Amazing Histories, August 1928: Space Opera Takes Off

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A man hovers in mid-air. What is holding him aloft? While the exact process is unclear, it is clearly something to do with the contraption he is wearing: multiple nondescript devices are strapped to his back and torso, wired to a glowing implement that he holds in his hand. He appears happy with his flight, as do the two figures who watch from below. And, no doubt, science fiction readers of August 1928 were also happy to read this issue of Amazing Stories.

The issue opens with an editorial entitled “The Amazing Unknown”, in which Hugo Gernsback forgoes his usual nuts and bolts for something less tangible as he muses about the natures of infinity and the consciousness:

Then, when it comes to the certain thing that we are pleased to call the human soul, we have not the remotest idea what we mean by it; we don’t even know the seat of the soul. We do not know whether it permeates our entire body; whether it is located in our heart, in our lungs, in our brain or in a certain gland. We simply do not know. Much worse, we do not know what the soul’s function is. We know there is something that distinguishes us from a dog or a lion or a bird, but what that certain something is, we haven’t the faintest idea. It all belongs to the great universe of the unknown.

Gernsback’s metaphysical opening gives nothing to indicate that this is actually one of the most significant issues in the history of Amazing Stories, as it marks the beginnings of not one but two space opera sagas with Edward E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space and Philip Francis Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” (starring the character later known as Buck Rogers). Concurrently, another early space opera series – Edmond Hamilton’s stories of the Interstellar Patrol – debuted in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales, so there was clearly something in the air at the time…

The Skylark of Space by Edward E. Smith and Lee Hawkins Garby (part 1 of 3)

First off, here’s an early work from the man most closely associated with the development of space opera: Edward E. Smith, later to be known as E. E. “Doc” Smith. As described in Sam Moskowitz’s book Seekers of Tomorrow, the book came about when Lee Hawkins Garby suggested to Smith that he write a science fiction novel; the two ended up collaborating on the first third of the novel, Smith writing the scientific adventure and Garby providing a romantic subplot. The two lost interest, but Smith – now writing solo – eventually came back to the book, completing it in 1920. He struggled to find a publisher, however, and it languished until being accepted by Amazing in 1928.

The story begins with chemist Richard Seaton experimenting with an unknown metal referred to simply as “X”. He places a few drops of this metal in liquid solution onto a copper bathtub, along with an electric cell – and the bath promptly whizzes out of the window. Assistant Dan and fellow chemist Ferdinand Scott enter the room to see what all the commotion is about. “I have liberated the intra-atomic energy of copper”, proclaims Seaton. “Copper, ‘X,’ and electric current!” He is so excited about his discovery that he nearly misses dinner with his fiancée Dorothy.

Meanwhile, Dr. Marc DuQuesne learns of Seaton’s experiment. He calls up a contact in the shady World Steel Corporation and offers to steal ‘X’ for them. He also explains that, if the company is to maintain a monopoly on the new metal, then Seaton will have to be killed. The company head, Brookings, balks at the idea of assassinating Seaton and is reluctant to work alongside DuQuesne, whose desired funding is extremely steep. But he remains interested in the potential of ‘X’, and sends a burglar to steal a sample of the solution. The company’s experiment ends in disaster – namely, the destruction of a small village – as ‘X’ turns out to be extremely volatile.

Meanwhile, Seaton teams up with his lawyer friend Martin Crane to establish an engineering firm of his own, with the ultimate goal of creating a spacecraft. After a successful test-run within the Earth’s atmosphere, Seaton’s fiancée Dorothy comes up with a name for the craft: the Skylark. Seaton suggests that, instead of the traditional champagne, the christening involve “a big Florence flask full of absolute vacuum.”

As this is happening, the crooks step up their schemes. Seaton and Crane discover the first burglary and hire detectives; DuQuesne responds by murdering the sleuths and stealing Seaton’s plans. The heroes begin to suspect DuQuesne and, using a primitive tracking device referred to as an “object-compass”, deduce that he committed the crime while working alongside the World Steel Corporation.

Undeterred, Seaton and Crane go ahead with building their Skylark and manage to give it a test run around the Moon. But back on Earth there is skulduggery afoot, as the villains hatch a plan to kidnap Dorothy so as to extract further samples of ‘X’ from Seaton…

Although it has yet to leave Earth, The Skylark of Space already shows Smith’s skill at putting together a tightly-paced romp.

Armageddon 2419 A.D.” by Philip Francis Nowlan

Here we have the issue’s second contribution to the development of space opera, with the debut story of Buck Rogers – at this point known as Anthony Rogers. That said, he would not become a true spacefaring hero until his adventures were adapted for comic strips; “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” is a purely earthbound story, although its sequel “The Airlords of Han” would introduce alien visitors to its worldbuilding.

