Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 15: September 1940

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Welcome back to this Vacation in the Golden Age on it’s new biweekly schedule. I want to apologize again for the schedule change but two things prompted it:

  1. I was really cramming trying to get an issue read and a write-up done each week. Given my other obligations, there was little time for anything else.
  2. With the pending arrival of our second child in August, I figured that realistically, the schedule was going to have to change anyway.

As it turns out, this schedule has worked out much better for me. I can read the issue much more easily without feeling rushed; and I can get in some additional reading besides. While I hadn’t done any other reading outside the issues of Astounding through May, in the last two weeks, in addition to reading the September 1940 issue, I’ve already read most of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. So again, I apologize for the change in frequency of these episodes. It extends things out somewhat, but in the end, it is more manageable for me, and I think more realistic, too. Now onto our regularly scheduled Episode…

Several people have told me that the July issues of Astounding during the early Golden Age were, traditionally, the really good ones. Certainly the July 1939 issue (Episode 1) was a good one and the July 1940 issue was a good one as well. But it seems to me that the September issues have something to be said in terms of the names that appear in them and the quality of the stories. The September 1939 Astounding (Episode 3) had Theodore Sturgeon’s debut story. The current issue, September 1940 has a list of stories by authors that reads like an ensemble headline: van Vogt, Asimov, Heinlein, Hubbard (a la van Rachen), and Rocklynne to name a few. And the September 1941 Astounding is one of the most famous issues of all time, containing not only Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” but also Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve”. Alva Rogers called the September 1940 issue “one of the best single issues in the history of Astounding.” It is issues like these that make this Vacation so much fun.

Campbell opens this issue with a 2-page editorial bringing readers up-to-date on the latest on atomic research. This is still 1940 and it would appear to be before scientists began voluntarily self-censoring their research. Already, a number of stories focus on the logical results of the practical use of atomic power–be it in the form of a bomb, or the development of a powerplant–or both as Heinlein’s story “Blowups Happen” speculates upon. But it would seem that in the world at large, these ideas are still mostly science fiction, the stuff of magazines like Astounding, and not practical in any real sense for a long time to come. Five years later, I imagine a world in which many people were surprised by the atomic bomb–but few science fiction writers were surprised. They saw it coming and imagined what it would be like

The first piece of fiction in the issue is A. E. van Vogt’s fifth appearance in Astounding (if I have my count correct) and his first serial, “Slan”. Now, I should state up front that I read Slan in novel form sometime in early 1999. And while I remember enjoying it at the time, I didn’t recall much detail when I started reading it in its serial form in the September 1940 issue. I wondered to a few people whether or not it would hold up to my memory of it. The consensus was that it wouldn’t we’ll have to see. So far, I was rather blown away by the first part, although my experience in this vacation has been that serials tend to lose their steam in part 4; so we’ll see.

For the second time in this Vacation of mine, Campbell blurbed the story as “The first serial to win Astounding’s rare NOVA designation.”

The story is of a young boy, Jommy, who is a “slan”: a mutant with telepathy and other abilities in a word in which slans are hated and feared by the general population. In several ways, part 1 of the story seems almost to have been written by two different writers. First, there is the remarkable opening:

His mother’s hand felt cold, clutching his.

Her fear, as they walked hurriedly along the street, was a quiet, swift pulsation that throbbed from her mind to his. A hundred other thoughts beat against his mind, from the crowds that swarmed by on either side, and from inside the buildings they passed. But only his mother’s thoughts were clear and coherent–and afraid!

“They’re following us Jommy…”

It’s almost as if the first chapter was written for the screen. I could see it as the opening to some kind of conspiratorial action film. But at the same time that first chapter is tragically painful. It read different to me now, as a father, than it did a dozen years ago. What would happen to this poor child, orphaned in the street? How would he manage to survive?

On the other hand, the scenes involving Kathleen Layton and especially Kier Gray read very differently. These scenes, with the exception of Kathleen’s first appearance, were almost entirely dialog. In some ways, therefore, it was as if Heinlein wrote the action scenes and Asimov wrote the dialog scenes. Those scenes with Kier and the council semaphored many of the scenes that would later be found in Asimov’s Foundation stories. Meanwhile, the action was much more Heinlein-like, except that van Vogt’s writing feels more elegant.

