Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 18: December 1940

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I did a cursory roll call as I prepared for this Episode, which concludes the year 1940. The list of authors that have appeared in the first 18 months of this Vacation brings up two curious facts:

  1. So far as I can tell (and please correct me if I am wrong) none of the authors whose stories appear in the first 18 months of this Vacation are alive today. Fiction or nonfiction.
  2. Of all the authors that have appeared so far, only 3 have been women: Leigh Brackett, Amelia Long, and C. L. Moore. And all three appeared in 1939. No women authors appeared in 1940.

The end of 1940 also brought to a close the 10th anniversary of Astounding. Overall, the issues wasn’t a bad one, but it was not one of my favorites, despite the conclusion of “Slan”.

I wanted to make a brief mention here to the sad news of the passing of Martin H. Greenberg. He, along with Isaac Asimov, collected many stories from the golden age in retrospective volumes organized by year. His passing is a big loss to the science fiction community, and especially to the world of short fiction. Greenberg was science fiction’s premier short fiction anthologist.

There were only 5 pieces of fiction in this issue. In part, that’s because there were also two pretty good science articles. There was of course, the conclusion of “Slan” which takes up the last 40 pages of the issue. And three of the four remaining stories were novelettes.

Campbell’s editorial, “Fog” opens by outing an author’s pseudonym:

As a good many readers already realize, “Robert Willey” is the pen name Willy Ley has used for many years on his fiction material. Largely a scientific writer, Ley has wanted a distinguishing mark for his fiction work, so that there may be no confusion between facts, remarkable as the facts may seem, and the fiction he does.

I think that Campbell reveals this to give a sense of¬†legitimacy¬†to Ley’s pseudonymous story that appears in the issue. Ley’s story is about revolution, and as a German citizen, Ley lived through a number of revolutions. Campbell also mentions that at the time of the writing, Ley is 34 years old, which is more remarkable to me. I have always imagined Ley and Campbell both as ageless. Campbell was only 30 at the time, and at present I am older than both men were when this issue appeared.

The cover story for the December issue is P. Schuyler Miller’s “Old Man Mulligan”. As Campbell blurbs the piece:

 

Mulligan was a queer old guy, with delusions of age. A hundred thousand years of age

This is a pure adventure story, wrapped in a science fictional background and without much real science fiction. The story takes place on Venus, which I have to imagine was fairly stereotyped by now to a contemporary reader as Mars was. The Venus in the story is covered by water, mountains and jungles. It is the story of members of the Space Patrol who are trying to crack down on crime lords on the planet. I was fascinated by Campbell’s blurb, thinking that the story was going to be a precursor to “Methuselah’s Children.” Who was this Mulligan character? Why was he so old?

But as it turned out, the blurb and Old Man Mulligan’s apparent age was more of a tease that was hardly delved into in the story itself. Mulligan knows a lot about surviving on Venus, certainly, and he can tell tall tales, but nowhere does his rumored age tie into the narrative of the story in a meaningful way–except perhaps in the song they sing of Mulligan at the opening.

No, this is a bald-faced adventure story–not a bad one mind you, but I was fooled by Campbell’s blurb and it felt kind of like a bait-and-switch to me. The adventure story, incidentally, feels like a traditional jungle adventure–one that is heavy on monsters and action. For instance:

 

It was like Leviathan of the legends. It rose out of the sea like a billowing wave, washed over with creamy spume–a colossal turtle’s caraprace, studded and ribbed and grown over with barnacles and clinging weeds–an armored, vast-eyed head with¬†sneering¬†beak, set on a wrinkled neck–huge, curving flippers that hooked and scrabbled at the sloping rock. The black bubbles of its lidless eyes stared at the little bandy-legged creature who danced tauntingly before it. A wave broke over its back, hiding it, and then it appeared again, much closer, and began to move ponderously toward the shore, its snaky dragon’s head thrust evilly forward.

Miller writes well, and is only slightly heavy on his adjectives. I’m not sure the quality of the story would qualify it for Unknown, but it felt more like an Unknown story than an Astounding story to me. Not a bad story, but nothing special.

I would describe the art work for the story similarly. The Rogers cover was rather plain, and the Schneeman interiors bordered on pretty awful–especially that first one with the monster turtle emerging from the sea. That said, the story was included in the Asimov/Greenberg retrospective volume for 1940.

