Twenty-three episodes into this Vacation and I think I am finally beginning to get the hang of these columns. I altered my approach to this issue and you will have to let me know if it shows. Up until now, I would take notes as I read the issue, and then, on Sunday morning, I’d gather all the notes, along with the issue and a few other reference books and sit down to write the Episode–all 4,000 words or so (the present one is nearly 5,000 words making it the longest thus far.) This process presented me with some difficulties:
- There was the stress of having to produce a 4,000 word column on a Sunday morning
- There was the stress of being able to remember everything I wanted to discuss from the notes I took.
Also, given my busy schedule, I wasn’t always able to get in some reading every day and that meant that I often found myself playing catch-up a few days before having to write the Episode.
This time, I did things differently. First,I kept apace of my reading so that I never really fell behind. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I did the write up for each story as I finished reading the story. That meant that today, all I had to do was write the other items (this intro, Brass Tacks, In Times To Come, etc.) and put the whole thing together. I hope that it means my observations are a little more clear and that I touch on things I might have otherwise forgotten if I had waiting until the end to write up the whole thing. You’ll have to decide if you notice any difference.
In any event, this issue was a treat, one of the better issues I’ve come across in this Vacation so far. It is unusual for having seven pieces of fiction and no articles whatsoever. There are two novelettes, four short stories, and the conclusion of a serial. And it all beings with Campbell discussing the future…
Editorial: The Future to Come
Campbell’s 2-page editorial this month discusses Heinlein’s Future History explicitly. Campbell is clearly impressed by the fact that Heinlein has outlined his future history of stories in some detail. It allowed Heinlein to write the stories out of order, for instance. And after some prodding, Campbell convinced Heinlein to allow him to print a part of that Future History and that part appeared in this issue:
Planning out a history like this works for some writers–clearly it worked well for Heinlein–but not for all writers. In the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov discusses this in the context of his own Foundation series. After pitching the idea for the original Foundation story to Campbell, the editor immediately thought of it as an open ended series of stories. As Asimov writes:
“I want you to write an outline of the future history. Go home and write the outline.”
There Campbell made a mistake. Robert Heinlein was writing what he called the “Future History Series.” He was writing various stories that fitted into one niche or another of the series, and he wasn’t writing them in order. Therefore he had prepared a Future History outline that was very detailed and complicated, so that he would keep everything straight. Now Campbell wanted me to do the same…
I went home, dutifully, and began preparing an outline that got longer and longer and stupider and stupider until finally I tore it up. It was quite plain that I couldn’t work from an outline.
Now, some will argue that the discrepancies that show up in the Foundation stories reflect this, and that may be true, but I also think that the discrepancies add a unique realism to the stories–something I will discuss in more detail beginning in Episode 35.
Universe by Robert Heinelin
A NOVA story of the strangest world in space–a world where men could not learn the laws of Nature for they did not apply!
Heinlein is back in this issue with two stories. The first, a novelette (bordering on a novella, I think) called “Universe” is part of his Future History framework and its place in the history is identified in the chart above. Strangely, I’d never read this story before. It wasn’t included in The Past Through Tomorrow which is where I read much of Heinlein’s Future History the first time around. I have mixed feelings about the story. I enjoyed it, but I also found it somewhat flawed. However, I will admit that for a contemporary reader, the “breakthrough concept” in the story is pretty staggering, and probably new and my guess it is for that reason–the idea, as opposed to the story-telling–that Campbell gave the story the NOVA label.
This is the story of Hugh Hoyland, a member of an odd community living in a world where it seems some of the basic laws of physics don’t apply consistently. For instance, gravity is different at different levels of the world. The world is collected into various “villages” and there is a mythology built up around the culture whereby when people die, they make the “Trip”. The cultural aspects of the story are a nice touch and make the culture (with its curses to Jordan) seem realistic. However, being a modern reader, and having read numerous stories involving generation starships, it was pretty obvious to me at the outset that this was the story of a people who were on a generation starship, but had forgotten that to be the case.
This doesn’t make the story any less interesting. Knowing this, I still wondered how Hoyland would figure it out. That, of course, came with the help of the mutes, in particular, the two-headed mutant, Joe-Jim. What I found to be the weakest part of the story was, given how the relationship between the muties and the colonists were portrayed, that the muties were so accepting of Hugh Hoyland in the first place. Sure, he did spend a period of time as a slave, but this was glazed over and he felt no real resentment for it. I understand that these feelings were built into his culture to begin with but it was just a little hard to swallow.
