Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 16: October 1940

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I write episode 16 on the heels of two science fiction events, one big and one small, but none the less fun. Last weekend, I attended the Nebula Awards Weekend in Washington, D.C. It was my first time attending that particular event and I had a blast. It was also the first time I was eligible to vote for the Nebula Awards, and I’m pleased to say that I went 2-for-4. All of the works were distinguished, but I was particularly pleased to see Eric James Stone and Connie Willis take home Nebulas. There was a surreal moment for me at the banquet dinner. My wife was with me and she was engrossed in deep conversation with Michael Whelan’s wife–and seeing Michael Whelan sit across the table from me, I could barely speak. However, at some point during the meal, the conversation came around to poorly cropped art work and I was at least able to bring up that infamous cover for Lester del Rey’s story “The Luck of Ignatz” and how it was poorly cropped. Such things have been happening since the dawn of our genre.

The second event was Balticon, which I attended two days of and the highlight for me was a panel on “Name Dropping” where the panelists talked about their interactions with the writers of the genre that are no longer with us. There were stories about golden-agers like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, and Dickson, and it was nice to see their names still remembered, the old guard passing those memories onto the newest generation of fans and writers. That is as it should be.

The October 1940 issue contains 6 pieces of fiction: a serial, two novelettes, and three short stories. There is also the first of a two-part science article by Willy Ley (which I will talk about in Episode 17). This issue is a mixed bag, despite every name that appears being top-notch in the field at one point or another.

Campbell opens the issue with a 1-page editorial, “We Can’t Keep Up!” the thrust of which is that scientific advance is rapidly outpacing science fiction-writers imaginations. It is quite an amusing piece to read in hindsight, and I almost wish I could just reproduce the whole thing here. Instead, let me quote from what I think is the most amusing passage, one that shows Campbell’s genuine optimism about our ability to conquer space:

No science-fiction author can ever again have his hero discover a wonderful new chemical rocket fuel and make the first trip to the Moon. They’ll use atomic fuel, and by the time Astounding’s doubled its present ten-years-plus age, there’s a very strong chance that we’ll be able to print, as a cover, a full-color photograph of the Earth taken from the surface of the moon.

Campbell was nearly two decades ahead of reality on photographing the Earth from the moon. And we still haven’t had an atomic powered rocket that has carried men into space. Yet still, imagine what it must have been like in 1940 to even consider the fact that one day a full color photo of the Earth might be possible. At that point, a mere seven decades ago, it hadn’t been done. Today, of course, the picture has become ubiquitous (indeed, it serves as the background for my iPad). We have pictures from the surface of Mars and the moons of Saturn. But back then, people still had to imagine what such an image looked like and for those people, a magazine like Astounding–which helped feed those imaginations–was a godsend.

The fiction in this issue opens, once again, with A. E. van Vogt, and part II of “Slan”. Campbell pointed out in an earlier editorial that with the four parts of “Slan” and “Vault of the Beast” in the issue that proceeded “Slan”–he could potentially lead the top of the Analytical Laboratory for five consecutive months. Well, this is certainly a possibility (I haven’t peeked ahead to verify) but I did not think that part II of “Slan” lived up to the fantastic opening. In fact, I ranked this story third of all of the stories in the issue. It seems that the warnings that I received that “Slan” would not live up to my remembered expectations were valid after all.

It’s not that “Slan” turns sour in part II, but I found two major problems with it that distracted me from the story. First, between chapters V and VI, there is a huge and sudden jump of six years. Jommy goes from being a clever nine-year old trying desperately just to survive in the horrifying world in which he lives to a full grown 15-year old. He does this in the space of two sentences. There was no indication that this was coming as Chapter V came to an end and I found myself somewhat disappointed that I didn’t learn more about how Jommy spent those six years with Granny, how he developed and how that time shaped him. Instead, we are off on the search for the weapon Jommy’s father promised him and six years of his life are a mystery to us. In fact, it reads almost as if the six years were cut from the story. Alva Rogers has nothing to say on the matter.

The other problem I found in part II is that I felt that van Vogt was spelling too much out for the reader. For example, this rather pedantic passage:

They also accuse Samuel Lann, the human being and biological scientist who first created slans, and after whom slans are named–Samuel Lann: S. Lann: Slann–with fostering in his children the belief that they must rule the world.

