Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 29: November 1941

photo.JPG

Forgive me, it’s been four weeks since my last Vacation episode. Early in my reading for this episode, I caught a cold that was followed by the first ear infection that I can recall since childhood. It made it impossible to do any reading or writing and so I really had no choice but to push this one back two weeks. I was hoping to end 2011 with the December 1941 issue–a kind of pleasant symmetry there, but the December 1941 issue will have to wait until next time.

After two outstanding issues in a row, this one was not quite as good. Part of it may be have been due to my being sick, but I think my sense of things is pretty accurate. In his history of the magazine, A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes of this issue:

Because of the total length of “Second Stage Lensmen” (118,000 words), nearly half of the November issue was taken up by the first installment which, of course dominated the whole issue. The only other story in the magazine worth mentioning was Nat Schachner’s swan song in Astounding, “Beyond All Weapons.”

That the other stories were of lesser quality was a small issue, I think. My guess is that no matter what stories appeared in this issue, they wouldn’t have matched up (in Campbell’s mind, or indeed, in the minds of many fans of the time) to Smith. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that Campbell filled the issue with marginal stuff to add focus to the lead serial. More on that shortly. As you will soon see, “Second State Lensmen” was not my favorite story in the issue.

Editorial: Power per Pound

Campbell’s editorial this month is one calculation the power of a rocket engine. While it makes some claims that seem pretty wild, it is a fascinating look at a moment frozen in time years before a rocket was ever put into space. Today we are looking at this problem from the other side, when not only rockets, but humans have gone into space and many of the calculations and concerns that Campbell addresses in his article are now fundamentals of rocket science. But at the time Campbell was writing the article, it was all a matter of speculation, a matter of science fiction.

In the article, Campbell calculates the power requirements of putting a 100 ton spacecraft into orbit (and beyond). He speaks of accelerations in the 10 g range, but then pulls back a bit and says that 4 to 5 g would be more practical when you consider that a man would need to withstand the force for minutes at a time. The number he ultimately comes up with is 1.47 million horsepower per ton of spacecraft. What I find most interesting is that this is mostly a back-of-the-envelope calculation and it ignores a lot of what we have learned by actually doing–certainly no fault of Campbell’s. For instance, during the launch of a rocket there is a point–called max-Q–where the maximum dynamic pressure is placed on the rocket. It has to be throttled back during this time to avoid over-stressing and damaging the spacecraft. So right away Campbell’s smooth acceleration is balked.

He does note that ultimately, engineers will “have to give up their beloved horsepower terms.” Indeed, those terms have been replaced by things like pounds (or kilograms) of thrust.

Mostly, Campbell’s technical optimism shines through here and although some of his wanderings do verge on the ideal, the theory in this piece seems sound and it is a good practical guide for science fiction writers trying to “get it right” in the decades before humanity actually breached the borderlines of space.

Second Stage Lensmen (Part 1) by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Blurb: FIRST OF FOUR PARTS. The long-awaited sequel to “Galactic Patrol” and “Gray Lensman,” sweeping across the stage of two immense galaxies, carries on the saga of Civilization’s vast fight–

I’ll just come out and say it: I didn’t like “Second Stage Lensmen.” I couldn’t even get through half of the first part. I tried and I tried and I soon realized that if I didn’t move beyond it, I would never get this episode written. But I felt bad for not liking it and that’s why I kept trying. Certainly, I was missing something! Well, that may be so but it doesn’t make me like the story any better.

What didn’t I like about it? “Second Stage Lensmen” does not have the feel of a Golden Age story. It feels more like a story from the previous era, the era of “super-science” stories. Kimball Kinnison was tolerable in “Gray Lensman” but in “Second Stage Lensmen” everything about his character was exaggerated to the point of caricature. He was the ultimate hero, the ultimate gentleman–and yet, when he overlooked something (and thus revealed a flaw in himself) he beat himself up over it in the same manner that Chris Farley mockingly beat himself up when he’d ask dumb interview question on Saturday Night Live.

I’m sure there were many things about the story that appealed to fans of the time. Here you had a recurring character that fans had grown to love as much as the author who created him. But to me, much of the story behind “Second Stage Lensmen” seemed contrived (what I read of it, at any rate), and was way overwritten.

The first 6 pages of the story are a preface that include a “history” of the Lensmen, written as if it might appear in a high school history text, dry and boring. I’m sure this was done to help catch up new readers on the goings-on of Kinnison in his earlier adventures, but it slowed things down for me. As for the overwriting, here is part of the description of Kimball in that preface history:

He became widely known as the fastest, deadliest performer with twin ray guns that had ever struck the asteroid belts… he built up an unimpeachable identity as a hard-drinking, wildly carousing, bent lam-eating, fast-shooting space-hellion; a lucky or very skillful meteor miner; a derelict who had been an Aldebaranian gentlemen once and who would be again if he should ever strike it rich and if he could conquer is weaknesses.

