Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 17: November 1940

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As I go through this Vacation, I’ve noticed something that I think fans of the era might also have noticed: Campbell’s blurbs for the stories often seemed to give away the story. This isn’t always a bad thing: you wonder how the story will work out, but on some occasions, it really seems as if the blurbs spoil the story. I wrote a post a few days ago in which I talk about this at greater length. But I recognize that (a) I am not a reader from the era in question and times change; and (b) I may be reading too much into his blurbs. So I have decided, as if this episode, to include Campbell’s blurbs for each story and let you decide for yourselves if you think Campbell gives too much away. For stories which you are not familiar with, this is obviously tricky, but for those which you know, I’d be interested to know what you think of his blurbs.

There were only five pieces of fiction in this issue, two novelettes, two short stories, and a serial. There was also the conclusion of Willy Ley’s science article from last month. Alva Rogers, in A Requiem for Astounding hinting that the November issue was a bit of a letdown after the high quality of issues that preceded it, and I steeled myself for disappointment. Nevertheless, I was pleased with several of the stories, and what I ultimately liked and didn’t like surprised me.

One again, Campbell’s editorial was on atomic power. As a reader of the 21st century, I am getting sick of these editorials that consume issue after issue. However, if I try to put myself in the place of a young reader of the time, I’d have to guess I would be as fascinated with them, as I am today about a robot on Mars or a moon of Saturn. At the time, atomic power must have looked as if it would be the end of energy worries for a long time to come. And certainly, before scientists began their self-censoring, it could also be perceived as a rather horrifying threat (see, for instance Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen” (September 1940, Episode 15)). Then, too, for some people, these editorials and articles may have been their only source of atomic science at the time. Personally, I prefer when Campbell writes on other subjects.

The cover of the issue, by Rogers, is for the lead novelette, Vic Phillips “Salvage”. Campbell blurbed this novelette as follows:

Salvaging spaceships will probably be much like salvaging ships of the seas. They don’t get wrecked in deep seas; it’s on the coasts–the planets–they’ll have to hunt.

I don’t seem to have a good track record with Phillips. I tried for a few days to get into this story and could never make it more than a few pages before giving up. It got to the point where I just had to move on to other stories in the issue if I was going to stay close to my schedule. I always feel bad when I can’t finish a story, but there is just too much in each issue to get bogged down. And looking back over this Vacation so far, in what must be close to 100 items, I think there are only 4 or 5 that I haven’t been able to finish. (That horrible Englehardt/Hubbard serial “General Swamp, C.I.C.” and the Normal Knight serial “Crisis In Utopia” make up the bulk of these.)

But move on I did, and found the next story, “Sunspot Purge” by Clifford D. Simak, to be much more enjoyable. Campbell blurbed the story as follows:

They had the greatest newspaper story in history–they’d gotten it with a time-machine!–but the story included the fact they’d never use it.

This is the story of a newspaper reporter who is tasked with taking a time machine into the future and reporting back so that his paper can print the story. Early in the story, there is a discussion of how bad times seem to follow the absence of sunspots and indeed, when the reporter and his companion travel into the future some 500 years, they find the cities desolate and decaying. And–it turns out–there are no sunspots on the sun.

Here is something I like about Simak’s stories: while the plot is rather farfetched and the science in this one borders much more on pseudoscience, Simak’s style and pacing still manages to make it into an enjoyable story to read. It helped that it was a time-travel story, as I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for these yarns. Put another way, it spins the tale well enough to almost always suspend my disbelief.

Almost.

The time machine is placed in an airplane because over time, buildings can be built and landscapes can change and you don’t want to pop into the middle of a skyscraper or find yourself 100 feet off the ground. And so the reporter hops into this airplane and takes off, and then lands the plane safely when they arrive in the future. As a former private pilot, I wondered at this. Never was there any mention that this newspaperman was a skilled pilot, and yet here he was hopping into the plane without hesitation. For that, well, I had a hard time suspending my disbelief. Ultimately, they find that their time machine has been sabotaged and they cannot go back into the past, only farther and farther into the future (like Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero) and so they can never complete the job of reporting the news of the future back in their own time.

Next up was “The Exalted” by L. Sprague de Camp, about which Campbell had to say:

Meet Johnny Black, the educated bear, once more –and a character unique in science fiction: a mad genius! And we mean mad–completely bughouse!

I believe that this is the fourth and last of de Camp’s Johnny Black stories. The only other that appears during this vacation is “The Emancipated” (March 1940, Episode 9). In the lastest installment, Professor Methuen, creator of the process which gave Johnny Black–a black bear–his intelligence, has tried the process on himself to see if it makes him any smarter. It does not. Instead, it makes him into a rather talented practical jokester and it is up to Johnny Black to figure out how to reverse the process before Methuen ruins his career and life’s work.

