Astounding Science Fiction v25n01, March 1940

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Other Reviews:
Jamie Rubin: Vacation in the Golden Age, Episode 9

Fiction:
Cold • novelette by Nat Schachner
In the Good Old Summertime • short story by P. Schuyler Miller ♥
The Emancipated • novelette by L. Sprague de Camp ♥♥♥
A Chapter from the Beginning • short story by A. M. Phillips ♥♥
The Dwindling Sphere • short story by Willard E. Hawkins ♥♥
If This Goes On … (Part 2 of 2) • novella serial by Robert A. Heinlein ♥♥

Non-fiction:
Cold • cover by Gilmore
Interior Artwork • Frank Kramer, R. Isip, E. Hatcher, W. Kolliker, Hubert Rogers
Not-So-Dangerous Experiment • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.
In Times to Come
The Analytical Laboratory: January 1940 • story ratings
Fuel for the Future • essay by Jack Hatcher
Atomic Ringmaster • essay by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Brass Tacks • letters
Science Discussions • letters

This month’s cover1 is by Gilmore, and I now understand the negative comments in last issue’s Brass Tacks about his work. While this isn’t a bad painting it is a rather crudely executed vision of an eclipse on Uranus. Of the interior art the best is from Kramer, who does a number of illustrations for the Schachner novelette.

The fiction leads off with Cold by Nat Schachner. This is fairly dire pulp fare set at an armorium mine on Ariel, one of the moons of Uranus. There is a data dump at the start that describes the miners, three Earthmen and two Martians, and the political situation that pertains between Earth and Mars. They mine this element by the use of what seems like slave-labour, ‘Troglos’ from Venus. This is all told in very homey and slangy prose with plenty of ‘swells’ and the odd ‘muchly’. This is from when they discuss possible Earth-Martian tensions:

“You suppose so!” echoed Sar indignantly. “Why, you blithering idiot, look at me. Could you even dream of hating me, of blasting me down with a needle ray just because I’m a Martian and you’re an Earthman?”
I jarred out of my abstraction. “You old son,” I told him affectionately. “I’d cut off my own right arm first. You’re more to me than a blood brother. Sure, patriotism is the bunk, an outmoded irrationality.”

When the story eventually gets going the main armorium seam suddenly and unexpectedly appears to be exhausted. This potential catastrophe—Earth and Mars are dependent on armorium for all their energy—leads Earth and Mars to send war fleets to secure what is left of the supply. There is also a breakdown of trust at the station. Later, the Troglos revolt and in the ensuing skirmish the Earthmen and Martians unite and manage to erect a force screen that will protect the mine from both fleets:

We both squinted upward. The black sky, in which a dark, ominous Uranus hung like a huge black disk, with the Sun completely hid, began to shimmer. Flashing colors chased each other over the vast expanse, thin and pearly opalescent. Like a faint, jeweled haze an arching shimmer of force spread over the darkling planet.
“The impermo-screen!” we said simultaneously.

Unsurprisingly (spoiler) a new seam of armorium is also exposed by an explosion during the Troglo conflict, so all ends well. This story is another example of the on-going pulp filler that Campbell was still reliant on.

The Emancipated by L. Sprague de Camp is the other novelette in this issue, and is the third of the ‘Johnny Black’ series of stories.2 Johnny is a black bear who has been injected with a substance that has changed the structure of his brain and increased his intelligence to that of a human’s. In this story Johnny takes up residence in a zoo as the modification program is extended to other animals:

His den already contained two female American blacks, Susie and Nokomis, and a male, Ink. They looked at him warily as he toddled into the enclosure with his mattress rolled up and slung over his shoulder. Their smell excited him. They were the first members of his own species whom he had had an opportunity to know personally.
“Herro,” he said. “My name is Johnny Black.”
The three bears looked a trifle startled. Of course, he thought, they couldn’t understand him, yet. So, with his claws, he cut the strings that held his mattress, unrolled it, and spread himself out on the mattress in a sunny spot. He took the spectacles out of the case around his neck and opened the book he had brought along.
A spectator explained to his small boy: “Sure, that’s a grizzly beh. No, behs can’t read. He’s just trained to do like he was reading. To make people laugh. No, I dunno why the other behs don’t read. Sure, they eat people.”
Johnny looked up sharply at this canard, and was tempted to contradict it. But, he thought, if he started an argument with the spectators he’d never get time to read his book. So he said nothing.

