Amazing Histories, May 1928: Inventions and Invertebrates

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A gigantic octopus looms above the trees of a jungle, striding atop its lengthy tentacles, its bulbous head drooping downwards like a the nose of a proboscis monkey. A group of people, most of them racially-caricatured black men, run in fear like the scattered remnants of a disaster-struck minstrel show. A particularly unfortunate man has already been grabbed in one of the beast’s tentacles, an writhes in fear as he is lifted aloft to face an uncertain fate. In the background, still more giant cephalopods can be seen amongst the jungle greenery, vastly outnumbering the fleeing men.

It was May 1928, and Amazing Stories was in the newsstands once more.

Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the month is entitled “Facts Outfictioned”:

As we read the average scientifiction story, particularly of the class where the hero is sending power by means of some “impossible” ray and does other probably “impossible” and certainly extravagant things, we sometimes are apt to smile and marvel at the audacity of the author. We take it good-humoredly, however, because we know in our souls, that such things will never come about.

However, he also points to the opposite phenomenon: science fiction that is too tame in its predictions of the future.

The reproach of the present day fiction writer ten years hence probably will be ridicule, not because he overshot the mark, but rather because he undershot it considerably. And so our present day reader snorts with disgust at the once incredible exploitations of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, written years ago. Since then science and progress have caught up with both Wells and Verne to an astonishing degree: what was audacious fiction then, is so much a reality today, that some of their writings no longer make good reading, but actually sound commonplace and true.

He goes on to say that “[m]any writers in the past have written about the queer and so-called ‘impossible’ effects to be had with future unknown rays and unknown waves, but none of these authors probably was prepared to write of the ‘absurdities’ which now have become facts.” To outline his point, he describes a new vacuum tube developed by General Electric, capable of cooking food: an ancestor of the microwave oven.

But this month’s authors have rather more than microwave ovens on their minds…

“The Octopus Cycle” by Fletcher Pratt

Zoologist Walter Weyl travels to Madagascar to investigate a spate of mysterious disappearances amongst the native population. Eyewitnesses speak of people being grabbed and pulled away by what resemble black ropes, or the arms of gorillas. One man who disappears leaves behind a knife, its blade coated in some greenish fluid; Weyl examines this and concludes that it is the blood of an unidentified animal.

Accompanied by colonial authorities, Senegalese soldiers and Madagascan guides, Weyl sets off to find the deadly beast. It is not long before they find their quarry:

He turned, and was suddenly conscious of an insane disbelief in his senses. What he saw resembled nothing so much as an enormous umbrella, standing ten feet high on stiltlike, but prehensile arms, while at the point where they gathered, a huge, bulbous head rose and fell rhythmically as the thing emitted that singular, highpitched whistle. There was something unspeakably loathsome, some touch reminiscent of putrefaction and decay about it. An arm, like a huge snake, lifted from the ground and swung aimlessly about under the leaves.

Abruptly, another animal, the duplicate of the first in all respects, came from behind a tree to join it, and the two, despite their clumsy form and lurching uneven movements, began to advance toward him with a rapidity that was astonishing.

The men kill one of these “Umbrella Beasts” and drive the other away, at great cost to their own number. Weyl concludes that the creature is of an octopus-like species, and an intelligent one at that: “A brief investigation shows me that their brains are certainly larger than those of any animals except the big apes, and probably as large as those of the lower races of man. This argues an intelligence extremely high, and makes them more than ever dangerous, since they can evidently plan acts and execute them in concert”

He wonders if the creatures might have the wits to attack the wider world, and imagines “London or New York under an invasion from those grim Madagascar jungles; all business stopped, every door bolted, the octopuses triumphantly parading the streets, breaking in here and there and strangling the last resistance of families cowering in corners”.

The scientist puts together a report to warn the world, only to be ridiculed by the European press, which treats his Umbrella Beast as no more than fodder for jokes. But then an Englishman, Henry Seaton Mulgrave, turns up with flamethrowers and helps Weyl to devise a strategy that will drive the molluscs to extinction.

