As I finished up the issue at hand, I looked ahead on the calendar and discovered one of those nice little congruities which life sometimes tosses you. I will finish 2011 with 30 Episodes in this Vacation. That isn’t any news, but what is kind of cool is that Episode 30 takes us through 1941 and will come out on December 26, 2011. So 1941 will wrap up at the end of December 2011, some seventy years after the issue appeared. I’ll have more to say about 1942 in Episode 30, but there is an interesting change that takes place in Astounding beginning in 1942. Some of you probably know what it is, but for those that don’t, you’ll just have to sweat it out for 4 more weeks until I report it in Episode 30.
This issue was a mixed bag. Coming off the incredible September 1941 issue, some of the stories were a bit of a let down in this issue, but some of them also turned out to be surprisingly good. You’ll have to judge for yourself, of course, if you’ve read the stories that appear in this issue. I was surprised with what turned out to be my favorite piece in the issue.
A while back I produced an Author’s Index to this Vacation. I am now in the process of working on a Title index as that might be useful to folks who know what story they are looking for, but no necessarily who wrote it. No ETA on when I’ll have this finished, but stay tuned.
Editorial: Documents for Tomorrow
Campbell’s editorial this month wanders a bit more than usual. It opens with observations on executives (“Most major executives are over forty-five years of age; practically all were born before 1900…” And then moves on to the usefulness of documentary film-making in demonstrating possibilities of the future. This takes Campbell off on a tangent about the possible future of atomic power as an example, and then back to the suggestion of documentary films. He appeals for people interesting in making such films to write to a specific address. He winds up his rambling essay back on the subject of photography (which he had touched on in an earlier editorial). This 2-pager was actually split between its usual place on p.6 and then all the way on p.155. I suspect it was because there were two very long stories in the issue and that was the only way Campbell could make it work.
And indeed there are two long stories, both by Heinlein. The first, “By His Bootstraps” is written under his Anson MacDonald guise, and the second, “Common Sense” is a sequel to “Universe.” Combined, the two stories span 100 pages of the 162 page issue, leaving room for only three more short pieces and the conclusion of de Camp’s science article from last month.
By His Bootstraps by Anson MacDonald
Blurb: Concerning the man who not only met himself, but stood by while hisself fought himself.
“By His Bootstraps” is a famous time-travel story by Robert Heinlein in his Anson MacDonald guise (because it is not part of Heinlein’s Future History series) and one Heinlein story that I had never read before. It is the story of a student, Bob Wilson, who finds a mysterious man in his room, is sent through a time gate and proceeds on a rather confusing adventure with little twists and turns along the way. The fact is that the mysterious man in his room turns out to be a version of himself, and as we discover, there are many version of Bob Wilson from many different moments in time, centering on this initial (“bootstrapping”) event that kicks everything off. And Wilson himself is trying to break the cycle, but only succeeds in completing it.
I’d heard that the story was a good one and that it was rather confusing in its twists and turns, but I managed to follow them all pretty clearly, even without the help of the fascinating timeline that Mark McSherry had posted about in a comment. That said, I actually found the overall story a little flat. Indeed, there were only a couple of interesting things about the story. First, what seemed in initially like a large cast of characters we later discover is much smaller. There are many instanced of Bob Wilson. There is his girlfriend Genevieve. And there is Diktor and his slave women. But Diktor, as we learn, turns out to be just another incarnation of Bob Wilson. In my notes for the story, I jotted down the following: “p.36 Is Wilson Diktor, too?” It seemed kind of obvious by two-thirds of the way through the story.
There were several things that I didn’t like about the story. First, from the tone of the story, I got the idea that Heinlein decided one day, “I’m pretty good at this science fiction stuff, I think I’ll go and write a time travel story to end all time travel stories.” There is not much depth to the story or the characters. Indeed, another thing that I don’t like about the story is Bob Wilson himself. He is not a likable character and his views on women are appalling. Early in the story, when Wilson finds out from Diktor that the women in the future are slaves, we get the idea that he is surprised. Diktor says:
“She’s a slave. Don’t get indignant. They are slaves by nature. If you like her, I’ll make you a present of her. It will make her happy.”