Still, I think this was a better than average Heinlein story. For one thing, it was a story in which he was exploring an idea as opposed to exposing some political point. He wasn’t trying to convince his audience by example and analogy. And his idea–that of the generation starship–was indeed a mind-expanding one. I checked the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and found that while this wasn’t the first of what we’d call, in the modern sense, a generation starship story (that, according to Peter Nicholls, goes to Don Wilcox’s “The Voyage the Lasted 600 Years” in Amazing Stories, 1940), it was the first story to suggest that the crew of such a ship might eventually forget their purpose. In that sense, the story presages many wonderful science fiction stories. Robert Reed’s “Marrow” as it appeared originally in Science Fiction Age. But there are plenty of others.
Heinlein does a nice job of weaving some literary references into the story, as when describing some of the differences of taste between the Joe-head and Jim-head of Joe-Jim:
This led to their one major difference of opinion. Jim regarded Allan Quartermain as the created man who ever lived; Joe held out for John Henry. They were both inordinately fond of poetry; they could recite pages after page of Kipling, and were nearly as fond of Rhysling, “the blind singer of the space ways.”
There is also a pretty remarkable scene in which Hugh Hoyland sees the stars for the first time:
Creation. Faithfully reproduced, shining as steady and serene from the walls of the tellurium as did their originals from the black deeps of space, the mirrored stars looked down on him. Light after jeweled light, scattered in careless bountiful splendor across the simulacrum sky, the countless suns lay before him–before him, over him, under him, behind him, in every direction from him. He hung alone in the center of the stellar universe.
This passage immediately called to mind the climax of Asimov’s “Nightfall,” which we will encounter just a few months hence in the September 1941 Astounding (Episode 27).
And there is a nod to Galileo as well as Hoyland tries to convince those from his village that things are not what they seem. They don’t believe him and charge him with treason and he defiantly mutters (as Galileo is alleged to have said), “Nevertheless–it still moves!”
Asimov and Greenberg selected two pieces from the May 1941 for inclusion in their 1941 retrospective anthology, and “Universe” was not among them, despite its NOVA rating. The story, coupled with a sequel which appears in a future issue, made up Heinlein’s novel Orphans of the Sky. Nevertheless, I think “Universe” is one of Heinlein’s better stories to-date and I can only imagine what it must have read like to someone in 1941 who had never conceived of a generation starship before. This story is a classic example of what, in science fiction, we call a “conceptual breakthrough” and what often gets translated as Sense of Wonder.
Liar! by Isaac Asimov
A beautifully logical tale of a robot who simply couldn’t tell the truth!
Asimov’s second Robot story for Astounding (and second appearance in two months) introduces what he considered to be his first successful female character, Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist. I wouldn’t consider Susan Calvin a well-rounded character in this story, but her ongoing appearance in later robot stories does provide her with a kind of charm not typical of Asimov’s characters. This charm reaches a peak, in my opinion, in Harlan Ellison’s 1977 screenplay of I, Robot, which unfortunately never made it to the big screen 1.
“Liar!” is an interesting story on a couple of levels. First, it sets a template for the type of story that Asimov became very good at: stories with a common background and familiar characters. Establishing the setting and characters and eventually the rules of the road early on goes a long way to allowing later stories to simply assume the background, giving more room to focus on the stories and puzzles. Then, too, many of the characters, Susan Calvin, Lanning, Donnovan and Powell, for instance, become familiar to the reader. This is also true (to a lesser extent) in the original Foundation stories. But it is certainly true for Asimov’s later mysteries like his Black Widower stories. “Liar!” is probably Asimov’s earliest attempt at providing such a framework for future stories.
More importantly, “Liar!” introduces the concept that will provide the puzzles for the bulk of his future robot stories: how robots live within the Laws of Robotics and what can go wrong with them. The Laws of Robotics are not yet explicitly stated in this story; they are yet to come. However, the first law is almost explicitly stated in this story:
She faced them and spoke wearily, “You know the fundamental law impressed upon the positronic brain of all robots, of course.”
The other two nodded. “Certainly, said Bogert. “On no conditions is a human being to be injured in any way, even when such an injury is directly ordered by another human.”
The story in “Liar!” hinged upon this law. A robot that can read minds is turned out from the factory. Despite this amazing ability, all it seems to do is tell lies to those around it. The reason, it turns out, is because the robot, in reading minds, can sense the desire of humans and telling the truth would mean sometimes hurting their psyche–and hurting their psyche is a form of mental injury. Asimov’s exploration and argument in this story is that psychic injury is well within the realm of “any injury” as covered by this fundamental law.