Like Curt Siodmak’s “The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika” and A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The Plague of the Living Dead”, “The Octopus Cycle” is an unmistakable literary ancestor to the monster movies of later decades. It was the first published story by Fletcher Pratt, who would go on to win acclaim for his collaborations with L Sprague de Camp; he sometimes worked under the pseudonym of Irvin Lester, who is here listed as co-author. The story’s editorial introduction strives to make a case for its zoological plausibility:

Here again, is a different story, a thriller that you will remember for many years to come. And that you may not shout at once “impossible,” we are printing in this issue an actual photograph of one of these sea creatures, which comes pretty close to what our authors have in mind, except that they do not roam on land, but keep strictly to the sea. As Curator Dr. Ditmars of the Bronx Zoological Gardens pointed out recently, nature is always far more surprising than fiction. For instance, there are really fish that climb trees, impossible as this sounds, and they do exist now in India; also there are snakes that can fly from one tree to another. These things may sound impossible and fictional, but they are facts.

“Four Dimensional Robberies” by Bob Olsen

America is hit by a spate of inexplicable bank robberies, with valuables disappearing from safe deposit boxes. The story’s protagonist receives a visit from detectives William Dern and Timothy Clancy, who believe that his experience with four-dimensional technology will give him an insight into how the heists were performed.

After a short explanation of four-dimensional theory, the narrator agrees to show the two detectives his mentor’s surgical invention, the Hyper-Forceps – only to find that the device has gone missing.

The three men go hunting for the thief, who clearly started with the Hyper-Forceps before attacking the banks. They deduce that the culprit must be keeping the ill-gotten gains in a safe deposit box, and from there, are able to follow a paper-trail leading to the robber. After a scuffle which – thanks to the Hyper-Forceps – enters the fourth dimension, the thief is brought to justice.

This is the third in a series by Bob Olsen, the earlier instalments being “The Four-Dimensional Roller Press” and “Four Dimensional Surgery”. Olsen has fun inserting his protagonist into a detective yarn, but at this point the limitations of the series are starting to show: the science fiction concept in this story is exactly the same as the one in “Four Dimensional Surgery”, and yet Olsen spends a good chunk of the story re-introducing it in detail.

“Dr. Brittlestone’s Method” by Samuel M. Sargent Jr.

The narrator, Dr. Tom Strang, advises his patient James Hart – a personal friend of his – to visit a sanatorium for treatment. Hart does so; but instead of visiting Strang’s favoured institution, he heads to the sanatorium of Dr. Aro Brittlestone.

Strang is acquainted with Brittlestone, a larger-than-life character of immense physical bulk and uncouth manners. The development leaves him with mixed feelings: Strang is happy to see that his patient is seeking aid, but mistrusts Brittlestone, believing him to be a rogue who inflates the nature of his patients’ complaints so that they will be willing to pay for more expensive treatments.

Hart sends a letter to Strang, eagerly reporting on his improved health. Then, days later, he sends another letter, this time describing a relapse. Strang heads to the sanatorium to investigate, and finds the patient dead. He appears to have perished from fatigue, and yet there are also signs of foul play: he has the marks of seven injections, even though Brittlestone insists that he gave the man only three doses of morphine as part of his treatment.

Strang investigates further, and comes across a terrible sight within Brittlestone’s sanatorium: a man held captive, forced to constantly walk on the spot while constrained by a harness attached to the wall; he has been at it for so long that he is in an agony of fatigue. Brittlestone, his secret exposed, leaps from a window and dies.

Searching through the dead doctor’s notes, Strang solves the mystery. Brittlestone had been studying the writing of an Italian physician who believed that fatigue “is a kind of poisoning resulting from products derived from chemical changes in the cells” and who had, through experiments, “found that the blood of a fatigued animal is toxic, for if injected into another animal, it produces the phenomena characteristic of fatigue”. Brittlestone, it turns out, had been continuing these experiments, with his own patients as guinea pigs: having forced one captive into fatigue through endless walking, he was able to study and synthesise a poison from the man’s blood – the poison that killed Hart.

