Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 12
The Roads Must Roll • novelette by Robert A. Heinlein ♥♥♥♥
Deputy Correspondent • short story by Harl Vincent ♥♥♥
The Carbon Eater • novelette by Douglas Drew
The Testament of Akubii • short story by Norman L. Knight ♥
Final Blackout (Part 3 of 3) • serial by L. Ron Hubbard ♥♥♥+
Cover • Hubert Rogers
Internal artwork • Charles Schneeman, W. A. Kolliker, R. Isip, M. Isip
The Old “Navy” Game • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory, June 1940
Unseen Tools • science essay by Leo Vernon
Introduction to a Nameless Science • science essay by Peter Van Dresser
Permanent Electret • science essay
Brass Tacks • letters
Slip-Stickers’ Department • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.
This issue of Astounding is one of the few physical copies I have of the magazine so I thought I’d spend a little time describing it. First impressions are that it is a big magazine—it looks like a digest on steroids—the size of an iPad and a 160 pages thick. The paper cover is uncoated and so are the pages inside, which are trimmed unlike the ragged edges of many pulp magazines. The paper is of what seems to be a reasonable quality stock: imagine the paper of a quality colour tabloid newspaper perhaps. The pages of mine are lightly tanned and have the wonderful smell of paper with a hint of dust. The print is of a reasonable size with generous space between the lines and around the borders. Every few pages (the maximum I counted was nine) the text is broken up by artwork or advertisements. The only minor criticism I have is the size of the type which is used in the letter column, which is tiny (probably 8 pt.) but that is probably due to a desire to cram in as many comments in as possible.
It is a quality product and I would imagine that it would be very satisfying to have entire years of these on one’s bookshelves.1
Moving on to the contents of this issue, the cover by Rogers is quite good but dated. No doubt the idea of leather flying helmets and jackets and silver vehicles all seemed quite futuristic at the time but it looks rather quaint now. As per my comments last issue about the cover story-title block I note that the helmet of the rider is superimposed on top of it to avoid being clipped. The internal art is mostly by Schneeman, who again contributes the best work for Hubbard’s novel. The title illustration for the lead story has spot colour, which is something new, and this is also used in a couple of the adverts.2
The fiction leads off with The Roads Must Roll by Robert A. Heinlein. This novelette is about an America crisis-crossed by high speed moving walkways which were introduced after the use of cars became untenable because of their number and the resultant congestion, amongst other reasons:
They contained the seeds of their own destruction. Seventy million steel juggernauts, operated by imperfect human beings at high speed, are more destructive than war. p.14
Told from the viewpoint of Chief Engineer Gaines, who is showing a visiting Australian politician around, this tells of a rebellion by Functionalist inspired workers who shut down the high speed 100 mph lane of the rolling roads but leave the other slower lanes running. Gaines and his guest are at a restaurant situated on this strip when it comes to a halt. They go outside to see what is happening on the stationary roadway:
The crowd surged, and pushed against a middle-aged woman on its outer edge. In attempting to recover her balance she put one foot over the edge of the flashing ninety-five-mile strip. She realized her gruesome error, for she screamed before her foot touched the ribbon.
She spun around and landed heavily on the moving strip, and was rolled by it, as the strip attempted to impart to her mass, at one blow, a velocity of ninety-five miles per hour—one hundred and thirty-nine feet per second. As she rolled she mowed down some of the cardboard figures as a sickle strikes a stand of grass. Quickly, she was out of sight, her identity, her injuries, and her fate undetermined, and already remote.
But the consequences of her mishap were not done with. One of the flickering cardboard figures bowled over by her relative moment fell toward the hundred-mile strip, slammed into the shockbound crowd, and suddenly appeared as a live man—but broken and bleeding—amidst the luckless, fallen victims whose bodies had checked his wild flight. p.20
The rest of the story is an exciting account of Gaines and the paramilitary transport engineers putting down the revolution.
I’d have to say that the rolling roads idea isn’t completely convincing at first but it grows on you as the story develops, and by the time I finished the passage above I was hooked!
If I have one minor criticism of this it is the slightly unconvincing climactic encounter between the ring-leader, Van Kleeck, and Gaines. By the by it is also interesting to note an echo of If This Goes On— in that Gaines uses psychological information from his opponent’s personnel file to manipulate him. Another is a reference to mob psychology:
Personnel did not behave erratically without a reason. One man might be unpredictable, but in large numbers personnel were as dependable as machines, or figures. p.34
Head and shoulders above everything I’ve read in this year’s Astounding so far, bar Requiem perhaps.