In the end, the robot cannot take any action. Not telling the scientists what they want to know hurts them, but telling them will hurt them, too. Susan Calvin takes advantage of this to drive the robot insane, after which it is scrapped.
I think it is important to note that the fact that the robot could read minds probably helped sell the story to Campbell. Campbell was a big pursuer of psionic abilities and including such an ability in the story probably helped to make the sale.
I enjoyed “Liar!” although I think it is more important for the foundation it lays than as a story in and of itself. The introduction of Susan Calvin and the first Law of Robotics are key to this foundation. Asimov and Greenberg selected this story as one of two pieces included in their retrospective anthology for 1941 from the May issue. You can tell that Asimov is still a novice writer at this point in his budding career, but there is also the glimmer that maybe there are big things to come from him. Certainly Campbell felt this way and thank goodness he did.
Solution Unsatisfactory by Anson MacDonald
This story presents a challenge to the reader, a problem that must be solved soon in the world of grim fact if there is any logic in events of history–the problem of the irresistible weapon.
Heinlein, in his Anson MacDonald guise, makes his second appearance in this issue with another long story–indeed between this story and “Universe” Heinlein counts for almost half of the fiction in the issue! “Solution Unsatisfactory” is science fiction in the barest sense, more alternate history along the lines of Hubbard’s “Final Blackout.” Like his previous story as MacDonald, “Sixth Column,” this current piece explores the use of an ultimate weapon, one for which there is no defense. Unlike the weapon in “Sixth Column,” this weapon in “Solution Unsatisfactory” turns out to be a very legitimate weapon: radioactive dust; or what today we might call a dirty bomb. Even today physical defense against such a weapon would be difficult. The story follows the course of World War II and how the United States uses such a weapon against Germany–and then forces the world to give up on war lest others will soon learn how to use this weapon and destroy the planet.
This was my first time reading “Solution Unsatisfactory.” Isaac Asimov, in writing about Heinlein in his memoir I, Asimov, said of his writing
I always wished that he kept to the style he achieved in such stories as “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which he wrote under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald, and such novels as Double Star, published in 1956, which I think is the best thing he ever wrote.
With this recommendation, I looked forward to “Solution Unsatisfactory” but the story didn’t live up to my expectations. The story is essentially written as a history text with very little in the way of character–exactly what you might find in reading a history of World War II with the key players mentioned in passing and not much in the way of introspection. Especially after the bombing of Berlin, the narrative falls off and the history takes over.
That said, the problem Heinlein portrays is a fascinating one to consider at the dawn of the atomic age. As Heinlein describes the problem in the story:
“It’s like this: Once the secret is out–and it will be out if we ever use the stuff!–the whole world will be comparable to a room full of men, each armed with a loaded .45. They can’t get out of the room and each one is dependent on the good will of every other one to stay alive. All offense and no defense. See what I mean?”
What Heinlein is describing is what we later called Mutually Assured Destruction. The world-wide dictatorship that Heinlein proposes is one solution–the only one he can see–but as is implied by the title and as Campbell reiterates in his editor’s note at the end of the story, it is unsatisfactory.
The thing is–as we now know–we have lived with this very “indefensible” weapon since the end of World War II. Democracy has survived and we are all still here. In fact, the weapon has not been used since. We have found a solution, not a perfect one, but one more satisfactory than what Heinlein proposed, and it is based on brinkmanship and game theory surrounding mutually assured destruction.
Jay Score by Eric Frank Russell
He had no friends, only respect, but the terrible test of the sun proved him a friend to have.
“Jay Score” is the second story in this issue that Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg selected for their inclusion in their retrospective anthology for 1941. When I first started the story, which is about a mission to Venus gone awry, I enjoyed it but I struggled somewhat to figure out why Asimov and Greenberg through it stood out so much. I thought perhaps it had to so with the handling of race in the story. The three races on the spaceship are all treated equally, each contributing their own special abilities and skills for the good of the mission. It is one of those rare early Golden Age stories that acknowledges racial differences while still treating all of the characters equally as human beings. However, this is only a small part of the story and it certainly couldn’t be just for this that Asimov and Greenberg selected the piece.
Then I read the last paragraph. Those of you who have read the story know what I am talking about. Those of you who haven’t read the story should. I imagine it is still in print in some anthologies and is worth the read for some of the hard science it includes. But the ending provides a paradigm shift that makes you read the whole story in a new like. It is like what critics often praised in van Vogt’s stories–except that I think Russell pulls it off better in “Jay Score”. The ending is important enough to mention, but I am going to include it in a “spoiler box” below. You can click to expand the box and read the spoiler if you want. But a warning: if you are reading this post on an RSS feed, I can’t guarantee this spoiler box will work, so assume that some spoilers will follow.