I’m sure that it has been pointed out countless times, but the metaphor in Slan for what was taking place in Nazi Germany at the time was surprisingly overt. But then again, this was a science fiction magazine, and as Asimov once pointed out, it was beneath notice of most of American society. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the first part of Slan. It was certainly my favorite piece in this issue, and I look forward with some hope at the future installments.

Next up was Robert Heinlein’s novelette, “Blowups Happen”, which I think ends up as the longest story in the issue, despite “Slan”‘s first part. The events in the story take place as part of Heinlein’s Future History. Men who run an atomic plant where a bomb produces power for the nation have to be monitored by psychologists to make sure that the strain of their task doesn’t take its toll on their sanity. These psychologists have a duty to remove any man from their post who they feel shows signs of strain. All of this is to ensure that the bomb runs smoothly and without accidents. (The bomb, for instance, powers the moving Roads which in turn transport people and material about the country.)

This story was a bit different for Heinlein in that it was much more like an Asimov story. There seems to be much less action in this story and much more dialog. The problems are described through dialog between the various players and the solutions are discovered and carried out through dialog, much of it making use of Heinlein’s considerable wit.

Still, I think that this is one of Heinlein’s weaker efforts. Once again, he front-loads the story with a two-column info-dump on just how the atomic reaction proceeds:

The accelerator’s snout disappeared in the shield between them and the bomb, where it fed a stead stream of terrifically speeded up subatomic bullets to the beryllium target located within the bomb itself. The tortured beryllium yielded up reactions through the uranium mass. Some of these neutrons struck uranium atoms squarely on their nuclei and split them in two… Etc., etc, for another column and three-quarters.

This slowed down a story that is already primarily made up of dialog and I had a difficult time with that.

It was interesting to read the moon theory that appears in this story. The theory goes that the moon was once populated by intelligent life and that the craters and cracks and mare that appear on the moon were created when that intelligence grew too bold with atomic power. They destroyed themselves and their world. And that could happen to us, too.

Ultimately, I did like the solution–in which a method was discovered for making safer secondary fuel from the bomb directly–and putting the bomb into a safe orbit so that any explosion would not harm life on Earth. That was a clever solution, but again it read more like an Asimovian solution than a Heinlein one.

Nearly every issue in this Vacation contains some surprise, and the surprise in this issue came with Ross Rocklynne’s story, “Quietus”. It is the story of two intelligent, bird-like aliens from a very distant world who are out exploring for other intelligent life. They come across Earth with they seem to think is a dead planet, save for a small strip of green land, which they proceed to investigate. At the same time, a young man, Tommy–a survivor of the apocalypse on Earth–travels around the land, hunting rabbits for food, and accompanied by a bird, “Blacky” who will on occasion repeat words that he has heard. At the same time the boy (young man, really) discovers another survivor–a woman, the two aliens discover the boy and his bird companion. And they make the mistake of assigning the bird the category of intelligent life, the boy relegated to beast.

This is a wonderfully tragic story and if not for the inclusion of “Slan” in this issue, would have easily been my first choice for best story in the issue. Rocklynne does a nice job of writing not only from the alien point of view (albeit still recognizable), but also from the point of view of a boy gone savage.

Not just a story with a nice twist on who an alien might consider intelligent, this is a story all about misunderstandings. Tommy misunderstand the emotions he’s feeling (he thinks its hunger but he’s yearning for a mate). The girl misunderstands Tommy’s intentions. Tommy misunderstands Blacky’s intentions which ultimately leads to his demise, when his anger gets the best of him and he tosses a rock at the bird–leading Vascar to kill the boy. And there is such a disconnect at that point between the two aliens that the tragedy is brought full circle:

Tark wrested the weapon from Vascar with a trill of rage.

“Why did you do that?” he cried. He threw the weapon from him as far as it would go. “You’ve done a terrible thing, Vascar!”

