I took advantage of the extra two weeks to do my annual April re-read of Isaac Asimov’s massive autobiography. I have now done this 15 times, reading first the retrospective volume, I, Asimov, published posthumously in 1994, and then jumping back to In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt. Despite having the books virtually memorized, they never wear on me. I didn’t get to do it last spring and so it was particularly nice to get back to them this year.
And since this is the first time I read them while doing my Vacation, it was of special interest, especially Asimov’s observations of the Golden Age as he lived through it. Many of the names he mentioned were suddenly familiar to me. He would head off to Fletcher Pratt’s war games and meet people like Hubbard and Heinlein, of course, but he also met Malcolm Jameson there, a name that, before this Vacation, meant nothing to me. He stopped by Huber Rogers’ apartment to pick up an original painting–and that name also meant nothing to me before this Vacation. You will find at least one more of these below–one I encountered just today making my way through more of In Joy Still Felt.
Then, too, there his insight into the creation of his own stories; his relationship with Campbell; his friendship with Frederik Pohl, and countless other facets that made the read so much more pleasurable this year. And there were lots of tidbits that I captured for future Episodes as well.
It is worth noting that the cover this issue, credited to Rogers, is of an American flag with the words “United We Stand” just above it. As I mentioned in the last episode, this is something that magazines across the country were doing in July 1942 and Street & Smith included their magazines in that patriotic display. The Smithsonian Institution has an online feature about the July 1942 magazine covers for those who are interested.
Editorial: Diode to Pentagrid
For the first time in a while, Campbell’s editorial completely baffled me. It was a 2-page spread on how the klystron tube was already outdated. The editorial seemed like a kind of apology by Campbell for being wrong about the Klystron, except Campbell doesn’t really apologize so much as explain how quickly the technology evolved and why. Stanley R. Short had an article about the Klystron back in the February 1941 issue (Episode 20) and that too, was out of date. Beyond that, I couldn’t make heads or tales of what Campbell was talking about.
This issue is packed with stories: 4 novelettes, include two long ones. Three short stories. A brief science article. And count them, seven Probability Zero pieces. And at least two of the PZ items are written by names familiar to many science fiction fans today–and one name who is familiar even outside of science fiction.
Secret Unattainable by A. E. van Vogt
Blurb: The Secret Weapon! We heard about it, were threatened with it–but never saw it. Van Vogt has an answer here, the secret of Hitler’s secret weapon–a secret that Hitler himself never knew, and even knowing, could never use–
“Secret Unattainable,” the lead story in the July issue. Alva Rogers describes it as “a gimmicky and disappointing story after his three earlier stories this year,” but I beg to differ. It has to be among the best van Vogt stories to appear in a long time–possibly since “Slan.” It is also unique for van Vogt because he writes in a completely different style from what we’ve seen before.
The epistolary story presents itself as a story smuggled out of Germany at great risk to those involved. Amidst the papers smuggled out are a set of correspondence between key members of the German scientific community and the military (including Himmler). Through these letters and other documents, a story forms surrounding the incredible invention of German scientist, Herr Professor Johann Kenrube. We learn that Kenrube’s brother was killed in a purging, but that he seems to remain loyal to the German cause. The letters are introduced with a news article that helps form a kind of mysterious background to the whole affair:
GERMAN CREEK BECOMES RIVER
London, March 24 (delayed): A Royal Air Force reconnaissance pilot today reported that a creek in northern Prussia, marked on the map as the Gribe Creek, has become a deep, swift river overnight. It is believed that an underground waterway burst its bounds. Several villages in the path of the new river showed under water. No report of the incident has yet been received from Berlin.
The “narrator,” presumably the one reporting on this treasure trove of documentation goes on to say:
There never was any report from Berlin. It should again be pointed out that the foregoing news item was published in 1941; the documents which follow date from 1937, a period of four years. Four years of world-shaking history.
