Amazing Histories, January 1928: Comets and Catastrophes

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Two men sit on wooden floorboards, their feet clapped in manacles. They shrink back in fear as a strange being emerges from a nearby doorway: a being of metal, with a cylindrical body, cuboid head and a set of swirling tentacles.

It was January 1928. Over the course of the year Alexander Fleming would discover penicillin, Frederick Griffith would report the result of his pioneering experiment on bacteria, and the Boston Children’s Hospital would play host to he first clinical usage of an iron lung. John Logie Baird’s company would broadcast the first transatlantic television signal, and sound in cinema would continue to develop: thanks to Metro Goldwyn Meyer, a lion would roar; thanks to Walt Disney, a mouse would talk. On top of this, the world would receive a proverbial benchmark for greatness when Otto Frederick Rohwedder put his bread-slicing machine on the market.

On the newsstands, Amazing Stories was — as always — attempting to peer still further into the future.

Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the month has an apocalyptic tone.  “One of the remarkable deficiencies of the human makeup is the fact that so little attention is given to the instability of the world upon which we live”, he writes.

In a recent scientific article, I gave a new theory of the Flood. I pointed out that the Noachian flood may well have been caused by a wandering celestial body, which coming close within some thousands of miles of the earth, would have affected our oceans to such an extent, that they would have raced around the earth inundating practically everything. After the celestial body drew away once more, the flood receded. Of course, most of man’s handiwork was wiped out by this flood, as it was by others. The same is true of the Ice Age, of the periodical upheavals of the earth crust and the consequent burying of everything that existed on the surface of our Planet.

Heading into science fiction territory, Gernsback speculates about advanced civilisations that may have been wiped out in such cataclysms, including societies that “may not have been at all a civilization of humans, but may have been some other form that we can only dimly guess at.” He continues:

Suppose every human being on earth were to be killed by the gases of some wandering comet today without any accompanying upheaval. How much of our present civilization would remain after 50,000 years?

This talk of destructive comets leads us to…

“The Comet Doom” by Edmond Hamilton

As a hiker named Marlin reaches the Ohio village of Garnton, the night sky is illuminated by the green light of a comet. The public have been assured that the comet will have no effect on Earth – yet, the next morning, an astronomer named Lorrow that the planet’s orbital speed has increased. Indeed, it transpires that Earth’s speed is continuing to grow, to the extent that the planet will get closer to the comet than previously predicted. Other astronomers dismiss Lorrow as an alarmist, but the truth soon becomes inescapable: Earth is on a collision course with the tail of the comet, the poisonous gases of which would eliminate all life on the planet.

In this climate of apocalyptic terror, Marlin continues his hike. He takes a boat trip on a lake, during which he sees a large metallic rod appear on an island. The rod shoots a ray at the cruiser, wiping out the cabin – including the steersman – in one blast. Marlin ends up stranded on the island with a man named Walter Coburn.

An entomologist, Coburn explains that he had originally visited the island with a friend during an insect-hunting expedition. They had seen a gigantic metal cone descend from the sky, bringing with it a strange being: “Imagine a man whose body, or trunk, is of smooth black metal instead of flesh, just a round, thick cylinder of glossy metal, whose two legs have been replaced by four spider-like metal limbs, and whose two arms have been supplanted by four twisting metal tentacles, like those of an octopus… and instead of a head there was set on top of its cylindrical body, a small square box, or cube, which it could turn at will in any direction. Inset on each of this cube’s four sides was a single circle of soft glowing white light.”

This was just the beginning, as the two men subsequently encountered more cones and more metal beings on the small island. Over time, the visitors learned to communicate with the two humans through writing and drawings, explaining that they arrived from the nucleus of the comet (“The theory of Arrhenius, according to which life-spores constantly traverse the universe and evolve into living creatures on whatever planet they strike, applies equally well to the comet’s solid core.”) The technology of the aliens being far in advance of Earth, they grew ever-more dependent upon their machines, to the extent that they were able to transplant their brains into mechanical bodies. However, they began to run out of radioactive elements with which to power their new frames – hence their plot to disrupt Earth’s orbit and draw the planet towards their comet.