It’s just too much for me and the rest of the story continued in that vain.  Understand, I fault no one but myself for this, not being able to make the mental adjustment necessary for jumping back a decade in science fiction. But I’ve grown used to the higher quality stories that Campbell published and in my mind, what I read of “Second Stage Lensmen” just doesn’t live up to it.

The saddest part of all of this, perhaps, is that I know I won’t be able to read subsequent parts of the story and so roughly a third of the next three issues is wasted on me.

And it is about a third. Unlike what Campbell signaled in the October issue (Episode 28) and what I quoted Alva Rogers saying above, the first part of “Second Stage Lensmen” does not take up half the issue, but just under a third, 50 pages out of 162.

Not Smith’s fault, but I wasn’t as impressed with the Huber Rogers cover for this issue (and for Second Stage Lensmen as I was with the first he did for “Gray Lensman.” It just comes across as dull to me.

You Can’t Win by Malcolm Jameson

Blurb: When a big-time crooked gambler runs up against a space navigator’s computations of curves as applies to gambling devices–he can’t win.

Those following along in the course of this Vacation are probably as familiar as I am with Malcolm Jameson’s U.S. Navy-in-space stories; six of them by my count up until now. When I saw Jameson’s name in the contents for this issue I was prepared for a seventh. I was looking forward to it, as I’ve come to enjoy those stories, despite their artifice. However, I was surprised and pleased to discover that “You Can’t Win” was not a U.S. Navy-in-space story. It is probably best-described as a Vegas on Venus story.

Hoyt and Ellkins awaken from a drunken slumber to find that they’ve lost all of their money in a gambling joint on Venus. Their ship has left them behind and they are on the verge of being sent to the swamps for vagrancy. Their only option is to earn their money back somehow. And they do it through a kind of subterfuge, taking revenge against Mugs Rooney (that’s really his name!) who owns the joint in which they lost their dough.

The manner in which their revenge comes about is through the invention of a gaming device that no one can win against. You pick two balls and drop them into the bin and bet on which won will fall through the hole first–but no matter what, the better can never win. In disguise, they lease the machine to Rooney for 50% of the winnings. All involved make a killing. Then the two men return as themselves and place a bet–in which they beat the unbeatable machine, ruining Rooney in the process.

As I said, “You Can’t Win” is a kind of revenge story, and a kind of Vegas on Venus story. The science fictional element of it is skin deep, save for the conclusion of the story itself. The story could take place anywhere. Venus was a convenient setting for a science fiction magazine. But the explanation of how the device worked is likely why Campbell thought the story ingenious enough to print:

“The sole force acting on the balls was gravity. It could employ itself one of two ways, or a combination of both. It could either impart translation or rotation. On a dense core ball, the resulting movement is chiefly translation, as there is less leverage consumed in the rotation. On the hollow ball most of the energy went into rolling the ball over, and therefore there was little left available to give it forward speed. Therefore the difference in speed. In homogenous balls, the proportion in the same, whatever the total mass.”

Finity by E. A. Grosser

Blurb: A handful of Terrestrians on a planet that hated the Terrestrian race–was starting an undeclared war against the solar system–had to stop the weapon that would explode the sun.

E. A. Grosser’s second appearance in this Vacation (his first was back inEpisode 19) is a mediocre tale of aliens who have developed a secret weapon to destroy the solar system and the Earthmen (Terrestrian’s) efforts to thwart them. The Torians are aliens who live on Tor, a planet in the Tau Ceti system. Our hero in the story is part of a delegation to the planet. Clearly, there is animosity between the humans and aliens, but a big problem with this story is that it is never made clear what that animosity is. The fact that both sides hates each other but no one knows why weakens the story. (This can be done successfully sometimes, witness Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War.) As a reader, it was hard to sympathize with anyone in the story because their motivations were virtually absent.

Plots like this become more of a gimmick for a clever ending and I think that was what was attempted here. We learn that the Earth and solar system was destroyed by the Torian weapon only to later discover that the news of the destruction of the solar system was a deception to fool the Torians.

I suspect that perhaps some of this story is a reflection of what was happening with the Nazis during the early parts of the Second World War, and in that sense, this story is more of a reflection of the hatred between men and women of different nationalities than humans and aliens. The possibility of a “secret weapon” that could wipe out one of those nations had to be on people’s mind. Grosser’s story simply translates that anxiety into science fiction.

