Astounding Science Fiction v24n06, February 1940


Other Reviews:
Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 8: February 1940

If This Goes On… (Part 1 of 2) • novella serial by Robert A. Heinlein ♥♥♥+
Locked Out • short story by H. B. Fyfe ♥
And Then There Was One • novelette by Ross Rocklynne ♥♥♥
Martian Quest • short story by Leigh Brackett ♥
High-Frequency War • short story by Harl Vincent
Bombardment in Reverse • short story by Norman L. Knight ♥♥
The Professor Was a Thief • novelette by L. Ron Hubbard ♥

If This Goes On… • cover by Hubert Rogers
Internal artwork • Hubert Rogers, Frank Kramer, W. Kolliker, M. Isip, Charles Schneeman, Willy Ley
It Isn’t a Science, Yet! • editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Brass Tacks • letters
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory: November 1939/ December 1939
Botanical Invasion • essay by Willy Ley
Tough Guy • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr. [as by Arthur McCann]
Luna Observatory No. 1 • essay by R. S. Richardson
Lubrication • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr. [as by Arthur McCann]
Science Discussions • letters

In my doomed attempt to try and read some of the 1940 issues for the upcoming Retro Hugo awards I thought I had better get started on Astounding, which I should probably read anyway. I started with this issue as the January one has the last part of an E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith serial that I didn’t want to read, or at least not now.

Roger’s cover1 is fine but somewhat old fashioned: futuristic ‘bigger must be better’ versions of WWI tanks that look like they are going to get their tracks blown off every time they rear up. None of the interior artwork was of note, all of it being quite perfunctory stuff.

Campbell’s editorial It Isn’t a Science, Yet! introduces the Heinlein story—which is given the ‘Nova’ designation2—and discusses how it touches on psychology and propaganda. Even in these early days we can see glimmerings of the man who would be so drawn to Dianetics a decade later:

Psychology isn’t a science, so long as a trained psychologist does—and must—say “there’s no telling how an individual man will react to a given stimulus.” Properly developed, psychology could determine that; the corollary is that it could then select the precisely correct stimulus to bring forth any desired reaction. This would, unquestionably, make for a far more orderly world, this ability to select the right push-button in a man’s mind, and make him react as dependably as any other machine. p.5

Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On…  is set in a future theocratic USA ruled by dictatorship. The story opens on a cold night with John Lyle, one of the Angels of the Lord, on guard for The Prophet at the palace in New Jerusalem. He encounters one of the Virgins, Sister Judith, before she attends The Prophet. Later, he rushes to a commotion that involves her. Subsequently he discusses this with his friend Zebadiah as they watch a pariah, a possible member of the Cabal which is a resistance movement, being pursued and stoned outside the palace.
Much of the subsequent story involves Lyle, Zebadiah, Judith and a fourth sister Magdalene. Judith was upset by the fact that the prophet wasn’t the great man she expected and matters quickly turn to helping her escape from the palace to Mexico.
Before long, Magdalene has stabbed and killed a spy with a vibroblade and revealed herself as a member of the Cabal. John and Zebadiah are soon inducted into the organisation after a long drug-induced interrogation.
Much adventure follows.
Later on, the Cabal give Lyle a different and immersive identity (plastic surgery and psychological conditioning) and he is sent on a rocket to the east. He realises the man sitting beside him is an state agent after they watch footage of riots—fomented by Cabal produced proproganda—on the TV. He has a blood sample taken for identification purposes after being detained on landing and subsequently overhears a conversation identifying him as an imposter. He jumps out of the window and steals a rocket.
As you can tell from this synopsis, at the beginning this develops rather quickly and not entirely believably, but it soon captures you, and at points, e.g. during the rescue of Judith by Lyle, it is all quite exciting. I look forward to the next part.

One other story worth mentioning in this issue is And Then There Was One by Ross Rocklynne. Although not up to the standard of the Heinlein it is quite an engrossing tale about a strange Voice that sends six men—who are trying to set up a world food monopoly—to a hollow world. Here they are told that all the food and water they have between them will only keep one person alive for the five week trial they are being subjected to. As well as these inadequate provisions the men have a sword and a pistol and are in radio contact. They start at equidistant positions along the equator of the world and the rest of the story has them jumping across the void trying to form alliances or murder each other. This doesn’t really make any sense—the framing sections of a man being told this story in particular—but it is a surprisingly engrossing read for the most part.

Bombardment in Reverse by Norman L. Knight is the best of the remainder as it doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, and if you treat this story as a tallish tale you’ll derive some enjoyment out of it. Two mollusc-like alien nations start hostilities over a territorial dispute. As the war escalates one side rediscovers artillery, explosives and, it materialises, something far more significant. After an investigation by the shelled side,3 they find that the enemy artillery are operating in the middle of next week…

