Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 19: January 1941

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Happy new year and welcome to 1941. And what a year it looks to be. I posted a preview of the covers for 1941 yesterday, and these covers are now also available on the main Vacation index page. Reading the letter columns of the time, fans clearly through the magazine was getting better and better. And 1941 looks to keep that trend going. I think Robert Heinlein has a story in 9 out of the 12 issues in 1941. Isaac Asimov starts his regular appearances in the magazine and we’ll start to see his early Robot stories appear this year. (The first of the Robot stories, “Robbie” appeared in one of Fred Pohl’s magazines and was given the awful title of “Strange Playfellow”.) But it is this year that the Laws of Robotics will be codified for the first time. There are some promising serials by “new” names, as well as serials by old favorites. Doc Smith has a new Lensman serial toward the end of the years. In all, it looks like an outstanding year, marred only, perhaps, by the tragic events that brought the United States into the Second World War during December.

Magazines evolve over time. We’ve already seen some of that in this Vacation, and we will see more of that as the year progresses into 1942, when the size and layout of Astounding changes. Change can be good. You’ll notice some subtle changes in the format of this Episode. While the writing style (I hope) stays the same, I’ve tried to make the organization more obvious and easier to follow. In particular, I’ve tried to make it more clear where in a given episode  reader can find a particular piece. This is in preparation for some new features I am hoping to release in the next couple of months that will allow readers to more easily cross-reference authors and stories and see a listing of episodes that a specific author appears in. Keep an eye out for that. One other change: I’ve put Campbell’s blurbs of the stories in boldface type directly below the story titles.

For now, however, relax, take your mind off Google+, the evening news, the boss, the kids, and slip back into the seemingly halcyon days of 1941…

Editorial: “Invention” by John W. Campbell

While Campbell’s editorial for this month seems like a plea for new inventions–particularly those that will help to win a war–it is really nothing more than a blatant, 2-page ad for Anson MacDonald’s new serial, “Sixth Column”. Campbell outlines two inventions that will allow terrific advances to take place within a few years. The first is atomic control which “incorporates atomic power, transmutation, and the further possibilities now unknown, but inherent in the availability of intra-atomic forces.” The second is what he calls “ultrafrequency radio”, and to be honest, I am not sure what he is talking about here, although I suspect he isn’t entirely sure either.

The editorial reminds me of some of Campbell’s letters to writers (some of which may be found in The John W. Campbell Letters, edited by Perry A. Chapdelaine, Sr., Tony Chapdelaine, and George Hay) in that on occasion, you can’t make heads or tails about what he’s discussing, or what point he is trying to make.

The Editorial notwithstanding, this issue is packed with a lot of fiction: 7 stories including 1 serial, two novelettes, and 4 shorts, as well as two articles. It also includes a book review and I think that is the first time I’ve encountered one in this Vacation.

Sixth Column (Part 1) by Anson MacDonald

Beginning a three-part serial of a strange rebellion. An utterly conquered America with an army of six men and a mighty–but useless!–weapon.

Last issue, Campbell referred to Anson MacDonald as a “new writer”. At the time, I pointed out the lie for what it was. Fans will recognize the name as a pseudonym for the increasingly prolific Robert Heinlein. As I mentioned in that episode, Heinlein wanted to keep his Future History stories separate from the other stories he wrote, and therefore chose to write under a pseudonym.

“Sixth Column,” my second favorite story this issue, is the story of a small number of survivors of a catastrophic war in the United States. The “Pan-Asians” have destroyed the government, virtually enslaved the population under a harsh dictatorship, and the only people who can possibly do anything about is a very small band of men at the Citadel, hidden somewhere in the Rockies and unbeknownst to the enemy. This small band of men has discovered a powerful weapon–one that can kill simply by tuning in the right frequency. It can kill one man in a group, or many. It can alter material. The problem is: how can it be used effectively against 400 million enemy?

There are three main players: Whitey Ardmore, who as the last military representative of the fallen government, takes charge of the operation. There is Colonel Calhoun, in charge of research. And then there is the lowly private Jefferson Thomas who, we learn, was formerly a lawyer and hobo and who ends up leading the Citadel’s intelligence-gathering machine. Part 1 seems to deal mostly with these men getting their bearings and deciding how to prosecute this war against the enemy. And it ends with a conclusion that was perhaps new at the time, but contains a certain irony now: they will conquer the enemy by founding a new religion.

I noted a number of interesting things throughout this entertaining story. First, there is an overt connection to Hubbard’s “Final Blackout”. At first, I wasn’t certain that it was overt, until I came across the following passage:

It would have to be something like the “fifth columns” that destroyed the European democracies from within in the tragic days that led up to the final blackout of European civilization. But this would not be a fifth column of traitors, bent on paralyzing a free country, but the antithesis of that, a sixth column of patriots whose privilege it would be to destroy the morale of invaders, make them afraid, unsure of themselves.

This was the second reference to the term “final blackout” in the story, but the first that made it clear that European democracies in Europe had been destroyed–as they had been in Hubbard’s story.

Another item of interest was that I caught an early reference to Einstein. Today, in SF stories, future scientists are likely to mention Newton and Einstein and usually a third, imagined scientist in the same sentence. Einstein is mentioned in “Sixth Column” and at a time when the man was still alive and kicking. I just found it amusing.

Of course, I would be remiss not to point out the name of who seems to be the hero of the story, Jefferson Thomas. When his name is reversed it is Thomas Jefferson, and I think this became a kind of common practice for Heinlein to pay an homage to people he admired.

Of all of the Heinlein stories I’ve read so far in this Vacation, “Sixth Column” had a passage in it that sounded like Heinlein from a few years later, brilliant in both its description as it was caustic in its commentary:

He was an old anarchist comrade who had served his concept of freedom by engraving really quite excellent Federal Reserve notes without complying with the formality of obtaining permission from the Treasury department.

There was an uncomfortable amount of racism in the story with regard to Asians. Heinlein, however, did include an Asian American as an important character in the story–one assisting in the effort to destroy the Pan-Asian invasion. It was difficult for me to tell, however, if the racism was on the part of the author or the characters. One thing is for certain: the story alludes elliptically to internment of Asians (as well as the killing of Asian Americans by the Pan-Asians), something that would actually begin to take place in the United States a year later.

Two interesting items regarding the artwork for “Sixth Column”:

  1. The cover, by Rogers, depicts a scene in the story that doesn’t appear in Part 1. This has happened before, in Doc Smith’s “Gray Lensman”.
  2. One interior picture by Schneeman (see below) has an image of three men consultant. The figure in the middle (presumably Colonel Calhoun) bears striking resemblance, in my opinion, to how Heinlein looked back in those days.
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Finally, I’d mention that the theme of revolution found in “Sixth Column” is similar to what we saw earlier in Willy Ley’s “Fog”.

The Day We Celebrate by Nelson S. Bond

Everybody agreed it was a day to celebrate, but there was a slight confusion as to why, how, and for what reason–

Next up is a light story by Nelson Bond about a group of men on a penal colony on Uranus who get orders to take care of the natives once and for all. The orders are issued and are to-be-executed on “Empire Day,” a huge holiday back on Earth. But many of the colonists are so far gone from Earth that they don’t really recall what holidays are what. All of this leads to a huge misunderstanding. Some of the members of the penal colony head off for instructions, while those left behind decide to take care of the situation on their own. And when the resulting forces return to exterminated the Uranian enemies, they find colonists and Uranians alike gathered in a massive party–and all because the colonist who took charge knew nothing of Empire Day (which came in late November) and thought instead it was Christmas.

This was a mildy humorous story, and those are always nice to see because they are pretty rare in Astounding, so far. Bond is a good story-teller and I think fans of the time were familiar with his style. But the story was noting special. The best it had to offer was an early reference to terraforming (although not quite using those words):

And far Pluto was under constant electrono-mirror bombardment that its icy surface might someday be cleared.