Coburn’s companion survived by joining the invaders, allowing his brain to be placed into a mechanical body, but Coburn himself remained stranded on the island, evading the aliens but prevented from reaching the shore. Acting on Coburn’s information, Marlin tracks down the vibration-machine that the aliens used to disrupt Earth’s movements. Coburn’s now-mechanised friend turns up at the last minute; retaining his human mind and sympathies, he de-activates the machine. This not only saves Earth but brings about a gravitational disruption on the island that destroys the aliens and their vessels.

“For sheer audacity of imagination and for the presentation of good scientifiction,” runs the editorial introduction to this story, “we believe that Mr. Hamilton will soon find a place of his own in the minds of every reader.” And, indeed, Edmond Hamilton would become a major name in the SF of the day, mainly for his far-future space operas where weird aliens convert entire celestial bodies into planet-smashing weapons in resource wars. With “The Comet Doom” he offers a more ground-level vision of such a celestial threat. The early stretches of the story paint a convincing portrait of an Earth in its last days, with everyday life (“Children released from long months of school would be running and shouting, no doubt. There would be men gazing out of office-windows, their thoughts on green links and winding roads. And women chatting in the markets. And sleepy cats, on porches, sprawling in the sunshine…”) gradually being disrupted by the realisation that Earth’s days are numbered.

Hamilton was clearly drawing upon H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds for inspiration. As well as borrowing the basic concept of an alien invasion – an unusual premise at the time – the story re-uses Wells’ conception of the aliens as mechanical beings with organic nuclei, although Hamilton’s cuboid invaders are distinct from Wells’ towering tripods and closer to the square-headed robot that would later become a stereotype. The first lines of the story even appears to be an attempt to evoke the famously foreboding opening to The War of the Worlds:

Destiny.

We know, now. Destiny, from the first.

Out in the depths of space the colossal conspiracy came into being. Across the miles and years, it sped toward its climax. Flashed toward our earth, toward that last supreme moment when a world stood at the edge of doom. Then—fate spoke.

Circling planet, blazing sun, far flung star, these things but the turning wheels of fate’s machinery. And that other thing, that supernally beautiful, supernally dreadful thing that flamed across the heavens in a glory of living light, that too but a part of the master-mechanism. Destiny, all of it, from the beginning.

While strikingly evocative in places, “The Comet Doom” is let down by Hamilton’s inability to come up with a conclusion that compares with that of Wells’ novel: the Martians’ death from terrestrial germs seems inevitable, but when Hamilton depicts the world saved with the push of a lever, it seems arbitrary.

“The Man on the Bench” by W. J. Campbell

In this treatment of the Jekyll and Hyde theme, Dr. Paul H. Sexton assembles a gathering of his fellow scientists to unveil a pair of formulas that he has developed. One, named Degeno, will emphasise the subject’s negative characteristics; the other, Elimino, will remove those traits. He demonstrates the two drugs on his collie: Degeno transforms that once-docile pet into a savage beast, while Emino turns it back into a harmless, fluffy animal.

Dr. Sexton goes searching for a human test subject and finds a willing specimen in a criminal named Slats Nelson., who initially signs up for the money but later becomes attracted to the possibility that the experiment will reform him and end his life of crime.

After an injection of Elimino, Slats Nelson not only becomes a good man, but regains his true personality. It turns out that he is actually one Cal Porter, who was hit on the head by a baseball five years beforehand; “Slats Nelson” was an alter ego that surfaced after this injury, which also robbed Porter of his memories. The experiment a success, Dr. Sexton passes his serum on to the government.

