Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 13: July 1940

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Happy new year! I started this Vacation with the July 1939 issue and we have now arrived at the July 1940 issue, making this the first issue of my second year in the Golden Age of science fiction. July brings to mind summer, and today is the first summer-like day here in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. All of the windows in the house have been thrown open, and warm summer-like breezes are blowing through, providing a perfect setting for sitting and reading science fiction stories.

The Golden Age opened with that rather remarkable July 1939 issue. A year later we have, in my opinion, a mostly mediocre issue, with a few nice yarns thrown in for good measure. Reading through this issue, it was almost as if Campbell was trying to push out some less recognizable names (at least to me) all at once. It was almost the opposite of the star-studded May 1940 issue in which virtually every name was a Grand Master of the genre. Then, too, the July issue feels as if it is another “theme” issue, the theme this time being the perfect forms of government or governing. That might also explain the mishmash of names that appear in this issue.

I wasn’t overly moved by the Rogers cover this month, but then again, as you will see, I wasn’t moved at all by the story for which it was painted. I’m not much of an art critic, but if I saw this cover on the newsstands, I doubt it would draw me to the magazine. (Of course, the ten big letters about the painting would draw me in at once.)

Campbell’s 2-page editorial this month, “Atomic Power to Space,” centers around the possibility (or impossibility ) of using U-235 as a fuel for sending rockets into space. The gist of the article assumes that humanity attains atomic power: how could this power be used most efficiently to propel a spacecraft through a vacuum? I think he argues that a steam intermediary might be what is needed to effect the necessary propulsion, despite this being relatively inefficient. But what I think Campbell is ultimately describing is what today we would call an ion-drive. Although there has been 70 years of scientific evolution between the time he wrote this editorial and today, I actually think it is a pretty good overall projection of what might be possible, given the understanding of nuclear physics at the time.

There are seven pieces of fiction in this issue: a serial, two novelettes, and four short stories. There is also a science article by L. Sprague de Camp, which is itself the first of a two-part serial.

The lead story in the issue is the first of a two-part serial by Norman L. Knight called “Crisis in Utopia”. I have to be perfectly honest here, I could not finish even the first part. I think I got as far as halfway through the second chapter and I kept bogging down. I’d set the magazine aside, try again, set it aside, and as the week slipped away, I finally decided I had to give up on the story and move on. The story itself is clearly the first in a “themed” set of stories that appear in this issue on various forms of governments. This government happens to be a large corporation that owns and manages the seas on Earth and the great cities on the sea bottoms. I just don’t have much luck with Norman L. Knight, I guess. I didn’t like his “Bombardment In Reverse” back in the February 1940 issue and I couldn’t make it through this story either.

Part of the problem, I think, is that Norman opens this story with too much narrative for my taste. He provides an opening with a kind of historical context for the evolution of corporations and the ownership of the seas, rather than integrate this into the story itself. I don’t think he’s unique at this (we’ll see another example shortly) but for a reader and writer from the second decade of the 21st century, this approach has been beaten out of me and I look down upon it. Then too, I’m not a big fan of under-the-sea stories. I thought Clifford D. Simak did a fine job in “Rim of the Deep” (May 1940) but that is an exception.

The problem with not finishing part 1 is that there is no point in reading part 2 next month. I had the same problem with the awful (in my opinion) “General Swamp, C.I.C.” serial pseudonymously written by L. Ron Hubbard. In any event, “Crisis in Utopia” was my least favorite of the issue.

My favorite story of the issue turned out to be the very next story, “The Mosaic” by J.B. Ryan. I’d never heard of Ryan before and “The Mosaic” is the only thing listed under his name in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database. The story itself is a wonderful mixture of alternate history and time-travel. The alternate history is one in which Muslim nations rule the world, even as early as the 13th century. They have discovered and populated the Americas and manage to have quite a high level of civilization; certainly higher than what western Europe had during these dark ages in reality. The Muslims in the story came to power because an assassination known to take place was prevented. However, as the story goes on, we find that one of the Muslim scientists has developed the abilty to travel through time and forces the assassination to take place as we know it. This leads to a remarkable ending in which one of the main characters, Ismail, simply vanishes because in the altered history, he no longer exists:

For Ismail was gone. There was no hand to hold or withdraw the sword as Duke Martin slid down the wall to huddle in a heap on the ground. For, on the instant that the heart of Duke Martin was transfixed, Ismail vanished, disappearing with all the suddenness of a bursting bubble. And with him into nothingness, across the gulf of Time, went Abdul ibn Fhaji, the city of Far Damascus, all the transatlantic Moslems, leaving in their place–

I really enjoy time-travel stories and there are a few out there that I’ve found to be truly remarkable. One of those, is Robert Silverberg’s short novel, Up the Line, and this novel came to mind when I read the ending of “The Mosaic” because the endings are so similar. I’d have to give Silverberg the edge on the more remarkable of the two endings, but J. B. Ryan appears to have actually done it first, and some three decades before Silverberg.