There is no doubt that the story is still a page-turner. I watched in fascination as events unfolded, wondering about Kier Gray’s suspicious behavior (which I finally remembered the reason for while reading this part), and as Jommy commandeered a spaceship to Mars only to allow his still juvenile instincts to betray him to one of the tendriless slans. But it lost some of its potency and it remains to be seen whether or not it will reclaim it in Part III.

Once again, Rogers did the cover for “Slan” in this issue and it is one Rogers cover that I don’t particularly care for. Jommy looks nothing like imagined him and his face and hair are almost feminine in quality.

Next up is Malcolm Jameson’s “White Mutiny”, the title of which refers to a kind of “legal” mutiny, like a “white lie” as opposed to outright black mutiny. The story itself is a sequel to “Admiral’s Inspection” (April 1940, Episode 10). This time, the crew of the Pollux is faced with a different kind of weapon: a blind adherence to bureaucracy. The new captain wants to do everything by the book, without exception and without question. So ultimately, that’s what the crew gives him..

This story works in part because almost everyone has, at some point, faced this kind of blind adherence to rules and regulations, even when they don’t make sense. I suspect that the germ of this story came from Jameson’s own experience in the navy.  The story is by no means a masterpiece but it is a fun read because as a reader you want this by-the-book captain put in his place. I think the captains virtual collapse at the end of the story was a little overdone, but over all, the victory of the crew over the captain was more impressive than their victory over the pirates.

Following Jameson is my second favorite story of the issue, and one of the true classics of science fiction, “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates. People who have not read the story will recognize the name of the two movies made from this story: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 and 2008). But in truth, the story is nothing like the movies, which as usual overdramatize what is already a powerful story.

The story is about the sudden appearance of a “time-space” traveler, his spaceship and a robot on the National Mall. The traveler is a humanlike form named Klaatu and the robot is named Gnut. In a moment of uncertainty, Klaatu is shot and killed. The robot Gnut seems to freeze in place, a look of mourning on his face for his companion. It no longer moves. A museum is built up around him and the spaceship. A reporter, Cliff Sutherland finds evidence that Gnut is, in fact, still functioning and even moving! The story tells the tale of Sutherland’s discovery and the consequences that stem from it.

This is a powerful story, well-written, and there are scenes that are just chilling. Take for instance the scene when Sutherland finally sees Gnut moving, his red eyes always watching him:

Dull and bored, he suddenly found the robot out on the floor, halfway in his direction! But that was not the most frightening thing. It was that when he did see Gnut he did not catch him moving. He was stopped as still as a cat in the middle of stalking a mouse. His eyes were now much brighter, and there was no remaining doubt about their direction: he was looking right at cliff!

Perhaps the only way to do this terrifying scene justice to to illustrate it with one of the finest interiors I have seen thus far in Astounding, one done by Kramer, whose interior I tend to admire. This one goes above and beyond to become something alive with fear and unknown:

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The story ends nothing at all like I recall of either of the movies, but is almost a muted, understated ending, with that final powerful and revealing line by Gnut before he vanishes. Incidentally, Harry Bates was a former editor of Astounding and Stan Schmidt told me that he had attempted (unsuccessfully) to get Bates to come to a reunion of all living Astounding/Analog editors many, many years ago.

Nat Schaschner makes another appearance in this issue with a story called “Runaway Cargo”. For me, this is Schachner returning to his typical form, something below what he achieved in his magnificent story “Cold” (March 1940, Episode 9). The story is about a powerful powder that, when mixed with oxygen, explodes with incredible, almost indescribable force. Men are too afraid to transport this powder to Earth so it is done via a remotely controlled spaceship. But when the bad guys attempt to destroy the controls and the cargo is on a runaway course for earth (and it’s oxygen rich atmosphere), it takes some quick thinking so prevent a disaster of planetary proportions.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is not a bad one, but I must say that 16 episodes into this Vacation, I felt like I’ve read this very story on a couple of occasions now and I’m getting a little weary of the plot. Then, too, I thought that Schachner had turned a corner in “Cold.” His writing there was among the finest I’d seen from him, but in this story, he appears to return to form and that disappointed me a little bit.

My favorite story in the issue was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Butyl and the Breathers,” a sequel to his “Ether Breather” (September 1939, Episode 3). This story was just fantastic, witty and funny while still maintaining a science-fictional feel to it. Reading this story, I am given to think that to some extent, Sturgeon was making fun of some of the tropes of science fiction, but doing it in such a subtle way that I gather many fans and readers didn’t even notice.

The story is of Hamilton’s attempt to make contact again with the ether breather, after scaring it of the first time around. Working in conjunction with the perfume magnate, Burbelot, they attempt to develop a smell that will catch the ether breather’s attention and allow them to reestablish contact.