Direct Action by John Hawkins

Blurb: Willie wasn’t very bright, and the only methods he understood were those his underworld training taught him–gangster tactics. But against the group he had to fight, gangster tactics were the right answer.

To this point in my Vacation, World War II has been brewing in Europe for some time now and with the December 1941 issue just around the corner, the United States is on the verge of entering the war. So it would seem natural that the war, and the Nazis in particular, are on many people’s mind. That seems to be the case in John Hawkins’ story, “Direct Action.”

The story is about a man named Willie Waldmer and he is not a particularly nice fellow. Willie has associations with the mob and when one mobster, Max, gives him some money to lay on a “sure thing” horse bet, Wilie doesn’t make the bet and instead bets on another horse. losing while Max’s horse wins. Willie now owes Max $15,000 and is naturally trying to avoid him. It is in this way that Willie comes across a man who has invented a way of blowing things up at a distance. Willie kills the man (and his friends, too) and takes the device, which he then uses to take out the mob boss. Finally, when the police come after him, Willie decides to enlist int he army to use his device to deeat Hitler and the Nazis.

While the story held my interest, I didn’t particularly like it because Willie was such an unlikeable character. This is, perhaps, a sign of good writing but the writing was filled with cliches through and through and so it is really hard to say that the writing was good. Once I managed to get through the story, it seemed more like a war propganda story than anything else, and one in which seems to justify that even the lowly characters in our society (gangsters in this case) might be of use in the fight against the common enemy to our way of life. But Willie does not seem to think twice about taking a life in the story. When he blows up an airplane, he calls it an “accident” even though it was intentional and he further gets upset at the professor (whose invention he used to blow up the plane) because he is making such a big deal of the “accident.”

There really isn’t any science fiction in this story either. The invention has no technical explanation, it is just a machine that can–somehow–blow up combustable material at a distance. That is the closest we get to a description of how the machine works. That the story was included in Astounding is kind of a surprise in that sense.

The Door by Oliver Saari

Blurb: The fabled Door led through to another, stranger world. And, most important, it led away from the death-thirsty desert he was on, the legends claimed–

If there is a theme so far for the November issue, it is one which seems to be stories that aren’t really science fiction, that have only the barest of connections to science fiction (excepting, perhaps, the lead story). “The Door” by Oliver Saari continues in that vain. In addition to being quite possibly the shortest story to appear on this vaction (a mere 5 magazine columns), it is also a story that seems more apropos for Unknown than Astounding.

The brief piece is the story of Whalen, who was robbed and tossed into the Igidi Desert with a canteen of water and a vague direction for a lost city with a door that is supposed to lead to another plane of existance–or the Seventh Hell of Allah, depending on who you believe. After wandering through the desert, witnessing mirage after mirage, and on the verge of death, Whelan finally arrives as the ruins of the city and finds the Door. He passes through the door, and ends up on a world with two suns–and once again in the midst of some desert.

Today a story like this, very short with a twist ending, would be called a piece of flash fiction (a phrase which, according to Wikipedia, may have been derived from a 1992 anthology of the same title). While the story and storytelling is not bad–better, certainly than Hawkins’ “Direct Action”–it once again only barely brushes up against science ficitonal notions, giving me the idea that perhaps Campbell was trying to unload some decent stories that he couldn’t find any other suitable place for in this issue. Certainly, this one seems like it would have been a better candidate for Unknown.

High Vacua (article) by Henry Bott

Blurb: A science article on the headaches and triumphs of making practically nothing at all–which is infinitely more difficult of accomplishment than it sounds!

The science article this month, “High Vacua” by Henry Bott is a rather interesting discussion of the state of producing vacuums in the early 1940s and the applications and uses thereof. It is a well-written article and covers quite a bit of territory, but the thing I found most interesting about it was the name of the author, Henry Bott, which I had come across before. To explain my interest requires a slight deviation.

For fourteen straight years, from 1995 through 2009 or so, I had a kind of spring ritual that I would perform each year. On about April 1st, I’d sit down with a copy of Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov and read the book. Then, when that book was finished, I’d start in at once on the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green and follow that up immediately with the second volume, In Joy Still Felt. I did this every year, year in and year out, and I looked forward to it as April approached. Though I’ve now read each of the three books more than a dozen times and have them virtually memorized, they are still a sheer joy for me to read. Indeed, the only reason I haven’t kept the tradition going the last few years is that with two kids, my time has become more limited.

In any event, during the course of these books, Asimov tells the story of how he once fell into a trap of replying ot a reviewer. It was sometime in the 1950s and the book in question was The Caves of Steel. A fanzine printed a review of the book that, according to Asimov, made it clear the reviewer never even read the book. (Asimov said the reviewer complaine of Asimov’s “wandering all over the galaxy” when the book takes place entirely on Earth.) That reviewer was Henry Bott.

Now, when I saw Henry Bott’s name on the article in this issue, I wasn’t sure it was the same Henry Bott. True, the article did appear in a science fiction magazine and that made it less of a coincidence, but I did a little digging and discovered that the same Henry Bott that produced this article also wrote dozens of reviews over the years, including reviews of several of Asimov’s novels. It had to be the same man! Naturally, I went into the article with some annoyance at the man (having only Asimov’s side of the story) but as I said, it turned out to be a pretty good article, beginning with the princples of how a vaccum works, and then providing a history of the construction of devices to produce vacuums and the various practicle applications thereof. That said, I could never get Asimov’s annoyance with the man out of my head and so I had to make due with the amusing postscript to the story that Asimov tells in his autobiography.

Not long after Bott’s review of The Caves of Steel, Bott came out with a review of one of Asimov’s Lucky Starr novels, which at the time appeared under his pseudonym, Paul French. When that review appeared and when it was clear that Bott very much enjoyed the Lucky Starr story, Asimov wrote a letter to the editor of the fanzine which revealed the pseudonym–French was Asimov and therefore Bott liked Asimov when he didn’t know he was reading Asimov, etc. etc.  Later, the editor of the fanzine (according to Asimov) admitted that he was trying to start a feud that would increase circulation.

In any case, despite the picture Asimov painted of Bott and his reviews, his article on vacuums–his first nonfiction article as far as I can tell–is a pretty good one.

Seat of Oblivion by Eric Frank Russell

Blurb: He’d found the crook’s ideal of the absolutely perfect hide-out–a way to hide in another man’s body.

Eric Frank Russell makes a third appearance in this Vacation with a story of a man who invents a machine that allows a life force in one body to be transferred to another body.  An escaped death-row criminal, Jensen, discovers this invention and steals it from Dr. Wane. He then goes on a crime spree, killing people and transferring himself into their bodies after each crime so that he is impossible to locate, and leaving behind him a trail of crimes and bodies that baffle law enforcement. Ultimately, Wane stops Jensen by tricking him into transferring into the body of the most wanted villain in the country–and federal agents nab him.

“Seat of Oblivion” was a pretty fun story, but once again, it was a story that seems less science fiction and more fantastic–something that might fit well within the pages of Unknown.

The story, while entertaining, moved in a direction I didn’t expect, with Jensen’s rather easy capture by Wane and the authorities. Early in the story, Dr. Wane describes the limitations of his creation as follows:

“You forget,” retorted Wane, his voice rising once more, “that the gain in life power is such that the affected personality can escape and take over any other living body it desires, ejecting the natural owner forever–excepting, of course, any case where the owner happens to have received treatment giving him power equal or greater.”

I expected the solution to hinge on the fact that Jensen would attempt to transfer into a body that had greater power than his own, but that was not what happened which makes me wonder why this little tidbid was included.

The story itself brought to mind Harlan Ellison’s marvelous novella, “Mephisto In Onyx.” The general fantastic elements were similar, but Ellison was more successful in his efforts than I think Russell was in this story. That said, Russell was, perhaps, more prescient than some of his contemporaries about the impact television would have on the world at large. At one point in the story a patron urges Dr. Wane to refocus his field of study:

“I suggest you get going on that stereoscopic television you’ve been thinking about for years. There’s money in that. The public wants it.”

Clearly, it was something the public did–and still does–want.

Beyond All Weapons

Blurb: An absolute dictator with absolutely all weapons, can be defeated only be a being who is–beyond all weapons!

My favorite story in this issue was Nat Schachner’s “Beyond All Weapons.” With themes reminiscent of Heinlein’s “Sixth Column,” the story is, in many ways, a polar opposite of Smith’s “Second Stage Lensmen.” In the former, supermen are trying to defeat other supermen with all-powerful weapons and thinking above and beyond anything a normal person could imagine. In Schachner’s story, the hero is a family man, a regular joe, someone we can all understand and empathize with.

“Beyond All Weapons” is the story of a dictatorship in which the Director controls all human action by regularly hypnotizing the population and by killing anyone who won’t submit. When agents of the Director–the Deseco–come for John Martin in the middle of the night, he thinks it might be the last time he ever sees his family. But instead of being imprisoned, or worse, he is brought face-to-face with the Director himself. The Director is curious about Martin because Martin has seen the mysterious “Master” who foretells overthrowing the Director on the Fourth of July. He wants information, but John Martin resists, giving as little information as possible. The Director releases him and John is able to return to his family. He then spends his time leading the Deseco on a wild-goose-chase around the world. They tail him, thinking he will lead them to the Master.