[spoiler]Jay Score is the name of the emergency pilot brought onto the ship before it makes its flight to Venus. He is a big man, but muted. He does his job when called upon, and does it well. Indeed, on several occasions during the mission, it is left to Jay Score to come to the rescue and save the day. There are Martians on board the ship because they are good at handling repairs. They are also good at a form of chess and no one can beat them–but Jay Score gives them a run for their money during their games. In fact, he does manage to play them to a draw and even to a couple of wins. A collision with some space debris causes problems with the rocket and instead of entering an orbit around Venus, the rocket goes plummeting toward the Sun. Once again, Jay Score helps to save the day, barely surviving in the process. But he does survive and in the final paragraph of the story, we find out why:
I returned my attention to where all the others were directing their attention, and the victim [Jay Score] sat there, his restored eyes bright and glittering, but his face immobile despite the talk, the publicity, the beam of paternal pride from Johannsen. But after tan minutes of this, I saw J.20 begin to fidget. Don’t let anybody kid you that a robot can’t have feelings!
Suddenly, we discover that Jay Score was a robot and the story makes even more hints, particularly the frequent descriptions of the light in his eyes and the fact that he could beat the Martians at chess. Even his name hints at his origin: J-20, twenty being one “score.” And I will admit that I fell for it and I’m glad I did–it gave a new meaning to the story, made it better on several levels, and I think it is for that reason above any other that it was selected for the anthology.[/spoiler]
This story was also a pretty good one from a “hard science” perspective.It proposes the use of a slingshot around the sun, for instance, and making use of the sun’s own gravity to prevent from getting pulled into the star.
According to Alva Rogers in A Requiem for Astounding, Jay Score “was the first in a quite good series of stories which included the better known ‘Mechanistria’ and ‘Symbiotica,’ which appeared later.”
I enjoyed the story very much and I am eagerly awaiting Eric Frank Russell’s next appearance in Astounding.
Fish Story by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts
As a yarn, it’s wasn’t plausible even if it was logical.
This is the second collaboration we’ve seen so far in this Vacation, and also happens to be the second collaboration of Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts. (The first was “Putsch”, March 1941, Episode 21) and that one I didn’t manage to get through. “Fish Story” is the shortest piece in the issue, and I did finish it. If the story had appeared in another issue, I might have thought less of it, but part of the genius of Campbell seems to be balancing out the content of the issues. And after four strong stories, it was nice to get a break from the serious and add a little levity into the mix.
The story is just what the title describes, a barroom fish story in which Colonel Chutley-Clavenger describes to a passerby professor his adventures at capturing the rare and ferocious Porgills from the lakes of Venus. As the beast is described:
“They are covered with viciously sharp spines like the quills of a porcupine. In its raw state, y’know, Porgill oil is one of the deadliest poisons known to science. A single drop on any bare skin can cause a terribly painful death in a matter of hours, and there is no known antidote. The merest scratch from the spines of a Porgill would be the finish of a man.”
The story is clearly told tongue-in-cheek, not only by the characters telling the story, but by the authors writing it. And in the end, through a creative use of chemistry, they manage to capture dozens of the creatures whose oil will bring untold riches. Still, as the somewhat skeptical professor asks at the end,
“You must have made a considerable amount of money out of that expedition–”
“We did. Most certainly we did. But the price of refreshment as it is– Good night, gentlemen.”
Subcruiser by Harry Walton
The subcruisers were dangerous enough without a drunken skipper and a treasonous mate!
Harry Walton’s “Subcruisers” is probably my least-favorite story in the issue, but even at that it is not too bad. It has the bad fortune of being placed in an issue with some exceptional stories and they make it look weak in comparison. “Subcruisers” is your run-of-the-mill naval procedural in space–with a few minor exceptions to the similar kinds of stories we’ve seen so far. I think there are two notable things about this particular story:
First is some of the notions of cloaking that are used in the story. The “subcruiser” refers to the fact that the ship passes through “subspace” which seems to be made up of “negative energy” or what I interpreted to be hyperspace. Portions of the plot centered around the ability to move in this “subspace” to avoid enemy ships from Venus. Reading it vaguely reminded me of the Klingon cloaking ability from Star Trek.