Next up is Harl Vincent’s Deputy Correspondent. I wasn’t a fan of his High Frequency War in the February issue so this was a pleasant surprise. It is a humorous story that has three science expedition correspondents on Callisto: one Terran, one Venusian, and one Martian. As war breaks out on Earth the Venusian describes events in the form of a dispatch back to Earth but in his own particular form of English:
In above manner I was instructed to address you and advise, with his authorizing, I undertake duties of Steve Bowdoin, your special correspondent until very recent date. Gladly I do this extra to my work with Saffron City Chronicle, which, surely you are aware, is foremost Venusian daily. You have my permitting to use this copy at regular space rates or suggest any differing arrangement you desire. Stephen Bowdoin is out of picture and I elucidate reason hereinafter. p.38
He goes on to tell of the fights that break out in the local bar when hostilities start on Earth:
Forrester and von Teufel, those Terrestrian scientists, were impossible of persuasion to return to Pioneer, being engaged in convincing large and hairy Scandinavian and Eurasian of crew adversely to hereditary allegiance. Question of Nordic supremacy, religious freedom, and Yellow Peril so hopelessly involved starting a Mediterranean, a Pan-German, and one Australian of crew actually physical combatting to accompaniment of loud retraction from mad radio of earlier announcement of allying nationalities. Before violently commencing combat accomplish smashing glassware, it was learned participants no longer enemies but of new alliance. By now our Chinese valver and Jap galley boy asleep, embraced lovingly in one rear booth of Barngril, unaware they are again enemies.
“I’m getting out of here,” growled Steve. When I endeavored to steady him he turned amazingly to von Teufel, the scientist. “And if you think North America is going to watch any Pan-Germanic vandals overrun Terra, you’re nuts!”
Von Teufel, florid of countenance, tugging his enormous mustache, shouted: “Schwein! We shall see what—”
That was when your erstwhile correspondent smote von Teufel and was taken from Barngril by his two colleagues of power of press to frigid outer air. p.40-41
After the scientists sober up, the expedition splits into three teams and start their exploration of Callisto. It is then that they find a pyramid and the Terran correspondent, Steve Bowdin, is acclaimed as a god by the native inhabitants. The rest of them are locked in the pyramid. The two correspondents are later released and find out from Steve that the pyramid is what is left of the lost Pacific continent of Mu, which was transported through space in the past to Callisto. The natives want Steve to pilot them back to Earth. He has other ideas as he doesn’t want all the advanced weaponry they have to fall into the hands of the warlike Terrans….
This holds up not badly at all for a seventy-five year old story and I’m a little surprised it has never been reprinted. It vaguely reminded me of Gary Jennings’ ‘Reverend Crispin Mobey’ stories that used to run in F&SF in the seventies and I think it is worth a look.
After such a strong start to the issue, I was initially optimistic about The Carbon Eater by Douglas Drew as it gets off to a promising start with the female commander of the First Field Chemical Corps, Holly Webster, not only holding her own but getting the better of her male underling, Bucky:
“Listen, Buck, if you don’t like the way I conduct my life, why don’t you concentrate on someone who suits you better?”
There was an edge in her voice that made me squirm, but I couldn’t do what she said any more than could those other four saps. We were just like trained seals under her whiplash. Only it was worst of all for me, because I’d been her trained seal ever since we were kids together.
“Listen, yourself, Holly Webster! I’m not trying to order your life for you, though some man ought to. But I am yelping because you’ve given me a dirty deal!”
A neat, practical little hand rose to soothe her throat, which softly palpitated in mock fright. Blue eyes gazed in round wonderment. “Who, me? What do you mean, Bucky?”
When she said that I got mad. “You never gave anybody a fair break in your life. I don’t know why I ever helped you get into our outfit. You’ve kept five of us miserable ever since.”
“And since that time you’ve all done better work,” she came back, cool as ice. “Besides, I would have joined this outfit eventually whether you helped me or not.”
“They didn’t want a woman on the First Field Chemical Corps.”
“An antiquated prejudice. Still I’d have made it.”
“Yeah, by your looks—sex appeal.”
Her lovely shoulders lifted in an almost imperceptible shrug. p.52
This is the start of an unlikely tale of Martians poisoning Earth people on Mars. The First Field Chemical Corps fly to Mars and trace the source of the corrosive poison gas to a bubbling pool and attempt to stop it. However, this is problematical as it eats through nearly every material they have in quite a short period of time.
