Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 39: September 1942

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Take a short break and so much happens that it is almost impossible to keep up. Seventy-two years ago this summer, the 1st World Science Fiction Convention took place at a hall in Manhattan. At that convention were the giants of the time, most, if not all of whom have appeared in this Vacation. As I write this, I am less than a week in returning from the 70th World Science Fiction convention, which, as it happened was my first. This one took place in Chicago, more than seven decades after Chicon 1 in 1940. What was truly remarkable to me was that among the legends of science fiction that I got to meet there, were attendees from that very first Worldcon–including David Kyle.

Time does not stop, however, and these connections to the past continue to fade. On June 5, we lost Ray Bradbury, one of the most recognizable science fiction writers outside the world of science fiction. Bradbury, of course, had a Probability Zero story in the July 1942 Astounding (Episode 37), his first piece of fiction in the magazine. At the time that Episode appeared, Bradbury was still alive, making him the first–and so far, only–writer to still be around when a story of his appeared in this Vacation.

Then, on August 25, we lost Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon. It was rather incredible to think Armstrong was gone, and I remember wondering, after I heard the news, if any writer in 1942 wondered about the first man to land on the moon, who he (or she) might be, and that there would come a time when they were no longer around.

Editorial: Weapons and War

Isaac Asimov has written that Campbell used to send lengthy rejection letters, spelling out in painstaking (and sometimes confusing) detail what was wrong with a story. Once, Asimov even assumed one of these letters to be a rejection, even though it was merely a lengthy and long-winded request for revision. This month’s 2-page editorial is a good example of this. While the essay was fairly interesting, I’m not certain what Campbell’s point was. Certainly, he wandered a bit astray from where he started.

The editorial starts with a brief discussion of the self-censoring started by scientists beginning about 1940 or so. This was to help ensure that any discoveries that they made that could possibly be of aid to the war effort, would aid our side and not our enemies. From here, Campbell seems to smoothly transition into the manufacturing realm, using as an example how the automotive industry had to convert from making car engines to airplane engines using essentially the same tools they had used before, yet for more sensitive machines. This discussion morphs into a discussion of the square-cube law and how prototypes designed in the laboratory have to account for their full-sized equivalents on the assembly line. (A model tank, Campbell points out, can be dropped from a great height with little structural damage; not so a full-sized tank.) This in turn veers off into the realm of speed of effort and the hands involved. Using as an example, how quickly the automotive industry was able to turn to aircraft as the basis for a quick turnaround under dire conditions, he points out that this isn’t always possible. Throwing more labor at a problem doesn’t always solve the problem more quickly and sometimes more hands just get in the way. From all of this, Campbell draws a rather striking conclusion:

And, be it remembered, while a mechanism in functioning condition may fall into enemy hands, the greater divergence of applied knowledge, the less the chance will be that the mechanism can be duplicated by the enemy.

I think what he is saying is what today we might refer to as “security through obscurity,” but he sure went on a roundabout route to get there.

The Barrier by Anthony Boucher

Blurb: If time travel is, or ever will be possible in all time to come–why haven’t time travelers appeared? Maybe this famous detective story writer has ferreted out the complete and reasonable solution!

If time travel has or ever will be invented, a curious question arises: why have we not encountered any time travelers? This temporal equivalent of the Fermi paradox is what Anthony Boucher, whose real name is William Anthony Parker White–tries to tackle in his first Astounding story, “The Barrier.” As of late 1942, Boucher was already a familiar name to readers of Astounding‘s doomed companion magazine, Unknown. Later, he would go on to become the founding editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and a writer of mysteries–and even have a convention named after him.

In “Barrier,” however, Boucher attempts to tackle this paradox of time travel tales and does so in an interesting, and entertaining way. Boucher formulates a future in which a kind of Utopia is achieved by humanity. Politics, science, culture, and even language are systematized so as to leave nothing to chance. Humanity reaches a kind of stasis of perfection. Indeed, the only possibly disruption to this perfection could come from outside. And the only way that could happen–in Boucher’s imagined world–is by the intrusion of a time traveler:

Since the Stasis of Cosmos did not practice time travel, any earlier or later civilization that did so must be imperfect. Its emissaries would cause imperfection. There must be a Barrier.

The notion of the Barrier is one that would prevent time travelers from entering this perfect period of human civilization–but as we quickly discover, not everyone likes the idea of the Barrier.

Boucher’s story takes us on the usual twists and turns of a time travel yarn, with the kind of bootstrapping readers even at this stage of science fiction must have recognized and enjoyed. In many ways, “The Barrier” is a more thoughtful play on Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps” (October 1941, Episode 28). I say “more thoughtful” because while in Heinlein’s story, the whole purpose of the story seemed to be to illustrate the gimmick, in Boucher’s story, there is an effort to explain a philosophically interesting paradox.

Then, too, Boucher’s use of language in the story–specifically the way people in the future speak, without articles and without irregular verbs–adds some originality and gives that future society a firmer grounding than what Heinlein provided in his story. That said, there is much in the story that seem to me to be Heinleinesque in some respects, where lines such as this one early in the story give it a ring of delightfully controlled confusion:

It was only some hours later and fifty years earlier that he learned the details of the Strapper system.

Perhaps even more interesting than the convoluted story itself and the picture of the future civilization that Boucher paints, is the connection this story has with Boucher’s most famous meta-fictional work. As Alva Rogers describes in A Requiem for Astounding,

One of the characters in the story, the man who developed the machine taking the hero to the future, was one Dr. Derringer. In 1942 [Boucher] has published, under another of his pseudonyms, H. H. Holmes, a mystery novel called Rocket to the Morgue. This novel concerned the murder, under what amounted to locked-room circumstances, of Hilary St. Johns Foulkes, the executor of the literary estate of the late, great Fowler Foulkes, the phenomenally successful author of a series of science fiction novels featuring the remarkable adventures of Dr. Derringer.

The Twonky by Lewis Padgett

Blurb: The skilled–but very!–workman was a bit confused, and, in his daze, made something a little out of–time. Quite a little something, too. It looked like a standard radio, but unlike most of those complex gadgets, this one would wash the dishes.

Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore return again this month in their Lewis Padgett guise to offer an unusual story that seems to foreshadow one of their more famous stories, “Mimsy Were the Borogroves.” “The Twonky” is told in two parts. There is a kind of preface to the story in which we find a confused man who makes devices called “Twonkies.” He has a kind of amnesia and he finds himself in a radio manufacturing shop. Instead of building a radio, however, he builds a twonky in the form of a radio. It is hinted at that this man is lost out of time when he finally emerges from his amnesia:

“Great Snell!” he gasped. “So that was it! I ran into a temporal snag!”

With a startled glance around, he fled to the storeroom from which he had first emerged. The overalls he took off and returned to their hook. After that, Joe went over to a corner, felt around in the air, nodded with satisfaction, and seated himself on nothing, three feet above the floor. Then Joe vanished.

The rest of the story is a now familiar cautionary tale about the dangers of technology. Kerry Westerfield ends up purchasing the radio-which-is-something-else and soon discovers its strange properties. It attempts to light his cigarettes, for instance. It can walk across the room and perform tasks, like washing the dishes. His wife sees some of this odd behavior, too, but Kerry brings in a friend, Fitzgerald, to further investigate. They consider the possibility that the machine is a robot, but in many respects, it is unlike robots we have seen.

More distressing, perhaps, is that the Twonky cannot be stopped. When attempts are made to prevent it from doing something it wants to do (or doesn’t want someone else to do) it can reverse various effects. It uses some kind of ray beam to sober up Kerry after he came home drunk. And, of course, when the Twonky itself is threatened, it can protect itself. Kerry’s wife, Martha discovers this when she attempts to take a hatchet to the Twonky and is disintegrated by a beam, the Twonky saying, “Destruction of life-form threatening attack.” And when Kerry makes his attempt to destroy the Twonky, he is eliminated as well.

The story has a Twilight Zone feel to it. It ends with a coda in which a new family moves into the full furnished house, once occupied by the Westerfields. And, of course, the Twonky is part of the package.

I haven’t read enough of Kuttner and Moore’s entire body of collaborative work to know for certain whether strange gadgets out of time are a general theme that they probe. But certainly “The Twonky” and “Mimsy” are two that bookend the theme nicely.

Death Under the Sea (Article) by Willy Ley

Blurb: The art of death from the air was described in a recent issue–the more efficient, though even blinder art of unseen death under the sea, takes the history of mine, torpedo and submarine back further than most realize.

I have grown fond of Willy Ley’s science articles in Astounding, and particularly those articles that describe how military weapons operate. So I was looking forward to reading “Death Under the Sea” and once again, I wasn’t disappointed. Examining naval warfare as far back as the 1500s, Ley traces the evolution of weapons like mines, torpedos, and submarines though history to the present day. It was fascinating to learn, for instance, that the first recorded use of a mine–in the sense that we think of them today–as a weapon of war was to blow up a bridge near Antwerp in 1585.

