Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 20: February 1941

photo.JPG

When the Golden Age began with the July 1939 (Episode 1) issue of Astounding, spaceflight of any kind, let along human spaceflight was still a dream of science fiction writers and perhaps a few eccentric scientists. It would be some 23 years before the United States put a man in space. Between Episode 19 and this Episode, the 133rd and last space shuttle flight took place and for the moment, there is a pause in the human spaceflight program in the United States. I recently wrote why I think this pause is temporary, but part of my reasoning involved the fact that we, as humans, have a desire to explore the unknown, and science fiction writers, many of whom appear in this Vacation, were pioneers in imagining just how it might be done.

On the whole, many of the stories written in the Golden Age didn’t really capture the complexities of space flight. On the other hand, some of the stories did manage to imagine some of the realities of it, not just scientific challenges, but social and political ones. For me, science fiction is not and never has been a literature of prediction, but rather one of exploration. It explores the possibilities, examines how technological change impacts society for better or worse, and reports back in imaginative ways the impact of those changes. Hard science fiction stories in particular, which Campbell willingly or otherwise helped introduce, act almost like primitive models for such exploration. Hard science fiction stories today are rather different than what you’ll find in this Vacation–everything evolves over time–but in many ways, they are better. They are written by writers with a better understand of the underlying science and a better ability to assess the impact of technological change in ways that could not be done before the dawn of the space age. The important explorations that these writers today will make are not necessarily those to other world, but instead, how we will overcome our political, fiscal, and bureaucratic challenges of getting to those other worlds.

Will it be governments or private industry or some combination that will get us there? It is impossible to say for certain. But just as the writers of the Golden Age gave us possibilities for getting to, surviving and living in space in the first place, so the writers today will explore our options and challenges in making that next giant leap.

Editorial: “Invitation” by John W. Campbell

And speaking of science fiction writers, Campbell’s 1-page editorial in the February 1941 issue is an “invitation” to all writers, new or seasoned, to send stories to Astounding. I don’t know if Campbell was the only editor at the time making these occasional pleas (we’ve seen him do this for non-fiction articles as well) but it is a trend that continues in Analog today with Dr. Stanley Schmidt writing occasional editorials geared toward encouraging new writers to submit to the magazine.

As Campbell puts it:

Every individual story, no matter whose name it bears, stands exactly equal chance of acceptance or rejection purely on its individual merits. Write a better story than those now being accepted, and you’ll get the jam with our blessing.

Campbell points out that Heinlein, de Camp, and Van Vogt all published their first stories in Astounding. He goes on to explain what he means by “jam.”

“Jam” in the above sense is useful. Briefly, it amounts to the equivalent of a couple of news suits, or a suit and overcoat, for a short story, a new radio with, say, FM tuning for a novelette, and a new car or so far a novel.

“Jam” is a good term for this, I think, especially if you write as an avocation, as I do. The “jam” I earned for my story in Analog back in July was used to buy the bulk of the issues of Astounding for this Vacation. I like the idea of investing my writing money into an endeavor that allows me to pursue my love of the genre itself. That indeed is jam in my book.

The February issue contains two novelettes, four short stories, two articles, and part 2 of a serial.

Magic City by Nelson S. Bond

A tale of a civilization starting upward again–under the handicaps of misunderstanding!

There were two stories in this issue that I thought were really outstanding, each for different reasons. Nelson S. Bond’s “Magic City” is the first. There are a number of things that make this story exceptional. The story itself is, even at this early point in the Golden Age, a fairly well-worn plot. A tribe of survivors on Earth are attempting to find other survivors in some distant, post-apocalyptic future. We’ve seen a few of these stories already, notably “The Last Hope” by Don Evans (September 1939, Episode 3). But there were several things that made this story stand out among these similar plot lines, as well as among the other stories in this issue.

