Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 21: March 1941

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There is a personal significance to the Rogers cover for the March 1941 issues. It is one of my favorite covers so far but not just for the excellent story for which it was painted. Back when I started acquiring these issues at the beginning of the year, this particular issue sat upright on my desk, leaning against a stack of magazines. My little boy would see it and say, “Airplane!” Every so often he would walk into my office and say, “Daddy, airplane,” and I would find the issue and show it to him. And he would always seem delighted by it. Eventually, I got an idea. I took a high-resolution photo of the cover of the issue and then printed it out on 8-1/2 x 11-inch paper. I found a nice wooden frame and framed the “cover” and mounted the picture on my son’s wall above his crib. That way, when he went to sleep at night, he could look at it.

My son has graduated from crib to bed and from calling it an “airplane” to calling it a “spaceship”, but that cover is still frame and hangs over his bed where he can see it at night. I wonder when Rogers created that cover if he imagined it would fill a two-year old with a sense of wonder some seven decades later?

The March issue contains 7 pieces of fiction this month: two novelettes, four short stories, and the concluding part of Anson MacDonald (Robert Heinlein)’s serial, “Sixth Column”. There is also a science article by R. S. Richardson.

Editorial: Industrial Process

Campbell’s editorial this month poses a hypothetical question:

Suppose the [time machine] could pick up any one desired object of fifty years hence and bring it back, but, by some reason of inherent limitation, could never operate again or be duplicated. What to pick up? What class of thing to aim at?

He goes on to argue that despite being able to bring back some pretty amazing gadgets, they would ultimately be useless because we simply don’t have the industrial process to produce them. Given the time at which this was written, Campbell suggests “there’s a fair-to-middling chance that [such an object] may not have atomic power, but it’s practically certain it will.” Such sentiment illustrates just how much the technological hopes and dreams the educated American of the time was placing in atomic power. For Campbell–and no doubt for many of his readers–gadgets routinely powered by atomic energy were a no-brainer fifty years hence. And yet “fifty years hence” was 1991. Where are all of these atomic powered gadgets?

On the other hand, look at what we had in 1991 that Campbell missed. March 1991 saw me in the spring semester of my freshman year at college where I and just about everyone I knew, had a computer at their desk in the dorm room. Nothing like we have now, twenty years later, but that old IBM 286 did the job well enough. And what made that possible were the chips inside the computer. To Campbell’s point, someone with a time machine in 1941 who brought back a computer chip from 1991 would be at a loss to recreate it, even if they could figure out its purpose. The industrial process and supporting technologies were simply not there.

Are we any better now? If I am exceedingly lucky, I will make it 2061, fifty years hence, at the ripe old age of 89. What gadgets will exist then that, even if we could bring them back to the present, would be useless because of our inability to reproduce them. Anyone want to make a guess?

Logic of Empire by Robert A. Heinlein

It wasn’t really slavery–but they sold men’s labor on the auction block. And a man could quit any time he paid his debts–if he worked and didn’t eat. But that was the way of the empire

The March issues starts of with a strong story of subjugation by Robert Heinlein, “Logic of Empire.” Two friend, Humphrey Wingate and Sam Houston Jones end up, through a series of remarkable events, as laborers on Venus, much against their will. The “remarkable events” are the gimmick that allows Heinlein to put his characters into a position in which we can explore this problem of expanding empire through their eyes, and so it is somewhat forgivable, if a little contrived.

Throughout the story, Wingate tries reasoning with the bureaucracy that there has been a big mistake, that the contract is null and void, but faces impenetrable bureaucracy. This type of bureaucracy will show up again in 1942 with Asimov’s “Foundation” stories, but Heinlein does a good job of capturing both the frustration and desperation of the people caught in the middle. For these laborers on Venus are virtual slaves. They sign a contract for their labor, are given a sum of money, which they drink or gamble away, and then have to work until they can pay back their debt, as well as their transportation to and from Venus. It is an almost impossible venture, reminiscent of old railroad and minin companies right here in the United States.

Nevertheless, it is a crisp story with enough action to keep things moving and without too much of the usual Heinlein handwaving for a subject such as this. He seems to be arguing that there has to be a better way, despite the “logic of empire.” And yet I can’t help but contrast his depiction of (white) laborers in this story, and the defeated American “slaves” in “Sixth Column”. In the former, the condition is self-inflicted, though market forces severely limit employment options. In the latter, an overwhelming enemy (of a different race) utterly defeats the United States: the state of slavery is externally enforced. In the former, revolt is unlikely and in the latter, it is inevitable.

The story concludes with a footnote from Campbell:

Astounding readers may or may not have noticed, all of Robert Heinlein’s stories are based on a common proposed future history of the world, with emphasis on the history of America. “Logic of Empire” follows, in this future history, the time of “Roads Must Roll” and “Blow-ups Happen,” and precedes the time of “If This Goes On–” and “Coventry.” In “If This Goes On–” the original prophet was referred to frequently–the man who set up the hard, harsh theocratic dictatorship that ruled the America of the time of “If This Goes On–“. He was Nehamiah Scudder.

Blockade Runner by Malcolm Jameson

A good technician can make unlikely things turn into highly effective weapons, and weapons don’t always have to kill to be effective.

Malcolm Jameson stories appear fairly frequently at this point, in large part, I’m given to understand, because Jameson was a navy buddy of Robert Heinlein and Heinlein could wield unusual power over Campbell in those days. (Just read the first chapter of Grumbles From the Grave if you don’t believe me.) I tend to find his stories dull. “Blockade Runner” wasn’t particularly dull, perhaps slightly better than Jameson’s average. In fact, I would characterize it as what epitomizes a run-of-the-mill piece of Campbellian science fiction: a story in which there is a conflict, in which that conflict is overcome by some kind of problem solving, and in which the problem solving involves some kind of scientific gadgetry.

In “Blockade Runner”, Earth and Mars are at war and Mars has set up a blockade so that a critical fuel supply cannot get to Earth’s fleet. Jack Kemp, who commands the Red Cloud attempts to disguise the ship as a Venus cargo ship to get through the blockade, when in reality, all of the disguise is put together by the intelligence forces of Earth. The ship successfully passes through the blockade, fooling the customs people who board the ship. It collects the necessary fuel, but is stopped on its way back to Earth by the same people who boarded it the first time. Only this time the ruse is up.

In the end, the problem (getting the enemy off the ship and getting back to Earth) is solved by technical gadgetry. Kemp uses “gamma rays” to mess with the Martians aboard the spacecraft. The solution works for the story only because the mechanism of gamma rays and how they affect the human body are not well understood. In my opinion, the story spikes slightly above Jameson’s normal stories, but not by much.

Masquerade by Clifford D. Simak

The Roman Candles of Mercury weren’t the fireworks kind–they were alive. Everybody knew that, and that they could make mirages. But they didn’t know how good they were–

In this next story, Simak presents an interesting alien life form found on Mercury: one made up entirely of energy that could read the thoughts of those around it and create illusions based on those thoughts. The story then follows the odd goings on at the human base on Mercury that supplies energy to the rest of the planets in the solar system through “tight beams.”

I like Cliff Simak stories, but this one wore on my quickly, in part because I felt as if I knew where the story was going just as soon as I started–and I was right. I place the blame not in Simak, but squarely on Campbell’s blurb of the story, which you can find in bold font above. I’ve said before that sometimes, Campbell’s blurb seems to give the point of the story away. This is one example. (Indeed, in a letter to Campbell dated September 16, 1941, Heinlein writes, “John,you habitually give the key idea of a story in the blurbs–sometimes, I think, to the detriment of the dramatic punch of the story.” This is one of those times.

You can’t read the blurb and the first few pages of the story without thinking that the Roman Candles will set up a situation in which they will imitate the people who work on the base (in “Who Goes There?” fashion). I could see this coming, and when it came, it left me mildy disappointed because I kind of hoped Simak would take the interesting scenario he’d set up in another direction.

There were other clear indications of Campbell’s influence felt in this piece, beginning with the assumed superiority of humans over the natives of Mercury. That said, I was pleased that the ending of the story didn’t cave entirely. There is no peace between cultures, nor is there human dominance. As the Candles say, the two cultures are irreconcilable.

A few other minor things bothered me about the story that likely wouldn’t have bothered a reader of 1941. For one thing, how the power generated on Mercury was transmitted to other planets was not well thought out. It works in a stable solar system configuration where all of the planets remain in the same position relative to one another. But we know that’s not the case, and so did Simak. Then, too, at one point, Simak says that the sun appeared to be nine times bigger than how it appears on Earth. If I understand my optical physics correctly, the sun would only appear about 2-1/2 times larger on the surface of Mercury. Finally, the dialog remained quite pulpish with lots of exaggerated attribution. People roared and yelled and agreed and suggested and snapped. Very few people just “said.” This really begins to stand out when you compare it to the well-written piece that follows it in the issue.

Poker Face by Theodore Sturgeon

“Face” was a remarkable poker player. Even more remarkable than his fellow players thought. It wasn’t just the way he stacked the decks–

I think “Poker Face” marks Sturgeon’s third appearance in the issue and it is by far my favorite of the three stories. Indeed, it is my favorite story in this issue, relegating “Logic of Empire” to a close second. Sturgeon begins with a simple story of a bunch of guys playing poker. Over the course of the whole night, everyone pretty much breaks even and there is disappointment. We learn that the reason for this is because “Face” can control how the deck is manipulated by navigating through the fourth dimension of duration. When pressed, “Face” tells his story. He is not from there, but from tens of thousands of years in the future where society is very different. And he was sent to find another man from his time, Hark Vegas.

This story could have been written today and would have been accepted in the big magazines that are out there. The writing is exceptional, and stands above what normally passed for good writing in Astounding. Indeed the writing adds to the overall story, rather than disappearing within it. Then, too, Sturgeon demonstrates his ability to add subtle humor to the story and make it work. In one scene, when “Face” is trying to convince the others that he really can control them and make them do what he wants, he offers a demonstration:

“Skeptical animal, arent’ you?” grinned Face; and Delehanty rose slowly, walked around the table, caught Harry by the shoulders and kissed him on both cheeks. Harry almost fell off his chair. Delehanty stood there rockily, his eyes positively bulging. Suddenly, he expectorated with great violence. “What the dirty so and forth made me do that?” he wanted to know.

That had me laughing out loud.

The story touched on larger issues, particular that of what would make an ideal utopia, as Face goes on to describe the world from which he came. It does not sound appealing and we get a good idea of why Hark Vegas left that world (and thereby leaving it “unbalanced”.) There is also interesting commentary on the value of logic in society that sounds very close to the Vulcan idea of logic that would emerge a few decades later in Star Trek.

The only problem I had with the story was the very end, where it is revealed that the first person narrator is Hark Vegas:

“Hark Vegas,” he said woodenly.

I nodded.

He straightened, drew a deep breath, threw back his head and laughed. “This colossal joke,” he said, wiping his eyes, “was thirty-eight thousand years in the making. Pleased to meet you–Jack.”

We left then. Harry and Delehanty can’t remember anything but a poker game.

I didn’t like the sudden introduction of what seemed to me to be an unreliable narrator. It reminded me of the twist in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,and I didn’t like that twist either. I think the story would have ended better if Hark Vegas had never been found but Face didn’t really care. And they all just went on playing poker. As Alva Rogers writes in A Requiem for Astounding, “It ends with a neat, if maybe a little too pat, O. Henry twist, and was in every respect an excellent story.” I agree, and would add that it illustrates a lot of the potential which is to come from Sturgeon going forward.

Putsch by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts

“Tactics” is the military art you use when you’ve got weapons. “Strategy” is what’s called for when the other fellow has everything and you’ve got a pop-gun.

From the very top to the very bottom. I could not get more than a few pages into Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts short story, “Putsch” before I decided I had to pass it over. The story opened with a pulpish action scene where all ships are being called to Venus in an emergency defense of Venus City–but the crew in question is arguing over the operating code. It might be a good story, but that opening just rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t settle into the story after that. Truth be told, I get the feeling that I’m really not missing much.

Space Has a Spectrum (Article) by R. S. Richardson

Of all the R.S. Richardson science articles to appear in this Vacation so far, this one was my least favorite. That said, it is still a good article. The article discusses the analysis of the spectrum of elements that exist in interstellar space, how they are identified, and how we know they come from interstellar dust and not from stars. It is a good topic for discussion in Astounding, but compared to Richardson’s previous article, it lacks in only two respects: it’s technical bar is not set right; and it doesn’t read as colloquially as his pieces normally do.

In the case of the former, I think the article assumes too much knowledge of spectrographic chemistry on the part of the Astounding reader. This is a case where Asimov might have written a longer essay that started at the beginning. Richardson wrote a shorter piece that assumed too much.

The article stars somewhat colloquially, but that doesn’t carry through the entire piece. The down-to-earth feel of Richardson’s articles are one of his strong suits. Whereas Willy Ley’s colloquialness sometimes feels faked, Richardson’s doesn’t and I really missed that feeling that he was just chatting with the through the pages in this piece. Fortunately, he’ll be back with another article next issue and hopefully, that camaraderie will be back as well.

Eccentric Orbit by D. B. Thompson

The planet had an eccentric orbit, but for the two would-be conquerors of Earth, it had advantages. Minerals–a type of semi-intelligent life–But–the life was eccentric, too, in its own way–

I don’t have much to say about this story. It wasn’t a standout and I would rate it a little bit higher than “Putsch”. It is the story of a couple of men who thought they could control the solar system with a weapon they stole from Earth. They weapon had the potential for destroying any world on which it was used, but since this world was not one they particularly cared about, they felt they would hold the other worlds at ranson.

Perhaps the most interesting element in this story was the fact that we get into the aliens heads and parts of the story are told from their point of view, and Thompson does this fairly well, although really, the aliens are just disguised versions of human adolescents. But then many alien cultures at this time were merely mirrored versions of humans in different clothing.

I could not find out anything about Thompson. His entry in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database lists only this story and nothing else.

Sixth Column (Part 3, conclusion) by Anson MacDonald

Concluding a three-part novel of America conquered and conquered by an unconventional army of halo-wearing tricksters!

The concluding third of MacDonald/Heinlein’s “Sixth Column” was as quick read and kept me interested through the conclusion of the story. The offices and members of the Citadel, through their made-up religion, continue to rebel against the Pan-Asians, finally throwing them off with clever uses of their nuclear-powered gadgets. But as I read the conclusion, three things about the story continued to bother me, each of which lowered the story in my eyes.

First, the American’s went virtually unchallenged in this third part of the story. Good stories are made up of reversals of fortunate that are overcome. But in this third of the story, there were no reversals for the American’s. It was an all out victory (and in some sense, a slaughter) over the Pan-Asians. Sure, some citizens were mass slaughtered in one city before the members of the Citadel could get there, but that felt like it was thrown in to make the victory seem less one-sided. Similarly, we learn that at least one person broke his arm in a fall. And of course, Mitsui, the Asian American sacrifices himself and is killed. But even that is regarded as a very minor loss. Put together, it made me wonder, how could a nation capable of such a one-sided victory been capable of such a one-sided defeat in the first place.

Second, the technology that they had seemed out of all proportion to reality. It was, in essence, magic. It could be manipulated at convenience to do whatever was needed of the story, under the guise of “atomic power”. In some sense, this made it a deus ex machina. A better story would have added more limitations to the weapon.

