Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 42 (forthcoming)
The Weapon Shop • novelette by A. E. van Vogt ♥♥♥♥
The Flight That Failed • novelette by A. E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull [as by E. M. Hull]
Some Day We’ll Find You • novella by Cleve Cartmill
Interlude • short story by Ross Rocklynne ♥
To Follow Knowledge • novelette by Frank Belknap Long
Johnny Had a Gun • short story by Robert Moore Williams ♥♥
Piggy Bank • novelette by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore [as by Lewis Padgett] ♥
True Fidelity • short story by William M. Danner
The Human Bomb • short story by Stanley Woolston
Valadusia • short story by Jack Bivins
O’Ryan, the Invincible • short story by T. D. Whitenack, Jr.
My Word! • short story by Frank J. Smythe
Take-Off • short story by L. M. Jensen
Cover • William Timmins
Interior artwork • Kolliker, Paul Orban, Elton Fax, Charles Schneeman, M. Isip, F. Kramer
Power Supply • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
Get Out and Get Under (Part 1 of 2) • essay by L. Sprague de Camp
Brass Tacks • letters
As I have may have mentioned before, Jamie Rubin has been reviewing Astounding on his blog with the intention of covering ‘The Golden Age’ of July 1939 to December 1950. Ideally, I would have liked to catch and keep up with what he is doing but, as I am about two and a half years behind him, that isn’t going to happen. Even if I started with this issue I doubt I could keep up with his plan of reading one a fortnight.
That said, I noticed this issue was relatively self-contained in that it had no serials or series stories bar the van Vogt (which I’ve read a couple of times before and know is standalone) so I thought I’d read it.
This issue is one of the large bedsheet format ones and as such there is a lot of reading here, containing as it does a novella and four novelettes plus a number of short stories.1 The fiction leads off with the classic—and still impressive—The Weapon Shop by A. E. van Vogt, the second in his ‘Weapon Shops of Isher’ series. This begins with an opening paragraph that gives us several pieces of information:
The village at night made a curiously timeless picture. Fara walked contentedly beside his wife along the street. The air was like wine; and he was thinking dimly of the artist who had come up from Imperial City, and made what the telestats called—he remembered the phrase vividly—”a symbolic painting reminiscent of a scene in the electrical age of seven thousand years ago.” p.9
It not only introduces us to Fara, who is the protagonist, but also lets us know we are in a Galactic Empire far in the future. The couple’s pleasant evening walk is soon interrupted when Fara notices a newly opened Weapon Shop, which has appeared overnight in a side street. Fara, a loyal supporter of the Empress, is enraged at this desecration of his timeless home by an organisation that does not recognise her authority. As a crowd gathers outside the shop he becomes even angrier when neither the townspeople nor the constable take any action. The constable states it is impossible to break into the shops, so Fara goes home and returns with an atomic cutting torch which he uses to no avail in an attempt to gain entry.
One of the bystanders says the doors only open for those who will not harm the occupants and Fara, though he ridicules the statement, reaches forward and tries to open the door. It opens. However, when he urges the constable to quickly go in and effect an arrest the door slams shut again. Fara grabs the doorknob once more, which gives us one of the story’s great images:
Fara stared stupidly at his hand, which was still clenched. And then, slowly, a hideous thrill coursed along his nerves. The knob had—withdrawn. It had twisted, become viscous, and slipped amorphously from his straining fingers. Even the memory of that brief sensation gave him a feeling of unnormal things. p.12
He tries the handle again but the door remains locked. His mood rapidly changes from anger to fear as he realises that maybe even the soldiers of the empress would be powerless in this situation. At that point he tries again and gains entry.
Inside there are more unsettling events for Fara. He meets a silver-haired man and, quickly collecting himself, tells him he wants to buy a gun for hunting. He is met with a recitation of a number of bye-laws that the weapon shops impose. When Fara eventually gets hold of the weapon and turns it on the silver-haired man, the latter barely reacts but starts discussing Fara with a man standing to the rear. The pair come to the conclusion that his one-sided outlook about the Empire would be difficult to change. They finish by showing him a disturbing vision of the Empress in the metropolis arranging for the murder of one of her ex-lovers. Fara is then ejected out of a side door.
