Astounding Science Fiction n25n03, May 1940

Astounding

Other Reviews:
Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 11: May 1940

Fiction:
Space Guards • novella by Philip Francis Nowlan ♥♥
The Last of the Asterites • short story by Joseph E. Kelleam ♥♥♥
Rim of the Deep • novelette by Clifford D. Simak
Space Double • novelette by Nat Schachner
Hindsight • short story by Jack Williamson
The Long Winter • short story by Raymond Z. Gallun ♥♥
Final Blackout (Part 2 of 3) • serial by L. Ron Hubbard ♥♥♥+

Non-fiction:
Cover • Hubert Rogers
Internal Artwork • Charles Schneeman, Paul Orban, Frank Kramer, Rey Isip,
The Perfect Machine • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory: February & March 1940
Astrochemistry? • science article
Whacky Design Inevitable! • science article
Brass Tacks • letters
Science Discussions • science letters
Hot Filament • science article by John W. Campbell, Jr. [as by Arthur McCann]

There is a change in the cover design with this issue and it is an inelegant one. Previously the magazine name has been imposed on top of the cover art and the title of the lead story has been at the bottom of the page: now we have the magazine name against a solid colour bar, with a rectangle containing the title story and author awkwardly sitting astride the colour bar and the artwork below. This cover design persists until the end of 1941 where it is, from what I can see, replaced by something worse.1 More moaning about this as and when I see fit.
As to the cover art itself, it is a fairly muddy looking and poorly detailed piece: certainly not Roger’s best work. Schneeman and Kramer once again provide the best of the internal artwork.2

The cover story this issue is Space Guards, the last work by Philip Francis Nowlan, writer of the Buck Rogers series. This tells of Bob and Linda, members of the Space Guard, who are on Venus looking for the criminals Tiger Madden and Valita Lenoir. There follow a number of adventures: their space glider is stolen, they are captured by the natives and then freed to watch their spectacular victory over Madden’s forces. Subsequently, the pair encounter a dinosaur-like ‘luimok’ en route to Madden’s lair and scare it away using a heat ray, whereupon it attacks an enemy camp. After being forced to kill the creature they discover a survivor, Ainetsu, who turns out to be a Martian agent who knows where Madden’s secret city is.
This takes us about halfway through the story and, as you can probably tell, it continues like this for the remainder. It is all competently enough done but there isn’t a moment where you fear for Bob and Linda’s lives. And there are far too many instances where matters conveniently work in their favour: this is the explanation given by Ainetsu when they meet up after being separated in Madden’s secret city:

“The indicator showed the car was down. So, as quickly and silently as I could, I slid the door open enough to slip inside, and closed it quietly after me. I know it sounds unbelievable. But nobody noticed. So up I came!” p.48

It is also quite cheerfully grisly on a number of occasions:

“It’s not her own blood,” I explained, “but that of that animal there.”
Ainetsu turned to stare unbelievingly at the ghastly hole in the side of Linda’s last adversary. “But what did you do it with?”
“My knuckle-knife, of course,” Linda said testily, holding her arm away from her side with an expression of disgust.

I showed Ainetsu my own knife, which wasn’t quite so gory, and she marveled at its peculiar construction, with its razor-sharp blade of impervium running across the width of the fist. I told her it was standard equipment with the Earth Space Guard for in-fighting.
“What a viciously effective weapon!” she exclaimed. “And clever! Whoever thought it up? Martian recorded history goes back about twenty-five thousand of your years, but I never heard of a weapon like this.”
p.31

The Last of the Asterites is by occasional writer Joseph E. Kelleam.3 It is a fairly vivid story about Alph, a member of the mutant Narg species of humanity that inhabit a degenerate Ceres asteroid:

Below him, nearly twoscore of men and women, all of them tall and long-limbed and slant-browed like Alph were leaping and shouting about something that was writhing and roaring amid the flames. “A captive Trog,” thought Alph, and shuddered when the screams of the tortured one rose higher and higher and were cut off in a thin, bubbling squeak. Since infancy, Alph had been taught to hate the Trogs, but he could never bear to take part in their burnings. p.53

He is later saved from a man-eating plant in the jungle by a woman who would appear to be a normal human, or perhaps a cross between the Nargs and Trogs. He eventually reveals to her the secret of the asteroid control room that his dead guardian entrusted to him. This and other machinery had been used to put Ceres closer to the sun where it had originally functioned as a food factory. At the end of this (spoiler) he loses the woman to the rest of his tribe and decides to set the asteroid’s controls for the heart of the sun….
Overall, the quality of this was such that I initially wondered if it was a more established name writing under a pseudonym. If the rest of his work was of this standard it is a pity he didn’t write much more.