Unfortunately, after their treatment the apes and chimpanzees develop revolutionary tendencies and start trying to radicalise the other animals. A few inter-species skirmishes later they kidnap the mayor. Johnny Black starts doing some primate research with a view to rescuing him…
The difference between this and the Schachner could not be more marked. De Camp’s novelette is smart, well written and amusing.

In the Good Old Summertime by P. Schuyler Miller is from the same pulp paradigm as the Schachner novelette. An unpleasant man called Joe Guilder sets himself up on hot and swampy Venus and determines to be King of the amphibian like natives. When two other men come to complain about a matter they recognise him as a fugitive from Earth. Guilder has them shot by one of the natives as they depart.
As summer arrives the planet heats up and this, and the native biology plus other factors, turn out to be his undoing. For what it is worth, the xenobiology used isn’t really alien but Earth-analogue.
You could also say that A Chapter from the Beginning by A. M. Phillips is a pulp story, and it is, but I found this an engrossing if uncomplicated read. Once you get past its clunky introduction about early species of man you get a story about a pre-human called Nwug being pursued through the jungle by another early form of man and his semi-domesticated dogs/wolves. After a long and brutal pursuit (spoiler) Nwug manages to mount a pony and evade pursuit on the plains (there is also a spoiler illustration in the magazine to this effect before the event in the story).  As well as earlier work, Phillips had another story in Astounding years later, as well as a couple in Unknown: it’ll be interesting to check them out.
The Dwindling Sphere by Willard E. Hawkins is an ‘if this goes on’ story told in diary form about a scientist who discovers a way to make an infinitely variable substance called plastocene. As this can be used to replace all sorts of materials it quickly changes society and the role of work for the majority of the population. The problem is that less matter comes out of the process than is put in—where the remaining energy goes is uncertain—and soon large excavation pits appear all over Earth. The story then telescopes through time. Well enough worked out but not really convincing.

The fiction is rounded out by the conclusion to If This Goes On … the novella serial by Robert A. Heinlein. This is a disappointing end to what had been quite a promising piece and there are several things that don’t work, or don’t work particularly well.
Too start with, the first couple of chapters where Lyle is on the run are a little flat, with quite a lot of travel and action achieving very little. Eventually he lands beside Phoenix where the resistance is headquartered and is reunited with Zeb. In fairly short order Lyle is made the General’s ADC and there is a meeting where it is decided to start the revolution. However one Colonel dissents, arguing that matters would disintegrate into a civil war as the population is not psychologically conditioned. They subsequently hijack the news feeds on Prophet’s day with a fake message and the revolution begins:

They had tried out the technique during the weeks before the miracle. Usually it had worked, and the subjects were semantically readjusted to a modern nondogmatic viewpoint, but if the subject was too old mentally, if his thought processes were too thoroughly canalized, it sometimes destroyed one set of evaluations without providing him with a new set. The subject might come out of the hypnosis with an overpowering sense of insecurity which usually degenerated into schizophrenia, involute melancholia, or other psychoses involving loss of cortical control and consequent thalamic and subthalamic anarchy.

After taking most of the country only New Jerusalem is left. There is then a titanic battle scene that is the climax of the whole novella but it is quite a boring one. Partly this is due to a lack of realism­—compare the action here with any real war novel—partly it is due to various gobbets of military theory or over-described and unrealistic technology:

In an ordinary single-explosion gun the propelling gas pressure is highest when the shell is near the breech, and falls off rapidly as the shell approaches the muzzle. The booster gun has a series of firing chambers located along the side of the barrel in addition to the main firing chamber at the breech. The charge in each of these is fired through an electrical timing gear by the passage of the shell itself so that they fire in order as the shell passes them. Thus these booster charges maintain maximum pressure on the base of the shell right up to the time it leaves the muzzle, giving it an enormous muzzle velocity and terrific striking power—and a terrific recoil as well!

Even after the sonics failed, we were well enough off. The dead reckoners of a tread-driven cruiser are surprisingly accurate. It’s like this—every time the tread lays down it measures the ground it passes over. A little differential gadget to compare the speeds of the port and starboard treads, another gadget to do vector sums, and a gyro compass hook-in, to check and correct the vector addition, and you have a dead reckoner that will trace your course over fifteen miles of rough terrain and tell within a yard where you have ended up.