There are so many great passages in the story, such wonderfully humorous writing by Sturgeon, that I just have to quote a few of them:

He wasn’t glad to see me, which he did through the televisor in his foyer. Quite a gadget, that foyer.

Or when Burbelot finally agrees to let Hamilton up:

“Come up,” he whispered, his wattles quivering, “but I warn you, if you dare take this liberty on a bluff, I shall most certainly have you pried loose from your esophagus.”

Sturgeon’s even provides commentary on the technical state of television “back in the day”:

Did you know that in the old days more than two hundred years ago, they used electrically powered sets with a ground glass florescent screen built right into the end of the huge cathode tubes? Imagine. And before that they used a revolving disk with holes punctured spirally, as a scanning mechanism! They had the beginning of frequency modulation, though. But their sets were so crude, incredible as it may seem, that atmospheric disturbances caused interference in reception!

“Butyl and the Breather” was a joy to read. I haven’t read much Sturgeon but I am looking forward to reading more as this Vacation continues.

The final story in the issue is “The Warrior Race” by L. Sprague de Camp, certainly not a bad story, but one that I didn’t enjoy as much as some of his other stories. I think part of the problem is that this story was designed to illustrate a point of history: that even the most righteous person is corruptible, and upon that all governments rule and fall. I’m not sure that his point comes across as well in story form as it might had he written it up as a historical essay.

There were some interesting letters in the Brass Tacks. Many fans wrote in about Hubbard’s “Final Blackout”, some accusing the story of being “pro-war propaganda” while others tried to figure out how it was science fiction. I still find it amusing that people consistently send in letters asking for more stories by Don A. Stuart, despite Campbell’s announcement that Stuart had retired.

As I said, I will report on Willy Ley’s two-part science article “The Search for Zero” after part 2 appears in the next issue.

Here are the results of the Analytical Laboratory for the August 1940 Astounding, with my ratings following each:

  1. Vault of the Beast by A. E. van Vogt (2)
  2. The Stars Look Down by Lester del Rey (1)
  3. Crisis in Utopia by Norman L. Knight (7)
  4. Rendezvous by John Berryman (3)
  5. Clerical Error by Clifford Simak (4)

Here are my ratings for the October 1940 issue:

  1. Butyl and the Breather by Theodore Sturgeon
  2. Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates
  3. Slan, Part II, by A. E. van Vogt
  4. White Mutiny by Malcolm Jameson
  5. The Warrior Race by L. Sprague de Camp
  6. Runaway Cargo by Nat Schachner

Next month contains part III of “Slan”, but the cover is for Vic Phillips’ “Salvage”. However, the most interesting part of the In Time To Come is Campbell’s second paragraph, worthy of quoting in its entirety:

Something strange seems to be happening to ours authors. The serials I’m seeing nowadays keep getting better and better, asort of determination to outdo outstanding stories seems manifest. I’ve gotten a new one to follow “Slan.” You’ll hear more about it later, of course, but among other things, it’s a new author–Anson MacDonald. It’s called “Sixth Column”; most of it is about an old gentleman who a long white beard and real-for-sure luminous halo around his head who goes around performing miracles. You know–stretches out his hand, says “Peace!” and a dying man is cured. And, friends, it does not belong in Unknown. It has one of the loveliest scientific explanations of the year! Begins in January Astounding. [Bold emphasis mine.]

Those who recognize the name Anson MacDonald and the title of the serial “Sixth Column” know Campbell’s statement to be an outright lie, if only a harmless one. Anson MacDonald is a pseudonym for none other than Robert Heinlein. I could not think of a good reason why Heinlein would use a pseudonym, considering how popular he was and is. Or why Campbell would make such a big deal about a new writer. But Alva Roger’s explains it in A Requiem for Astounding:

One of the notable features of the year [1941] was the publication in this issue of Heinlein’s outline of his Future History. The reason for Heinlein’s use of the MacDonald pseudonym was finally disclosed. All the stories that tied into the Future History were by Robert A. Heinlein, those outside the framework o the History were bylined with one or another of his pseudonyms.

In any event, I’ve never read Sixth Column and by its description, I am very much looking forward to it in the January 1941 issue.

See you back here in two weeks.

