Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 33: March 1942

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When I finish my lunch every other Monday and carefully take the “new” issue of Astounding out of it’s wrappings and gaze at the cover, I often wonder if the folks reading the magazine in its day got the same kind of thrill. Did they return from the newsstand and find some quiet corner in which to start skimming through the magazine? Did they wonder what opinions Campbell would offer today? Did they turn first to the Brass Tacks to see if their letters had been printed? I think of how I read the science fiction magazines I subscribe to today. I usually read the nonfiction first: editorials, letter columns, book reviews, regular columns, etc., before moving onto the fiction.

Regardless, I always look forward to glancing at the cover art for a moment or two, and then turning my attention to the contents page and getting a preview of what to expect from the issue. Each new issue is full of exciting possibilities and that excited feeling I get skimming the contents must be a common experience for science fiction readers, whether reading the magazines printed today, or those printed seventy years ago.

Editorial: Science fiction and war

Last month, Campbell made overt references to the war in his In Times To Come column, focusing on those writers whose might not be able to write for some time because of war work. His editorial this month talks about science fiction and war in a different context: American know-how. Campbell starts by pointing out that American’s have an advantage over almost any other nation in their mechanical abilities. He is not arguing that we are all engineers, but he points out that we’ve had access to things like (relatively) cheap cars for so long that we all know how to tinker with them. We all know how to handle them in various conditions. Compare this to the people of Europe, he argues, who might drive cars, but never make attempts to repair them themselves; they take them to experts. This kind of experience can serve well on a battlefield.

Campbell then switches to “science-fictional” inventions that are theoretically possible, but require practical engineering to make them happen. Infrared aircraft detectors is one such device. Another is the “one hundred percent automatic guns.” Such a device would react to changes in a target’s position far faster than a human could.

While Campbell probably overstates how close we are to some of these inventions, his argument is clear: American know-how will help to win the war. (A war which, Campbell predicts, will last another two-and-a-half to three years.) In this respect, at least, he was absolutely right.

The current issue is the first of the new-sized issue that lacks a serial, meaning there is a lot of fiction in the issue. Indeed, this time around, there are four novelettes, at least one of which, “Recruiting Station” by A. E. van Vogt, would be considered a long novella today. In addition there are three short stories and two short articles, along with all of the usual departments.

Recruiting Station by A. E. van Vogt

Blurb: They recruited with a time machine–across twenty thousand years of human history. “Men Wanted” their signs read; if it was a station set up in an era of peace, it was for work, so they said. But it led to the greatest war of all time–

A. E. van Vogt, so prolific in 1940, had only 2 stories in 1942, but is back in March 1942 and with the lead novella, a bizarre tale of a massive war between different times. “Recruiting Station” tells the story of Norma and Garson as they become pawns in a war that is bigger than anything they could possibly imagine. Recruited by A Dr. Lell on the eve of her attempted suicide, Norma begins to work in a kind of recruiting station the purposes of which are not initially clear, but which she soon learns takes men from a variety of times across history, “depersonalizes” them and uses them as soliders in this great time war. While the story starts out with an initially clear place and setting, it soon splits of into two narratives–one following Norma and the other following Garson–that become so complex that even after freshly finishing the story, I’m still not entirely certain what happened. Part of this is because at some point in the story, van Vogt seems to leap from a good suspense thriller, to something very “Doc” Smith-like.

The early story, with the recruiting station and the mysterious Dr. Nell is quite good, and sets a dark, eerie mood that brought to mind L. Ron Hubbard’s Fear, or more recently, the opening of Stephen King’s Needful Things. In many respects it seemed to be a story better tailored for Unknown. Dr. Lell, the seeming villain is quite a remarkable villain, with his psychological power over Norma. And he had other powers with which to manipulate her as well. For instance, he could change her age, and would age her by decades as a punishment so that she would have to work off the years, gaining back 1 year of life for every 3 weeks of service. But after Garson is introduced, van Vogt takes a left turn in the story and moves more into transcendental mysticism of the type that showed up in “Vault of the Beast” (August 1940, Episode 14). His talk of simultaneous Earth’s existing in parallel is something we could conceive of today (the multiverse) but there is not a shred of science in van Vogt’s explanations. I suppose he was simply trying to convey the fact that the science of the distant future is so far advanced that we couldn’t possible conceive of it (hinting at “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from science.)

But for me the narrative is flawed by this confusion. I simply had difficulty figuring out what was going on. Then, too, van Vogt’s writing devolved into exaggerated characters that were constantly surprised by their circumstances. And he had his more villainous characters providing explanations of their motives when they were not in a positive to require such explanations. For instance:

“I’m sorry I lied to you, professor, but it never occurred to me that Mariphy or anybody aboard would know my history. I told you what I did because I had read in your mind some of the purposes that moved your actions. Naturally, I applied the first law of persuasion, and encouraged your hopes and desires.”

Naturally, of course.

But even the protagonists get into this, expressing what rightfully should be inner monologue as dialog. I get that this might have been acceptable at the time–but for the fact that I really don’t see it happening much in other stories. So that at a critical point in the story where Garson has been working himself into a fevered pitch, he suddenly calms down and in an almost folksy manner, addresses the captain of the ship who is bent on his destruction:

He finished with a quiet, confident tone: “Captain, from what one of the men told me, you’re from the 2000s A. D. I’ll wager they still had horse races in your day. I’ll wager furthermore that no machine could ever understand a man getting a hunch and betting his bottom dollar on a dark horse. You’ve been illogical in not shooting me at sight, as you threatened on the communicator; in not leaving the ship as the Observer advised; on letting me talk on here even as the attack on your enemies is beginning–for there is an attack of some kind, and it’s got the best brain on this ship behind it.”

In the end, Norma ends up right back where she started, on the edge of that river, on the same night in 1941, and with Dr. Lell emerging from the darkness–but with one significant difference–she now knows the future where as he does not.

I’ve grown to expect twist endings from van Vogt in the last few lines–if not the last line–of his stories, but if this one had a twist, it was lost on me.  The opening of the story was rather remarkable, but the story rapidly descending into a chaos of abstract gibberish that made it difficult for a reader like myself to really get what was going on. It will be very interesting to see how other readers rate–and indeed what they think of–van Vogt’s latest.

And if as almost an apology, Campbell, at the bottom of the last page of van Vogt’s story includes a notice that reads:

DUE TO THE WAR–

We can’t guarantee Anson MacDonald will be able to write many stories. Don’t miss “Beyond This Horizon” in the April Astounding.

The Wings of Night by Lester del Rey

Blurb: It’s hard for some types of men to understand that, just because another intelligent being doesn’t think the way men do, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t think–

The last time we saw Lester del Rey’s name grace the contents of Astounding was way back in August 1940 (Episode 14). After a long absence, he is back with “The Wings of Night,” a rather touching story about a creature of the moon that is the last of its kind, trying to save its race from destruction. Lhin is the name of the creature, which it seems, feeds on copper and can reproduce asexually. The moon has run out of copper and the rest of his race has died off but if he can find some copper somewhere, he can continue the propagation of the species. Lhin lives below the surface of the moon, beneath a crater. Much of the metals his people got were from the impact of metallic meteors. They could open a door to the vacuum of space to collect these. That door opens automatically when a rocket ship from Earth makes an emergency landing on the moon. The rocket contains two men, Fats Welch and Slim Lane, who are trying to get their load of irridium from the asteroids back to Earth. Eventually, the men make a deal with Lhin to exchange some of what they need for copper that Lhin needs.

Lhin appears almost monkey-like to the Earthmen and they have a hard time treating him as an intelligent equal, which I think is a deliberate point that del Rey was trying to make and was explicitly called out in Campbell’s blurb of the story. While the story is nice, even touching at times, it is somewhat unbalanced. Lhin is the true protagonist of the story and the most fully fleshed out character, which both Fats and Slim are mere caricatures by comparison. That said, even Lhin doesn’t quite live up to my expectations and I get the feeling that del Rey was aiming for a similar mood piece like his outstanding story (and one of my all-time favorites) “The Day Is Done” (May 1939). In the current story, Lhin takes on the role of Hgwoo in the earlier piece.

There are some novel elements to “The Wings of Night” and del Rey attempts to make his lunar alien different enough from humans, but he is different in only certain directions. His biology is still clearly recognizable, despite the fact that he can consume and digest metals like copper. There is a sadness that hangs over the story that Lhin is all alone and working desperately to save his race, especially when some of Fats’s short-sightedness gets in the way. But then again, that’s the point. Fats doesn’t see Lhin as anything more than a pet. This is not a bad story but it is close enough in theme to the earlier “The Day Is Done” as to allow a reader to draw uncomfortable comparisons. The earlier story was far better.

Day After Tomorrow by Roby Wentz

Blurb: Tickle old Mother Earth a bit, so she twitches her vast old hide–and any work or plan of man that does not take that factor into account could be most thoroughly ruined.

Roby Wentz’s debut story, “Day After Tomorrow” is a dystopian near-future story where America as we know it is in a shambles and has apparently lost the recent war. A long, novelette, I could barely get through a few pages of it. While some of the settings were familiar to me (such as the scenes taking place near Studio City, California) the story dragged along too slowly and couldn’t hold my interest. (I was amused, however, to read of the L.A./Burbank subway line, which didn’t exist in 1942, so far as I know, but which I’ve ridden myself (from Universal City to downtown) back when I lived in Los Angeles.) Eventually, I was forced to give up on this story. It was difficult to see where it was going.

