Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 27: September 1941

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A good argument can be made that the issue which you are about to read about is one of the best issues to come out of the Golden Age. The issue contains three stories that have gone on to become classics of the genre. Contained within its pages are names like Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein. The cover for the issue–by Huber Rogers–is probably one of his most famous covers, and in my mind, certainly one of his most striking. I’d been looking forward to reading this issue since my Vacation started and I found myself frequently wondering if a fifteen-year old reading this issue in the summer of 1941 would have an inkling that what they held in their hands was something special. So you will forgive me if this Episode runs a bit longer than usual. There is a lot to talk about.

As I was updating the Author’s Index in preparation for this issue, I made a few interesting discoveries, all of which surround pseudonyms. Pseudonyms were big in the Golden Age for a variety of reasons. The Index that I put together lists stories under the actual author’s name with a reference to the pseudonym. The pseudonym itself is listed in the index with a link back to the actual author’s name. I discovered that three authors–two of which already appeared in the Index, and one new to this Episode–were all pseudonyms that I had missed.

The first is Lee Gregor, who we’ve seen in Episode 2 and Episode 4. It turns out that Lee Gregor is none other than Milton A. Rothman, who under his own name has penned several letters that have appeared in the Brass Tacks.

The second is non-fiction writer Arthur McCann. I was updating my Index adding links to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and when I got to McCann, I was rather stunned to learn that McCann is none other than our editor, John W. Campbell himself. In this issue, we find Campbell with a non-fiction article under his own name, which makes you wonder why he used the McCann pseudonym. Futhermore, Mr. Arthur McCann has also had a few letters in Brass Tacks under the name McCann. This seems a little ethically questionable, if you ask me.

The third and final discovery was made just before I started reading this issue. I’d never heard of Caleb Saunders, who has a story below as you will see, and so I went to look him up to see what else he’d done. Those of you in the know are already ahead of me–but I was again surprised to discover that Caleb Saunders is none other than our prolific friend, Robert A. Heinlein. That gives Heinlein two stories in this watershed issue of Astounding.

Editorial: Optical Instruments

Campbell’s 2-page editorial this month is on cameras. It is mostly a technical discussion of the design of lenses and it is a pretty interesting read–and for the most part, completely non-controversial, which is a little unusual for Campbell. He writes about the differences between camera lenses and the human eye and how the eye compensates for the distortions that are introduced through lenses. It is clear in this essay, at least, that Campbell has a real passion for cameras. I thought I recall reading somewhere that he was an amateur photographer.

What I found most interesting was wondering what Campbell might have thought about the digital cameras that we have today and how pictures can be cleaned up by software. I wonder if he would have been for it or against it?

This month’s issue seven pieces of fiction: two novelettes, four short-stories, and the conclusion of a serial. In addition, there are two articles this month as well as the usual reader departments.

Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

How would a people who saw the stars but once in two thousand years react– 

“Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov is considered to be one of the most famous science fiction stories of all time. Note that I don’t say one of the best stories. It is certainly the most famous story to appear in this Vacation so far. It seems almost silly, therefore, to provide a recap of the story in this Vacation because it is hard to believe that there are science fiction fans out there who haven’t read the story. And yet, I don’t think the story is nearly as famous as it used to be. Or, put another way, I suspect that while many younger science fiction fans have heard of “Nightfall,” I also suspect that many have not read it.

But “Nightfall” was one of the stories that I really looked forward to reading as it appeared in the pages of Astounding as part of this Vacation. My copy of the September 1941 Astounding is in excellent condition and when I sat down to read the story, I wondered who might have read it when the issue first hit the news stands around mid-August 1941. There was a kind of weight of history pressing down on me as I turned to the title page of the story and read the Emerson quote on which the story was based:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!”

This story was a turning point for Isaac Asimov and it was unique for him in several ways. First, the idea wasn’t his. He wandered into Campbell’s office one day with some idea or other and Campbell waved the idea aside and read Asimov the Emerson quote above. He then went on to say that he thought Emerson was wrong; that if men saw the stars one time in a thousand years, they’d go mad. He wanted Asimov to write a story about it and he wanted him to call the story “Nightfall.” As Asimov wrote in his autobiography:

We talked about various things, thereafter, with Campbell seeming to circle the idea and occasionally asking me questions such as, “Why should the stars be invisible at other times?” and listened to me as I tried to improvise answers. Finally, he shooed me out with, “Go home and write that story.”