Finally, there was the racism in the story which reached its peak in this concluding part. The racism in the story reflects the racism in American culture at the time it was written and it was ugly. I imagine it will only get uglier after Pearl Harbor is attacked. Nevertheless, detracted from the story because it was so one-sided, without any looking inward at the reasons for hatred on either side. Racism in characters is tolerable in a story if it is used to reflect people in the real world (think Huck Finn), but there has to be a reason for it grounded in the story, and that was absent in “Sixth Column”. There was no reason for racism in Sixth Column and what was there made the story uncomfortable to read.

Analytical Laboratory and Rating

Here are the results of the AnLab for the January 1941 issue of Astounding:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Sixth Column (Part 1) Anson MacDonald 1.7 2
2. The Mechanical Mice Maurice G. Hugi 1.9 1
3. The Traitor Kurt von Rachen 3.35 3
4. They Day We Celebrate Nelson S. Bond 3.55 6
5. Lost Rocket Manly Wade Wellman 4.72 5

My ratings for the present issue come in as follows:

  1. Poker Face by Theodore Sturgeon
  2. Logic of Empire by Robert Heinlein
  3. Sixth Column (Part 3) by Anson MacDonald
  4. Masquerade by Clifford D. Simak
  5. Blockade Runner by Malcolm Jameson
  6. Eccentric Orbit by D. B. Thompson
  7. Putsch by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts
I’d add just a couple of footnotes to the ratings. “Poker Face” and “Logic of Empire” were both good stories, but I gave “Poker Face” the top spot for many of the reasons I listed in discussing the story. It really felt like it could have been a story that appeared in a science fiction magazine today. I’d also note a pretty substantial gap in quality between the top three spots on the bottom four.

In Times to Come

The April 1941 issue looks to be a particularly good one. Sturgeon makes his fourth appearance in this Vacation with a little story called “Microcosmic God”. And while Heinlein is completely absent from this issue, we’ve got the first part of a serial by L. Sprague de Camp, “The Stolen Dormouse.” A. E. van Vogt is back with a story, and Isaac Asimov appears for the third time, with a story about robots called “Reason”. Also stories from Kurt von Rachen (Hubbard), Malcolm Jameson, P. Scuyler Miller, Harry Walton, and another science article by R. S. Richardson.

I am going to try to get through this issue in the coming week, and get Episode 22 written next weekend. However, the episode will be posted on its normal schedule on the afternoon/evening of Sunday, August 21. The reason for getting it done early is due to the fact that on Friday, August 19, our second child is scheduled to arrive via c-section and I will be otherwise occupied for the weekend. Getting episode 22 done early allows me to keep to the schedule, and gives me three weeks (as opposed to two) for episode 23, during which time I’ll have a newborn at home, as well as a 2-year old craving attention.

See you back here in two weeks.

4 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 21: March 1941

  1. This is as good a point as any to state my grand unified theory of John Wood Campbell.

    Campbell believed that we were on the cusp of the great transfiguration of humanity – in other words, the Singularity. Through the 1930s and 40s he thought this Golden Age would be brought about by atomic energy and technology.

    When the magic atomic gadgets didn’t materialize in post-War America, Campbell sought this great transfiguration – his rapture – elsewhere. Thus the pages in Astounding and Analog devoted to Dianetics, psi power, dowsing, Hieronymus Machines and the Dean Drive.

    James Blish in “The Triumph of Time” (1959) sketched this portrait of John W. Campbell.

    “The typical Earthman of the end of the Third Millennium, with his engineer’s bias, philosophically webbed in about equal measure to a sentimentally hardheaded “common sense” and a raw and naive mystique of Progress, might easily have taken the datum at face value and walked the plank on it directly into a morass of telepathy, the racial unconscious, personal reincarnation or any of a hundred other traps which await the scientifically oriented man who does not know that he too is as thoroughgoing a mystic as a fakir lying on a bed of nails.”

    1. Mark, that explains a lot about the editorials he was writing at this time, and some of the stories he was printing. I suspect that some of his more science-minded authors (Asimov, del Rey, de Camp) took this with a grain of salt while the less scientifically capable authors (van Vogt, Hubbard) ate it up.

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