Amazing Histories, July 1926: Science or Fantasy?

A group of sailors cluster around an anti-aircraft gun on the deck of their vessel. Their target is not a flying machine, however, but a gigantic fly. Two of the men are firing rifles, but their bullets appear not to be affecting the insect as it closes upon the ship. It was July 1926, and Amazing Stories was back for its fourth issue.

In his latest editorial, Hugo Gernsback confronts one of the perennial questions of the genre: how much science should we expect in science fiction?

He reassures us that out-and-out fantasy is barred from his magazine: “when we see a plot wherein the hero is turned into a tree, later on into a stone, and then again back to himself, we do not consider this science, but, rather, a fairy tale, and such stories have no place in Amazing Stories.” However, he goes on to defend some works of apparent fantasy which may prove to be less fantastic as time goes on.

“[W]hen we do read one of these to us ‘impossible tales’, in Amazing Stories,” runs the editorial, “we may be almost certain that the ‘impossibility’ will have become a fact perhaps before another generation – if not much sooner… There are few stories published in this magazine that can be called outright impossible.” Gernsback does leave room for artistic license, though, arguing that “the ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science.”

The editorial then quotes G. Peyton Wertenbaker, the first author recruited to the magazine for original work rather than reprints, who contrasts Amazing with “the sex-type of literature”:

Scientifiction is a branch of literature which requires more intelligence and even more aesthetic sense than is possessed by the sex-type reading public. It is designed to reach those qualities of the mind which are aroused only by things vast, things cataclysmic, and things unfathomably strange. It is designed to reach that portion of the imagination which grasps with its eager, feeble talons after the unknown. It should be an influence greater than the influence of any literature I know upon the restless ambition of man for further conquests, further understandings…beauty lies only in the things that are mysterious. Beauty is a groping of the emotions towards realizations of things which may be unknown only to the intellect.

Elsewhere in the issue, George Allan England – a contributor to Amazing Stories #1 – addresses similar sentiments to Gernsback:

The world is too much given over to silly, meaningless and licentious fiction. The type of stories you propose to print can do much to combat this evil tendency. Moreover, such stories will wage war on the reactionary campaign now going on… The masses still cling to worn-out old religious dogmas that even an elementary knowledge of science would destroy.

With these lofty aims established, let us see what Amazing Stories #4 has to offer…

Station X by G. McLeod Winsor

Station X, a 1919 tale from British author G. McLeod Winsor, has the distinction of being the first of Amazing’s serialised novels not to be written by Jules Verne.

The opening instalment of the three-part narrative takes us to a remote Pacific islet on which lies Station X, a powerful radio station designed to link the two ends of the British Empire. A band of investigators head to the station and find its sole crew member, Macrae, in a catatonic state. Nearby are transcripts he made of a radio conversation before losing consciousness…

It turns out that Macrae had been in dialogue with a race of beings from Venus. They inform him that Mars and the Moon also produced life, but the Moon people successfully wiped out the Martians through a strange and terrible form of colonisation: they psychically swapped their own minds with those of the Martians. The people of Mars died in confusion upon being transferred to their new bodies, while the invaders proceeded to take over the red planet. The case is looked over by one Professor Rudge, and by the time Macrae recovers from his catatonic state, Rudge has decided to visit Station X for himself and get to the bottom of the matter.

“The Magnetic Storm” by Hugo Gernsback

For the first time, Hugo Gernsback contributes a story of his own to Amazing – and according to its introduction, the science behind the fiction was personally approved by Nikola Tesla.

The story, originally published in 1918, revolves around an apprentice to Tesla named Sparks. A young prodigy, Sparks reads a newspaper report about electronic instruments being disrupted by a storm; this gives him an idea for a new weapon to be used in the Great War. He suggests to Tesla that they could convert telegraph poles into an oscillator coil that stretches from the English Channel to Switzerland; when activated, this will burn out every closed wire coil across Germany and Austria.

Once the plan has been set in motion the story cuts to the point of view of the Germans, caricatured as dim-witted and short-tempered; they witness their machines failing around them, with results bordering on the slapstick. Perhaps realising that this would make something of an anti-climax Gernsback opts for a non-linear story: the true climax is a flashback to the device being activated, followed immediately by Sparks’ reception as a hero after the Germans retreat.

The story is an odd mixture of what would now be termed hard SF, didactic hero-worship directed at Nikola Tesla (“Mr. Tesla! In 1898 while you were making your now historic high-frequency experiments in Colorado with your 300-kilowatt generator, you obtained sparks 100 feed in length”), and wartime wish-fulfillment fantasy. It is not hard to see why Gernsback is remembered more as an editor than as a writer, but the story remains a historical curiosity.

“The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H. G. Wells

George Fotheringay, a skeptic, gets into an argument about the reality of miracles. He illustrates a point by commenting on the impossibility of a lamp turning upside down by itself – upon which the lamp in the room really does turn upside down. No longer skeptical, Fotheringay is forced to admit that he is a miracle-worker.