This was Wentz first story and according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, he wrote only three more, two others of which will appear later in this Vacation.

The Embassy by Martin Pearson

Blurb: A new author suggests a rather nice point. Might be, you know–and wouldn’t the F.B.I. be surprised if they stumbled on something like that by mistake–

Campbell blurbs this story as being by “a new author” but I have gotten into the habit of checking any names I don’t recognize, well aware of the popularity of using pseudonyms during this period and of Campbell’s encouragement of said names. Whether or not this author is really new is of some debate for Martin Pearson is none other than Donald A. Wollheim, whose first story, “The Man from Ariel” appeared in the January 1934 Wonder Stories. “The Embassy” was his seventh published story, according to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

Nearly everything I know of Wollheim, I learned via Isaac Asimov in his various autobiographies. Asimov describes him as having a “dour wit” and given this story, I can certainly believe it. “The Embassy” is the story of a man, Grafius, who thinks he’s figured out where the “Martians” are hiding out on Earth and enlists the assistance of a private detective to help him locate them. The reasoning Grafius uses to identify his “Martians” (who are not necessarily from Mars, but can be from anywhere in the galaxy) is witty but also has some merit. In it, you can see elements of what would become the famous Drake Equation. These are by no means expressed as an equation, although Wollheim does write:

It’s quite clear to me that we Earth people aren’t the only intelligent, civilized race in the Universe. Out of the infinitude of stars and planets there most definitely, mathematically must be others. Mars–to continue with my example–is older than Earth geologically; if there were Martians, and if their evolutionary history corresponded with ours, they would certainly be further advanced than we.

The probability of stars and planets combined with the evolutionary age of a civilization are all things that factor into the Drake Equation.

When it comes to what they look like, Grafius admits he cannot describe their appearance but can describe what they are:

A group of ordinary-appearing people who live together. In downtown New York, close to newspapers, publishers, news cables, communications centers and the financial powers of Wall Street. They would have no obvious means of support, for all their time must be taken up with the observation that is their career. They almost certainly live in a private house, without prying janitors who would get curious about their peculiar radio equipment.

The private investigator sends him muscle man, “Iron Man” Doolan, to investigate just such a place. This is where Wollheim’s dour wit really comes into play. Walking to his destination, Doolan is described as follows:

Iran Man Doolan wasn’t very bright. He knew how to walk, but occasionally he forgot and would try to take both feet off the ground at once. This led to minor contusion of the face and extremities, bruises and gashes that the ex-cop never noticed.

Doolan is smashed by a falling safe–only a witness tells Graius and the private eye that first Doolan was smashed, then the safe fell. The two men head to a bar to get drunk in mourning of Doolan and eventually get tossed from the bar and a taxi takes them to the address found in their pocket–back to the location where Doolan was killed–and where we discover that Grafius might not be who he seemed either.

This was a fun story, very short, but the humor in it made it a worthwhile read.

Goldfish Bowl by Anson MacDonald

Blurb: It seemed a fairly complete, if brief, way of explaining the world–”Creation Took Eight Days.” But they hadn’t been in the Goldfish Bowl to gain the understanding–

In the course of this issue and the last, Campbell has made an extra effort of setting reader expectations about what writers would and wouldn’t be available to provide stories during the war. He has focused a number of times on Heinlein/MacDonald, emphasizing that there is only a small inventory left from Anson MacDonald and this story is one of the last. That said, it ranks among the more remarkable Anson MacDonald stories that I’ve read so far.

“Goldfish Bowl” is the story of a trio of men, Graves and Eisenberg, two scientists, and a Navy captain, Blake, who are sent to explore an unusual phenomenon occurring out in the Pacific ocean near Hawaii. Two huge columns of water are shooting up and down from the sky. One “pillar” goes up tens of thousands of feet, the other descends back into the ocean. At the same time, instances of ball lightening around are causing people to disappear. Occasionally, there bodies are found later far from where they disappeared. Graves and Eisenberg plan to investigate these pillars by taking a bathysphere up into the column of water and seeing where it goes. But before they can complete this, Eisenberg is struck by the ball lightening. He finds himself in a strange kind of prison and spends weeks whiling away the time, until one day, Graves arrives there as well. They debate the mystery of who or what has captured them without ever coming to a definite conclusion. There seems to be no possible way of escape. Eventually, Graves dies. Eisenberg eventually dies too, but no before carving a message into his body, “BEWARE–CREATION TOOK EIGHT DAYS” as a warning to people back on Earth. It is his thought that his body will be found after he dies, and he is right.

