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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 40: October 1942

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A variety of writing commitments have been keeping me very busy these last two weeks and so I’ll keep this introduction brief. Here we are, 40 episodes into my Vacation in the Golden Age and “new” writers continue to make their debut in the pages of Astounding. George O. Smith is the new guy this month. And while these new fellows spring on scene, others begin to fade, if only temporarily. This month’s issue contains the last story by L. Ron Hubbard for the next five years.

In between are a good stable of regulars and reliables. And in a rare treat, there are two science articles in this issue, on by Willy Ley and the other by R. S. Richardson–and both are excellent.

Editorial: The Last Stand

Science fiction is not about predicting the future. It is about exploring possible futures, looking at the ways that technological change impacts society. Indeed, outright prediction can be dangerous because in get it wrong, it can lead one to believe the effort is not worthwhile. Bold predictions in turbulent times can be the most difficult to make. So I suppose John Campbell can be forgiven some of the rather remarkable predictions he makes in his editorial for the October 1942 issue. America has been engaged in the war for nearly a year at this point. It’s navy is being reconstructed. So it is, perhaps, natural for Campbell to de-emphasize the importance of naval vessels. For instance, Campbell predicts the end of the battleship because it is so vulnerable to attack by air. He hedges a bit. He says that a battleship with improved technology could make a comeback–and this, too, is understandable. Campbell would want to be in a supportive position at the time the United States Navy is once again fully functional.

Campbell clearly sees the possibility of the airplane and the power it has, but throughout the course of the rest of the editorial, much of which goes into detail on the functional operation of propeller-, jet-, and rocket-driven engines, he makes two predictions which surprised me.

First, Campbell says,

But this war is the last stand of the winged airplane, the flying machine that, like all early developments of a mechanical nature, is a hard, complicated way of doing a simple thing.

Campbell believes that the jet engine will soon take over–and in this he is right–but his caveat has it that the nature of the jet engine will ultimately eliminate the need for the wing. And if you look up into the sky today, you will see that seven decades later, this is still not true.

Second, and perhaps even more remarkably, Campbell offers this prediction of the jet engine:

The increased efficiency of the jet-type ship will have another interesting effect; at lower cruising speeds–down around five hundred m.p.h.–the jet-type ship would be very nearly noiseless, whispering along with not much more than a rustle of wind.

He goes on to argue that at higher speeds, the sounds would be like thunder. As anyone who lives under the approach to an airport knows, jets are not noiseless and it seems an odd prediction to make for someone who has a pretty good understanding of the engineering and physics involved with the engine. And it illustrates why bold predictions like that can be a little foolish, even in hindsight. Campbell lived into the age of the jet plane. I wonder what, if anything, he said about them once they became more common place. Did he ever complain about the noise?

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 40: October 1942

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.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 39: September 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 38: August 1942

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These last few weeks have been rather busy for me. I’m in the midst of reading several books for the book review column I’ll be writing for InterGalactic Medicine Show in June and July. I’ve also been busy researching in preparation for the interviews of various writers I’ll be doing over the Nebula weekend. And I’ve been squeezing in a little fiction-writing of my own when a few spare minutes present themselves (which is rare, I will admit).

But often the most relaxed part of my day is my lunch hour, when I set aside all of that other business, pick up the issue of Astounding that I happen to be reading, and disappear into the 1940s for an hour or so. I look forward to that hour each and every day.

In case anyone is curious about what my workspace looks like when I am actually writing up these Episodes, here is a photo I snapped while working on this one.

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In the photo, roughly from left-to-right, you can see the August issue of Astounding, my iPad which has my notes from the issue. A tube of Pringles, my computer on which I do the actual write-up, a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 minute Imperial IPA, a copy of Alva Rogers’ A Requiem for Astounding, Robert A. Heinlein: A Reader’s Companion, and Fantasy Commentator, all of which I uses as references during my write-up phase.

Editorial: Life as we know it

Campbell’s 1-page editorial this month discusses the way we perceive things and how our perceptions are distorted by the environment in which we evolve. He uses, as his example, the frequencies of light we can see as oppose to, say, what a creature that evolved under a hotter sun (type O or B) might perceive. His discussion is not uninteresting, but I had some difficulty seeing the point in context to anything else. I suspect it was spurred by a comment I seem to recall in last month’s Brass Tacks column, where someone mentioned the phrase, “Life as we know it.” He concludes, however in typical bold Campbell fashion with the following assertion:

We humans have enough of a problem generating light for our uses; be glad Sol wasn’t a blue-violet sun, for we’d probably never have gotten the necessary technical civilization developed.  No primitive group can evolve light-sources giving ultraviolet light, and I wonder whether a high technical civilization could evolve without any source of artificial light.

It seems to me that this is a bold assertion given the title of his editorial, “Life as we know it.” I’m fairly certain the phosphorescent creatures at the bottom of the sea had not yet been discovered when Campbell wrote his article, but it seems to me he should have known better than to call attention to “life as we know it” and what it means, and then make an assertion based solely on “life as we know it” without leaving room for life as we may not know it.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 38: August 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 37: July 1942

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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.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 37: July 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 36: June 1942

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When I started this Vacation back in January 2011, I was 38 years old. I celebrated my fortieth birthday while reading the June 1942 issue in preparation for this episode. By my calculations, I’ll be a month shy of 44 years old when this Vacation finally comes to an end on Leap Day 2016. It’s a bit hard to believe that we’ve now made it through 3 complete Vacation years, 36 consecutive issues of Astounding. It seems like each issue is better than the last. Another trend I’ve noticed (and you may have, too, is that each Episode seems to get longer and longer. Indeed, this episode sets a new record, pushing nearly 8,000 words, or almost 1/10th the length of the magazine in question itself. Sometimes, I can’t help it, especially when Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories are involved. Then, too, Hal Clement makes his debut in this issue an his debut story, “Proof” rather took me by surprise. I hope, therefore, you will forgive me the length.

Editorial: Post-War Duty

Campbell’s 2-page editorial this month discusses what he feels will be the effects of the war on post-War economics. One side-effect, Campbell points out, is that “We are going to be immensely richer after the war is over than we were before.” Campbell defines wealth as both physical capital and “wealth in the form of knowledge,” or what today we’d call “intellectual property.” He argues that with production cranking up to unheard-of levels in order to support the war effort, there will be a necessary improvement in process and production that will carry over into the post-War era. As an example:

They had to find some way to air condition army tanks; men couldn’t fight efficiently in hot climates in the baking interior of a metal box. You can bet we’ll have air-conditioned cars when the war’s over.

Campbell was certainly right about that. He goes onto reason that at these high production levels and high consumption levels (remember all of this stuff being produced is being used as well), there will by necessity be increased wages or lower prices after the War. He argues for increased wages with prices staying about the same. A new car will still cost $700, but a man who made $35/week will now bring home $120/week.

Campbell then explores how the shortages (and accompanying rationing) caused by the War effort will affect industry–in particular the use of metals, of which the war effort needs huge quantities. Silver, he argues, is a terrible “jewel metal” and has much more application in practical manufacturing than could ever be gained from jewels. He goes on to say “There are ninety-two elements in the table–and we haven’t really used a good full half of them.” While he does argue that we could be making better use of titanium, I think he’s glossing over the fact that some of the elements are not used for practical reasons: safety, expense in obtaining them, expense in processing them. Just because it is in the table and fills a certain need does not mean it is easy to use.

That said, I do agree with Campbell that the massive increase in production that happened during the war could have happened at any time if people weren’t as lazy as they tend to be, if they weren’t as focused on doing the same thing in the same way that it’s always been done; if there was more incentive for innovation. Clearly, what was achieved in terms of production in World War II was possible–because it was done! The real question is: can that same kind of innovation in process and production be harvested outside the threat of war?

This issue is just packed with fiction: four novelettes, and five short stories, to say nothing of a science article and the usual mix of departments.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 36: June 1942

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–”

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 35: May 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 34: April 1942

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The beginning of the month is always a fun time. These days, a number of the science fiction magazines to which I subscribe send out their electronic version on the first of the month. (Interestingly, I still receive Analog and Asimov’s two-to-three months ahead of their cover date. Thus, I already have the May Analog and April Asimov’s.) When I get a new issue, the very first thing I do is skim the contents page to see if there are any of those authors I truly admire listed. Today, it’s authors like Jack McDevitt and Connie Willis and Robert Silverberg and Joe Haldeman and Nancy Kress  and Barry Malzberg whose names I look out for. I also look for those writers whom I know personally. I carefully review the contents page and then turn to the “Coming Attractions” department to see who will be appearing in the coming months. Sometime, the anticipation of knowing that a new Barry Malzberg or Connie Willis story is on the way is as exciting as the anticipation leading up to a vacation.

I can only imagine that fans in the 1940s felt the same way. When the latest issue arrived at the local newsstand, or in their mail box, they’d open it up and turn at once to the contents page, looking down the line to see if the issue contained any stories by Heinlein or Asimov, de Camp or del Rey, Jameson or Hubbard. And upon seeing their favorite authors with stories in the issue, they’d then turn to that story and start reading at once, delighted at the notion that there was something brand new by one of these writers. Of course, not every story by a favorite writer is a good one, but there is a kind of quantum state that is formed, the moment when you turn to a new story by a favorite writer but have not yet read it. Will it be a good one? Will it become a classic, a story that fans will talk about for years or decades?

It is impossible for me to wonder this with stories that appear in this Vacation. But I sometimes read a story today, a novella like Ken Liu’s “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary,” and wonder, will this story be talked about 70 years from now as a classic of the genre, in the same way that Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children” or Asimov’s “Nightfall” is spoken about today? Can we really recognize a classic when it first appears, or does time and criticism make it a classic?

Editorial: Too Good at Guessing

Campbell’s 1-page editorial this month touches on the sensitive subject of military secrets and science fiction. Campbell wonders whether, during a time of war, science fiction writers, who are often apt at guessing uses of future technology, should be making those guesses after all. Put another way, should science fiction writers be self-censoring in the same way that scientists were self-censoring about work on the atomic bomb?

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 34: April 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 33: March 1942

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

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

Editorial: Science fiction and war

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

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 33: March 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 32: February 1942

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

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

Editorial: Supernova Centaurus

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

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 32: February 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 31: January 1942

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With Episode 31 we enter the 4th “vacation-year” of this Vacation, 1942. And with the new year comes the new, larger-sized Astounding that Campbell spoke of in the last issue. I was skeptical of the larger size, but I have to admit, it grew on me in minutes. Something abou the larger format just feels more comfortable, makes it seems easier to read. Of course that means that now I am trying to ignore the fact that Astounding will stay at this size for only 16 more issues. I suppose the consolation is that Astounding remained in print, despite the paper shortages of the war. The same cannot be said for Unknown.

The photo below should help better illustrate the difference in size. The issue on the left is the December 1941 issue and the issue on the right is the present, January 1942 issue.

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As far as the interior goes, the new size uses a 2-column page format through most of the issue, just like previous issues. But the columns are much wider and the pages clearly contain more text than before. And as we’ll see later, it also makes use of 3-columns at time.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 31: January 1942

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 30: December 1941

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December 7, 1941, the day that would live in infamy. The December 1941 issue would have hit the news stands on about November 19, 1941, 18 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Plenty of time for most fans to have swallowed the magazine whole, before casting it aside to follow the constant stream of news bulletins that followed the attack. Of course, in the issue there is no indication of the growing threat of war in the United States. I imagine that will change in the coming issues.

The December 1941 issue also closes out 1941 and our third Vacation year. (I will use the term “Vacation year” when referring to issue time as opposed to real present time. Put another way, I cover about 2 Vacation years in about 1 year’s time.) In his book A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes,

1941 was the year that set the standards against which all the following years of the Golden Age were measured. Never again would Astounding run such a high concentration of classical or memorable stories in one twelve-month period.

And indeed, if you look back over the stories that appeared in this Vacation year, it really is quite remarkable. I list my 10 favorite stories from 1941 later on in this Episode and that list alone would probably make a pretty good anthology of Golden Age science fiction.

1941 closes out with, of course, the second part of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Second Stage Lensmen,” as well as stories by Vic Philips, and some names that at first blush, seem like newcomers: Colin Keith, Webster Craig, and Robert Arthur. And there are two good science articles, one by Willy Ley, the other by R. S. Richardson.

And changes are coming, but I’ll let Campbell explain that…

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 30: December 1941

Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 29: November 1941

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Forgive me, it’s been four weeks since my last Vacation episode. Early in my reading for this episode, I caught a cold that was followed by the first ear infection that I can recall since childhood. It made it impossible to do any reading or writing and so I really had no choice but to push this one back two weeks. I was hoping to end 2011 with the December 1941 issue–a kind of pleasant symmetry there, but the December 1941 issue will have to wait until next time.

After two outstanding issues in a row, this one was not quite as good. Part of it may be have been due to my being sick, but I think my sense of things is pretty accurate. In his history of the magazine, A Requiem for Astounding, Alva Rogers writes of this issue:

Because of the total length of “Second Stage Lensmen” (118,000 words), nearly half of the November issue was taken up by the first installment which, of course dominated the whole issue. The only other story in the magazine worth mentioning was Nat Schachner’s swan song in Astounding, “Beyond All Weapons.”

That the other stories were of lesser quality was a small issue, I think. My guess is that no matter what stories appeared in this issue, they wouldn’t have matched up (in Campbell’s mind, or indeed, in the minds of many fans of the time) to Smith. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that Campbell filled the issue with marginal stuff to add focus to the lead serial. More on that shortly. As you will soon see, “Second State Lensmen” was not my favorite story in the issue.

Continue reading Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 29: November 1941