Through willpower he causes a match and a candle to become lit, and even causes objects to appear out of nothingness. But his power comes with drawbacks: when he tells a miraculously-created rod to “go back”, expecting it to vanish, it instead flies away and hits a police officer. In the resulting argument Fotheringay tells the irate constable to “go to Hades”, and the man disappears. Our protagonist then hastily wishes the constable into the more inviting locale of San Francisco.

The befuddled miracle-worker goes to the local preacher, Maydig, for advice. The preacher has an interest in the occult, and compares Fotheringay to yogis, the Prophet Mohammed and occultist Helena Blavatsky (who had died seven years before the story’s original publication in 1898). Under Maydig’s encouragement, Fotheringay begins aiming higher until he eventually decides to halt Earth’s rotation, as Joshua did in the Bible.

Sure enough, the Earth stops, and everything on its surface is sent flying; Fotheringay survives this calamity only by willing himself safely back on land in the nick of time. His final wish is for his power as miracle-worker to be revoked, and for time to be turned back to before that lamp turned upside-down.

As Wells stories go, “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” seems a strange choice for a science fiction magazine, as its roots are clearly in supernatural fantasy: it is interesting that Fotheringay’s discovery of his ability involves a lamp, hinting at a connection to one of the most famous wish-granters in fiction. That said, Wells does take the time for his narrator to explain the mechanics behind the apocalypse upon the halted Earth, while the experiments conducted by Fotheringay and Maydig follow the rudiments of scientific inquiry – although the two men seldom consider using the gift for anything beyond the most frivolous purposes, and neither takes the time to work out exactly what happened to the constable after his presumed trip to the underworld.

For context, the story was written at a time in which occult groups such as Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society were attempting to blend science with mysticism. The Theosophist movement is mentioned twice in the story, first when Maydig brings up Blavatsky, and later when the omniscient narrator derides the “feeble… miracles of Theosophists”. If we are to approach the story as science fiction, then perhaps it is best viewed as a satire on contemporary pseudo-science.

“The Sphinx” by Edgar Allan Poe

Originally published in 1846, the third Poe tale to run in Amazing Stories takes place during the 1832 cholera outbreak in New York. The protagonist retreats to a lakeside cottage with a relative, and finds himself brooding over the loss of numerous loved ones across the city.

The main character explains to the reader that he is interested in omens, a topic about which his relative is skeptical; he then outlines an incident that occurred shortly after he arrived at the cottage. While looking out the window, he witnessed a winged being “far larger than any ship of the line in existence” atop the hillside, bearing the image of a death’s head upon its body. The creature let out a loud noise “expressive of woe”, after which the narrator fainted.

He later witnesses the creature again, this time in the presence of his relative. The second man responds by remarking upon society’s tendency “to under-rate or over-value the importance of an object, through mere misadmeasurement of its propinquity”, before alerting the protagonist to the existence of an insect called a death’s-headed sphinx (more commonly known today as a death’s-head hawkmoth). He then points to the window, demonstrating that the titanic creature striding the landscape is, in fact, a moth crawling up the glass.

“The Sphinx” arguably constitutes science fiction, or at least a cousin of the genre, through its use of the rationalised supernatural; Amazing Stories makes a case for its inclusion due to its basis in the science of optics. On a less literal level, “The Sphinx” could be seen as Amazing’s first dabbling with the motif of robotics. The moth, as described by the narrator, appears to be partly artificial: it has metal scales, wings joined by a chain, and antennae “formed seemingly of pure crystal”. A symbol of industrialization and modernity intruding upon the idyllic countryside, perhaps.

“The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika” by Curt Siodmak

Continuing the theme of giant insects we come to tale from the author best remembered for scripting Universal’s Wolf Man films. During an expedition to Lake Tanganyika, Professor Meyer-Maier hears the locals speak of giant insects; he dismisses these claims as mere fable, but then comes across four large eggs from an unidentified species. He takes them back home to Berlin, where they hatch into gigantic tsetse flies.

Meyer-Maier calls his associate Schmidt-Schmitt for help in stopping the four giant flies. As they are poisonous, and rapidly gaining in size, the insects have the potential to wipe out humanity within weeks. News of their activity quickly reaches the authorities, and Professor Meyer-Maier explains matters to Major Pritzel-Wilzell, who mobilises his forces to halt the deadly flies. Things grow worse as the insects begin to reproduce, but the Major’s men succeed in wiping them out using poison gas.

“The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika” is wildly implausible – just to start with, if the flies are capable of destroying all of humanity from Berlin, why have they not already done so from their breeding ground in Lake Tanganyika? – but realism is not a major concern for the story. Indeed, one look at the character names should indicate that Siodmak’s tongue was never far from his cheek as he wrote it. Read today, the story is interesting mainly as an ancestor to monster movies, a genre in which Siodmak would later work. In hyper-condensed form it contains the formula that has since served Hollywood well, particularly during the 1950s vogue for SF-flavoured monster films.