The next story, “Legacy” by Nelson S. Bond was my second favorite in the issue. Campbell describes it as:

 

His inheritance¬†was¬†remarkable–a robot with far-from-human intelligence, capable largely of making a nuisance of itself. Or so it seemed–

This was a funny story. And it worked. (In my experience on this Vacation so far, the only other writers to successfully pull of funny stories are de Camp and Asimov.) Now I can add Bond to the list. It is the story of a ship captain who inherits a robot from his uncle. The robot seems worthless, but as the deceased uncle wrote before his death:

This [robot] is Jessifer. Treat him well and follow his precepts and he will bring you the same kind of happiness that has lightened my life. The voice of Jessifer beside you in space should lead you to glowing contentment. He is not, as man, prone to error.

The name Jessifer gave me pause, and of course, at the end, we find out that name has significance. Still, the story remains an amusing one, particularly because Bond made the good decision to tell the story not from Cap Hawkins view point, but from his mate, Sparks. From Sparks eyes, we get to see Hawkins frustration with the robot and its strange behavior first hand. And that strange behavior helps to make “Legacy” a funny story. And of course, in the end, we find that Jessifer was not as worthless (or as nonsensical) as it seemed from the start. As a reader, you kind of had to expect this, but it was still a fun ride trying to figure out just how it would be revealed.

Next up was a novelette, “Spheres” by D. M. Edwards. This was one of those stories in which I bogged down early and couldn’t finish. Campbell blurbs the story in a way that makes it sound interesting:

 

A new author presents a new type of self-defense–and Sezzy-Blacky, a man of two minds, so to speak.

And from what I could make of the story, Sezzy-Blacky where two personalities in the same person. But the story started slowly for me and I kept bogging down and couldn’t make progress. Eventually, I gave up. I did, however, look up D. M. Edwards, whom I’d never heard of. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, “Spheres” is the only story listed under this name.

The single best story in this issue, in my opinion, was ¬†”Fog” by Robert Willey, the pen name for science writer Willy Ley. I was surprised by this story. Going into it, I did not think it would take hold of me the way it did. Campbell blurbs the story as follows:

 

What a revolution in a major nation is really like–by one who has lived through five of them. They’re not mad actions–their maddening uncertainty.

The story is about a revolution in America, as seen through the eyes of an average citizen who we know only as “the manager.” The revolution in question is one of the Soviet Union attempting a take over in the U.S., a startling idea since the U.S. was not directly involved in the Second World War yet and the Cold War, as we know it, did not exist. The story progresses in small steps until all of the sudden, almost overnight, the revolution is complete. From the viewpoint of the manager, we can feel the tension, particularly the uncertainty of what is happening. I was fascinated by how quickly things snowball after a seemingly quiet start. After a night of gunfire the country is virtually transformed. To be honest, that was a little hard for me to believe–such a large-scale revolt without any effort to stop it. ¬†But Ley manages to cover that later on in the story.

The writing was choppy and a little unclear at places, but that actually helps in the telling of the story in this case, and the information being disseminated during such a revolution would be choppy and unclear–the “fog” referred to in the title. To some extent, I felt that the first third of this story could have been the story of Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” told from the point of view of the United States. Like Hubbard’s serial, “Fog” is not really science fiction in the sense that changes in technology affect society in a positive or negative way. This is more of a political thought experiment, and I imagine it ended up in a science fiction magazine to compliment “Final Blackout”. (The Brass Tacks this month were full of letters praising and defending the Hubbard story.)

While reading the story, I wondered whether the story is more fascinating to us today, as a kind of alternate history–or whether it was more fascinating to contemporary readers who were living in the gathering shadows of the the war in Europe.

A. E. van Vogt’s “Slan” concludes in this issue. I thought part IV was better than parts II and III, but having completed the entire thing, I will acknowledge that it did not live up to what I remembered of it when I read it in the late 1990s. Another 7 years go by in this final part and Jommy Cross is now 26 years old. Everything comes together in this part and of course, there are two major revelations that take place that change the nature of the story to some extent. Warning, spoilers follow.