Jekyll and Hyde stories tend to end in disaster, but W. J. Campbell (not to be confused with the rather more influential J. W. Campbell) offers a far more optimistic treatment of the theme, one full of faith in the betterment of humanity. “Science has banished or reduced to a minimum a number of diseases of physical man,” remarks Dr. Sexton; “why cannot some of his moral attributes be changed?“ Its science fiction element so free of conflict as to lack any real drama, this brief story has to bolster its narrative with an unconvincing subplot about Slats Nelson’s true identity.

“The Psychological Solution” by A. Hyatt Verrill

This story opens with an unidentified body being found in a New York ash can, a case that catches the attention of one Doctor Edmund Curtis Thane. An anthropologist by profession, Dr. Thane spent time studying “primitive savages” before turning his attention to “the mental workings of the criminal classes”:

It was his belief and contention that crime, as defined by law and civilized standards, was merely the result of a psychological condition, a reversion to the ancestral type, a manifestation of our prehistoric ancestors’ mental processes. Scientifically speaking, it was not crime at all; it was natural, and the criminal was no more responsible for it, than he or she is responsible for the color of his or her hair or eyes or the form of the skull.

He cares little for matters of criminal justice, and instead investigates crime out of anthropological interest – indeed, he actively resents how so many promising subjects for research end up executed.

Dr. Thane speaks to individuals who claim to recognise the dead man; most turn out to be mistaken, but eventually Dr. Thane runs into a man who plausibly identifies the victim as a sailor named Peter Underdunk. This individual, a former shipmate of Underdunk’s, reveals that deceased was from Dutch Guiana, meaning that “undoubtedly negro and Indian blood had flowed in the dead sailor’s veins. And it was not unlikely that there had been a dash of Mongolian.” From this information, Thane uses his anthropological know-who to deduce that murderer “was undoubtedly a Latin-American, or at least, a Latin, with the chances in favor of his having a slight strain of primitive blood—probably Indian.”

However, Peter Underdunk then turns up alive and well, dashing Dr. Thane’s theories. Just as the anthropologist is starting to give up hope, he is introduced to a man named Hayden who reveals that the victim was one André Mission. Hayden admits that he killed Mission in a traffic accident; as the circumstances may have seemed suspicious to the police, he initially hid the body before finally deciding to confess all. Furthermore, Hayden reveals that his mother was Chilean – meaning that Dr. Thane was correct in theorising that the killer was Latin American.

Amazing had already printed a number of detective stories by this point, generally focusing on a lie-detecting gadget of some sort or another that is used to identify the culprit. “The Psychological Solution” – as both its title and editorial introduction stress – is different, and instead focuses on the science of psychology as a means of catching a killer (of course, criminal psychology plays a part in much modern detective literature, which would therefore fit Amazing’s definition of science fiction).

A. Hyatt Verrill, an Amazing regular with a fondness for stories of journeys to exotic locations, adds a characteristic twist with his notion of an anthropological detective. This is an innovative concept, but one that is based around blatantly racist assumptions (“A clear case of reversion to nomadic, polygamous ancestral traits. Probably of Cro-Magnan affiliations influenced by Semitic fanaticism and inherited Mongol traits and tribal customs”). The result is both strikingly inventive and painfully dated.

“The Stolen Body” by H. G. Wells

Bessel, a psychical investigator, conducts an experiment in thought-transference: he hypnotises himself and attempts to project an image of his form to an acquaintance, Vincey. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Bessel finally manages to send an apparition of himself to Vincey. The latter travels to Bessel’s apartment to report on the success of the experiment,
When he arrives, Vincey finds Bessel absent and the furniture smashed. The apartment porter states that he saw Bessel run from the building in disarray, apparently insane.

Vincey has a nightmare about Bessel and awakes convinced that his friend is in danger. In the following hours various people – including Vincey – encounter the violently insane Bessel, who evades capture each time. Vincey eventually tracks down Bessel with the aid of a spiritual medium, who had managed to pick up a message from Bessel’s mind.

