Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 31: January 1942

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With Episode 31 we enter the 4th “vacation-year” of this Vacation, 1942. And with the new year comes the new, larger-sized Astounding that Campbell spoke of in the last issue. I was skeptical of the larger size, but I have to admit, it grew on me in minutes. Something abou the larger format just feels more comfortable, makes it seems easier to read. Of course that means that now I am trying to ignore the fact that Astounding will stay at this size for only 16 more issues. I suppose the consolation is that Astounding remained in print, despite the paper shortages of the war. The same cannot be said for Unknown.

The photo below should help better illustrate the difference in size. The issue on the left is the December 1941 issue and the issue on the right is the present, January 1942 issue.

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As far as the interior goes, the new size uses a 2-column page format through most of the issue, just like previous issues. But the columns are much wider and the pages clearly contain more text than before. And as we’ll see later, it also makes use of 3-columns at time.

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And one editorial note for those who might have missed it. I posted a schedule of Episodes for 2012. I’m aiming for 26 Episodes this year but with the realities of life, I expect to do 24. That would take us to November 1943. If I can manage a full 26 Episodes, we’ll finish the year in January 1944, two full vacation-years from the present issue.

Editorial: Pressing Problem

In last month’s issue, Campbell spoke of the new size and format for Astounding and pointed out that it meant the ability to provide more stories, more fiction, more articles and features with each issue. Included in that size increase, it seems, is a proportional increase in the length of Campbell’s editorial. “Pressing Problems” was a 2-pager–or 4 long columns! Fortunately, it was an interesting article about the effects of acceleration on the human body.

This is an apt question for a science fiction magazine where stories involve space flight, sometimes at high gravities. There was not a lot of data on the subject until the U.S. military started experimenting with acceleration on people in a kind of centrifuge that we’ve all seen in movies like The Right Stuff. From the published data, Campbell works backwards from high to low accelerations to find a practical level at which an astronaut could perform his duty. While the subject was interesting, what I found most fascinating about this essay was how remarkably similar some of Isaac Asimov’s later essays–where he goes about analyzing some aspect of science–are to this one. Clearly, Campbell didn’t just influence Asimov’s fiction writing.

Campbell settles on 3-5g as a practical figure, assuming the astronaut in question is in a prone position. He closes out the article by describing a kind of pressure suit devised for German dive bomber pilots that cushions them in a layer of water to help absorb and distribute the stresses. I wonder how well those reverse wet suits actually worked in practice?

Breakdown by Jack Williamson

Blurb: It was a stable society, based on interplanetary ships and interplanetary shipping. And its stability doomed it! Breakdown was inevitable unless–

All throughout this Vacation, war has been brewing in Europe and with the United States entering the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the whole world was once again in it, once again fighting, and I can only imagine that tensions were high. It is no real surprise, then, to find the destruction of civilization (and its aftermath) increasingly common in science fiction stories. Indeed, science fiction is the ideal literature for exploring such speculations: it offers us glimpses of how technological change impacts society for the good or bad. With increased technology comes larger impacts–in both directions.

Already, we have seen this theme come alive in four remarkable stories: We saw the devastation of Europe in L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout; we saw what might happen right here in the United States during a modern revolution in Robert Willey’s (Willy Ley) “Fog”; Isaac Asimov demonstrated how easily even two-thousand year old civilizations could crumble in “Nightfall”; and Alfred Bester showed us how the technology that could take us to the stars could also devastate the planet in “Adam and No Eve.” Jack Williamson jumps into the mix with his lead novella for this issue, “Breakdown,” which looks at the rapid destruction of civilization on Earth. And despite its dark themes, it is one of the better stories I’ve come across in several issues now.

The power of the story comes from the fact that it describes the rapid breakdown of a stable society in a matter of days. It is a frightening prospect for any reader to consider, but I imagine it was all the more unsettling to science fiction fans reading the story in late December 1941 or early January 1942–some of whom already knew they’d be heading off to war. Harvey Kelton, protagonist, was a simple “boss”–and the ultimate ruler of the Union, a kind of technocratic society that humanity had evolved toward by the year 2145. Part of what makes the story powerful is that Kelton, despite his dictatorship, came from humble backgrounds, and had a life that most people can recognize–one of hard work as opposed to privilege. He had a falling out with his son, who became obsessed with the possibility of planets around other star systems. Now, he manages the Union coldly, isolated in his Union Tower.