But then later in the story, during a phone call with his girlfriend, Genevieve, Wilson treats her horribly on the phone. Giving Heinlein the benefit of the doubt, I take this as an example of someone successfully writing an unlikeable character into a story.
Fairly early in the story Diktor makes a comment to Wilson who is having trouble grasping what it’s all about:
You are a stupid and ignorant young fool. I’ve told you all that you are able to understand. This is a period in history entirely beyond your comprehension.
That final statement carries with it a kind of early post-singularity warning.
There is something appealing about the neatness of how everything works out and how it is all self-perpetuating. Campbell was always looking for that perpetual motion machine he was convinced was possible). I think this story is like Campbell’s notion of a perpetual motion machine and that is perhaps what made it so appealing to Campbell as an editor, despite what seems to be an actual lack of story.
And that lack of story is my biggest problem with the piece. What it it all about? I think the story pretends to be about identity and freewill (which incarnation is Wilson? Why can’t he seem to control anything?) but in reality, it comes across as a carefully planned thought-experiment in time-travel paradox without much narrative color. That is not to say that even this has no value. Heinlein was perhaps the first (that I am aware of) to demonstrate this with such complexity. Not the last. Some great stories in a similar vain–with much more rich narratives–have followed suit: Robert Silverberg’s Up The Line. Jack McDevitt’s Time Travelers Never Die. Even the series finale of Star Trek: The Next Generation: “All Good Things” are examples of bootstrapped time-travel stories. All of them are better than “By His Bootstraps” but each owes something to the story as well.
I would add, as a postscript, that I wasn’t all too impressed with Huber Rogers’ cover for this issue, which of course, was for “By His Bootstraps.” It worked for Rogers, I suppose, because the characters in his paintings often look alike and of course, in this piece, he has painted the same character at three different points in time. But after such a striking cover like the one from last month for Asimov’s “Nightfall,” this one just falls a bit flat for me.
Not Final! by Isaac Asimov
Blurb: There was a bomb–an 85,000-mile-diameter bomb–waiting to burst a flood of destruction on the System if only they could find a way to get out–
Isaac Asimov’s 6th story in Astounding is an interesting yarn about the human colonists of Ganymede and their sudden fear about their hosts on Jupiter itself. The Ganymede colonists are asking an emissary from Earth for an enormous sum of money for additional research to help defend themselves against a possible attack from the mysterious Jovians. The Jovians, who live on Jupiter, have issues an ultimatum to the people of Ganymede warning that they will be destroyed. Worried if this is possible, two men, one from Earth and one from Ganymede discuss the possible level of technology of such beings and with the help of a scientists, come to decide that the force field required to lift Jovians through the monstrous pressure of their atmosphere would not be possible to create. Only to discover at the very end, of course, that the people of Earth have created a ship with just such a force-field.
This is a story which is almost a template for future Asimov stories for much of the Golden Age. It is told entirely through dialog, with almost no action whatsoever. There is a manageable handful of characters. And the discussions of the characters both present and solve the problems (or seem to) of the story. Indeed, the story even opens in a familiar way, similar to what we saw in “Nightfall” (September 1941, Episode 27) with the introduction of a character via some brushstroke quirk of behavior:
Nicholas Orloff inserted a monocle in his left eye with all the incorruptible Briticism of a Russian educated at Oxford and said reproachfully, “But, my dear Mr. Secretary! Half a billion dollars!”
Compare this with the opening of “Nightfall” to see the commonalities of form:
Aton 77, director of Saro University, thrust out a belligerent lower lip and glared at the young newspaperman in a hot fury.
There is a comfort in the form if one becomes used to it, but it is too early in Asimov’s career for this to be a comfort to most fans, I imagine. Indeed, like many of his early stories, these characters come across wooden. While the story is interesting and the discussion among the men fascinating, I found myself trying to remember just who is speaking because the voices of the characters are too much alike. We will see this evolve over time, as Asimov improves, but here it makes for some confusion.
There is also a hint of some of Asimov’s themes in stories like The Caves of Steel and Foundation, where the cities of Earth are underground or the massive city-planet of Trantor is also built entirely into the crust of the planet. People seeking to hide from the outside:
“Each to his own world,” he grinned. “I visited Earth a few years back, with my wife, and had a hell of a time. I couldn’t get myself to learn to walk on the planet’s surface without a nosepiece. I kept choking–I really did. The sunlight was too bright and the sky was too blue and the grass was too green. And the buildings were right out on the surface. I’ll never forget the time they tried to get me to sleep in a room twenty stories up in the air, with the window wide open and the moon shining in,”
It is a passage that definitely contains a hint of some of the themes Asimov would explore in future stories.
The Sea-King’s Armored Division, Part 2 (article) by L. Sprague de Camp
Blurb: A fact article on the scientific era that almost–but didn’t quite–start two thousand years ago. An era that produced taximeters and alarm clocks–and failed. Why?
This second installment of de Camp’s article took a close look at other eras of science and engineering that developed more than two thousand years ago. In part 1, he examined math and astronomy. He starts part 2 with an examination of physics and engineering. He then veers off into biological and medical sciences which provide a rather fascinating look at what people knew about the human body and illness at the time, who guessed right and who did not. There is a discussion of additional engineering elements, particularly more details about the makeup and constructions of vehicles of destruction: machines of war, with particular focus on ancient navies.
But the real question of the article, what it was really drying at, and what made it an interesting read is why did this scientific era fail? He points to some of the usual suspects: that science was a class occupation, something a gentleman did for fun and without much invested in the outcome or experiment. But he goes further, arguing that these commonly given reasons are not enough:
I do not personally think that these handicaps are adequate to explain why Hellenistic science fizzled, though they no doubt contributed. Some further suggested causes are: First, technological unbalance of the basic culture. By this is meant simply that a lot of collateral arts and crafts had not developed to the point where scientists could make use of them.
He also argues that the books of the time were inadequate to record the knowledge of the time in a convenient manner that would allow better and more wide distribution of that knowledge.
Overall, I think de Camp’s article was an interesting one. He writes nonfiction very well, but there is something that just isn’t quite as colloquial about his articles as, say, R. S. Richardson’s. de Camp comes across sounding like a lecturer. Richardson sounds like one of your science fiction buddies standing outside the candy store gabbing it up with his friends.
Manic Perverse by Winston K. Marks
Blurb: Men had attained immortality–only direct violence could bring death. Even suicide was stopped by a field of paralyzing thought-waves. And that very inability to die drove some mad–
Winston K. Marks was a name that I did not recognize when I started this issue. It turns out that “Manic Perverse” is his second story, his first, “Mad Hatter”, appearing in the May 1940 Unknown. Glancing through his entry in ISFDB, he seems to have taken a dozen year break after this most recent story appeared only to return as a fairly prolific short story writer for a few years in the mid-1950s.
“Manic Perverse” had an interesting premise: in the far future human beings are immortal, unable to commit murder or suicide, unable to even do serious damage to property. They are gods of a sort, but what is most interesting is who created these gods: insurance companies. The insurance companies favored improvements that would extend life and protect property so that they did not have to pay out when someone died or when property was damaged. They created force fields that prevented suicides. And they owned virtually everything.
This very short piece (only 5 pages–one of the shortest pieces I’ve come across) was about a graduate student who wanted to buck the tide, but found himself unable to take his own life. His professor knew that this was happening–it come across in the students thesis paper. Eventually, the senate, all of whom are tied to the insurance company–note a pattern, one that the professor calls “Manic Perverse” which is more and more people making the attempt to kill themselves (although unsuccessfully, of course). In order to prevent this from spreading, they turn off the force fields that prevent suicide and allow people “clean house”. The idea being that everyone who dies will be one more person they are rid of with this spreading malady.
There was one particularly interesting passage:
The old gentleman tilted back in his pneumatic rocker. “Robert, you have tried to kill yourself… no, don’t deny it. You speak with conviction on a device which a majority of people scarcely realize exists. It was over a girl? And another boy, a close friend perhaps?” He smiled. “We have long needed protection against some of love’s manifestations.”