7 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 16: October 1940

    1. Paul, I don’t remember enough of the book to recall how that was handled but the jump in the story just seemed to come without warning. I think it was a transitional problem. If the previous scene had concluded in a way that implied time was going to pass, the transition would have been easier to stomach. For example, something like, “Jommy settled into this life of petty crime for the foreseable future…” Then when the next scene starts up, six years later, it makes a little more sense and isn’t quite as jarring.

  1. On http://www.home.earthlink.net/~icshi/ there is available for download a very good textual study of Slan, titled Slanology. Slanology does an excellent job outlining the revisions van Vogt made to his novel practically every time it was reprinted. But the essay skips over what I believe is the most interesting aspect of Slan: the massive social upheaval the novel instigated on a community, the paradigm shift van Vogt effected upon a specific sub-culture.

    Namely, “Fans are Slans.”

    As you pointed out in your previous vacation report, van Vogt very well could have been aiming for an analogy between Slans and the Jews under the Nazis, but the Futurians and other scientifiction fans latched onto a more parochial view. Namely us Fans are the Slans.

    Like the Slans, science fiction fans are isolated, lonely, unhappy in their home life, misunderstood and mocked (if not persecuted) by society. But in reality they are a secret society of super-intelligent superior beings, the coming replacements for the mundane masses.

    Slan soon became the springboard for a whole world of crazy, everything from the plethora of Slan Shacks that sprung up in pre-War America, to that colony a particularly disturbed fan (but I repeat myself) established on his Mom’s property in the Ozarks that was intended to be an honest-to-goodness Slan training center.

    You might have found it jarring, but when Jonny turns 15, I’m certain that’s when Slan started clicking for Astounding’s loyal readers. That mass of male adolescents could now project themselves into the story, and be Jonny Cross in a way they never could with the too, too perfect Kimball Kinnison.

    1. Mark, I skimmed quite a bit of Slanology this morning and it’s got some fascinating stuff in it. I was particularly interested in the revision history, if for no other reason than as a writer myself, I’m often curious about the process other writers use in revising and choosing what to revise.

      I’d heard somewhere that van vogt made so many revisions because he was trying to address issues brought up by critics of the piece. One critic was Damon Knight, who apparently did’t like anything produced by van Vogt and wrote some scathing letters in this respect (which he later, apparently, regretted). I’d heard of “fans are slans” but I had no idea about the slan shacks you describe or the reaction by the Futurians in seeing themselves as akin to slans. In truth, I can see how some of the Futurians would take the story this way, but for others on the periphery (like Asimov and Pohl, for instance) I have a hard time imaging them swallowing this philosophy. Indeed, in his voluminous autobiography, Asimov barely touches on Slan’s impact on him or the fan community.

      I do think you’re right about Jommy being a more reachable character for Astounding’s core readers than Kimball Kinnison. The latter was like the fully grown up Superman, while Jommy was like an adolescent Clark Kent, still learning what he could do and how he fit into the world.

  2. Ah! But the jump-cut you mention works for me! In the 1951 version, van Vogt adds several pages of text to soften the transition to his fifteenth birthday. But I tend to agree with Alexei Panshin’s take of the serialized ASF SLAN-

    “The truth is that the essence of Slan did not lie in logic and reason, and no amount of tidying could ever be enough to make this story add up neatly and consistently. It might even be argued that the unintended result of those 1951 revisions aiming to make Slan more reasonable was actually to diminish some of the irrational power of the original serial novel.”

    And that jarring quick-cut between Chapter V and VI works because, as Mr Panshin so aptly puts it, “…In Slan, things operate according to the dictates of dream logic. Characters gifted with unaccountable knowledge, and equally unaccountable ignorance, suddenly loom into view, only to disappear again just as abruptly. Anything that seems fixed — like a date, or an attitude, or an identity — may alter without warning and become something other than it was before. In this story, coincidences, unlikelihoods and radical transitions abound — but as within a dream, this just seems the way that things naturally ought to happen.”

    My quotes from Mr Panshin are taken from Part Four of his essay, “Man Beyond Man: The Early Short Stories of A. E. van Vogt.” You can safely read Parts One, Two, and the first half of Three now. When you finish SLAN you can finish Three and most of Four without spoiling your Vacation. The last of Four concerns his output from 1941; Parts Five and Six cover the year 1942.

    In light of the searing criticisms of Damon Knight, Mr Panshin’s essay is a spirited (and very welcome) defense of (quoting from the opening sentence of Mr Panshin’s essay) “The most radical and visionary of the writers of the Golden Age of Astounding, Alfred Elton van Vogt.”

    http://www.enter.net/~torve/articles/vanvogt/vanvogt1.html

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