Another thing I really liked about “The Mosaic” is that it was a fairly well done multicultural story. The main characters were Muslim men and it seems to me, in the context of the alternate history in which they appeared, were carried out fairly well. It was nice to see someone make an effort at a story featuring a hero that was not a white male of northwestern European extraction. I wonder what happened to J. B. Ryan? I wonder if he ever sold any other stories or this was merely written as a lark and accepted on a first try by someone who never really planned it in the first place?

Next up was a story called “Emergency Landing” by Ralph Williams. I just didn’t get this story. It is one of the shortest stories that I’ve come across in this Vacation so far and it seemed to be about an evening in a small town where a spaceship, apparently of U.S. Navy origins, touches down in order to refuel, and requires water as a fuel. That seemed to be the gist of the entire story, and I simply didn’t understand the point of it. It had a nice setup, and seemed like it could go somewhere, but I believe, perhaps, that the story was an attempt to end in a pun of some kind that might have been relevant in 1940, but which is completely lost on a contemporary reader. Does anyone else know?

The next “themed” story in the issue was Robert Heinlein’s novelette, “Coventry”. This story was blurbed as a kind of sequel to If This Goes On–, but it seems a tenuous connection at best. The premise of the story was that America had evolved to a point where it formed a kind of utopia in which people who acted against the best interest of the masses in general could accept one of two punishments: they could be sent to a psychologist to have their mind manipulated to fit a kind of social norm (echoes here of Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”); or they could be exiled to Coventry, a land behind a mystical barrier where they could, so it was claimed, live as they please.

Overall, this was a fun story to read. Heinlein has clearly evolved into a master storyteller and in sheer technique, does the best job at storytelling in the issue (despite the story not being my favorite). David MacKinnon is the stubborn hero who, after punching someone in the nose, is forced to make the choice between mind wipe and exile to Coventry, and who chooses Coventry. He thinks he can start a new life there but quickly discovers that his utopian notions are not all they seem.

Heinlein produces another one of his memorable characters in Fader Magee, who for some reason (we find out later) takes pity on MacKinnon and tries to help him adjust to the law of the land. But from almost the second MacKinnon arrives, he is on the run from that law and ultimately is forced to go back through the barrier and face the other alternative.

There are two things that bothered me about the story, despite Heinlein’s good story-telling. The first is that Heinlein hasn’t yet (and perhaps never does) get away from preaching to the reader too much. Unlike “Crisis in Utopia” where the story begins witha  historical narrative, Heinlein’s story starts quickly and with action. He buries the narrative for later, but it is there, just a little more than halfway through the story. We are dumped from the action and into what amounts to a 3-column treatise on government and psychology:

Had the science of semantics developed as rapidly as pyschodynamics, and its implementing arts of propaganda and mob psychology, the United States might never have fallen into dictatorship, then been forced to undergo the Second Revolution. All of the scientific principles embodied in the Covenant which marked the end of the revolution were formulated as far back as the first quarter of the twentieth century.

But the work of the pioneer semanticists, C.K. Ogden in England and Alfred Korzybski in the United States were known to but a handful of students, whereas psychodynamics, under the impetus of repeated wars and the frenzy of high-pressure merchandising, progressed by leaps and bounds…

On and on Heinlein goes for another two columns complete removed from the story, completely removed from the action, and it is a shame really, because when Heinlein pulls away from his storytelling to preach, the mechanism is revealed and it’s like Dorothy and her friends seeing the “man behind the curtain.”

The other thing that bothered me about the story was the ending. It was not how it was carried out–Fader Magee tells MacKinnon that if he makes it through the barrier, he should look up someone on the other side to plead his case to–but that it was somewhat of a rehash on the plot twists that appeared in If This Goes On–. Of course, Magee is there on the other side of the barrier and in fact, was an undercover agent of the government infiltrated into Coventry all along. I wished Heinlein wasn’t rehashing his gimmicks.