Worse is to come: when Fara gets home he finds out that the Weapon Shop has put out black proproganda on the telestat about him being the shop’s first customer.
All of this is a great start to the story. Having started with a couple enjoying an evening walk in a bucolic village, we are swiftly introduced to the enigmatic Weapon Shops with their near magical technology and shown the dark underbelly of the Empire.
The subsequent narrative arc (multiple spoilers) has Fara fall slowly from grace: his son (there is on-going familial strife that helps ground the story) ends up taking a huge amount of money from his account. Fara takes a loan from the bank to cover this and then loses his business to Automatic Atomic Motor Repair Shops, a large competitor, when that loan is bought and foreclosed on. After the local court treats him badly, and his mother-in-law refuses any support, he ends up going to back to the Weapon Shop with the intention of buying a gun to commit suicide with. At the conclusion of his purchase he finds himself transported to the off-world site and finds himself standing in front of a huge machine:
A machine, oh, a machine—
His brain lifted up, up in his effort to grasp the tremendousness of the dull-metaled immensity of what was spread here under a summer sun beneath a sky as blue as a remote southern sea.
The machine towered into the heavens, five great tiers of metal, each a hundred feet high; and the superbly streamlined five hundred feet ended in a peak of light, a gorgeous spire that tilted straight up a sheer two hundred feet farther, and matched the very sun for brightness.
And it was a machine, not a building, because the whole lower tier was alive with shimmering lights, mostly green, but sprinkled colorfully with red and occasionally a blue and yellow. Twice, as Fara watched, green lights directly in front of him flashed unscintillatingly into red.
The second tier was alive with white and red lights, although there were only a fraction as many lights as on the lowest tier. The third section had on its dull-metal surface only blue and yellow lights; they twinkled softly here and there over the vast area.
The fourth tier was a series of signs, that brought the beginning of comprehension. The whole sign was:
WHITE — BIRTHS
RED — DEATHS
GREEN — LIVING
BLUE — IMMIGRATION TO EARTH
YELLOW — EMIGRATION
The fifth tier was also all sign, finally explaining :
SOLAR SYSTEM 19,174,463,747
The numbers changed, even as he looked at them, leaping up and down, shifting below and above what they had first been. People were dying, being born, moving to Mars, to Venus, to the moons of Jupiter, to Earth’s moon, and others coming back again, landing minute by minute in the thousands of spaceports. Life went on in its gigantic fashion—and here was the stupendous record. p.23
This is a scene that has perhaps become more credible in the age of meta-data.
A passer-by tells him he is at Information Center, the home of the Weapon Shop courts. The subsequent interviews and court procedure provides justice and restitution to Fara for a conspiracy he was unaware of between the bank and the company that bought his shop. We also find out a lot more about the Weapon Shops and what they do.
The most intriguing thing I found about this section was that Van Vogt doesn’t go for the easy option of the Weapon Shops as some kind of government-in-waiting, a resistance movement waiting to usurp the Empress and take over, but paints them as an near-omnipotent, altruistic and almost neutral organisation. As well as being warned off about any future bad-mouthing of Her Majesty, he is told:
It is important to understand that we do not interfere in the main stream of human existence. We right wrongs; we act as a barrier between the people and their more ruthless exploiters.
People always have the kind of government they want. When they want change, they must change it. As always we shall remain an incorruptible core—and I mean that literally; we have a psychological machine that never lies about a man’s character—I repeat, an incorruptible core of human idealism, devoted to relieving the ills that arise inevitably under any form of government. p.26
I liked this a lot, in particular its almost dreamlike progression. One of his best.
The rest of the fiction in this issue, unfortunately, is pretty poor. Whether this is just a one-off or whether this is the result of much of Campbell’s talent being called up for war service (this issue was published about a year after Pearl Harbour) remains to be seen.
The Flight That Failed is another story that comes from van Vogt, this time in collaboration with his wife E. Mayne Hull, although I rather wonder if he might have revised a story that she wrote. It tells of a wartime flight over the Atlantic in unusual moonlit conditions. A stranger comes into the cockpit and starts talking to the captain before he is arrested and put in chains. He escapes from these not once but twice and, while this is going on, we learn he is from a possible future and warns of an imminent attack by German aircraft. He further states that he needs to man one of the machine guns to prevent his particular Nazi-dominated future occurring. When he is not believed he vanishes.