“There was no girl,” Mason said simply.
The professor’s melancholy smile evaporated.
I read this as implying that Robert’s suicide attempts were not over a girl but a boy. It is the first even remote reference to homosexuality that I’ve come across thus far in this Vacation and it was rather fascinating to see it hidden within this story.
Two Percent Inspiration by Theodore Sturgeon
Blurb: They had a bit of information the Martians most insistently wanted. The Martians had murder in mind as they chased them; the humans had a small trick in mind–
Thinking back through the stories I’ve encountered so far in this Vacation, I am hard pressed to think of one that was satirically critical of both science fiction and the way that science is portrayed in science fiction. But that is exactly what this next story, “Two Percent Inspiration” is. Theodore Sturgeon makes a credible attempt at poking fun at “superscience” stories, while also making an argument for how science really works, as opposed to how it is often portrayed in science fiction.
The plot of the story is something we’ve seen before: a major discovery in the asteroid belt attracts the attention of several parties. The discovery could be a game-changer in terms of the money and technology is brings in–it’s just a matter of who gets to it first. If it sounds familiar, it should. We saw this story line (from the legal point of view) in Nat Schachner’s “Jurisdiction” (August 1941, Episode 26). We saw glimmers of this plot line even earlier in Clifford D. Simak’s “Spaceship in a Flash” (July 1941, Episode 25). What differs about the plot in “Two Percent Inspiration” is that the story is clearly satire.
Dr. Bjornsen runs the Nudnick Institute which is a training group for the best and brightest possible students in science–an irony in itself since nudnik is a Yiddish word meaning “A pestering, nagging, or irritating person; a bore”. Bjornsen takes pleasure in tearing these students apart and expelling them for their trivial flaws, but he is interrupted when attempting to expel the young Hughie by none other than Nudnick himself. Nudnick asks for Bjornsen’s resignation and taps Hughie to accompany him on a high-risk adventure to stake a claim on a special element found only in the asteroid belt. The Martians want this too, and soon, the two men find themselves being pursued by a Martian ship with Bjornsen on board, bent on pirating their discovery.
The story is written in a light-handed way which makes it feel almost like a caricature of a science fiction story, but the real satire doesn’t start to come across until Hughie, based on Nudnick’s prompting reads aloud some of the science fiction stories that he most enjoys. What we get is this:
[The story] concerned one Satan Strong, Scientist, Scourge of the Spaceways and Supporter of the Serialized Short-story. Satan was a bad egg whose criminality was surpassed only by his forte for Science on the Spot. Pursued particularly by the Earth sections of the Space Patrol, Satan Strong was always succeeding in the most dastardly deeds, which always turned out to be the preliminaries of greater evils which were always thwarted by the quick thinking of Captain Jaundess of the Patrol, following which, by “turning to his micro-ultra-philtmeter, he rapidly tore out a dozen connections, spot-welded twenty-seven busbars, and converted the machine into an improved von Krockmeier hyperspace level, which bent space like the blade of a rapier and hurtled him in a flash from hilt to point” and effected his escape until the next issue.
Now I can’t speak for readers of science fiction contemporary to the era. I don’t know what the Damon Knights and Isaac Asimovs and Milton Rothmans of the time thought when they read this story (and in particular, the above passage) in Astounding. But as someone who has now read and written about the first 28 issues of the Golden Age-era Astounding, I can tell you exactly what came to mind when I read that passage: Theodore Sturgeon, brave soul that he was, was poking fun at E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman” and “Galactic Patrol” stories. There is no mistaking it in my mind. And yet I wonder if anyone else got it. Is this a known quantity in science fiction? Was there a fan backlash to this flippant (but hilarious) reaction to a beloved member of the field? Campbell seemed to revere Smith, but he published Sturgeon’s story nonetheless. It will be interesting to see in subsequent issues what the Brass Tacks column has to say (if anything) about Sturgeon’s story.