The author of this story had previously written “The Telepathic Pick-Up”, a tale that showed a similar combination: an inventive concept, a fondness for mystery, and a taste for the macabre.

“The Master Ants” by Francis Flagg

Professor John Reubens, an admirer of H. G. Wells, builds a time machine and goes on a test voyage with student Raymond Bent. The two men successfully arrive in the future, and are immediately confronted by an unforeseen side effect: the time travel has caused their bodies to age. The only thing saving them from dying of old age was that the time machine itself wore out and fell to pieces before reaching this point, leaving the professor an elderly man and the young student in middle age.

It is not long before the two time travellers meet the denizens of the future. They encounter a band of men – naked, hairy, and ape-like. To their shock they find that the men are being ridden like horses, and the riders are large insects, similar to ants but each about a foot in length. The two are taken captive, and find that the humans owned by the Master Ants are not only used as beasts of burden but also provide milk and even meat.

But it turns out that not all humans of this age have suffered this fate, and the two men are rescued by a passing airship. A woman on board reveals that the year is 2450, and takes the men to a centre of civilisation called Science Castle. Here, a population mixing black, white and Asian ancestry (“Race and color antagonisms would have proved fatal to the small community” says one inhabitant) holds out against the insects.

Soltano, a denizen of Science Castle, fills the time travellers in on what they missed, starting with reports in 1935 of unusually voracious termites in South America. The wider world, distracted by a war resulting from Poland’s invasion of Lithuania, paid no heed, and the termites were allowed to run rampant. Able to destroy buildings and machines, and armed with a paralytic venom (the victims of which became ancestors to the Master Ants’ human livestock) the termites layed waste to humanity. Eventually, Science Castle, founded by scientists and their aiding workforce, is the sole remnant of civilisation.

The castle is peaceful, prosperous and technologically advanced (“Now I know what their religion is” says Reubens; “it is an abiding faith in the power of their science to aid and uphold them”) But it is living on borrowed time. The story ends with the Master Ants obtaining means of flight by riding on winged insects, allowing them to conquer the castle. By that point the professor has introduced time travel technology to Science Castle; but as the journey back in time would cause another round of ageing, the travellers’ only option is to send a written account of their adventures back to the twentieth century. The story’s framing device has the document being discussed by a group of men in the 1920s, who subsequently decide to keep a close eye on events in Latin America.

An interesting companion piece to last month’s “The Miracle of the Lily” by Clare Winger Harris, which depicted humanoid pests on a planet run by intelligent insects. Francis Flagg uses a similar concept, depicting ants ruling over humans in a manner that would make them fit in alongside Jonathan Swift’s horses and Pierre Boulle’s apes.

“A Visitor from the Twentieth Century” by Harold Donitz

Markham, an architect, decides to enter a contest that involves coming up with a hypothetical redesign of New York City. As he contemplates the project, he goes to the cinema and sees “some fantasy that attempted to portray the city of the future” (presumably Metropolis, which had come out the previous year) before returning home to read “a pseudo-scientific novel by Verne, or Wells, or one of that class”. His head filled with visions of the future, Markham falls asleep and dreams.

He finds himself in the New York of the late twenty-first century. Here, Markham meets an official who gives his name as John Warren, 12-C-6. The protagonist, aghast, asks “has mankind come to tlie number and illing-case stage so soon?” only to be informed that 12-C-6 is the man’s postal address. Warren explains that “the advanced psychologists and hypnotists of our colleges… think nothing of yanking out of the so-called past some person whose consciousness is in rapport with their united concentrations”.

This new world is, to Markham, reminiscent of H. G. Wells’ When the Sleeper Wakes. It is a world of buildings that hold upwards of ten thousand people; streets with moving platforms; a power plant that gets its energy from the Niagra Falls; mail deposited directly into people’s homes through pneumatic tubes; shops that are completely specialised (“Markham wondered if the business world had finally reached a millenium and eliminated competition”); gyroscopic electromagnetic capsules that have superceded petrol-powered automobiles (“Around 1975, a growing shortage of petroleum, that the manufacturers were trying desperately to keep under cover, could no longer be concealed”); derigibles that have replaced seagoing vessels as the main method of transatlantic travel; and only fifteen cities across America, more densely populated than their twentieth-century counterparts but separated by lush, unspoilt countryside.

Warren assures Markham that humanity has used the spare time freed up by labour-saving technology to better itself. Then the archetect has a sudden accident, falling off a building — and awaking back in his own time.

“A Visitor from the Twentieth Century” is an example of science fiction as travelogue. As is typical of this subgenre, it has little to offer as a piece of narrative fiction but is intriguing as a time capsule.

“The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” by Edgar Allan Poe

This 1845 story purports to be a narrative from an obscure mnauscript called the Tellmenow Isitsoornot, containing a conclusion to the Arabian Nights absent from all other versions of the narrative. After giving a comically rambling summary of the Arabian Nights as it typically resolves, Poe shows us how the narrative really ends, with one more story by Scheherazade…

Scheherazade’s final tale sees Sinbad the sailor encountering a giant fish, with metallic scales and various strangely-dressed figures walking about its back. These beings, it turns out, belong to a human-like species known as Cock-neighs, and they take Sinbad on a voyage to strange new lands Poe provides copious footnotes to point out the real-world basis for Sinbad’s exploits: the giant horse capable of pulling many times its weight is actually a train engine on the Great Western Railway; the magician who can direct the sun to paint his portrait is a photographer; and so forth.

Scheherazade’s husband, the king, frequently expresses his disbelief in the details of this account. The final straw comes when the story touches upon ladies’ fashion:

“‘One of the evil genii, who are perpetually upon the watch to inflict ill, has put it into the heads of these accomplished ladies that the thing which we describe as personal beauty consists altogether in the protuberance of the region which lies not very far below the small of the back. Perfection of loveliness, they say, is in the direct ratio of the extent of this lump. Having been long possessed of this idea, and bolsters being cheap in that country, the days have long gone by since it was possible to distinguish a woman from a dromedary-‘”

At this point, the king interrupts Scheherazade and decides to have her executed for her outrageous lies.

“The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” was the final Poe story reprinted in Amazing during Hugo Gernsback’s time as editor. Back in the first issue, he hailed Poe as the father of scientifiction, but it is dabatable as to whether Amazing‘s reprints ever really bore out this bold claim. Still, with “The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade” we see a vintage example of science fiction as satire.

A Story of the Days to Come (part 2 of 2) by H. G. Wells

The concluding instalment of this 1899 story opens with Denton and Elizabeth, hailing from the city’s middle-class top side, toiling away in the sector of the city reserved for the working class. The class conflict turns physical and Denton comes to blows with his new peers, but he finds a mentor in Blunt, a man willing to show him the ropes as a new member of the proletariat. He does not enjoy this:

He was sick with infinite disgust at the new conditions of his life. He hated it all, hated even the genial savage who had protected him so generously. The monstrous fraud of civilisation glared stark before his eyes; he saw it as a vast lunatic growth, producing a deepening torrent of savagery below, and above ever more flimsy gentility and silly wastefulness. He could see no redeeming reason, no touch of honour, either in the life he had led or in this life to which he had fallen. Civilisation presented itself as some catastrophic product as little concerned with men—save as victims—as a cyclone or a planetary collision. He, and therefore all mankind, seemed living utterly in vain.

The story then returns to Denton’s sometime rival for the affections of Elizabeth: Bindon, a rake who had hoped that Elizabeth would put his decadent (and liver-damaging) lifestyle on the straight and narrow. Embittered by both Elizabeth’s spurning and by his ongoing health complaints, he tries to devise a way to finally ruin Denton so that he can have Elizabeth for himself. But Bindon’s medical problems have grown so grave that his doctor prescribes euthanasia, arguing that the time of wealthy gluttons like himself are over and that scientists should be presiding over a new era of knowledge. Bindon finally comes to agree, and the young couple eventually arrive back in the top side unhassled.

In this latter portion of A Story of the Days to Come, Wells touches upon topics such as class conflict and religion (“The last years of the nineteenth century were distinguished by the rapid development among the prosperous idle of esoteric perversions of the popular religion: glosses and interpretations that reduced the broad teachings of the carpenter of Nazareth to the exquisite narrowness of their lives”) before eventually reaffirming his belief that society should be put in the hands of an enlightened scientific elite.

Baron Munchhausen’s New Scientific Adventures by Hugo Gernsback (part 4 of 6)

Two more instalments of Hugo Gernsback’s novel-length romp. In “Munchhausen is Taught ‘Martian’” the Baron and his friend the Professor are taken to the quarters of the Martian ruler. The furniture, from chairs to rugs, appears to be made entirely from a single material — transparent like glass, but emitting a soft white glow. Alongside the ruler are four other Martians (“whom we recognized at once as females on account of their mass of hair and their more delicate features”) apparently working as secretaries. The ruler communicates with the Earthmen through telepathy, flashing images into their minds.

The visitors learn about the history of Mars, seeing it pass through various civilisations that parallel those of Earth, but reaching further levels of progress, with Mars eventually adopting a one-world government with a universal language. This is followed by a demonstration of the rays harnessed by Martian engineers, and a tour of Mars’ famed canals (spotlighted in the story’s editorial introduction). The eighth chapter, “Thought Transmission on Mars”, introduces us to a Martian musical instrument before going on to explore the process of thought transference – which turns out to be analogous to radio.

Like “A Visitor from the Twentieth Century”, this portion of the narrative is an example of science fiction as travelogue, the heroes reduced to a largely passive role as they take in the new world around them.

Discussions

This month, Joseph Goldstein comments on the letters column “being racked and torn between two classes of readers–pro and anti-our esteemed friend, H. G. Wells” and counts himself in the former category. A. L. Glasser comes to Wells’ defence by quoting literary critic William Archer:

No quest is too perilous for him, no forlorn hope to daring. He led the first explorers to the moon. He it was who lured the Martians to earth and exterminated them with microbes. He has ensnared an angel from the skies and expiscated a mermaid from the deep. He has manned a Time Machine (of his own invention) and gone careering down the vistas of the future.

George C. Dick praises Wells, defends more fanciful stories such as A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The Astounding Discoveries of Doctor Mentiroso” (“There must be some Esnesnon now and then, a little fairy tale here and there to keep our appetite for romance whetted”) and derides the magazine’s detective stories.

C. S. Bennette hails Wells’ stories as “great” but complains that they contain too many “tedious details”. In regards to George Paul Bauer’s “Beyond the Infra-Red”, this reader mentions an article in the Atlanta Constitution about “a machine which transposes vision picked up by Infra-Red Rays, and so arranges it that the human eye can see it–and picks up scenes in the dark.”

George P. Cameron pokes fun at critics of “Doctor Mentiroso” before praising “Rice’s Ray” by Harold A. Lower (“I think this is the most logical story about a ‘Space Ship’ so far printed”) and A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool (“the best story you have ever printed”).

Thirteen-year-old Robert Eisenbach speaks eloquently for his age about science fiction:

Many of your readers to not consider a story good scientifiction unless an explanation is given of every episode containing science in any way, shape or manner. They do not take into consideration the fact that scientifiction usually contains feats that the writer has to evolve from his imagination. Therefore they must deviate from the usual path of science and employ sleight of mind tricks to mask their scientific deceptions. If a feasible and definite exploration was necessary for each scientific point, the writer would become so limited as to situations, etc. that the story would become dry and journalistic in aspect.

After mounting this defence of artistic license, the young reader goes on to discuss a few stories; his assessments are mainly positive, although he dismisses Wells’ “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid” (“a becalmed and stagnant piece of literature containing a lot of tommyrot probably inspired by Dumas’ The Black Tulip”) and all science fiction stories with romance (“They sentimentalize the story to such an extent that it diminishes some of the scientific glamor”)

Another thirteen-year-old, Robert Hutchins, has some choice words about W. J. Hammond’s “Lakh-Dal, Destroyer of Souls”: “In my opinion it is the working of a disordered mind. The author must have cuckoo birds on his serial (or maybe the rays of the machine were directed at him)”.

John P. Pratzkt comments that “impossible themes are not interesting” before going on to argue that “with the exception of one, none of your themes are absolutely impossible” — the one exception being time travel. He then points to the dated portrayal of aeronautics in Verne’s The Master of the World as evidence that reality can catch up with science fiction, a point that might have inspired this month’s editorial. Robert Eisenbach similarly dismisses the novels of Wells and Verne as dated: “scientifiction is uninteresting when it has become a fact”.

F. Balcar praises D. M. Keller’s “The Revolt of the Pedestrians”: “it was written, it seemed to me, by one having areal warning to issue to society… I would like to see more stories by the same author. If he is a doctor, maybe he can give us one on some of the urgent problems of the day — the hidden forces that seem to put us mentally and physically at odds with our environing world and its limitations and chains”. The letter concludes that a tale of this sort “would help prevent such moral cataclysms that happen to Snyders and Grays–or start a big drive against murders” (the reference here is to the Ruth Snyder-Judd Gray trial of 1927). An anonymous reader from Gilner, Texas also has positive words for “The Revolt of the Pedestrians”: “such stories should stir automobilists to question the advisiblity of their chosen pastime.”

Australian reader E. E. Graham approves of Frank R. Paul’s artwork (“His imagination seems to be like space itself–unlimited”) but dismisses Wells (“the science is only a clonk to allow Mr Wells to air his views on civilization”), Verne (“He belongs to the bygone Victorin era, with his long, windbagging dissertations on trivial matters”) the “Hicks’ Inventions with a Kick” stories (“Yes, a high kick. Mr. Simmons ought to be kicked”), “Doctor Mentiroso” (“The puerile vapor tugs of a diseased mind”) and Garret Smith’s The Treasures of Tantalus (“it becomes arrant nonsense”).

D. Mason brings up the topic of the proposed Science Club, offering a plan of action that involves attracting members through personal adverts in newspapers. Holder E. Lindgren also writes about the club, calling for a group constitution to be drafted. G. Coleman Luck complains about only being able to find issues weeks after their announced date of publication.

C. P. Townsend responds to a number of other letter-writers in the manner of a teacher marking homework. “Victor Lewis: Initial comment adequate, but would add, as personal advice, either strengthen your mind to digest horror stories or skip them entirely. They occur at rare intervals in the magazine” is a typical excerpt. Meanwhile, Sixteen-year-old Mearle Prout enjoys the letters column so much that he requests a dedicated spin-off: “Why not put our an accessory magazine for discussions, so that your readers could argue things out among themselves?” Mearle would get his wish with the advent of fanzines.

And finally…

Leland S. Copeland contributes another poem, entitled “Our Little Neighbor”:

O Moon, though backed with keenest cold,

You show a brilliant face

And raise the tide to brake our ride

Through planetary space.

Subdued your shadowed morning plains,

And tense your glare of noon,

When Tycho shines with radiant lines,

The marvel of the moon.

Your glowing summits tower above,

A slowly dying night,

And sheer and grand your ranges stand

Where afternoon is bright

From terraced walls and rugged rims

Of mammoth mountain rings,

From ridge and streak, from cone and peak,

A mellow splendor springs

Yet neither flower nor fragrance haunts

Your dark and empty seas;

No sound or bird is ever heard,

Or gentle evening breeze.

Your cliffs impend, your chasms yawn,

But joy forsook you soon;

What life it left is nearly death,

O sad and lonely moon.

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