All of the rest of the stories are quite poor fare, and I imagine that they were standard pulp stuff that could have appeared in any SF pulp magazine of the time. The Professor Was a Thief by L. Ron Hubbard has Pop, an old hand in a newsroom, at the centre of its story about a spate of objects in the city vanishing. What is actually happening is that a scientist has worked out how to miniaturise objects as part of a plan to improve freight transport efficiency. This is well enough told but it does not achieve any suspension of disbelief. What also doesn’t help is that it is pretty obvious from the very beginning what is going on and you wonder why everyone is taking so long to work it out. Finally, this kind of ‘fantasy’ science fiction would have been better suited to Unknown, I think.
Martian Quest by Leigh Brackett tells of a man called Drake arriving on Mars as a colonist. He ends up with a Venusian called Tel and a woman called Terra, who he later falls for. Their problem is the marauding Khom, huge lizard like beasts that eat nearly everything in sight. Drake is eventually shamed by Terra into using his chemistry skills to work out how to destroy the Khom. Towards the end of the story their settlement is surrounded by large numbers of them and they try to escape… This is fairly limp stuff, and isn’t a million miles from standard ‘settlers being menaced by Injuns’ pulp fare, unfortunately.
Locked Out by H. B. Fyfe has a spaceman locked outside his craft on the Mars-asteroid run. He then acts like a prize idiot trying to get back in, e.g. brute force attempt on partially jammed door, ripping the wires out of the control panel, managing to separate himself from the spaceship due to various gyrations:

“Oh, hell!” swore Keith as the metal of the hull receded. He knew he would float back, given time, since the ship was the only matter hereabouts to attract him. p.44

Not sure anyone worked out the actual gravitational maths in the last of those…
He also avoids attracting the attention of passing spacecraft due to embarrassment, although having one ‘passing spaceship’ is a stretch never mind several. The resolution of the story is unlikely but, frankly, by that point I hoped he would die as punishment for his arrant stupidity.
Last and worst is High-Frequency War by Harl Vincent. Actually, the first few pages or so of this one aren’t too bad in its tale of Pinky, a drifter who is trying to enlist to fight in a future American war but can’t because of his poor health. He ends up seeking refuge in the warm basement of a large building. He is challenged on entry and passes out. When he comes too he is fed by the caretaker, Slim, who works on the machines.
From this point forward it turns into the direst of pulp stories. The caretaker Slim mentions a Dr Buckley who works upstairs and, national security measures seemingly absent, Pinky not only knows of him but that he is working on inventions to end the war:

The soup smelled great and Pinky began ladling it in. “Let’s see,” he said, “Buckley’s the one’s been working on a new weapon or something, isn’t he?” p.105

Pinky sleeps, wakes, and after searching upstairs finds Slim the caretaker tied up. Buckley subsequently turns out to be an enemy agent who is disabling American defences as the allies attack by air. As they watch this traitorous behaviour Pinky is ‘rejuvenated’ by the rays from the transformer they hide behind:

He hugged the humming transformer case. It was the very transformer that hid them, the one supplying this energy. Its radiations were restoring memories. Of course. He grabbed Slim’s arm with fingers that were suddenly of steel. Slim winced and his eyes widened, looking into those of his companion. “Why… why, what the hell?” he gasped. “You’re a different guy.” p.109

A fight ensues, and Pinky and Slim prevail. All of this is topped off with a two-page super-science explanation discussing the weapon ‘Buckley’ developed, the fact that ‘Buckley’ is really his assistant Vardo and that ‘Pinky’ is really Buckley!
Absolutely dreadful but I’ve spent some time on this one and the last few to show that even with the likes of Heinlein and Van Vogt as contributors, Campbell was still buying more material like this than I had been expecting. The Golden Age may have started months earlier, but appears to still have been a work in progress.

There is a fair amount of non-fiction in this issue. For some reason Brass Tacks has a couple of pages after the editorial and is then continued at the end of the magazine. I don’t understand the point of splitting this feature, and why it is the only one in the magazine to suffer.
As for the letters, it is hard to make sense of some of the comments on issues you haven’t read but the artists Gladney and Orban take a pasting while there is praise for Van Vogt’s Discord in Scarlet and Sturgeon’s Ether Breather amongst other work. Rather unusually there is a short editorial comment at the beginning of each letter answering one of the points or questions following, which is a little disconcerting: by the end of the letter you have completely forgotten what the editorial comment was.
Lawrence Miller of Norfolk, Virginia makes a comment about The Analytical Laboratory that made me smile:

Analytical Laboratory— good for a laugh any time. I don’t see how you manage to give us such a good mag when the majority of readers are half-witted. p.6

As was pointed out years later when Analog eventually binned it completely, the serial or the longest novelette invariably won the bonus money.4 Science Discussions are a couple of letters of that nature at the end of Brass Tacks.

There are two science articles and a couple of science shorts. Botanical Invasion by Willy Ley is about Earth plants that look like they have an alien origin: I’m a relatively keen gardener but I found this fairly dry, so I am not sure how others will find it. Luna Observatory No. 1, by the astronomer R. S. Richardson, is about building an astronomical telescope on the moon. It reads rather like a reject from Astronomy Today given some of the detail about focal lengths, etc. but parts of it are interesting. No mention of orbital satellites like Hubble at all.
The two science squibs are Tough Guy, about the difficulties in isolating the element fluorine, and Lubrication, the use of various lubricants in different circumstances. Both are by Campbell and both interesting.

Overall, the standard of fiction was not, as previously discussed, up to the standards I anticipated for a Golden Age Astounding, but the Heinlein and the Rocklynne save the day.

  1. Another edited image originally from Siren in the Night.
  2. For more on the Nova label, have a look at the responses to Jamie Rubin’s review Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 8: February 1940.
  3. This is not a mollusc related joke 🙂
  4. Good News, Bad News by Ben Bova, Analog, February 1977: ‘Inevitably, the longest story of each issue won the first-place vote, and the extra penny a word bonus that went with it. With almost equal regularity the next-longest story took second place and the half-cent bonus. Short stories were hardly ever in the money; even short stories that eventually won Hugo and Nebula nominations and awards.’ p.6

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