Just as political utopias and forms of government are a theme for this issue, so might be long-winded and pointless political narratives. Thus the next story in the batch, Kurt von Rachen’s “The Idealist” opens with two columns of small print essentially describing for the reader outside of the story the political climate within. I have to guess that this technique was just more accepted by readers in 1940 than it would be by readers in 2011. I liked this story and I felt it would have been an even better story if the preamble had been excised.

The story itself was of Steve, the idealist, who had lead an army, then a state, and when the revolution occurred was a public enemy too well-liked by the populace to have killed. So instead he was exiled with others to a distant star. When two of the other exiles decide to form an alliance and mutiny, Steve sticks to his idealist gums and refuses to take part one way or the other–a truly idealistic, if not fatalistic point of view. There was some nice passages here and some brutal descriptions, vivid and horrible that demonstrate just what a powerful writer von Rachen could be.

Apropos of the political nature of the issue, the article this month by L. Srague de Camp, “The Science of Whithering” is one which examines the scientific validity of various political belief systems. The article itself is a two-parter, this part being the first. It didn’t quite live up to the standard of the previous de Camp articles that I have read, but there was at least one part of it that I found particularly interesting and even somewhat applicable to the world today when he discusses Silas McKinley’s theory of “Democracy and Military Power”:

McKinley starts out with the reasonable-sounding idea that political power depends ultimately on military power, and that the common man will have just as much power as he is willing and able to fight for. It follows that democracy can exist as a stable form of government only when the fundamental military unit is a solider armed with a cheap and simple weapon that is easy to learn to use. Under these circumstances an armed civilian has a fair chance against a professional soldier. But the development of elaborate equipment that few civilians can afford, or complicated technique that only professionals can master, puts the democracies in an unstable state, and sooner or later down they come.

Things rings rather true today, it seems to me, but it is rather fascinating to see this described before the Second World War.

The last two stories stayed away from politics. The first was Lester del Rey’s “Dark Mission”. I now look forward to del Rey as someone who be depended on to spin a fun and exciting science fiction story, even when he is not doing something remarkable like “Helen O’Loy” or “The Day Is Done”. “Dark Mission” started out promising. A rocket appeared to have crashed into a house. There was one dead man and the man who was alive had a kind of amnesia. Was he on the rocket when it crashed? Or was he a resident of the house? And what of the dead man? The story is the adventure of this person discovering who he is and what it is that he is supposed to do–for he knows that he is supposed to do something. As we learn over the course of the story, Haines (our viewpoint character) is attempting to stop the spread of a horrific disease of some kind that has killed off everyone on Mars.

While this was a fun story, I didn’t quite think it lived up to the standards that del Rey set with some of his earlier stories. It is possible, however, that I am in the minority on this point since the story was selected for inclusion in Asimov and Greenberg’s second retrospective volume, The Great SF Stories 2 (1940). Alas, I will have to leave it to one of the readers of these columns to give me a clue as to what Asimov and Greenberg thought of the story, since I don’t have a copy of that book. Interestingly, the story is not included in either volume of The Early del Rey.

The last story in the issue, the second novelette, “The Red Death of Mars” by Robert Moore Williams, was my second favorite story of the issue. I find it interesting that two names that are complete mysteries to me take the first two spots in this issue, above and beyond several name writers. I don’t believe this is intentional on my part. I really do try to judge the stories by how much I enjoy them. In the case of Williams’ story, it was a pure science fiction fun.

In some ways, the story is reminiscent of the first tales of Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. A manned mission has been sent to Mars and not heard from again, so another mission is sent, this one in an effort to investigate the first. The first rocket is located with the crew dead, expressions of agony on their faces. There are gems found aboard the rocket as well as in other places in the abandoned Martian cities. Eventually, the Martians themselves are found, hidden below the city in suspended animation. When one of them is revived and sees the gem, it commits suicide. Meanwhile, crew member after crew member are picked off and we soon realize it is the gems that are doing the killing. They can switch phases to a gas that feeds on the radioactivity in an entity, be it a nuclear reactor of a ship’s engine or the potassium in the human body. After waking another Martian to figure out how to kill these things, it is discovered that water is what keeps these creatures at bay–water which the second mission has brought with them, but which is otherwise absent from Mars.

Overall, a very clever story that keeps you guessing at every turn. If I had been Asimov and Greenberg, I would have swapped this story for del Rey’s, but of course, I am not Asimov or Greenberg.

The opening lines of the story quickly introduce us to the crew of the second mission and there was a kind of vague familiarity to it:

Sparks Avery, on vigil beside his radio equipment, saw the three men coming. He didn’t need to look twice to know that something was wrong. Rising, he opened the controls that manipulated the outer door of the lock.

From the stern of the ship came a rattle of pots and pans as Shorty Adams, the dour cook, prepared the evening meal.

Angus McIlrath, far-wandering son of Scotland, came forward from his engine room. Momentarily, as he opened the door, the muted hiss of the uranium fusion engines sounded.

If you didn’t pick it up, let me give you a hint: Agnus McIlrath makes it pretty obvious. This seemed very much like a description of the crew who would ultimately people the Starship Enterprise. Sparks Avery could be Ohura; Short Adams, the “dour” cook, could be Jim McCoy. And of course Angus McIlrath could be Scotty. I wonder if anyone has made this connection before?

Williams appears to have been quite a prolific short fiction writer in the 1940s but this story was my first encounter with him. I’m glad it won’t be my last.

The issue ended with an abbreviated Brass Tacks, only a handful of letters, no familiar names on the signature line. But there was one letter that stood out and gave me chills when I read it. It was your standard, fan-written, run-of-the-mill Astounding letter, ranking the stories, likes and dislikes, not unlike these Episodes. The person writing it had some good insights and some silly ones. It was a long letter, taking up nearly two columns and at the end, the writer lists his top ten favorites of 1939 (with “Gray Lensman” at the top, of course). What gave me chills was the signature itself. The letter was signed,

Yours for a good campaign in ’40–E. F. McGill, Patrol Wings, Communication Office, Pearl Harbor, T. H.

I got chills when I read that because in little more than a year and a half from the time the letter was presumably written, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan and a lot of people were killed. I wondered at once if McGill was among the dead–or if he’d made it to safety. Was he even in Hawaii during the attack? You can bet I’ll be looking for his name in future letter columns.

I found the opening of In Times To Come confusing. Campbell writes:

Lester del Rey, absent some months now, is back in the August issue with “The Stars Look Down”

Fine, except that del Rey has a story in the July issue so I’m not sure where the reference to his absence comes from. Also coming up in the August issue: A.E. van Vogt, Clifford Simak, and more.

Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory for May 1940 Astounding. As always my ranking follow in parentheses:

  1. “Rim of the Deep” by Clifford D. Simak (3)
  2. “Final Blackout” by L. Ron Hubbard (1)
  3. “Hindsight” by Jack Williamson (2)
  4. “Space Guards” by Phil Nowlan (7)
  5. “The Long Winter” by Raymond Z. Gallun (5)

Naturally, I was surprised that “Final Blackout” didn’t take first place, but that could be for the same reason that many people didn’t like del Rey’s “The Day Is Done”: there was no apparent science fiction in it. How Nowlan’s “Space Guards” go into the top five–well, I can only assume it was posthumous sympathy.

Here are my ratings for the July 1940 issue:

  1. The Mosaic by J. B. Ryan
  2. The Red Death of Mars by Robert Moore Williams
  3. Coventry by Robert Heinlein
  4. Dark Mission by Lester del Rey
  5. The Idealist by Kurt von Rachen
  6. Emergency Landing by Ralph Williams
  7. Crisis in Utopia by Normal L. Knight

See you here next week!

15 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 13: July 1940

  1. In the GREST SF STORIES 2: 1940, Greenberg introduces the del Rey story thus–

    “Many people believe that July was a special month in the history of ASTOUNDING Science Fiction because so many excellent and influential stories seemed to fill that issue during the Golden Age. Heinlein’s “Coventry” dominated the July, 1940 ASF and may have been partially responsible for the relative neglect of the fine story of tragedy and sacrifice…”

    Asimov then adds some personal comments about del Rey–

    “Lester del Rey always reminds me of Harlan Ellison; or, rather, vice versa, since I’ve known Lester much longer… Lester, like Harlan, is short and loud, and quarrelsome and prickly. And, as in the case of Harlan, if you can make your way through the prickles and stay alive- by no means certain -you’ll find Lester is soft as mush underneath and will do anything for you. A true, trusty friend who will give you anything but a kind word.”

    1. Thanks, Mark, that’s just what I was looking for. “Coventry”, as I said, was fun, but Heinlein’s stories are getting too outright preachy in places. The beginning of that passage I quoted seems to have been literally dropped in right smack in the middle of the narrative, and I think the story would have been better without it.

      Asimov has a lot of amusing stories to tell about del Rey in his autobiographies. He admitted to del Rey that “The Day Is Done” made him cry on the subway, something del Rey would remind Asimov of frequently. On the other hand, del Rey once directed Asimov the wrong way down a one-way street in Manhattan and Asimov got a $10 ticket. del Rey offered to pay it but Asimov refused, saying that he wanted to be able to claim that the ever wise and brilliant del Rey made a boo-boo.

  2. “Crisis in Utopia” spawned a sequel.

    Just after your vacation (1951), James Blish wrote an essay about biologic story in science fiction and cited Knight’s Tritons as a “real genetic story.” Blish later expanded on Knight’s “tectogenesis, the direct, surgical
    manipulation of chromosones” for his pantropy stories (“Surface Tension” et. al.).

    Blish had been corresponding with Knight (whose day job was a pesticide chemist for the USDA) since 1948 and over the next two decades they slowly colaborated on what eventually became the novel “A Torrent of Faces”, published in 1967.

    “Torrent” mixes together the Tritons with that 1960s bugaboo, over population. Campbell published a portion of that novel in Analog, (in tandem with Fred Pohl running two secions in Galaxy).

    You can find all the details here:

    “Pantropy, Polyploidy, and Tectogenesis in the Fiction of James Blish and Norman L. Knight” David Ketterer. Science Fiction Studies
    Vol. 10, No. 2 (Jul., 1983), pp. 199-218.

    An interesting note: “Crisis in Utopia” is itself a sequel to Knight’s Astounding Stories serial “Frontier of the Unknown” (July & Aug 1937). Maybe all that backstory needing to be synopsied is part of the reason you hit a brick wall with “Crisis”.

    Since you’ve been checking the ISFDB, I will assume that you already know the true identity of Kurt von Rachen.

    1. Mark S., somehow, I completely missed Kurt von Rachen’s true identity until I looked again just now. Someone, I think I got to a summary page the first time and missed the pseudonym pointer. Projecting back, some of that brutality I referred to is an echo perhaps of the brutality in Final Blackout. It was definitely there. Do you think this was Campbell needing filler like you pointed out for the Engelhardt pseudonym? Quality-wise, the story read better than the Engelhardt stories I’ve read.

      Thanks for the historical information on “Crisis in Utopia”. I probably should have mentioned that I did read enough to pick up on the “genetic engineering” angle, but still couldn’t get too far into it. I think you might be right about missing some of the back story. I had a similar reaction to those “Past, Present, Future” stories by Nat Schachner, and I came into the middle of those as well.

  3. Heinlein on “Coventry” (hat tip to Patterson “Robert A Heinlein, v. 1″):

    [In a letter to JWC about the story that became "...We Also Walk Dogs"] Of course I can stick in a lot of pseudo-science window dressing, as I did in “Coventry,” but there is no basic science development involved. Judging by the reader response, that method was successful in “Coventry” (which was not a science-fiction story, except by misdirection!).

    Footnote 11 from chapter 20 of Patterson’s Heinlein biography (far too long to quote) is also worth seeking out for an alternative take on what RAH was attepting in “Coventry”.

    1. I have the book on Kindle, still haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, but I will look up the footnote this evening when I get home. As I said, Heinlein can tell a good story, but he picks the worst times (in my opinion) to do a historical dump that takes this reader right out of the narrative.

  4. Mark Stackpole wrote–

    “Footnote 11 from chapter 20 of Patterson’s Heinlein biography (far too long to quote) is also worth seeking out for an alternative take on what RAH was attepting in ‘Coventry’.”

    As editor of THE HEINLEIN JOURNAL, Mr Patterson greatly expands on that expansive footnote. His “A Study of ‘Coventry’” is in issue #14 (January 2004). Encompassing 21 of the 48 pages, it probably contains as much wordage as the story itself.

    http://www.heinleinjournal.com/

  5. On Kurt von Rachen: I don’t think that this pen name was used to hide filler. Rather, around this time JWC was requesting his authors to start writing for him some sort of continuing series yarns, each of novelette length – that being the length of which JWC was perennially short.

    I believe that L. Ron’s “Kilkenny Cats” series (taken from the second story) were published under the von Rachen pseudonym to separate these stories in the reader’s mind.

    Others examples of this editorial demand that will appear soon on your vacation are Jack Williamson’s Seetee (under the Will Stewart moniker), Smith’s Venus Equilateral, Schachner’s Space Lawyer, the half dozen series that Van Vogt was juggling during the war years (Weapon Shops, Artur Blord, Rull, Clane, etc.) and most famously, Asimov’s US Robots & Foundation tales.

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