First was the use of language. Bond uses a distortion of English to give a sense of distance in time from contemporary events. And while others have done this since, I think his attempt works very well. In many instances, extra syllables are dropped and words are otherwise distorted to give it just a slightly unfamiliar, and yet recognizable feel. And recognition is important because the chosen words are important to our understanding of the situation in the narrative, and the framework in which it is taking place. For instance, the name of the nation in which they live is called “Tizathy” which sounds alien enough until you realize, in one passage about an ancient prayer, the name comes from “‘Tis of Thee.” The protagonists make their way north from their homelands and eventually into the city of evil, decayed as it is. There they learn of places from the locals called Be-Emptys and Aiartees. These underground people live in passages that form a maze beneath the city and it wasn’t long before it dawned on me that Bond was describing the subways beneath New York, the BMTs and IRTs.

The story was also original in its strong female protagonist, Meg. We learn that there was essentially a war between the sexes with the woman winning and driving the men away to become “wild-ones” captured only for continuing the species when needed. But Meg’s society is more enlightened and her male companion, Daiv, clearly subordinate to gives the story just the right feel to make the background seem realistic enough. There is even a reversal on the contemporary sexual politics of the time:

Meg was of the emancipated younger generation; she had accepted the new principle that men were women’s equals.

Coming into New York and exploring the empty city–wandering through the desiccated ruines of Madison Square Garden for instance–had a haunting quality. I could picture what New York is like today and imagine the seemingly horrific desolation of what Meg and Daiv found in their journey to the city. It reminded me of my own rambling through the ancient city of Miletus in Turkey some years ago. Standing in the ruins of the theater there, thousands of years old, with a hand propped against the stone wall of one of the vomitoriusm, I wondered what great philosopher also stood there to keep out of the heat, perhaps complaining about his domestic life and wondering what he’d have for dinner.

In some ways, the story is a brilliant precursor to one of my favorite Alfred Bester stories, “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” which also involves a desolate and abandoned New York City (although in the latter case, it is because it has been destroyed by aliens). But that story also has a strong female protagonist in Linda Nielson. I think that “Magic City” is Bond’s best story so far and its stylistic originality helped it stand well above most of the other stories in the issue.

Castaway by Robert Moore Williams

Concerning a slight misunderstanding as to the point of a certain castaway on the Caribbean island–

There is a subgenre of science fiction in which aliens are hidden on Earth, one of which is discovered, either recognized for what it is (or not) and manage to make their escape just before humans can get to them and corrupt them in some way (physically through experimentation or otherwise). It is almost a reversal on alien abduction stories, but not quite. I’m not sure this subgenre has a name, but you’d recognize it in movies like E. T.: The Extraterrestiral, or Short Circuit. (For some reason, movies seems particularly fond of this plot.)

I don’t know that “Castaway” by Robert Moore Williams is the first of these types of stories, but it is certainly what I’d consider archetypical of the trope. In this case, Parker, our protagonist, is in the lighthouse service. He’s just returned from a two-week stint, when he is asked to go back out to cover for a colleague mysteriously injured. He learns initially that his colleague broke his arm, but of course, this isn’t the whole truth. He finally agrees to go out and man the lighthouse. Once there, he encounters an unusual native, Bobo, who doesn’t seem quite right.

We quickly learn that Bobo is not what he seems. He is making use of the radio equipment, for instance. As Parker tries to figure out the mystery, we see Bobo dash off into the sea. Shortly thereafter, a massive submarine lurches up from the waves–and keeps going. Of course, we quickly learn that this was not a submarine at all but an alien spaceship. We further learn that Parkers colleague was not injured, but reported what he saw–and was put into a mental hospital for it. Parker reports the same thing at the end of the story and it becomes clear that management will have to start taking things more seriously.

These day, this is a well-worn plot, and while it makes for an entertaining story, the underlying psychology of the story seems to be more about the reliability of human observation and when it can and cannot be trusted. At the same time, it is possible that this quiet little story began the trend for these types of stories to come and was a distant ancestor to our modert E.T. stories.

Trouble on Tantalus by P. Schuyler Miller

There was a mystery somewhere on that little-known planet, and like it or not, Moran was being carried into the heart it!

Miller’s story was my least favorite in the issue. While Campbell casts it as a mystery, the story, to me, was nothing more than an series of action sequences punctuated by brief dialog without much int he way of real mystery. It made it somewhat interesting that the events took place on Sirius, simply because many of these early stories take place within the solar system, or if they do take place outside, usually involve some nameless star.