Vascar looked at him in amazement. “It was only a beast, Tark,” she protested. “It was trying to kill its master! Surely, you saw it. It was trying to kill the intelligent bird-creature, the last of its kind on the planet.”

But Tark pointed with horror at the two unfeathered beasts, one bent over the body of the other. “But they were mates! You ave killed their species!”

I will note that “Quietus” was included in Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas’ landmark anthology Adventures In Space and Time. It was also selected for the Asimov/Greenberg retrospective for 1940. And of the story, Alva Rogers has this to say:

It is a near perfect story, one that never fails to move me even after numerous readings.

Slan garners the bulk of the attention in this issue, as it should. It’s too bad that names like Heinlein and Asimov overshadow this little gem.

Next up was one of the weaker stories in the issue, but even so a pretty good story in the scheme of things: “The Kilkenny Cats” by Kurt von Rachen, who we know more familiarly as L. Ron Hubbard. This is a sequel to von Rachen’s “The Idealist” (July 1940, Episode 13). In this story, the exiles are deposited on a planet with a lack of supplies, and immediately find themselves forming cliques: some have the weapons, some have the food, others have the brains. The story itself is straight-forward entertainment in which we follow Colonel Steve Gilbraith and Vicky Stalton through adventures (often involving wolves) in the wilderness and how they ultimately unify the disparate groups in hopes of survival. And by the end of the story we find we are at a tentative truce. This implies to me that the full story has not yet run its course and we can expect to see more from this von Rachen/Hubbard series later.

Isaac Asimov makes his second fiction appearance in the pages of Astounding in this issue with his story, “Homo Sol” which is archetypical Campbell philosophy put into action. The story is about the discovery that men from Earth have finally figured out how to travel to other stars and successfully reached Alpha Centauri. This makes them eligible for invitation into the Galactic Federation, something which requires the assistance of a psychologist to help smooth the message over to the Earthlings. Much to everyone’s surprise, the Earthlings reject the invitation. At first most people are skeptical, but it turns out that the people of Earth are better at building machines, are learning the sciences rapidly and may soon actually find themselves ahead of everyone else in the galaxy.

While the story itself is mediocre (and this coming from a huge Asimov fan), the historical value of it to the literature is important I think for a couple of reasons:

  1. It is a very clear illustration of Campbell’s desire to make human beings more important (and more powerful, and self-righteous) than any other possible alien in existence.
  2. It foreshadows some of what we will see in Asimov’s Foundation stories.

Asimov wrote that part of the reason he wrote his Robot stories was because he could make men superior to robots and since they were machines, not feel terribly guilty about it. Campbell was a big proponent of the superiority of men over all other life forms and Asimov didn’t like this philosophy. It is for this reason that aliens are completely absent from the Foundation series. He avoided the issue of superiority by populating the galaxy with nothing but humans.

But “Homo Sol” is an early attempt by Asimov at a galactic empire story and aliens are featured prominently in the narrative. In fact, throughout the first two-thirds of the story, it would seem that the aliens of the galactic federation are far superior to the human infants just taking their first steps to the stars. But as we move through the story, we see humans expressing their “genius” and by the end of the story, our view point characters genuinely believe that these crazy humans will ultimately be the superior race of the galaxy.

We also seen in this story germs of things that will ultimately find their way into the Foundation stories. There are the psychologists, of course. There is the galaxy-spanning civilization (a Federation in Homo Sol, which will evolve into an Empire in Foundation thanks to Asimov’s reading of Roman history). There is a mathematics of mass-panic in the story that will evolve into the science of psychohistory. The story is both a point of divergence (from Campbell’s superiority) and a launching off point for something that will make Asimov his fame and fortune. Not bad for his second appearance in the magazine.

But let Asimov speak for himself. As he wrote in In Memory Yet Green:

I had never seen [Campbell] display quite such enthusiasm over any of my suggestions. We discussed [Homo Sol] in detail and I went home in a state of eager turmoil.

What I didn’t completely understand at the time was that I had inadvertently pushed one of his buttons. He was a devout believer in the inequality of men… In science fiction, this translated itself into the Campbellesque thesis that Earthmen… were superior to all other intelligent races–even when the others seemed more intelligent on the surface.

(Asimov adds that on the day he submitted “Homo Sol” to Campbell, “I met no fewer than three authors for the first time, all of whom were to be closely associated with Campbell in the decade just beginning.” Those writers were Theodore Sturgeon, L. Ron Hubbard, and Willy Ley.

The last piece of fiction in the September issue was “Emergency” by Vic Phillips. This was one of those stories about which I had difficulty getting past the first two pages. I had the same problem initially with ‘The Kilkenny Cats” but the story caught hold of me and I managed to finish. With “Emergency” I eventually gave up. It might have had to do, in part, that the first two pages of the story was a monologue by one of the characters. I just couldn’t make it past that.

There were two non-fiction articles in this issue. “Universes for Lenses” by R. S. Richardson and “The Coronavisor” by Stanley R. Short. The former was superior in my opinion and maintains Richardson’s record for outstanding articles on astronomy. This one was on what today we call “galactic lensing”. It was predicted by Einstein’s theory of relativity and astronomers were just beginning to learn how to take advantage of such a principle at the time the article was written.

Here are the results from the Analytical Laboratory for the July 1940 Astounding, with my rankings in parentheses after each:

  1. Coventry by Robert Heinlein (3)
  2. Crisis In Utopia by Norman L. Knight (7)
  3. Dark Mission by Lester del Rey (4)

As Campbell writes,

4. and 5. were ties between the remaining stories. Letters indicate that von Rachen’s “Idealist” (5), Ryan’s “Mosaic” (1) and Ralph Williams’ “Emergency Landing” (6) were well and equally liked.

Clearly as a modern reader, I am at odds with the fans of 1940 on this one.

Here are my ratings for the September 1940 issue:

  1. Slan by A. E. van Vogt
  2. Quietus by Ross Rocklynne
  3. Homo Sol by Isaac Asimov
  4. Blowups Happen by Robert Heinlein
  5. The Kilkenny Cats by Kurt von Rachen
  6. Emergency by Vic Phillips

As good as this issue was, the October issue looks to be even better. In addition to part 2 of Slan, there is the famous story by Harry Bates, “Farewell to the Master” as well as stories by Theodore Sturgeon, L. Sprague de Camp, Nat Schachner, and Malcolm Jameson. And a science article by Willy Ley.

See you here in two weeks!

7 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 15: September 1940

  1. Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory

    Soon Campbell will include not only the numerical ratings of the stories in his reader’s poll, but also their mathematically determined point scores. I know this will involve even more typing, but I would like you to include these numbers when they start showing up in your vacation. (How these numbers were arrived at are almost as complex as the system used for the Nebulas). I think these scores are important to include since there is a big difference between the top two stories in one issue the receiving 1.00 & 3.15 (a clear consensus) and another issue’s top yarns getting 2.35 & 2.37 (Florida in 2000).

  2. I hate “Quietus”.

    It is not that the aliens are just humans in silly suits; that’s just a given at the time it was written. No, “Quietus” is the most offensively sexist story Campbell ever published, outside of Randall Garrett’s “The Queen Bee” (And I forgive Randy because his purpose was to be as controversial as possible and then stand back gleefully revel in the ensuing screams of outrage).

    In their introduction to this story in “Adventures in Space and Time” either Healey or McCommas drops this little nugget:

    “One might well conclude that the essentially tragic significance of this tale is its brilliant portrayal of the historical struggle of the feminine mind to cope with logic a priori.”

    That’s right, he said it: “[The] Struggle of the feminine mind to cope with logic”.

    So in “Quietus” women are all fluttery (ha-ha) and emotional and feelings driven. Ignoring (and by her psychological makeup is utterly incapable of) reason and observation, Vascar shoots down “mankind’s” last hope for a pretty bauble of a jackdaw. And because of her irrational feminine emotionalism, the last female flees from Tommy – instead of filling her assigned role and gettin’ it on.

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