After recovering, Bessel gives his version of events. He says that, in sending an apparition of himself to Vincey, he had actually succeeded in separating his consciousness from his material body, passing “into a world beyond this world, a world undreamt of, yet lying so close to it and so strangely situated with regard to it that all things on this earth are clearly visible both from without and from within, in this other world about us.” This experience soon became disturbing for him:

But now he was aware that the fluctuating vapour about him was something more than vapour, and the temerarious excitement of his first essay was shot with fear. For he perceived, at first indistinctly, and then suddenly very clearly, that he was surrounded by faces! that each roll and coil of the seeming cloud-stuff was a face. And such faces! Faces of thin shadow, faces of gaseous tenuity. Faces like those faces that glare with intolerable strangeness upon the sleeper in the evil hours of his dreams. Evil, greedy eyes that were full of a covetous curiosity, faces with knit brows and snarling, smiling lips; their vague hands clutched at Mr. Bessel as he passed, and the rest of their bodies was but an elusive streak of trailing darkness. Never a word they said, never a sound from the mouths that seemed to gibber.

Bessel’s apparent insanity came about when one of these spirits stole his body during his spiritual travels. He theorises that other people deemed insane may have similarly lost their bodies – and when in the spirit world, he witnessed what he believes to be their melancholy, discarnate souls.

“The Stolen Body” has obvious similarities to Wells’ “The Plattner Story”, which had also been reprinted in Amazing. But where “The Plattner Story” used the theoretical fourth dimension as its scientific reference point, “The Stolen Body” draws upon contemporary psychic research and spiritual mediumship. The results are less vivid, but perhaps more consistent.

“Rice’s Ray” by Harold A. Lower

A short-wave radio expert named Harry Martin (who is actually credited as the story’s author, rather than Harold A. Lower) visits his inventor friend Fred Wilson, who introduces Harry to Captain Rice. Together, Fred and Rice have been working on a weaponised ray that can short-circuit aeroplane engines; they already have a radium-like compound that can be used to create this beam, and require Harry’s technological know-how to turn their invention to its full potential.

After a number of experiments, the inventors not only complete the ray, but succeed in putting it to a more creative use than originally intended: as a means of propelling a spacecraft. By the time Harry has been called over to see the vessel, Fred and Rice have already completed a maiden voyage around the Moon; next, it is time for a voyage to Venus.

Having spent a week in space, the three arrive on Venusian soil. They encounter the local wildlife: first an antelope-like creature, and then a feline beast which Fred is forced to shoot using one of the shotguns they took on their trip. Inspecting the body, Rice declares that the animal was a sabre-toothed tiger of the sort once found on prehistoric Earth. After a sighting of what appear to be pterodactyls, Rice concludes that Venus mirrors Earth during the Pilocene period; consequently, similar fauna has evolved there.

After a run-in with a carnivorous dinosaur – which Harry kills by hurling a grenade down its mouth – the explorers decide to return to their ship. On their way back they encounter what initially appear to be humans, or perhaps apes, but are in fact a race of reptilian humanoids. Back on Earth, the three begin discussing a possible trip to Mars.

“Rice’s Ray” is outwardly similar to some of the other interplanetary adventures published in Amazing – it may even have named its title character after Edgar Rice Burroughs – but turns out to take a harder approach to its scientific content than most such stories. The early experiments with the ray reflect the interest in electrical engineering that turns up repeatedly in Gernsbackian SF, while the voyage to Venus includes detailed discussions of oxygen tanks, navigational aids, and even the processes of procuring meat and pelts from Venusian wildlife. Up until the reptile-people appear, the story is comparatively grounded in its portrayal of alien life, basing the fauna of Venus around creatures that existed on prehistoric Earth. More romanticised visions of interplanetary travel are the subject of gentle fun-poking:

Fred was very much disappointed, as I think the very name of Venus had conjured up visions of beautiful maidens in his mind, and these scaly, stonethrowing creatures were quite a contrast to what he had been hoping for. When I kidded him about it on the way back, he grinned rather sheepishly and said he was not looking for a wife.