What we learn through this remarkable set of correspondence is that Professor Kenrube has actually planned a long range revenge against the Nazis. He has never forgiven them the death of his brother. He designs his project so that it cannot be readily reproduced by the Nazis and when it is reproduced, he is really in full control of the whole thing. His invention is a kind of teleportation machine that allows the user to pull through materials from wherever the device is targeted. The initial idea is to pull oil and other desperately needed supplies from distant planets. But it does not go unnoticed that this same device can be used to send troops through from Berlin to New York, allowing for complete surprise.
Among the correspondence are letters from an assistant to Kenrube who is really a spy for the Nazis. Himmler becomes a kind of protector to Kenrube (we see this through his letters) because it is clear no one else has the intelligence to match Kenrube’s, and his design actually works. But as it gets close to being put to real use, Kenrube is placed under house arrest. Even this, Kenrube has considered and it goes poorly for the Nazis. As the results of the destruction of the devices are described, we learn from the letters, Kenrube’s true motives:
“I might say that in all history there has never been a revenge as complete as mine. Here is your machine; it is all there, yours to use for any purpose–provided you first change your mode of thinking to conform to the reality of the relationship between matter and life.
“I have no doubt you can build a thousand duplicates, but beware–every machine will be a Frankenstein monster. Some of them will distort time, as seems to have happened in the time of my arrival here; others will feed you raw materials, that will vanish even as you reach forth to seize it; still others will pour obscene things into our green earth…
Alva Rogers might have thought the use of letters and other correspondence “gimmcky” but thought van Vogt did a masterful job selecting just the right passages to allow the mystery to unfold and to get a flavor for all of the players involved in this elaborate revenge. I can think of no science fiction story quite like it that I’ve encountered this far, and yet there are echoes of The Count of Monte Cristo throughout this wonderful novella.
Brimstone Bill by Malcolm Jameson
Blurb: Bill was a crook, a hell-fire-damnation specialist in the art of collecting cash. A marvelous orator–with gadgets. But Commander Bullard had a good use for a bad actor!
Bullard and the crew of the Pollux are back for more adventures, this time with a rather unique fellow named “Brimstone Bill,” from whom the story takes its title. This story is a kind of sequel to “Bullard Reflects” (December 1941, Episode 30) in which Bullard and his crew defeated an enemy through the clever use of mirrors. In the present story, the crew of the Pollux has taken on board all of the prisoners from this encounter for trial back on Earth. Among those prisoners is a man named Zander, who was once a fire-and-brimstone preacher who swindled folks on Venus. He was known as Brimstone Bill, and he even took a young Bullard for all his month’s pay.
The Pollux is returning to Luna for a long overdue shore leave. The men of the crew have their wives and sweethearts waiting for them, as well as more than a year’s pay plus bonuses, when Bullard receives an order from command to divert to the Juno Skydocks for repairs. These are orders that Bullard desperately doesn’t want to follow, for it means more than a month’s delay. The Juno Skydocks are the armpit of the asteroid belt. It will take the men there a long time to fix his ship. And with time on their hands, the crew of the Pollux is likely to lose most of their hard-earned money on gaming and other frivolities. Bullard learns that this decision is not what the Admirality desires, but was insisted upon by a Senator who lines his pockets with the coffers earned at Juno. So Bullard puts together a plan that makes use of Brimstone Bill. He has Bill preach on Juno using special devices that cause men to take to heart what he has to say. Rather than his crew losing all of their money, they follow the preachers teachings. The locals try to stop Brimstone Bill, but they are converted as well. In the end, the Pollux is fixed rapidly and Bullard returns to Luna with coffers filled for his men. And the Senator takes a rather big loss, although there is nothing he can do about it.
I have to say I’ve grown really fond of Malcolm Jameson’s “Bullard” stories. This one is the tenth (by my count), if you include the short Bullard piece “Pig Trap” (April 1942, Episode 34) Jameson wrote for the ProbabilityZero column. The stories themselves are not the attempts at literature of the likes of, say, Bester or even van Vogt. They are not style pieces. Neither are they magnificent space opera like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories, with a grand scope of the galaxy as a backdrop. In some respects, they are much more like Asimov’s Robot stories, each story self-contained, but with familiar recurring characters and themes.
But there is something more to them than just that. I greatly enjoy and even look forward to Bullard and the stories of the Pollux’s adventures. But I can’t say the same for L. Ron Hubbard’s “Kilkenny Cats” stories (written under the Kurt von Rachen pseudonym). And yet in concept, these stories are striking similar: both deal with a familiar group of men (and women) and their adventures. Of course, the Kilkenny Cats are about rebels while the Bullard stories are Navy-in-space stories. But whereas I see little in the way of character development in the Cats, I think there is at least some evolution in the Bullard stories. Then, too, I like Bullard–he reminds me in many ways of M*A*S*H’s Sherman T. Potter. Each of their self-contained adventures, while not breaking new ground in science fiction by any means, are fun and reliable entertainment, and that is sometimes just as important as the groundbreaking pieces.
The Contraband Cow by L. Sprague de Camp
Blurb: Author de Camp suggests there might be peculiar politics side-lights and unexpected sorts of bootlegging under a Union Now scheme–
de Camp’s latest story is an amusing little tale about a world in which meat has been banned because of the worship of cows in India. India has a strong influence in the world governing body; influence enough to make sure that meat has been banned across the world. And in this world where meat is banned (and therefore, like anything that has been banned, desirable) one man has come up with synthetic protein. Of course, such protein would get around the laws of India because it is not made from a living cow. It would also arouse the ire of bootleggers, who might find such protein interfering with their trade. “The Contraband Cow” amusingly hypothesizes on such such an annoyance.
I thought this was the weakest of de Camp’s appearances in this Vacation so far. The story is not a particularly memorable one, especially when you consider the company it is keeping in this issue.
Penance Cruise by David V. Reed
Blurb: A slight error during over-celebration got Jones and Bascomb into trouble–that, and fat General Cheroot’s orange uniform of the Exotican genarmery. So they were sent on a penance cruise. And what a cruise!
“Penance Cruise” has to be one of the most unusual stories I’ve come across on this Vacation so far. The story itself seems like it belongs in Thrilling Wonder or some earlier incarnation of Astounding when super-science stories were all the rage. But two things give away the fact that the story is something more: first, it is well-written. Indeed, it is written in a style that almost (but not quite) makes fun of what I think of as super-science stories. Second, it is funny. In places, it is laugh-out-loud funny.
The story itself is rather outlandish. Two men, Fletcher Jones and the narrator, Bascomb get themselves into some trouble with a strange general and as penance for their crimes, they are sent away on a mission with him to a small planetoid to bring to justice the murderer Captain Place. The General–General Cheroot–is an enormous, comic figure of a general who speaks with an unusual grammar and seems to be concerned about nothing while at the same time, making it obvious to everyone around him that he has absolutely no idea what he is doing. After a while of reading his dialog, his strange grammar began to sound familiar to me and I suddenly realized exactly who General Cheroot (his speaking, anyway) reminded me of:
After variously unlikely adventures, the ship arrives at Forelle and attempts are made to capture Captain Place. Place has tamed giant fire breathing dinosaurs and uses them as his protection, so getting past the dinosaurs is one problem that has to be solved. Jones and Bascome attempt to solve the problem by having the dinosaurs eat special bullets with their grass. When the fire heats the bullets, it should rip them apart from the inside. But the plan backfires (so to speak) and the bullets come shooting out of the dinosaurs mouths. We learn that General Cheroot is smarter than he seems. He has another ship hidden inside his damaged space craft with a secret pilot who has been doing the actual flying all along. The smaller ship can only take 3 people back and Cheroot plans on leaving everyone behind.