The story is a funny one and the practical jokes that Methuen plays are clever–but they often depend on gadgets and science that simply defies believability. (For instance, he sets fire to one of the buildings at Yale, but the fire is a complete optical illusion in three dimensions.) Like Simak, however, de Camp has the ability to write well enough to where the writing saves the story and makes it very much an enjoyable, humorous tale. In fact, I liked this one better than Simak’s story, and even better than the previous Johnny Black story from several months back.

In the end, Johnny Black does discover the antidote for Methuen’s madness: alcohol. The more Methuen consumes, the more he goes back to normal professor.

One of the more amusing scenes in the story is when Johnny Black is trying to find an obscene book to read (Black has a an accent and de Camp spells it out literally in the text):

Miss Prescott, an unmistakeable Boston spinster, smiled at him. “Suttinly [sic] Johnny. Just a moment.” She finished typing a letter, opened a drawer, and took out a copy of Hecht’s “Fantazius Mallare.” This she gave to Johnny. He curled up on the floor, adjusted his glasses, and read.

After a while he looked up, saying: “Miss Prescott, I am halfway srough zis, and I stirr don’t see why zey cawr it obscene. I sink it is just durr. Can’t you get me a rearry dirty book?”

“Well, really, Johnny, I don’t run a pornography shop, you know. Most people find that quite strong enough.”

Johnny sighed. “People get exited over ze funnies’ sings.”

Following “The Exalted” was my favorite story of the issue, and another time-travel piece (sort of), “One Was Stubborn” by Rene La Fayette. Campbell blurbs it as:

Maybe if we’d all get together in our beliefs we could get rid of anything–or anyone–we didn’t like, too!

When I scanned the contents pages of this issue, the only name I didn’t recognize was that of Mr. La Fayette. So I did what I always do under these circumstances: I looked him up. And I don’t think any long-time companion on this Vacation will be surprised to learn that Rene La Fayette is yet another pseudonym for Mr. L. Ron Hubbard.

This piece is a story-within-a-story piece. The story opens with a note from the author, saying that the manuscript was given to him by a pseudonymous author named Old Shellback. The story itself is the story that this Shellback has written up to explain exactly what has happened. And what has happened is that a messiah has come to tell the people of the world that–well, let Old Shellback explain it himself:

“The Messiah from Arcturus’ Arcton is teaching the nonexistence of matter. You see, by that he means that all matter is an idea. And it is high time that the world was relieved from the crushing load of materialism which has almost quenched the soul of man. Those are his words. And it’s true. Man is being pushed around by machines and the age of machines has been over for a century, but the machines just keep running, and man, because he is so lazy, keeps using them. Now it may surprise you that a man such as myself, dependent on the ills of the body as I am, should advocate the loss of the body…”

This “loss of body” occurs by stopping to belief in it. In fact, if everyone in the world stops believing in material things, those things simply won’t exist anymore. It has started to happen, but not completely, in part because–you guessed it, Old Shellback refuses to disbelieve. He is the one holdout who threatens the entire program.

Now–as Magnum, P.I. used to say–I know what you’re thinking: Hubbard, writing as La Fayette, and telling a story through Old Shellback is pontificating on a religion, of types, on that includes a Messiah of types. And all of this nearly a decade before his famous essay on Dianetics in the May 1950 issue (Episode 131, if my calculations are correct). I thought the same thing.

Throughout the story, the narrator is constantly fighting a rampant disbelief in the physical world around him, which ends up having real effects on his well-being. In some respects, this story is a very Phillip K. Dickian piece with its bending an contorting of reality and its heaven and hell motifs. And because of this, I think, I really enjoyed the piece, more so than any other in this issue.

The last fiction piece in the issue was part III of A. E. van Vogt’s serial, “Slan.” Of this part, Campbell says:

Part III of Astounding’s first NOVA serial the greatest story of the superman that science-fiction has produced, and fully meriting the title “classic of science-fiction.”

We start right where we left off in the previous installment, with Jommy at the wrong end of a gun, tricked by the tendrilless slan Joanna Hillary. They are on the spaceship that Jommy attempted to steal. In part III, we see a convergence happening. We find that Kathleen Layton is also trapped, caught going through the papers in Kier Gray’s office. Both Jommy and Kathleen are on a collision course, of sorts, and in the end of Part III they do finally meet–and with tragic results.

I am struggling with “Slan” on this second go-around. Each part seems to lose something. Part I was fantastic. Part II not quite as good, and Part III, for all that takes place, is less effective still. Of course, there is still hope for redemption in Part IV–and Campbell has promised that everything is revealed at last in the final paragraph. Well, maybe so, but it is the story-telling that I am struggling with at this point. “Slan” is very much unlike the earlier, much more magnificent stories that we’ve seen by van Vogt so far on this Vacation. It lacks the language and the mood of those earlier pieces. It lacks some of the sophistication as well. This may be because the story is being told from the point of view of a 15-year old boy (what today might be called a YA novel). There is a definite naivete to the story, however, and that grows frustrating.