Robur the Conqueror, or The Clipper of the Air (part 2 of 2) by Jules Verne

Jules Verne’s tale of the crew and captives aboard the Albatross reaches its conclusion. As well as taking in various aerial vistas and encountering the Dahomey Amazons during a flight over Africa, the kidnapped protagonists try to come up with a scheme to escape Robur’s flying machine. They hide a message in a snuff-box detailing their experiences and drop it over Paris; but while this alerts the outside world to Robur’s activities, it does not assist in the captives’ rescue from their airborne prison.

Eventually, the craft lands on Robur’s secret island base. Here, the protagonists successfully sneak away, placing a bomb on the Albatross so as to destroy it when it returns to the skies. This leaves the main characters stranded on the island, until a passing ship rescues them and they are able to return to Philadelphia. There, Uncle Prudent and Phil Evans return to their prior work in creating a guided balloon.

But the test flight is interrupted by Robur, who has built a new Albatross from the salvaged remains of the previous model. Robur succeeds in wrecking the balloon; before departing, he announces that someday he will share the secret of his flying machine with the wider world – but only when he deems humanity deserving of it.

Discussions

In this month’s letters column, one story above all others is the focus of discussion: A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The Astounding Discoveries of Doctor Mentiroso”. Its reception was not exactly glowing.

William C. Etheridge is particularly outraged by this story. “The specific object of this letter is to register as emphatic a protest as possible against continuance of stories like ‘The Astounding Discoveries of Doctor Mentiroso’ by A. Hyatt Verrill”, opens the missive. He objects to how the story conflates the actual passage of time with man-made markers of time, and dismisses the defence that the story’s comical tone justifies this. “Your magazine cannot survive on that basis, except with morons”, Etheridge concludes, “and if you cater to that class—you will continue to succeed, probably to gain in success.”

Donald L. Cumming describes Verrill’s story as “a fairy tale… doctored up with a lot of complicated nonsense to make it look scientific”. He complains that “I read the story three times, (what torture!) to see if I could make anything sensible out of it; but that was a foolish thing to do.” However, he does acknowledge that “the whole story may be a comic tale, full of irony and not meant to be sensible. If it is, the laugh is on me, for I am not quick to detect irony.”

Thomas H. Cassidy also complains about “Dr. Mentiroso”, although his fundamental objection is to the very idea of time travel. He speaks of an open-minded approach to fiction (“Excepting ‘sex’ and ‘Western’ tales, my taste in reading is catholic”) but draws the line at “the fantastic supposition that one’s place in time may, or can be changed voluntarily, as readily as can one’s position in space”, and directs his ire at H. G. Wells as well as Verrill. “[A]s for our being able to return to that distant past [of 1066] and ‘hob-nob’ with Harold and Duke William, that is such sheer nonsense that the conception savors of the thrice-distilled essence of humbug”, he writes. “Why, I might travel in my time machine sixty years into the past, kill my grandfather before the conception of my father, and thus resolve myself into Oblivion!”

“You don’t want to be responsible for one of us getting thrown off at a tangent, or rather, side-tracked, from the correct line of thought by some pseudo-scientific statement accepted by one as the ‘real McCoy’”, concludes Cassidy.

The letters indicate that, to much of the audience, the very notion of time travel was a novel concept. Ralph Grossman is another reader who seems to have found his head spinning at this idea:

H]ow can one project one’s self, say, 10,000 years into the future and attempt to visualize world conditions at that time, when at the moment the future time is reached, the actual world is ten thousand years in the past? i.e. considering the time of travel as practically instantaneous. Can any Fourth Dimensional expert explain this? In fact, seeing that light rays of the past have escaped into the future due to their tremendously greater speed, as stated before, would not traveling into the future be really the going into the past? If possible, Mr. Editor, could your opinion be had on these questions?

