As you read this latest Episode in my Vacation in the Golden Age, I am likely at the hospital feeding my newborn daughter, or more likely, changing her diaper while my wife recovers from the delivery. Nevertheless, I was determined to see this Episode go out on schedule, and indeed, reading through the May 1941 issue, which I’ve already started is providing a kind of mini-vacation between feedings and diaper changes and rocking the Little Miss back to sleep.
Since we last met, NPR released the results of the votes for the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. More than 60,000 votes were collected, and in looking through the list, I noted something interesting. There are only a few books on the list from before 1950, and as far as I can tell, those from the early 1940s are exclusively by Isaac Asimov. In fact, his collection I, Robot is number 16 on the list and we’ll find the first Astounding story to appear in that collection in the current episode, “Reason.” Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy also appears at #8 on the list and the first Foundation story will appear in the May 1942 issue, just a year beyond our current point in this Vacation. (And if you are counting, that would make it Episode 35, scheduled to appear on February 20, 2012.) There are quite a few books from the 1950s and more as the decades roll on. But it is nice to know that in a sample of 60,000 people, there are some pieces from the Golden Age that are still held in very high regard.
The current issue presents us with–count them!–eight pieces of fiction: a new serial, 2 novelettes, and 5 short stories. There is also a science article and the usual departments.
Editorial: Permanent Resources
The issue opens with a 1-page editorial on “permanent resources.” This is Campbell arguing (remarkable in light of what we know today) that there is actually plenty of natural resources, more than we’ll ever need, but much of which is diluted in sea water. If we can only find a way to extract them–something he doesn’t really address in the piece. I think we’ve learned better today, in part because we’ve learned how our use of fossil fuels and other natural resources impacts the climate. Whereas Campbell argues for extracting what we need from the sea, scientists today are talking about adding elements (iron in particular) into the seas to help absorb carbon dioxide.
The Stolen Dormouse (Part 1) by L. Sprague de Camp
Part One of a new serial concerning a stolen semi-corpse–an engineer in suspended animation touches off a war of later-day feudalism!
L. Sprague de Camp has one of the most modern styles of writing of any of the Astounding authors I’ve come across (although Hubbard managed this as well in “Final Blackout”). By that I mean that his writing generally seems devoid of pulp and his themes often apply equally well today as they did seventy years ago. This is true of his latest story, “The Stolen Dormouse.” In the first part of this serial, de Camp portrays a world in which society is stratified in corporate layers, with family names being associated with the corporations to which they belong. There is a ranking scheme, with ranks such as “whitecollar” and “businessman”. There is a nobility and a lowly proletariat. The main character, Hoarce Juniper-Hallett, after a stick battle with a rivaling company, is promoted from whitecollar to businessman, something that raises his prospects. Later, after being tricked, Hoarce is demoted to proletariat, but finds out that the Lord who demoted him did so with the intention of using Hoarce to track down what happened to this missing “Dormouse”–a scientist who had been placed in suspended animation. Hoarce has a love interest in the story and that adds a complication as he is chased around the ventilation system of the building that she lives in, trying to make sense of everything that has happened.
(At one point, Hoarce spends the night under Janet’s bed, and has a terrible allergic reaction to her cat. I found this amusing because de Camp was afflicted by just such an allergy. In his autobiography, Isaac Asimov writes of a time that de Camp spent the night at his house, only to wake up practically choking. Asimov had neglected to tell de Camp they owned a cat, but as Asimov wrote, de Camp forgot to ask.)
This is the type of story that one might imagine appears more frequently in the 1960s than the 1940s, an attempt to look at where society is going, and a rebellion against corporations and where they might lead. In some sense, de Camp was ahead of his time here. Indeed, the story reminded me in many ways of the setting and social structure in Robert Silverberg’s novel On the Inside. These can be interesting stories that reflect perceptions of society but the one thing that I always find lacking in them (as I do in de Camp’s story) is a reasonable evolution for how the society evolved into what it is. Perhaps that comes in Part 2. In any case, it is a good story so far, and the real mystery to me is who is the “dormouse” and what role does he have to play in the story. Clearly it is something important.
Reason by Isaac Asimov
The robot was strictly logical, reasoning, as only its perfect machine mind could, from observed facts to inevitable–if wacky–conclusions.
I need to preface my comments on this story with the statement that Isaac Asimov is my favorite science fiction writer. That may be obvious to those who have been following along on this Vacation, but I wanted to get it out there now because it is with this next story, “Reason” that Asimov slowly begins to mature into the famous science fiction writer that he will become. You will forgive me, therefore, if I go on at length about Asimov’s stories now or in future Episodes. It is only because I’ve read them countless times, I own most of his non-anthology books, I’ve read his 3-volume autobiography at least 15 times, and it is his example I’ve tried to follow first and foremost in becoming a science fiction writer.
“Reason” is a Robot story, one of two series for which Asimov was famous. (His other, “Foundation” doesn’t start until a little more than a year hence, in the May 1942 issue of Astounding.) But it is important to note that while “Reason” is the first Robot story to appear in Astounding, it is not Asimov’s first robot story. The first robot story, “Robbie” appeared in one of Fred Pohl’s magazines, Super Science Stories in the September 1940 issue, under the title “Strange Playfellow”. (The title was Pohl’s; Asimov used his original title, “Robbie” on all subsequent appearances of the story.)
When readers think of Asimov’s Robot stories, they often think of his Three Laws of Robotics, but both “Robbie” and “Reason” were published before those Laws had been explicitly stated. “Reason” also comes before Asimov’s introduction of Susan Calvin, his matronly robopsychologist. Nevertheless, it is the first Robot story to appear in Astounding and it provides a classic example of what Asimov was good at early on in his science fiction career: puzzle stories.
The “puzzle” in this story was in trying to convince the new model robot, a QT model, called “Cutie” that humans made him. Cutie finds this to be an utterly ridiculous statement and decides that he will use “reason” to puzzle out the truth of the situation. Cutie surmises that a Master created everything, including Cutie himself, that people had nothing to do with it. And by his logic, he was correct. To make matters worse, an electron storm threatened but because Cutie didn’t really believe that the dots out in space were stars and planets–he only believed what observation told him–he was not helpful when it came to devising a solution. In the end, the two Earthmen are finally able to leave. Cutie believes they have lost their usefulness and are being terminated:
Cutie sighed, with the sound of wind humming through closely spaced wires. “Your term of service is over and the time of dissolution has come. I expected it, but–Well, the Master’s will be done!”
His tone of resignation stung Powell. “Save the sympathy, Cutie. We’re heading for Earth, not dissolution.”
“It’s best that you think so,” Cutie sighed again. “I see the wisdom of the illusion now. I would not attempt to shake your faith, even if I could.”
What I think is remarkable about this story is that while Donovan and Powell and up solving the problem of the electron storm, they are never able to solve the other, philosophically more important problem of convincing Cutie of his origin. The robot’s arguments mirror the kind of arguments you hear from evangelists, and indeed Cutie was an evangelist for robots in his way. It is frustrating to Donovan and Powell, but it is frustrating to the reader as well because we know Donovan and Powell are right, yet Cutie’s logic is flawed only in premise–and he can’t be convinced that his premise is wrong. This story is the first in a series of explorations that Asimov makes into the possibilities of intelligent robots–often looking at what can go wrong with them or how they are boxed in by their programming (the Laws of Robotics).
Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon
Kidder had a system for inventing things in a hurry–and he thought he had a system for handling the results. His method was inhuman–but his agent was human–and dangerous!
Sturgeon hits a home run with “Microcosmic God.” It is his fourth of fifth appearance in Astounding but this is by far my favorite of his stories and it was the best story in this issue–by a large margin in my opinion. The story is about a scientist, Kidder, who invents a process by which he can evolve life at a rapid rate. He evolves this artificial life and it grows more intelligent until its intelligence surpasses that of humans. These creatures help him to create inventions that might not otherwise have been invented. Kidder makes a lot of money off these inventions, and moves to an island, but his bank gets greedy and wants to make even more money off of him. Eventually, the bank plots to attack Kidder on the island, but just in time, the artificial creatures he created invent a force field that goes around the island to protect themselves and Kidder.
There is so much that is remarkable about this story and the writing is just the start. Sturgeon envisions the evolution of artificial life; not just the fact that humans make artificial life, for that has been done in science fiction as far back as Frankenstein, but he imagined evolving that life. In many respects, this is a similar concept to Conway’s Game of Life. Indeed, genetic programming has become one method for evolving complex new algorithms that human’s might not otherwise have conceived so Sturgeon was impressively prescient.
I liked Kidder because he was somewhat oblivious to those around him, but in some ways no one could keep up with him thanks to his little friends. The dynamic between Kidder and his banker was somewhat reminiscent of the struggle that takes place in Lester del Rey’s “The Stars Look Down” (August 1940, Episode 14).
And Sturgeon shows himself to be a cut above most of his peers in terms of the actual writing. Whereas many writers are telling a story Sturgeon seemed genuinely interested in playing with language, as in this passage at the beginning of the story:
Kidder was quite a guy. He was a scientist and he lived on a small island off the New England coast all by himself. He wasn’t the dwarfed little gnome of a mad scientist you read about. His hobby wasn’t personal profit, and he wasn’t a megalomaniac with Russian name and no scruples. He wasn’t insidious, and he wasn’t even particularly subversive.
I like how he describes Kidder by telling the reader what he is not. This is a technique you don’t see often early in the Golden Age, but it is an example of how Sturgeon was, early on, an experimental writer. There is a smoothness to the storytelling that made reading this story so enjoyable. Couple that with the fact that I’d never read the story before, and it was easily the best piece in the issue. It was also one of the stories picked by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg for inclusion in their retrospective volume for 1941.
The Scrambler by Harry Walton
They caught something that time–something more than they wanted. And general, scrambled hell broke loose on the ship as a result!
Harry Walton offers an amusingly confusing story this month about a group of explorers who pull an object onto their spaceship that they suspect to be the long-sought-after “super-intellent” life form they’ve been looking for. The thing is a kind of glowing sphere and once they bring it on board, strange things begin to happen: people begin to swap bodies, so that one person’s consciousness is moved to another person’s body and so forth and so on in one big “scramble.”
Early in the story, a cat named Comet makes an appearance on the spacecraft and as soon as I saw what was going on, I guessed that at some point, the cat’s consciousness would jump into the body of one of the men, and vice versa, and that is indeed what happens.
The story is nothing special, although it was entertaining enough in the way it conveys the confusion of the crew as consciousness are swapped. It is hard to say, however, whether this confusion was intentional or not.
Slacker’s Paradise by Malcolm Jameson
Or it seemed that way till the commander of a space rowboat found a gigantic enemy battleship that was determined to surrender to him!
It occurred to me while reading “Slacker’s Paradise” that Malcolm Jameson may be the originator of what we think of today as military science fiction. The stories that we’ve seen from him so far have all been military–specifically involving a space “navy”–in nature. It is almost as though Jameson (who was a navy companion of Heinlein) discovered a niche in which he could tell navy tales in a space environment. “Slacker’s Paraside” is the most explicit of these by far. It is the story of a young officer, Lieutenant (jg) Alan McKay, T.S.G.R.f., Class 5, who, because of an aunt with connections, has been assigned to easy duty, much against his will. Because of this, he feels like he is looked down upon, is not contributing to the cause.
That is, until a senior officer sends him on a mission to deliver a coded message. He has instructions to read the message, memorize it and then destroy it if it seems that he will be captured by the enemy. As it turns out, he does run into an enemy spaceship, but it is a one that wishes to surrender to him, not fight him.
It is an interesting story because I think it was a good early effort to translate a naval military organization into a similar one in space. But this is what most of Jameson’s work has done to date. The most interesting thing about the story, in my opinion, was the footnote at the end in which Jameson writes:
The seemingly incredible situation in the middle portion of this story occurred in almost identical fashion during the 1st World War in 1918.
A pair of Austro-Hungarian battleships… surrendered to an American sub-chaser. Their condition was the same… The young lieutenant who took over the [ship] was just out of college and had never been on board a battleship.
Not the First by A. E. van Vogt
The tale of a ship sent out to explore the depths of space, the first beyond man’s Solar System–and, it might be, the ultimate last!
After “Slan” I was very interested to see what A. E. van Vogt’s next story would be. Part of the downside of a build-up of the kind that Campbell gave to “Slan” is that it makes it very hard to follow up. The execrations are high and when I started to read “Not the First” I was rather disappointed. It wasn’t that the story was bad, but it seemed to lack all of the great language and imagery of his first stories.
The story was about the first spaceship sent outside the solar system. As it turns out the ship was designed to travel at the speed of light, but when it approached the speed of light, it suddenly and inexplicable jumps to millions (or perhaps billions) times the speed of light. The crew is stuck trying to figure out how to slow the spacecraft down and get home.
But as I said the thing that really bothered me about this story was that the writing felt like a regression on van Vogt’s part. For instance:
He strained his senses against the blackness of the room–and abruptly grew aware of the intensity of that dark. The night of the room was shadowless, a pitch black that lay like an opaque blanket hard on his eyeballs.
Still, it was odd that the lighting system should have gone on the blink on this first “night” of this first trip of the first spaceship powered by the new, stupendous atomic drive.
To me, this reads like a much less mature writer than the writer I’ve come to known on this Vacation and I wonder–and those out there who know van Vogt better than I can chime in with an answer–if I had to put money on it, I’d bet that this story was written before “Slan” and perhaps even before “Black Destroyer.”
One thing that I always forget about van Vogt is that his stories often take an abrupt turn at the very end. This time it caught me by surprise and indeed, it raised the overall quality of the story in my eyes. In the case of this story, attempts to slow down the space craft and go below the speed of light–to find Earth again–seems to be successful, but we discover at the last instant that the crew is stuck in some sort of time loop and the story just seems to start all over again. In some ways the story predates some of the themes in Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero in this respect.
Trepidation (Article) by R. S. Richardson
An article on trepidation in the astronomical sense–on the inequalities of time. There is new reason to believe that some of science fiction’s wilder guesses may be literal fact!
R. S. Richardson’s article in this issue was a short one on “trepidation” in the astronomical sense, which has to do with universal time versus astronomical time. Or, as Richardson defines it,
A mysterious surge or wave of unknown origin effecting Earth and possibly other planets. Generally appears as an abrupt and inexplicable change in astronomical time scale.
Mostly the article describes the difference between time measurements, but I have to be honest here: I wasn’t sure what Richardson was talking about. And I wonder if, in the 70 years since the article appeared, the phenomenon he described has been explained in some other way. According to wikipedia, trepidation is nothing more than the procession of the equinoxes, but that is not what I got from Richardson’s article.
Bird Walk by P. Schuyler Miller
A very small bird can be a very deadly enemy–and very dangerous weapon for one who knows its ways!
Miller’s latest was a kind of mystery story that I didn’t think really had to be science fiction, but was set in such a background perhaps so that it would appear in Astounding.
This was a “space patrol” story that takes place on Venus. When a gem goes missing, it is up to the space patrol members at the outpost to figure out which of six visitors may have stole it. The story is a straight mystery that happens to be set on Venus but could have probably existed as a story without the science fictional background.
There was nothing particularly bad about the story, but I found it pretty dull. I think that’s a theme with Miller’s stories, at least for me.
The Mutineers by Kurt von Rachen
The Kilkenny Cats–even supplies with transport by Gailbraith’s efforts–still wanted to destroy themselves!
At some point, I may go back and read this latest installment of the Kilkenny Cats, but I’ve grown kind of sick of them and with the pressures of my schedule, I decided to skip this one. While the most recent story in the series was pretty good, I wasn’t looking forward to revisiting these characters and their “stolen” spacecraft. Please forgive me on this one and chalk it up to the pressures of expecting a new family member.
The brass tacks column included a couple of “best of the year” letters for 1940. One letter voted for “Final Blackout” and another for “Slan”. From the comments throughout the year, I’ll bet that “Slan” takes the win overall, although I think “Final Blackout” is the better story.
Analytical Laboratory and Ratings
Here are the AnLab ratings for the February 1941 issue. As Campbell points out, “on the new rating system the total number of votes alone doesn’t determine which story wins, it is possible to rate articles and stories together.” Thus, Stanley R. Short’s article makes it into the top 5:
|1. Sixth Column (Part 2)||Anson MacDonald||1.38||1 (Tie)|
|2. “Crooked House”||Robert Heinlein||2.1||3|
|3. Best-Laid Scheme||L. Sprague de Camp||2.87||5|
|4. The Klystron (article)||Stanley R. Short||3.5||N/A|
|5. Completely Automatic||Theodore Sturgeon||3.9||6|
Recall that my ranking of part 2 of “Sixth Column” tied with Nelson S. Bond’s “Magic City” for first place. Interestingly, “Magic City” was squeezed out of the top 5 rankings by Stanley R. Short’s article. Bond’s story received a score of 4.5, which I find remarkable considering it was about the best in the issue, and by far my favorite Bond story. I guess that shows a distinct difference in audiences separated by seven decades.
Here are my ratings for the April 1941 issue:
- Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon
- Reason by Isaac Asimov
- The Stolen Dormouse by L. Sprague de Camp
- Not the First by A. E. van Vogt
- Slacker’s Paradise by Malcolm Jameson
- The Scrambler by Harry Walton
- Bird Walk by P. Schuyler Miller
- The Mutineers by Kurt von Rachen
Just before the Brass Tacks column, there is a short, two paragraph piece presumably written by Campbell called “Two Plus Two Equals 100″ which is worth quoting in its entirety simply because what seemed so novel then is directly related to the fact that you are reading this Episode on some kind of device (computer, smart phone, iPad, etc.) at all:
Counting by twos is normally somewhat of an unnecessary complication, but some primitive tribes, and some advanced scientists find it useful. Their method, however, runs to a straight binomial number system. That is, “one” is written, say, as 1. Two becomes–10. Three, of course, is two plus one or 11. And four, which is two (10) time two (10) equals 100. The numbers up to ten continue, in turn, as five = 101, six = 110, seven = 111, eight = 1000, nine = 1001, and then = 1010.
Why would any modern scientist want to use so cumbersome a method of calculation? It comes in very handy in a special application: electrical calculating machines find it ideally adapted to the simplest of electromagnetic devices–the relay. The simplest type of relay has two positions–open or closed. By simply hooking up the circuits so that “open” means “0” and “closed” represents “1,” a series of simple relays can operate directly and easily in the binomial number system. The resultant machine is bulky, but simple and positive in action.
And from this, computers, and eventually the Internet, is born.
In Times to Come
Campbell’s entire four paragraph “In Times To Come” focuses on a new story by Anson MacDonald called “Solution Unsatisfactory.” As Campbell says,
The title is the Editor’s. MacDonald, rather dissatisfied himself, called it “Foreign Policy.” The point is that the author’s solution to the problem raised in the story–that of a nation, our nation, in possession of an irresistible, but easily imitated weapon–is not tenable.
Also coming up in the May 1941 issue are stories by Robert Heinlein, another robot story by Isaac Asimov, Harry Walton, and Eric Frank Russell.
See you back here in two weeks.