Category Archives: Stirring Science Stories

Stirring Science Stories v02n01, March 1942

ISFDB link

Editor, Donald A. Wollheim

Fiction:
The Perfect Invasion • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth [as by S. D. Gottesman]
The Giant • short story by Basil Wells
Blind Flight • short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by Millard Verne Gordon]
The Day Has Come • short story by Walter Kubilius
The Golden Road • novelette by C. M. Kornbluth [as by Cecil Corwin]
The Goblins Will Get You • short story by John B. Michel [as by Hugh Raymond]
Masquerade • short story by C. M. Kornbluth [as by Kenneth Falconer]
The Long Wall • short story by Robert A. W. Lowndes [as by Wilfred Owen Morley]
The Unfinished City • short story by Donald A. Wollheim [as by Martin Pearson]

Non-fiction:
Cover • by Hannes Bok
Interior artwork • by Boris Dolgov (2), Hannes Bok (10), Roy Hunt (2), Hall
Past, Present and Future • editorial
Fantasy and the War
The Vortex
• letters
Fear of Sleep • poem by Emil Petaja
The Fantasy World • essay by Donald A. Wollheim

The reason I ended up reading this issue was that I thought it might be a good idea to try to review as many of the 1942 magazines as I could before the 1943 Retro-Hugo awards, which I thought were due in 2019. Then I discovered that they will be awarded this year (2018). D’oh. By the time I found this out I’d already started looking at this magazine and found my interest piqued by both Bok’s artwork and the large number of stories contributed by Cyril M. Kornbluth (three in this issue).
Stirring Science Fiction (and its companion magazine, Cosmic Science Fiction) had an interesting birth.1 The editor Donald Wollheim had pitched the magazines to Albing Publishing, whose Stirring Detective Stories and Stirring Western Stories he had seen on the newsstand. They agreed to hire him but gave him almost no budget for the magazine—Wollheim took the job for the experience, and initially relied on a number of free stories from his Futurian (a fan organisation of the time) friends and others. After three issues of each title the publisher went bust. This fourth issue of Stirring Science Fiction came from another company before being killed off by ‘wartime constraints’ (presumably the same paper rationing that would do for Unknown a year or so later).

The issue itself leads off with Past, Present and Future, a one column editorial/introduction next to the contents listing, which mentions the magazine’s change to a larger format, and that it is now monthly (as I said above, this was the last issue.)2

The fiction begins with the first of three Kornbluth stories, The Perfect Invasion. It starts off in super-science space opera mode:

Their ships were marvellous things. They were so big that they were built at special drydocks. When they took to the ether from these they would never touch land again until they were scrapped. There simply wasn’t anything firm enough to bear their weight. You could explore a line-ship like a city; wander through its halls for a year and never cross the same point. When the big guns were fired they generally tore a hole in space; when the gunshells exploded they smashed asteroids to powder. p. 6

The story itself is initially a proto-‘Berserker’ one: Earth’s colonies are attacked by an overwhelming but unidentified enemy who jam communications and kill everyone. They have weapons much more advanced than the Earth fleet. The bulk of the story concerns itself with Commander Bartok’s attempts to mount a defence against a background of a collapsing, disordered Earth empire (this part is quite well done and I was vaguely reminded of Asimov’s ‘Foundation series,’ the first story of which, Foundation, appeared in the May 1942 issue of Astounding). Meanwhile, his sidekick, Babe MacNeice (parts of this read like a hard-boiled detective story), goes off in a single seat ship to investigate.
The second half of the story has Bartok receive a message from Babe giving information about the type of spaceships the attackers have, and that she has been captured. He follows her, and ends up a captive of what turn out to be robots. Later they discover that (spoiler) the first of the attackers was built by a teenager, and when they learned about fanaticism it all got a bit out of hand.

Bartok later has the teenager’s brain installed in the protean robot (“He was a nice kid, but it was a flagrant piece of criminal negligence, monkeying with robots.”) and the rest of the robots perish in a civil war. Nonsense, but there are some flashes of talent in the first half.
The Giant by Basil Wells has Rolf experimenting with two primitive matter transmission devices when an accident flings him into the far future. A tiny man called Jek greets him, and explains humanity’s reduced size:

“Before the Great Change,” Jek [said], “all men were giants. Too many men crowded Earth. Even in the oceans they lived on artificial islands. There were many wars to capture land already overcrowded. Men and women starved.
“So the scientist reduced the size of men. By radiations, glandular treatment or some other means. The records are not clear and many of the books are destroyed. But when men were a foot tall Earth was big enough for all of them.” p. 16

He warns Rolf that the other villagers will kill him if they discover him. Shortly afterwards this happens, and they both escape to an area where larger humans are known to exist. Rolf and Jez find two sisters and there is a fight with the little people before they all escape in a spaceship.