At this stage the story goes beyond unlikely to plain confusing as a team is assembled to descend into the depths to blow up the vents that the gas is supposedly issuing from. Bucky witnesses one of the team’s suits dissolve and kill the occupant after a short test period in the fluid, and then, back in the spaceship, he realises from viewing photographs that the gas is a by-product of electrolysis. At this point an unknown person locks him in the cabin and he is held incommunicado. Who does this and why is never explained, or maybe by that point I was skimming and missed the explanation.
Normal 1940’s mores are also resumed later on, as Buck talks to another crewmember Luke about Holly:
Luke again. Just couldn’t help it. I said to the punk: “Don’t ever let a girl try to mix up in a man’s work. No matter how much brains she’s got, no matter how good-looking she is and no matter how much you like her. She just don’t act like a man. She don’t reason like a man, either.”
It was hard for me to generalize in particular. “As a girl she’d make somebody a swell wife, but as a pal she’s a lousy, rotten, stinking, double-crossing smarty.” p.74
The Testament of Akubii by Norman L. Knight is a short story about two space travellers, a human and an alien, who have a problem with the carbon dioxide scrubber on their ship: it is not producing enough oxygen. They land on a nearby planet but cannot find any oxygen so later depart. One of them (spoiler), the alien, then sacrifices himself, but in a convoluted way: leaves a fake message, puts a hypnotic command into the human on board, etc.
All of this seems a bit random, and it also has a waffley one page introduction about the historical veracity or otherwise of this story.
The last (and biggest) part of Final Blackout, L. Ron Hubbard’s notable serial, falls into two sections. The first deals with the brigade sailing to England and the engrossing game of cat and mouse that is played out with the communist defenders in the fog of the Thames estuary and river. After some well-described manoeuvring the Tower of London is captured and Hogarthy, the communist leader, killed. Peace reigns for the next few years and the country gets back on its feet. The lieutenant is the benign dictator of a low-tech society.
Later, a US cruiser arrives with two senators. After the lieutenant rejects their initial offer of aid they show their true colours: they want to install General Victor as a puppet leader and start mass immigration from the US: the country badly needs the lebensraum. The Lieutenant is forced by circumstances to agree with their terms—their cruiser with its cruise missiles and helicopters is massively technologically superior to anything the English have:
They’re like rocket planes and they go up out of chutes and they fire at any range up to a thousand miles. p.144
The Lieutenant arranges for a signing ceremony. After relinquishing command (spoiler), he kills Victor and his deputy and in turn is cut down and killed along with several of his men.
The only quibble I have is about this last part: why would the Lieutenant think that the Americans would honour the agreement where power then passes to a council of UK Army officers?
Apart from the straight plot synopsis there are other aspects of the work that deserve comment. The first is the vague feeling of unease that I felt while reading this. For most of the novel the Lieutenant is in sole control and probably rightly so given that they are in a war situation, but this continues into peacetime and it is seductively portrayed as desirable. Of course this kind of thing resulted in the work subsequently drawing criticism for having fascist undertones (and as someone smarter than me pointed out, it is quite a good illustration of the ‘Leader Principle’ in action). Indeed, there is some If This Goes On— like political speechifying in the final scenes, e.g. when the Lieutenant replies to the American’s initial offer of aid:
“Captain Johnson,” said the Lieutenant, “at one time this nation was densely overpopulated. The weak and stupid were supported by the king with a dole. We shipped in great quantities of raw materials and manufactured them. We shipped in our food or starved. But this land is fertile and this nation can support itself. Empire was a mirage. With it this land was involved in war. With it this land starved. We have lost all our weaklings now. We are fifteen thousand people, and not until almost a century has sped will we begin to take up the available land. Perhaps then we will go all through the cycle once more. But just now we see ahead a century of plenty and therefore a century of internal peace. Then, perhaps, war will come again. But it will not come until we again have so little that people will be foolish enough to listen to the harpings of political mob makers. A new influx of population now will restore that chaotic stupidity which your civilian friend here calls ‘culture.’ The only good government is that government under which a people is busy and content. Such a government exists. We want no machines, no colonizers, no foreign ‘culture.’ We are not an exhausted people, but a small, compact band that was strong enough to survive bullets and bombs, starvation and disease.