Until this point the story was OK but it now goes rapidly downhill. The aircraft (spoiler) is attacked by the prophesised aircraft and, in the middle of this, the captain has a rather unconvincing conversation with a professor on board, who is subsequently killed. The pilot returns to the cockpit and shoots a ray gun at one of the attacking aircraft and destroys it. He then realises he is onboard some sort of spaceship in a reality that has been materialised by the death of the professor. This unbelievable ending just shakes the story to bits.
Some Day We’ll Find You by Cleve Cartmill is about a company called Trading Posts that has a monopoly in inter-solar system trading. The owner Bradley is looking for two men called Wellman and Stopes as they have invented a space drive that may threaten his business. He hires a man called Craig Marten through Hunt Inc., an investigative firm, to find them. Bradley also tasks a woman called Jennifer Jones to get close to Craig for reasons revealed later in the story.
There isn’t really any point in saying more about this: there is no real science fiction content here, just a number of one-dimensional characters being moved around an overlong and quite boring plot. You can tell what is going to happen from the synopsis above. To add to the suffering Cartmill can’t even write half-decent prose, and the story is full of material like this:
Thorne Raglan didn’t look like a hunter. He was moon-faced, with a glow like that goddess of the night. This effect, perhaps, was wrought by small blue eyes that twinkled over mounded pink cheeks. His short pug nose was almost lost in an expanse of geniality. p.39
Craig looked steadily at the pink face of his employer. “This case must be important.”
“That mounting sound you hear,” Raglan chuckled, “is our bank balance. If you get a hot lead, let me know instantly.” p.44
Pulp filler, and not even good pulp filler at that.
Interlude by Ross Rocklynne is about a Neanderthal who is transported into a totalitarian future where people are controlled by collars locked around their necks. He later (spoiler) breaks free of a reservation and kills the dictator. This is obviously a ridiculous plot but, unlike the Cartmill, at least the story moves along at an entertaining clip and has better prose.
To Follow Knowledge by Frank Belknap Long begins with three old friends getting together at an exhibition. One of them, Morrison has built a time machine, which generates some eye-glazingly dull conversation:
She paused an instant, then resumed. “I was a problem child in physics at Vassar, but I seem to remember that only time on Earth would stand still. If you moved with the speed of light and looked back at Earth, everything would appear to be standing still. If you moved faster, events on Earth would unhappen.”
“That’s right,” Temple said. “People who don’t think things through imagine that events would repeat themselves in little jerks. Come to a head, so to speak, and then unwind feet foremost. Actually they would unhappen continuously, roll backward until all history repeated itself in reverse.”
“But only on Earth,” Joan reminded him. “We could observe that reversal only by moving away from Earth in the direction of motion faster than light. And we could move about and grow older while watching it if we were traveling in a time machine. Our motion would not be relative in relation to the machine. That seems sort of tautological, but you get what I mean.”
“I get what you mean,” Temple said. “And without realizing it you’ve put your finger on the crux of our predicament. We don’t know what reality would be like in a higher dimension than we can perceive with our limited endowments of sight, touch and hearing, but it seems unlikely that a time machine would just move away from Earth with the speed of light. p.90
Temple then starts the time machine, off the back of a dare if I recall correctly, and this catapults them into a number of strange realities. He appears to be the only one that can move between the several realities that they are scattered between. This situation is developed for a while before switching to Temple explaining what had happened to ‘grandpop’ for several pages. I say explaining but I mean more pseudoscientific babble about time travel, faster than light travel, multiple dimensions, etc., which makes it read like a really bad Weird Tales super-science story from the 1930s.
Johnny Had a Gun by Robert Moore Williams is about a small time criminal who is interrogated by police after he kills a gangster with a strange pistol that appears to be not of this time and/or place. The story seems more interested in the hard-boiled detective aspects than the SF, although this does produce some well-done gore:
In spite of himself, the lieutenant shuddered. He had seen violent death in many forms, men with their heads caved in, with all bones broken, with their guts dragging on the sidewalk, but he had never seen anything like this. He had been in a squad car near the scene and a radio call had sent him hurrying to it. He had found a totally bewildered young criminal in the clutch of an equally bewildered patrolman and he had found bits of flesh scattered all over the street, splattered against the walls of the building, draped over Neon signs. Bone, pieces of intestines, blood—Nelson quickly lit another cigarette. p.100
An intriguing story but one that goes nowhere.