There are several remarkable things about this story. It is the first treatment of alien life that I have come across in this Vacation, that treats the aliens as truly alien. Neither Graves nor Eisenberg can possibly conceive of the intelligences that have made them prisoners. There is no escape, no clue as to the motives or intent of their captors, All they have is their guesses. Graves believes these beings–whatever they are–possibly evolved on Earth along with all other life, but instead of in the land and sea, they evolved in the stratosphere and are physically different enough that we might not even notice them–and they would barely notice us. Just like the goldfish in the goldfish bowl, we keep them as pets without noticing them. If they are trying to communicate, we might not even know it. This was a novel concept, as far as I know, in science fiction stories involving aliens at the time. Most aliens appeared semi-humanoid–or had characteristics that were recognizably human. In “Goldfish Bowl” the aliens are offstage the entire time in part because there is no possible way we can conceive of them physically or even culturally. Graves and Eisenberg place their own biases and guesses on the aliens motives, but they acknowledge that there are merely guesses.

The story narrative is also remarkable–and somewhat different for Heinlein. For the first half of the story or so, the Heinlein Voice rings true to what readers have learned to expect from him: a witty narrative with a snappy beat and peppy dialog. But the narrative takes a sudden, dramatic change after Eisenberg finds himself in a strange place, having been struck by the ball lightening:

When Bill Eisenberg came to his senses he was in a Place.

Sorry, but no other description is suitable; it lacked features. Oh, not entirely of course–it was not dark where he was, nor was it in a state of vacuum, nor was it cold, nor was it too small for comfort. But it did lack features to such a remarkable extent that he had difficulty in estimating the size of the place.

Instead of dialog we get pages and pages of narrative description of Eisenberg discovering and coming to terms with his prison. This long break in style is vaguely reminiscent of those lengthy scenes with no dialog in the Tom Hanks movie Castaway. At the same time, however, the level of detail and emotion in the description of the prison reaches a level that I have not seen before in Heinlein, as when Eisenberg examines the water spheres he’s mysteriously given by his captors:

He turned his attention back to the delightful little spheres of crystalline jelly. He balanced them in his palms, savoring their soft, smooth touch. In the heart of each he saw his own reflection, imaged in the miniature, made elfin and graceful. He became aware almost for the first time of the serene beauty of the human figure, and almost any human figure, when viewed as a composition and not a mass of colloidal detail.

Here is not only an elegant passage, but one which provides a metaphor for Heinlein’s entire story. Seeing his reflection inside that globe of water, Eisenberg is seeing himself inside the goldfish bowl.

There is another passage, shortly thereafter, when Eisenberg is contemplating mortality and bravery that is also worthy of note. More traditionally Heinleinesque, it is a fascinating revealing of truth faced by a prisoner rapidly losing hope:

Eisenberg was a brave man, as brave as the ordinary run of the race from which he sprang–a race as foolhardy as Pekingese dogs. He had the high degree of courage so common in the human race, a race capable of conceiving death, yet able to face its probability daily, on the highway, on the obstetrics table, on the battlefield, in the air, in the subway–and to face lightheartedly the certainty of death in the end.

And indeed, death plays a big role in this story, for the only escape from this prison–life goldfish from a bowl of water–is through death. Graves goes first, falling rapidly more ill with Eisenberg there to nurse him into his final sleep in a quietly touching scene. Eisenberg goes later, but not before carving his message of warning into his body in hopes of providing the necessary clue to the people who find his body.

And rather than provide us with the happy ending we’ve come to know and love in Golden Age stories generally, and Heinlein stories specifically, we see that these alien beings are so inconceivable that even Eisenberg’s message of warning is lost on those that find his body–including Captain Blake. What this story does best is not give in to the overwhelming desire to find some kind of loophole in the understanding of the incomprehensible. And that makes it a remarkably rare and powerful story in its era.

Suppressed Violence (article) by John W. Campbell, Jr.

Campbell had a short, half-page science article (uncredited) in this issue, called “Suppressed Violence” on the subject of white dwarf stars. The article was interesting for two reasons. One is simply to compare what we knew (or thought we knew) of white dwarfs 70 years ago with what we know about them today. The other interesting thing is that some of Campbell’s enthusiastic exaggeration comes across in this short piece. I don’t doubt that Campabell was attempting to report the science as accurately as he could, but the was it comes across to a reader 70 years later gives the sense that he was overdramatizing some of the details. For instance, he writes, regarding stellar atmospheres:

They have an atmosphere, as do all stars. Recent work on the Sun has indicated that it, a pretty normal, slightly brighter-than-average star, has an atmosphere hundreds of thousands of miles deep. Some stars have atmospheres billions of miles deep.

Billions of miles deep seems like an exaggeration for effect to me.

Runaround by Isaac Asimov

Blurb: A robot must react to orders, but must, on the other hand, have sense enough to disobey if the order would destroy it. But that can lead to a most embarrassing sort of situation, when a robot gives its owners a handsome runaround!

“Runaround” represents the typical Asimov puzzle story. It is the third of his Robot stories to appear in this Vacation, but it is significant because it is the first to explicitly introduce Asimov’s famous Laws of Robotics within the narrative.

In this story, Greg Powell and Mike Donovan have been sent to Mercury with the latest model robots in order to try to get the base established there fifty years earlier back in operation. The problem they encounter is stated quite explicitly within the narrative:

Powell looked up shortly, and said nothing. Oh, yes, he realized the position they were in. It worked itself out as a syllogism. The photo-cell banks that alone stood between the full power of Mercury’s monstrous sun and themselves were shot to hell. The only thing that could save them was selenium. The only thing that could get the selenium was Speedy. If Speedy didn’t come back to get, no selenium. No selenium, no photo-cell banks. No photo-cell banks–well, death by slow broiling is one of the more unpleasant ways of being done in.

But Speedy was ordered get to the selenium, and for some reason, was running circles around the selenium pool. The reason for that, was a balancing out of the second and third “rule” of robotics.

The Three Laws of Robotics, as stated in the earliest collection of robot stories, I, Robot are stated as follows:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Compare this refined statement of the Three Laws to how they are first delivered in “Runaround”:

“We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being under any conditions–and, as a corollary, must not permit a human being to be injured because of inaction on his part.”

“Right!”

“Two,” continued Powell, “a robot must follow all orders given by qualified human beings as long as they do not conflict with Rule 1.”

“Right!”

“Three: a robot must protect his own existence, as long as that does not conflict with Rules 1 and 2.”

Up until now, Asimov’s robot stories had been merely puzzle stories, but beginning with “Runaround” this change. Puzzle stories they remain, but the puzzles are based on the Laws of Robotics and often how those laws seem to be broken, but are really working as designed. Indeed, with the Second and Third Law forcing a dangerous balance in “Runaround” the only option is for Powell to override those two laws with the first one–by putting himself into harms ways and forcing the issue so that Speedy must rescue him.

More than than, however, the Laws of Robots began to change the face of robot stories in science fiction. Asimov had grown tired of stories with mad robots being used for evil and nefarious purposes. The Laws were designed to allow robots to be used as tools, without worry of uprising or rebellion against their masters. For decades to come, as the Laws became more popular, they grew to be assumed (although not explicitly stated) by many science fiction writers. For long time science fiction fans, there is problems no robot story around that cannot bring to mind the Three Laws–even those stories that break the laws.

And yet Asimov always said it was Campbell who stated the Laws in the form in which we all know them today. And Campbell, of course, said, he merely stated explicitly what he saw Asimov doing in his robot stories.

Nevertheless, while I don’t think “Runaround” is one of the better robot stories, its place in the history of science fiction is forever tied to the fact that it is in this story that the Three Laws of Robotics were first explicitly stated.

Dispersion (article) by Malcolm Jameson

Blurb: Dispersion is why you don’t hit what you aim at even when you have allowed for “everything”–and, on the other hand, why you do hit what you wanted to, sometimes, even when you didn’t aim right! A science fact article on the curious behavior of really big guns.

Malcolm Jameson provides another fascinating (albeit, short) article on military guns, this time discussing the effects of “dispersion” in detail. These are various effects that cause a gun or battery of guns to miss targets even when just about everything else is accounted for. He lists and discusses a variety of these effects, beginning with the barrel of the gun itself and the wear and tear it takes after multiple firings. Even the temperature inside the barrel can be cause for changes in the distance or accuracy of shells being fired.

And once fired, there are all manner of other things that can affect accuracy. If a shell is canted slightly when it leaves the barrel, it can lead to greater canting, sometimes causing a shell to tumble end over end on its entire journey. The atmosphere can have its affects as well, only some which are readily measurable. Shells fired 50 miles can climb as high as 80,000 feet, and the atmospheric conditions at that altitude could only be guessed at during the 1940s. How a gun is mounted can also affect the aim and deviation from the target.

Even more interesting, and something I never considered before, is that when a battery of guns aimed at a target, each gun has to be aimed slightly differently to compensate for their distance from one another (or height) as well as the parallax to the target.

Some of these calculations are quite complicated, but it seems to me that today, most of this can be done by computer. Even setting aside the fact that many weapons have onboard control systems that make them entirely accurate, if such onboard systems did not exist, I suspect today’s guns would still be more accurate because of the almost instantaneous adjustments that can be made by computer calculation.

After finishing the article, I got curious as to whether Jameson ever produced a nonfiction collection of these fascinating military weapons essays of his. And what I discovered shocked me. Jameson died in 1945. At first I thought perhaps he was killed in action, but according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, he was discharged from duty due to cancer, and I can only assume that is what he died from at age 59. This is certainly an advantage that contemporary readers of the March 1942 issues had over me. They could not see into their future and know that Jameson would not be with them for too much longer. I enjoy his Bullard stories very much, but his articles on military weapons are masterful, and he does an excellent job of explaining complicated mechanical and physical operations to a layperson. I will look forward to his remaining stories and articles over these next three Vacation years with perhaps a little more sadness, knowing now that his time is limited.

Describe a Circle by Eric Frank Russell

Blurb: A straight line is the shortest distance between two points–an on a planet, a straight line saves fuel. But in space, when you’re almost out of fuel, the long road may be best–

Russell’s latest story is a run-of-the-mill space adventure involving the hijacking of a ship on its way to Mars by a gang of notorious villains. The ship is heading to Mars in an effort to bring hopefuls into the new world, the same way that Europeans came to America a century earlier. Of the hundreds of passengers on board, one of them is the daughter of the owner of the shipping line, making her first such trip. Not long after their departure, the gang attempts their coup to take over–and they nearly succeed. But thanks to the quick thinking of the ship’s detective, they are ultimately foiled and the leader of the gang and several of his men are killed while scuttling most of the life boats. That would seem to be the end of the story, but the gang leaders had planned to crash the ship on Mars and without any fuel left, there is no obvious way to divert this disaster. But they eventually arrive at a solution that uses the geometry of space to get them to their destination safely.

While this was an entraining story, there wasn’t anything particularly original in it. I must say that the first half of the story or so read like a 1940s movie. The dialog was snappy and quick and I could almost see these scenes unfolding in black and white on screen. The fight scene among the lifeboats was well done, if a bit more violent than what I’ve seen in other Astounding stories. All told, this was a fun story, but lacked anything of science-fictional note. This was a very much an Atlantic-crossing story set in space instead of the high seas.

Brass Tacks

After a couple of months of 2-page Brass Tacks columns, Campbell in the March issues reserves a full 7 pages for letters, many of which list opinions of the year’s best Astounding stories for 1941. And yet, the first letter of the bunch, by a Mr. Thomas R. Daniel of Pomona, California, says something timeless about science fiction and Golden Ages that applies today just as it did 70 years ago:

This friendly controversy concerning the “good old days” has me rather intrigued. It appears that some of us old-timers are thinking of the days when we read “The Moon Pool,” “Skylark of Space,” “Skylark Three,” “Piracy Preferred,” “Islands of Space,” “When the Dark Star Passes,” “Invaders from the Infinite,” etc… But, the same type of story doesn’t elicit the smallest amount of interest in me now. Why? Not because it may be an old plot, but because I am that number of years older than I was then. I was just a squirt then, searching for that new thrill any red-blooded American youth years after. I’m in the grand old American scheme of things now, raising a family, et cetera. What I’m driving at is this: we’ve grown up with science fiction, faltered at with it, grown strong with it, and we’re just a wee bit wearied. So we look back on the golden days, and then slim days, and that old nostalgic feeling puts a crimp in the old cranium.

Most of the letters give Robert Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” top billing for 1941.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the AnLab ratings from January 1942:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Second Stage Lensmen (Part 3) E. E. Smith, Ph.D 1.13 -
2. Mecahnistria Eric Frank Russell 2.75 4
3. Tied:
    Breakdown Jack Williamson 3.12 1
    Invaders L. Ron Hubbard 3.12 5
4. Fugitive from Vangard Norman L. Knight 3.5 6
5. Soup King Colin Keith 4.7 3

No surprise that “Second Stage Lensmen” made first place by a large margin, but I still think in this case it is more name recognition than storytelling ability. I was surprised that Russell’s “Mechanistria” scored so high while Williamson’s far superior “Breakdown” was tied for third place.

My ratings for the March 1942 issue are as follows:

  1. Goldfish Bowl by Anson MacDonald
  2. The Embassy by Martin Pearson
  3. Recruiting Station by A. E. van Vogt (TIE)
    The Wings of Night by Lester del Rey  (TIE)
  4. Runaround by Isaac Asimov
  5. Describe a Circle by Eric Frank Russell
  6. Day After Tomorrow by Roby Wentz

In Times To Come

Campbell focuses on two things in the In Times To Come column this month. The first is that Anson MacDonald’s latest serial, “Beyond This Horizon” will start up in the April 1942 issue. Campbell explains (yet again) that this might be MacDonald’s last appearance in the magazine for some time. He is a little disingenuous about why, telling readers, “the author is, like the United States fleet, somewhere in the Pacific,” adding that he believes MacDonald is with the fleet. Of course, MacDonald is Heinlein and Heinlein could not get back into the Navy during WW-II so to say that MacDonald is in the Pacific is stretching the truth a little too much I think. But fans of the time had no reason to question him on this.

The second thing Campebll focuses on is the introduction, in the April issue of a new department, “Probability Zero” which is designed to encourage new writers to write short pieces that sound plausible but are in fact impossible. He indicates that the first months entrants in this department will be some of the regulars in order to give readers an idea of what Campbell is looking for–but that the May issue will contain stories by new writers.

Next month will also see stories by A. E. van Vogt, L. Ron Hubbard, L. Sprague de Camp, Malcolm Jameson, Joseph Kelleam, and a rare pseudonymous story by Isaac Asimov.

See you back here in two weeks.

17 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 33: March 1942

  1. Wow, all three of “the big three” in one issue, and one even has a time travel tale. Very enjoyable recaps, Jamie. Looking ahead a bit, I think that Astounding might produce only one major new author in the years 1942-1945. Can you guess who I have in mind? He will make his debut before the end of 1942.

    1. Michael, I assume here you are considering van Vogt as one of the “Big Three” since we are still a little before Clarke’s time. As far as the next major author goes, my guess would be Henry Kuttner, who in collaboration with C. L. Moore (and by himself) was extremely prolific over the years leading up to his death. Is that who you were thinking of? (I’m guessing here, I didn’t peek at any lists.)

  2. Goldfish Bowl, as we discussed on twitter, is an odd Heinlein. And yet very typically Heinlein all the same. I wondered if it was going to be your Number One for this issue, unsure what it was going up against.

    I am surprised Runaround didn’t work so well for you…but then I read it 30 years ago when I was 10, so my impressions of it may not hold up to a re-read.

    1. Paul, “Runaround” was not a bad story, but remember that my rankings are relative to the other stories in the issue. “Goldfish Bowl” surprised me with its originality. “The Embassy” was just witty, and I think it is difficult to be witty in these old stories without becoming juvenile, but Pearson/Wollehim pulled it off. “Runaround” is, as I said, incredibly important for being the first story in which the Three Laws of Robotics were explicitly stated.

  3. Yes, it is van Vogt whom I was counting as the third. It was Carl Freedman’s introduction to “Conversations with Isaac Asimov” where I saw him identified that way: “By the end of the 1940s, Asimov was securely established as one of the Big Three of science fiction: along with Heinlein and van Vogt at first, and later, as van Vogt’s productivity waned, along with Heinlein and the British Author Arthur C. Clarke.” I think Asimov himself makes the same comment in one of his bibliographies, doesn’t he? I wonder when readers started using that term themselves.

    Kuttner is a great guess for the next major author to debut in the pages of Astounding (especially without checking any lists!), but his debut was some years earlier in Weird Tales (I did check my list). From the list I checked, here are some of the authors who have debuted in Astounding before your vacation: Rocklynne, Russell, Bond, Robert Moore Williams, de Camp, Hubbard, and Malcolm Jameson. During your tenure, we have seen the first published stories of van Vogt (Jul 1939), Heinlein (Aug 1939), Pohl (sort of–he was a coauthor of Heavy Planet in Aug ’39), Sturgeon (Sep 1939), and Brackett (Feb 1940). Others, such as Asimov, have had their first Astounding story (but not their first publication) in your vacation.

    I’ll let you enjoy stumbling upon the next one (later this year), and then I don’t think there will be another for some time.

    By the way, I also enjoyed your description of the anticipation you feel on opening each issue. I remember the same anticipation as a child, first for certain comic books and later for Astounding, Galaxy and F&SF. I wonder where kids today go for that fix?

    1. Michael, yes, Asimov remarked on that in his memoir, I. Asimov. He went on to say that now he and Clarke (at the time) were the Big Two (Heinlein had died) and when Asimov remarked to Clarke that should he try anything funny, he (Clarke) would be awfully lonely as the Big One. Asimov said that moved Clarke to tears. Of course, those guys were always joking around that way.

      I think I misread your original challenge, which I interpreted as the next breakout writer–not necessarily “new” writer. That’s why I picked Kuttner. But if I had to make the same guess based on someone who was brand new I can think of two people. First, there’s Harry Stubbs, a.k.a. Hal Clement who eventually became very popular as a hard science writer. He’s got to show up in the next couple of Vacation-years. The other would be George O. Smith, who would become one of Astounding’s most prolific authors.

  4. “Goldfish Bowl” must have a tough one for Campbell to accept for Astounding, since Heinlein’s story utterly violates JWC’s vision of human beings being the natural kings of the hill in the universe’s hierarchy. Concern about losing his number one author may have caused Campbell to rescind his original rejection of this story. Then again, Campbell gave the Jockaira Gods a pass in “Methuselah’s Children” so this couldn’t have been too painful a stretch.