There is a kind of King Solomon’s Mines feel to the opening paragraphs of the story, but that’s about the high point for me, with Miller weaving a repetitive drum beat (VUB, vub, vub, vub, VUB, vub, vub, vub) through that opening sequence.

I felt like there was a decent attempt to describe the alien life of the planet Tantalus, and even allow for some of the culture to emerge, but the story really didn’t seem to focus on that. This was an action story at a time that I wasn’t really looking for much of an action story but something more interesting. I think “Trouble on Tantalus” might have worked better if it was shorter. It will be interesting to see (in Episode 22) what fans thought of this story. Am I completely off base on this one? Given the quality of the other stories in this issue, this one just sinks below.

Indeed, Alva Rogers in his Requiem For Astounding writes of the story,

P. Schuyler Miller had a disappointing novelette of thud and blunder and monsters in “Trouble on Tantalus.”

“–And He Built a Crooked House–” by Robert A. Heinlein

The architect has a weird and wonderful idea for a super-modern house. The sort of thing that California permits using. But the slight jar of an earthquake rather changed it–

I don’t ever recall reading “–And He Built a Crooked House–” before I came across it in this vacation. I thought I’d read most of Heinlein’s fiction, but this one either escape me, or I simply remembered nothing about it. The former I can see as possible; having read it now, the latter seems unlikely. It is a memorable story.

This is one of two Heinlein stories in this issue, the other being part 2 of “Sixth Column” written under his Anson MacDonald pseudonym. As we have already learned, Heinlein used the MacDonald pseudonym because he wanted to reserve his own name for his Future History series of stories (about which there is more later). But despite appearing under his own name, “–And He Built a Crooked House–” doesn’t really seem to be part of his Future History at all. It is simply an amusing standalone.

It is the story of an architect, Quintus Teal, who attempts to improve upon the dreary modern style of houses and build one that takes up less space on the outside with plenty more space on the inside. He constructs such a house and an earthquake seems to jar the arrangement so that when he takes the homeowners for a visit of their new residence, they can get into the house, but can’t manage to get out.

The opening of the story is Heinlein at his satirical best, and I could imagine it being written by Harlan Ellison two decades later:

American’s are considered crazy everywhere in the world.

They will usually concede a basis for the accusation, but point to California as the focus of the infection. Californians stoutly maintain that their bad reputation is derived solely from the acts of the inhabitants of Los Angeles County. Angelenos will, when pressed, admit the charge but explain hastily, “It’s Hollywood. It’s not our fault–we didn’t ask for it; Hollywood just grew.” The people in Hollywood don’t care; they glory in it.

Then, too, while I was reading Quintus Teal’s description of how he would built this house, I was thinking of a four-dimensional configuration called a tesseract–and suddenly, Teal mentions the very thing I was thinking. This surprised me because I had thought the word was first used and invented in Madeleine L’engle’s novel A Wrinkle In Time, but the term apparently goes back as far as 1888. Still, I wonder if this was the first time it was used in science fiction. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction has nothing to say on the matter.

This was an enjoyable story, and Heinlein’s style further emerges throughout this piece. I imagine it won’t be long before a story is recognizably Heinlein, even without looking at the byline of the piece.

Completely Automatic by Theodore Sturgeon

A yarn about a perfectly automatic ship, and her perfectly incompetent crew, her hopeless, practically mindless crew trapped by her perfect mechanisms when things went wrong!

“Completely Automatic” is one of two humorous stories in the issue and the less successful of the two, in my opinion. Stylistically, it doesn’t feel like a Sturgeon story at all and is a step back from his first two efforts in Astounding. The story itself is about a crew on a completely automated spacecraft and what happens when something goes wrong. In a narrative sense, it is actually a story within a story, with the narrator of the story explaining to one of the other characters why a chemical supervisor aboard the spaceship is paid so much for so little work.

The story within-the story involves a kind of chemical fire that takes place on a spaceship on which the narrator was a member of the crew many years earlier. The chemical fire wasn’t considered a possibility in the automation of the ship and it came down to the chemical supervisor to figure out how to finally get the fire extinguished–since normals means of putting out the fire only seemed to make things worse.

