Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 32: February 1942

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War finally makes its way into the pages of Astounding, beginning with issue. As you will see in Campbell’s In Times to Come department at the end of this Episode, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States declaration of war affected all aspects of life in this country–including science fiction.

War brings uncertainty and that uncertainty has been an undercurrent of many of the stories we have seen in this Vacation. It manifests in this Episode in C. L. Moore’s lead novella, “There Shall Be Darkness.” Nevertheless, Campbell maintains his optimism both in his selection of stories, and his opinions, as you shall soon see.

Editorial: Supernova Centaurus

Campbell surprised me this issue with a single–as opposed to 2-page–editorial. I expected with the new space, he’s continue with his lengthy 2-pagers. This month’s editorial is all about supernova. Campbell tries to illustrate the strength of these phenomenon by describing them in terms of absolute magnitude. There is not much to distinguish the piece one way or another, but its historical value may be of some amusement. He describes the potential of a supernova in the Alpha Centuara system as being a boom to tourism in the southern hemisphere, once the light from the explosion reached us. What he fails to mention (and which most scientists probably didn’t realize at the time) was the threat that would accompany the display in the form of high energy radiation.

There Shall Be Darkness by C. L. Moore

Blurb: Earth Empire was crumbling–and the captain knew it as he was ordered back, with the last of the troops stationed on Venus. The last civilization of the Solar System was falling into eternal darkness, as Mars and Jupiter had before it. And Venus could not be roused–

I have never lived through the kind of dark time that loomed with the entrance of the United States into the Second World War. Younger readers of science fiction, at the time, may not have lived through such a time either, but such times were most certainly on the minds of their father’s, those who served in the Great War. The uncertainty of such times must be a powerful influence. Last month, we saw that influence reflected in Jack Williamson’s fine novella “Breakdown” and this month we see it again in C. L. Moore’s “There Shall Be Darkness.”

“There Shall Be Darkness” is the story of the decay of the last civilizations in the solar system. Barbarians from the outer solar system have already destroyed the civilization on Mars and are in the process of doing the same on Earth. Jamie Douglas, commander of Earth forces on Venus is called back to Earth with all his men to help defend the home world against these barbarians. It means leaving behind the battle he is fighting to bring civilization to Venus. Quanna is a Venusian in love with Jamie who wants to go to Earth with him.  But she is also secretly acting as a spy for the Venusian rebels who want to win their own “freedom”–what the Earthmen call pillage. It is up to Quanna and a Martian named Ghej to manipulate both sides into an alliance against the common enemy–the barbarians from the outer solar system who have now arrived on Venus as well.

C. L. Moore produced my favorite story from 1939 (“Greater Than Gods, July 1939, Episode 1) and hasn’t been seen in this Vacation since. This story marks her return and she will be in the pages of Astounding a lot more, both under her own name, and in her collaborative guises like Lewis Padgett and Lawrence O’Donnell. I didn’t think that “There Shall Be Darkness” was as good as “Greater Than Gods” but I was impressed with the world-building that appears for Venus and the feeling she gave that the native’s culture is quite different from that of Earth.

There is a somberness that runs through the story, the mourning of failure as the darkness encroaches. Even the sounds of the planet echo the despair:

Another distant rockslide shook its lower thunder through the air as they reached the gate. Jamie thought fancifully that the familiar, slow rumble was like the sound of the crumbling Solar Empire which was letting go its last world colony today.

The notion of civilization at its end invokes darkness. We see it in Hubbard’s “Final Blackout” (April-June 1940, Episodes 10, 11, 12). We see it again in the darkness of Robert Willey’s (Willy Ley) “Fog” (December 1940, Episode 18). It reaches a peak in Isaac Asimov’s grim “Nightfall” (September 1941, Episode 27). All these stories use the metaphor of darkness for the collapse of civilization, and we see it echoed again in “There Shall Be Darkness.”