    That weird, atmospheric quality you noted in “Goldfish Bowl” may have been a first for Heinlein in the pages of Astounding, but it was not a first for Heinlein. RAH’s “They”, published the year before in Unknown, is infused with the same eerie mood (as is, for that matter, Heinlein’s final story of his first period for Campbell: “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”).

    “Goldfish Bowl” was also one of the very first of Heinlein’s stories to be reprinted after the war (in Conklin’s “The Best of Science Fiction” 1946).

    1. Mark, that thought had occurred to me as well (the violation of JWCs vision) but I thought perhaps for the very reason the aliens were so unknowable was an original enough take to make Campbell overlook the fact that they were superior to humanity. And, of course, in the end, doesn’t humanity “win.” Eisenberg dies, but not without “outsmarting” the aliens by carving a message into his own body to warn the others. Campbell might have thought of this as a clever way of outsmarting the stratospheric beings.

      And now for a sad admission: I had no idea that Heinlein was also publishing stories in Unknown. I would have never guessed. It just seems to un-Heinlein-like. Or at least, pre-1960 Heinlein.

  5. Yes, it was Hal Clement whom I had in mind. I was fortunate enough to see him speak at a smaller convention in Denver around 2000.

    I’ve never read George O. Smith, but I see he had a story collection that I’ll try to find. I enjoy authors, such as him, who focused on short stories over longer works.

    1. BTW, I just read, “Saving Astounding” and loved it! Did you ever read Michael A. Burstein’s “Cosmic Corkscrew”? Published in the June 1998 Analog. Similar theme, also featuring a young Asimov as the protagonist.

  6. Thanks so much for your kind words about “Saving Astounding,” Jamie. The story was truly written with someone like you in mind as the audience (someone who loves Asimov and has read all his autobiographical works). Have you also read Frederik Pohl’s “The Way the Future Was”? I think you’d enjoy it a lot.

    I got to meet Fred Pohl at Jim Gunn’s Kansas workshop some years ago. He was immensely kind and encouraging. (Jack McDevitt was the other author-in-residence who struck me with his immense kindness and genuine interest in the students.)

    I have read Burstein’s “Cosmic Corkscrew” and it was certainly a corker!

  7. The test is if you found the last line of “Recruiting Station” (Poor unsuspecting superman!) mindblowing or stupid. If your reaction is the latter, then you are in for a long haul with Alfred Elton on your vacation, because that madman has just barely warmed up.

    1. Mark, I didn’t find the last line stupid, but I also was expecting more of a twist in those last few lines than what I found, given my experience with earlier van Vogt stories. I’ll get another opportunity today as I sit down at lunch to read van Vogt’s “Cooperate–Or Else” in the April 1942 Astounding.

  8. “‘Recruiting Station’ was a story that came as the result of many anxious awakenings during many nights.” —A. E. van Vogt

    In his ASIMOV’S “Reflections” column of several years ago, Robert Silverberg revisited van Vogt’s 1945 ASF version of THE WORLD OF NULL-A. I believe some of those comments are spot-on concerning 1942′s “Recruiting Station”.

    Early, Silverberg quotes JWC— “‘…You know van Vogt’s trick of putting fishhooks in the first few paragraphs—they go in easily, but you can’t back out; you have to go all the way through…’”

    Later Silverberg writes “… the book seems to me to be a goofy masterpiece with no internal logic of plot or character, a kind of hallucinatory fever-dream that carries the reader along on a pleasant tide of bafflement … It is a novel best read, as John Campbell did, in one bleary-eyed all-night sitting, without trying to make sense of anything. Taken in that headlong way, it offers a kind of surreal pleasure. The original text has a crazy magic about it… Any revision in the direction of greater rationality, any attempt to clarify the unclarifiable, dilutes the effect of this fundamentally irrational story… There’s poetry in its very incoherence.”

    http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0904_05/ref.shtml

    And the above impression upon the reader (in stories such as NULL-A and “Recruiting Station”) was one desired effect that van Vogt was striving to achieve. Another of his intents was to goad the reader, upon finishing a story, to immediately return to the beginning for another read-through.

    Van Vogt began his career writing uncredited ‘true-confession’ stories— emotion-laden romance tales related from the viewpoint of a woman. The only known surviving sample of his output from this period is a 1937 story credited to ‘Alfred Alton Bogt—

    http://www.icshi.net/sevagram/stories/keeper.php

    With “Recruiting Station”, van Vogt’s Norma begins as that archetype (of which VV was all too familiar) of the insecure young woman ruled by her emotions. And so “Recruiting Station” starts out as just another of those long-forgotten stories that appeared in a TRUE STORY or SCARLET CONFESSIONS magazine from the 1930′s.

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