The Mechanical Mice by Maurice G. Hugi

The inventor had spent twelve years perfecting the machine–a thing of marvelous complexity. Trouble was–he didn’t know what had been invented!

I’d never heard of Maurice G. Hugi when I started reading “The Mechanical Mice” but I wanted to know more about him by the time I finished. With time-travel, mechanical intelligence, and a good puzzle, this was the best story in the issue.

The premise of the story is that a reporter is talking to an inventor, Dan Burman, who is confessing that a battery for which he is famous, is not really his invention: he stole it from the future. Of course, this implies he has some kind of time machine with which to view the future, and he demonstrates this device to the reporter. The problem is that Burman has spent the last dozen years inventing a device for which he has no explanation for idea of its function. It is a kind of coffin-like box that he saw far in the future and it filled with all kinds of gears and other works. It stands in a room making whirring noises.

However, as we learn, the device can move. It has doors that can open and close on their own. And around the same time, valuable watches and scientific instruments start disappearing and cats around the town are being found with their throats cut. A pretty gruesome affair. We learn that this “coffin” is in fact some kind of intelligent machine, capable of taking the parts on which it “feeds” and reproducing. And it is up to Burman and the reporter/narrator to out an end to this entity once and for all.

The story is well-written and the pace fast and kept me reading along at a good clip. And there were some nice connections with other things that I noted along the way. While this story is not about Big Dumb Objects, the coffin-like device initially appears as just a dumb object, and it was clever to have an inventor create something from the future the function of which he did not know. In some ways, this idea predates “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” by Lewis Padgett (Kuttner and Moore) in that a device from the future appears in the present, the function of which is unknown and potentially dangerous.

Then too, the story reflects some of the angst over the possibility of devastating weapons in general. While an atomic bomb had yet to be invented, the idea of such a device had already appeared in science fiction and the idea of an ultimate weapon at a time when Germany was ravaging Europe was probably on many people’s mind. Consider this passage from the story:

I didn’t realize it, but I was patiently building the most dangerous thing in creation, a thing that is a terrible menace because it shares with mankind the ability to propagate.

In many respect, the narrator could be speaking of an atomic weapon. (After World War II, they did propagate profusely for many decades).

Barry N. Malzberg, who has been a boon companion on this Vacation, provided me with a list of the stories that appeared in the Asimov/Greenberg retrospectives volumes during the years of the Golden Age. Without looking, I’d guessed that “The Mechanical Mice” would have made the list and indeed it did, the only story from January to appear in the 1941 volume.

And what of the author, Hugi? A quick search led me to discover that Hugi was a pseudonym for the better-known Eric Frank Russell. However, Hugi was apparently a real person, a friend of Russell who gave him the idea for this story in the first place. In any event, it is a great story and if you can find that Asimov/Greenberg volume, I’d recommend you read it.

The Traitor by Kurt von Rachen

If you need equipment badly enough, you can usually make your enemy donate it–if you’re sharp enough!

We all know by now that von Rachen is none other than L. Ron Hubbard. It’s kind of amusing to note that both Heinlein and Hubbard appear in this issue, but their names are not used at all to sell or promote the issue. One would think that by now, their names had some value and cache, but for whatever reason, they continued to produce some of their output under pseudonyms. I wonder if this ever frustrated Campbell?

“The Traitor” is the third story involving the “Kilkenny Cats”. The first story, “The Idealist” appeared in the July 1940 Astounding (Episode 13) and the second, “The Kilkenny Cats” appeared in the September 1940 Astounding (Episode 15). “The Traitor” is the best of the batch, in my opinion.

While the story stands well on its own, Hubbard cleverly refers to the earlier stories almost by their titles within the narrative of this one. In reference to “The Idealist” he writes (boldface type is mine):

Disillusionment was still written upon her for she had trusted the leaders of the People’s Party, had idealized and had been cast out…

In reference to “The Kilkenny Cats”, in which the group has to survive in exile, he writes:

..young enough to see adventure in being thrust bodily from Earth and abandoned in space, exiled under the guise of “expedition.