Second, I think Captain Paul Wythe was portrayed as a fairly realistic character. He was not overzealous and he was flawed–or so it seemed. At the end of the story we find out he really wasn’t a drunk, but that he had been drugged. Nevertheless, he had a certain amount of introspection that is often lacking in these procedural stories–and why not? The point of these procedurals is to emphasize the technology and the scale of things transferred from the oceans of Earth into space.
The Stolen Dormouse, Part II by L. Sprague de Camp
The second and concluding part of a novel of a wacky and feuding future world.
The last piece of fiction in this issue was the conclusion of L. Sprague de Camp’s two-part serial, “The Stolen Dormouse.” I wasn’t overly impressed by this story because I feel like I’ve seen its like before. However, as a contemporary reader it might have come across as unique and de Camp certainly does a good job of infusing his fiction with humor that works well, something that I haven’t seen too much of in this Vacation.
In this concluding segment, we follow Juniper-Hallett as he continues to investigate what happened to the stolen dormouse in hopes of getting his status returned to him. In doing so, he comes across his arch enemy, against whom he fought in part 1 and who was also demoted, Lane-Walsh. It turns out that Lane-Walsh has been sent upon the same mission with the same promises and it only makes sense that two enemies team up toward a common goal.
In this part, we learn why these people in suspended animation are called dormice. As Juniper-Hallett describes them:
“…Matter of fact they’re named after some kind of mouse they have in Europe. It goes into a very deep sleep when it hibernates.”
Eventually, they discover that the dormouse wasn’t really stolen after all, but was revived for his knowledge. His name is Arnold Ryan and he hold court in a secret chamber beneath one of the crypts where the dormice are stored. Their ultimate goal is to dismantle some of the corporate structure of society in America so that there is somewhat more freedom–specifically for the engineers.
Heinlein’s Future History charts discussed above were included at the beginning of the Brass Tacks section. The letters in this month’s issue were the usual run-of-the-mill, but I wanted to call out one letter by a Mr. Richard Rafael, who asks what I think is a good question in reference to Nelson S. Bond’s “Magic” (February 1941, Episode 20):
But for the life of me I can’t see why our social-science fictioners like Bond and Heinlein so often throw the world back to primitivism. Can’t they imagine a non-machine culture without talking in terms of hairy apes? What about Egypt, Syria, the Hellenic world, Crete and China? Couldn’t a civilization emerge along the cultural lines of one of these? Why must we always have Reousseau’s Noble Savage, with his biceps, his stone ax and his mate crawling around the ruins of might Nywak or Chikgo? After all, don’t you think a post Euro-American age would at least start in on the level of say, Rome?
I think this is a good question, but my knowledge of “post-apocalyptic” stories is somewhat limited. Stories such as A Canticle for Leibowitz don’t go quite as primitive as things go in “Magic City” but I agree with Rafael that the notion people have is that a collapse of modern society would instantly revert us to pre-civilized nations, when going back to earlier civilizations like Rome seems more realistic. Campbell felt the letter writer had a good point as well. He wrote, “This man has something there. Not straight Graeco-Roman, but on that order–”
Analytical Laboratory and Ratings
Here are the results of the AnLab for the March 1941 issue of Astounding:
|1. Sixth Column (Part 3)||Anson MacDonald||1.56||3|
|2. Logic of Empire||Robert Heinlein||2.37||2|
|3. Poker Face||Theodore Sturgeon||4.10||1|
|4. Eccentric Orbit||D. B. Thompson||4.40||6|
|5. Masquerade||Clifford D. Simak||4.90||4|
And here are my ratings for the present issue:
- Universe by Robert Heinlein
- Solution Unsatisfactory by Anson MacDonald
- Liar! by Isaac Asimov
- Jay Score by Eric Frank Russell
- The Stolen Dormouse, Part II by L. Sprague de Camp
- Fish Story by Vic Phillips and Scott Roberts
- Subcruiser by Harry Walton
Other items of note
There is an interesting pseudo-ad in this issue titled, “Unknown Announces a Book.” The half-page, all text ad pushes the new book, which happens to be a novelized version of L. Sprague de Camp’s “Lest Darkness Fall.”
In times to come
Campbell’s entire In Times To Come section discusses Ross Rocklynne’s latest story, “Time Wants a Skeleton.” I’ve never read the story but his description makes it sound interesting. Also in the June issue are stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Nat Schachner, Harry Bates, Malcolm Jameson, Robert Moore Williams, and a writer with the strange name of E. Waldo Hunter–a pseudonym for someone above. But we’ll talk about that next time.
See you back here in two weeks.