I assume this awful story was one of the ones given to the editor for nothing.
Blind Flight by Donald A. Wollheim is the first of two stories by the magazine’s editor. This one begins with a convincing description of an astronaut getting into a spherical spaceship for a test flight:

The huge ball, towards whose exact center he so laboriously crawled, was about one hundred feet in diameter and perfectly spherical. Though the outer surface was honeycombed with vents and sensitive cells, there was no window or viewing porte of any description. Sedgwick was being interred alive in the middle of this globe of metal, yet, as the clicks of other metal partitions fell into place behind him, he was not afraid in the slightest.
He had wondered whether he would feel fear when the day for the real test came. Sometimes he had awakened at night with a cold sweat and a ghastly dream of burial alive in an iron coffin. Yet now, as he, neared the little bubble in the core, he realized in a detached objective sort of way that he was quite calm and collected. He knew that was the factor which had made him desirable for this job, nonetheless each time he realized it, it came as a sort of surprise. p. 21

The first half continues in the same vein:

The Sphere was brought to a halt at the proper time and hung in space slowly revolving on its own axis.
It was now about six million miles from Mars and there it would wait for ten hours or so until the red planet had been thoroughly photographed by the telescopic cameras and recorded in other ways by other instruments.
The man could detect where it was by the glow registering on the surface cell clusters. He could tell where it was by the gravitational directives functioning on the panels. He could tell exactly its mass and speed, his own speed, the Earth’s, the sun’s and every other major body’s. He knew what their orbits were and what was to be done to bring the ship back to Earth.
He laughed to himself briefly when the thought struck him that he had now been in space almost three days and yet had not set eyes on the stars. It struck him that that was probably the longest such period away from a sight of the stars that he had ever been in his life. And yet, actually, he was surrounded by them! p. 23

At this point I was beginning to wonder why this story hadn’t appeared in Astounding, but the answer comes in the second half, where another ship starts pursuing him: it turns into a run of the mill chase story. Unable to shake his pursuers the pilot finally resorts to an armed response. There is no reason given for why the ship is armed, and this isn’t convincing. There is a final grisly image when he successfully lands on Earth.

Previously I’ve only read a couple of Wollheim’s shorts in the early ’50s F&SF which (if I recall correctly) didn’t made much of an impression. This one, and his other contribution in this issue, strike me as more promising.
The Day Has Come by Walter Kubilius has three men survive a plane crash in the near future. They see smoke in the distance and walk towards it, finding a factory town. Inside they find uncommunicative, drone-like workers who are building bombers, and realise the factory is a relic from the Second and Third World Wars many years ago. This doesn’t really convince, but the idea of a perpetual war economy is interesting.

Dividing the SF in the first part of the magazine from the fantasy in the second is The Vortex, a good letter column which alternates between reader’s missives and Wollheim’s concise but detailed replies.

There a number of the letters which praise Dold’s artwork, and the illustrations generally: “Your artwork now surpasses that of any other stf mag on the stand”; “the best illustrated stf magazine of all, beating Campbell and the others too!” Corwin’s (Kornbluth) Mr Packer Goes to Hell (the sequel to Thirteen O’Clock) is also praised.
There are the usual pithy comments, such as this from Joseph Gilbert of Columbia, South Carolina:

Winterbotham has never written a decent story in his life, and will die never having written a decent story in his life. p. 32

The Golden Road by C. M. Kornbluth is his second contribution and is a rather precocious work from the young writer (19 or 20 at the time). A man in a bar listens to a storyteller begin a tale. The story tells of Colt, lost on a trek in the Central Asian desert when he stumbles upon a camel caravan. The tribesmen care for him until he recovers from his ordeal. He is then introduced to a Polish couple and a Glaswegian who are travelling with the caravan. Later Colt notices them eating in a strange way, tearing at their meat. He decides to go and look around, and comes upon an elderly Cantonese man, and his son and wife:

“Tell you what,” said the old man. “You can have some of my V.S.O. stock— stuff I won from a Spaniard month back.” He rummaged for a moment, in one of the tent-pockets, finally emerged with a slender bottle which caught the firelight like auriferous quartz. “Danziger Goldwasser — le veritable,” he gloated. “But I can’t drink the stuff. Doesn’t bite like this Nipponese hell-broth.” He up-ended the bottle of suntori again, passed the brandy to Colt.
The American took it, studied it curiously against the fire. It was a thin, amber liquor, at whose bottom settled little flakes. He shook them up into the neck of the bottle; it was like one of the little globular paperweights that hold a mimic snowstorm. But instead of snow there were bits of purest beaten gold to tickle the palate and fancy of the drinker. p. 37

Later, when Colt is on his own, he realises he can understand the Tajikistan tribesmen even though does not know their language. He then sees a far off storm, and notices that the thunder and lightning occur in reverse order. He finds an explanation for this strange occurrence when he wanders off from the caravan and meets a woman (spoiler):

She turned, She was young in her body and face, Mongoloid. Her eyes were blue-black and shining like metal. Her nose was short, Chinese, yet her skin was quite white. She did not have the eyefold of the yellow people.
Silently she extended one hand for the bottle, tilted it high. Colt saw a shudder run through her body as she swallowed and passed him the tall flask with its gold-flecked liquor.
“You must have been cold.”
“By choice. Do you think I’d warm myself at either fire?”
“Either?” he asked. “There are two caravans. Didn’t you know?”
“No. I’m just here— what’s the other caravan?”
“Just here, are you? Did you know that you’re dead?”
Colt thought the matter over slowly, finally declared: “I guess I did. And all these others — and you—?”
“All dead. We’re the detritus of High Pamir. You’ll find, if you look, men who fell to death from planes within the past few years walking by the side of Neanderthalers who somehow strayed very far from their tribes and died. The greatest part of the caravans come, of course, from older caravans of the living who carried their goods from Asia to Europe for thousands of years.” p. 88

The pair then observe the other, nearby caravan, and see its members build a hideous looking idol, which they worship while singing atonal songs. The woman is emotionally overcome when she describes the pressures of having to make a choice between the two caravans.
Colt decides to compare this other group to the one he has been with. He goes to them, and enters into a bond, which allows his consciousness to travel all over the world:

The viewpoint coalesced again and shrank microscopically, then smaller still. For an ecstatic moment it perceived a welter of crashing/ blundering molecules, beetling about in blindness.
It shifted again, swiftly, far away to a point in Hong Kong where a lady was entertaining a gentleman. The viewpoint let the two human’s love, hate, disgust, affection and lust slide beneath its gaze. There was a gorgeous magenta jealously from the man, overlaying the woman’s dull-brown, egg-shaped avarice, both swept away in a rushing tide of fluxing, thick textured, ductile crimson-black passion.
The viewpoint passed somewhere over a battlefield, dwelt lovingly on the nightmare scene below. There were dim flares of vitality radiating from every crawling figure below; a massing of infantry was like a beacon. From the machinery of war there came a steely radiance which waxed as it discharged its shell or tripped its bomb, then dimmed to a quiet glow of satisfaction.
A file of tanks crawled over a hill emitting a purplish radiance which sent out thin cobwebs of illumination. They swung into battle formation, crept down the slope at the infantry mass. Behind the infantry anti-tank guns were hurrying up — too late. The tanks, opened fire, their cobwebs whitening to a demon’s flare of death as soldiers, scurrying for cover, one by one, keeled over. As each fell there was a brittle little tingle, the snapping of a thread or a wire, and the light of vitality was extinguished, being replaced by a sallow, corpsey glow. p. 41

He ends up in front of a five-legged demon, and at this point breaks the communion. Colt thanks the caravan master and leaves. He goes back to the original group and joins in with their singing, but he keeps introducing a discordant note and eventually has to leave them too.

He and Valeska continue their conversation between the caravans, and it is during this that the two groups attack each other. During the violent and bloody battle, Colt and Valeska realise that the two sides are the same; it just depends on how you look at them.
The ending is a bit odd: Colt regains consciousness to find two Russian soldiers treating him. Then we are back in the short framing section to find that the storyteller is Colt.
This isn’t an entirely successful piece but the protagonist’s good/evil dichotomy makes it an interesting one. The writing and content are much more mature than his earlier story as well. One wonders what Kornbluth would have gone on to produce as a fantasy writer if Wollheim had supported this kind of work in a continuing magazine. (That, and the writer not being sent to the war in Germany, of course.)
The Goblins Will Get You by John B. Michel (another of the Futurian group) is a story about goblins who turn up in a man’s bedroom. They want to learn English, and soon become avid readers.

Later in the story they mention the ‘rules,’ and their plan to take over the Earth and its people. This leads up poker game with the highest of stakes. This is okay for the most part but the ending spoiled it for me; others may demur.3 There is one interesting (and promising) passage in the story, which is atypical pulp fare:

I was happy until they told me why they were going to all the trouble of acquainting themselves with the psychology of earth-men. I blew-up.
“You fools!” I cried, screaming with laughter. “What could you do with the planet? Enslave it? The rich have done that already. Dissect a billion bodies? Go to our hospitals. They do it every day. Dig for diamonds? Shall I make you some?” I roared on: “Perhaps you are hungry for green cheese. Go to the moon. I guarantee it to be fresh and untouched by the hand of man.”
A dozen heedless fingers turned over page 242 of Oswald Spengler’s “Decline of the West” and twenty-four eyes began reading the top of page 243.
“Come with me,” I urged, still rocking with mirth. “Let me take you into the homes of the people of the earth and show you life as they live it. You shall hear the screaming of women in labor, the ticking of the feet of roaches on the bare plaster of walls, the scrape of worn-out shoes on patched carpet, a thin gasp in darkness as love is fulfilled and the crest of the wave breaks on the rocks of poverty. Hover with me over the squares of this teeming metropolis and observe the scurrying lines emerging from nowhere and vanishing in obscurity. Feel with me the texture of the skins of a hundred thousand women of the night, listen for the breath in their whispered words which should be happiness but in reality is sandpaper on scalded tongues. My friends, listen. It is madness to want us, insanity to imagine that you harbor the notion. Preserve your reason. Go home. Go home. Surely the earth is but a footstool to heaven, a mere step on your ladder of success. My friends. . . .”
Calmly the busy fingers turned page 268. They were fast readers. p. 46

Masquerade by C. M. Kornbluth (his third story) has a man with a deformed foot give an account of a college friendship and subsequent correspondence. The narrator’s friend writes stating he has moved to a teaching job in Mexico and has gotten married; later, the college fire him for having an affair with one of the students. The friend and his wife turn up at the narrator’s apartment, and from this point onwards it becomes a rather incoherent ‘summoning of Satan’ story.

The Long Wall by Robert A. W. Lowndes (another Futurian) is an okay modern fantasy about a long wall in the middle of nowhere. The narrative describes two men’s attempts to either go around it or over it, but neither succeeds: the story is intriguing but remains enigmatic.

Editor Wollheim’s second story is The Unfinished City. This essentially slight story manages to punch above its weight with its descriptive writing:

For Oo is a most unusual city the like of which might never be seen again on the face of any of the globes of the sun. Not for nothing is it called the Unfinished City. For it is indeed unfinished. Every tower and every structure is incomplete. Each of the many stone towers that top every house of any importance ends in that half-complete chamber on top. Exactly as if the builders had suddenly been called away and never got time to come back and finish. And every wall and house has a corner or a section that is not complete. In everything there was some imperfection. In the clothes of the people there are parts that seem unfinished.
In the tables and three legged chairs there is some part that is not polished or colored or carved and that makes it imperfect. Even the very names of the people drawl off into hints of something left unsaid. If you go into a shop and buy something you will find it incomplete. For the things that are made in Oo are never perfect. p. 61

A thief enters the city and steals a precious stone from the statue of Noom the god . . . .

The Cover is by Hannes Bok.4 This isn’t his best contribution to the issue, and he has much better work inside. Overall, the internal illustrations seem to me better than those in Astounding. I didn’t check whether they are better than all the other magazines published in 1942 but I suspect this may be the case.5

The other Interior artwork is by Boris Dolgov, whose work is similar to Bok’s,6 Roy Hunt and Hall. There is a poem by Emil Petaja, Fear of Sleep;Fantasy and the War is a short and patriotic post-Pearl Harbour filler.

The Fantasy World by Donald A. Wollheim is a book column that reviews The Other Worlds by Phil Stong. Wollheim pans what sounds like one of the first science fiction and fantasy anthologies. His main criticism (after he gets past an obligatory moan about how book publishers do not provide them) is Stong’s selection of stories. Wollheim has clear views about the quality of some recent SF:

For his second section, Phil Stong draws heavily from the wilder and more elementary type of science-fiction magazine. Here are paraded as examples of outstanding fantasy such stories as “Adam Link’s Vengeance” by Eando Binder, “Truth is a Plague” by David Wright O’Brien, “A Comedy of Eras” by Kelvin Kent, “The Man Who Knew All the Answers” by Donald Bern. These stories have no business in a book and we think the original editors and writers would admit that. They are written for a certain type of reader—a reader catered to by an elementary plot and a deliberately hack written-down style of writing. (Our authority for this opinion is the actual statements of the editor of most of them). They were certainly not intended for the audience that can afford to pay $2.50 for a book. p. 66

In conclusion, I found this magazine quite interesting. There are a couple of decent fantasies, and a number of the other stories, if not entirely successful, make for an interesting read. At times the magazine feels like a financially constrained proto-Fantasy and Science Fiction, about a decade before its time. I’ll have to have a look at the other three issues of this title and Cosmic Science Fiction. ●

_____________________

1. For more on the origins of the two magazines, the Wikipedia article is here.
2. The editorial also plugs “one of the most unusual weird novelettes of the year, ‘The Enemy’ by Hugh Raymond and Mallory Kent,” planned for the next issue, as well as ‘The Millionth Year’ by Arthur Cooke. The first story is actually by John B. Michel (Hugh Raymond) and Robert A. W. Lowndes (Mallory Kent). The only collaboration I can find by them on ISFDB is The Inheritors (Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1942, edited by Lowdnes), so I presume the title was changed.
Arthur Cooke is supposedly a pseudonym for Cyril M. Kornbluth, but ‘The Millionth Year’ does not appear on Kornbuth’s ISFDB page. Donald A. Wollheim did, however, have a story of that title published in the April 1943 issue of Science Fiction Stories (ISFDB).
3. Damon Knight liked Michel’s story more than me. He says this in his memoir, The Futurians (Amazon.co.uk):

Michel’s “The Goblins Will Get You” is a deft fantasy about a bunch of insubstantial balloon-headed goblin-creatures who appear at the foot of the narrator’s bed and enlist him in their project to take over the world.

There is also this about Michel earlier in the book:

John B. Michel, then eighteen [circa 1935], was slender and slight, well proportioned except for his bandy legs. (“I couldn’t catch a pig in an alley,” he once wrote.) His dimpled cheeks were pitted with acne scars. He had lost several molars on the upper left side, and his grin was gap-toothed. Michel was an only child, born in Brooklyn in 1917. His father, a Jew, had converted to Catholicism when he married; his mother was Irish. The father, a dapper little man, had been an actor before he turned to sign painting.
When Michel was nine, his mother contracted tuberculosis of the spine, a painful and crippling disease which destroys the vertebrae one by one, causing a progressive spinal curvature and leading eventually to paralysis and death. In the same year Michel himself fell ill with diphtheria, which left him paralyzed in the right arm and left leg until he was eleven.
Before he recovered from this, he contracted osteomyelitis, a staphylococcus infection which can cause painful ulcers both of soft tissue and bone; it was to keep him in and out of hospitals until penicillin cured him in the forties.
Michel fell behind in school, partly because of this grotesque series of illnesses and partly because of a painful stammer.

These kind of ghastly adverse circumstances aren’t atypical in Knight’s book, and they rather put into perspective the things we moan about today.
4. All the covers for Stirring and Cosmic are executed in this money-saving format (B&W illustration with coloured background).
5. I’d start comparing the artwork standards of contemporaneous magazines by looking at Virgil Finlay’s illustrations for Famous Fantastic Mysteries.
6. The artwork for The Perfect Invasion is credited to Dolgov, but ISFDB states that the second and third (unsigned) illustrations are by Bok. I’m not an expert but my gut says they look more like Dolgov’s work. Identification is more difficult due to the fact that the two artists sometimes collaborated on artwork (signed ‘Dolbokov’).
Boris Dolgov seems to be something of a mystery according to SFE. There is a good gallery of his Weird Tales artwork here. ●