With a return to our exiled friends in this third story, Hubbard adds a nice mystery. Many of the exiles are coming down with a virus that gives them a green tinge and ultimately kills those who suffer from it. Steve Gailbraith discovers a beacon that leds he and Vicky Stalton to a 500 year old artifact. There is a warning about the virus from the original colonists which implies that Earth knew about the virus when they were sent and they weren’t really being exiled, but executed.

Gailbraith undertakes to leave the planet once and for all–and he does so by “turning traitor”. He reports that what they actually discovered was a ship that is almost workable–will be workable within a month. This imaginary ship would pirate the space lanes. Earth, in response, sends out a ship to investigate and wipe out the remaining exiles. The exiles feel betrayed by Gailbraith, but when the ship arrives, Gailbraith commandeers it and the exiles are finally able to escape the planet.

This is just a fun space adventure story. I felt like a sixteen year old boy, sitting ont he couch reading this one and imagining I was among those exiles, trying to make my escape with them.

Starting Point by Normal R. Goldsmith (Article)

We’ll agree that rocks don’t live and sponges do. Somewhere in between there’s the starting point of life–but where? A science article on the difficulty of drawing the line.

Next up was the first science article of the issue, “Starting Point”. At first, it seemed that this article was going to be about defining when something is alive versus not alive, and indeed that was the general thrust of the article. But it made this sometimes subtle distinction vivid by talking about all kinds of viruses and how they work. Goldsmith pointed out that for living things, reproduction is key, and for nonliving things, parasitism is pragmatic.

But in the course of the article, Goldsmith discusses Rickettsia, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Bacteriophage, Rabies and many other viruses. He discusses the treatments and the creation of vaccines, as well as how they spread. It was a genuinely fascinating article that I didn’t want to end. One of the better articles I’ve read since R. S. Richardson’s piece on the life of an astronomer.

Lost Rocket by Manly Wade Wellman

Accidents will happen, on planet or in space–but sometimes somebody very much wants them to happen!

Wellman has had some good stories in Astounding during this Vacation, including “Forces Must Balance” from way back in September 1939 (Episode 3). This one didn’t live up to what I’ve come to expect from him, however.

In truth, upon first reading the opening of “Lost Rocket” I grew tense. At present, I am working on a story that I pitched to Stan Schmidt that involves a disaster on a spacecraft which then becomes stranded in space, far from Earth. But as I progressed through the story, I saw that that was pretty much where the similarities end. In “Lost Rocket” the captain of the ship was thrown into the brig for allegedly bringing explosives onto the ship. His first mate was placed in charge and it was on their way to Jupiter, when the explosion happened, destroying much of the ship and killing most of the crew except a few remaining survivors, including a Martian.

Unfortunately, I think Wellman telegraphed his intentions in the story too much. It became a whodunit, and it was pretty obvious to me from early on who the culprit was (and I turned out to be right). Another problem I had with the story was that I felt that reason for the sabotage was not really good enough and that the plot lacked the necessary motivation. As a piece of space adventure fiction, it is entertaining at times, but Wellman has done much better.

The Opportunists by E. A. Grosser

It was a magnificent, uplifting ideal when it started. The power to remake a world gone wrong. But somehow–the wrongness crept into the ideal and out of the world–

I’d never heard of Grosser before reading this story and I’d assumed it was another pseudonym. It may be, but I couldn’t find much information. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database lists Grosser as having written 13 pieces of fiction between 1940 and 1942–and that’s it.

The story is about a utopia in which–after some cataclysmic disaster (shortly after the publication of Gone with the Wind, apparently)–is established to try and make right all the things that weren’t right about society to begin with. There are “Masters” who oversee everyone else. Everyone else is illiterate. The Masters use subversive techniques to identify who might be problems by baiting them. The main character in this piece, Dan, is tricked into becoming a master himself only so that he will display his subversive side.

In many respects, this story, like many of this type, is a thought-experiment executed as a piece of fiction. The problem is that I don’t think that the story-telling lived up to the potential of the idea in this one.

