Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 35: May 1942

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Sitting down to read this issue–and most especially, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” story–was some of the most fun I’ve had in quite a while. This is the Golden Age at its best and it is sometimes difficult to remember that the United States was at war when these stories were being written. But in picking up the issue and reading the stories, I was immediately lost to the world around me and I can imagine (and hope) that contemporary readers of the time found some hours of escape from the news of the day.

I also wonder whether or not anyone recognized “Foundation” as the classic that it would become. I might guess that some readers felt it was a very good story, but to become a classic takes time. The story must seep into the collective consciousness of fandom. Even today, when I read a story in Analog or Asimov’s or Lightspeed, I don’t necessarily think of it as a classic, even if I really like it. Still, I wish I knew someone who read “Foundation” when it first hit the newsstands and can remember their immediate reaction to the story. I’d love to know what that was like.

This is a bit of an unusual issue. Despite being the large-sized Astounding, nearly 100,000 words, there are only five pieces of fiction in it. Three novelettes, at least one of which would be considered a novella by today’s standards; one very short story; and the conclusion of Anson MacDonald/Robert Heinlein’s serialized novel, “Beyond This Horizon–”

Editorial: Oil is Ammunition

The war, of course, is on everyone’s mind when the May 1942 issue hits the stands, and it has been on Campbell’s mind as well for several issues. This month, his 1-page editorial tackles the uses of oil and how American petroleum chemists are the finest in the world. The editorial discusses military and non-military uses of petroleum, and gets into some detail about how chemists breakdown petroleum for use in other products (including, as Campbell points out, “a nourishing salad oil.”) Petroleum is a source of toluene which is a key ingredient to TNT and there is some discussion there. But I think Campbell is attempting to lead up to the message in his final paragraph, which hints at the power of mass sacrifice, even something as small as a gallon of gasoline each month:

Those millions, by the way, mount up. If twenty million automobiles save one gallon per month apiece, that’s two hundred forty million gallons a year. And that, properly converted to toluene in the tri-nitro form, would be an excellent sort of medicine to cure the totalitarian tinge of parts of this planet.

I mentioned last month, I think, that the notion of this kind of sacrifice has been lost today, but I suspect travelers on this Vacation will continue to see more and more of it as the War continues. We can be thankful, I suppose, that we are mere time travelers in this respect, and don’t have to live day to day with the uncertainty of war hanging over our shoulders. And I imagine for many fans at the time, the science fiction magazines, and Astounding in particular, provided a necessary escape from the constant bombardment of war news that surrounded them.

Asylum by A. E. van Vogt

Blurb: Wherein is presented a lovely notion–that we live on a reservation, watched over by morons, since meeting normal members of the Watcher’s race would be fatal–

A. E. van Vogt gets the lead novelette once again in this month’s issue of Astounding. Campbell generally has two blurbs for a story, one he puts in the table of contents, the other he puts on the title page of the story. It is the title page blurb that I report above, but it was the contents page blurb that really caught my attention for this story:

“Among the thousands of stars, in the ages of time, somewhere, some race must have developed interstellar travel. Why haven’t they visited us?” Maybe the answer is–

At first glance, it seems as if Campbell is talking about the Fermi paradox. However, the story is really about something else entirely.

“Asylum” is the story of newspaper investigative reporter William Leigh, who is investigating the first two murders on Earth in some 27 years. The murder victims, a man and woman, have had their blood drained and their lips are bruised and burned. We get the reasoning for the absence of murders from some dialog in the morgue as Leigh reviews the corpses:

There was a craning of necks, a crowding forward; and Leigh allowed himself to be pushed aside. He stopped attentively, as the attendant said: “Presumably, a pervert could have kissed with such violence.”

“I thought,” Leigh called distinctly, “there were no more perverts since Professor Ungarn persuaded the government to institute his brand of mechanical psychology in all schools, thus ending murder, theft, war and all unsocial perversions.”

But we know that the murderers are not human; they are alien for we see Merla and Jeel in the opening scene. Earth is not yet part of the Galactics, but there is a Galactic Observer keeping an eye out on the planet. Merla and Jeel are Dreegh, an immortal race that feeds upon the blood and life energy of other races to maintain their immortality and it is they who committed those murders on Earth. They have hopes of using the people of Earth to supply all of the life energy they and their people need, and do so before the Galactic Observer becomes aware of what is going on.

Leigh intervenes and is quickly caught up in the Dreegh’s web. He is hypnotized and sent on a mission to the Jupiter system in search of Professor Ungarn and the true identity of the Galactic Observer. There, with death always threatening, he finds the Dreegh’s and it soon seems that everyone is out to destroy Leigh. But there is something going on inside Leigh that is a bit odd, at first like a whisper and then coming through more strongly. And in the kind of twist we’ve come to expect from van Vogt, we find that Leigh isn’t really from Earth after all. He is one of the Galactics, his personality split to protect others from discovering his true nature, his entire background history manufactured. And finally, at the end of the story, he his made whole again, and returned to Oneness.

This was not a bad story and the twist at the ending was rather effective, but the story suffered from a revision of form by van Vogt. Instead of the distinct, but subtle style he’s been steadily cultivating throughout this Vacation, he has, in “Asylum” returned to the kind of stark, jagged prose that is reminiscent of his earliest stories. In an attempt to draw out the struggle going on inside Leigh’s head, I think van Vogt went a little to far with his description, which gives elements of the story an exagerated feel that I don’t think were necessary:

Madly, then, he realized what it was. Another mind. Leigh shrank from the thought as from the purest destroying fire. He tensed his brain. For a moment the frenzy of his horror was so great that his face twisted with the anguish of his efforts.

That paragraph comes extremely close to something that might be read aloud (I hear in Yves Manard’s voice) at a Kirk Poland Bad Prose contest at Readercon. I get the feeling that van Vogt was not confident enough in the story to let it go on its own. He felt he needed more dramatic prose to bring out the struggle going on inside Leigh’s head, but I think that was a mistake.

I am reminded of a similar kind of struggle in Piers Anthony’s excellent 1969 novel Macroscope. There, the prose did not interfere with the subtle change and reveal of the mind inside the mind and I think it was a more powerful story because of that. The thing is, van Vogt has a powerful story here, but he over-seasoned it.

Forever Is Not So Long by F. Anton Reeds

Blurb: Given that much-sought knowledge of the future, how many would have the courage to enjoy what life was to be theirs?

F. Anton Reeds provides a very short, but poignant time travel story. It is 1931 at Ploving Manor in England, near the Channel and young Steve Darville is about to set out on an experiment that may change the course of history. His girl, Jean Ploving, wants him to come out and join the dancing but Steve must go to work in the laboratory with her father. Unbeknown to anyone else, they have developed a time machine that can take them as far as 10 years into the future. Professor Ploving’s plan is simple: head a decade into the future and bring back the technology that his team has developed in that decade to be able to eliminate the decade of development itself and eventually go even farther into the future.

Young Steve makes the journey, but what he finds there is haunting. War, it seems, has destroyed most of the manor and all of the labs. Steve learns from a soldier that the future Steve Darville was killed the previous night. His wife, Jean, lost an arm, but continues to fight the good fight. Disheartened, Steve returns to the past without what Professor Ploving was looking for, but with a new outlook on life. And he plans to live it with Jean to the fullest, come what may.

I liked Reeds simple story with a subtle emotional complexity. He also does a good job of capturing the mood throughout as with this near the opening:

On a platform under the lights young men and young women danced to the strange new throbbing music from the Americas. It was a pulsing tom-tom beat, that music, that called for a measure of gay abandon and a great deal of muscular dexterity. But not quite the same sort of abandon that their mothers and fathers had known. For those lovely women at the terrace tables and the gray-templed men at their sides had been the fabulous, almost forgotten “lost generation” of an almost forgotten “post-war” period. These youngsters dancing under the English stars and pressing hands in the orchard’s shadow were the fortunate chosen ones who would build at last the brave new world that had been their fathers’ dream.

Later in the piece, there is even an internal nod to the fantastic imaginations of the era:

But let him once point to his much discussed mathematical equations on his theory of the time-curve and suggest that he intended to utilize his theory in the most practical way and the world, he knew, would shout “time machine” and “crackpot.” For time machines, in 1931, were things to be left to H. G. Wells and to the rising crop of talented and imaginative English and American fantasy writers.

The paradox in the story is nothing new, the idea of moving ahead to bootstrap–and then move even farther ahead–not particularly original. But the somber mood, and the dark tones that underly the story paint a very human picture of Steve Darville, not as of an all-obsessed scientist, but as someone who has glimpsed his future and decided to learn from it.

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Blurb: It’s a characteristic of a decadent civilization that their “scientists” consider all knowledge already known–that they spend their time making cyclopedic gatherings of that knowledge. But that Foundation was something rather tricky–

I should admit that I have read the entire Foundation series (including the novels from the 80s) about 8 or 9 times. If you add in the second trilogy written by Benford, Bear and Brin in the late 90s, I’ve read each of those twice. Despite all of the science fiction I’ve read, Foundation still stands at the top as my all time favorite. Despite so many readings, I’m not entirely sure why that it, but as I got through the stories here in this Vacation, I hope to tease some of that out. Alva Rogers, in A Requiem For Astounding writes:

They are some of the greatest science fiction ever written, with a Sense of Wonder in the underlying concept that is truly out of this world.

I think that is part of it. But it is something more than that. I ask you, therefore, to bear with me if I go on at greater length with the Foundation stories than I do with other stories.

Even more than Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” (September 1941, Episode 27), I have been looking forward to reading Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” stories as part of this Vacation. When I first started thinking about taking this Vacation, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to discuss all sorts of facets of “Foundation.” And I was frustrated only by the fact that it would be more than a year before I got to the first stories in that series. In that respect, it is a little hard to believe that I sat down this week to read the original “Foundation” story as it appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding.

Asimov’s original “Foundation” novelette is the story of a group of people living on the planet Terminum in the periphery of the galaxy. The planet has not metals to speak of and must import their metals from other sources. While the planet exists at the very edge of the galaxy, as far away from the center of the Galactic Empire as possible, it is a state-sponored scientific institution with the purported goal of developing an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. The story opens with the founder of the Foundation, speaking to his people about the launch of their massive project. This opening is the only part of the original story that is different from what you’d recognize if you have read the book. (The first five Foundation stories were published in 1951 as Foundation.) Hari Seldon makes only the briefest appearance in this version of the story. Indeed, when it came time to publish the stories in book form, Asimov wrote a new novelette, “The Psychohistorians” which became the very first part of the Foundation saga, although it was the last part to be written. The story we are discussing here is Part 2 of the book, “The Encyclopedists.”

After Seldon’s brief appearance, we jump to 50 years later. The Foundation on Terminus receives two visitors. The first is an ambassador from the newly declare “kingdom” of Anacreon. While the chairman of the Board of Directors of the Foundation, Dr. Pirenne, is not really concerned with politics, the first mayor of Terminus City, Salvor Hardin, is very concerned. He sees this ambassador (and the fact that Anacreon now considers itself a separate kingdom) a threat to Terminus. Indeed, cloaked in fancy words, the ambassador proposes to setup military bases on Terminus, for which Terminus will pay tribute for protection. It is only when Hardin mentions that Terminus has nuclear power (and discovered that the other kingdoms of the periphery no not) that he is able to buy some time.

The fact that the periphery no longer has atomic power gets to the heart of one of the main themes of the Foundation series. This themes is highlighted explicitly in a discussion Hardin and Pirenne have during a meeting:

“The Encyclopedia first,” ground out Crast. “We have a mission to fulfill.”

“Mission, hell,” shouted Hardin, “That might have been true fifty years ago. But this is a new generation.”

“That has nothing to do with it,” replied Pirenne. “We are scientists.”

And Hardin leaped through the opening. “Are you, though That’s a nice hallucination, isn’t it? Your bunch here is a perfect example of what’s been wrong with the entire Galaxy for thousands of years. What kind of science is it to be stuck out here for centuries classifying the work of scientists of the last millennium? Have you ever thought of working onward, extending their knowledge and improving upon it? No! You’re quite happy to stagnate. The whole Galaxy is, and has been for space knows how long. That’s why the periphery is revolting; that’s why communications are breaking down; that’s why petty wars are becoming eternal; that’s why whole systems are losing atomic power and going back to barbarous techniques of chemical power.

“If you ask me,” he cried, “the Galaxy is going to pot!”

Later, when debating the issue of an ultimatum given to the Foundation by Anancreon, the board still thinks the empire can protect them. But Hardin points out that the empire’s representative made no promises of any kind. All of this is happening just days from the fiftieth anniversary of the Foundation, when Hari Seldon is due to appear (from a recording made 50 years earlier). Some think he will help the Foundation get out of their current situation.

And when Seldon does appear? He mades the astounding announcement that the entire Encylopedia project has been a sham. The real purpose of the Foundation was to get the people out to the periphery and get them cut off from the empire. With them, and a second Foundation on the opposite end of the galaxy, it was the job of both to establish a second Galactic Empire. Because, as Seldon explains, the empire is falling. It is beyond saving, and his science of psychohistory predicts tens of thousands of years of dark ages. But, with the right planning and manipulation (using the science of psychohistory), those dark ages can be cut to a mere thousand years.

Hardin had a hint of this. He established a coup and takes over the Foundation while Seldon is making his appearance. Anacreon begins landing its ships and despite the fact that everything seems to be falling apart, Seldon says that by now, the solution to the current crisis should be obvious. And to Hardin, it is obvious. Indeed, the story concludes as follows:

In fact, as Hari Seldon had said, and as Salvor Hardin had guessed since the day that Anselm haut Rodric had first revealed to him Anacreon’s lack of atomic power–the solution to this first crisis was obvious.

Obvious as hell!

That’s how the story ends. Campbell promises the sequel (and also establishes the fact that Foundation will be an ongoing series) in the In Times To Come department. But despite the solution being “obvious as hell” to Hardin, it wasn’t at all obvious to Asimov. Asimov wrote in his autobiography how he had painted himself into a corner. He had no idea how to proceed and was working on a deadline. One day, he met Fred Pohl on the Brooklyn Bridge and discussed the problem with him. Fred offered him advice that eventually led Asimov to write the second Foundation story (“Bridle and Saddle” which will appear in Episode 36). Asimov doesn’t remember what the advice was, only that it helped him get out of a tight spot.

The origin of the “Foundation” stories is something that Asimov wrote or spoke about frequently. These days it gets watered down to a retelling of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and that much is true enough. But as Asimov wrote in the first volume of his autobiography, the truth was a little more random than that:

On August 1, 1941, I took the subway to Campbell’s office after class was over. On the way down I racked my brain for a story idea. Failing, I tried a device I sometimes used. I opened a book at random and then tried free association, beginning with whatever I first saw.

The book I had with me was a collection of Gilbert and Sullivan plays. I opened it to Iolanthe–to the picture of the Fairy Queen throwing herself at the feet of Private Willis, the sentry. Thinking of sentries, I thought of soliders, of military empires, of the Roman Empire–of the Galactic Empire–aha!

The fate of “Pilgrimage” was rankling me. Not only had Campbell rejected it four times, but also Pohl had rejected it twice, and Amazing once. Seven rejections in all. It was a future-historical and I still wanted to write a future-historical. Why shouldn’t I wrote of the fall of the Galactic Empire and the return to feudalism, written from the viewpoint of someone in the secure days of the Second Galactic Empire. I thought I knew how to do it for I had read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire from first age to last at least twice, and I only had to make use of that.

Asimov’s statement that the story was from the point of view of someone living in the days of the Second Galactic Empire is often overlooked, I think. One of the big criticisms of the Foundation stories (aside from the fact that there are no women in the early stories) is of all of the discrepancies that crop up in the series, many, many of them. Asimov did not write the Foundation stories with a plan the way Heinlein wrote his Future History. But even setting aside that excuse, I have long that the discrepancies help make the story seem more real. You see, we as readers take the viewpoint of that person living in the secure days of the Second Galactic Empire. We are at least a thousand years removed from the events described. Over the natural course of time, discrepancies would introduce themselves into the historical record, as they have most certainly done in our own history. Reconciling these discrepancies within the history of a single nation, let alone an entire world is one thing. Try reconciling across an entire galaxy and thousands of years of history! I’m sure this was unintentional on Asimov’s part; that if he could have been more careful, he would have tried to eliminate these “errors” but I am glad he didn’t because to me, they make the “history” seem all the more real.

There are numerous quotes attributed to Isaac Asimov over the course of his life and some of those quotes come from his fiction. One of those more famous quotes makes its appearance in “Foundation.” When considering the use of violence to stave off the ships of Anacreon, mayor Salvor Hardin replies: “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

As I read the story, I wondered about those who read the story as it hit the newsstands, probably in late April 1942. The war machine in the United States was in full swing. It was likely a disconcerting time to be living to say the least, and I would imagine that many people looked to science fiction as a refuge from the troubles of the day. I wonder, though, if anyone read “Foundation” and recognized it as the classic that it would become? Is there really such a thing as the ill-termed “instant classic”? It will be interesting to see the Brass Tacks columns over the next few months to see what the fans of the day had to say about just another novelette that appeared–but one that would someday become one of the most famous and beloved stories in all of science fiction.

Beyond This Horizon– (Part 2) by Anson MacDonald

Blurb: Second of Two Parts. If the world were perfect, working smoothly, without fuss or strain–why live? What’s the purpose? That was Hamilton Felix’s question. But in essence he found answer enough in two things that were no answer to that–

The concluding part of Robert Heinlein’s “Beyond This Horizon–” was very, very good. It stands as my second favorite story in this issue by a very slim margin, and that is saying a lot given that Asimov’s Foundation series is my favorite science fiction of all time. The story takes up some 50 pages of the issue and adds quite a bit to what began in Part 1. As part 1 concluded, we find that the revolution has begun. Monroe-Alpha is told to go away for a few days, while Hamilton is trying to figure out how he can help thwart things. Hamilton reveals to Monroe-Alpha that he is a spy, and then knocks out Monroe-Alpha and sets him off in an air car. Eventually, Monroe-Alpha recovers and finds himself far away. He sets down for repairs and meets a girl with whom he seems to fall in love until he finds out she is a control-natural. He tries to kill her, half-heartedly, thinking the revolution a success.

But the revolution is not a success. Hamilton and Claude fight off intruders trying to enter the building and eventually are gassed by their own people. They awaken to discover that the revolution has failed. From there, things move quickly in other fascinating directions. Hamilton agrees to marry Phyllis and have a child through her. Claude comes through on his promise to investigate those parts of the universe that science has not yet been able to answer: such as, does life exist after death. This part of the novel is particularly fascinating, but Heinlein, though making interesting commentary, seems bent on focusing on the possibilities of mutations.Their child, Theobald, is watched closely for signs of special mutations and there is the clear sense that he is telepathic. One of the planners–an ancient woman–comes to see Hamilton and Phyllis on several occasions. She wonders when and if they’ll have another child. Eventually they have a girl, and we discover that the ancient planner has died–but in doing so, has some how transmitted all of her memories into the baby girl, thus helping tie together some of the big questions Hamilton wanted answered in the first place.

There is a lot that happens in this novel and I think it is one of the finer pieces that Heinlein has written so far. I think there are two reasons it ranked a close second to Asimov’s “Foundation.” The first, and obvious reason, is that I have a bias toward the former. But the second reason is that I felt that the overall story was stronger than Heinlein’s ending. It was not a weak ending by any means, but given how strong the story was, it didn’t live up it, left too many unanswered questions, too many possibilities looming. I sympathize with those contemporary readers who, upon reading the story, were indignant that it ended so soon. What was to happen next? And their equal frustration in knowing (via Campbell’s numerous announcements) that due to the war, there mightn’t be much more from Anson MacDonald.

“Beyond This Horzizon–” contains some of the finest writing I’ve seen from Heinlein thus far. When Monroe-Alpha is stranded and wandering through the forest of redwoods, there is this lovely passage:

There no sun, no sky. The trees lost themselves in a ceiling of mild mist, a remote distance overhead. There was no sound. His own footsteps lost themselves in a damp carpet of evergreen needles. There was no limiting horizon, endless succession only of stately columns, slim green columns of sugar pines, a mere meter in thickness, massive red-brown columns of the great ones themselves. They receded from him on all sides; the eye could see nothing but trees–trees, the mist overhead, and the carpet of their debris, touched in spots by stubborn patches of gray snow.

An occasional drop of purely local rain fell, dripping from the branches far above.

There was no time there. This had been, was, and would be. Time was not. There was no need for time here; the trees negated it, ignored it. Seasons they might recognize, lightly, as one notes and dismisses a passing minute. He had a felling that he moved too frantically for them to notice, that he was too small for them to see.

This passage brilliantly echoes that questions that Hamilton wants to ask of the universe and that humanity wants to tackle. And the passage is also full of the implications of such questions. Are we too small for the universe to notice? To hear us asking?

Heinlein’s wit comes across in the story as well, as when Hamilton is trying to convince Monroe-Alpha to go after his lady-love. Monroe-Alpha is worried because he attempted to kill her. How could she ever forgive him. Hamilton responds with a passage that should have made it clear that MacDonald was Robert Heinlein:

“Women will forgive anything.” With a flash of insight he added, “Otherwise the race would have died out long ago.”

And the ideas flow from Heinlein like beer from a tap. In virtually every paragraph, Heinlein is tossing out ideas, some of which are immediately discarded, some of which are explored in more detail. At one point, while explaining what Monroe-Alpha (who is a mathematician) would like to invent, had he the ability, Heinlein writes:

“I would like to set up a four-dimensional integrator to integrate from the solid surface of a four-dimensional cam. It would greatly shorten our work if we could do such a thing. The irony of it is that I can describe the thing I want to build , in mathematical symbology, quite nicely. It would do work, which we now have to do with ordinary ball-and-plane integrators and ordinary three-dimensional cams, in one operation whereas the system we use calls for an endless series of operations.”

At first, I read this passage as just one of those van Vogt-like technical-sounding things that really don’t make sense when you examine them closely. But as I reread it, I began to recognize something in what Heinlein was writing. It took a minute or two to finally make the connection, but it seems to me what Monroe-Alpha was describing (via Heinlein) was a quantum computer!

This story, as I have said, was chock-full of ideas and potential and while the ending works the way it is written, I just don’t believe it lived up to all of the potential of those ideas that Heinlein put into it.

James Gifford in his book Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion notes several “curiosities” about “Beyond This Horizon–” that are worth mentioning. The first is “one of the great scientific errors of the century,” when it was still thought that humans had 48 chromosomes. My personal favorite is this one, which is yet more annecdotal evidence for everything I’ve ever heard about Kay Tarrant, Campbell’s long-time assistant at Astounding:

Some amusing trivialities were edited out of the manuscript by John W. Campbell (or by his assistant Kay Tarrant) for publication in ASF. One of the more notable is that the reference to Longcourt Phyllis being naked when she climbs out of the pool is doubly removed: the text reference is changed, and the accompanying illustration shows her in a tank suit.

The illustration appeared in part 1 and for those of you who may be curious about it here it is. For some reason, it reminds me of Grace Kelly in the poolside scene in High Society.:

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The Birth of Superstition (article) by Willy Ley

Blurb: There’s an item a lot of people “know” that ain’t so: the ancient Greeks were not color-blind to blue. But how’d the idea that they were ever get started?

Willy Ley’s science article this month is a fascinating look at how myths (or what we might today call “urban legends”) are born spread, and live on despite the evidence against them. He focuses on the idea that the ancient Greeks could not see the color blue. He gives the background story for this. It seems that some scholars did a kind of proto-statistical analysis of color words that showed up in ancient texts and made assumptions based on those. Later, more seasoned research showed this to be utter nonsense, but, as Ley points out, people will still find the original theories in print and not realize that newer, better information has come to prove these theories wrong–and thus the myths live on.

The first half of this essay was rather remarkable for another reason: Ley’s style, and the method he uses to present his ideas read like an Asimov science essay of two decades later. Indeed, if I had come upon this article without a byline, I might very well have considered it to be an Asimovian essay, both in the nature of its subject matter and the style of the writing. More than any previous essay I’ve seen of Ley’s, this one provides to me the clearest evidence of just what an influence Ley’s science articles must have had on the young Isaac Asimov. Asimov’s fiction style is clearly influenced by others, most notably perhaps, Clifford D. Simak. But his nonfiction style is all Willy Ley.

Ley covers in detail how these myths were ultimately debunked by logic and reason and additional evidence. He then goes on to perform an interesting reductio ad absurdum exercise, stating that he will use the same kind of “reasoning” about color blindness to prove–as a member of the 25th century–what colors men and women of the 20th century could not see. For instance:

Even the ability to see the color “red” must have been recently acquired in the Twentieth Century. An earlier English poet by the name of William Shakespeare wrote in “Macbeth”:

“–here lay Duncan
His silver skin laced with his golden blood.”

This proves that he could see only a difference in intensity; blood is, after all, red, and the skin of the “white” race is pink.

Ley has been on fire with his articles lately and I am hopeful that he keeps these coming.

The Push of a Finger by Alfred Bester

Blurb: –or a careless word, for that matter, can wreck the entire universe. Think not? Well, if it happened this way–

Alfred Bester is back this month with an excellent novelette called “The Push of a Finger.” There are some basic similarities between this story and Asimov’s “Foundation.” Both have to do with preventing a long term tragedy of human civilization. Both involve scientific predictions of the future based on data. Where they differ is that Asimov’s “Foundation” is the opening of a broad saga of galactic scope, while Bester’s story is more like a murder mystery in reverse.

The narrator of the story is a reporter living in the 30th century, where stability on Earth is the watchword that keeps society flowing smoothly. Almost by accident, he discovers that within one of the big buildings in the city is a machine that is used to “prognosticate”–or predict the future based on vast collections of data. What he witnesses in the machine, one thousand years in the future, is the destruction of the universe. The men in charge of this prediction are at a loss of how to prevent the future tragedy because they can’t do anything that would upset the stability of the current society.

But the narrator comes in with a suggestion: perhaps they can prevent this disaster by using the prognostication devices to work backward through time and see how this mess all gets started–and then stop it before it ever starts. Doing just that, they work backwards through slow and careful means. They discover what it is that destroys the universe–an attempt to recover energy from hyperspace–and then continue to work backward to find out the origin of the idea. After some sluething, they learn that the person who started the chain of events will set things into motion on the very evening that the story takes place. –And in an effective twist, we discover that our narrator is that person.

The story is unusual for Astounding in several ways. It is stylistically different, for instance. The narrator is speaking to an audience of some number of people, but we never see or hear them. We can only infer their questions and responses from the narrative itself. Then, too, the story has some stark imagery, like something out of Metropolis, as when our narrator first enters the prog building and sees what lies at its heart:

The room took up the entire width of the building and it was two stories high. I felt as though I’d walked into the middle of a clock. Space was literally filled with the shimmer and spin of cogs and cams that gleamed with the peculiar highlights you see on a droplet of water about to fall. All of those thousands of wheels spun in pockets of precious stone–just like a watch, only bigger–and those dots of red and yellow and green and blue fire burned until they looked like a painting by that Frenchman from way back. Seurat was his name.

The way in which the story is told, the manner in which the mystery unfolds, all of it makes for an effective story and the fact that it is at least thematically similar to Asimov’s “Foundation” and appears in the same issue, makes for a rather chilling coincidence. I think this is probably Bester’s best appearance in Astounding yet.

Book Review by Robert A. Heinlein

Robert Heinlein, absent from Astounding in his own name for several issues, is back briefly this month with a book review for Willy Ley’s book, The Days of Creation. He gives a good summary of the nonfiction book and concludes with resounding approval:

Mr. Ley has convinced me that Man will stay on top. I now believe that Doc Smith’s most supergalactic dreams are no more than hard-headed prediction. The book concludes with a prophetic peroration which should cheer up the faint-hearted these depressing days.

Brass Tacks

This months Brass Tacks column contain more of the same letters offering the opinion that “Second Stage Lensmen” was a letdown. Louis Russell Chauvenet writes:

–to see such an imagination [as Smith’s] reduced to impotency is a painful spectacle indeed. I deeply respect Dr. Smith for his past accomplishments, but if you or he can point to one single new idea or conception appearing in “Second Stage Lensmen” to justify its publication, you will have spotted something two careful readings have not revealed to me.

Chauvenent goes on to say that the unquestionably best story in the February 1942 (Episode 32) issue was C. L. Moore’s “There Shall Be Darkness.” To me, this just proved his sagacity.

There is also a letter from L. Sprague de Camp in response to an earlier fan letter in Brass Tacks. de Camp writes:

If it will make Mr. Northrup any happier, I have sworn off, for duration at least, stories wherein Invaders conquer Earth and utterly crush all resistance, only to be in their turn destroyed by noble young scientist who discovers that they cannot abide being called “You platypus!” but swell up and burst with frustrated fury whenever so insulted.

It just proves de Camp is as funny in missives as he is in his fiction.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here are the AnLab ratings for the March 1942 issue of Astounding:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Recruiting Station A. E. van Vogt 2.58 3
2. Wings of Night Lester del Rey 2.80 3
3. Goldfish Bowl Anson MacDonald 3.1 1
4. Day After Tomorrow Roby Wentz 3.55 6
5. Runaround Isaac Asimov 3.81 4

This looks like a pretty competitive month, with scores fitting into a tightly bound range of little more than a point. I take this to mean there were no stellar works, but there were no real stinkers either, and going through the list, I think that is generally true. I’d guess “Goldfish Bowl” didn’t rate as high as I’d have expected simply because it was such an unusual story and fans weren’t used to that from Anson MacDonald.

Here are my ratings for the present issue:

  1. Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  2. Beyond This Horizon– (Part 2) by Anson MacDonald
  3. The Push of a Finger by Alfred Bester
  4. Forever Is Not So Long by F. Anton Reeds
  5. Asylum by A. E. van Vogt
Let me be clear that all of the stories in this months issues were outstanding examples of science fiction. Coming in fourth or fifth place this month is no sad statement. A fourth place story in this issue could easily have been a first place story in a different issue. Competition was very tight this time around and every story in the issue is a worthwhile read.

In Times To Come

Campbell spend much of the In Times To Come department assuring readers that the sequel to the Foundation “series” will appear in the June issue and that Asimov has worked up a clever solution in the story “Bridle and Saddle,” which takes the lead next month. Also appearing in June is Lester del Rey’s “My Name Is Legion.” Campbell writes, of del Rey:

Del Rey himself, incidentally, is temporarily out of action due to an argument with a piece of ice, a concrete sidewalk, and the law of gravity. The ice ran out on him, and the law of gravity won over bone. A cracked vertebra is no fun.

Also next month, stories by L. Ron Hubbard, Robert Arthur, Roby Wentz, Robert Moore Williams, and a new author by the name of Hal Clement makes his debut appearance with a story called, “Proof.”

See you back here in two weeks.

12 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 35: May 1942

  1. I do think that escapism in difficult times is a feature of war time where it is keenly felt, such as World War II. Smaller wars, and non-draft wars are much less prone to this.

    I am curious what the readers in the 40’s made of Foundation, as you are. Did they know what they had.

    (And I have an urge to re-read the Foundation series in my not so copious free reading time. Curse you, Jamie Todd Rubin! ;) )

  2. I’m glad you finally got to the Foundation stories, and I’m certain that the 10th reading will be just as pleasurable as the first. The violence quote that you included has always been one of my favorites. Strangely enough, I think that Heinlein (certainly in a different spot on the political landscape) would have agreed with the quote.

    By the way, I am in the process of translating into English an 1887 time machine novel, El Anacronópete by Enrique Gaspar–quite a few years before the Golden Age and 8 years before Wells’s novel.

    Would it be okay with you if I talk about it a little bit here? Once I get a bit further along, I’ll post a message on the Asimov’s and FSF bulletin boards, but I thought you and your blog readers would be a good place to lay down some initial thoughts. (My translation is just as an amateur, and I will post it online; a professional translation is scheduled for publication later this year).

  3. Thanks, Jamie! Perhaps you heard of this novel when it was in the news last year. It’s called El Anacronópete, written in 1887 by Enrique Gaspar a few years before The Time Machine. The title is a made up word, but I read that it means something like “He who flies against time.”

    I have started to read the original Spanish and an writing a translation. So far, I am through two chapters, which I’ve posted here:

    http://www.storypilot.com/fiction/gaspar-el-anacronopete-english.pdf

    I’ve always appreciated The Time Machine and its place in sf history, but as a time travel story, I never really thought much of it. The machine is mostly used as a device to get the traveller to a setting where Wells can tell an allegory. So, I am interested to see whether the earlier Spanish story will take on time travel issues more directly. There is some hope, as in this quote from the first chapter, when a group of people on a bus are discussing the upcoming demonstration of the time machine in Paris:

    —-

    “One step at a time,” argued a sensible voice. “If the Anacronópete aims to undo history, it seems to me that we must be congratulated as it allows us to amend our failures.”

    “Quite right,” called a married man jammed into the front of the bus, thinking of his tiresome wife. “As soon as the ticket office opens to the public, I’m booking passage to the eve of my wedding.”

    —-

    Overall, the style is long, tongue-in-cheek sentences that remind me of Gaspar’s English contemporary, Jerome K. Jerome. I’ve been trying to strike that tone in my translation, and now that I’m going, I can manage about one chapter per month.

  4. “Beyond This Horizon” has such an odd structure. The first half of Heinlein’s novel is building up to that Revolution, but in the second part, that entire plot thread fizzles out in the first few pages. Afterwards, there is a 30 plus page coda meditating on the meaning of life, immortatily of the soul etc. I suspect Heinlein is mocking the cliffhangers in serials designed to maintain reader interest between installments.

    1. Mark, I never considered that (about mocking cliffhangers) but in retrospect, at least, it makes total sense. While I did find some of the philosophical discussions in the second half of the story engrossing, I also found it rather jarring that the revolution died such a quick death and everyone moved on without much in the way of scars.

  5. “…At one time I regarded (ASYLUM) as one of my best stories. But I prefer PROXY.” —A. E. van Vogt

    Some quarter century later, van Vogt would write a sequel to “Asylum”.

    “The Proxy Intelligence” (1968) begins midstride the first tale, when the reader first encounters that stolid-faced space trucker, Steve Hanardy. And then relates events thereon from Hanardy’s perspective.

    Van Vogt says in his introduction to “The Proxy Intelligence” (THE BEST OF A. E. VAN VOGT (1976))- “In ‘Proxy,’ we have a reflection of a great being (William Leigh) in the way he has affected ‘the dumbest jerk in the solar system.'”

    By this time in his career, van Vogt has crushed all the pulp from his writing; “Proxy” is wrote in VV’s ‘slick’ style.

    1. Style-wise, I’d agree that van Vogt definitely has an edge over many of the Astounding writers of his time. I have to say that “Secret Unattainable” which appears in the July 42 issue looks great. I love epistolary stories.

  6. “Secret Unattainable” IS a great story. And a cornerstone tale for Alexei Panshin’s thesis in his MAN BEYOND MAN essay—

    “The first eight stories that van Vogt turned out after quitting his job would see publication in Astounding between March 1942 and January 1943. Not only would several of these rank among his all-time best, but in this initial burst of work as a full-time science fiction writer, he would confirm, consolidate and extend the special lines of thought he had begun to set forth and explore in his earlier fiction.

    “Taken as a whole, these stories would declare that we live in a responsive universe with different levels of being and consciousness. They would assert again and again the necessity for cooperation among sentient creatures. And they would suggest that the natural business of truly superior beings must be to serve as the guardians and protectors of lesser entities.”

    http://www.enter.net/~torve/articles/vanvogt/vanvogt5.html

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