E. T. Price is more forgiving. Pointing out that Mentiroso’s term for the fourth dimension – “Esnesnon” – is “nonsense” backwards, Price’s letter accepts that the story was not meant to be taken entirely seriously. The editorial response adds that Mentiroso’s name, despite its English-language connotations of mentality, is a Spanish adjective that means “lying”.

Allen Hensley responds enthusiastically to “Dr. Mentiroso”, expressing hope to “see more stories of the same type”. M. B. Butler writes that “[Verrill] got me all twisted and tied in a knot, in regard to time. I don’t know whether the present is now, or the middle of next week, or the next century, or April Fool’s Day in 1888. Perhaps I haven’t been born yet, or else I’ve been born and died already.” Butler is impressed by The War of the Worlds (“How could slugs or mice,’ even possessing nine tentacles, ever evolve a super-intellect? Do the devil fish of our seas show any promise of ever doing so?”) and questions the morphology of the Machine Man of Ardathia as illustrated (“Mr. Paul has given his enormous head a wide, full brain base, while the forehead, the seat, supposedly, of intellect, a comparatively low and receding slope.”)

S. Francis Koblischke, after clarifying his earlier criticisms of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, credits both “Dr. Mentiroso” and Garrett Smith’s Treasures of Tantalus for getting him thinking about the nature of time; on an unrelated note, he dismisses Francis Flagg’s “The Machine Man of Ardathia” as “ridiculous” for its portrayal of half-mechanical humans unable to reproduce biologically (“It may be possible to create living monsters synthetically, but hardly human-beings”).

“The Machine Man of Ardathia” is the second most-discussed story in this month’s letters column. C. H. Osbourne is one of its admirers: “The average layman or day-laborer on this planet is so deficient in scientific knowledge, that it is easy to see why ‘The Machine-Man of Ardathia’ (by Francis Flagg) should compare the hero of the story and other present-day earth-men to the lower animals.” In a prejudiced afterthought that brings to mind the adventures of Dr. Thane, Osbourne states that “Such low types of intelligence will, no doubt, vanish from this planet in time, even as the Paleolithic, Cro-Magnon, and Neanderthal Man has each in his turn given place to more intelligent beings. (Notably the Nordic race)”.

Edgar Evia hails “The Machine Man of Ardatha” as “a pulsating glimpse, one might say, into the secrets of the future. Bountiful imagination, not of the kind found in The Moon Pool, but of that intangible quality which fastens itself to our very cores and clings.” He does have a criticism, however, and articulates it at length: while he can accept a person from the future viewing the past, he cannot accept a time-traveller interfering with the past. Once again, we see readers of this era objecting to the basic premise of time travel stories.

The topic of a proposed club for young scientific enthusiasts turns up again. “[T]he club could be instrumental in solving such problems as the freezing of fish, frogs, and other animals”, comments J. C. McAlister. “Recently, a rather heated discussion took place in the ‘North West Farmer,’ a Manitoba paper, as to whether the gopher (a ground squirrel) suffered death as a result of freezing, or not. I would like to clear the matter up, and am planning a few experiments during the coming winter.” Fifteen-year-old Wilbur S. Jones, who had already set up a Model Airplane Club with his friends, also shows interest.

Dick Kardel (“Your reader till ‘Doomsday'”) offers two rankings of his favourite stories, one for serials and one for self-contained works (these are topped by Garrett Serviss’ The Second Deluge and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Master Mind of Mars respectively).

Gertrude E. Hiser writes in on behalf of Amazing’s younger readers: “I have tried to get several of my friends to read your magazine by lending out old copies of mine; when their parents find these copies they refuse to let them even finish the stories”, she says. “My suggestion is that you change the name to Scientifiction and make the cover design a little more calm. Our old-fashioned parents with their old-fashioned ideas make it hard for us. I think that if these changes were made it would increase the sales and subscription rate.”

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