Doom Ship by Harry Walton

The ship was done, half-wrecked, and the crew was done. Outcasts, the useless dregs. And the ship was headed for the sun–though that wasn’t her only port of call.

The final piece of fiction in the January issue was a novelette by Harry Walton called “Doom Ship” and I couldn’t get through it. There is something about Walton’s stories that don’t agree with me. I rated his story, “Episode on Dhee Minor” (October 1939, Episode 4) at the bottom for that issue and I also rated his “Moon of Exile” (August 1940, Episode 14) low. I’m sure Walton had his fans; otherwise he wouldn’t be showing up in Astounding. But I just can’t get into his stories.

What stopped me on “Doom Ship” was a mistake I have made in my own fiction–one on which an editor has called me on–and that I hope that I have learned from. At the opening of the story we learn almost at once that the narrator, Garth, is unable to get berth aboard a ship. He repeats this over and over again. He is offered a position, but says he won’t pass a physical. He is told they have a doctor that will give him a physical and if he doesn’t pass he’ll get 5 credits. He goes to the doctor and of course, he passes and gets a berth on the ship.

After all of that insistence that it couldn’t be done, Garth ended up getting a berth way too easily. There is a fatal flaw there (this is what I learned from the editor with regard to my story). He gets the berth too easily after insisting he wouldn’t get it, and it appears a deus ex machina. If there never had been the insistence at the start, it might have gone over easier, but it seemed to me that this character, despite his apparent drug problem, walked on water and things just worked out for him and I couldn’t really read beyond that, I’m afraid.

Dead–and Embalmed by Arthur McCann

McCann’s brief, blurbless essay at the back of the issue brought readers up-to-date on the latest discoveries with respect to Earth’s sister world, Venus. It delved into the cloud structure, the chemical composition of the atmosphere, but it is yet too early, apparently, to detect the runaway greenhouse effect that elft the surface of the planet scorching. It would have been nice if that had been discovered a bit earlier that it had. I’ve been growing a bit tired of stories set on Venus in lush rainforest-like jungles.

Book Review

There was a book review in this issue. The book in question was Life On Other Worlds by H. Spencer Jones, MacMillan, 1940. Campbell wrote the book review and was generally positive about the book, which considers the question of alien life, first on the planets of the solar system and then beyond.

Analytical Laboratory and Ratings

The AnLab reports the results from November 1940 this month. Here they are, along with the new score and my rating from Episode 17:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Slan (Part 3) A. E. van Vogt 1.24 4
2. Salvage Vic Phillips 2.45 5
3. The Exalted L. Sprague de Camp 2.78 2
4. One Was Stubborn Rene La Fayette 3.33 1
5. Sunspot Purge Clifford D. Simak 4.50 3

 

You can see the huge jump in raw score between first and second place (people really love “Slan”) but there is an equally big jump between fourth and fifth place. Once again, my twenty-first century mentality just doesn’t jive with contemporary responses to these stories.

Here are my ratings for the stories in this, the January 1941 issue:

  1. The Mechanical Mice by Maurice G. Hugi
  2. Sixth Column, Part 1 by Anson MacDonald
  3. The Traitor by Kurt von Rachen
  4. Starting Point (Article) by Norman R. Goldsmith
  5. Lost Rocket by Manly Wade Wellman
  6. The Day We Celebrate by Nelson S. Bond
  7. The Opportunists by E. A. Grosser
  8. Doom Ship by Harry Walton

Brass Tacks

There were a couple of interesting letters this time around. Since this Episode has gone way over its normal length, I’ll briefly call attention to two:

First is a letter from a Mrs. J. A. Thomas regarding some comments Campbell had made a while back about why the Navy seems to produce more science fiction writers than the army. She writes, in part:

Let me explain to Corporal Meyer that it is quite understandable why the army doesn’t write science fiction. It has long been known that the army’s brains are in its feet–at least to the navy–and it takes brains located in the proper storage vault to write science fiction and sell it to Astounding.