Doctrine called for two different types of telepathic hookup; relay, in which each craft relays messages down the line; and full mesh, in which there is direct hookup down the full chain of command plus hookup between adjacent units in the battle line. In the first case, each sensitive carries just one circuit; that is to say, he is in rapport with just one other sensitive. In the second case, my sensitives would have to handle as many as four circuits each; I didn’t want to put such an overload on them until I had to.

There is quite a lot of this.
Finally, at the very end of the story we have a page or two of ‘prologue’ with  Heinlein in full-blown political didacticism mode. What this has to do with the rest of the novella I’m not really sure, but if it is about what has been happening over the last two episodes then I’ve totally missed the point:

“There isn’t anything wrong with the minds of the American people; they just suffer from a tendency to sell their birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage. Each one values liberty for himself but he is naively certain that his poor benighted brother needs protection. So we pass a lot of sumptuary legislation intended to protect the moral and spiritual welfare of our poor weak brethren. When it is too late, we find that in so doing we have surrendered our ancient liberties to a bureaucracy which tyrannizes us under the guise of protecting our souls.

I haven’t read a huge amount of Heinlein but rather wonder if this story illustrates all his virtues and vices in one compact package.3 Quite a disappointing end after such a promising start.

The non-fiction this issue is unremarkable. Campbell’s editorial, Not-So-Dangerous Experiment , is a partially prescient one about Uranium-235 and ends:

Once a U235 atom is primed with a neutron, it lets go almost instantly, they now believe. The reaction is some millions of times more violent, and some hundreds of thousands of times more sudden that the breakdown of a molecule of TNT. If you could once get all the atoms in a few pounds of U235 primed at the same time, the results would represent one of those very rare instances where the word “awful” genuinely applies. Fortunately, there is no co-operation between the atoms; those first primed go off before the rest have any opportunity to collect neutrons. The neutrons released are moving with terrific velocity, and must be slowed down by collisions before they can be captured. Under such conditions, it will burn, but can’t blow up.
Which, considering Man’s psychology, seems to be an example of foolproof engineering on the part of the Creator.

In Times to Come trails L. Ron Hubbard’s new serial, which has echoes the newly begun World War II:

“Final Blackout” is the story of a lieutenant and his brigade and the rotting remains of Europe—a Europe in which 30,000,000 fighting men and 300,000,000 civilians have died.

There are two science articles. Fuel for the Future by Jack Hatcher is an article about human nutrition and how this will need to be addressed on other planets and in space. It is overlong and should have been put on a diet.  Atomic Ringmaster by John W. Campbell, Jr. is at the U-235 again in its discussion of mass spectrographs before moving on to describe a molecular separator developed by Dr Rabi of Columbia University. Campbell doesn’t really explain why the radio field alters the behaviour of the atoms or molecules in a magnetic field but I think he is describing the early NMR experiments which would get Rabi his 1944 Nobel Prize.
Brass Tacks is rather dull this issue, even with letters from a few well-known names. Arthur C. Clarke features (the British Interplanetary Society is shutting down as they have all been called up for military service), as does Manly Wade Wellman (should he keep a consistent future for his SF stories?) and Milton A. Rothman. Campbell turns up again in Science Discussions as Arthur McCann (his science article pseudonym) with a letter about a visit to a cyclotron. I wonder if ‘701 Scotland Road, Orange, New Jersey’ was Campbell’s real address.

A rather disappointing issue.

  1. Another edited image originally from Siren in the Night.
  2. There were four ‘Johnny Black’ stories published in Astounding: The Command (October 1938), The Incorrigible (January 1939), The Emancipated (March 1940), The Exalted (November 1940). The first two are essentially well written stories but with standard pulp plots that make little of Johnny’s modification, although he saves the day in both. The final story is played slightly more for laughs. The first two were anthologised by Moskowitz and the latter by a couple of different editors. Strangely, the one in this issue has never been reprinted.
  3. I have been told that the magazine version of this is quite different from the one that finally appeared in book form, so perhaps that version is better. More on these differences from Heinlein’s biographer, William H. Patterson Jr.’s, website.
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