Category Archives: 1941

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…

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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.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 28: October 1941

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As I finished up the issue at hand, I looked ahead on the calendar and discovered one of those nice little congruities which life sometimes tosses you. I will finish 2011 with 30 Episodes in this Vacation. That isn’t any news, but what is kind of cool is that Episode 30 takes us through 1941 and will come out on December 26, 2011. So 1941 will wrap up at the end of December 2011, some seventy years after the issue appeared. I’ll have more to say about 1942 in Episode 30, but there is an interesting change that takes place in Astounding beginning in 1942. Some of you probably know what it is, but for those that don’t, you’ll just have to sweat it out for 4 more weeks until I report it in Episode 30.

This issue was a mixed bag. Coming off the incredible September 1941 issue, some of the stories were a bit of a let down in this issue, but some of them also turned out to be surprisingly good. You’ll have to judge for yourself, of course, if you’ve read the stories that appear in this issue. I was surprised with what turned out to be my favorite piece in the issue.

A while back I produced an Author’s Index to this Vacation. I am now in the process of working on a Title index as that might be useful to folks who know what story they are looking for, but no necessarily who wrote it. No ETA on when I’ll have this finished, but stay tuned.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 27: September 1941

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A good argument can be made that the issue which you are about to read about is one of the best issues to come out of the Golden Age. The issue contains three stories that have gone on to become classics of the genre. Contained within its pages are names like Isaac Asimov, Alfred Bester and Robert Heinlein. The cover for the issue–by Huber Rogers–is probably one of his most famous covers, and in my mind, certainly one of his most striking. I’d been looking forward to reading this issue since my Vacation started and I found myself frequently wondering if a fifteen-year old reading this issue in the summer of 1941 would have an inkling that what they held in their hands was something special. So you will forgive me if this Episode runs a bit longer than usual. There is a lot to talk about.

As I was updating the Author’s Index in preparation for this issue, I made a few interesting discoveries, all of which surround pseudonyms. Pseudonyms were big in the Golden Age for a variety of reasons. The Index that I put together lists stories under the actual author’s name with a reference to the pseudonym. The pseudonym itself is listed in the index with a link back to the actual author’s name. I discovered that three authors–two of which already appeared in the Index, and one new to this Episode–were all pseudonyms that I had missed.

The first is Lee Gregor, who we’ve seen in Episode 2 and Episode 4. It turns out that Lee Gregor is none other than Milton A. Rothman, who under his own name has penned several letters that have appeared in the Brass Tacks.

The second is non-fiction writer Arthur McCann. I was updating my Index adding links to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, and when I got to McCann, I was rather stunned to learn that McCann is none other than our editor, John W. Campbell himself. In this issue, we find Campbell with a non-fiction article under his own name, which makes you wonder why he used the McCann pseudonym. Futhermore, Mr. Arthur McCann has also had a few letters in Brass Tacks under the name McCann. This seems a little ethically questionable, if you ask me.

The third and final discovery was made just before I started reading this issue. I’d never heard of Caleb Saunders, who has a story below as you will see, and so I went to look him up to see what else he’d done. Those of you in the know are already ahead of me–but I was again surprised to discover that Caleb Saunders is none other than our prolific friend, Robert A. Heinlein. That gives Heinlein two stories in this watershed issue of Astounding.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 26: August 1941

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More and more I find myself referring back to things I wrote in these episodes and it was becoming increasingly difficult to quickly locate what I was looking for. For a while, I had in mind a master index, and shortly after Episode 25 was released, I also released the first version of the Author Index to the Vacation in the Golden Age. This index has proven very valuable to me since I first created it. It lists all of the authors who have appeared in the Vacation alphabetically, and then includes the list of stories or articles in the order that they appeared with a reference to the issue and Episode. If the story was written under a pseudonym, it will appear under the author’s real name with a reference to the pseudonym. The pseudonyms do appear in the main listing, but will always refer back to the main entry. In addition, I have put in bold any titles that I rated as the best title of the issue.

I plan to add the data for each subsequent issue just before the Episode containing that information goes live. So you will note that all of the stories contained in this episode also appear in the Index. You can use the search feature in your browser to search for a specific name or title when you are on the Author Index page. Over time, I’m hoping to add some additional features to this index to make it a more useful tool, but for now, I’ve kept it pretty simple. Of course, I am open to any suggestions that you might have.

Editorial: Atomic Power vs. Coal

Campbell’s 1-page editorial this month is exactly what it sounds like: a short discussion of atomic power vs. coal as a source of energy. The numbers presented by Campbell are interesting in a historic context but I think they’ve come to be dwarfed by reality and consumption. There are two interesting items about this particular piece worthy of note:

  1. Campbell predicts (big surprise) that atomic power will ultimately replace the need for coal as far as generating power goes.
  2. Campbell does not expect our need for coal to go away because of the byproducts of its processing: tar, benzol, toluol, etc.

As Campbell says in his conclusion: “Coal’s dirty stuff–but wonderfully useful, atomic energy or not!”

