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…
This month’s editorial takes it title from the fact that beginning in January 1942, Astounding will be, well, expanding. As Campbell opens the editorial:
Astounding Science Fiction is going to start the year 1942 with a real and major improvement. The January 1942 issue of Astounding will be the first of a new, large-size Astounding–the same size in shape, area, and thickness as the recenly enlarged Unknown Worlds.
The new sized isues will be 128 pages as opposed to the current 162 pages. However, Campbell says that in terms of wordage, the new size allows for half again as much fiction as the current size. I’ve estimated the average wordage in the 162-page issues at about 67,000 words. If Campbell is right, the new issues will be roughly 100,000 words in length.
Authors like novelettes–and readers always have a shown a preference for them. Now it will be entirely practicable to run a long 35,000 word novella, a 20,000 word novelette, two 15,000 word novelettes, and several short stories of 5,000 to 8,500 words in each issue, together with articles and Brass Tacks.
Campbell notes that the increased size allows for more wordage which means larger payments to the authors, but that is somewhat offset by no substantial increase in distribution costs–so the price of an issue will be going up by 5-cents.
It will be interesting to see how the new size feels. The new size ultimately lasts for 17 months before it is cut back to the present size due to paper shortages in the War (and at the same time, Unknown goes bye-bye). I like the current size because it is compact, but the thought of more fiction in each issue is appealing, as I am sure it must have been to fans at the time. On the other hand, it means squeezing in more reading every 2 weeks. My present pace is 11 pages/day, maybe about 5,000 words or so. In the new format that will go up to about 7,500 words/day.
I recall Isaac Asimov writing in his autobiography that he was annoyed with the new size. He had a nice neat line of Astounding’s in his closet and the new size messed up the even lines of the collection. Later, when he was having the issues cannibalized to put them in bound books, he had to get a special set of books made for the larger issues. The things people complain about!
Second Stage Lensmen, Part 2 by E. E. “Doc” Smith
Blurb: SECOND OF FOUR PARTS. Containing the sequel to “Galactic Patrol” and “Gray Lensman”–“Skylark” Smith’s newest and strongest novel.
As I explained in the last Episode, I couldn’t even get through a third of this latest installment of Smith’s Lensman saga. I include the story here for completeness but since I didn’t attempt to read it, I have nothing to say or add to what I already said last time. You can expect this in the January and February 1942 issues as well.
And yes, I am aware that Smith has yet another installment in the saga coming in this Vacation, in the late 1940s. I will, of course, attempt to read it when I get there. Maybe my attitude will have changed about Smith’s stories. But I’m doubtful. We’ll see.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Colin Keith
Blurb: The Sorcerer–the greatest scientist of his age–wanted a glass of water. He had a lazy apprentice. Now, the apprentice had an idea to save himself work, unfortunately–
I’d never heard of Colin Keith before turning to this story, the title of which jumped out because it seemed to be fantasy rather than science fiction. But the old adage goes, “Don’t judge a story by its title.” And indeed the story is not what it seemed. Neither for that matter is its author, for when I looked up Colin Keith in the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, I discovered he was none other than our own Malcolm Jameson.
This is a case where Campbell’s blurb for the story describes the story almost perfectly–without giving away story. The story is indeed about a man who came to be known as “The Sorcerer” because he was the greatest scientist of his age. What makes him the greatest?
First, he had comprehended that single line of mystical symbols penned by Einstein in his declining years in which was stated the ultimate formula that binds space, time, gravity and all the electrical phenomena together. On top of that he had been able to apply them to practical use.
That “practical use” was the ability to convert matter from the upper atmosphere into just about any other kind of energy or material. This process took place in a huge “factory” carved atop Pikes Peak. The Sorcerer was in charge of the whole affair. He had an assistant and asked his assistant to get him some water–a fairly simple task, it would seem. Meanwhile, the Sorcerer headed into town with several others to have lunch. Because of various power outages Hoskin’s–the Sorcerer’s assistant–can’t simply collect a bottle of the water. But he gets the idea to use the process the Sorcerer developed to just produce a cup full of water. Of course, something goes wrong and he ends up flooding the mountain to say nothing of the town below.