Jones gets suspicious of Captain Place and it is revealed at the end that the person they have been fighting is none other than his daughter, Lila Place and Captain Place is nowhere on the planetoid. It is further revealed that the murder his is supposed to have committed was not a murder at all. The man who was killed was attempting to steal the planetoid from Place. He, too, had the idea of feeding the fire-breathing dinosaurs bullets and one of those bullets was fired back at him, killing him.
Everyone eventually makes it back home and Jones disappears with Lila in the end.
It is a very un-Astounding-like story in many respects and much of what you read is unbelievable. For instance, the description of Forelle, the planetoid on which they have landed:
Forelle was an imperfect globe, with a diameter of no more than forty miles. Its hilly, uneven ground was covered with brilliant green forests and lush vegetation, and facing the sun was its lake, a clear white diamond set in emeralds.
Forty miles in diameter! There had to be very little gravity holding the rock together and yet the action plays out as if it occurred on Earth. But I get the idea that this was Reed poking fun at super-science stories. (Reed, apparently, went on to write Batman comics in the 1950s.) I have no direct evidence for this. Alva Rogers doesn’t even mention the story in his synopsis of the issue. I don’t think I would have gotten through this long novelette if it were not for the fact that I was certain that Reed was poking fun. His humor was spot on. He describes the surprised reaction of someone as follows:
Did you ever have a fish come up, eat your bait, chew up your hook, swallow the sinker, line and pole, and then belch in your eye?
In describing a decrepit spaceship, Reed writes:
In one corner of the huge blasting pit a battered old hulk of a spaceship reclined. It was so incredibly rusty and ancient and begrimed that it looked as if it had staggered into port to wheeze a little and die, if only someone would let it.
There were problems with the story, the biggest of which, in my opinion, was an interesting puzzle that was totally dropped from the story line once the men reached the planetoid. Part of the reason, it seems, that people wanted this planetoid was for the water it had. But the other part was for the monsters–the fire-breathing dinosaurs. When these dinosaurs were captured and put onto ships, they died almost at once and not only did they die, but their bodies decayed to dust so quickly that there was nothing left to study. It seems, however, there was a theory on how to work around this problem–but we never got to learn the outcome, because that entire part of the story line was dropped halfway through the story.
I will certainly be interested to see how fans of the time reacted to this story. Despite the implausibility of the plot, the humor and the two main characters, to say nothing of General Cheroot and his Jar-Jar-Binks like accent made it a surprisingly worthwhile read.
Space Can by L. Ron Hubbard
Blurb: Boarding cutlasses went out with sail ships–but if men refuse to be licked, even when their ship’s a hopeless ruin, it can be done–
If Alva Rogers felt that “Penance Cruise” wasn’t worth mentioning, I almost feel the same about Hubbard’s latest story, a disappointing story that is nothing more than a naval battle in space. Indeed, Campbell’s blurb says as much: “Boarding cutlasses went out with sail ships.”
The United States destroy Menace has received a distress call from a flotilla of ships and has gone to answer the call. They find the convey destroyed and a few enemy ships ready to engage them. Things go from bad to worse until the Menace is so badly beaten up it seems there is nothing left to do but give in. And yet, the crew of the Menace manage to crash their ship into the one remaining enemy ship and thus, quite literally smash their way to victory.
The most interesting part of the story, in my mind, was not the space battle, which itself wasn’t particularly original or well drawn. It was a piece of writing at the opening of the story, describing the upcoming mission of the Menace:
…she had her orders, she would carry them out to the last ounce of her fuel, the last charge in her guns and the last man within her complex and multiple compartments. She carried the Stars and Stripes upon her side, gold lace upon her bridge and infinite courage in her heart, for upon her belligerent little nose rested the full tradition of the four-hundred-odd years of navy, a tradition which took no dares, struck no colors and counted no odds.
I understand that this was a particularly patriotic issue of Astounding, during a time at which the country was at war and needed brave soldiers, sailors and airmen to do the fighting. And if biographical information on Hubbard can be trusted, he was in the navy during the time this story was published (and possibly when it was written). But from the passage above, I cannot for the life of me tell if it is an attempt by Hubbard at patriotism, or a mocking thereof.
Stars Also Have Rings (article) by R. S. Richardson
Blurb: It is a physical impossibility, due to the properties of light, to make a telescope capable of revealing the geography of another stellar system. We’ll never be able to see planets, or any such small, dark structures about other suns. No electronic amplifier can magnify detail that the light itself doesn’t contain. But there is one type of amplifier that works–brain-power!
I won’t ask you to stop your laughing at Campbell’s blurb above for too long. Only long enough for me to explain that astronomy favorite R. S. Richardson is back this month with a 1-page report on a recent discovery, that of a star with “rings” like Saturn. Actually, as it turns out, the rings are really accumulated hydrogen gas that have fell into orbit around the star, which is an eclipsing binary. The only reason the “rings” were discovered in the first place is because it was an eclipsing binary and when one star blocks out the light of the other, there is a brief moment in which more detail can be seen. Richardson helps explain this through the following diagram:
The star in queston “RW Tauri” may have been a typo as I could find no such star listed today. There is, however, an RV Tauri, which does have a circumstellar disc, although our explanation seven decades later is somewhat different from what Richardson knew at the time.
Most amusing, of course, was Campbell’s claim that we would never be able to see planets around other suns. Giving Campbell the benefit of the doubt, I suspect he meant we’d have to infer their presence from other things, like gravitational perturbations. Still, I wonder what Campbell would say if he could see how many extrasolar planets have been discovered.
Collision Orbit by Will Stewart
Introducing a new author and a fascinating idea: the control and use of “see tee”–contraterrene matter. Science-fiction’s discussed the danger of meteors; astronomers are pretty certain there are very many contraterrene meteors. How about the danger from those!
Next up is a story by a “new author,” which is another of Campbell’s little white lies, for Will Stewart is far from “new.” Most readers would know him by his usual byline, which had been appearing in magazines since 1928: Jack Williamson. Indeed, the Will Stewart byline was a kind of tribute by Jack to Campbell himself, the “Stewart” portion of the name being a nod to Campbell’s own pseudonym, “Don A. Stewart.” Under the guise of Will Stewart, Williamson published some remarkable stories, including this one, “Collision Orbit.”
Actually, the story itself is not particularly remarkable. “Collision Orbit” is the story of a few men, Jim Drake and Rob McGee; and a woman, Ann O’Banion; and their efforts to change the orbit of a meteor set to collide with a larger meteor. By chugging the orbit and preventing the collision, the law allows them to claim the asteroid as their own. And the reason they want to do this is to set up a factory for the production of a power plant that makes use of contraterrene matter. In order to achieve this, they must fight against a difficult bureaucracy, to say nothing of the harsh environment of space. As a story, I didn’t think it was quite as good as “Breakdown” (January 1942, Episode 31). That is not to say that it was a bad story. Even the story itself was very good, but there were some things about the story that make it rather remarkable, beyond just the storytelling.
The first oft these remarkable items virtually jumped off the page when I read the following passage:
Ann was the dark-haired daughter of stout, ruddy old Bruce O’Banion. He had been the original claimant of Obania, forty years ago; and Drake was the young spatial engineer he employed to terraform the little rock, only two kilometers through–by sinking a shaft to its heart for the paragravity installation, generating oxygen and water from mineral oxides, releasing absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off sun.
I seemed to be vaguely aware that Jack Williamson had coined the phrase “terraforming” but when I saw this, I wondered if this might be the first use of the term. According to Wikipedia:
The term was coined by Jack Williamson in a science-fiction story (“Collision Orbit”) published in 1942… but the concept may predate his work.
The Oxford English Dictionary also lists “‘W. Stewart’ in Astounding Sci. Fiction” as the originator of the term, although giving a different passage: “Old Bruce O’Banion… hired Jim Drake to terraform it.”
Another rather remarkable facet of the story is the notion of seetee itself. Seetee, or contraterrene matter, is what today we’d call antimatter. I believe they may have been earlier stories that described antimatter in vague terms, but Williamson does a good job of grounding the notion in the science of the day, making the story a rather good one from the viewpoint of hard science. In describing seetee, he writes:
There’s nothing mysterious about seetee. It’s composed of the same three fundamental particles as our common terrene matter: electrons, positrons, neutrons. The only difference is the way they are arranged. Instead of orbital electrons the seetee atom has orbital positrons. Instead of binding electrons, in the nucleus, it has binding positrons. Instead of nuclear protons, each formed of a proton-neutron couple, it has nuclear negatrons–neutron electron couples.
The only difference is that the electric signs of the charged particles are all reversed. Contraterrene atoms form the same series of elements as terrene atoms. They obey identical laws of chemistry and physics. If you had been born on a seetee planet… you would never know the difference.
That the story is grounded in hard science; that it makes use of the metric system throughout as opposed to the English system of measurements; that it makes a few basic assumptions and builds realistically upon them make this a hard science story of the first caliber; the kind of story you would expect to find in the pages of Analog today.
The story shares two themes with Williamson’s last story, “Breakdown”: that of father-son bonds, and the fight against bureaucracy. I haven’t read enough of Williamson’s earlier works to know if these are themes he explores to greater or lesser extent, but they come through loud and clear in “Collision Orbit.”
Despite the fact that the story makes good use of the science of the day; and despite its historical importance in coining the term “terraform,” it is not clear to me that this story was ever reprinted. ISFDB shows no reprint history for the story. Haffner Press’s outstanding Collected Stories of Jack Williamson omits the story. Chronologically it should appear in the 7th volume, With Folded Hands… And Searching Mind. I find it rather remarkable that this story has not been reprinted, either in the Haffner books or anywhere else. My only guess is that the rights for this particular story are tied up. Perhaps it has something to do with the story being the first “Will Stewart” story. If anyone out there knows why, please chime in.
The Probability Zero column is back this month, the first time since it was launched with stories by de Camp, Jameson and Asimov. This month we have seven stories by young writers. You may even recognize a few of the names.
The Strange Case of the Missing Hero by Frank Holby
In this tale, criminologist Lucien Hazard is asked to investigate the disappearance of the hero Elliot Gallant. Gallant was a war hero in multiple wars and when the wars were finally over, and science had a golden age, it was Elliot who was selected to take a ride in the time machine that scientists had invented. However, he was never heard from again. Hazard is commissioned by the editor of the Encyclopedia Galactica to follow him back in time and find out what happens. This information will be put into the new edition of the encyclopedia, due to come out.
Hazard is gone for six months, and when he returns, he explains the truth: Gallant died 30 years in the past by his own hand. He married a woman and had a son, only to realize that the woman he married was his own mother, making the son himself.
This is a bit of a cliche plot, and doesn’t quite seem to fit my idea of what Campbell was trying to get at with the PZ stories, but if nothing else, it was a pretty well written tale. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Holby writes two more PZ stories in the next few years and that is all.
De Gustibus by Randall Hale
De Gustibus is the story of a man stranded on Mercury without enough food to survive until the supply ship returns in 50 days. He wracks his brain trying to figure out a solution. There are vitamins on board, but not enough to keep him alive. The author then, writes:
The inescapable mathematics of the situation stared him bleakly in the face.
which sounds eerily like Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” several years in advance of that story’s appearance. In the end, though, the story falls somewhat flat. The supply ship comes to find the astronaut still alive, but hungry. When asked how he managed to survive all this time, the astronaut replies, “I live on water and potassium cyanide for fifty days.”
As far as I can tell, this is the only thing that Randall Hale ever published in the science fiction world.
The Mysterious Bomb Raid by Bob Tucker
If the name “Bob Tucker” sounds familiar, it should. This PZ story was written by a 28-year old Wilson “Bob” Tucker. It was by no means his first story but if we discount the “regulars” that appeared in the first PZ column, this is the first familiar name I’ve come across.
Once again, we have a time travel story. In this one, a group of men are sitting around discussing the present war and the ways in which it might be ended. Two of the men decide to reveal the fact that they bombed Tokyo off the map, despite the fact that Tokyo is still there. Of course, this gets everyone curious. The men explain that they used a time machine to head back to the early 1900s to drop an explosive on Tokyo. They originally went back to the 1890s, but decided not to bomb Tokyo at that time because,
I happened to remember that my grandfather was spending his honeymoon in Tokyo sometime during the decade… and gentlemen, I couldn’t very well kill my own grandfather.”
They pushed the drum of explosives out but momentum kept it drifting forward in time. It hasn’t yet hit Tokyo but they expect it to hit any day now.
Not a bad story, and I was particularly amused by Wilson’s direct attack against the cliche grandfather paradox of time travel stories.
About Quarrels, About the Past by John Pierce
Next PZ piece is another time travel yarn by John Pierce. That name might not ring any bells, but in later years, Pierce, an engineer, would write articles and science fiction under the name J. J. Coupling. Indeed, just as I was writing this summary, I came upon the following passage in Asimov’s In Joy Still Felt:
That same day [May 22, 1961], I had dinner with John R. Pierce of Bell Telephone Laboratories. He had invented the word “transistor,” was working on communication satellites, and was a well-known science fiction personality, having written for Astounding under the name of J. J. Coupling.
His story is a kind of second-person piece about fellow answering questions about a man who has disappeared into the past. Which past is hard to say. As the narrator points out, the uncertainty principle allows for a multiplicity of futures–but he claims it also allows for a multiplicity of pasts–a kind of library of Babel of past histories. The man in question, Quarrels, set about to meet Nephertiti, and was not heard from again.
Nothing jumps out of this story except for the references to wave function mechanics and uncertainty, giving it a kind of early multiverse glow.
The Qwerty of Hrothgar by Creighton Buck
Creighton Buck’s entry into the PZ started with promise but ended flat. It was the story of a man who told of who he escaped from the clutches of a hideous six-legged monster known as the Qwerty of Hrothgar. The escape is silly and based on improbable chemistry. But how the story started was rather amusing. First, the name of the man telling the story was Nadie Esta-Aqui, which of course translates into “no one here.” Then, there was the Qwerty itself. Qwerty is, of course, a type of keyboard, named for the order in which the letters appear in the top row. There are six letter in qwerty, one for each of the six legs in the monster.
But beyond those two clever items, the story was barely passable. The only other reference to Creighton Buck that I could find was that he published a story in the June 1941 Unknown called “Joshua.”
Eat, Drink, and Be Wary by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury, of course, virtually everyone knows. While he had a letter show up in the Brass Tacks column of one of the early Episodes of this Vacation, this is his first piece of fiction to appear, and thus it marks an important milestone for this Vacation: it is the first time that, to my knowledge, someone who is still living has appeared in an Episode.
“Eat, Drink and Be Wary” is an amusing little tale of a diplomat who must attend a feast on Venus that lasts for weeks and involves eight meals a day and 20 courses per meal. It has killed each of his predecessors. A scientist friend gives him a “contraction” belt that allows him to survive the banquet, despite his feasting. How? The band sends his stomach speeding into the fourth dimension and according to relativity, things contract as they move faster and faster. But now he is worried about bringing his stomach back as it might explode if he does.
There is very little to distinguish the story as what we expect of Bradbury today, except perhaps the opening:
Believe me, Doc, believe me. I ain’t no ordinary ha-ha, ho-ho, hee-heeby-jeeber. Don’t marry me to that straight-jacket. Listen. I got problems in a bad way. Lemme tell you.
That said, of all of the PZ stories so far, this one comes closest to what I think Campbell was looking for.
The Floater by Sheldon G. Thomas
The last of the PZ stories in this issue, “The Floater” is the story of a man who wrecked his rocket and had to ditch into the sea. His rocket crashed in after him but after a while came up floating and he was able to sit on it and be rescued. As the story concludes:
“If the ship was riddled through and through with holes as you say, Major,” he asked, “how did it stay afloat?”
“It was made of pure potassium, which is lighter than water.”
True, I suppose, but impossible–which is just what Campbell wanted.
Tools by Clifford D. Simak
Blurb: “Life as we know it” is a rather meaningless phrase, really; we know the life forms of one planet, life forms that, almost certainly, started from one particularly successful primal bit of jelly that succeeded in destroying its competitors. On another planet, with terrifically different basic conditions–
Clifford Simak’s first appearance in a year is a story about and intelligent radon gas discovered on Venus. The gas, named “Archie” is attempting to thwart humanities efforts at mining radium. But the entire human empire depends on radium as its source of power. Without it, their empire crumbles. Doc Steele, a psychologist, seems to be the only one that can communicate with Archie in any meaningful way.
There are some nightmarish elements to the story. The strangeness of Archie’s intelligence and how its morals differ from our own are vaguely reminiscent of a much later story, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey where Archie compares somewhat with the artificial intelligence on board the spaceship.
The one thing Archie doesn’t have–at least at first, is tools to manipulate the world around him. Even there he manages to overcome the problem by commandeering a gaggle of robots that would otherwise have been put to work for the humans. I found the interactions between Doc Steele and Archie the most interesting part of the story, and wished for more of that. Instead, Simak chose to focus on the larger picture, which is the natural course for a story such as this, I suppose. As Alva Rogers writes of this piece,
Simak presented… a rather grim, if perhaps exaggerated, glimpse of the result of commercial atomic power being under absolute control of private capital.
Rogers felt this was the best story in the issue. It was not a bad one, but I don’t consider it the best. I wish Simak had explored the psychology of Archie a bit further–but that is something that readers in his day may not have been ready for.
A short Brass Tacks column this month. There was a follow-up letter from R. S. Richardson in this month’s Brass Tacks that proved interesting. In addition to providing more up-to-date information about the star in question, Richardson went on to describe the close approaches of various astronomical entities: closest approach of Earth to Venus, Earth to Mars, etc.
There was also at least one more vote against Smith’s latest story and one more in favor of it. So the controversy continued.
Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings
Here is the AnLab results for the May 1942 Astounding:
|1. Beyond This Horizon–||Anson MacDonald||2.00||2|
|2. Asylum||A. E. van Vogt||2.10||5|
|3. Push of a Finger||Alfred Bester||2.53||3|
|4. Foundation||Isaac Asimov||3.21||1|
|5. Forever Is Not So Long||F. Anton Reeds||4.50||4|
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that ”Foundation” placed 4th. It just goes to show that it takes time for something to become a “classic.” And indeed, over the course of the decade the stories became more and more popular, especially, I will venture to guess, after the Mule was introduced.
Here are my ratings for the present issue:
- Secret Unattainable by A. E. van Vogt
- Brimstone Bill by Malcolm Jameson
- Collision Orbit by Jack Williamson
- Tools by Clifford D. Simak
- Penance Cruise by David V. Reed
- The Contraband Cow by L. Sprague de Camp
- Space Can by L. Ron Hubbard
In Times To Come
“Waldo,” one of the last Anson MacDonald stories we’re apt to get for some time, will lead off the August Astounding. It was, as a matter of fact, a pleasant surprise to get this manuscript–completed during the interim between going up for active duty and receiving an assignement.
The lineup for the August 1942 issue, Heinlein/MacDonald notwithstanding, looks rather remarkable. Ross Rocklynne and Norman L. Knight are back. We have a second story by Hal Clement. And stories by two “new” writers: Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) and Cleve Cartmill. Plus a science article by Willy Ley and more Probability Zero stories.
See you back here for Episode 38 in two weeks.