“The Moon Metal” by Garrett P. Serviss

If Garrett P. Serviss is remembered at all today, it is for his quirky 1898 novel Edison’s Conquest of Mars. He was a regular to Amazing in its early days, however, and his name appeared on every cover from July 1926 to February 1927.

In this story from 1900, vast reserves of gold are found at the South Pole; the metal’s value plummets, taking the world’s financial systems with it. Then, a man named Dr. Max Syx arrives on the scene with a new metal called artemisium. Possessing iridescence that makes it more beautiful than gold, this metal is suitable for the new universal standard. However, as Syx alone knows where artemisium can be obtained, its adoption as such would render him the single most influential person in finance. Only reluctantly do the bankers of the world bow to Dr. Syx’s demands.

Andrew Hall, an engineer searching for further sources of artemisium, turns detective and deduces that Syx’s artemisium mine is a mere prop and that the metal actually originates elsewhere. Teaming up with the Watson-like narrator, Hall works out the truth: Syx uses a machine, similar to a cathode tube, which creates “undulations of the ether” to draw a stream of atoms from the moon. These are atoms of artemisium, harvested from “those mystic white streaks which radiate from Tycho, and which have puzzled the astronomers ever since the invention of telescopes.”

The story uses a heroes-versus-villain dynamic of the sort later adopted by Sax Rohmer, with Dr. Syx using such dastardly tricks as reflecting the artemisium stream on his enemies, giving them lethal coatings of metal. At the same time, Serviss attempts a more serious-minded vision of worldwide catastrophe wrought first by financial collapse, and later by atmospheric pollution as Syx’s method becomes widely imitated.

But it is fantasy that wins out. The fantastic first emerges in a curious early scene where Syx projects a Méliès-like moving image for the financiers, “as in a cinematic exhibition, but with infinitely more semblance of reality”; this depicts a race of fairy-like beings living on the moon, who end up destroyed in a cataclysm (recalling the Martian scene in “The Infinite Vision”, from Amazing #2). Finally, after his presumed death, the protagonists see Syx’s face looking down from the moon’s surface…

A Trip to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The heavily-modified translation of Jules Verne’s novel reaches its conclusion with Amazing #4.

In this final instalment the travellers encounter a twelve-foot-tall caveman living in the Earth: scientifically implausible, but carrying a certain Biblical resonance. There were giants on the Earth at one time, after all.

After that, in a chapter written from scratch by the anonymous translator, they witness a whale-sized “Shark Crocodile” battle a fourteen-foot-tall “Ape Gigans, the anti-diluvian Gorilla” in a prefiguration of King Kong. Finally, by sheer chance, they are rocketed to the surface world through Mount Etna.

Shorter stories

“The Feline Light and Power Company is Organized”, originally published in Modern Electrics in 1912, is one of Jacque Morgan’s tales of Jason Quincy Fosdick: tinsmith, key-fitter, scissors-grinder, and the greatest inventor in all of Whiffleville. Learning that static electricity can be generated by rubbing together resin and fur, Fosdick sets about building a small power plant in which cats scuffle around a resin-coated surface. Unfortunately, the cats become over-charged – a fact that makes itself all too apparent when one of them suddenly explodes.

Also included in this issue is Clement Fezandié’s final Dr. Hackensaw story, “The Secret of the Invisible Girl”. Here, Dr. Hackensaw hires a new assistant, Phessenden Keene, who experiments with the doctor’s new process of “Z-ray” photography:

“As you know, I had with me some of the special cameras you invented for taking photographs at night without the need of flash-lights.”

“Yes,” said Doctor Hackensaw. “I gave you photographic plates of two kinds. I gave you plates that were sensitive to electric emanations so that you could take photos of the ‘aura’ that surrounds living beings.”

This is reminiscent of Kirlian photography; although Semyon Kirlian would not hit upon this process until 1939, Hippolyte Baraduc had conducted similar experiments at around the turn of the century.

After using the camera on a trip to Central Africa, Keene shows Hackensaw a photo of a girl’s aura – taken when no girl was visible. The doctor heads over to Africa himself to try and catch the girl. He sets a trap for her, and follows her scent trail using “specially constructed audions designed to amplify smells instead of sounds”. With the aid of some special glasses that make her aura visible, Hackensaw and his accomplices succeed in catching the girl.

Fezandié appears not to know how to end the story after this: the narrative concludes with Hackensaw taking the girl back to New York with him and rendering her visible using clothes and make-up, only for her to fall ill and die from the new climate. How she became invisible in the first place, or how she felt about her cultural transplantation, are matters left unexplored.

It is ironic that an issue which begins by affirming the importance of science in scientifiction makes so much use of fantastic imagery: Wells’ miracle-worker; Poe’s omen of death; Serviss’ dreamlike vision of lunar magic. The technological know-how of “The Magnetic Storm” may be more what Gernsback had in mind for his magazine, but other authors in the field clearly had different ideas.

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