“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is a humorous story and Jameson does a pretty good job of keeping it light and interesting at the same time. He is no de Camp, but I liked this story despite myself. He uses an interesting technique for telling the story, going so far in one view point, only to switch to another and backtrack a bit. But he does this in a manner that is completely clear and I appreciated the technique. The science in the story is pretty far-fetched, but that’s not what the story is really about. What the story is really about is how we tend to over-complicate things that, at their core, are really quite simple. I can almost imagine the story being inspired by an incident Jameson had in the Navy when some underling was a bit overzealous in following an order. Or as Jameson writes at the end of the piece:
“Well, my boy, let me give you a rule to remember. The next time someone asks you to bring him five gallons of water, bring him that–neither more nor less. Overdoing a thing is often as bad a fault as failing to do it altogether.”
Bullard Reflects by Malcolm Jameson
Blurb: Commander Bullard had a team nicely trained in a harmless sport–but it turned out he had a team well-trained in the dangerous sport of outlaw-busting.
And if one dose of Malcolm Jameson isn’t enough, we are treated to a second dose in this issue, although perhaps few at the time realized that the previosu story was by the same author as this next one. “Bullard Reflects” returns us to the familiar Captain Bullard of the Pollux and his crew, as they attempt to capture Ziffler “The Torturer” from his outpost on a Jovian moon. If I am not mistaken, this is the sixth story featuring Bullard and his crew that I’ve encountered in this Vacation, making them by far the most returned to characters so far. But that’s okay, I kind of like them and particularly when Jameson is keeping the stories short–as he does here–they are fun.
“Bullard Reflects” opens with a game of “Dazzle Darts” between his crew and the crew of another ship. Dazzle Darts is a football-like game involving rays of light that are aimed at goals, and that the defenders try to reflect back into the opposing goals Bullard’s crew is beating the pants of the other team when word comes in that The Torturer has been found and Bullard’s crew is sent out to round up him and his cronies. The crew is tricked into letting some men on board who use a chemical to knock out Bullard’s crew. Ziffler has new ray weapons that are almost defenseless. He puts Bullard’s crew into space suits and sends them out onto the moon to be hunted. But Bullard and his crew discover some meteor rock that will reflect the rays of the new weapons and use those rocks, like their reflectors in Dazzle Darts to win the day.
I get the idea from the story that Malcolm Jameson has reached a certain stride and is just having a blast writing them. As with most of these stories, they are not much more than U.S. Navy-in-space stories, but I’ve grown to like Bullard and his men, and I imagine many fans at the time probably felt the same.
There is one thing about this story that sets itself apart from other Bullard stories: it’s feghoot-type ending. After defeating the villains with the same reflection techniques used in Dazzle Darts, Bullard wires home the following message to his commanders:
After reflection, the enemy succumbed. –Bullard
Maybe overdoing it just a bit with that ending, but I still enjoyed the story.
Sergeant Terry Bull’s Terrible Weapon (article) by Willy Ley
Blurb: An article concerning the terrible–if as yet hypothetical–weapons designed by day-dreaming ordinance experts. These not only might be, but could be, and would work!
Willy Ley is back for only his second science article in 1941, but his best this year by far, and indeed, my favorite Willy Ley article since “Space War” back in the August 1939 issue (Episode 2). “Sergeant Terry Bull’s Terrible Weapon” is an article about ideas for improvements in weaponry in the military industry. The strange title comes from an actual column in a magazine called The Infantry Journal. As Ley describes it:
One of the most important America military journals, The Infantry Journal, has been publishing such dreams for some time. They were all written by “Sergeant Terry Bull,” and they are laid against a common background, the war between the United States and the “Mungo Empire” due to take place some years from now. “Sergeant Terry Bull,” in those articles, is instructing his men from time to time, either about new forms of army organization, about new tactics of combat or simply about the use and advantage of new weapons that come from government laboratories and the factories to the battlefield
Ley describes how there are all kinds of crazy ideas submitted by people within the military, the government and even civilians, but argues that some of the best ideas are those were small changes make big improvements. He describes several of these possible changes and you can tell he is an expert in his particular field of ballistics and rockets and he does. He starts by describing a new kind of design for a hand grenade that is a kind of mash-up between the Allied “pineapple” and the German “potato masher”–giving a solider all of the advantages of both, but with additional safety built into it. (So that accidentally dropping a live grenade will not set it off, for example.) Such a grenade, properly designed, can also double as a mortar shell, making it more practical in multiple battle situations.
Next he describes a “destroyer”–a tank destroyer. He describes the design of the machine, how it is crewed (3 men, a driver, a gunner and a loader) and why something smaller and faster has a big advantage over a standard tank. There are diagrams included, and Ley makes clear through some simple phusics and math why outputs are better. He goes on to describe a new gun and bullet design, and wraps up with a new design for defensive land minds. I was absorbed by this read as much as I was with Ley’s earlier article on ballistics.
I know very little about weaponry, but it would be interesting to get a military historian’s perspective and find out if any of these subtle inventions ever proved as useful as Willy Ley made them seem.
Operation Successful by Robert Arthur
Blurb: The Callisto Tweeters were remarkable birds–surgeon birds with an unholy skill. They could patch up a human wreck as neatly as a mechanic could overhaul a smashed spaceship–
I had no idea who Robert Arthur was when I started reading “Operation Successful,” but I assumed that it was likely a pseudonym, like many of the writers in this issue. So I looked him up, just to see who he really was–and it turns out he really is Robert Arthur. What’s more, I’ve read him before. In fact, I even own one of his books! Back in 3rd or 4th grade, I remember ordering some books through the school book fair. One of them was part of a series of books about THE THREE INVESTIGATORS called The Mystery of the Green Ghost. It was by Robert Arthur. The same Robert Arthur who wrote “Operation Successful.”
“Operation Successful” is the story of a rogue Space Patrolmen named Mike Devans who heads out to Saturn to capture Nels Banning for the murder of Banning’s soon-to-be father-in-law. Only Banning is innocent. Devans set him up. We get the picture from both sides because Arthur switches view points throughout the story, although he does so in a way that works for the story and is not at all confusing. Rather die in space than go to the gas chamber, Banning causes their space ship to crash on Callisto, where both men are gravely injured. Fortunately, there are birds on Callisto, the “Tweeters,” the can perform brilliant surgery, although they usually jumble things up. Devans awakes to find himself perfectly healthy. He’s told that his body was smashed badly, but his brain was fine. Meanwhile, Banning’s body was fine, but his brain was smashed. But it turns out that the Tweeters put Devan’s brain in Banning’s body, and Banning’s brain in Devan’s body. And when the authorities arrive, they carry Devans off to the gas chamber, thinking he’s Banning.
This was a fun story that started out as a kind of locked-room mystery. You knew that Devans had managed the perfect frame and the mystery, of course, was how Banning was going to get out of it. I liked that Devans was a bad guys, but not a completely bad guy. His derangement was to to his drug use, and his drug of choice was the forbidden “nightberry cigarette.” But as a whole the story was fast-paced, entertaining, and fun. Nothing special, nothing standout, just good science fictional entertainment. Sometimes, that’s all you’re looking for.
Homo Saps by Webster Craig
Blurb: Indicating that it may not always be the burden bearer who is the dumber, harder worker–
Webster Craig was another name that I didn’t recognize but a quick search turned it up as a pseudonym for Eric Frank Russell. I’m not certain why Campbell didn’t emphasize this more. In the case of Malcolm Jameson, I suppose it makes sense since Jameson has two stories in the issue. But Russell seems to be a popular writer and in an issue with lots of unfamiliar names, one would think a name like Eric Frank Russell in the table of contents would be a boon. Could it be that Campbell didn’t want any of these other writers to outshine Smith?
Craig/Russell’s story, “Homo Saps” is a “Sahara on Mars” story. Several human traders lead 45 camels across Martian deserts in search of goods that they can trade with the Martian’s themselves. But the Martian’s don’t speak. They’ve never spoken. And compared to the camels, they treat the humans rather poorly. Whenever the humans are in town, the Martians are drawn to the beasts. At one point, a Martian directs one of the humans to a tent in which there is a device that gives the Martians artificial speech. This is where the humans learn that the Martians are telepathic, “just like the camels.” That the humans aren’t telepathic makes the Martian consider them a lesser form of life.
