two scenes, and the story would have been stronger without it.

Next up is “Deputy Correspondent” by Harl Vincent. The story involves a Venusian correspondent reporting on the story of another correspondent, Steve Bowdoin at his request, about the adventures the two of them found out on Callisto and what ultimately happened to Bowdoin. There is an interesting twist the the telling of the story, however, and it simultaneously makes the story more interesting, and yet more difficult to read. Serle Tummin, the Venusian, has only recently learned English and that comes across in the letter he is composing to the Terrestrial Press Association. For instance:

Respected Gentlemen:

In above manned I was instructed to address you and advise, with his authorizing, I undertake duties of Steve Bowdoin, your special correspondent until very recent date. Gladly I do this extra to my work with Saffron City Chronicle, which, surely you are aware, is foremost Venusian daily. You have my permitting to use this copy at regular space rates or suggest any differing arrangement you desire. Stephen Bowdoin is out of picture and I elucidate reason hereinafter.

The entire story continues on in this vain of intentional mistakes in grammar and idiom and the effect is both wonderfully real and frustratingly difficult to read. All in all, I’d have to say that Harl Vincent rose to the challenge of producing an alien who has only recently gotten a grasp of English, but in doing so, he had to sacrifice some of the clarity in the story.

Next was “The Carbon Eater” by Douglas Drew. It was the second novelette of the issue and my least favorite piece, one that, I’m afraid, I couldn’t manage to get through very much of before giving up. The story starts out interestingly enough with a woman in charge for a change (something that’s been pretty rare in the stories I’ve been reading). But it just didn’t hold my interest very long. It is possible that this is one of the earliest stories to suppose silicon-based life (swapping out the carbon atom for silicon) but for one reason or another, I just couldn’t push my way through this one and I gave up only a few pages into the story.

On the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, there are only two entries for Douglas Drew: “The Carbon Eater” and an earlier story from the October 1936 Astounding called “Nightmare Island”. I could find no other information about him.

The first science article in the issue is “Unseen Tools” by Leo Vernon. The subject of this piece–the unseen tools–is mathematics and in particular abstract mathematics like algebra and statistics, far abstracted from their normal means. I was fascinated by this piece and thought it was very well written. Without saying it outright, it was talking about the development of what today we call mathematical models and Vernon did an excellent job of it. Mathematics can be a tough, to say nothing of dull, subject to write about but Leo Vernon handled it well and I really enjoyed this article.

Following that first article was a Norman L. Knight story called, “The Testament of Akubii” and this story was of particular interest to me because of how the story was blurbed on the contents page:

When a spaceship goes out with two, and comes back with only one man, and that one man with a suspicuous tale to tell–

This caught my eye not because my own story, “Take One for the Road” which is out now in the June 2011 Analog, could be very similarly blurbed, “A crew of four go to Mercury but only three return. The survivors refuse to speak to the authorities about what happened and in fact, refused even to speak with each other…” So naturally, I was interested in this one. Very few ideas in science fiction are original and so I wanted to see how Knight’s story would differ from my own.

In the case of “Testament”, the story centers around two characters, Greenbough and the alien Akubii, who are onboard a ship that has a limited oxygen supply. There is not enough for both to survive the journey and live to tell their tale, but if only one were aboard, the oxygen would be just enough for them to make it. A series of events leads Akubii to sacrifice himself in order that Greenbough can have enough oxygen to make it back and tell their story–thus the last testament of Akubii.

The story is actually done in an interesting style with the mythical history of this incident laid out for us as if in the distant future–then switching to a kind of meta-narrative as if somehow it was recovered or recreated by scientists and/or archeologists long after the events took place. Not a stand-out story but one that seemed different enough from the more run-of-the-mill stories that appear from time-to-time to be worthy of notice.

Incidentally, the big mystery in this one, as I said, is the suicide/sacrifice of Akubii to save his friend. In my story, “Take One For the Road”… well, you’ll just have to read it yourself to find out the mystery there.

In the May issue of Astounding, Campbell was in raptures over a science article that was to appear in the June issue that was so new that it just absolutely warranted the title, “Introduction to a Nameless Science”. Campbell raises the drama further in this issue with a blurb for the piece on the table of contents:

A fact article on facts stranger than science fiction! Discussing a science so new, it has not yet been named.

That “new science” in the Peter von Dresser article is what we today might call “space weather”. The article discusses the charges particles in the upper atmosphere of earth and how they affect radio transmissions. It discusses the effects of the sun on these particles and seems to lead into the possibility of radio astronomy. Karl Jansky is mentioned in the article, and if I am not mistaken, he is often considered the father of radio astronomy. It was an interesting read, certainly, but the piece is most valuable for providing the scientific historical perspective of the time in which it was published, and frankly, I think it was overshadowed by Leo Vernon’s excellent article that I described earlier.

I wonder all but the first part of a serial runs at the end of the magazine instead of the beginning. Perhaps it is because there is some psychological bent to science fiction readers that forces them to read through everything else in order before getting to the long-awaited next part of the serial. It must be something like that since, when you think about it, you can simply turn to that page and start reading, skipping over everything else. And yet I don’t–at least I haven’t thus far, and boy how I wanted to get to the final part of L. Ron Hubbard’s serial “Final Blackout”!

The first half or so of this concluding part was excellent and maintained the same high quality of writing and story-telling as the first two parts. Somewhere in the middle–about the point at which there is a jump-cut of two years time–things flag a bit. And then they pick up again at the ending so that overall, the conclusion holds up to the rest of the piece and with small exceptions, is excellent. Certainly, it was my favorite piece in this issue, and at this point, I feel that there is a close tie between “Final Blackout” and “Rust” by Joseph E. Kelleam for the single best story I’ve read on this vacation so far. And the two pieces couldn’t be more different from one another either.

The first half of the concluding part of “Final Blackout” finds the Lieutenant and his band of men on ships and heading for London. They slowly make their way through the Thames, fighting skirmishes with the cold, calculating strategy that we have grown to expect from the Lieutenant, and in doing so, they eventually force out the rulers of England and establish a military dictatorship with the Lieutenant in charge. It is at this point that the pace changes and we dip into a more narrative history covering the two years of ruling and the changes that take place throughout the land. While the story doesn’t quite get as preachy as some of Heinlein’s yarns, it does get dangerously close, as for instance,

The happiness of a country is directly dependent upon the business of that country. And here everyone had seven times more projects to accomplish than he could ever hope to complete in his lifetime, and there was the grand goal of making a destroyed country live again. Everyone, therefore, was happy. And there were no worries whatever about politics.

Really? Everyone was happy? No worries at all about politics? History is written by the victors and clearly that is the case here in the almost utopian description of society two years after the Lieutenant took things over.

But Hubbard surprised me still. (And I should warn you that this is a major spoiler so if you haven’t read the story and are considering doing so, skip on down to the next paragraph.) The Americans arrive and offer their assistance, but what they really want is to secure land for their people. The Lieutenant sees this and doesn’t want them to have any part of England. He arranges with the Americans for the old General Victor to take over in England, followed by his second in command, and followed in turn by the military establishment, therefore establishing an order of succession. He writes this all up and then resigns his commission. And then, having establishing that if Victor dies, his second takes over, and if his second dies, the military takes over, the Lieutenant kills Victor and his second ensuring that his military ranks will get power, but at the same time, sacrificing himself in the process. It was an unexpected and powerful ending to a story that in lesser hands, might have ended with the Americans saving the day.

Alva Rogers, in his book A Requiem for Astounding (a copy of which I received thanks to the generosity of Mark McSherry) has a lot more to say about the impact of the story at the time it was written. It stirred a lot of controversy, some of which we will see in future Brass Tacks columns. But as I see it the story was barely science fiction. It was, possibly, an alternate history, but most alternate history I know is not coterminous with the present. At best, the story was excellent fiction about war, something that Heinlein would later take up in Starship Troopers; that Haldeman would respond to with The Forever War; and that Scalzi would add to with Old Man’s War. Strangely, and despite how things really turned out in the Second World War, Hubbard’s vision may have been the closest to reality.

Once again, there was no analytical laboratory in this issue. Lest you think I am merely stringing you along, let me quote Campbell directly:

This issue being made up early, and the April issue having been out a comparatively short time at this writing, scores aren’t final. To further complicate things, there has been an unusual and marked separation; four yarns made a battle royal of it, with the other two waiting a bit on the side lines till the four-way tie broke. It didn’t. “Final Blackout,” by L. Ron Hubbard, “Admiral’s Inspection,” by Malcolm Jameson, “Repetition,” by A. E. van Vogt, and “Reincarnate,” by Lester del Rey were still less than three points apart. Perhaps that’s a fair lead for “Final Blackout,” in reality, because a number commented on the novelettes, and said, “I’ll wait till ‘Final Blackout’ ends before commenting.”

So you’ll just have to wait until next week.

Here are my ratings for the June issue:

  1. Final Blackout (Part III) by L. Ron Hubbard
  2. The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein
  3. Deputy Correspondent by Harl Vincent
  4. The Testament of Akubii
  5. The Carbon Eater by Douglas Drew

This Vacation began with the July 1939 issue of Astounding, which means that the June 1940 issue completes the first “year” of my Vacation. Twelve weeks, twelve episodes, but those weeks have gone by so fast. It is with great relief that I think there is still an entire decade of magazines issues to explore. Each week represents a new set of adventures, and it is always exciting to see who will be appearing in the upcoming issue, reading some of the stories, for the first time, reading others for the first time in a long time.

See you here next week as I begin the second “year” of my Vacation in the Golden Age.

7 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 12: June 1940

  1. In another Future History story, 100+ years up the time-line, Heinlein would write–

    “The ship passed over a miles-wide scar on the landscape-the ruins of the Okla-Orleans Road City. When Lazarus had last seen it, it had been noisy with life. Of all the mechanical monstrosities the human race had saddled themselves with, he mused, those dinosaurs easily took first prize.”

    That’s always worth a chuckle!

  2. “Final Blackout” was written during the so-called Phoney War in Europe. When I read the novel, I viewed it less as a prediction of the coming European War, but rather an exageration and expansion of the battlefield conditions and trends in Great War a quarter of a century earlier. The landscape the Lieutenant and his Unkillables trudge through owes more to Ypres and Passchendaele than anything occuring in the Spring of 1940.

    Note that ASF came out the month before the date on the issue, so the readers of the concluding installment of “Final Blackout” must have found it a particularly chilling experience. By the third Friday in May, the Phoney War was no more and Germany was a week into its Blitzkrieg into France. “If this Goes On…” indeed.

    1. Mark, that’s interesting because I did get more of a Great War feel from the landscapes, but thought of it as the Second World War because of Campbell’s references to “the current war” in his blurbs. Regardless, it justifies the claims of people who said that Hubbard could really write, despite his later “nonfiction” reputation. What I’m most interested in now is the Brass Tacks reaction to a story which is hard to think of as science fiction. Readers were mixed on Lester del Rey’s “The Day Is Done” (“How is this science fiction?” they asked.) What will the reaction be to Final Blackout, which really is not science fiction (if anything it is war fiction) but is some of the highest quality literature I’ve seen in the magazine thus far.

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