Nevertheless, Sturgeon is attempting to express frustration with what he thinks (and I tend to agree) is an ongoing trend in science fiction: the misrepresentation of how science really works. And perhaps it is for this reason that Campbell decided to print the story, despite the fact that it pokes fun at writers like Smith. Campbell wanted stories that showed real scientists doing real science. Sturgeon’s story is a reminder of where the bar should be by casting a humorous light on where it is. He pretty much says this within the narrative itself during a conversation between Nudnick and Hughie:
“Hughie–don’t you see the fallacy in that sort of thing–that Science on Short Notice business? The flaw isn’t in the scientific end, at all. It’s purely in the complexity of the thought-patterns required. Science will not deny the existence of a space-warp or a–what was it–a von Krockmeir hyper space level. But science is not a complex thing. Broken up into facts, you find each fact essentially simple. Complexities are no good in an emergency, Hughie. We don’t look for twenty-seven busbars to spotweld to get out of this. We search for a fact–a little, simple one–elementary in itself; and we put that on everything we have, make it bear on all the facts that are already piled up.”
It is almost as if Sturgeon is describing not how to solve their current problem, but more generally, how one should go about making a science fiction story work. I think “Two Percent Inspiration” works because of its satirical convictions and the skeptical eye it brings to bear on what a science fiction story should be.
Common Sense by Robert Heinlein
Blurb: The sequel to Heinlein’s “Universe”–the tale of a civilization that grew up in a giant spaceship that had forever lost its way.
As Campbell’s blurb indicates, “Common Sense” is the sequel to Heinlein’s “Universe” (May 1941, Episode 23) which is Heinlein’s tale of a generation starship lost in space. That story introduces most of the characters that appear in “Common Sense,” including the two-headed mutant, Joe-Jim. Perhaps the only flaw in this sequel to “Universe” it that it is so heavily dependent on the first story that it wouldn’t make sense to anyone reading it cold without ever having read “Universe” first.
“Common Sense” is about the mutant rebellion. In “Universe” several members of the ship (from the lower levels) were let in on the secret that their world is actually a massive spaceship traveling between the stars. They got to see this for themselves. Hugh Hoyland and Bill Ertz are among those let in on the secret that is controlled by a few of the muties in the upper levels of the ship. They form a plan to expose this knowledge to everyone, a kind of conspiracy where some of the “crew” will be working together with the muties to lead the mass of humanity (at least those on the ship) into the light. This is Heinlein at his best and is reminiscent of similar conspiracies he concocted in “Sixth Column” (January and February 1941, Episodes 19 and 20).
Some science fiction stories are made to just sit back and enjoy without over-thinking them or reading too much into them and “Common Sense” is one of those stories, although Alva Rogers makes an interesting observation about the parable of the story (see below). I had a blast just sitting by and watching the events unfold around me as if I was down in it myself.
One sign of a good story is one in which you come to care about the characters and can see them evolve over time. This was the case for me in “Common Sense” particularly with Joe-Jim who we finally saw rise to the occasion, sacrificing his own life for the good of the cause:
Joe-Jim let a blade go at long throwing range to slow down the advance. It accomplished its purpose; his opponents, half a dozen of them, checked their advance. Then, apparently on signal, six knives cut the air simultaneously.
Jim felt something strike him, felt no pain, and concluded that the armor had saved him. “Missed us, Joe,” he exulted.
There was no answer. Jim turned his head, tried to look at his brother. A few inches from his eye a knife stuck through the bars of the helmet; its point was buried deep in Joe’s left eye.
His brother was dead.
And then, just moments later, Jim makes a finally stand, taking on his six opponents while giving the others a chance to escape. “That’s for Joe!” he cries. “That’s for Bobo!” And then:
Ertz touched him on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “Where’s Joe-Jim?”
“He stayed behind.”
“What! Open that door–get him!”
“I can’t, it’s won’t open. He meant to stay. He closed it himself.”
“But we’ve got to get him–we’re blood sworn”
“I think,” said Hugh, with a sudden flash of insight, “that’s why he stayed behind.”