Why, for instance, didn’t Joanna Hillary simply pull the trigger and be done with it? Why is Jommy able to engage her in an extended, pages long conversation, one that is back-and-forth, and often repetitive? Granted, Asimov does this as well, particularly in his Foundation stories, but there, at least, the naivete seems nonexistent.

Why, too, doesn’t Kier Gray simply get rid of Kathleen Layton? It doesn’t make sense that he holds onto her as long as he does–only to finally turn her over to her ultimate demise. The reason, of course, is to drag out the plot, and I think van Vogt made a mistake in this respect. It may very well be that all is revealed in the final paragraph of Part IV, but to what end when the story is flagging in Part III?

“Slan” is by no means a bad story, but it is not living up to what I remembered of it, nor is it living up to the hype that Campbell built around it. So why was it such a popular story at the time? Well, it is a unique take on the superman story, as Campbell has pointed out. It is also filled with its share of gadgets, and–as it was recently pointed out to me–this was a big draw for readers at the time. But I have to think it was mostly because Jommy is about the same age as a large number of the boys who read the magazine at the time–and they could relate to him because of that.

I am looking forward to Part IV. Especially for that last paragraph, which I do not remember. I have since recalled Kier Gray’s big reveal, but I don’t recall where that takes place or how it changes the dynamic of the story. But I must say that when compared to something like Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen”, “Slan” doesn’t quite hold-up.

And speaking of “Blowups Happen”, with regards to the Analytical Laboratory this month, Campbell writes:

I tried a new method of scoring in working up the votes this month; one of the things that has always bothered me about this analysis of reader opinion is the fact that mean people report on serials only when they’re completed. Hence, if those people do report on the novelettes, the complete stories score more points than the serials–and might not actually represent a true cross-section of feeling.

This time, on the old method, “Blowups Happen” had a clear lead; on the new method it’s exactly tied with “Slan.” And evidently they are both being rated as among the year’s best.

Here are the ratings for September 1940 based on this “new method” (with my ratings following each)

  1. Tie between “Blowups Happen” (Heinlein) [4] and “Slan” (van Vogt) [1]
  2. Homo Sol by Isaac Asimov (3)
  3. Quietus by Ross Rocklynne (2)
  4. The Killkenny Cats by Kurt von Rachen (5)

The skeptic in my has to ask: with all of the promotion that Campbell put into “Slan” was his “new method” devised to accommodate a first place ranking for the story, and at the same time spare the feelings of Campbell?

Here are my ratings for the November 1940 issue:

  1. One Was Stubborn by Rene La Fayette
  2. The Exalted by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Sunspot Purge by Clifford D. Simak
  4. Slan, part III by A. E. van Vogt
  5. Salvage by Vic Phillips

It is worth mentioning a kind-of advertisement that shows up toward the end of the issue, one in which Campbell announces that the original oil painting used for the covers of Astounding will be available for sale:

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How cool would it be to go back in time and send in a form for some of those oil paintings? Sigh!

In the December 1940 issue, we’ll round out the year with the conclusion of van Vogt’s “Slan”, of course. Also in the issue are stories by P. Schuyler Miller, Nelson S. Bond, and a few names I don’t recognize. And a pair of science articles, one by L. Sprague de Camp, and the other by R. S. Richardson.

See you here two weeks!

7 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 17: November 1940

  1. Hunh.

    I never heard of the Simak story, but now I see parallels between it and my favorite Poul Anderson time travel story, where going back to the past proved amazingly difficult to accomplish.

  2. Jamie, when you have time, could you post a bit on the Willy Ley two-part science piece, “The Search For Zero”?

  3. Mark, I’d meant to include it in this post, and I got distracted after the power outage. In my rush to get the post out, I forgot. I will do a separate post on it in the next couple of day. Sorry about that!

  4. Seeking ill of the dead, I’m certain that at this point De Camp was more than ready to ring down the curtain on Johnny Black – this last episode comes across as rather perfunctory. “The Exalted” is less a narrative than a grab bag of all the leftover gags and jokes that de Camp came up with for his talking bear.

    Lyon was having so much more fun with Fletcher Pratt crafting those Harold Shea burlesques for the sister pulp Unknown. In fact the very first fiction from Campbell’s reign over his two Street & Smith pulps to make it into hardcovers was not by Heinlein, or Hubbard, or E.E. Smith but de Camp (The Incomplete Enchanter & Lest Darkness Fall, both 1941). Though Del Rey & Sturgeon are close seconds thanks to their inclusion in the anthology “The Other Worlds” (also published in 1941).

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