Toward the end of the story, I’d kind of figured out where it was going. The final showdown between the Director and the Master, who seems to walk on air and who can’t be touched by weapons is a fitting climax. But as the Director realizes (just before he is killed by his own guard), it is because the Master is just a projection, a creation of the mind of John Martin. As Martin’s wife says toward the end, “You are the Master, John?”

Still, the story is very well told, one of the better Schachner stories I’ve come across. The emotion in the story is real and believeable. This man cared for and wanted to protect his family. We can all understand that. In that way it was very different from Smith’s story. I’m certain that Smith’s story comes through as the big winner in the AnLab a few month’s hence, but in my view, Schachner has the stronger story.

I was surprised to see mention of “Psycho-history” in the story. Martin’s job was as a “Psycho-historian.” It was never made clear exactly what that meant, but it surprised me because I’d always thought that Asimov was the first to use the term in his Foundation stories–the first of which is still six months in the future at the time this issue appeared.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the ratings from September 1941:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Methuselah’s Children Robert Heinlein 2.05 3
2. Nightfall Isaac Asimov 2.45 1
3. Elsewhere Caleb Saunders 3.41 5
4. Mission M. Krulfeld 4.51 6
5. Adam and No Eve Alfred Bester 4.72 2

I can understand fans selecting “Methuselah’s Children” as the top choice. It was a good story. Heinlein was already at the top of his game and Asimov was still working his way up the ladder. “Nightfall” would help and it’s interesting to see a classic like that in second place. But placing Alfred Bester’s “Adam and No Eve” fifth? That I just don’t get.

Here are my ratings for the present issue:

  1. Beyond All Weapons by Nat Schachner
  2. You Can’t Win by Malcolm Jameson
  3. The Door by Oliver Saari
  4. Seat of Oblivion by Eric Frank Russell
  5. Finity by E. A. Grosser
  6. Direct Action by John Hawkins
  7. Second Stage Lensmen (Part 1) by E. E. “Doc” Smith

The first two stories are, interestingly, the only stories that come close to being science fiction in the issue, excepting Smith’s story which I didn’t finish. Saari, Russell, Grosser, and Hawkin’s stories all seem more fit for Unknown. Except their quality probably excluded them from that magazine.

Postscript to “There Ain’t No Such”

I would be remiss to mention a small half-page postscript to L. Sprague de Camp’s 2-part article “There Ain’t No Such” (November-December 1939, Episodes 5 & 6). de Camp writes briefly of some unique defense mechanisms of certain Indian spiders.

In Times To Come

Coming up in December (and closing out 1941) are stories from Vic Philips, Malcolm Jameson, and of course, the second part of “Second Stage Lensmen.” Also, two science articles, one by Willy Ley and the other by R. S. Richardson. And as you will see, changes are afoot with Astounding, but you’ll have to wait until next time to find out what they are.

Happy holidays, Happy New Year! See you back here in two weeks.

4 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 29: November 1941

  1. I don’t think Fred will disown you as your friend for your reaction to Second Stage Lensmen.

    It IS of a different era, and not all SF ages well, as we have all learned and seen in your Vacation in the Golden Age.

    I don’t have any particular desire to re-read E.E. Doc Smith, although I don’t regret having done so.

    1. Paul, I read SKYLARK OF SPACE more than a decade ago, and of course, I read GRAY LENSMAN earlier this year. I have no regrets reading either and for the historical perspective, they were interesting and even enteraining. But I just don’t see Smith’s stories evolving beyond the superscience. Some writers do evolve. We’ve seen some here (Nat Schachner is one example. I didn’t like any of his early stories in this Vacation, but since those first few stories, 3 of his stories have topped my list of best-stories-in-the-issue.)

  2. Congratulations on a fine year of vacationing, Jamie, and I’m glad that you’re over that ear infection. I’d been hoping that the November ish would bring another time travel story. By my count, 1941 has seen (so far) eleven Astounding tales of time travel. (My favorite is “By His Bootstraps.”) I wonder whether Dec 1941 will bring a twelfth. In any case, if you are a time travel writer and you invent a time travel machine, 1941 would be the place to head.

    Best wishes to you for your writing, vacationing and family pursuits in 2012.

    1. Thanks, Michael. Yeah, so far no time travel in December, but I still have a few stories to go. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of that trope. ;-) Episode 30, which will come out Sunday afternoon, will include my list of favorites from 1941.

Comments are closed.