Word comes that an anarchist–the Preacher–has been spotted and Kelton assigns his minions to capture him. Meanwhile, and unbeknown to Kelton, his girlfriend and the head of his military are planning a coup against him–which they carry out while allegedly taking the captured Preacher to prison. Kelton must escape to the tunnels of his youth as he watches the world torn apart around him. Eventually, he finds his son, and some people his son has recruited to follow him on a starship to another system–and leave Earth behind forever. Kelton goes with them, but Earth is lost.

The fear of such a destruction to civilization is ever-present in the story. Kelton’s own son is disgusted by the fact that all scientific curiosity seems lost–a theme that we’ll take up again several Vacation-months from now in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” (another story about the decay of civilization). The “breakdown” between father and son in “Breakdown” for a microcosm of the breakdown of all parts of society as a whole.

Williamson intersperses the darkness with some tantalizing descriptions:

It was night, and Sunport after dark was a view that had always stirred him. The towers were wide apart. Facades of luxion plastics turned them to tapering, graceful pylons of soft and many-colored fire. Their changing splendor lit the broad parks between, and stood inverted in a hundred pleasure lakes. The surfaceways were board, curving ribbons of light, alive with the glowing cars of joyriding engineers. A few pleasure gliders floated above the landing terraces, colored eggs of crystal light.

As this beautifully described civilization comes apart at the seams, an old historian lectures Kelton about how this was all predictable:

Old Giovanni Vico had a glimmer of it, with his ‘law of cycles,’ back in the seventeen hundreds. Spengler and Toynbee glimpsed it. Sprague, later, saw further. But it remained for me to reduce the laws of the rise and fall of human cultures to the exact science that I call destiny.

Here we see a hint at what will later be called “psychohistory” in Asimov’s “Foundation.” Then, too, I was amused by the reference to “Sprague,” which is almost certainly our Sprague: L. S. de Camp. (He was fascinated by history and indeed was a member of–if not a founding member–of the Toynbee Society. And of course, friends with Williamson.)

The same historian sums up the story and gives the story its title in the process:

It is tragic that cultures must reach the point of breakdown before they can breed men able to understand them. But lack of understanding does not change the truth.

“Breakout” was an outstanding story, the best Williamson I’ve come across so far on this Vacation–it will be a tough story to beat in this issue. And I should add that Kramer’s interior illustrations for the story–4 of them–were all very good. Perhaps because of the larger page size, the illustrations themselves were larger and that helped to give them the room they needed to come more alive.

And not to put to fine a point on it, but Alva Rogers agrees with the quality of the story and adds (in his Requiem for Astounding):

This was an entirely different Williamson from the author of “Legion of Space” or “The Legion of Time.” Without denigrating his earlier classics in any way, this still was a much more mature and sophisticated story than his space and time epics.

Soup King by Colin Keith

Blurb: The ship crashed on Venus, with a gold mine as its landing spot. Fine for everybody but the cook. But he did better–he fell in the soup!

Malcolm Jameson makes two appearance in this issue–the first in the guise of Colin Keith, the pseudonym we first encountered in Episode 30. In “Soup King,” Jameson gives us a Wester-on-Venus story about a shipwrecked crook and their unfortunate cook. Jimmy Laird is a member of the Pelican, a ship that transports food to the colonies on Venus because the food there is inedible to humans. Each crew member of the Pelican gets a percentage of the take in trade–except for Laird, who, as cook, earned “keep and wages” only. He was also in the unfortunate position of having to feed the crew terrible, synthetic food and was constantly blamed for the horrible taste, though he had no control over the matter.

Approaching Venus, the Pelican loses its navigation beam and crashes into the mountains, where the crew quickly discovers and enormous cache of gold. They bicker over who has rights to the gold. Meanwhile, Jimmy heads off searching for a town and on his journey, falls into what seems to be a pool of mud, but what turns out to be an organic matter that is edible by humans, contains all the nutrients they need–and what’s more, tastes delicious. He shares his find with some starving miners and runs afoul of the law for having an illegal mine. After some time in jail and a trial, Jimmy is vindicated, the claim is his–if only he can find some men to help him work it. And that’s when members of the Pelican finally show up, virtually starving. And we end with the roles reversed, except that Jimmy is much kinder to his crew than they were to him.

Jameson’s story was entertaining and Jimmy Laird is a good sympathetic character–but the crux of the story hinges on a technicality introduced in the trial:

“Moreover, the Viceregal Decree of Decimo 14, 2047, for the Encouragement of Food Production on Venus uses these words: ‘Any person, of whatever planetary allegiance, and whether or not so specifically licensed, who may discover and develop a source of natural food upon this planet, shall be awarded a suitable bonus, a free site of operations, and shall be entitled to the full protection of the government, whether such food supply shall derive from farming, fishing, trapping or otherwise.'”

This is what ultimately gets Jimmy off the hook, but it came across more as a convenient plot contrivance because one would think that the locals–and in particular, the judge of the trial, would already be familiar with this law and that the case would have been dismissed before it ever went to trial. In his story, “Jurisdication,” (August 1941, Episode 26) Nat Schachner also uses an element of law that acts as a deus ex machina and lessens the overall effectiveness of the story. That said, I think Malcolm Jameson’s stories keep getting better and he has, for me, become one writer who I can count on for an entertaining story when I see his name (or his pseudonym) in the table of contents.

Mechanistria by Eric Frank Russell

Blurb: Planetographers expect dangerous animals, but this world had something different.

I vaguely recall someone mentioning “Mechanistria” in a comment to an earlier episode, possibly that of Episode 23 (May 1941) in which Russell’s story “Jay Score” first appeared. So I was curious when I started reading the novelette. I quickly discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that this was another “Jay Score” story.

The story finds Jay Score and the rest of his crew, Martians included, called to a distant solar system to investigate a planet upon which they discover a strange alien form: machines! The world to which they arrive seems to be populated with as wide a variety of forms of machines as Earth has life. Those machines seem bent on taking apart any life they find in order to figure out how they work–including dissecting humans and other beings, the “Lobster” aliens the crew encounters.  While all of this destruction volleys back and forth–Jay Score maintains his calm and with the aid of the Martians, figures out that these machines have limited ability to think. There are also concepts that they can’t possibly conceive of, like a jail break (which the Lobsters call unethical behavior in times of war). Eventually, after much maneuvering, the crew escapes with one captive machine and returns to Earth.

This wasn’t a bad story, but I didn’t like it as much as the original “Jay Score.” Of course, the reveal at the end of that story, and the paradigm shift it created made it more powerful all around. This one was more like a 1940s version of Transformers, designed for explosions and special effects but not much more. Even Jay Score spends some of his time casually hefting atomic bombs and then tossing them at enemies to disable them–something that might have been conceivable in early 1942, but would have been impossible to imagine three and a half years later.

Also, Jay Score comes across a little too flat in this piece, despite being a robot. He is clearly the central figure, but his solemnity and lack of emotion is in stark contrast to the action of the story. The really colorful characters in this one are the various Martians, who, even in the heat of battle, are razzing one another about their latest chess game.

The story does try to introduce the idea of alien concepts–that there might be things alien beings we encounter do, or ways in which they behave, that we simply can’t conceive–or vice versa. The notion of trying to escape from a prison is one. Another is the sort of two-dimensional thinking of the mechanistria–they don’t look up or down–and if you aren’t moving, you aren’t considered alive. If they story had focused a little more on these concepts and a little less on the explosions, it might have been a bit stronger.

Military Explosives (article) by Malcolm Jameson

Blurb: Military men want much more of an explosive than power alone. They need something that will blast suddenly and tremendously, but which can be burned, hammered, shot into and dropped without danger.

The last few issues of Astounding have had some really good science articles and this issue is no exception. Malcolm Jameson’s article, “Military Explosives” is an absolutely fascinating look at the state of the art circa 1942. It should be noted that this is the 3rd or 4th article in this Vacation that has focused on weapons and I suspect there is good reason for that. When this Vacation started (in July 1939) Europe was already at war. In the present issue, the United States is now also at war, and while that probably wasn’t the case, I’m sure Jameson, who was a Navy buddy of Heinlein could read the writing on the wall.

Just as Willy Ley’s article “Space War” (August 1939, Episode 2) taught me more than I ever knew about weaponry ballistics, so Jameson’s article taught me a lot about explosives. The most fascinating distinction in the article was the use of chemicals for explosives or for propellants. Jameson made a good description for the difference between fast-burning and slow burning explosives, and that the power delivered has more to do with the speed of the burn as opposed to the amount of explosive used. He made a very good analogy:

As to the effect of a small amount of energy suddenly applied being more disruptive than a greater amount of energy more slowly applied, consider the analogy of a switch engine approaching a string of standing freight cars. If it noses up quietly and pushes, it will shortly have the cars rolling down the line at fifty miles an hour. But if it should come charging at them at fifty miles an hour, the result will not be the movement of the cars, but a splattering over the landscape of fragments of locomotive and freight cars. That is why propellants are required to burn, not detonate.

Jameson discusses the various types of explosives in use and the various uses they are put to, and how they differ from one another. In reading through the article, two thoughts occurred to me. First, I wonder how much has changed in the seventy years since this article was written. Would a military explosives expert today look at this article as quaint? Or would the principles and uses still apply? Second, and more generally about the recent articles in Astounding: if a science fiction writer wanted to write a story about a time traveler going back to the early 1940s and needing a basic understanding of the science of the time, these articles would provide a good source for research.

The Invaders by L. Ron Hubbard

Blurb: The captain was proud of his dangerous post. He resented the technicians. And his ego was smashed when he learned where his dangerous post was.

In the first volume of his autobiography, Isaac Asimov wrote of his first meeting with L. Ron Hubbard:

He was a large-jawed, red-haired, big and expansive fellow who surprised me. His heroes tended to be frightened little men who rose to meet emergencies, and somehow, I expected Hubbard to be the same.

“You don’t look at all like your stories,” I said.

“Why? How are my stories?” he asked.

“Oh they’re great,” I said, enthusiastically and all present laughed while I blushed and tried to explain that if his stories were great and he was not like his stories, I didn’t mean that he was not great.

In each Hubbard story we’ve encountered so far in this Vacation, I’ve thought of this passage, and it has perplexed me because I have yet to find a hero who was a frightened little man who rose to emergencies. Certainly the Lieutenant in “Final Blackout” was not like this. Nor were the heroes in his pseudonymous “Killkenny Cats” stories. And then I read “The Invaders” and discovered exactly what Asimov was talking about in Gedso Ion Brown, the story’s protagonist.

Brown is a technician specialist sent to a prison-world behind a Black Nebula. The prison world is under constant assault by “things” in the thousands. These things come in waves, then stop, and then regenerate it seems and come back, attacking relentlessly. Brown is sent to find a solution to the problem. Brown is a large man, extremely strong but also extremely shy, especially around authority. And the authority of the Crystal Mines (the prison colony) is tough indeed–and incredibly bureaucratic. They want to aid him as little as possible, despite wanting the relentless attacks to end.

With the help of one of the prisoners and the unwilling “cooperation” of the general of the prison and a lackey, Brown takes a ship to explore the nebula to see if he can determine the best course of action. Ultimately Brown discovers that no new weapon in necessary. The prison exists inside the belly of a massively giant space worn, and the “things” that are constantly attacking are a kind of “white blood cell” of the worm–it’s internal defense mechanism for fighting off disease. By destroying a part of the internal control system, they can stop the “things” in their tracks.

I liked Gedso Ion Brown because I liked his understated way of taking on authority–which is probably the very kind of characteristics that Asimov was thinking of when he made his remark to Hubbard. I like how he could make the Powers That Be fume, by making almost apologetic statements. That, for me, was the most interesting part of the story. That said, I actually think that Jimmy Laird in Malcolm Jameson’s (Colin Keith) “Soup King” is a better example of this type of character.

I would also point out that the initial description of the Crystal Mines prison was remarkably similar to another famous space prison, that of Rurapente, in the Star Trek universe, where Klingon’s send those criminals who are not summarily executed.

This was only the third story in this Vacation to have Hubbard’s name on the byline. (“The Professor Was a Thief”, February 1940,  Episode 8; and “Final Blackout” April – June 1940, Episodes 1011, and 12 were the others) and the first to have his byline since “Final Blackout.” If I am not mistaken, during this time more of his stories under the Hubbard name were appearing in Unknown than in Astounding.

Fugitive From Vangard by Norman L. Knight

Blurb: The stranger wore clothes a thousand years out of date. He had no member of where or when he had been born–

Norman Knight’s last appearance in this Vacation was back in the September 1941 (Episode 27) issue, with “Short-Circuited Probability,” a title which has a bit of irony in this present story, “Fugitive From Vangard.” The story follows a well-worn trope, even at the time, of the strange man with no memory of his own past. He has confessed to a murder and has been brought to a planet in which two councilors will help determine his mental state and his future.

Through his conversations with the councilors, his story slowly unfolds but there are still many missing parts and it requires the assistance of yet another party to help put all of the pieces together. The third part is essentially a robot, but does not call himself a robot, instead preferring to thing of himself as an evolved metallic human–and it also happens to be the man that the stranger thought he’d killed. It turned out that the stranger is one of these robots as well.

I think this story started out with promise, but I felt the ending was a bit weak and disappointing based on the build-up. Also, while there were some scenes that could have been better as flashbacks with the reader in the action.

There was, I thought, I pretty good description of a messaging device that seemed to resemble what we actually use today:

“People take all kinds of fanciful names,” observed the girl, and scrutinized the little rectangular object which just fitted into the palm of her hand. She pressed the edge of it with her thumb; at once an oblong strip across the flat surface became luminous and a stream of black characters flowed across the illuminated panel from left to right.

Does that sound like an iPhone to you?

The Long-Tailed Huns, Part 1 (article) by L. Sprague de Camp

Blurb: First of a two-part article concerning the wild animals so sly that they can invade man’s own fortresses–the cities.

de Camp’s article this month (the first of 2-parts) is all about the animals that make their homes in human urban settings–cities. The article starts out with a rather lengthy, fictional tale involving mice and rats, and it is nearly 3 pages before de Camp writes:

All of which, my friends, is a rather lengthy introduction to an article on the newest life-zone: the urban.

I think I’ve said before that I don’t like those fictional introductions in fact articles. Willy Ley has attempted this before, too, but I don’t see the point of it. Let the fiction be fiction and let the fact articles speak for themselves.

That said, de Camp provides an interesting look at the animals that inhabit our cities beginning with the unsettling Cimex lectularis, more commonly known as the bed bug. From these he moves on to scavengers like squirrels and pigeons, and even wild ducks, who it seemed would scavenge from their tame counterparts at the Bronx Zoo, stealing their food. From there de Camp looks at rats, still a familiar site in many urban areas, and even from time-to-time in a relatively clean subway system like the Washington, D.C. metro system. de Camp also considers the common cat as well, which used to roam more freely through the cities than perhaps they do today. Campbell examines some sea creatures as well, that invade the cities.

It is a very interesting article, particularly where he describes the impact of some of these animals on humans (in the form of disease, for instance). I’m definitely looking forward to the second, and concluding part in Episode 32.

Second Stage Lensmen, Part 3 by E. E. “Doc” Smith

Blurb: Third of four parts. Kinnison invades the Base planet of the Second Galaxy single-handed.

Those following along know that I really didn’t like the first part of “Second Stage Lensmen” and stopped reading it. However, there was one thing I wanted to point out about the story in this issue. The length of the novel (something around 116,000 words) lends itself to the new size of Astounding, and yet even so, I noted that the third part of the serial (which takes up the last 32 pages of the issue or so) is printed in a slightly smaller font (perhaps 1 point-size smaller if my eyes are any judge) and in 3-column as opposed to the 2-column format pictured above.