The first big revelation is that Kier Gray is a slan. I’d forgotten about this when I started reading the serial, but somewhere along the way, something I read in the story reminded me that was the case. Of course, the biggest revelation is at the very end of the story, where we get a double-whammy: not only is Kathleen Layton alive, but we are left to ponder the fact that she is Kier Gray’s daughter. As Alva Rogers’ writes in A Requiem For Astounding:

“Slan” came to its smashing climax in the December issue, and with one of the first examples of what was to almost become a trademark of future van Vogt epics–the one sentence, or at the most one paragraph ending of a completely unexpected nature that usually required the reader to completely revise his concept of the meaning of the story.

I felt like there were too many things coincidentally falling into place; I felt as if Jommy Cross was too well-prepared for what was to come in part four to make the part believable. That said, it was still a fun section to read. It was fast-paced up until Jommy meets Kier Gray face-to-face. At that point, it felt like it became a lengthy info-dump through dialog, although much of that information was interesting.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed “Slan” overall as a story, but I don’t think it was as remarkable as Campbell makes it out to be; I don’t think it was worth of the “Nova” designation; and I tend to like the writing style in van Vogt’s short fiction (e.g., “Vault of the Beast”) better than what he displayed in “Slan.”

Part of the reason there were only 5 stories in this issue was because there were two articles.

The first article was “Justinian Jugg’s Patent” by L. Sprague de Camp. This was an article about patents and I found it to be rather interesting. It seems that de Camp was spurred to write it because of a trend in stories to include the attempted theft of “secret patents” when, in fact, there is no such think as a secret patent. (A patent, by definition, is a public record.) The essay covers the difference between a patent and an invention, and even touches on the difference between patents and copyrights. It is well-written and clear and I came away feeling like I knew more about patents than I did going into it. I was amused by one of de Camp’s imagined examples. He talked about a patent for a “mechanical translator,” something that was most certainly science fiction in 1940. More than seven decades later Google Translate is old-hat.

The second article was a solar science piece by R. S. Richardson called “Wanted: Suggestions”. The title refers to the fact that there are numerous open questions in solar science that require some original thought and answers. Richardson was making a plea for ideas for approaching these questions, and was doing so in his friendly, colloquial style that I have enjoyed in all of his articles thus far. He is by far my favorite article-writer for Astounding, and I can see that Asimov was heavily influenced by his style in his own later essays.

Once again, the Brass Tacks found themselves in a strange place, two-thirds or so through the magazine. There were quite a few letters from England in this issue, and if there was any theme to the letters in general, it was to rebut a letter by a Mr. St. Clair from a few issues back who called into question some of the premises behind Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” and who made a pleas for socialism. John D. Clark’s brief letter (many of the others were long) provides as good an example as any of the rebuttals that appear in this issue:

Dear John,

Mr. St. Clair, who write the lead-off letter in the correspondence section of the October Astounding, is obviously one of the Comrades. Hence he possesses a remarkable amount of gullibility and a spectacular type of logic. Very peculiar. A person who holds an author responsible for his characters’ political beliefs possesses an uncontrolled tendency toward extrapolation. Pay no attention. –J. D. Clark.

And I was amused by Mr. Edward Sumers’ letter in which he concludes with:

I liked “Slan,” but where’s the catch? You said that it was all done by a trick–please explain.

Campbell responded with “Trick is this: did you ever before read a superman story in which you liked and felt you understood the superman?”

Campbell clarifies his new method for computing the Analytical Laboratory scores, and beginning with this issue, includes both the position and score the story received (so that, I imagine, you can compare scores against scores across issues). He writes:

 

As votes come in, we chart them against the stories, first place votes giving the story a unit score, third place a 3. Come the day of making up this department, the total scored on each individual story is added, and divided by the number of such scores to give the final rating. Thus of thirty-two readers voted a story first place, eighteen second place, and seven third place, and two fouth place, the total points would be (1*31)+(2*18)+(7*3)+(2*4) = 97. Then 97/(32+18+7+2) = 1.645 as the final.

Based on this method, here are the scores for October 1940. The computed score is included in square brackets and my ranking follows in parentheses:

  1. Slan (part II) by A. E. van Vogt [1.33] (3)
  2. Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates [2.25] (2)
  3. The Warrior Race by L. Sprague de Camp [3.2] (5)
  4. Butyl and the Breather by Theodore Sturgeon [3.22] (1)
  5. White Mutiny by Malcolm Jameson [3.6] (4)

I’m surprised that Butyl and the Breather scored as low as it did, but perhaps it’s because Sturgeon’s writing style is different from what Astounding readers were used to at the time. I imagine he will grow on them.