“I am neither a politician nor a statesman; I am a soldier. I know nothing of the chicanery which goes by the name of diplomacy. But I learned long ago that there is only one way to rule, and that is for the good of all; that the function of a commanding officer of a company or a state is to protect the rights of the individual within the bounds of common good, but never to trifle with the actual welfare of any man or to attempt to carry any man beyond his own ability and strength, for to do so weakens the position of all and is not for the common good. A state, gentlemen, is not a charity institution. p.140
However, it may not be as simple as opining that this novel has fascist undertones. Alva Rogers in A Requiem for Astounding notes that the novel ‘precipitated a very bitter name-calling controversy in the pages of “Brass Tacks,” and elsewhere’ and the issue in dispute was whether it was communist propaganda or fascist propaganda. Hubbard maintained that it was apolitical in intent and was an attempt to extrapolate a pessimistic future based on the best evidence of the day.3
Another comment I have about this is that I don’t think that it is the same kind of beast as Herbert Best’s novel The Twenty-Fifth Hour at all (I’ve seen them shoe-horned into the same box a couple of times). Although they both have strong military men as central characters, I would say that the Best novel is about the depths of savagery that man is capable of whereas the Hubbard is essentially about a strong leader.
Notwithstanding all the above, this is certainly one of the significant stories of the year.
The non-fiction is the usual mix in this issue with slightly more of an emphasis on the science than normal. The editorial, The Old “Navy” Game, notes that four Astounding writers have some degree of connection to the Navy and none to the Army and then goes on very tenuously from there:
Risking the cracks about to descend upon me, I’ll guess as follows: The navy has more of a literary tradition than the army. Thereafter, a man well trained in military work is well trained on one very essential factor—details. p.6
The Analytical Laboratory, June 1940 is more a non-Analytical Laboratory this issue as, instead of giving any ratings, Campbell states the April issue has only been out a short time and says that so far four of the stories are slugging it out for first place (the Hubbard, Jameson, Van Vogt and del Rey).
The science material comprises of two articles, a shorter piece and Science Discussions.
The first article is Unseen Tools by Leo Vernon, which is about the use of mathematical tools and how they are used to predict real world phenomena, e.g. the discovery of the positron from Dirac’s work. It finishes with a section on symbolic logic. Introduction to a Nameless Science by Peter Van Dresser is an article on the upper atmosphere (mesosphere/exosphere/ionosphere) concentrating mostly on the ionic/electrical and radio effects of those layers. Of course, 75 years ago they still hadn’t put a satellite into space so a lot of this research still had to be done. Permanent Electret is a short squib, presumably by Campbell. Permanent electrets like permanent magnets. You have voltage but they deliver no current. Slip-Stickers’ Department is another short piece by John W. Campbell, Jr. about a ‘Reaction Motor’ that looks to have the same effect as the Dean Drive (unidirectional motion) but would seem to conserve energy. I am not sure about conservation of momentum though, and given the number of daft ideas that appeared in Astounding over the years, don’t want to waste my brain cells thinking about it much further.
As to this month’s Brass Tacks, I must confess I am beginning to find the letters more and more interesting as my knowledge of the writers and artists of the time grows. There are several snippets of interest this time around. Harry Warner of Spaceways (a fan magazine or a novel name for a house?), Hagerstown, Maryland mentions a UK reader endeavouring to get the magazine:
Inclosed you’ll find twenty cents in stamps, which have traveled a very devious route just to get the December, 1939, Astounding to a fellow in England. He wanted it; asked a friend to try, the friend bought the unused U.S. stamps from a dealer over there and smuggled them over here to me; now I send them to you to send the magazine to the original bird. (Don’t ask me why he didn’t send direct.) If the postage to abroad is extra, let me know and I’ll make up the difference. p.154
Hopefully the magazine made it but there were 62 allied ships sunk by U-boats in June 1940, of which at least half a dozen were outbound from the USA and about the same number from Canada.4
Bob (Wilson) Tucker of Bloomington, Illinois plugs his 1939 Yearbook, an index to fantastic fiction listing 703 stories and all the magazine contents pages for 20 cents.