Russell’s writing makes the story more interesting than it might otherwise have been. There is a distinct Britishness to the characters and the humor, too, seems distinctly British. Without the style that Russell adds through his writing, this story would have been mediocre at best. What I find most interesting about this story, however, is that Campbell printed it at all. Campbell was well known for not liking alien superiority over humans. And yet in this case, the story seems to me to imply that the Martians look at humans as inferior because they don’t have telepathy. Maybe his rule was not hard and fast.
Inside Out Matter (article) by R. S. Richardson
Blurb: A discussion of one of the most intriguing discoveries of recent years; not only is inverse, or contraterrene matter a theoretical possibility–it exists and we’re constantly bombarded with bits of it!
R. S. Richardson is back with a very short article on “Inside Out Matter,” or what today we call “antimatter.” While a very short article, it was a fascinating read because the idea was so new that, compared to what we know about antimatter today, it seems a bit quaint. As Richardson explains,
Contraterrene means just that–a type of matter exactly the opposite of ordinary or terrene matter. Instead of atoms composed of a positive nucleus surrounded by electrons, it consists of a negative nucleus surrounded by positrons.
The implication, Richardson points out, is complete anihiliation when matter and antimatter collide. From this, however, an interesting theory is proposed. Richardson (and others) wonder if some apparent craters on earth were caused by antimatter meteors–because no trace of meteor rock was found. We know better today, but it was an interesting proposal to see in a science fiction magazine in late 1941.
And it should be pointed out that this is one case where Campbell’s blurb is way over the top. Campbell might have had some strange ideas, but he was a smart man and he could certainly understand the implications of antimatter that Richardson presents in this article. If we were really being “constantly bombarded with bits of it,” you would think there wouldn’t be much of us left.
Defense Lines by Vic Phillips
Blurb: The hillbillies of the asteroids! Outcasts of the System, hated by men who ran the ships of space–yet they held the answer to the problem that had to be solved!
The final story in the issue is a “novelette” by Vic Phillips, which actually feels more like a novella. It is for this story, I believe, that the abstract-looking Rogers cover of the issue was painted. I’ve had mixed feelings about Vic Phillips’ stories in the past, but this was a good one, an early Golden Age example of what would today be called “space opera.”
The story is about a reporter, Strike Morgan, who is enlisted by his boss to investigate some strange goings-on outside the asteroid belt. The corridors through the asteroid belt are controlled by a large corporation (which also owns the newspaper for which Strike works) and there is a need for secrecy in sneaking outside to find out what is really happening. As it happens, Strike has experience passing through the asteroid belt. He has encountered the Bevan’s–the “hillbillies” living in the asteroids before. They helped to repair his ship. With the aid of a beautiful young code-breaker named Leni, they head out through the asteroid belt to make contact with the Bevan’s and then to get passage through to eavesdrop on what is really happening in the outer system.
It turns out that some race from outside the solar system is attacking and have defeated much of the Defense Fleet. The asteroid belt itself becomes the last line of defense to protect the inner planets–including Earth–from destruction. Using some creative ideas–charing the asteroids with positive or negative electric charges–and with the help of the Bevan’s they defeat the invaders.
The story is a well-written action adventure that grabs the reader right away with a snappy dialog between Strike and his boss. There is a lot of explanation at the outset, which can sometimes be boring (what we call today, “too infodumpy”) but Phillips makes it all an interesting read, and integral to the story itself. There is some nice interactions between Strike, Leni, Hugh and Durk Bevans and I think Phillips did a good job of handling a larger than average cast for the story being told.
It was a fun story, and a good one to close out the year.
There were two letters in the Brass Tacks column, both relating to the World Science Fiction Convention, that I thought noteworthy enough to point out.
First, for those of you interested in Heinlein’s Guest of Honor speech from the Third World Science Fiction convention:
Dear Mr. Campbell:
Believe your readers would be interested to know: “The Discovery of the Future,” Robert A. Heinlein’s dynamic speech, as delivered at the Third World Science-Fiction Convention and transcribed directly from sonodiscs is available in published form, priced at $0.10, from–Assorted Services, 236-1/2 N. New Hampshire, Hollywood, California.
Then there is this one:
4TH WORLD SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTION
The members of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society wish to announce that Los Angeles has been chosen for the 1942 WORLD SCIENCE FICTION CONVENTION. Preparations are now under way, and the exact convention date will be announced later.
I call this one out because there was no convention in 1942–the War put a hold on Worldcons for nearly five years. The actual 4th World Science Fiction Convention was held in 1946 in Los Angeles–with A. E. van Vogt has the Guest of Honor.
Analytical Laboratory and My Ratings
Here are the ratings from October 1941:
|1. By His Bootstraps||Anson MacDonald||1.5||4|
|2. Common Sense||Robert Heinlein||1.65||2|
|3. Not Final!||Isaac Asimov||2.7||3|
|4. Two Percent Inspiration||Theodore Sturgeon||4.0||1|
|5. Manic Perverse||Winston K. Marks||4.5||5|
Interestingly, I agreed with three of the five rankings this month, and simply disagreed on 1st and 4th place. I’m still waiting for that elusive issue where I am in complete agreement with contemporary fans in my ranks. I suspect that Heinlein/MacDonald were at a stage where his reputation simply made him a natural choice for first place. I really do think Sturgeon had the better story in the October issue.
Here are my ratings for the December 1941 issue:
- Bullard Reflects by Malcolm Jameson
- Sergeant Terry Bull’s Terrible Weapon (article) by Willy Ley
- Defense Line by Vic Phillips
- The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Colin Keith
- Operation Successful by Robert Arthur
- Homo Saps by Webster Craig
Because I didn’t read the second part of “Second Stage Lensmen,” I decided not to include it in my ratings. I made my opinion about it clear enough in the previous episode, and there’s no point in rehashing it here.
And since this issue wraps up 1941, it only makes sense that I provide a listing of what I think are they best stories of the year. And so, here they are:
- Methuselah’s Children by Robert Heinlein (July, August, September)
- Nightfall by Isaac Asimov (September)
- Microcosmic God by Theodore Sturgeon (April)
- Magic City by Nelson S. Bond (February)
- Universe by Robert Heinlein (May)
- Old Fireball by Nat Schachner (June)
- Two Percent Inspiration by Theodore Sturgeon (October)
- Mechanical Mice by Eric Frank Russell (as by Maurice G. Hugi) (January)
- Poker Face by Theodore Sturgeon (March)
- Beyond All Weapons by Nat Schachner (November)
That’s not a bad list, I think. Heinlein makes the list twice, Schachner twice, and Sturgeon, to my surprise, makes the list three times! I say to my surprise, because prior to this Vacation, I read very little Sturgeon. Not for any reason, other than I just never got around to him. I always had the idea that I wouldn’t like his stories. How I’ve been proven wrong in 1941!
Alva Rogers points out that while Heinlein dominated 1941, van Vogt was conspicuously absent:
The failure of van Vogt to follow up o his sensational “Slan” with something a little more powerful than “Not the First” and “The Seesaw” was one of the mysteries of the year. There have, of course, been instances of authors who have shown great promise with a few stories and then cease to exist as far as science fiction is concerned, but van Vogt, from his first published story, “Black Destroyer,” which was so enthusiastically received by readers, to the tremendously sensational “Slan” barely a year later, not only showed promise, he had already arrived. It could only be hoped that something better would come from him in the next year.
By the time the January 1942 issue of the new large Astounding would appear the United States would be at war, and things would never appear quite the same again.
In Times To Come
I have just peeked at the contents page for the new, super-sized Astounding for January 1942. 6 pieces of fiction, and two articles and a list of familiar names that include: Jack Williamson (with the lead novelette), Eric Frank Russell, L. Ron Hubbard, Norman L. Knight, Malcolm Jameson, and L. Sprague de Camp. And of course, part 3 of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Second Stage Lensmen.”
And so our third vacation year comes to a close. As Will Durant wrote at the end of Caesar and Christ, the third volume of The Story of Civilization, Thank you , patient reader.”
See you back here in two weeks.