Clearly the story was intended as an ironic, cautionary tale about the dangers of automation–something which must have seemed ever-increasing in 1941 as it does today, seventy years later.

The Klystron (Article) by Stanley R. Short

A fact article describing the theory and operation of the first major advance in radio tube design since Lee DeForest invented the triode tube. The klystron opens up a hitherto unreachable spectrum of radio more than one hundred times wider that the entire field available previously.

Going into this science article by Stanley R. Short, the title mislead me somewhat. I didn’t know what a “klystron” was and I suspected it was perhaps the first of many devices that Campbell would become involved with that were utterly ridiculous in their purpose and claims. As it turned out, I learned that was not the case and that the klystron was used in the manipulation of various types of radio frequencies. Indeed, after reading the article, I followed up further and discovered that the klystrons today are used to produce high-power carrier waves as well as within particle accelerators.

The Best-Laid Scheme by L. Sprague de Camp

Marvelous what ructions a man with a time-machine could cause! The schemes he could work up! The way he could trip over himself!

L. Sprague de Camp’s story “The Best-Laid Scheme” is the second of the two humorous stories in the issue and in my opinion the better one. de Camp was known for his humor back then (the Brass Tacks letters make that clear) and I think he has more experience with it than Sturgeon did at the time. That comes across in this short story about time-travel. A time-traveler invents a method for going back in time (as opposed to forward in time, which has already been achieved) and threatens the leader of the world with the destruction of the world by going back in time and changing history. From there it becomes a race between various time travelers jumping forward and back and avoiding a variety of paradoxes along the way.

I was amused by de Camp’s term for time-traveling into the future in this story. “Vanwinkling,” it is called and that is such a great metaphorical name for traveling into the future that it alone makes the story worthy of standing out somewhat.

But the action and dialog within the story is also pretty good. It is a race from start to finish, and if not quite as pointedly funny as his Johnny Black stories, this one was still both entertaining and amusing.

Gypped! (Article) by Arthur McCann

McCann’s one-page essay centers around the fact that there are limits to our ability to see things in space. He uses the example of canals on Mars. At the time the essay was published, supposed canals were first “seen” some sixty-four years earlier. And yet even now, telescopes were not good enough to decide the issue for certain. McCann explains very well what the biggest limitation is: something that was, at the time, completely out of scientists control: the atmosphere. There is a remarkable paragraph in this essay that illustrates how far we’ve come in the seven decades since:

Sixty-four years since Schiaparelli’s announcement–and we still don’t know whether there are canals or not! Telescopes have doubled and doubled again in size and power. Photography has come in, making ultraviolet and infrared observations possible. Observation technique has improved, new tricks used. And still we don’t know what the details of Mars’ surface are. Most astronomers feel the two-hundred-inch telescope, vastly useful as it will be in stellar and nebular work, won’t help much in planetary observation.

Of course, now the question has been answered. Telescopes helped, but what is really amazing is that in the seventy years since this was written, we’ve sent probes and satellites and robots to Mars which have answered these questions more definitively than any telescope could have hoped to do. This is a clear illustration of the benefits of space exploration, a before-and-after of a question that was answered because we could go to Mars and get the answer without inferences and guesses.

Sixth Column (Part 2) by Anson MacDonald

Second of three parts. Major Ardmore and a handful of men constitute all the U. S. army there is. But when the army acquires a few halos–

Part 2 of “Sixth Column” is the second outstanding story of the issue. And as you will see below, I had a very difficult time deciding between this one and Bond’s “Magic City” as the best story of the issue. But what makes “Sixth Column” so good is different from what made Bond’s “Magic City” so good. In the former, it was style and point of view that was able to take a well-worn trope and turn it on its head, making it interesting and readable. In “Sixth Column” it is good old-fashioned story-telling: Heinlein (as we all know) at his best.