I had higher hopes for the next piece given that it is one of two ‘Lewis Padgett’ stories that were published between The Twonky (an entertaining gimmick story in Astounding, September 1942) and Mimsy Were The Borogroves (the classic that would appear in Astounding, February 1943). Alas it was not to be.
Piggy Bank by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore is set in a future world where rival business tycoons seek to put each other out of business. One of these business men is suffering repeated diamond robberies so he gets his scientist to build him a robot studded with diamonds that can’t be caught. This scientist also makes artificial diamonds for the businessman by a process only he knows, and he doesn’t trust his boss…. Once the robot is built (spoiler) the businessman double-crosses the scientist and has him killed, and discovers what the patent number for the diamond manufacturing process is; he also discovers that the scientist has changed the pass-phrase that allows anyone to get near the robot. Meantime, one of his business rivals has started putting the squeeze on him financially so he has to get hold of the diamonds.
As you can gather from the description, this is another contrived and unlikely pulp tale. The ending isn’t that impressive either.
There are a further half-dozen short-shorts that come under the Probability Zero umbrella, an idea Campbell dreamt up to allow aspiring writers to break into Astounding with SF tall tales. These six include stories about FM radio programs and a portal that opens, a man parachuting through the Earth destroying a Nazi city and causing a tidal wave in Japan, a nightclub planet that has drink plants and music plants ruined by a swing band that causes a musical civil war, a man leading limbless aliens through poison ivy and driving them insane as they can’t itch, fire-walking as training for a subsequent expedition to the sun, and finally, the assembly of a spaceship in record time for a race to Alpha Centauri. They are all uniformly awful and should have been left in the slush pile. According to ISFDB, none appear to have been reprinted. No surprise there.
The non-fiction this month isn’t as bad as the majority of the fiction but there is nothing special here either. The Cover for Van Vogt’s story by William Timmins is rather bland, but having looked at a number of Astounding covers of the time this may have been intentional: a deliberate contrast to the lurid pulps.
Orban’s illustrations are the probably the best of the Interior artwork but it is a pity that his rocketships, etc. look like they have flown in from the 1930s.2
Power Supply by John W. Campbell, Jr. is an editorial that initially talks about the desirability of getting electricity directly from atomic fission before talking about other power sources, solar, wind, etc. It ends with this:
If and when men develop an efficient way of using low-potential energy sources, the problem of unlimited energy, costless, fuelless, totally and continuously available, is ended. Solar energy is so vast in total amount that any drains man might put on it would be completely indetectable; the trick we lack now is a method of using the already existent immense area of sun-energy absorber, the nicely designed absorber that acts also as a reservoir for the energy during the night when solar energy isn’t available. Figure a way to turn the thermal energy of the Earth’s atmosphere, and of its seas, into electric power directly, and there won’t be any real need for atomic power plants here on Earth. p.4
In Times to Come states that this month’s story ratings will appear next month along with the third ‘Seetee’ story by ‘Will Stewart’ (Jack Williamson)—his last for a while as he is doing weather observation for the Air Corps.
Get Out and Get Under by L. Sprague de Camp is the first part of a two part article about vehicles in warfare. This part covers five vehicles: the chariot, the helepolis, the war elephant, the ribauld, and the battle car. It does tend to go on, especially in the elephant section where there are endless examples of how they were used in warfare.
Brass Tacks is unusually dull this time around: this was not helped by my not having read the few stories that are mentioned in the letters.
With the singular exception of Van Vogt’s classic, a very poor issue. The next few look like they contain some promising items (The Weapon Makers, Mimsy Were The Borogroves, Clash By Night, Gather, Darkness!) but I’ll be interested to see what the overall standard is like.
- With the January 1942 issue Astounding went from being 164pp. pulp to 132pp. bedsheet format. When Campbell was talking about Unknown making the same change he said the fiction would increase from 80,000 words to 110,000 words per issue.
- One of Orban’s illustrations: