Astounding Science Fiction v25n02, April 1940


Other Reviews:
Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 10: April 1940

Final Blackout (Part 1 of 3) • serial by L. Ron Hubbard ♥♥♥
Unguh Made a Fire • short story by Ross Rocklynne ♥♥
Repetition • novelette by A. E. van Vogt ♥
The Treasure of Ptakuth • short story by Leigh Brackett
Reincarnate • novelette by Lester del Rey ♥♥♥
Admiral’s Inspection • novelette by Malcolm Jameson ♥♥

Final Blackout • cover by Hubert Rogers
Interior artwork • Charles Schneeman, Don Hewitt, Frank Kramer, Hubert Rogers, W. Kolliker
Let’s Make It Stronger • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
The Magic Bullet • science essay by Willy Ley
Brass Tacks • letters

This issue leads off with L. Ron Hubbard’s serial Final Blackout. I was looking forward to this after reading Herbert Best’s The Twenty-Fifth hour,1 as I’ve seen a couple of reviewers mention both novels in the same breath. Having now read both of them I don’t think this is particularly accurate comparison and I’ll explain why in later instalment reviews.
The first thing I noticed about Hubbard’s novel is that it is quite a short work: it is a three part serial and this first instalment, minus the illustrations, runs to 26pp. The introduction starts with the lieutenant’s harsh childhood and early life:

He was born in an air-raid shelter—and his first wail was drowned by the shriek of bombs, the thunder of falling walls and the coughing chatter of machine guns raking the sky.
He was taught in a countryside where A was for Antiaircraft and Z was for Zeppelin. He knew that the improved Vickers Wellington bombers had flown clear to Moscow, but nobody thought to tell him about a man who had sailed a carack twice as far in the opposite direction—a chap called Columbus.
War-shattered officers had taught him the arts of battle on the relief maps of Rugby. Limping sergeants had made him expert with rifle and pistol, light and heavy artillery. And although he could not conjugate a single Latin verb, he was graduated as wholly educated at fourteen and commissioned the same year.
His father was killed on the Mole at Kiel. His uncle rode a flamer in at Hamburg. His mother, long ago, had died of grief and starvation in the wreckage which had been London.
When he was eighteen he had been sent to the front as a subaltern. At twenty-three he was commanding a brigade. p.9-10

It goes on to tell of the long European war with its hundreds of millions of casualties, the loss of nearly all war munitions, the great starvation and the ‘soldier’s sickness’.
Due to this installment’s brevity not much happens in this first part. After some establishing scenes with the Lieutenant and some of his men they are joined by an officer from the communist directed GHQ, who has orders to take the Lieutenant back to their commanders. The Lieutenant suspects this may be because of his failure to establish soldier’s councils.
Subsequently, the Lieutenant’s troops mount a successful attack against Russian soldiers they encounter. Once they have surrounded them they negotiate a surrender that sees the Russian troops leave with their personal arms but leave the bulk of their equipment behind. They are the last of the White Russian Army and are looking for somewhere to settle in the wasteland that is Europe.
The unit then comes across an underground settlement. It refuses to surrender so they stop the chimneys with leaves and smoke them out. They subsequently find the villagers have been using soldiers as slave labour and the Lieutenant turns over the village leader to them. As well as these events there are a couple of ruthless killings along the way, which gives this work a gritty and realistic start.

Following the serial is Unguh Made a Fire by Ross Rocklynne, which is an OK piece about the last few remaining Martians fleeing their plague ridden planet for Earth. They settle and teach a primitive Earthman the secret of fire….
The next two stories are not very good at all. Repetition is the first ‘Rull’ novelette by A. E. van Vogt, although there is nothing to suggest that it is going to be the start of a series. It is about an Earth ambassador on Europa and his guide attempting to murder him by tampering with his rocket suit. After the ambassador crash-lands he wakes to find the guide has given him first aid but has sent their flight suits towards Jupiter. The guide says he could not murder him but wants to make sure he can’t survive and return to base.
This is all motivated by an Earth plan to let Mars assume control of Europa. The ambassador subsequently explains why agreeing to this is better than war by going into the finances behind the value of the metals that Earth and Mars want control of Europa for:

The value of the entire thousand years’ supply, at an average of twenty dollars per ton, is four thousand billion dollars. I need hardly tell you that a war between Earth and Mars would cost ten times that much for each year that it lasted, not counting the hundred to two hundred million lives that would be destroyed in every conceivable horrible manner, the brutalizing of minds that would take place, the destruction of liberty that would ensue. Did the leaders of your community consider that in their deliberations?” p.59

Given the war going on in Europe, and the fact that Hitler wasn’t doing a cost benefit analysis, I don’t how this could have been received as anything other than excessively simplistic. The only plus points among the contrived plotting, simplistic politics and two dimensional characterisation are a couple of inventively grisly ways of killing the local wildlife (including the ominously named gryb2).
Much worse than van Vogt’s story is The Treasure of Ptakuth by Leigh Brackett. This is about an archaeologist and an adventurer on Mars looking for the lost city of Ptakuth. There is also a native tribe, a beautiful girl and a cyclotron ray that confers immortality amongst the general nonsense:

The cyclotron fired hydrogen bullets against a screen of yttrium. Using rubidium filters, the scientists of Ptakuth generated a ray with a wonderful property; the property of making the human bloodstream radio-active with a gamma-principle. This gamma element in the blood gave a power of regeneration to the body cells, but most of all, being in itself a germ-destroying element, it made the human body immune to all disease. You can see how this would extend the life span. p.84

This reads like a throwback to the early thirties.3

Fortunately, things pick up for the rest of the issue. Reincarnate by Lester del Rey is the second novelette and, for the most part, it is a pretty good account of a scientist injured in a reactor explosion who is turned into a cyborg. After some pulp-ish establishing scenes before the explosion with his fiancé and a fellow scientist, this turns into quite a detailed and convincing account of him learning to communicate from within his mechanical shell. He does this initially with Morse code:

If he made no reply, they might realize he could not understand.
There was a conference of noises, and the clicking again, all short this time. One click, space, two clicks, space, three— They were running over the numbers in the simplest of codes. Clumsily he repeated, and the numbering left off. Then the clicker reverted to a series of mixed short and long sounds, with spaces coming in irregular order. He counted the sounds between spaces, and made out twenty-six. As the signals started again, he checked. The fifth was E, the eighth H, and the others fitted in. They were sending the alphabet for him to memorize. He selected the most necessary letters and concentrated on them until he was sure he could make an intelligible sentence.
“Where am I?” p.108

Eventually he learns to speak and see and eventually use the new body he inhabits.
It is slightly marred by an obvious and rather pulp ending but it is worth reading for the convincing central section which seems well ahead of its time. I would add that SFE states that ‘the most common form of cyborg portrayed in the early SF Pulp magazines was an extreme version of the medical cyborg (see Medicine), consisting of a human brain in a mechanical envelope.’ Del Rey’s story is not mentioned so maybe the other stories cited are better examples.4
The last story is Malcolm Jameson’s novelette, Admiral’s Inspection. Like the van Vogt, this is the first story in a series, ‘Bullard of the Space Patrol’.5 The main character in this story is Lieutenant Bullard, a newcomer on a spaceship called the Pollux. The story opens with him and a handful of the crew playing meteor ball, which sounds like fun as it seems to be a rocket propelled handball in space. The game is interrupted and they are recalled to the ship as a signal has come in informing them they will shortly undergo an Admiral’s inspection. The rest of the first half of the story details the ship and Bullard’s preparation for this.
When the inspection gets going the crew perform well until Bullard is the only left officer left ‘alive’:

He dashed down the passage toward sub-CC, a little cubbyhole abaft Plot, not wasting a second in a futile stop at the Plotting Room. What he had seen in CC, would doubtless, be repeated there. As he passed the door of the wardroom he caught a glimpse of the officers crowded in there, and what he saw made him pause a moment and take a closer look. Peering through the glassite panel he was astonished to see most of the officers of the Pollux in there, either out of their spacesuits or in the act of taking them off. Chinnery, whom he thought in temporary command, was one of them. p.144

He copes well but then events take a more serious turn as a genuine emergency occurs.
This is quite good to start with, and honest about the fact it is essentially a naval story in drag: it openly refers to historical naval tradition and then extrapolates from there. The second half drags slightly: it goes on too long, and the scientific improvisations designed to repair their equipment during the emergency are a little unconvincing, applied as they are to hypothetical future spaceship equipment. I’ll be interested to see how this series pans out though.