…In my diary for that day I said, “I’ll get started on it soon, as I think the idea is swell and I even envisage making a lead novelette out of it; but I don’t delude myself into thinking it will be an easy story to write. It will be hard work.”

The story, of course, is about the last few hours before a cataclysmic event takes place on the planet Lagash. Once every two thousand years, it seems, civilization is destroyed on the planet. There are signs of the old civilizations but they all ended in fire. Lagash has six suns and five of them had passed below the horizon. The sixth was about to be eclipsed by a moon–and ellipse that happens once every two thousand years. The people of Lagash live in perpetual daylight and so when the light of all the suns finally go out, they apparently go mad. We see the story unfold form an astronomical observatory with a cast that includes astronomers, a reporter, a psychologist and even a Cultist. We watch as they try and rationalize the insanity that will come and even posit theories behind what these “stars” could be and why darkness might drive a man mad. And yet, in the dramatic ending, the stars appear and the city begins to burn in the chaos. “The long night has come again.”

The story is an interesting take on the fear of the unknown–what else is darkness but the unknown. But it is an even more fascinating look at beings (for while the people of Lagash are described in human terms, I doubt they are human) which have never had to deal with darkness. There are, of course, some problems with the story that I think Asimov decided not to worry about. For instance–wouldn’t one of the six suns be visible somewhere on the planet? But even that does not detract from the power of the story and the mind-expanding revelation of those stars at the end.

Still, Asimov never considered it one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time, or even one of his best stories. He was always bothered by a passage toward the end of the story:

Through it, shone the Stars!

Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred stars visible to the eye–Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster. Thirty thousand mighty suns shown down in a soul-searing splendor that was more frighteningly cold in its awful indifference than the bitter wind that shivered across the cold, horribly bleak world.

Asimov wrote that first sentence, but Campbell wrote the second paragraph, inserting it without Asimov being aware. Asimov was careful not to mention Earth in the story to give the world an alien feel, but Campbell went ahead and mentioned earth in that paragraph. Then too, that paragraph has been quoted as an example that Asimov can, on occasion, write poetically. That infuriated him further because he didn’t write it.

Asimov was paid a bonus for the story, 1-1/4 cents/word instead of the usual 1-cent. Upon discovering the “error” he called Campbell to tell him he’d been overpaid. Campbell was amused and explained about the bonus,.

After “Nightfall” appeared, Asimov wrote, he sold every story he wrote. He might not sell the story right away, but he would eventually and he points to the popularity of “Nightfall” as a turning point in his career. Before “Nightfall” he was a minor science fiction writer. After, he was a major force in the field.

I must set aside at least one paragraph to talk about the Rogers cover for this issue, which depicts the climax of the story when stars finally appear in the sky. I think it is my favorite Rogers cover so far. There is something unsettling about the tiny figures in the background, which seem to be running from the blaze of stars, while a lone figure to the far left stands frozen, the fires of the burning city visible above his head. Asimov eventually got the original painting from Rogers, but he lost it in one of his numerous moves after returning from his Army stint to New York City. It’s too bad. I wonder how much that original Rogers painting would be worth today?

Adam and No Eve by Alfred Bester

The last living man on a world rendered utterly lifeless by all-consuming fire–how could he start life alone?

I don’t think I have yet seen an issue of Astounding open with a one-two punch the way this issue opens. For right on the heels of Asimov’s “Nightfall”, I turn the page and find myself staring at Schneeman’s ashen illustration for Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve”–a story which, if not quite as popular as “Nightfall,” is nevertheless a classic of the genre.

“Adam and No Eve” is the story of Crane, who we find alone, injured and starving on an ashen, desolate planet Earth, wandering aimlessly it would seem at first, but eventually seeking out what might be left of the sea. Almost at once Bester sets himself apart from most of the writers in Astounding by his ability to so viscerally describe the setting in his story. While perhaps not as lyrical as Ray Bradbury would become, his descriptions bring to mind the sensory explorations of a Ray Bradbury story, one that is grim and dark:

The sky was jet overhead. The black clouds rode high and were pierced with shafts of sunlight that marched swiftly over the Earth. Where the light struck a cinder storm, it was filled with gusts of dancing, gleaming particles. Where it played through rain it brought the arches of rainbows into being. Rain fell; cinder-storms blew; light thrust down–together, alternatingly and continually in a jig saw of black and white violence. So it had been for months. So itwas over every mile of the broad Earth.

Hunger, thirst, choking dust and the lack of all life take their toll on Crane, who it seems is slowly going insane. He hallucinates, converses with Hallmyer, his old partner; with Evelyn, his lover. Through these hallucinations, some of them bitterly taunting, we learn what happened to lead to the destruction of the world. Crane had built a rocket that used an atomic fuel capable of drawing energy out of iron. Hallmyer’s calculations showed that any kind of leak could start a chain reaction that would eat up all of the iron on Earth–a devastating effect. But Crane believes he has accounted for all safety and precaution and casts Hallmyer’s worries aside. Hallmyer, in reaction, attempts to destroy the rocket. To save it, Crane does the only thing he can, climbs aboard and launches into space (taking his poor dog Umber with him). Upon returning to Earth, he sees what destruction had been wrought–that Hallmyer was right–and with his dog, returns to desolation and destruction.

“Adam and No Eve” is, in many ways, a retelling of the story of Icarus. It is the story of pride in the face of danger, and an unwillingness to see the possible outcomes until it is too late. Evelyn is his guardian angel in her own way. Him memory of her warns him of the danger that has been stalking him. And that danger turns out to be Umber, who also survived the journey and is now a feral and starving dog whom Crane is forced to kill.

The title of the story takes on a nice double-meaning, some of which is given away in Campbell’s blurb. Crane, of course, is Adam, the only living man on Earth. And there is no Eve because everyone else is dead, including his lover, Evelyn (Eve for short, I imagine). It is the literal result of the story. But then, too, Crane’s realization at the end of the story that the cells in his body will ultimately lead to new life support Campbell’s interpretation in his blurb: how could he start life alone. It is through his own blood that this new life will presumably begin. And in an eerie echo to Asimov’s “Nightfall” we have this concluding passage:

And with glazing eyes Stephen Crane smiled up at the stars, stars that were sprinkled evenly across the sky. Stars that had not yet formed into the familiar constellations, nor would not for another hundred million centuries.

And in this passage, Bester adds yet a new wrinkle to the story, echoing the cycles of civilization on Lagash right here on Earth. We destroy ourselves only to build ourselves up again. Or perhaps the other way around.

As an interesting side note, I recall reading in Richard Rhodes Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, that setting the atmosphere on fire was a real fear for the scientists working on the bomb. Hallmyer shares a similar fear in “Adam and No Eve.”

You have to wonder how a teenager in the early 1940s would feel after rushing off to the local newstand to pick up the September issue, and perhaps sitting out in the summer sun, reading these first two stories. Would they have an inkling that what they were reading would become classics of the genre? It makes  me wonder the same today when I read stories in an issue of Asimov’s or Analog or Lightspeed or Clarkesworld. What stories from today will my grandchildren look upon as classics?

The Sea-King’s Armored Division (Part 1) (article) by L. Sprague de Camp

An article in two parts, concerning the Age of Science that didn’t quite come off–the Hellenistic Age. The boys were good back there; they had a lot of quite modern gadgets, from taxi meters to heavy armored tanks!

L. Sprague de Camp has a rather fascinating article in this issue on the science and scientists of the Hellenistic age. His premise is that scientists of this age were pretty well advanced–so much so that the Age of Science that took place during the Renaissance might have come off somewhat earlier if those scientists were just a little bit better.

The article opens in the form of a short story about a professor sending a scout back to the Hellenistic time (using a time machine, of course) in order to learn just what they knew, scan everything in their libraries, and bring it back for further study. After a page and a half or so, de Camp switches from a fictional narrative to an article tone. I don’t particularly like this approach. de Camp’s article is good without the attempt to dramatize it as fiction at the beginning. Willy Ley has done this before and I think it distracts from the article. I can’t tell if this is done as a way of being clever–perhaps making it easier for fiction readers to slip into nonfiction–or if it is something that Campbell insisted on from time-to-time. In his essays in F&SF, Asimov eventually developed an approach that I prefer: starting his essay off with a (usually) amusing anecdote that has some direct connection to the discussion at hand.

Once he moves beyond the opening, however, de Camp provides a very interesting look at this age in the history of science. This article (part 1 of 2) covers mostly mathematics and astronomy, as these sciences are tightly bound.

de Camp did the illustrations for the article. One of them is an illustration of how the ancients imagined the orbits of the planets. The other is a pretty nice perspective drawing of a ziggurat. I’ve included that below.

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Finally, there is a nice chart toward the end of the article that summarizes the key scientists and their ancient accomplishments. This is indeed reminiscent of something that Asimov would later do in his own essays.

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Part 2, which appears in the October 1941 issue is supposed to cover the scientific knowledge of the Greeks outside of just mathematics and astronomy. That one should be equally interesting.

Short-Circuited Probability by Norman L. Knight

This is a yarn of something that did–or didn’t–happen. Question is, can it be properly said that it did or did not.

Norman L. Knight’s last appearance in this Vacation was his two-part serial “Crisis In Utopia” (July/August 1940, Episode 13 & 14). I couldn’t get through that serial and I was a little dubious about seeing a new story by him in this current issue. And yet, perhaps part of the magic of this September issue is that it just seems to collect good stories and Knight’s is no exception.

“Short-Circuited Probability” begins with a description of the construction of a network of undersea tunnels running across the Bering Straight. Indeed at first glance it seemed like the story was going to be about these undersea tunnels and the efforts at constructing them and running them. But the story quickly takes a Jack McDevitt-like turn. Construction is suddenly halted when something is discovered in the path of one of the tunnels. Mark Livingtone goes to investigate the hold-up. What he finds is especially disconcerting to him. Buried in the ice is a strange human-like creature. The scientists investigating place the creature at having been there for tens of thousands of years. Buried along with the creature, however, is a human that resembles, in all aspects, Livingstone himself! Livingstone even pulls out his cigarette case (which contains seven cigarettes) and it is identical to the one carried by the frozen Livingstone–except that case contains only five.

Livingstone finds he needs to get some air and leaves the scene. He boards a strange train in the tunnels and quickly discovers that the conductor is the very creature that he was found frozen with–and that the train is actually a time machine from the far future.

The story unfolds itself as a mystery, which made it particularly delightful since I love science fiction stories wrapped in mysteries. While the story is mainly a time travel story, it is similar in theme to Ross Rocklynne’s “Time Wants A Skeleton” (June 1941, Episode 24). In that story, there was a kind of race against time to figure out which one of the characters would become the skeleton. In this story, the race against time is to find out how Livingstone becomes a corpse–and if he can avoid it. Knight uses a clever technique of smoking cigarettes as a timer counting down to the main event. After all, we know that Livingstone has 7 cigarettes at the outside, but is found with only 5.

Indeed, there is an amusing passage about smoking when the creature, Halcyon, is offered a cigarette (and proceeds to get high from it):

“Smoke? What is that?”

“I’ll show you,” said Mark, and proceeded to demonstrate…

Halcyon watched with interest, then asked: “What is it like?”

“Well, it’s a mild sedative, and it tastes good. Want to try?”

“I shall,” affirmed Halcyon. “It intrigues me.”

“Don’t go too strong at first,” cautioned Mark, as Halcyon drew deeply and then coughed. “You may make yourself sick.”

Oh the irony!

Even in 1941 time travel is a well-worn trope and Knight seems to want to take an original approach at it, in part by tackling the elements of the trope head on, as in this passage where Halcyon explains to Mark how the time travelers disguise themselves in the societies they visit:

In more sophisticated areas, such as yours, it is easier to work through carefully instructed, congenial contemporaries whom we approach discreetly. Our own physical and mental differences, indiscriminately revealed, usually arouse suspicion and hostility. Prior to the invention of the free-motion transport, our agents cannot openly declare themselves. If one does, he will find himself regarded as a charlatan, locked up in some disagreeable place of confinement, executed as a sorcerer, or subject to various other unpleasant kinds of treatment. If he is cautious, he will go down in history as a genius or a prophet of the first magnitude. In earlier and less skeptical times we need no intermediaries, but can appear frankly and be received as deities.

In the end, the story has an interesting fork. Because we learn what happens down one time track through a kind of “flash”, Livingstone then finds himself back on the platform and decides not to get on board the train. Once that decision is made and the time machine train departs, the story ends with Livingstone seemingly forgetting the entire incident. Thus Campbell’s blurb.

I enjoyed this story, the first of Knight’s the I really liked. Knight dealt well with the trope and it made for a fun read, one worth of the issue in which it appears.

Mission by M. Krulfeld

He was sent to do one specifics bit of sabotage in one specific way, with a specific tool–but the accident of a man’s illness made death inevitable.

M. Krulfeld appears to be an almost complete unknown. There is no listing for him in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The Internet Speculative Fiction Database has an entry for him–Myer Krulfeld–as an author of 6 short pieces. Most of his stories appear in Thrilling Wonder. “Mission” is the 5th of his 6 stories listed. His sixth and final story also appears in Astounding, but not until 1942.

This story is a case where Campbell’s blurb describes the story precisely–but without giving too much away. This is the story Brant, a spy who embarks upon a dangerous mission during a war between the American Federation and the Eurasian Union. Indeed, the mission has been attempted many times in the past without success. Through surgery, Brant is disguised an an Asian solider, one who he hopes to impersonate once he gains access to the enemy base. But he quickly discovers that due to illness, the man he intended to impersonate was not killed in an explosion–because he’d reported to sick bay. He is therefore still alive and Brant’s plans must change on the fly. He penetrates the enemy fortress and successfully sabotages their intelligence systems to take away the tactical advantage they have in the war. Having successfully achieved his objective, he realizes there is now no escape and in the final line of the story–a very un-Campbell-like conclusion–he is killed by enemy lasers.

This story reads very much like an early James Bond movie or Mission Impossible episode. It is almost entirely made up of edge-of-your-seat action, nonstop melodrama and some unfortunate repetitiveness. (The word “plastene” must have been used half a dozen times on the first two pages of the story.) Here’s a passage that gives a flavor of the pulpish style of the story:

He choked down the sobbing gasp in his throat, pushed down the panic which threatened to swamp his intelligence. There must be some way to open the door! No sense in a door that would not open! His glaring eyes shifted in his scorched, puffed face, the only moving things alive about his taut body.

A passage almost worth of the annual Kirk Poland contest at Readercon.

Test of the Gods by Raymond F. Jones

The Earthmen were taken for gods–but had to act in the way the Venusian reptiles would think godly! And what was the moral sense of a Venusian apt to demand–

I’d never heard of Raymond F. Jones when I started this story. I mentioned this on Twitter and Paul Weimer responded that he is known for writing the story behind the 1950s movie, The Island Earth. It turns out he has a fairly extensive bibliography, but this was my first encounter with him–and for good reason. If I am reading that bibliography correctly, “Test of the Gods” was his first piece of short fiction.

“Test of the Gods” is a mediocre story that had the unfortunate luck of being placed in an issue that contains what would become three classic stories. I’d say the story would have been slightly below average in a normal of Astounding. In this issue, it stands out clearly as subpar.

It is the story of three men, stranded in the wilds of Venus, captured by the native Igoroes and awaiting a kind of trial by fire. The Igoroes are intelligent creatures. Each one looks like a tyrannosaurus, but is only slightly larger than a man. The 3 men are surrounded. The Igoroes believe that one of them is a god and the other two are devils. They ask three questions that only a god would know the answer to. If the man answers correctly he is a god. If not he is a devil and is dealt with accordingly.

Two of the three men are cardboard characters, there to answer the first two questions with little consideration of the implications. (They are named Spud and Joe, accordingly). The third man, the Deacon, is more of an observer and tries to guess at the answers to prove to himself if his has the alien psychology correct. The first two questions are of moral nature: What would an Igoroe do if he found another Igoroe injured. (Spun answers “help him”. Wrong.) The second is: If an Igoroe finds a possession another Igoroe has lost, what should he do. Joe answers that one incorrectly (return it). Both men suffer terrible fates.

It would appear then that the Deacon is a god and he is posed the final question: Can a god die? He answers no, and that appears to be the right answer. But in the final twist, the Igoroes approach him with their spears to see if they can prove the Deacon wrong.

There is not much to this story. It harks back to more of the superscience stories that Astounding published before Campbell took over, but I suspect Campbell took it because of the seemingly moral questions involved. Certainly the story added nothing to the literature that hasn’t been seen before. But then again, not every story can be an original, and this one had the bad fortune of being included in a spectacular issue.

–Or maybe it is good fortune after all. If the story had appeared in a less spectacular issue it might have died a quiet death. Because it appeared in this issue, it still sees the light of day every now and then

Elsewhere by Caleb Saunders

The professor and some students were–gone. It was thoroughly impossible, but the answer was found in Time!

“Elsewhere” marks the second time-travel story in this issue and while the story was an interesting one, I was more focused on the fact that Caleb Saunders turned out be another pseudonym for Heinlein. This altered my expectations of the story before I even started to read it. The story is about a professor and four of his student, all of whom go missing. The police suspect foul play and they suspect the professor is at the center of it. He is arrested and brought in for questioning, but never arrives. Although handcuffed in the police wagon, he disappears and no one seems to know where he went.

The professor has learned to travel through time with nothing more than the will to do so and he has taught his four students to do the same. His imagined landscape is interesting. Not only can one travel forward and backward through time, but also across multiple time-lines, into parallel worlds. Each of his students go on their own adventure and return with various descriptions of the worlds they have visited, each one stranger than the one before. The students feel compelled by the worlds they visit, they feel part them them, and are determined to help them out, thus leading to further complications. The nature of the way the parallel times are described and explored in similar to what Piers Anthony would do–half a century later–in his Mode novels.

What makes this work clearly a Heinlein piece is the “take charge” dialog that has become a standard for Heinlein at this point. His characters have a “command voice” that conveys a sense of authority. His dialog also includes or implies action. For instance, “No, don’t get up. Let me fetch the coffee and finish explaining.” That type of dialog is present throughout “Elsewhere” and I wonder if I would have noted its similarity to Heinlein if I was unaware of the pseudonym.

The story also explores skepticism and there is a rather amusing piece of dialog partway through the story between the professor and a hardened skeptic.

“Huh? Good heavens, doctor, surely you don’t believe in divine predestination!”

“Perhaps not in those terms. But, Howard, you mechanistic skeptics make me tired. Your naive ability to believe things ‘jest growed’ approaches childishness. According to you, a fortuitous accident of entropy produced Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.”

Campbell was the the latter kind of “skeptic.” Once, when he couldn’t convince Asimov of something, he exclaimed in frustration, “Darn it, Asimov, you’ve got a built-in doubter.” “Thank goodness I do, Mr. Campbell.” (Asimov later wrote an essay, “My Built-In Doubter.”)

But the story is a good one and stands on its own merits, despite being in a tough issue to stand out. And it gives Heinlein not one, but two stories in an already remarkable issue.

We’re Not All Human (article) by John W. Campbell, Jr.

An article of speculation based on the known facts of modern mutation of human beings. Mutation is taking place today–both good and bad. The bad we recognize; the good–

Until now–so it seemed–Campbell wrote the editorials for each issue and that was pretty much it. As I mentioned at the opening, that was not entirely the case. Under his Arthur McCann guise, he has had at least three articles in the magazine as well as some letters to the editor. Now, however, for the first time, Campbell has a science article under his own name. And you have to wonder why that took so long.

The article is about human evolution and mutation and when you get right down to it, it seemed to me to be an argument by Campbell that super-human mutants like the tendrilless Slan exist in the world–and he knows where to find them. The article discusses mutation and makes the point that most mutation is bad. The good mutations we often don’t know about because good mutations don’t fill our hospitals. He further argues that bad mutations often don’t last long because the carriers either die out quickly and don’t reproduce.

Furthermore, he seems to imply that these mutations don’t make us human. Rather remarkably (in my mind) Campbell states:

it [is] highly improbable that any man of today is a true racial descendant of the people of Roman times.

Part of the reason I find this remarkable is because I think Campbell confuses mutation and evolution. My understanding of evolution is that mutations are the engine of natural selection, but evolution is the long term process. And a few thousand years is far too short a time for a race to separate out. Furthermore, Campbell seems to ignore biological classification here. The way we classify animals in a biological sense is based on common traits, but the differences between who we are now and who we were a few thousand years ago wouldn’t constitute enough of a difference to warrant a separate species–or even sub-species in our nomenclature.

All of this leads up to his point that those few men each generation who inherit many good mutations would be like the Slan. They might be unaware of their benefits. But they would ultimately find themselves the captains of industry, leaders of business, even leaders of men. Or as Campbell himself writes:

There’s a lot of inevitable logic in the set-up Van Vogt proposed in “Slan.” The supermen were the most intelligent beings on Earth. Where would you expect to find them if not running things on the planet?

And that’s sound logic, whether you call them Slan or something else.

Methuselah’s Children (Part 3, Conclusion) by Robert Heinlein

Concluding a novel of long-lived men driven to a terrible hegira by the jealousy of the short-lived–and the pressure of utterly alien psychologies and philosophies.

This “astounding” issue wraps up with the conclusion of Heinlein’s novel, “Methuselah’s Children.” Those Families who have fled Earth and found a potential home with the Jockaira now realize they may have made a mistake. The Jockaira don’t seem to be the leading intelligence on the world. They are instead, as Lazarus puts it, the pets. Kreen Sarloo, one of the higher intelligences tells the settlers they have to leave and without much of a notice, they are all hoisted through some kind of superscience back to the Far Horizons, which under autopilot heads for another even more distant star. It takes the ship more than seventeen months to get to its destination, which as it turns out, is a kind of paradise with a benevolent hive-mind intelligence living upon it and welcoming the humans to live there as well. Ultimately, Lazarus finds himself growing bored with this lifestyle and when he discovers that Mary Risling has joined the hive mind, he makes it his mission to return to Earth with whoever will follow up. And when they arrive back on Earth, they find they are welcome once again. In their absence, the people of Earth pursued and improved upon the Families hereditary methods of longevity. Death from natural causes, it seems, is no more.

This last installment, while enjoyable, felt rushed to me. There was lots of potential material to work with but much of it was glossed over, touched on only tangentially and then we were on to something else. The ending, too, was a bit unsatisfactory given the build-up that Heinlein made in the first two parts of the novel. That said, there were some interesting, even touching moments scattered throughout the story.

One thing I found was the reference to Pinero which I’d mistakenly thought was part of Heinlein’s debut story, “Life-Line” (August 1939, Episode 2). Recall from “Life-Line” that Pinero was the doctor who invented a machine that could predict the end of a person’s life. Heinlein makes a connection back to Pinero through Lazarus:

“Ever hear of Dr. Hugo Pinero?”

“Pinero. Pinero–oh yes, ‘Pinero the Charlatan.’”

“Mary, he was no charlatan. He could do it, I tell you. He could tell accurately when a man would die.”

“But–Go ahead. What did he tell you?”

“Just a minute. I want you to realize he was no fake. Too many of his predictions checked out while he was still alive–chaps hit by taxi-cabs, or trolly cars, or killed in airplane crashes. Anyhow, he took my reading and it seemed to confuse him. He took it again. Then he gave me my money  back.”

Later, Mary Risling talks about death in the context of someone who is already very old:

“Lazarus, I don’t want to die. I still don’t want to. But what is the purpose of our long lives? We don’t seem to grow much wiser as we grow older. Aren’t we simply hanging out after our time has passed? Are we loitering in the primary class when we should be moving on?”

Ultimately, Mary solves her own dilemma by joining the Little People in their hive-mind (she is assimilated, a term that I was amused to find used in this context in 1941.) After discovering this, we finally see Lazarus Long at his most emotional, but even before this, Lazarus has the realization that leaving Earth might have been a mistake:

He had to admit to himself that he could find no fault with the planet nor with its inhabitants, but just as definitely it was not to his taste. No philosophy that he had ever read or listened gave any reasonable cause for man’s existence, nor any rational clue to his proper conduct. Basking in the sun seemed to be as good a thing to do as any other; nevertheless, it was know for him and he knew it, even if he did not know why he knew it.

What makes “Methuselah’s Children” an important work, especially for Heinlein, is not the story as much as the character, Lazarus Long. Long is the first character in any Heinlein story so far that really stands out on his own. Smith had the Lensman. Asimov had R. Daneel Olivaw and Hari Seldon. Heinlein has Lazarus Long. In the context of science fiction, Long is a great character to have. Part of the reason is his age and background. He was born in the early 20th century and therefore has seen a lot. But more importantly, Lazarus Long is Heinlein in much the same way that Hari Seldon is Isaac Asimov. These kinds of memorable characters are rare, but when we find them, we cling to them and they become anchors of the genre. Such is the case with Lazarus Long.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the ratings from July 1941:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Methuselah’s Children Robert Heinlein 1.15 1
2. The Probable Man Alfred Bester 2.7 3
3. The Seesaw A. E. van Vogt 3.55 2
4. We Also Walk Dogs Anson MacDonald 3.9 5
5. Geometrics of Johnny Day Nelson S. Bond 4.10 6

Clearly, nearly everyone who providing a rating in 1941 gave Part 1 of “Methuselah’s Children” top billing, and for good reason. I was a little surprised to see van Vogt take second place, but then again, Bester was still new to the pages of Astounding and van Vogt was extremely popular, so I suppose it makes sense. I still think Bester’s story was better than van Vogt’s in this case.

Here are my ratings for the present issue:

  1. Nightfall by Isaac Asimov
  2. Adam and No Eve by Alfred Bester
  3. Methuselah’s Children, Part 3 by Robert Heinlein
  4. Short-Circuited Probability by Norman L. Knight
  5. Elsewhere by Caleb Saunders
  6. Mission by M. Krulfeld
  7. Test of the Gods by Raymond F. Jones

In Times To Come

It would seem that after an issue such as this one, the October issue couldn’t come close in comparison. And that might be true if we were not in the Golden Age of science fiction, and hitting second gear at that. The October 1941 issue looks to be another good one indeed. The lead novelette is by Robert Heinlein in his Anson MacDonald guise, a little yarn called “By His Bootstraps.” Also in the issue: “Common Sense” by Robert Heinlein–the sequel to “Universe”; “Not Final!” by Isaac Asimov, as well as a story by Theodore Sturgeon and part 2 of de Camp’s “The Sea-King’s Armored Division.”

See you back here in two weeks.

11 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 27: September 1941

  1. Wow, a lot to think about in this issue.

    Have you read De Camp’s Non fiction book “The Ancient Engineers?”, which is a full book of the kind of stuff like THE SEA-KING’S ARMORED DIVISION

  2. Before “Nightfall” [Asimov] was a minor science fiction writer. After, he was a major force in the field.

    And, for better or worse, its *still* one of his best stories. And a truly atrocious movie was made of the story…

    1. Asimov had nothing to do with the movie. He found out about it because he started getting letters from fans complaining. Robert Silverberg expanded the story into a book but I never read the expanded version so I can’t speak to its merits. (No knock on Silverberg, but I want to remember “Nightfall” as it is.) There are Asimov stories that I like better than “Nightfall.” I think my all-time favorite Asimov story is “The Bicentennial Man.” I also really like “Gold.” And some of the serialized stories that made up Forward the Foundation are really, really good. (I think they originally appeared in Asimov’s). The later stories (“Gold” and some of the last “Foundation” stories he wrote) were reflective, but showed a maturity of skill that took his writing to another level, even after 50 years. Asimov’s three favorites of his own were: 3. “The Ugly Little Boy”; 2. “The Bicentennial Man”; and 1. “The Last Question.”

  3. As George Alec Effinger pointed out in “Maureen Birnbaum After Dark”, during the next cycle on Lagash Saro U. better not invent radio astronomy.

  4. If you accept my equation Venus = Africa, then “Test of the Gods” is more like an Agrosy story from the 1910s than a Clayton Astounding Stories yarn.

    Give Raymond F. Jones a couple of years – he is going to develop into one of the more interesting authors on your vacation.

  5. One interesting bit from Caleb Saunder’s ELSEWHERE—

    “No, he was told, but Igor’s countrymen, though
    lacking many earth techniques, were far ahead of earth in manufacturing skill. They used a single general type of machine to manufacture almost anything. They fed into it a plan which Igor called for want of a better term the blueprints—it was in fact, a careful scale model of the device to be manufactured; the machine retooled itself and produced the artifact. [A three-dimensional pantograph, Igor called the machine, vaguely and inaccurately.] One of them was, at that moment, molding the bodies of fighting planes out of plastic, all in one piece and in one operation.”

    Which reminds one of this from last August, “Latest 3D Print Job: A Small Airplane”

    http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/business-brains/latest-3d-print-job-a-small-airplane/17688

    NOTE: The sentence in parentheses was removed from the ASF version when the story was reprinted in the RAH collection ASSIGNMENT IN ETERNITY.

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