Alva Rogers, in his book A Requiem for Astounding, points out something interesting about this story that I didn’t know:
“Common Sense,” the sequel to “Universe,” remained unreprinted for twenty-two years. Why it was not picked up by one of the editors of the countless science fiction anthologies that appeared in the late forties and all through the fifties in both hard cover and paperback, I know not; unless they felt it depended too much on “Universe” for full impact. At any rate, this has now been remedied. In 1963, Victor Gollancz, Ltd., of London, published a slim volume of 160 pages entitled Orphans of the Sky combining these two great novelettes into a short novel in two parts. In April, 1964, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, of New York reissued the same book. After much too long a time, these two great stories have achieved the form they deserved from the beginning; the novel. And as a novel the whole becomes a fine modern parable of man’s emergence from the dark ages and his unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Analytical Laboratory and Ratings
Here are the ratings from August 1941:
|1. Methuselah’s Children||Robert Heinlein||1.00||1|
|2. Jurisdiction||Nat Schachner||3.00||2|
|3. Biddiver||Theodore Sturgeon||3.40||5|
|4. Backlash||Jack Williamson||4.35||4|
|5. Kylstron Fort||William Corson||4.7||6|
This month’s AnLab was interesting for a number of reasons. First, there is the obvious 1.00 score for Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” (Part 2). As Campbell writes:
For the first time, a story has succeeded in scoring a clean, complete sweep of first place. “Methuselah’s Children” by Robert Heinlein, took first placed with a point-score of 1.000 to as many decimal places as you like. It was unanimously voted first place.
Also interesting for the stories in August 1941: I agreed with the rating in 3 of the top 5 places, rating “Methuselah’s Children,” “Jurisdiction,” and “Backlash” in the same way as 1941 fans did. I know it’s kind of silly but it makes me feel a small bit of camaraderie with that distant generation of science fiction fans.
Here are my ratings for the present issue:
- Two Percent Inspiration by Theodore Sturgeon
- Common Sense by Robert Heinlein
- Not Final! by Isaac Asimov
- By His Bootstraps by Anson MacDonald
- Manic Perverse by Winston K. Marks
Sturgeon’s story surprised me and I ranked it first not just because it was an interesting story but because I thought it was brave commentary on the state of science fiction, even if no one else recognized it.
Miscellaneous: This month’s Chesterfield ad
For many months, the back page ad of each issue is a full-pager by Chesterfield advertising their product with a picture of “Chesterfield’s Girl of the Month.” I can’t explain exactly why, but this month’s ad really appealed to me. It makes me wonder if I was born and grew up in that era, if I’d be smoking and if so, if I’d be smoking Chesterfields. I guess that’s one reason to be glad I didn’t grow up in that era. In any case, here is the ad so that you at least know what it is I’m talking about:
In Times to Come
Next month begins a new serial, one that fans of the era have certainly been waiting for close to a year now. I’ll let Campbell himself explain:
Next month’s issue will carry the first part of “Second Stage Lensmen,” Dr. E. E. Smith’s new novel. Matter of fact, so long is the whole story, and I so genuinely want to give it to you as quickly and coherently as possible, “Second Stage Lensmen” will make up almost half of the November issue. The whole story will be 118,000 words long. You’ll notice that the title is “Second Stage Lensmen.” Kinnison gets some help this time, and it isn’t quite fair to call them all men, either. One wearer of the lens is entirely human, but certainly shouldn’t be called a Lensman; some of the other second-stage wearers of the lens, on the other hand, are afar indeed from being human. There was one, for instance, who conquered and wiped out the entire population of the toughest , most highly intelligent planet of Lundmarke’s Nebula singled-handed.
Campbell is playing a little game here with his “will make up almost half of the November issue.” I was curious and checked. Part 1 takes up 49 pages of the issue, which is actually less than a third of the issue. But I say he’s playing a little game because in the present issue, the one about which this Episode is about, Heinlein’s stories make up 3/5ths of the issue. Of the 162 pages in the issue, Heinlein’s stories take up 100 pages. Of course, Campbell can’t brag about this becaue one story is under Heinlein’s pseudonym, Anson MacDonald, which presumably readers at large don’t know about.
Also in the next issue are stories by Malcolm Jameson, Nat Schachner and Eric Frank Russell.
See you back here in two weeks.