Recall that part 1 (January 1941, Episode 19) ended with the scientists and staff of the Citadel deciding to form a new religion as a means of infiltrating and destroying the Pan Asian enemy. Part 2 is the execution of that plan, and it really is Heinlein at his best, plot-wise. The nested characters (the characters of the story in disguise as religious figures) come across in a “let-em-have-it” style, with the full bravado of a Heinlein hero masked by the humility of the “character” that they are playing. I sat there reading part 2 with delight because these poor souls who seemed so defeated finally looked to be making ground, could do almost no wrong and were stirring up the enemy with their religion.

Indeed, the religious dominance that takes place in part 2 seems to be a precursor to what we will see in some of the early Foundation stories by Isaac Asimov, where a religious like order is set up and their “powers” (trinkets) are given to those who don’t understand them, making them unwitting slaves to those who really do understand the technology.

The implication in this is that the Pan Asians really are fools who don’t understand technology and indeed, Clarke’s Law, not yet declared, is in full swing in this story. Then, too, the Pan Asians continue to come across in an ugly way and some of the racism that appears in part 1 is further ratcheted up in part 2, not only in turns of phrase, but in the implications that the Pan Asians can’t see what is really happening. The racism is ugly and Heinlein at times attempts to make it go both ways. We see several scenes from the point of view of the Pan Asians who have racist thoughts of their own about the white men they encounter. Whether the racism in the story was merely a reflection of the times, or whether it was an expression of the feelings of the author and editor is difficult to say.

Nevertheless, part 2 works its way up to a satisfying climax making me eager to get started on Part 3 just as soon as I can.

Analytical Laboratory and Ratings

It is once again worth quoting Campbell in his entirety for this AnLab because of the unique elements he points out this time around:

As of noon, December 2nd [1940], at which time this issue went to press, “Slan?” had set a definite and unchallenged record. The whole December issue of Astounding had drawn an unusually heavy number of reader votes, with “Slan” itself apparently the reason for the unusual number. The record lies in this: every voter placed “Slan” in the number one position.

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Slan (Part 4) A. E. van Vogt 1.00 4
2. Fog Robert Willey 2.25 1
3. Old Man Mulligan P. Schuyler Miller 3.00 3
4. Legacy Nelson S. Bond 3.28 2
5. Spheres D. M. Edwards 5.22 5

Campbell concludes with:

“Fog” incidentally, was the only other story to get any first-place votes; two readers tied it wth “Slan”. I expect to wait a considerable time before another story comes along on which there is such surprising unanimity of opinion. Apparently “Slan” mertied the praise I gave it.

For the first time that I can remember, there is a virtual tie for first place in my own rating of the stories in the February issue. I’ve struggle and first place is just too close to call:

1. Magic City by Nelson S. Bond and Sixth Column (Part 2) by Anson MacDonald
3. “–And He Built a Crooked House–” by Robert A. Heinlein
4. Castaway by Robert Moore Williams
5. The Best-Laid Scheme by L. Sprague de Camp
6. Completely Automatic by Theodore Sturgeon
7. Trouble on Tantalus by P. Schuyler Miller

In Times to Come

The coming look to be particularly good, with more stories by Simak, Sturgeon, Asimov, and Heinlein. Of course, Heinlein had two stories in the current issue (one penned under his MacDonald pseudonym) and that trend continues next month, giving Robert Heinlein five stories in the first three issues of 1941. Of Heinlein, Campbell has this to say:

Robert A. Heinlein’s back again next month with the cover story, “Logic of Empire.” This story is, as usual with Heinlein’s material, a soundly worked out, fast-moving yarn, more than able to stand on its own feet. But in connection with it, I’d like to mention something that may or may not have been noticed by the regular readers of Astounding: all Heinlein’s science-fiction is laid against a common background of a proposed future history of the world and of the United States. Heinlein’s worked the thing out in detail that grows with each story; he has an outlined and graphed history of the future with characters, dates of major discoveries, et cetera, plotted in. I’m trying to get him to let me have a photostat of that history chart; if I lay my hands on it I’m going to publish it.

I don’t know (yet) if Campbell ended up publishing the chart, but I know that it appears in (I believe) The Past Through Tomorrow, which collects most of these Future History stories of Heinlein’s.

See you back here in two weeks–when we find more about how that Future History unfolds.