While exploring a cave in 1927, Rogers is trapped by a pocket of radioactive gas that keeps him in suspended animation until he wakes up in 2419. He finds that while he was unconscious, America went to war with Europe in a conflict that left both sides badly damaged, leading to the world becoming dominated by a technologically advanced China.

Much of America now stands in ruin, with its population driven into the forests as China rules the country in the manner that the Normans once ruled England. Rogers manages to befriend one such American survivor, Wilma Deering, who introduces him to a resistance movement hoping to overthrow the “Hans” or “Mongolians” (the two terms are used interchangeably) now ruling the country. They have the technology for the job, but lack hands-on experience with combat. However, Rogers – a veteran of World War I – is able to show them how to put their weapons to good use.

After helping the rebels to fight off some Han airships, using rockets against disintigration rays, Anthony Rogers teams up with Wilma Deering to raid a library for vital information; the two fight side-by-side, old-fashioned Rogers being surprised at how women have advanced in fighting capability since his time.

Armageddon 2419 A.D.” is a straightforward science fiction update of the Robin Hood legend, with its forest-dwelling rebels fighting back against an oppressive government. While mainly a ripping yarn, it touches on a number of interesting ideas that range from politics (the futuristic America is “a compromise between individual liberty and a military socialism”) to language (a number of words have changed meaning, with “exchange” meaning “stranger” and Alan now a woman’s name, derived from Helen). The story’s heavy usage of Chinese stereotypes – with the battle between Americans and Hans being explicitly framed as a conflict between “white” and “yellow” — are typical of the era, although its approach to gender roles is more progressive.

The Head” by Joe Kleier

If you are at all nervous and given to nightmares,” says the editorial introduction, “we advise yon not to read this story before you go to bed.”

Dr. James Leeson has succeeded in keeping a severed chimpanzee head alive by hooking it to a pump that provides artificial ape blood. Setting his sights higher, he goes looking for a human head:

Some time ago, I put an advertisement in the papers, for persons who were contemplating self-destruction—of course I did not mention what they were wanted for—hoping in this manner to get a subject for my experiments. I received dozens of answers. Quite a few were women, but I don’t want a woman for this. Some came out of mere curiosity. Some were reporters hunting for a sensational news item; others were adventurers looking for excitement. One or two of the would-be suicides were really tired of life, but they lacked the intelligence I desire.”

As the adverts get him nowhere, he finally approaches his terminally ill friend Professor Beardsley. The professor agrees, so long as his soon-to-be-orphaned daughter receives payment, but is nonetheless horrified after being shown around Dr. Leeson’s laboratory – complete with animated chimp head. Still, the experiment goes on:

At last the grisly task was accomplished. Artificial human blood was being pumped to the living head of Professor Beardsley, while the dead, headless body was removed!

For a number of days the Head was in a stupor, seemingly from shock. But the wound healed rapidly, and the brain apparently began to function. The Head appeared to notice the anxious faces hovering about it. And when some words were spoken to the Head, it signaled with its eyelids as agreed upon. “The Head hears—understands!” vibrantly declared Dr. Leeson.

But disaster strikes when, shortly after his triumph, Dr. Leeson dies in an automobile accident. His assistants inherit the project, seeing off legal objections and attempts to give Beardsley the humane death that he yearns for. The final paragraphs of the story skim through a future-history: over the centuries the descendants of Leeson’s assistants grow into a cult of scientist-priests dedicated to preservation of the animated head, and from there become the dominant religion of the country; one that is only overthrown when the head is destroyed during an invasion.

Until its enjoyably out-there conclusion, “The Head” spends most of its time going over much the same ground as “The Talking Brain” by M. H. Hasta, printed back in the August 1926 issue. By this point, such ghoulish narratives of science-gone-wrong had shown themselves to be controversial among readers, although the magazine’s editorial apparently maintained a taste for horror.

Hicks’ Inventions with a Kick: The Perambulating Home” by Clement Fezandié (as Henry Hugh Simmons)

In this fourth installment of the “Hicks’ Inventions with a Kick” series, narrator Daniel O’Keefe once again runs into his troublesome inventor friend Hicks, who invites him over to a large colonial home with some surprises in store.

The house already has a number of guests, and at first O’Keefe is bewlidered by how jovial everyone is (“Could it be that the cigarettes they were smoking were doped?”) until Hicks explains all. One of the house’s gadgets is a “Vanishing Table”, designed by Hicks’ Japanese friend Atanake Matsuhiro, which descends from the ceiling and provides the household with an extremely potent alcoholic beverage.

But the house has another trick in store. Faced with the question of how to ensure that sunshine got into every room of the building, Hicks has worked a locomotive system into the house’s foundations, allowing it to rotate and thereby ensure that each corner gets a dose of the sun. Next, Hicks demonstrates some improved versions of the devices seen in the earlier tale of the Automatic Apartment.

But, naturally, things soon go wrong. The house eventually starts moving too much, and ends up tumbling roof-over-floor into the sea, where it starts to float into the distance – manned by a crew of drunkards.

This was the final story in the “Hicks’ Inventions with a Kick” series, and the re-use of gadgets from “The Automatic Apartment” suggests that author Clement Fezandié was running out of ideas. Still, it manages some enjoyably silly moments, largely due to the house’s inebriated inhabitants.

The Moth” by H. G. Wells

This story from 1895 opens with a comically petty feud over entomology, between researchers Hapley and Pawkins. The narrator argues that Pawkins’ position was the more sound, but that Hapley got ahead in the quarrel through sheer charisma:

…Hapley was skilful with his rhetoric, had a turn for ridicule rare in a scientific man, was endowed with vast energy, and had a fine sense of injury in the matter of the extinguished species; while Pawkins was a man of dull presence, prosy of speech, in shape not unlike a water-barrel, over-conscientious with testimonials, and suspected of jobbing museum appointments. So the young men gathered round Hapley and applauded him.

The feud grows so fierce that, when Pawkins falls ill, the sheer weight of his opponent’s attacks help to drive him to death.

Even with Pawkins gone, the debate rages on in Hapley’s mind. The surviving entomologist becomes obsessed with the memory of his old rival; and when he notices a large moth at home – potentially a new genus – he finds that it reminds him of Pawkins. He fails to catch the insect, but as time passes he continues to catch sight of it – or, at least, thinking that he does, his obsession with the moth blurring into his obsession with Pawkins. His hunt for the elusive moth eventually tips Hapley into insanity.

Like “Pollock and the Porroh Man”, “The Moth” is a psychological ghost story and so not typically counted as an example of Wells’ science fiction.

Discussions

The month’s letters column features another round of debate. Miles J. Breuer, whose stories have appeared in the magazine, calls for science fiction to confront the effects of space travel on humans, both psychological (“The depressing effects of long periods of monotony and of physical inactivity and of close association of a small number of individuals, have been studied, and accounts can be found in the history of submarine travel and of prison life”) and physical (“The serious spot where absence of gravitation would cause trouble is in the semicircular canals of the inner ear”) He goes on to hail Clare Winger Harris’ “The Miracle of the Lily” as the best story Amazing has yet published, offering six articles of praise:

1. It deals with ideas of big importance to the human race.

2. It presents these ideas in a form which is plausible during the reading of the story.

3. It presents the ideas in the recognized literary form termed the “short-story” correct in structure and developed skilfully, with the proper suspense and the proper “surprise” at the end.

4. It is written in good English.

5. It deals with scientific matters as though they were familiar to the author, not with the pitiful, ridiculous clumsiness that even some of our great American writers display in dealing with scientific subjects.

6. It appeals to emotions that exist deep within the heart of every human being, whether he be scientific or not.

Breuer is less positive about David H. Keller’s “The Yeast Men”, and finishes off with some thoughts about the genre as a whole: “Some day perhaps we’ll have a Lord Dunsany in this field; a fellow who can do poetical things with scientific ideas. But, there is only a thinnest of partitions dividing that field from blithering nonsense.”

19-year-old Frederick Bitting speaks about time travel (“I can see traveling into the past but as for traveling into the future, I think that is the one impossible thing. If it was possible men would travel into the future to see what the world would be like, find its dangers, come back and then the future would not be what the travelers saw”) before going on to make comments about a number of specific stories. Amongst these is David H. Keller’s “The Revolt of the Pedestrians” and its depiction of an automobile-obsessed humanity losing the use of its legs (“Personally, I don’t think it will happen, because legs are so necessary to us youngsters in athletics that good legs are admired.”) Francis Uffelman also gives potted commentary on a selection of stories from throughout the magazine’s run (“The Fosdick and Hicks stories were most interesting. and the more, the better. Contrary to some of your readers, I don’t think humor is at all out of place in your magazine. They would probably blow the cobwebs out of their brains”).

Howard J. Fahrer speaks approvingly of the June issue’s feature on Luis Senarens’ Frank Reade Jr stories:

I certainly do believe that Mr. Lu Senarens’ stories should have a place in your Amazing Stories. Why not republish one in serial form and give your readers of today an opportunity to enjoy the writings and imaginations of this truly great writer of the last century, whose stories are so much like fact in the present?

William P. Keasbey raises questions about the totality of the Invisible Man’s condition (“Even bridgework or fillings in his teeth would be seen floating around unsupported unless his oral cavity was quite unsullied by dental ministrations”). Meanwhile, F. C. Haenchen writes about Francis Flagg’s “The Blue Dimension”, offering a possible solution to get the story’s protagonists out of their final predicament:

The story plainly states that any object going through the Re-vibrator appears not immediately but gradually on the other plane. It thus appears that the machine could be stopped and reversed with an object half through it. So why could not an object have been sent half through it where it could have been seen and grasped by the Doctor? Then, as long as he held to this object, why could not both have been brought back to this plane by the reversing of the Re-vibrator?

15-year-old Bernard Simon writes in with some thoughts on illustrations. After describing the cover to an unidentified magazine seen during earlier youth (“I remember begging my mother, at the age of six, to buy me a certain magazine profusely illustrated with box-shaped, green-colored individuals with one eye”) he notes that Amazing‘s covers have improved since that of the May 1926 issue: “one of my teachers… told me I shouldn’t read it. From the grotesque cover she thought that it was a new type of fairy-tale magazine.” He also notes that a friend, who upon hearing the publication’s title “got the impression that it was another of the libidinous magazines which ruin the atmosphere of the stand”, became intrigued after seeing the artwork. Another topic of his letter is the portrayal of French characters:

It is with great glee that I read of the French characters in so many of the stories. I am glad that the French intelligence, especially in astronomy, is so well recognized. Though in two stories I didn’t like their use as villains. If I took several authors to Eastern France, they would stop writing “the little Frenchman,” but instead, “the giant cloud of a Frenchman,” I have seen!

Finally, he objects to “Sub-Satellite” by Charles Cloukey and its assertion that there can be no life on the moon (“Bah! there might be life so grotesque, beyond our wildest nightmares; simply because we have to have atmosphere, vegetation and water is no sign that life couldn’t exist without these”).

Marcley W. Felten of Virginia’s U.S. Naval Training School is another who writes of the hostility he has seen the magazine receive: “I have been assigned to Asiatic Station and a number of my shipmates and officers have assured me that I surely will go crazy without the help of the East if I continue to read a publication with such idiotic stories in it.” John J. Kelly, Jr objects most strongly to Amazing switching from perfect binding to stapling (“I cannot stand by when the high quality and prestige of Amazing Stories is being torn down and say nothing.”)

Charles E. Roe muses about saurians (“In Arizona, where I lived for seven years, there is a species of lizard that has the habit of running on its hind legs, much as did the extinct ones”) before reminiscing about the curious US publication history of Wells’ The War of the Worlds:

If some of your younger critics had lived when The War of the Worlds was appearing in the old unspoiled Cosmopolitan Magazine they would better understand the tense grip the story had. One of the Boston papers later “localized” the story and had daily reports of the “War,” with the scene laid around Boston, which was far more gripping than any real war news could be.

“You are doing a good work, I think”, concludes Roe. “To hold the youthful imagination with stories that teach, no matter how fantastic they may be, is a far better thing than to pander to its darker side with the so-called “truth” yarns. What we need is more Lindberghs and fewer Loebs and Hickmans.”

Ernest Francis offers comment on the Munchhausen stories, questioning Gernsback’s contention that Mars would be hotter than Earth during the day due to a lack of clouds to block heat from the sun (“Mars, due to its scarcity of atmosphere, and cloud blankets, would reflect the heat and light of the sun. It is a cold planet because it is a reflecting rather than an absorbing surface, due to lack of atmosphere and clouds or vapor.”) F. Leistra likewise writes in response to these stories, arguing against their portrayal of Martian canals (“I will only ask you, if you are sure that most of the scientists today agree with the theory of Dr. Lowell about the canals on Mars? This was certainly the case 20 or 30 years ago; not today, after the researches by Campbell and Keller, Slipher, Nicholson and Pettit, Koblentz and Lampland, regarding the existence of water and oxygen in the atmosphere and the temperature on Mars?”)

Leistra also attempts to deduce what a space traveller would see when moving faster than light (“The most amazing conclusion is, that the traveler sees what is behind and in front of him at the same time; looking back he stares in the deepest dark”). This is a popular topic for the month: K. A. Gonzales is another who gives thoughts on how vision would function while moving at the speed of light (“The picture would immediately be blotted out and there would be total darkness. No light rays could reach our eyes from the direction we were looking”) as is Stanley McMichael (“The machine would run into the ray of light, get ahead of it, and leave a pitch black shadow behind it!”)

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