Here are my ratings for the December issue:

  1. Fog by Robert Willey
  2. Legacy by Nelson S. Bond
  3. Old Man Mulligan by P. Schuyler Miller
  4. Slan (conclusion) by A. E. van Vogt
  5. Spheres by D. M. Edwards

And since we have reached the end of 1940, it only seems fair that I provide a list of my favorite stories for the year. They are listed below and if a serial is included, it is the entire serial, not any one part. Here are my choices for best of 1940:

  1. Final Blackout by L. Ron Hubbard (Apr, May, Jun)
  2. Requiem by Robert A. Heinlein (Jan)
  3. Cold by Nat Schachner (Mar)
  4. The Stars Look Down by Lester del Rey (Aug)
  5. The Mosaic by J. B. Ryan (Jul)
  6. If This Goes On– by Robert A. Heinlein (Feb)
  7. Butyl and the Breather by Theodore Sturgeon (Oct)
  8. Fog by Robert Willey (Dec)
  9. On Was Stubborn by Rene La Fayette (L. Ron Hubbard) (Nov)

With a list of stories like that, I think it was pretty obvious that Astounding was having a banner year.

1941 opens with a new serial, “Sixth Column” by Anson MacDonald (Robert Heinlein). Also are stories by Harry Walton, Nelson S. Bond, Kurt von Rachen (Hubbard) and Manly Wade Wellman.

We’ll kick off the new decade right here in two weeks.

9 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 18: December 1940

  1. I felt like there were too many things coincidentally falling into place; I felt as if Jommy Cross was too well-prepared for what was to come in part four to make the part believable.

    Yeah, I get that feeling from Van Vogt too, things some times fall too neatly in place.

    I never have read Sixth Column, so I will be very curious what you think of it.

    1. Paul, I have to admit to be ultra-sensitive to overly done coincidence in stories. One of my stories was recently rejected for this very thing. From my point of view, when I was writing the story, I felt that I was putting the plot together to tie things up with a nice bow. What I realize now is that nice bow was not really based on actions by the characters but rather elements of coincidence and deus ex machina.

  2. “Richardson was making a plea for ideas for approaching these questions, and was doing so in his friendly, colloquial style that I have enjoyed in all of his articles thus far. He is by far my favorite article-writer for Astounding, and I can see that Asimov was heavily influenced by his style in his own later essays.”

    Plus this.

    In THE GREAT SF STORIES 2: 1941, Isaac Asimov’s comments on L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Exalted” (from the November ASTOUNDING) end with this—

    “…I have admired and loved everything he has written- his non-fiction even more than his fiction. In fact, my non-fiction style began as a conscious imitation of his.”

    1. Mark, I knew that Asimov had modeled part of his non-fiction style on de Camp (just as he modeled his fiction style on Simak), but I was surprised at how similar it also seemed to Richardson’s.

  3. Van Vogt had finished writing most of SLAN by May 1940 with the final touches sent off to Campbell not long after.

    From REFLECTIONS OF A. E. VAN VOGT-

    “The check for SLAN arrived promptly…eight hundred thirty five dollars, which included a twenty-five percent bonus. We were rich!”

    The approximate count for the serialized SLAN is 68,000 words.

  4. Despite the plethora of anthologies edited by August, Groff, John, Judith and Martin Greenberg (the other one) that started popping up after the War, there still remain two or three worthwhile stories rotting away in your Golden Age Vacation pulps that have never once been reprinted. “Fog” is one of them. Good call JTR.

    1. Mark S., I really do try to pick ‘em as I see ‘em but sometimes (like in the case of the December issue) I still wonder if people will think I’m nuts for picking a Willy Ley story over “Slan”. But as I think I said in the post, the story really did surprise me with its ability to convey the suddenness and “fog” of a revolution. Ley did a good job there and the story was truly engaging. I had no idea that it had never been reprinted.

      I didn’t know that de Camp’s fiction was some of the first to make it into hardcovers, but I’m not completely surprised. I haven’t read the Incomplete Enchanter, but I thoroughly enjoyed Lest Darkness Fall. While the method of time-travel in that one was Twain-like, the “technology” that was introduced into the Roman Empire (double-entry accounting) was a unique tool (and may still be) for a time travel story that intended to use technology to change the course of history.

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