15 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 20: February 1941

  1. The Heinlein story was my second introduction to a Tesseract, the first being an article in a Dragon Magazine. In fact, this story was listed as suggested reading, and I sought it out afterwards…

  2. Despite getting two stories included in the venerable “Adventures in Time and Space” (beaten out only by van Vogt and Heinlein who each clocked in with three apiece) P. Schuyler Miller achieved greatness when he became a book reviewer. Reading through a quarter century of “The Reference Library” columns, it is (pardon the expression) astounding how perceptive Peter was about SF and how unfailingly he was able to pinpoint and praise what are now reguarded as the significant works of that period (roughly 1948-1974). Safely behind the walls of the reactionary’s citadel (JWC’s Analog) Miller was the only calm contemporary covering the New Wave – for proof see his essay on Judith Merril’s anthologies “England Swings SF” and “SF 12″ in Febuary 1969 issue of Analog.

    Miller was dismissive on the value and worth of his fiction. He wrote that “Trouble on Tantalus” “was an attempt to throw together in one stroy as many outre elements as I could cram in” … “about my only attempt to write an action story (not very notably)”.

  3. Heinlein’s famous Future History chart will show up on your vacation very soon. In the meantime here is Mr. Patterson (again) on the genesis of said chart:

    Around the time Heinlein was writing “…If this Goes On” in the Summer of 1939, he discovered that … “the notes he had been keeping about his revised outline of his future were getting too complicated as he added more detail; it was becoming too time-consuming to shuffle through that mass of handwritten notes every time he wanted to use a reference. Sinclair Lewis … had recommended a wall chart to keep the data organized. Heinlein tore one of his old navigation charts in half and made a wall chart he could take in at a glance”.

    Almost a year later – during the same meeting where Campbell requested that Heinlein rewrite his unpublished “All” into what would become “Sixth Column” – Heinlein mentioned in passing this history-of-the-future chart to Campbell and JWC immediately demanded that RAH hammer it into a publishable form.

    1. Mark, thanks for the info on Miller. He seems to be a fairly popular writer with the readers of the time, but so far he hasn’t done anything that I’ve found to be outstanding. “Old Man Mulligan” is probably his best effort, in my opinion, and the story of his that I’ve enjoyed the most. (Was he a Futurian? He shows up in a 1950 photo of Futurians that Asimov published in his autobiography, but I don’t see any mention of it in his Wikipedia entry and his writing doesn’t seem to be up to quite the same level as many of those who were in the Futurians.)

      I might have guessed that Heinlein’s Future History chart would be forthcoming, but I’m not peeking ahead.

    1. Paul, so far, the religious aspect and the way it is used to mask technology is the only real similarity I’ve seen. This seems to pre-date what Asimov does in “The Big and the Little” which appeared in the August 1944 Astounding (Episode 62, way out in March 2013). I will add that the amount of action-to-dialog is similar in these stories, but I’d definitely give the edge to Heinlein for action over dialog, though not by much. But as I said, this is really a well-executed example of Clarke’s Law: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And indeed, it is an interesting twist to Clarke’s Law, which is often applied to alien technology as opposed to technological differences between two cultures on Earth.

    1. Mark, that is fascinating. I note that all three stories were published in different magazines. And what makes it even more remarkable is that “Magic City” read like a stand-alone story and I would have never guessed it was part of a series. Looking back on it now, I’d guess that at least one of those earlier stories is about how she met Daiv. Incredible!

  4. In the first of the “Meg the Priestess” series, Nelson Bond’s short story sketches Meg’s five year tutelage in the ‘hoam’ of the Clan Mother before relating the final task she must complete before succeeding to Leader of the Jinnia Clan. In her seventeenth summer, she must make a lone pilgrimage to the sacred Place of the Gods. During this weeks-long arduous trek north-by-northwest she will encounter the madman Daiv.

  5. Give credit where it’s due: the idea of using religion as a cover for super-science is straight out of JWC’s “All”. Heinlein and Asimov (and Leiber and Piper and no doubt many others to come on your vacation) are just ringing their own changes on their editor’s theme.

Comments are closed.