As to this issue’s non-fiction there is some decent artwork from Schneeman (for Hubbard’s serial) and Kramer (for the van Vogt).6 As for Hubert Rogers cover, well to begin with I didn’t think much of it one way or the other. However, the more I look at it the more it grows on me.7 I don’t know if it is the little details like the skull-helmet in the bottom right hand corner or the line of silhouette figures on the left. Perhaps it is the dark, almost shadow like structures in the foreground contrasting with the promise of the warm light in the distance. More frivolously, it occurred to me that the tank that appeared on February’s cover only seems to have lasted two months in active service….

Campbell writes a short editorial, Let’s Make It Stronger, to solicit science articles (at a cent a word).
In Times to Come ends up being a eulogy for Phil Nowlan (author of Buck Rogers), as it announces his death from a stroke and also the upcoming appearance of Space Guards, which Campbell states was to be first of a series. Campbell also states his work from a decade ago stands up to that being produced today.
Willy Ley’s science article on poison gas warfare, The Magic Bullet, is an interesting but somewhat grisly piece that tells you more than you ever wanted to know about the subject. And there are some surprises in there too:

The prospect of poison gas, it may be added, is really not as terrible as some writers want the world to believe. Strangely enough poison gas is a very humane weapon of war. I admit that the term “humane war” bears a suspicious resemblance to “painless torture.” But there certainly are degrees of inhumanity and violent explosions and flying steel splinters are evidently less humane than chemical agents. If soldiers are afraid, they are not afraid to die, they are afraid to be mutilated and crippled for life. Poison gas does not cripple its victims. Very careful and complete surveys have shown that there were neither more cases of pulmonary tuberculosis among phosgene victims than there are normally among an equal number of ungassed people, nor were there more cases of blindness among mustard gas victims. Even if all the doubtful cases were ascribed to gas, the number of cases of blindness was far less— in fact, a very small fraction—than that caused by other weapons. It is true that gas blinds all unprotected victims for a short time, say three days or a week, but unless they actually got drops of the liquid into the eye, recovery is usually complete. p.97-98

This is well worth reading even now, and it certainly modified my opinion about the effects and results of gas warfare in WWI.
Finally, Brass Tacks begins with Isaac Asimov’s letter listing his top ten stories of 1939 (and one other correspondent gives theirs as well).8 The first part of Heinlein’s serial was well received and the artists take another pounding.

Overall a mixed issue but with one or two things of interest.

  1. Herbert Best’s The Twenty-Fifth Hour is reviewed here.
  2. One of the variant titles of Repetition is The Gryb.
  3. But what do I know? Brackett’s story Martian Quest (Astounding, February 1940) is a finalist for the 1941 Retro Hugo Award. I have no idea what is going on there.
  5. This was the first of nine ‘Bullard of the Space Patrol’ stories published between 1940 and 1945. According to SFE, Jameson ‘began producing fiction only after cancer forced him to retire from a nonwriting life which had included a career in the US Navy.’ He was 47 when he sold his first story to Astounding and would be dead by the time he was 54. Sometimes it is a little depressing reading these old mags….
  6. Artwork by Schneeman:Astounding
    Artwork by Kramer:
  7. Jamie Rubin’s review made me reconsider the cover. Normally I don’t read other reviews until I’m absolutely finished but I read his just before finishing this one.
  8. Isaac Asimov’s top ten for 1939: One Against the Legion, Jack Williamson; Lifeline, Robert Heinlein; Gray Lensman, E. E. Smith; Cosmic Engineers, Clifford D. Simak; Day is Done, Lester del Rey; Rope Trick, Eando Binder;  Nothing Happens on the Moon, Paul Ernst; General Swamp, C. I. C ., Frederick Engelhardt; Rust, Joseph E. Kelleam;  Smallest God, Lester del Rey.
    Whereas Tom Wright of Martinez, California (and editor of something called The Comet) picked: Cloak Of Assir, Don A. Stuart; Crucible Of Power, Jack Williamson; Greater Than Gods, C. L. Moore; One Against The Legion, Jack Williamson; Black Destroyer & Discord In Scarlet, A. E. van Vogt; Cosmic Engineers, Clifford D. Simak; The Morons, Harl Vincent; The Luck Of Ignatz, Lester del Rey; Maiden Voyage, Vic Phillips.

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