Quanna is a complicated character, certainly one of the most complex female lead characters I’ve come across on this Vacation. Her motives are well mixed throughout the story. It is Jamie who comes across as overly simplified and naive. And the villains are mostly cardboard and that detracts some from the story, but Quanna’s ambiguity works against that. She feels like a real person. It was interesting also to see a character named Jamie Douglas, for no other reason than the (obvious) fact that my name is Jamie and the less obvious fact that my brother’s name is Douglas.

Overall, I liked the story but it was too long as a novella. The suspense of the story got lost in some of the added background.

The Sorcerer of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett

Blurb: They had ways of surviving, on ancient Mars, that carried over to tangle and twist the lives of three people of a race alien to their age, their planet, their whole scheme of things–

Prior to this Episode, you had to go all the way back to April 1940 (Episode 10) to find a story written by a woman. The last time there were two women with stories in a single issue was at the very beginning of this Vacation, way back in July 1939 (Episode 1). That issue had stories by C. L. Moore and Amelia R. Long. This issue has stories by C. L. Moore (above) and Leigh Brackett. Brackett is making her third appearance in this Vacation, giving her the edge on appearances by women (the total number of stories by women in 32 Episodes is now 6). The story she brings, “The Sorcerer of Rhiannon” is a kind of supernatural treasure-hunt adventure.

In many respects, this story is Indiana Jones on Mars. An archaeologist is searching for some Martian treasures and lost his way from his ship. He is lost in the Martian desert, dying of thirst when he comes upon the bones of an ancient Martian sea-fearing ship (from 40,000 years past, when the deserts were still oceans). Inside the ship, he drinks some liquid and is possessed by the life force of an ancient Martian who was also looking for the treasures of the sorcerer-scientist of Rhiannon. There was another seeking this and Max Brandon (Our Hero) finds that the girl who wants to marry him has been possessed by the life force of the other ancient being seeking out the treasure. A third treasure hunter joins the fray, an enemy of Brandon’s and it is all out war between the parties as they seek to find this ancient treasure before the other can get their hands on it.

I describe Brandon as a kind of Indiana Jones. Brackett led me to conjure up Jones with her description of Brandon:

He was lionized as a dashing explorer, publicly cursed and secretly patronized by scientific men, the darling of wealthy collectors–all because of the archaeological treasures he stole from under the noses of planetary governments.

I wasn’t too fond of Leigh Brackett’s first two stories in this Vacation. This one shows a slight improvement, but it isn’t really science fiction–only considered such because of the setting on Mars. (Or as frequent commenter Mark Stackpole might say, this is a “Sahara on Mars” story.) The “science fictional” elements in the story are at best magical. Indeed, Tobul, the spirit that inhabits Brandon says as much when Brandon claims this is all witchcraft:

“Witchcraft to the ignorant,” murmured the voice coolly. “Simple science to the learned.”

The story is worthwhile perhaps solely for that quote, which is a kind of embryonic precursor to Arthur C. Clarke’s more famous, “Any sufficiently advanced advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Indeed, if we really stretch things, the volume of liquid into which Tobul stores his life force for 40,000 years is a kind of 1940s equivalent of the “uploading” we see in stories today.

But there are flaws in the story that made it difficult for me to fully enjoy. The biggest is a pet peeve of mine, the out-loud narration of a single character to convey exposition in the plot. The first couple pages of the story follow Brandon through the Martian desert. As he goes, he talks out-loud about his misfortune and his impending doom. There are no other characters around. This technique may have been more acceptable to audiences of the 1940s but Stephen Minot, my creative writing professor at the University of California, Riverside back in 1993 turned me off to this method of exposition. It doesn’t come across as genuine and it ruins what could otherwise be an effectively dramatic scene.

The Rebels by Kurt von Rachen

Blurb: The Kilkenny Cats were still determined to do away with Colonel Gailbraith. He annoyed them consistently and severely–by saving their stupid necks! This time they plotted to maroon him for life–a short life!–on a planetful of enemies.

It is difficult to find something to say about L. Ron Hubbard’s (in his Kurt von Rachen guise) latest installment of the Kilkenny Cats stories, other than I just plain didn’t like it. This is the fifth installment in that series of stories and centers around the depression of Steve Gailbraith on the strange planet on which the Kilkenny Cats happen to currently find themselves. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this story is that it is the first, I believe, to be told from Vicky Stalton’s point of view. At times, things were stated that made absolutely no sense, as far instance when a scene opens with:

A week later–nine and a half earth days on this planet.

Unlike a day, which is based on the movement of the Earth around it’s axis, a week is a completely arbitrary measurement (the seven days are originally derived for one each of the seven “stars” recognized in Babylonians times, Sun, Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury. Even setting that aside, Hubbard is not claiming that a week later is nine days, local planet time, he’s saying a week later, nine Earth days on this planet, and that makes absolutely no sense at all. A week, by definition, is 7 earth days, no matter what planet you are on.

It was a completely unremarkable story and one that I get the idea was used for filler. I suspect that even a contemporary reader might have sensed this. Surely there was some better story that Campbell could have chosen than this, my least favorite story in the issue.

The Long-Tailed Huns (Part 2) (article) by L. Sprague de Camp

Blurb: Concluding a two-part article on the wild life of the cities. To survive, despite man’s determined objections, an animal or plant has to be tough!

L. Sprague de Camp takes up part 2 of his article on urban wildlife right where he left off. Having examined the vertebrates, he now seeks out those animals without a backbone. And we discover right away some that you’ll find in your own house from time-to-time, beginning with the bedbug, housefly and cockroach. From there he considers centipedes and spiders, both of which can have a positive effect in a house by keeping other insects at bay. He does provide an amusing (in retrospect) anecdote about Latrodectus mactans, more commonly known as the Black Widow spider:

Up to twenty years ago textbooks on spiders dismissed Latrodectus with such phrases as “popularly believed to be very poisonous, though there is no reason to think that the bite of any American spider is really dangerous–” Then a few investigators had the bright idea of making a black widow bite them and record the results. They got plenty, in the form of hours of excruciating aches and pains, sometimes accompanied by convulsions, delirium, or unconsciousness. The investigators all recovered, but did not write any more books describing the black widow as harmless.

After the spiders, de Camp considers the plant life that inhabits and invades our cities. He covers various types of trees, some of which (like the London plane) are very good park trees. And of course there are the grasses and weeds, many of which cause various problems of their own, from consuming the soil of more proper plant life, to causing a variety of allergies.

Taken as a whole, this two-part article is a very clear catalog of the variety of life that inhabits our cities besides those people who constructed them. The value to science fiction? Aside from the general interest, consideration of the wide variety of life that populates cities and how that life reacts to its surroundings is good fodder for world-building when constructing vast futuristic cities of the imagination.

Starting Point by Raymond F. Jones

Blurb: When space flight’s been reduced to railroad scheduled, and there’s no more advances to be made–then they won’t need the pioneer type, the kind that can see meanings beyond the face value of things! Like the meaning of “starting point”–

Of the space adventure stories that we’ve seen so far on this Vacation, a subset have been races of one form or another. Several have been races to the asteroid belt to stake claims among the band of rocks and ice between Mars and Jupiter, a kind of “land race in space” story. Raymond F. Jones latest is also a story about a race within the asteroid belt, but one that seeks talent instead of treasure, a notion that I have not seen much of before.

The Ajax Co. puts out an ad for adventurous space pilots to enter a contest–a race around the asteroid belt–the winner of which will receive fifty thousand dollars and a job as a pilot with the company. The narrator of the story is a former pilot and professor teaching students to become pilots in the classroom. His entire class wants to sign up for the race. The professor is initially opposed to it, but then after speaking with the owner of Ajax, Jack Bevens, who is a friend, he becomes convinced. Bevins argues that what is being raises is a series of technicians instead of pioneers. The technicians learn by the book, but have a very difficult time adjusting to anything that’s not captured in some predefined scenario. Space exploration is still to early to be out of the pioneering phase and his contest is looking to separate the pioneers from the technicians. One of the students, Sparky, seems to be doing crazy things with his efforts, even delaying his start for three days, behind all of the others in the race because he is certain that the starting point is key to the success of the competition. The rest of the story follows Sparky on his crazy journey around the sun and to his ultimate victory over the others.

This was a fun space adventure story that presented a novel idea in an interesting way. I suspect that Raymond F. Jones thought Sparky’s clever loophole in his “starting point” problem was what really made the story successful, but in my opinion, it was the careful discussion of pioneer versus technician–something that was played out twenty years later when Project Mercury started sending astronauts into orbit.

Sparky’s clever solution was secondary at best–he tried to clarify what was meant by starting point. He won the race by coming in some 20 million miles off target–it’s where his starting point was in fixed reference to space as opposed to reference to the sun.  The sun, after all, moves through space as well and by adjusting for this, he was able to shave a great deal off his journey. Since the rules didn’t specify what was meant by “starting point” he won on a technicality. Jones’ point is that Sparky used pioneering thinking, what we today would call thinking “outside the box.”

There was one minor technical error in the story that stood out enough to catch my attention. At one point, it is mentioned that the bulk of the asteroids are 60 million miles from the sun. That can’t be right since the Earth is 93 million miles form the sun and the bulk of the asteroids are beyond the orbit of Mars. But it is a small thing in relation to the overall story, which was well presented and executed.

Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon

Blurb: “You,” said the headquarters men, “will be the only sane man in the crew. The rest are madmen but don’t know it, of course–“

Next to C. L. Moore, Theodore Sturgeon’s story “Medusa” presents the best set of characters in the issue, characters that, unlike many in the early 1940s Astounding, feel like real people with real problems and not exaggerated wish fulfillments. “Medusa” is the story of eight crew members on a ship sent to Xantippe, a mysterious planet in orbit around Betelguese. Whenever ships pass near Xantippe they seem to disappear. The crew dies or goes insane. The men on this mission are all altered to have some form of insanity–except Rip, the narrator. He is told by the men who directed the mission that he will be the only sane man on the ship. It turns out that Xantippe is more than a planet. It is a life form, analogous to a “hydropmedusa” (thus the title) on earth–a man of war. With the strategy of using insane men, Kip is able to destroy the planet-being. Three crew members are lost int he process but Xantippe is no longer a threat.

It is becoming clear with this, Strugeon’s tenth appearance in this Vacation, that he is something special. His stories are good, that is not disputed, but his writing is a cut above most of the other writing that appears in the magazine. From the voice of his characters to the way he uses words, Sturgeon sets himself apart from most of the other Astounding writers. Of course, he has his quirks as well. The physical sciences are not really his forte, as for instance, witness his description of the “Forfield” drive that propels the spacecraft through the void:

The Galaxy is traveling in an orbit about the mythical Dead Center at an almost incredible velocity. A Forfield, with momentum nullified, just stops dead while the Galaxy streams by. When the objective approaches, momentum is restored and the ship appears in normal space with only a couple of thousand miles to go. That is possible because the lack of motion builds up a potential in motion; motion being a relative thing, produces a relative set of values.

But what Sturgeon lacks in the physical sciences, he more than makes up for in human psychology and that is where the strength of this story really lies. The paranoia of the crew, the various neuroses they face provide a kind of precursor to stories we’d see a generation later by Barry N. Malzberg. And while so much of the story was centered around the psychology of the crew (the encounter with Xantippe doesn’t really come into play until the last 2 pages of the story, Strugeon’s writing, his wit and humor throughout make the story interesting, and indeed, speed the pacing of the story so that it just flies by, even faster than Raymond Jone’s space-race story.

“Medusa” was the last piece of fiction in the issue (excluding the conclusion to Smith’s serial) and it was my favorite, giving Sturgeon a record five times that he’s made the top of my personal ratings for an issue.

Second Stage Lensmen (Part 4) by E. E. Smith, Ph.D.

Blurb: CONCLUDING “Skylark” Smith’s latest novel of the Patrol. Kinnison shows that one man, in the right place, can wreck a fighting force more thoroughly than a fleet. And the right place is–absolute ruler of the enemy!

As you know, I have not read the story beyond part 1 because I just couldn’t get through the first part. I didn’t like it at all. But I have two quick points to make about the story as it concludes in this issue. First, I am not the only one who didn’t like the story. Take a look at the Brass Tacks section below for an excerpt from a letter by a fan who takes the words out of my mouth. Second, as I said, I haven’t read beyond part 1. However, in looking at Campbell’s blurb for this story, I can’t help but think that this is one of those times where his blurb gives away the story. For those who have read it: am I right? Does Campbell’s blurb reveal what ultimately happens in the conclusion of this popular serial?

Brass Tacks

There is a letter in his issue by Mr. Sam Salant of Brooklyn, NY that captures the essence of my problems with Smith’s Lensmen stories, but does so far more colorfully than I could do on my own. It is worth quoting a significant portion of it so you can get the flavor.

Dear Mr. Campbell:

How can you dare to print the drivel that is the work of Dr. Smith in a top-flight magazine such as yours? Not that his writing is so bad–personally I think it is surpassed only by Heinlein–but his plots–or should I say his plot–can surpass only those of the opera, which is a rather left-handed compliment , I think.

Some authors at least vary their formulas a trifle. Van Vogt and his monster mania parted company, and “Slan” was the result. But Smith does not even do that. Time after time, we are presented with those li’l’ old intergalactic invaders, who are finally beaten off, not by brute force, superior strategy, or scientific achievement, but by that old reliable, ever-present mind force plus, of course, X-ray vision.

And the hero never can die, or be maimed, or, in fact, injured in any way, for his trusty stooges arrive in the nick of time to replace a loose eyeball here, fill his tank, check his oil, wipe his windshield, and send him off, not only as good as ever, but better, with fluid drive and extra springs in the back seat.

Those Arisian supermen of whom so much is thought, could only have been invented by Dr. Smith after a heavy midnight supper. Are you forced to accept them, or are you hypnotized? While re-reading Anson MacDonald’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” I permitted myself a merry little chuckle at the Editor’s note appended thereto.

“–Dr. E. E. Smith recognized a similar problem in the formulation of any all-powerful law-enforcing body such as his Galactic Patrol. Who will watch the watchmen? Smith’s solution was complete and workable–the Arisian supermen.”

My solution is also complete and workable. Who will watch the watchmen? Simple, Dr. Smith will.

Smith, to me, represents the last of a valiant but doomed race–writers of the Buck Rogers-Flash Gordon school. The time is fast disappearing–at least in the better science-fiction magazines–when the author, in a difficult situation, can “–turn to his micro-ultra-philmeter, he rapidly tore out a dozen connections, spot-welded twenty-seven busbars, and converted the machine into an improved von Krockmeier hyperspace lever, which bent space like the blade of a rapier and hurtled him in a flash from hilt to point–” My apologies to Theodore Sturgeon for that quote.

There may be a climax in a Smith story, but there can be no suspense, unless it be waiting for the hero to come up with a new weapon, or physical attribute.

However, Arisians or no Arisians, Kinnison or no Kinnison, the man is a master craftsman, with or without “busbars.” He can spew wonderful adjective when he gets warmed up. But, oh, we need someone to doctor up those plots! Is there one in the house?

We leave Dr. Smith a bloody, battered hulk, lying in the dust of his ignominy, to travel on to other topics.

Campbell’s comment: “Ouch.” Mr. Salant’s letter is colorful, but I think his most valid point about Smith’s stories is when he speaks of “those li’l’ old intergalactic invaders, who are finally beaten off, not by brute force, superior strategy, or scientific achievement, but by that old reliable, ever-present mind force plus, of course, X-ray vision.” There is no tension in the Smith stories because you know he is going to pull through by some gadget or mental power as opposed to know-how and science–a very un-Astounding notion. Of course, I understand why Campbell publishes Smith–he is an icon of the genre. And I am well aware that Smith has one more serial toward the very end of this Vacation. But I fear that will be more of the same–which is part of Mr. Salant’s point.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the AnLab ratings for December 1941:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Second Stage Lensmen (Part 2) E. E. Smith, Ph.D 1.52 -
2. Defense Line Vic Phillips 2.5 3
3. Bullard Reflects Malcolm Jameson 3.4 1
4. Homo Saps Webster Craig 3.7 6
5. Operation Successful Robert Arthur 3.8 5

I think the one thing to note is how tight the race was for third place, with Jameson, Craig and Arthur within a few tenths of a point of one another.

Here are my ratings for the present issue:

  1. Medusa by Theodore Sturgeon
  2. Starting Point by Raymond F. Jones
  3. There Shall Be Darkness by C. L. Moore
  4. The Sorcerer of Rhiannon by Leigh Brackett
  5. The Rebels by Kurt von Rachen

In Times to Come

Campbell has an unusually long In Times To Come department this month. In it, he virtually apologizes for the possible shortage of stories by his big name writers. The reason? War has finally hit home in the science fiction world:

This department is being prepared on December 8th; it takes time to perform the complex mechanical operation of making a magazine–the physical object per se, that is–and to ship it. The immediate interest of things yet to is, on this date, a bit more widespread in scope than the issue of Astounding that will be made up a month hence. The position of America has been violently changed in twenty-four hours. The make-up of our lesser community of science-fiction is of interest, if not importance; it is naturally affected by the change in the larger community of which it is part. The immediately predictable effects are about as follows: L. Ron Hubbard is Lieutenant L. Ron Hubbard, U.S.N. We have a few stories of his on hand; whether he will, now, have time for more I cannot know.

Robert Heinlein is Lieutenant Robert Heinlein, U.S.N., as has been mentioned before in this magazine. His station is not yet determined, and I do not know whether he will be able to do any further writing; I greatly doubt that he will. He has been taking a vacation from writing since completing “Methuselah’s Children.” There are no Heinlein manuscripts on hand.

Anson MacDonald is in Navy service equally; it is practically certain that we will have to wait until the end of the war before he will be able to write for us again. For small blessings, give praises; MacDonald had completed and sent into the magazine a new long novel which reached me four days ago–our check in payment reached him eighteen hours before he reported for active duty. The novel is scheduled for the April and May issues, a 70,000-word two-part serial. It represents material fully up to MacDonald’s high standard in writing and involves a theme which has never been more than hinted at in any field of writing before. A civilization truly and soundly based on complete control of genetics–not a story about genetic control, but about a civilization based on that fundamental.

A. E. van Vogt is a Canadian; probably his status will not be changed; if anything, his work will increase in volume. Its quality is well attested by several new stories on hand now…

The MacDonald novel that Campbell refers to is “Beyond This Horizon.”

And so with the war now brewing, and America’s full involvement, the future is someone less clear. Of course, we know how it all turns out, but can you imagine reading this issue in January 1942 (when the issue would have hit the newsstands) and realizing that it’s not just the usual aspects of life that are affected by the war–it’s all of them, including science fiction.

Next month looks like a good lineup with stories by van Vogt, MacDonald, Asimov, del Rey, Russell, and article by Jameson, and a new pseudonym for a familiar name who has not yet shown up in this Vacation.

See you back here in two weeks.

4 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 32: February 1942

  1. “There Shall Be Darkness” is barely SF. It is a straight historical tale of the Roman legions withdrawing from Britannia with some spaceships and ray guns plastered over the framework to make it marketable to Campbell.

    And this is not the first time Catherine would do this.

    At the tail end of your vacation, there is a honest to God Bat Durston (Barry Malzberg can explain the reference) by Lawrence O’Donnell which is nothing more than a Western transpanted to space.

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