Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 24: June 1941

 

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It is hard to believe, but with this Episode, I’ve now completed the first two years of my Vacation in the Golden Age. The schedule has changed slightly and there have been one or two delays in episodes (and I apologize for the most recent delay). But the joy of reading these issues has not diminished, only increased with every turn of the page. And while overall, the June issue is rather lackluster (Alva Rogers called it “mediocre”), there is still important stuff being published by key people in the genre. And it sets up Episode 25, which will be our third venture into the now infamous “July” issues of Astounding, which seem to be exceptional.

Having completely the first two years of this massive vacation, I feel rather what Will Durant must have felt as he completed each book in his Story of Civilization. And so it seems only apropos to quote his concluding remarks at the end of his second book in that series, The Life of Greece. He wrote:

For those who have come thus far, thank you for unseen but ever felt companionship.

Editorial: Interpreters May Still Be Needed

Campbell opens the issue with a 1-page editorial on  the need for translators once mankind has mastered telepathy. I have to admit that when I read “telepathy” I rolled my eyes and thought, here goes Campbell again. And indeed, it was a rather confusing editorial in which he tried to turn on its head the assumption that if you can read someone’s mind, you can de facto understand what they are thinking. I don’t think he was particularly successful in either his argument or his explanation.

Time Wants a Skeleton by Ross Rocklynne

Six people thrown back in Time knew that one of the had to supply a skeleton to lie a million year on an asteroid–

In our last Episode, Campbell spent virtually all of his space in the In Times To Come column talking about this story. And I will admit, from its description, it sounded fascinating. The story is about Tony Crown, who discovers a skeleton in a cave on an asteroid. The skeleton has a ring on one finger–and somehow, the skeleton has been there for millions of years. Eventually, Crow and five others get thrown back in time, to a point, millions of years earlier when the asteroid was part of a planet that occupies the space now occupied by the asteroid belt. One of the people they are with has an identical ring. And so the mystery unfolds: which of the six people will ultimately supply the skeleton that will be found millions of years later?

At its most fundamental level, this is a story about determinism–that once set on its course, the past cannot alter what has already happened. The story was written at a time before the theory of multiverse had been developed and took what seemed to be at the time the unusual approach of illustrating how the past cannot change the future. Couple that with the almost locked-room mystery nature of the story, where each character is almost a “suspect”–that is, suspected of being the one who ends up the skeleton, and it makes for an interesting mystery.

Since then, the plot has become more common. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the more popularized versions of this plot took the form of an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. That episode is “Time’s Arrow” (a 2-parter) and those familiar with both Rocklynne’s story and the Star Trek episode will be well-aware of the similarities.

While the story was interesting, I had problems with the writing in this one, some much so that it interfered with my enjoyment of the story. Rocklynne was a pulp writer who wrote for Astounding in its pre-Campbell days when it was Astounding Stories instead of Astounding Science Fiction. That style of writing comes through loud and clear in this piece. Indeed, in places the story reads like a parody of a Western, or something that you might hear at the Kirk Poland Memorial Bad Prose Contest:

He took one reluctant look at the ship. His face fell mournfully. The stern section was caved in and twisted so much it looked ridiculous. Well, that was that.

He quickly drew his Hampton and moved soundlessly around the mountain’s shoulder. He fell into a crouch as he saw the gleam of the outlaw ship, three hundred yards distant across a plain, hovering in the shadow thrown by an overhanging ledge.

Then he saw the three figures leaping toward him across the plain. HIs Hampton came viciously up. There was a puff of rock to the front left of the little group. They froze.

Later on in the story, in at least two places, Tony “smiled twistedly.” It made for distracting reading, but I can’t entirely blame Rocklynne for this. This is what he wrote and it worked well for him during those pre-Campbell days. I suspect Campbell took this story because of the fascinating idea and the way the mystery plays out–and not for the quality of the writing.

There is a neat, if somewhat lackluster, solution to the problem. It is discovered toward the end of the story that the skeleton that was found was Amos’s skeleton. Amos was not one of the six people stranded on the planet back in time. He was the skeleton that hangs on the wall of a classroom used for teaching purposes.

Artnan Process by Theodore Sturgeon

The people of Artnan had a process for extracting U-235–and a monopoly on atomic fuel in consequence. But–try and find that secret!

I was somewhat disappointed by this latest story by Theodore Sturgeon. It doesn’t come close to reaching the level of “Microcosmic God” and that story set the bar for me in terms of Sturgeon. I should know better. Not every story can be knock-out. That said, “Artnan Process” was not a bad story, nor was it badly-written. My main problem with the story is that it didn’t really seem to be about anything.

“Artnan Process” is the story of two earthmen, Bell Bellew and Slimmy Cobb who are attempting to figure out the secret to the Artnan’s process of converting uranium U-238 to U-235–and bypass the Martians in doing so. I got the idea that the story was an attempt to be humorous, but except for some obvious areas, I had difficulty finding the humor. One obvious area was in the names of the characters themselves. Bell Bellew (I initially misread this name as “Bill Beutel,” a news anchor in the 1970s for ABC in the area I grew up) and Slimmy Cobb are just the kinds of names to set a humorous tone. Add to that the fact that the Martians are given the names “Heaven”, “Its Wonders”, and “Hell.”

But then after a relatively fast start–in which Bellew and Cobb are attempting to swindle the Martians, we get what feels like almost straight history. We learn, for instance, that the Martians have enslaved the people of Earth by essentially hooking them on technology:

Earthmen outnumbered Martians ten to one. Martians outlived Earthmen eight to one. The advantage was with Mars. The Martian conquest wear applied without blood, without pain. There was no war of the worlds, no great fleet of ray-equipped ships. There was just the warming, friendly power beam, and the great generosity of Earth’s “Elder Sister.” Generation after generation of men lived and died, and each of them was gradually led deeper into the slow-spun web of the red planet. Earth entered into a new era, one of passive peace, submission, slavery.

The story eventually takes us to the Artnan’s themselves where we discover that the “process” is a natural one involving a kind of fungus that does the conversion. A novel idea, but the story itself rather falls flat for what I’ve come to expect from Sturgeon.

Devil’s Powder by Malcolm Jameson

The drug was getting aboard somehow–and making the men do peculiar things. Somehow, they had to stop its smuggling–

Malcolm Jameson has a quiet little franchise going with these Captain Bullard/Pollux stories. Up until now, these stories have been more military protocol stories than science fiction. The science fictional elements go about as far as transferring the Navy and its bureaucracy into space. In this story, he shifts gears from military protocol to one of a mystery–but still not very much science fiction here.

I actually think this works to Jameson’s advantage with these stories. What Jameson has done is set up a familiar background for the reader–in much the way that Asimov has done for his robot stories. Because Jameson’s background is science fictional (it takes place on Navy spaceships) he can place the stories in Astounding despite the stories themselves not being about the things that traditional Golden Age science fiction is about. And this gives the fans and readers a break from the ordinary tropes and lets them explore new things through science fictional lenses.

“Devil’s Powder” deals with numerous crew members going “nuts” while Bullard is on leave. Upon his return, he investigates and there is suspicion that some kind of drug is being smuggled aboard, but it seems to be undetectable. The question becomes how do you find the distributors of an undetectable drug? After some exploration, Bullard and his men discover that the drug is being concealed inside ammunition shells. The shells are identified by the distributors with slightly different labeling on their boxes (there is no period after the mm in millimeter). Bullard then puts into place a clever plan to weed out the distributors. He mildly poisons the affected shells so that the crew members using the drug become sick in various ways. These crew members, angry at the dealers for giving them junk, react as one might expect–with violence against the dealers. In an inspection, it is an easy thing for Bullard to find the four crewmen with black eyes and cracked ribs.

This was a short story, but it was satisfying. Despite not being one of the “classics” and despite not being a hidden gem, I was curious as to how the crew would solve its problem–the mystery of the story hooked me. And because of that, the world around me faded as I watched the investigation unfold. You can’t ask for much more in storytelling.

Old Fireball by Nat Schachner

The possibilities of legal trickery in space are wonderful. For instance, the proper recording of a mining claim may take an astronomer–

I knew that Nat Schachner was a lawyer and was known for writing a series of “space lawyer” stories, but I hadn’t encountered any of those stories until “Old Fireball” and there is a good reason for that. “Old Fireball” was Schachner’s first space lawyer yarn.

“Old Fireball” is the story of a young lawyer who, after a misunderstanding, quits his job as a lawyer for Kenton Space Enterprises and is then tricked into signing a contract as a worker on a space cargo ship working for the same company in a much different capacity. His contract locks him into a year on the spaceship. And since the young lawyer, Kerry Dale, drew up that contract, he knows that it is ironclad. Kerry and Kenton taunt one another through telegrams, trying to use legal machinations to win over the other. In the end, however, Kerry resorts to a trick that involves forcing two asteroids to graze one another and taking legal ownership of both to outmaneuver Kenton.

Throughout the story, Kenton’s daughter seems rebellious against her father and infatuated with Kerry Dale, though they have only met once and hardly notice one another. The story ends with a brief telegram from Sally Kenton to Dale: “CONGRAULATIONS! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!” and I would venture to guess this is not the last we’ve seen of either characters or their burgeoning love affair.

The story was enjoyable because Schachner wrote it well enough to make you wonder how Kerry was going to pull off his legal manipulations. And that’s what they are. He uses the law to trick Kenton, the “Old Fireball” into giving him money and releasing him from all future claims. We find ourselves happy, in the end, for Kerry’s success, while at the same time, admitting that Kerry is really no better than Kenton–he is a cheat of sorts, himself.

The shanghaied bit, where Kerry gets drunk and then signs a year-long contract on the freighter is reminiscent of what we saw at the opening of “Logic of Empire” and is therefore a little repetitive. However, there is at least one passage that reads as if it might appear in a modern science fiction story in Analog, Asimov’s, Lightspeed, or any of the major markets:

The light cell scanned him, approved his lack of weapons and police disk, and swung the panel open to admit him.

Indeed, the passage is somewhat prescient about how we enter important buildings today.

I must also admit that in addition to enjoying the story, I was impressed by Schneeman’s illustrations for this story. Both the “cover” interior as well as a second illustration done for this piece were pretty darn good (if you overlook the rocket in the background of the second illustration).

I know that Schachner’s science fiction career is just about at an end–such pre-knowledge is the bane of this Vacation in these circumstances, but I am looking forward to a few more of these space lawyer stories before he fades away.

To Fight Another Day by Robert Moore Williams

Seeking the mystery of Earth’s desertion, the three men found a clue–and an answer to the cowardice that had made men flee the fighting.

“To Fight Another Day” could have been an outstanding mystery story. It opens with three men returned to an Earth which has been deserted for 4,000 years. The men are seeking the answer to the question: what happened? Why was the planet deserted? Why did only 78 people escape? It is a fascinating proposition, but unfortunately, Williams doesn’t handle it particularly well.

Early in the story, the three men discover a lifelike statue of a man and I think this is too much of an obvious semaphore for what happened. Still, there is the possibility of learning more details as the three men split up and the mystery unfolds. One passage in particular does more damage to the story than any other:

Bal finds a note left behind by one of his comrades, Var, who has been infected with something and wishes to stay away from the two other crew members:

“Don’t touch this piece of paper,” Var had written. The phrase was shakily underlined. “Sorry to have knocked you out, Bal, but  you would have insisted on helping me if I hadn’t. And that might have been fatal. Bal, I’ve discovered what happened here four thousand years ago. It was–” The writing grew shakier. It was a hurried scrawl now, almost unreadable. “It’s getting me. No time to explain. You can figure it out. You can’t miss. Just look at one of those statues…”

This entire passage is an attempt at contrived tension. There is no reason that Var couldn’t have written: “It’s the statues. The people were turned into statues!” But the only reason he doesn’t is to drag out the tension in what is an unfortunately obvious way.

That said, the most striking thing about the story is the ending. The two surviving men make it back to the ship and put the ship into a permanent orbit around Earth. They record a message explaining what happened to those that follow. And it is clear form the final passages, that the two remaining men are infected and they, too, are dying. The death of a protagonist in an Astounding story is–so far–pretty rare, and I’ve gotten the idea that Campbell frowns upon this. However, I suspect because these deaths are not self-serving and can be considered “heroic” that Campbell agreed to the ending as it was.

The Purple Light by E. Waldo Hunter

Sometimes it pays to crawl right into the heart of trouble–

E. Waldo Hunter makes his “debut” in Astounding with this issues second story centered around U-235. I say “debut” because when I read the name, it rang vaguely familiar to me and I had a hunch it was a pseudonym. A quick search confirmed that hunch: E. Waldo Hunter is, in fact, none other than Theodore Sturgeon. In some sense, it is still a debut: Sturgeon’s first time having two stories in the same issue. And interestingly, both stories involve U-235. But I like the second story better, if for no other reason than it is funny.

This short piece is the story of Rix Randolph, who runs a kind of shipping business with his brother. They have gone through a total of 13 ships so far, and Randolph is in the process of navigating the 14th back home–when something unusual occurs. The purple light, which warns of an out of control U-235 reaction, begins to glow.

Two passages give a flavor of the light humor in the story. In the first, Randolph discusses the “value” of some instruments on board the spacecraft:

There were half a dozen signals of the sort on the little one-man cargo carrier–warnings for lowering air pressure, fuel shortage, synth-grav system troubles–I always thought that one was funny. You’d fly up off the deck plates and smack your sconce on the overhead, and when you came to, the silly signal light was on to tell you something was wrong with the synth-grav…

But I found this next passage, in which Randolph describes the purple light, even more amusing:

It was a very bright and a very pretty shade of purple and it said, in effect, “Somewhere around here is an atomic power plant whose U-235 is just at the ticklish point where the disintegration will be too fast for its ordinary energy output. There is about to be an explosion that will make a light bright enough to read a postage stamp by from here to the moons of Mars; and if there is anyone around here just now he’d be foolish to loiter.”

The rest of the story is rather silly, with Randolph discovering that a quality of his own person is what is causing the purple light to glow and dim. But what makes this story work despite everything else, is that it has a clear and distinct voice to its narrator–something which I now realize many of these early Golden Age stories lack. And it makes a good illustration, therefore, of just how important voice can be in a story, even if the story itself is nothing special. Some of Heinlein’s stories have achieved a distinct voice, and maybe one or two of Hubbard’s. But few beyond them are anything more than interesting adventure narrative and dialog. I am now particularly interesting in reading more of Strugeon’s stories as they appear to see if these voices of his grow and improve and carry through.

A Matter of Speed by Harry Bates

The dictator wasn’t invisible and his secret police weren’t. You just couldn’t see them–which is a distinction with a difference, after all!

Try as I might, I couldn’t get through much of “A Matter of Speed.” I figured after “Farewell To the Master” that Bates next story would be a surefire hit with me. I kept reading the first page or two and stalling. Then coming back to it and stalling again. I finally gave up. There’s only so much time I can spend on a story if I am going to get these Episodes written.

As it turns out, I am somewhat justified in my judgement. Here is was Alva Rogers had to say about the story in A Requiem For Astounding:

Harry Bates finally ended his association with Astounding in this issue with his novelette, “A Matter of Speed,” a great disappointment. It would be nice to be able to say that his last story for Astounding was also his best. But unfortunately, that is just not possible. This story of dictatorship, invisibility, and rebellion was a pale shadow of its three illustrious predecessors, “A Matter of Size”, “Alas, All Thinking,” and “Farewell to the Master.”

What I wonder–and please chime in if you know–is why Harry Bates ended his association with Astounding? What was the cause?

Brass Tacks

The opening letter of Brass Tacks is the most interesting one this month, as it concerns the details of the “upcoming” annual World science fiction convention for 1941, in Denver, Colorado. It details the venue:

It will be held at Denver’s fashionable hotel, the Shirley-Savoy, in the Colorado and Centennial Rooms. The rates of this hotel are extremely reasonable, more reasonable, in fact, than any of the other larger hotels in town, including the YW and YMCA, and we’d appreciate it if all of you who come will room here, for if a hundred delegates put up at this hotel we will be able to get the hall for free, consequently having more funds for elaborate preparations and entertainment.

They also list some of the pros who will be in attendance, beginning with Robert Heinlein as Guest of Honor: Authors E. E. Smith, Williard E. Hawkins, D. B. Thompson, A. E. van Vogt, Ross Rocklynne.

It kind of makes you wonder what it would be like to travel back in time and attend that convention.

Analytical Laboratory and Ratings

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

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Microcosmic God Theodore Sturgeon 2.12 1
2. Stolen Dormouse (I) L. Sprague de Camp 2.50 3
3. Reason Isaac Asimov 3.17 2
4. Tied between:
– The Mutineers
– Slackers Paradise
Kurt von Rachen
Malcolm Jameson
3.71
3.71
8
5
5. Bird Walk P. Schuyler Miller 4.20 7

And here are my ratings for the June 1941 issue:

  1. Old Fireball by Nat Schachner
  2. Devil’s Powder by Malcolm Jameson
  3. Artnan Process by Theodore Sturgeon
  4. The Purple Light by E. Waldo Hunter
  5. Time Wants a Skelton by Ross Rocklynne
  6. To Fight Another Day by Robert Moore Williams
  7. A Matter of Speed

In Times To Come

Campbell spends the entire “In Times To Come” page talking up Robert Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” which will appear in the July issue (Episode 25). The problem is that I believe that he gives away major spoilers in the story when doing so, which came rather as a surprise to me. Despite his blurbs, which sometimes can give away the story, the things that Campbell says in the In Times to Come column seem outright spoilers. I won’t mention them here, but will discuss at least one of them next time around.

Also in the July issue, stories by Alfred Bester, Clifford D. Simak, A. E. van Vogt, Nelson S. Bond, and Anson MacDonald. And R. S. Richardson is back with a new science article.

See you back here in 2 weeks.

8 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 24: June 1941

  1. Methusalah’s Children, at least, is a story that is remembered today. I’ve only vaguely heard of Time wants a skeleton, probably because I must have read a reprint of it somewheres.

    1. I read Methuselah’s Children back in 1997 but as I read it now I realize that I remember almost nothing from that original read. “Time Wants a Skeleton” is a fairly famous story. It was included in the Asimov’s/Greenberg Great Stories From the Golden Age of Science Fiction as the lead story. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The plot is original, but the writing doesn’t support it.

  2. That might have been where I read it, Jamie. Thanks.

    Well, originality in the Golden Age was something valued, even at the expense of writing or other issues. Being first is important.

  3. I know it is a spoiler for your vacation, but the fans of seventy years ago rated “A Matter of Speed” the top story of the June issue – by a wide margin. Bates was awarded a very solid first place vote of 1.4 something, with all the other stories clustered around the 3.0 range.

    So as a public service I read “A Matter of Speed” last week to see if it stood the test of time.

    Ugh.

    You did good Jamie to focus more on your new family rather than spend time with this retread of “…If this Goes On” combined with the pulpy pre-Campbellian prose which Bates himself edited a decade earlier. And don’t get me started on the ludicrus toppling skyscraper sequence at the story’s climax.

    O.K., “A Matter of Speed” might be the first instance of a gadget accelerating someone so fast that everyone around them seems to stand still – a gimmick used often in 1960s TV shows such as Star Trek, The Wild Wild West, Bewitched etc. – and that concept may well have been enough for the fans.

    1. Mark, that surprises me that it was so well received. But I have yet to have a month where my ratings line up with that of the fans 70 years ago. A few that have been relatively close, but so far no exact matches.

      Do you know anything about Bates’ “breaking his connection from Astounding” after this story, as Alva Rogers wrote about? I asked Barry Malzberg (who wittily replied with “Farewell to Harry Bates” and his take was that this was just another person who couldn’t survive the changes that Campbell was introducing (unlike Williamson, for instance). He didn’t know anything beyond that, but Rogers wording implies more than just walking about, it seems to me.

  4. Alva Rogers was a fan writer, not a scholar, and I see nothing nefarious with “breaking the connection” beyond Alva’s over the top fannish prose.

    Bates edited and (on and off) wrote for “Astounding” for over a decade – and Alva devoted pages in “Requiem” covering Bates’ involvement with ASF. When Alva reached June 1941 in his memoir / history, it might have seemed to him that one of his major protagonists just vanished – thus the “breaking” comment.

    1. Thanks, Mark. I probably read too much into his statement. But, we are dealing with science fiction fandom here, and we know how cantankerous that can be. See Sam Moskowitz’s, The Immortal Storm. ;-)

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