The next three stories are pulp dross. Rim of the Deep by Clifford D. Simak has a hard drinking newsman in a universe where there are prisons on Ganymede but you can still find newspapers with damp ink on them. He ends up under the ocean looking for (as in the Nowlan story) an escaped criminal. Well, it is supposed to be undersea but this is the newsman’s first couple of conversations with a man he meets called Gus:

Old Gus talked as he brewed the coffee. “A man gets sort of lonesome down here once in a while,” he explained, “and you like some company, even if it ain’t nothing but a thing like Butch. Sharks, now, are downright friendly once you get to know them, but they ain’t no account, as pets. They wander too much. You never know where they are. But octopuses are home bodies. Butch lairs out in the cliff back there and comes a-humping every time he sees me.” p.69-70

He goes on to detail the problems in the area:

“There’s been too dang many robberies,” said Old Gus. “Too much helling around. This country is getting sort of civilized now and we ain’t going to stand for it much longer.”
“You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?” asked Grant.
“That’s the only place they could be,” said Gus. “It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.”
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. “It used to be right peaceable down here,” he mourned. “A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up. And if you found an old ship you just slapped up a notice on it saying you had found it and nobody would take so much as a single plank away. But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.”
p.70

I think I’ve said enough about this pardner, so I’ll just mosey on to the next campfire yarn.

Space Double by Nat Schachner is not only poor it is actively bad in places. Two gangsters commission a robot copy of a space captain taking some bullion to wherever. After a while the second in command begins to suspect that all is not well. At the end there is a ludicrous scene where he dives for a control for the robot double—which just happens to be lying on the floor—while the gangsters have a raygun trained on him. Quite unbelievable. I’ll be interested to see how much longer Schachner survives in Astounding before he is tossed overboard for the new generation.
The other thing I noticed about Schachner’s writing is the variability in style and tone. One moment he is in standard pulp mode and the next minute he is writing like this, a scene that happens after the original space captain has escaped from captivity:

Out on the highway, heedless of the figure he cut, he waved his arms violently. An aerocab was skimming by, close to the ground, its yellow pennant streaming to show it was empty. It twisted violently and dropped beside him.
Dow yanked the door open, darted in. “To the airport,” he rasped, “and in a hurry!”
The cabby’s eyes popped. In his game he ran across plenty of unusual sights, but a bloody madman in a pair of shorts was a bit thick.
Dow yelled at him. “Hurry, you blithering idiot. I’m Captain Dow of the Jovian Line. My ship’s past blasting time. I’ve been shanghaied; my clothes snatched by a brace of blankety-blank horse thieves.”
p.89

Apart from anything else, that kind of attitude isn’t going to do much for your Uber rating.
Hindsight by Jack Williamson is an awful super-science tale about an Earthman, Brek Veronar, who left his best friend and a girl to work for the tyrannical Astrarch, originally an asteroid pirate or some such who has taken control of the solar system. Years later, they inform Brek they are planning a rebellion against the Astrarch. As you would.
Brek ends up in the Astrarch’s fleet and they lose the space battle as their weapon auto-sights aren’t as good as the rebel’s ones. Brek then tells the Astrarch he can alter events in the past so they do not lose….
I’ve remarked before about the poor quality of some of the stories in these 1940s Astoundings, but it is a bit of a surprise to find three of them in a row.

Matters improve with The Long Winter by Raymond Z. Gallun. Viborg, a member of an expedition to Uranus, decides to kill all the other members of the team so all the glory will be his. He opens a small hole in the wall of their shelter to allow frozen methane to enter and eventually be ignited by an electrical short circuit. Matters do not proceed as he planned.