There are six stories and an article in this issue: two novelettes, three short stories, and part 2 of a serial. The Rogers cover for this issue is a nice one, but not an outstanding one, in my opinion. Indeed, as you’ll see later, it is hard to say what story the cover illustration is for. Certainly not Schachner’s “Jurisdiction.” There is a nice symmetry to the image, with the spaceships leaning on one slant and the clouds on the opposite slant, but the cover does not otherwise stand out for me. Not so for Alva Rogers, who writes:

August was distinguished by one of Rogers’ finest covers, a beautiful painting of steel blue space ships nestling in their launching pads, which illustrated “Jurisdiction” by Nat Schachner.

Really? What scene in the story does it illustrate? I can’t figure it out.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 25: July 1941

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I have just returned from a science fictional weekend spent attending various panels at Capclave up in Gaithersberg, Maryland (a post on this is forthcoming). It’s always fun to attend conventions because you get to talk with people who breath the same kind of air that you breath. And you can talk about old stories, like the stories that appear in this issue of Astounding, and count on at least a few people having read the stories.

If you didn’t see the earlier announcement, these Vacation posts are now being reprinted from the beginning over at Amazing Stories.com. The episodes are coming out every other week, alternating with the appearance of the new episodes. Episode 1 appeared over there  last Monday. It’s nice to get the additional exposure for these posts. Hopefully it means that more people can enjoy them.

And apparently, there are people out there that are enjoying them.  I am starting to hear more and more from people who read these posts and write to tell me how much they enjoy them. That’s always nice to hear.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 24: June 1941

 

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It is hard to believe, but with this Episode, I’ve now completed the first two years of my Vacation in the Golden Age. The schedule has changed slightly and there have been one or two delays in episodes (and I apologize for the most recent delay). But the joy of reading these issues has not diminished, only increased with every turn of the page. And while overall, the June issue is rather lackluster (Alva Rogers called it “mediocre”), there is still important stuff being published by key people in the genre. And it sets up Episode 25, which will be our third venture into the now infamous “July” issues of Astounding, which seem to be exceptional.

Having completely the first two years of this massive vacation, I feel rather what Will Durant must have felt as he completed each book in his Story of Civilization. And so it seems only apropos to quote his concluding remarks at the end of his second book in that series, The Life of Greece. He wrote:

For those who have come thus far, thank you for unseen but ever felt companionship.

Editorial: Interpreters May Still Be Needed

Campbell opens the issue with a 1-page editorial on  the need for translators once mankind has mastered telepathy. I have to admit that when I read “telepathy” I rolled my eyes and thought, here goes Campbell again. And indeed, it was a rather confusing editorial in which he tried to turn on its head the assumption that if you can read someone’s mind, you can de facto understand what they are thinking. I don’t think he was particularly successful in either his argument or his explanation.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 23: May 1941

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Twenty-three episodes into this Vacation and I think I am finally beginning to get the hang of these columns. I altered my approach to this issue and you will have to let me know if it shows. Up until now, I would take notes as I read the issue, and then, on Sunday morning, I’d gather all the notes, along with the issue and a few other reference books and sit down to write the Episode–all 4,000 words or so (the present one is nearly 5,000 words making it the longest thus far.) This process presented me with some difficulties:

  1. There was the stress of having to produce a 4,000 word column on a Sunday morning
  2. There was the stress of being able to remember everything I wanted to discuss from the notes I took.

Also, given my busy schedule, I wasn’t always able to get in some reading every day and that meant that I often found myself playing catch-up a few days before having to write the Episode.

This time, I did things differently. First,I kept apace of my reading so that I never really fell behind. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I did the write up for each story as I finished reading the story. That meant that today, all I had to do was write the other items (this intro, Brass Tacks, In Times To Come, etc.) and put the whole thing together. I hope that it means my observations are a little more clear and that I touch on things I might have otherwise forgotten if I had waiting until the end to write up the whole thing. You’ll have to decide if you notice any difference.

In any event, this issue was a treat, one of the better issues I’ve come across in this Vacation so far. It is unusual for having seven pieces of fiction and no articles whatsoever. There are two novelettes, four short stories, and the conclusion of a serial. And it all beings with Campbell discussing the future…
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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 22: April 1941

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As you read this latest Episode in my Vacation in the Golden Age, I am likely at the hospital feeding my newborn daughter, or more likely, changing her diaper while my wife recovers from the delivery. Nevertheless, I was determined to see this Episode go out on schedule, and indeed, reading through the May 1941 issue, which I’ve already started is providing a kind of mini-vacation between feedings and diaper changes and rocking the Little Miss back to sleep.

Since we last met, NPR released the results of the votes for the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books. More than 60,000 votes were collected, and in looking through the list, I noted something interesting. There are only a few books on the list from before 1950, and as far as I can tell, those from the early 1940s are exclusively by Isaac Asimov. In fact, his collection I, Robot is number 16 on the list and we’ll find the first Astounding story to appear in that collection in the current episode, “Reason.” Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy also appears at #8 on the list and the first Foundation story will appear in the May 1942 issue, just a year beyond our current point in this Vacation. (And if you are counting, that would make it Episode 35, scheduled to appear on February 20, 2012.) There are quite a few books from the 1950s and more as the decades roll on. But it is nice to know that in a sample of 60,000 people, there are some pieces from the Golden Age that are still held in very high regard.

The current issue presents us with–count them!–eight pieces of fiction: a new serial, 2 novelettes, and 5 short stories. There is also a science article and the usual departments.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 21: March 1941

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There is a personal significance to the Rogers cover for the March 1941 issues. It is one of my favorite covers so far but not just for the excellent story for which it was painted. Back when I started acquiring these issues at the beginning of the year, this particular issue sat upright on my desk, leaning against a stack of magazines. My little boy would see it and say, “Airplane!” Every so often he would walk into my office and say, “Daddy, airplane,” and I would find the issue and show it to him. And he would always seem delighted by it. Eventually, I got an idea. I took a high-resolution photo of the cover of the issue and then printed it out on 8-1/2 x 11-inch paper. I found a nice wooden frame and framed the “cover” and mounted the picture on my son’s wall above his crib. That way, when he went to sleep at night, he could look at it.

My son has graduated from crib to bed and from calling it an “airplane” to calling it a “spaceship”, but that cover is still frame and hangs over his bed where he can see it at night. I wonder when Rogers created that cover if he imagined it would fill a two-year old with a sense of wonder some seven decades later?

The March issue contains 7 pieces of fiction this month: two novelettes, four short stories, and the concluding part of Anson MacDonald (Robert Heinlein)’s serial, “Sixth Column”. There is also a science article by R. S. Richardson.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 20: February 1941

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When the Golden Age began with the July 1939 (Episode 1) issue of Astounding, spaceflight of any kind, let along human spaceflight was still a dream of science fiction writers and perhaps a few eccentric scientists. It would be some 23 years before the United States put a man in space. Between Episode 19 and this Episode, the 133rd and last space shuttle flight took place and for the moment, there is a pause in the human spaceflight program in the United States. I recently wrote why I think this pause is temporary, but part of my reasoning involved the fact that we, as humans, have a desire to explore the unknown, and science fiction writers, many of whom appear in this Vacation, were pioneers in imagining just how it might be done.

On the whole, many of the stories written in the Golden Age didn’t really capture the complexities of space flight. On the other hand, some of the stories did manage to imagine some of the realities of it, not just scientific challenges, but social and political ones. For me, science fiction is not and never has been a literature of prediction, but rather one of exploration. It explores the possibilities, examines how technological change impacts society for better or worse, and reports back in imaginative ways the impact of those changes. Hard science fiction stories in particular, which Campbell willingly or otherwise helped introduce, act almost like primitive models for such exploration. Hard science fiction stories today are rather different than what you’ll find in this Vacation–everything evolves over time–but in many ways, they are better. They are written by writers with a better understand of the underlying science and a better ability to assess the impact of technological change in ways that could not be done before the dawn of the space age. The important explorations that these writers today will make are not necessarily those to other world, but instead, how we will overcome our political, fiscal, and bureaucratic challenges of getting to those other worlds.

Will it be governments or private industry or some combination that will get us there? It is impossible to say for certain. But just as the writers of the Golden Age gave us possibilities for getting to, surviving and living in space in the first place, so the writers today will explore our options and challenges in making that next giant leap.

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Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 19: January 1941

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Happy new year and welcome to 1941. And what a year it looks to be. I posted a preview of the covers for 1941 yesterday, and these covers are now also available on the main Vacation index page. Reading the letter columns of the time, fans clearly through the magazine was getting better and better. And 1941 looks to keep that trend going. I think Robert Heinlein has a story in 9 out of the 12 issues in 1941. Isaac Asimov starts his regular appearances in the magazine and we’ll start to see his early Robot stories appear this year. (The first of the Robot stories, “Robbie” appeared in one of Fred Pohl’s magazines and was given the awful title of “Strange Playfellow”.) But it is this year that the Laws of Robotics will be codified for the first time. There are some promising serials by “new” names, as well as serials by old favorites. Doc Smith has a new Lensman serial toward the end of the years. In all, it looks like an outstanding year, marred only, perhaps, by the tragic events that brought the United States into the Second World War during December.

Magazines evolve over time. We’ve already seen some of that in this Vacation, and we will see more of that as the year progresses into 1942, when the size and layout of Astounding changes. Change can be good. You’ll notice some subtle changes in the format of this Episode. While the writing style (I hope) stays the same, I’ve tried to make the organization more obvious and easier to follow. In particular, I’ve tried to make it more clear where in a given episode  reader can find a particular piece. This is in preparation for some new features I am hoping to release in the next couple of months that will allow readers to more easily cross-reference authors and stories and see a listing of episodes that a specific author appears in. Keep an eye out for that. One other change: I’ve put Campbell’s blurbs of the stories in boldface type directly below the story titles.

For now, however, relax, take your mind off Google+, the evening news, the boss, the kids, and slip back into the seemingly halcyon days of 1941…

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