She signs off with:

Hoping this letter fill find Astounding getting bigger and better, and Corporal Meyer doing K.P.

Ouch! For some reason her entire letter cracked me up.

There was also a very long letter from Isaac Asimov in the science discussions rebutting another letter concerning psychology. The letter is two and a half columns of very fine print long. But I have to quote one passage, typical of a young Asimov:

You see, when a person says that a problem’s “very nature” renders it insoluble, he is sticking his neck out so far that it would be a crime to refrain from chopping it off.

In Times to Come

February 1941 brings up part 2 of MacDonald/Heinlein’s “Sixth Column.” Nelson Bond gets the cover, and Heinlein gets a second story in the issue, under his own name this time, a little yarn called “–And He Built A Crooked House”.

This is officially the longest Episode yet, at slightly more than 4,300 words. I’ve got to learn to be a little more terse, but I’m having so much fun that I sometimes get carried away. Forgive me.

See you back here in two weeks.

9 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 19: January 1941

  1. It was the racism that I had heard about in Sixth Column that has kept me away from finding a copy of the novel version and reading it. I see that I didn’t know the story as well as I thought I did from various summaries and the like.

    1. I’d never read “Sixth Column” or heard much about it before tackling it for this Episode, so I hadn’t heard about the racism and I didn’t see mention of it in Alva Rogers book (although I may have overlooked that). I don’t let the racism (or sexism in these stories) keep me away from them. As disturbing as it is, it does provide a window into the social context of the time the stories were written and appeared. Sometimes stories like these provide a more honest view of the overt racism than the authors themselves would have been willing to admit.

  2. I just wanted to say that I enjoy these Golden Age articles very much and feel that in no way can the length of this one be considered excessive. There is nothing to forgive! Please do not abbreviate your musings on all of our accounts.

  3. What is nifty about “The Mechanical Mice” is that this yarn has – nearly a decade before von Neumann himself advanced the concept in “General and Logical Theory of Automata” -the very first description of a von Neumann machine.

    “Can one build an aggregate out of such elements in such a manner that if it is put into a reservoir, in which there float all these elements in large numbers, it will then begin to construct other aggregates, each of which will at the end turn out to be another automaton exactly like the original one?” (John von Neumann, 1948)

    That seems to me a fairy good description how those pesky kitty throat slitters operate.

    And am I this only one who reads this passage:

    … he wore a small, black box where his laurel wreath ought to have been. His audience was similarly dressed, and all were balancing their boxes like a convention of fish porters.

    and thinks Eric Frank Russell was sneaking in a reference to tefflin under the noses of the goyem?

  4. Compared to the depictions of the Japanese that are going to show up in your vacation a year from now, the portrayal of the Pan-Asians in “Six Against the Empire” (Heinlein’s original title) is a model of multi-cultural sensitivity.

    “Sixth Column” / “The Day After Tomorrow” is a reimagining of an unsold John W. Campbell story “All” – unsold because Street & Smith would not permit Campbell to publish his own fiction either in Astounding or the rival pulps while he was on the masthead.

    “All” is not at all the racist tract that Heinlein’s biographers claim it is, at least not in the version I read in “The Space Beyond” (Pyramid 1976).

    1. Mark, I think the racism in the story was, as I said, a reflection of the time. Isaac Asimov admitted as much in the retrospective volume of his autobiography. Writing about pulp fiction, he said:

      [Pulp fiction] flourished in the pre-World War II days, and in those days racism and racial stereotypes were an ingrained part of the American scene. It was not till World War II and the fight against Adolf Hitler’s racism that it became unfashionable for Americans to express racist views.

      It’s unsettling to see it nowadays even in something written seventy years ago, but it also tells us something (unpleasant) about the culture of the time in which it was published.

      Regarding “The Mechanical Men”, I wondered whether it was the first story to depict “artificial life” or machine life, but didn’t make the von Neumann connection (an apt one) until you pointed it out. It makes the story that much more chilling. Almost as if such a time machine really did exist and Russell used it to jump a decade into the future to get wind of a von Neumann machine.

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