The last piece of fiction in the issue, the second part of L. Ron Hubbard’s serial, is also the best. Final Blackout is a completely different work from the other stories, even the better ones. It has a seriousness of style and tone as well as a grimness that the others don’t come close to. This passage occurs as the Lieutenant makes his way to GHQ through a Europe where hundreds of millions have died:

The lieutenant caught sight of the Weasel’s runner signaling him ahead from the side of an overturned railroad car. He quickened his pace and followed the fellow up to the vanguard.
Weasel, his small self very still, pointed mutely to a crazily suspended railroad rail which jutted out from a wall like a gibbet. And it was a gibbet.
Four soldiers, their necks drawn out to twice their length, were rotting in their uniforms, swaying to and fro in the gentle wind. Below them was a painted scrawl upon the stone:

SOLDIERS! MOVE ON!
“British,” whispered Pollard, coming up. p.124-5

The Lieutenant eventually arrives at GHQ and, as expected, is relieved of his command. When he returns to his billet he finds two other officers who have had the same happen to them. Subsequently, his men mutiny and take control of the underground fort. The Lieutenant later reveals to his men that his willingness to go to GHQ was so that he could increase the size of his brigade and get better equipment and munitions.
As they leave the fort, and the staff officers and troops the Lieutenant didn’t want, Colonel Smythe tells the General that he thinks that the brigade is heading for England and that they should warn them.

The non-fiction this issue is the usual assortment.
The Perfect Machine, the editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr., is about how machines should become simpler to use as they become more advanced. Tell that to any grandparent with a new smartphone. Campbell, under his McCann pseudonym, also contributes a science article, Hot Filament, on the failure of two hypotheses of planetary formation (contracting sun and star collision theories). There are a couple of short science squibs, Astrochemistry? and Whacky Design Inevitable!, which are probably by Campbell too. ‘McCann’ also has a letter in Science Discussions alongside a couple of letters taking the science in Ross Rocklynne’s and A. M. Phillip’s stories to bits. Interesting that the correspondents then say they really enjoyed the stories!
In Times to Come is mostly a puff piece for a science article on a new science, but also mentions the new Heinlein and Knight stories.
The Analytical Laboratory: February & March 1940 is quite annoying.4 Both the February and March stories are ranked almost exactly in length order. Also, how does de Camp’s The Emancipated manage to place behind Schachner’s Cold for goodness sake?
Finally there is an interesting Brass Tacks letter column. Ralph C. Hamilton of Wooster, Ohio has a long letter about the improving quality of the magazine:

There has been a gradual evolution of the old into the new; and although it is impossible to say just when the new arrived, the awareness has come that it is here. p.148

He puts this down to the fact the stories are well written, mature, realistic and original. He also mentions the illustrations:

On the whole, however, the Illustrations are better balanced, saner and of a higher artistic quality, although they have not yet reached the level of the stories. They are probably the weakest point of the magazine. p.148

Lastly, he mentions his reservations about Heinlein’s If This Goes On—:

But I can’t escape the feeling that someone performed a major operation and amputation on the last part of the story; it was bowling along in great style, giving promise of many things yet to come—when it staggered, slumped, and fell with a thud. p.148

An interesting letter, and Campbell mentions there is a sequel in hand, Coventry. A couple of the other correspondents single out Heinlein and de Camp for praise.
The back page has a cigarette advertisement5 which, by today’s standards, seems quite incongruous.

Overall, an OK to poor issue.

  1. Astounding cover index at Galactic Central.
  2. A fine grisly piece by Charles Schneeman:Astounding
  3. Joseph Kelleam’s bibliography is at ISFDB. Three stories in Astounding and one in Avon Fantasy Reader in the thirties and forties, a couple of stories and a couple of short novels sold to Cele Goldsmith at Amazing and Fantastic in the late fifties/early sixties, and a couple of other novels was pretty much all there was.
  4. Analytical Laboratory ratings for February in ranked order:
    If This Goes On—, Robert A. Heinlein
    And Then There Was One, Ross Rocklynne
    The Professor Was a Thief, L. Ron Hubbard
    Locked Out, H. B. Fyfe
    Bombardment in Reverse, Norman I. Knight
    Analytical Laboratory ratings for March in ranked order:
    If This Goes On—, Robert A. Heinlein
    Cold, Nat Schachner
    The Emancipated, L. Sprague de Camp
    A Chapter From The Beginning, A. M. Phillips
    In The Good Old Summertime, P. Schuyler Miller
  5. That cigarette advertisment (I am having a fag….):Astounding

Leave a Reply