It was equally fascinating to learn that Robert Fulton–of steam engine fame–also invented and built a successful submarine and coined the phrase “torpedo,” which he took from the name of an eel.

Ley goes on to describe the mechanisms behind the early submarines, mines and torpedos used during the American Civil War. He then goes beyond describing the mechanism of modern day mines and both their strategic and tactical uses. It was fascinating to learn how the mines were triggered so as to detonate when in contact with a vessel. He also discussed mines that could be “remotely” detonated, although their historical success prior to the Great War was not nearly as good.

Ley concludes the article with a description (and diagrams) of a modern-day torpedo and discusses how they operate, their accuracy, speed, and the payloads that they can carry. He further integrates this with some tactical naval warfare theory.

This was a long article, but it was one of those in which I was so lost in what Ley was describing that when I reached the end, I was disappointed that there wasn’t any more. I certainly look forward to more articles like this from Willy Ley.

Nerves by Lester del Rey

Blurb: A company dcotor, simply caring for the men in a big industrial plant, doesn’t ordinarily lead a particularly exciting life. But when its National Atomic Products, and an atomic furnace gives way, releasing unknown, unstable and deadly products–

While I had read many of Lester del Rey’s stories before this Vacation, this was my first time reading “Nerves.” I’d heard it was a good story, some people suggesting it was del Rey’s best. I thought it a pretty good story,  but not del Rey’s best. In my book, of the del Rey stories I’ve read, “The Day Is Done” (Astounding, May 1939) is still my favorite.

That said, “Nerves” is a new look at what had to be a scary prospect in 1942, even as it is (for different reasons) today. The story is about an atomic plant that undergoes a meltdown. This is not new in science fiction, even in 1942. We have seen, in this Vacation, similarly themed stories, like Heinlein’s “Blowup Happen,” (September 1940, Episode 15). What I think makes “Nerves” unique is the fact that is, perhaps, the first fairly-well-done medical drama we have seen thus far. While story takes place during a kind of meltdown, the actions in the story center around the medical staff of the Atomic National Products Co., and how they cope with the various injuries they see from radiation. I can’t think of another story to-date that has been so medically oriented as this one, and in that sense, it was on the leading edge of something that would become a popular storytelling form (albeit for television) in later years.

As the plant fails, a short-staffed medical team try to make due, coping with the injuries as they can, with the inevitability of a full-scale meltdown looming over them. The characters themselves are fairly well drawn with the country-like doctor Roger Ferrel and his assistants Blake and Jenkins. Perhaps the best characters of all is the nurse, “Doctor” Brown, who is trained as a doctor in all respects but degree and performs her duties very well. There are shortcomings to the characters, however, perhaps a signs of the times, but uncomfortable to read nonetheless. One of the main engineers of the plant is a man named Hokusai. His manner of speaking, while intelligent, is heavily laced with racial stereotypes of the day. And while Hokusai (nicknamed “Hoke”) proves to be an important part of the solution, it was one of those characters that just felt more like a caricature than a person and the story suffered somewhat for that.

The science in the story is also questionable, but the science is not really the focus. The story is meant to examine a situation that could possibly happen and examine how the characters would react to it. In that sense, it fits my personal definition of science fiction almost perfectly: a story which looks at the impact of technological change on society. There are, however, throughout the stories, hints of possibilities. And one that I found interesting took place when the medical staff had gone a long time without sleep and their nerves were on edge:

The boy was exhausted to the limits from the combined strain of the work and his own suppressed jitters, but he looked up in mild surprise as he felt the prick of the needle. Ferrell finished it, and used it on himself before explaining. “Morphine, of course. What else can we do? Just enough to keep us going, but without it we’ll both be useless out there in a few more hours. Anyhow, there isn’t much reason not to use it as there was when I was younger, before the counter-agent was discovered to kill most of its habit-forming tendency. Even five years ago, before they had that, there were times when morphine was useful, Lord knows, though anyone who used it except as a last resort deserved all the hell he got. A real substitute for sleep would be better, though; wish they’d finish up the work they’re doing on that fatigue eliminator at Harvard.”

The use of morphine (and the apology for its use) was interesting, but even more interesting to me was the reference to eliminating sleep and fatigue. We still don’t have such an invention seven decades later, but it somewhat predicted Nancy Kress’s amazing novella, “Beggars In Spain.”

There were a few more interesting medical moments in the story. An open-heart massage is performed at one point, and the use of a kind of prototype heart-lung machine is made at another. In both cases the science is less than perfect (and less so in the latter) but still scouting out areas both of which are used today.

But the real power of this medical drama is the tension-building. Not since Asimov’s “Nightfall” have I encountered a story with such a break-neck pace. It made even the slow, pedantic pieces (and there were a few of them) zip by, wondering what was going to happen next.

Pride by Malcolm Jameson

Blurb: Old Tom, being a robot, couldn’t have any descendants, yet, as must to every robot, there came a time when he could no longer function himself, nor hope for nonmaterial survival–

I don’t know what it is about robot stories that charm me. Especially little gems like “Pride.” Way back in the October 1939 issue (Episode 4) there was Joseph Kelleam’s, “Rust” which I loved. Isaac Asimov ultimately became famous for his robot stories and perhaps my all-time favorite is his Hugo- and Nebula-winning “The Bicentennial Man.” So I was surprised and delighted to find a charming Malcolm Jameson robot story, “Pride.” With Jameson, I’ve come to expect and enjoy his fun and reliable Navy-in-space stories of Captain Bullard and his crew. But “Pride” is not a Bullard story. In fact, “Pride” is a story with a similar theme and form to Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”–only written three and a half decades before.

“Pride” is the story of Old Tom, a free robot that doesn’t really seem to take care of itself. While Old Tom is falling apart–and is often made fun of by some of the human supervisors–he refused to get repairs, instead hoarding his money for a secret plan that he has. Through the course of the story, we learn that 400 years earlier, the creator of the robots, Thurston, willed them freedom upon his death. This was eventually upheld in the courts. The only way for the various labor syndicates to keep checks on the robots was to use their pride against them, paying them wages, but collecting more in debts. Old Tom wasn’t going to be like that.

He works hard throughout the story, to the point of virtual collapse, and then hatches his plan: he uses most of his savings to have a new body constructed, one that is top of the line. His brain cannot be transferred, so instead, he spends more money recording reels of knowledge and advice to be passed along to his next incarnation, thus preserving at least the spirit of who he is and what he represents.

This story is not as well written and intricate as Asimov’s later story, “The Bicentennial Man,” but in a short space, it creates a moving sense of emotion and empathy for Old Tom. It makes me wonder: what is it that we in science fiction find so appealing in aliens and robots. I think the answer is, in part, that in them, we see ourselves, both more and less than we could ever possibly be.

“Pride” surprised me and charmed me, and despite the other great stories and authors in the issue, this one turned out to be my favorite.

Starvation by Frederic Brown

Blurb: He was the mighty hunter, the giant tyrant-lizard king of the world. All feared him, all–ran from him, ran on fleet little mammalian feet.

Frederic Brown’s very short piece this month is about a dying dinosaur–a tyrannosaurus rex that is starving to death. The reason this creature is starving is made pretty plain from Campbell’s blurb. The small animals around him are too small and fast for him to catch enough of to make a decent meal. It is not really much of a story but it is interesting today on a couple of accounts. First, it is told from the point of view of the T. Rex, which is a somewhat original approach. (More often than not, the story is told from a time traveler gone back to the age of dinosaurs.) Second, implied in the story is that what killed off the dinosaurs was not some catastrophic event that we now know was a likely cause, but the coming of the mammals. These small mammals, though a good food source, were not a dependable food source because they could not be caught in bulk by the T. Rex.

The best part of the story is the ending, in which I did feel a bit of sympathy for the dinosaur as it lay down beside the stream to die.

With Flaming Swords by Cleve Cartmill

Blurb: The accident that a new weapon killed some and mutated others produced–the Saints, the self-appointed, selfish, self-adulating Saints, who rules the world with decidedly unstaintly violence and–with flaming swords.

I’ll say up front that I couldn’t get into this story. I liked the voice, but the story just didn’t move for me. I find it interesting that some of these concluding novelettes that Campbell includes have been rough on me. I don’t know if it is my own weariness at getting to the end of the issue, or that Campbell using up his best stuff early. Maybe others can help clarify with their own opinions.

I plan to give it another try, but I found myself falling behind on this Episode because I was struggling with this story. So it will have to wait for another day.

Brass Tacks

There was a fairly usual-length Brass Tacks column this month, with what you’d expect in the letter. But there were at least a few interesting items worth noting. The first is in a letter by a Mr. Earl C. Smith of Corpus Christi, Texas. In a rather long (nearly 3 column!) letter, he writes a short paragraph that I suspect rings true with many science fiction fans today:

If I had my life to live over, I would start reading science-fiction fifteen years earlier. It seems that other people have the same idea and buy up all the back issues before I can get them. I was lucky enough to get a mag from 1939, the one with the last installment of “One Against the Legion.” I enjoyed this–but couldn’t help but think what an excellent sgtory it would make for E. E. Smith to have written.

It turns out Campbell does acknowledge the cover art for the July 1942 cover. In his response to a letter by Virigil Utter, Jr. of Modesto, California, Campbell writes:

We slipped–sorry. That July flag cover was done by Charles de Feo.

And there were a couple of letters by folks you might recognize: one by Milton Rothman, and the other by Anthony Boucher.

Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings

Here is the AnLab results for the July 1942 Astounding:

Title Author AnLab My Rating
1. Tools Clifford D. Simak 2.15 4
2. Collision Orbit Will Stewart 3.25 3
3. Penance Cruise David V. Reed 3.60 5
4. Secret Unattainable A. E. van Vogt 3.85 1
5. The Contraband Cow L. Sprague de Camp 4.18 6

It seems like I was somewhat out of touch with the readers 70 years ago in this instance. And I must admit that I was surprised that van Vogt scored so low this time around, especially when I enjoyed his story as much as I did. Campbell did mention the results of the Probability Zero contest, however:

The results of the voting presents Ray Bradbury with $20 for his yarn about the heavy eaters of Venus, “Eat, Drink and Be Wary.” Bob Tucker’s solution to the Tokyo bombing collects $10–and it was submitted, incidentally, before that bombing was announced, let alone officially based at Shangri-La. The remarkable “Querty of Hrothgar,” who really lives, apparently, on the top bank of typewriter keys, brings the $5 third prize for lying to R. Creighton Buck.

$20 may not sound like much, but in 1942 it was the equivalent (based on the consumer price index) of $281 today.

Here are my rankings for this issue, September 1942:

  1. Pride by Malcolm Jameson
  2. Death Under the Sea (article) by Willy Ley
  3. Nerves by Lester del Rey
  4. The Barrier by Anthony Boucher
  5. The Twonky by Lewis Padgett
  6. Starvation by Frederic Brown
  7. With Flaming Swords by Cleve Cartmill

In Times To Come

Campbell corrects an error in this month’s In Times To Come column:

A number of kind friends pointed out our slight slip on the crediting of the July cover [Episode 37]. Quite right; it was not done by Rogers–but we all make mistakes, and “Cover by Rogers” has been a pretty steady thing for Astounding now. But Rogers is no longer doing covers–he’s in the Canadian army. William Timmins did this month’s cover; the next will be done by von Munchhausen–which is not a pen name, or, rather, brush name.

Interestingly, while fessing up to the mistake, Campbell failed to mention to whom the July cover should be attributed.

Looking ahead to October 1942, there will be stories by Lester del Rey and A. E. van Vogt, as well as a story by a newcomer to Astounding, a fellow named George O. Smith.

See you back here in two weeks.


(Vacation in the Golden Age is now available on Pinterest for those who are into that kind of thing.)

5 thoughts on “Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 39: September 1942

  1. Welcome back from your vacation². I just reread “The Twonky” in Adventures in Time and Space, and I’m going to count it as a time travel story, even though that is but a small part of the story. A horror story, perhaps, more than science fiction. I haven’t yet read “The Barrier,” but it’s available at the local library, so I’ll track it down soon.

  2. Credit to Lester – in a post Pearl Harbor America it took a lot of nerve to include a sympathetic Japanese character. Lines like “No, not soo hot! It iss fail, already.” is a small price to pay.

    And Saints enforcing thier theocracy with flaming swords – is Cleve indulging in some Mormon bashing in his “If This Goes On..” rehash?

  3. This isssue of ASTOUNDING demonstrates the pinch Campbell was feeling with the War swallowing up his stable of writers: Every author in this Sepetember issue had been showcased in UNKNOWN during the previous couple of years.

    While prior to this month Jameson and Del Rey were able to crossover at will between JWC’s two magazines, this was the first time Boucher and Brown were published in the Science Fiction side of the house. And Cartmill and Padgett (I doubt anybody outside of the Manana Literary Society and the Street & Smith editorial offices were aware of Lewis’ true identity) only appeared once before in ASTOUNDING.

    Cartmill was one of UNKNOWN’s stalwarts, with stories in nearly every other issue since 1941, but it’ll be with a 25 page “stinker” a couple years from now that will make Clive one of the most important writers in the history of Science Fiction.

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