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Campbell is clearly taking full advantage of the freedoms the bedsheet-sized issue is giving him.

Brass Tacks

No specifically stand-out letters in the Brass Tacks this month, but it’s worth noting that Campbell virtually apologizes for the fact that, despite the larger issue, the column is very small–only three letters! He promises to try and include more room in future months.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the AnLab ratings for the November 1941 issue:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Second Stage Lensmen (Part 1) E. E. Smith, Ph.D 1.8 7
2. Beyond All Weapons Nat Schachner 2.9 1
3. You Can’t Win Malcolm Jameson 3.2 2
4. Seat of Oblivion Eric Frank Russell 4.0 4
5. Direct Action John Hawkins 4.5 6

 

No surprise that “Second Stage Lensmen” came in first, although perhaps a little surprising that it’s score was closer to a 2 than a 1.

Here are my ratings for the present issue:

  1. Breakdown by Jack Williamson
  2. Military Explosives (article) by Malcolm Jameson
  3. Soup King by Colin Keith
  4. Mechanistria by Eric Frank Russell
  5. The Invaders by L. Ron Hubbard
  6. Fugitive from Vangard by Norman L. Knight
Once again, I did not include “Second Stage Lensmen” because, after Part 1, I gave up reading it, I did include Malcolm Jameson’s article on military explosives because i thought it was an exceptional article.

In Times To Come

After a 31-episode absence, C. L. Moore is back next month with the lead story, “There Shall Be Darkness.” Moore’s “Greater Than Gods” (July 1939, Episode 1) was my favorite story from 1939 and I look forward to another one from her. And Moore is not the only woman to show up next month. There is also a story by Leigh Brackett. Also stories by Sturgeon, von Rachen (Hubbard), Raymond F. Jones, and the conclusion of de Camp’s latest article. And, of course, the conclusion of Smith’s “Second Stage Lensmen.”

See you back here in two weeks.

5 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 31: January 1942

    1. Paul, I’m more excited about Moore than Brackett. Moore’s “Greater Than Gods” was outstanding, but the first 2 Brackett stories I’ve encountered weren’t very good in my opinion.

      “Breakdown” was a particularly striking story, very much in league with those other breakdown-related stories I’d mentioned in the post.

  1. http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/interviews/williamson54interview.htm

    Jack Williamson on “Breakdown”:

    “I had read Spengler’s Decline of the West and several volumes of Toynbee’s study of history. Toynbee appealed to me because of his “challenge and response” notion, derived from the stimulus response theory of psychology, which enabled him to make his cultures or civilizations into entities that had regular, predictable lifetimes. This was plausible to him and to a lot of people studying history at the time. It created the possibility that one might be able to get a kind of handle on the future – an idea I could see could be applied as a means of forecasting a future history. So I based “Breakdown” on Spengler and Toynbee, and I wrote a drama of the decline and fall of a future civilization. It seemed obvious that since people seem so endlessly fascinated with the eclipse of Greece and the fall of Rome, the notion of our own civilization falling into ruin would naturally have a similarly strong emotional appeal.”

    If Isaac didn’t visit Campbell’s office immediately after reading on the subway Gilbert and Sullivan’s collected plays, we could be easily talking about Jack Williamson’s Foundation series (and Asimov’s SeeTee stories for that matter).

    And speaking of series:

    “In the early 1940s, I had written a story, or a great part of it, called “Star of Empire” – a sequel to “Breakdown.” I had developed the planet Eron, had the novel roughly plotted, and all in all had maybe 100 or so pages written. But somehow I sensed that it wasn’t going well. Since I couldn’t tell what was the matter with it, I laid it aside for nearly ten years. About that time I had met Jim Gunn and I mentioned to him the early work I had done on the book. Almost immediately he was interested in working on it with me. This seemed like a good idea – Jim was part of the New Wave of that day, a young, bright, gifted man whose work I liked and respected – so we set to work on it. We wound up replotting the entire thing, with most of the new story line being derived from Jim’s suggestions … In terms of Chomsky’s linguistic terminology, you could say that the deep structure was mine, while the surface structure was his.”

    Jack is talking about “Star Bridge” (Gnome, 1955).

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