D. Price of Balbba Heights, Canal Zone didn’t like If This Goes On— and amongst the general praise for Smith’s The Gray Lensman has this:
“The Gray Lensman” was magnificent for the first three issues, but the strain of composition was evidently far too much for Dr. Smith, because the conclusion was a shambles. The Eich, who had hitherto been so methodical and careful, and who had just suffered heavily for their underestimation of the Arisians and should therefore have been even more on their guard, abruptly threw caution to the wind and were absolutely unprepared and helpless before the might of the Patrol. Only by plumbing the depths of a degenerate space rat’s vocabulary could I express my opinion of this ultratrite ending. p.155
Elsewhere there are a number of ‘likes’ for Nat Schachner’s Cold, another few top tens for 1939, and some early comment on Hubbard’s serial from Max Moore of New Orleans, Louisiana:
Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I’m actually half-believing that “Final Blackout” is going to be good. But—it’s by Hubbard. And Hubbard is one of those fellows who believes that if he doesn’t turn out 50,000 words a month he gets stale. “Slaves of Sleep” is the best argument I can cite against that theory. p.156
Lew Cunningham of San Ysidro, California complains that when authors are taken to task in Science Discussions they can come back the next month with their retort whereas when the illustrators get panned they can do nothing about it. He suggests a closed season on illustrators for a while. The last letter of note is from W. K. Vemiaud of Michigan City, Indiana and it is a considered and interesting one about the religious overtones of current day sociological and economics belief which I am ill-equipped to paraphrase successfully. Read the magazine….
Finally, there is an advert5 for Unknown in this issue with this text:
Starting with the July issue, UNKNOWN makes its appearance as the high-type literary fantasy magazine that it is—its new cover is as dignified as a member of parliament. And you’ll find it on the newsstands among the general magazines, not among the all-fiction group. p.8
I can’t remember seeing many of these Unknown house ads in Astounding—they certainly haven’t been appearing monthly, that is for sure. In the likes of Galaxy/If/Worlds of Tomorrow and Amazing/Fantastic, you would always find ads for their related magazines in every issue, usually listing the contents. Also, that ‘member of parliament’ part is a little odd: what would that mean to your average 1940s US SF reader?
Overall, a worthwhile issue.
- Satisfying—and potentially lucrative—to have years of these Astoundings on your shelves: I think this issue cost me about £40-45 a couple of years ago.
- The spot colour works well on a couple of the adverts but doesn’t do much for either of Schneeman’s illustrations for the Heinlein story—this the best of the two:
- Alva Rogers, A Requiem for Astounding, p.77-78: “Final Blackout” by L. Ron Hubbard, a novel in three parts, began with the April issue. This novel precipitated a very bitter namecalling controversy in the pages of “ Brass Tacks,” and elsewhere. The story was essentially a simple one of survival in a Europe almost totally devastated after several generations of war. The hero (identified only as “the Lieutenant”) was a man born during a bombardment who grows to manhood in the environment of total war. Leading a brigade of “unkillables” the Lieutenant fights his way to military dictatorship of England and [spoiler] ensures his great triumph, the preservation of English independence from the United States, by arranging his own death.
Hubbard assumed two key premises on which he based the development of events in his story: that the war in Europe would grind on to the point where governments and national boundaries disintegrated, communications broke down, and the war devolved into localized skirmishes between roving bands of armed and uniformed brigands and that the United States would remain neutral and completely uninvolved in the conflict.
To more fully understand the controversy this novel aroused it might be well to examine briefly the picture of things as they were at the time this story was written and published. Hubbard (always an incredibly fast and sure writer) wrote this during the first weeks of the war, as Poland was being destroyed by the German blitzkrieg, its army with its outmoded cavalry and inept strategy ground into the mud by Nazi panzer divisions, its cities pulverized by Stukas. It was a horrifying nightmare of total war. And to add to the madness, on November 30th, mighty Russia invaded tiny Finland. It seemed certain now, with the four great powers of Europe involved in war, that the Armageddon for European civilization that had, since World War I, been predicted as the end result of any future European war was a predictable certainty.
At the time the story was published most American radicals and liberals were actively urging more positive action by the government in opposing fascist aggression, and giving greater aid to the Allies; the anti-war, neutralist movement was at its peak, particularly amongst students.
The point at issue with “Final Blackout” narrowed down to this: was it communist propaganda, or was it fascist propaganda? Was it pro-war, or was it anti-war? It was none of these, basically, but depending upon one’s political leanings, which in those days, and in certain circles tended to the extremes, the battle lines were drawn and charges of “communist” and “fascist” flew back and forth for months. Despite the political significance read into “Final Blackout” by partisans of the Left or Right, Hubbard maintains that it was apolitical in intent, and merely an attempt on his part to anticipate a future—grim as it could be—based on the most pessimistic interpretation of the evidence at hand and the best experts of the day. The fact that his future failed, in the main, to materialize doesn’t at all lessen the merit of “Final Blackout” as an outstanding work of science fiction. And who knows? The future he erronously predicted for World War II looks like a fair bet for a possible future to World War III.
- The advertisement for Unknown: