Astounding Histories, January 1930: Stories of Super-Science

This month in 2020 saw the announcement of the latest finalists for the Hugo Awards – and with them, the contenders for the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, a prize named after one of science fiction’s oldest and most venerable publications. This year will mark the first in which the award is presented under its current name, having been previously known as the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

The change in name, announced last year, sparked heated debate: some argued that it marked a rejection of science fiction’s heritage. But it could also be said that the new name encompasses a still broader history. After all, while John W. Campbell was the most famous and influential editor of Astounding magazine – or Analog, as he renamed it – he was not the first: at the time Campbell took control in late 1937, the publication had been running for the whole of the decade.

The existence of Astounding before Campbell’s editorship is a story in itself. What better time to take a look at that story than in 2020, the inaugural year of the Astounding Award…?

Astounding Stories of Super-Science debuted on newsstands with a cover date of January 1930 and a bold illustration of a man in pilot’s duds fighting off a giant beetle, a crudely-clad cavewoman cowering behind him. It needed an attention-grabbing cover, as it had a number of rivals. Amazing Stories, the pioneer in the field of science fiction magazines, was still going strong – although its original founder Hugo Gernsback was elsewhere, running Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. Weird Tales and Ghost Stories, the more supernaturally-oriented cousins to these scientifically-minded publications, offered still more competition for readers’ attention. Astounding had to stand out amongst all of these.

The new magazine was edited by Harry Bates, and its first issue opens with a question that segues into a mission statement:

What are “astounding” stories?

Well, if you lived in Europe in 1490, and someone told you the earth was round and moved around the sun—that would have been an “astounding” story.

Or if you lived in 1840, and were told that some day men a thousand miles apart would be able to talk to each other through a little wire—or without any wire at all—that would have been another.

Or if, in 1900, they predicted ocean-crossing airplanes and submarines, world-girdling Zeppelins, sixty-story buildings, radio, metal that can be made to resist gravity and float in the air—these would have been other “astounding” stories.

This is very similar to the material that Hugo Gernsback used in his editorials for Amazing, where he often contemplated the scope of what he termed “scientifiction”. But Astounding Stories carefully avoids using this word – which, after all, is the coinage of its rival – and instead substitutes its own title. In this bold piece of branding, Astounding Stories becomes synonymous with science fiction.

“To-morrow, more astounding things are going to happen”, continues Astounding’s first editorial. “Your children — or their children — are going to take a trip to the moon” it asserts, a prophecy which, when broadly interpreted, can be said to have pass. It then carries on along somewhat more fanciful lines: “They will be able to render themselves invisible — a problem that has already been partly solved. They will be able to disintegrate their bodies in New York and reintegrate them in China — and in a matter of seconds.”

Gernsback’s Amazing had originally carried the slogan “extravagant fiction today, cold fact tomorrow.” Astounding’s debut editorial echoes this phrase when it boasts that its stories “will anticipate the super-scientific achievements of To-morrow — whose stories will not only be strictly accurate in their science but will be vividly, dramatically and thrillingly told.”

Astounding was the first true science fiction pulp magazine – the Gernsback titles being published in bedsheet rather than pulp format – and while obviously modelled upon Amazing, its first issue is more direct and to-the-point in tone. Gernsback and his team liked to introduce stories by encouraging the reader to contemplate the science underpinning the fiction; but Astounding skips this, its stories instead opening with previews of action sequences or punchy, one-line tags (“Only two young explorers stand in the way of the mad Brain’s horrible revenge – the releasing of his trillions of man-sized beetles upon an utterly defenseless world”).

But what of the tales themselves – how do they stack up to Amazing Stories and its contents? Let us take a closer look at Astounding Stories of Super-Science‘s debut issue and find out..


The Beetle Horde by Victor Rosseau (part 1 of 2)

Aviator Tommy Travers takes part in an expedition, financed by his millionaire uncle and led by the bold Captain Storm, to pinpoint the exact location of the South Magnetic Pole. The group also includes zoologist Jim Dodd and astronomer Higby, the latter interested in proving Einstein’s theories regarding a linking of gravitation and magnetism – but we are told that Travers “didn’t give a whoop for Einstein, or any of the rest of the stuff”.

Also joining the expedition is Jim Dodd, an archaeologist. Dodd’s idol is Bram, a brilliant but erratic researcher who took part in a similar polar expedition three years before, led by Captain Greystoke (an Edgar Rice Burroughs homage, perhaps?). But this group had run into trouble, with Bram ending up missing, presumed dead.

Strange things soon to happen on the present expedition. During the trip, Dodd stumbles across the fossilised shell of an enormous beetle, four to five feet in height, of a hardness that suggests a crustacean rather than an insect. Later, Tommy’s plane hits a storm; he manages to fly it through a funnel of thick fog, and sees an unexpected sight below:

Not more than a thousand feet beneath him he saw patches of snow, and patches of—green grass, the brightest and most verdant green that he had ever seen in his life. He turned round at a touch on his shoulder. Dodd was leaning over him, one hand pointing menacingly upward and onward.

“You fool,” Tommy bellowed in his ear, “d’you think the south pole lies over there? It’s here! Yeah, don’t you get it, Jimmy? Look down! This valley— God, Jimmy, the south pole’s a hole in the ground!” And as he spoke he remembered vaguely some crank who had once insisted that the two poles were hollow because—what was the fellow’s reasoning? Tommy could not remember it.

Tommy crash-lands in the verdant area and recovers to find himself separated from the others. All around him are still more of the giant fossilised shells, along with some living invertebrates of considerable size: first a three-foot long shrimp, and then a gigantic beetle that stands five feet in height (“Jim Dodd would have said at once that this was one of the Curculionidae, or snout beetles, for a prolongation of the head between the eyes formed a sort of beak a foot in length… Immediately in front of the eyes were two mandibles as long as a man’s arms”) The giant beetle moults, its shall falling away as the defenceless creature inside slithers out of sight, to Tommy’s disgust.

Nearby, Tommy notices a girl, “about six feet tall, and apparently made after the normal human pattern” who wears a garment “woven of her own hair, which must have been of immense length, for it fell naturally to her shoulders, and thence was woven into this close-fitting material, a fringe an inch or two in length extending beneath the selvage.” She moves with immense grace and beauty, except for the uncouth way on which she feasts on the large shrimp after digging it from the sand. Her sight is adapted for the dark: when she looks at Tommy he sees that “her eyes were filmed, vacant, dead. Then of a sudden a third membrane was drawn back across the pupils, and she saw him.” The girl is soon joined by another person, this time an old man.

Then a volley of giant beetles emerge and hustle the three underground. Tommy is reunited with Jim Dodd, one of the beetles’ earlier captives, who explains all: the Earth is hollow, and the pair are now inside the globe, a strange world where the grass — lacking chlorophyll – is red and the evolution of insects has continued along different lines to the surface.

Jim theorises that the pale-skinned people who live inside “are survivors of the primitive race that still exists as the Australians” and waxes lyrical about the local flora (“I’ll swear they were monocotyledonous, which, after all, is what one would expect. Still, to think that the monocotyledons evolved the familiar drupes, or stone fruits, on a parallel line to the dicotyledons is – amazing!”)

They are still menaced by giant beetles, which turn out to have a language (“Hitherto both had supposed that the hideous insects acted by blind instinct, but now there could no longer be any doubt that they were possessed of an organized intelligence”). The insects also have a leader, one that appears different to the rest. Jim Dodd, when he gets a closer look, is shocked to see that the shell-clad being has a human face — that of the missing scientist Bram, who is wearing the shell as armour.

It transpires that Bram has spent the last three years living in the land of Submundia (as he calls it) where he has hewn furniture from cavern stone and tamed giant beetles to use as beasts of burden. On a more sinister note he reveals that he has taught the beetles to breed humans, and even refers to the cave girl – whose name is Haida, and who develops an attraction to Jim Dodd – as “a cull”:

“What, the one I saw you with? Why, she’s a cull, Travers.”

“What d’you mean?” asked Tommy.

“Why—useless, you know. There’s several of them running loose, and waiting to be rounded up. We raise two breeds, one for replenishing the stock, and one for meat. She’s just a cull, a reversion, no use for either purpose…”

Bram turns out to be a convinced misanthrope: “Man is a joke”, declares the scientist. “Nature made him when she was tired, as the architect of a cathedral fashions a gargoyle in a sportive moment.” He hopes for the emergence of a “new humanity, waiting to be born” that is “not of the miserable ape race” and sees himself as a prophet of this new era:

He raised his arms with the gesture of an ancient prophet. “Woe to the human race,” he cried, “the wretched ape spawn that has cast out its teachers and persecuted those who sought to raise it to higher things!”

Bram believes that “It is the insect, not man, who is the predestined lord of the ages!” and insists that the beetle possesses “an instinct that is infinitely superior, because it arrives at results instantaneously. It knows where man infers. Attuned closely to nature, it alone is able to fulfil the divine plan of Creation.”

In an amusing detail, the fanatical scientist is petty enough to resume a debate over fossils that he once had with Jim. “You’ll change your mind within what used to be called a day, Dodd”, he says. “You’ll crawl to my feet and beg for pardon. And you’ll recant your lying theories about the fossil monotremes, or you die – the pair of you – you die!” Even in the face of adversity, Jim refuses to compromise his pride as a researcher: “Do your worst, Bram, I’ll never crucify truth to save my life. And I’ll laugh at your spalacotherium when your beetles are eating me.”

Tommy and Jim hatch a plan to escape the insane Bram, taking abandoned beetle shells as disguises and armour. After seeing such natural phenomena as patches of luminous fungi, a river running uphill and a fountain of fire, they are faced with yet another gigantic insect — leaving the story on a cliffhanger.

“The Beetle Horde” is a lost-world narrative of a sort commonplace in this period, but nonetheless has a spirit of inventiveness running throughout. The darkness-dwelling cave people with their membranous eyes, and the characterisation of the fanatical Bram, are particular highlights.


“The Cave of Horror” by Captain S. P. Meek

Strange happenings are taking place at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave. Members of the public have gone missing inside – and search parties sent after them have also disappeared. The only clues include a few discarded possessions, reported sounds of screaming and gunfire, and a strange slime found on the walls. The cave was closed to the public and infantry sent inside, but even these trained soldiers began vanishing one by one; all that was achieved was the discovery of a large, blood-stained crack in the wall, big enough for a person to be forced through.

And so, at the behest of the Secret Service, Operative Carnes has been sent to investigate and decides to recruit the musclebound scientist Dr. Bird to help. Inside the cave the two run afoul of a weird creature, whose presence is signified first by “a faint slithering noise coming toward them” along with “a faint, musky, reptilian odor” and then by “a weird, blood-curdling screech”. With the aid of the grenades they manage to escape, with the doctor concluding that the entity is “something new to science”. They proceed to send livestock into the cave to placate the creature while they work (“Two hours later a series of horrible screams and bellowings were heard in the cave”).

The story then introduces its main technological concept, as Dr. Bird unveils an apparatus designed “for the large scale production of ultra-violet light” (in the story, this relies on a fictional alloy; in reality, the technology for ultraviolet lamps had been pioneered by Robert W. Wood in 1903):

“The longer rays of visible light will not penetrate as deeply into a given substance as the shorter ultraviolet rays. This visitor is evidently from some unexplored and, indeed, unknown cavern in the depths of the earth where visible light has never penetrated. Apparently in this cavern the color of the inhabitants is ultraviolet, and hence invisible to us.”

As Dr. Bird is also equipped with a special camera — one that has a rock crystal lens, rather than a standard optical glass, thereby allowing ultraviolet light to pass through — he hopes to not only reveal the creature, but to photograph it as well. In the relative safety of a borrowed army tank, he is able to capture the desired image:

In the plate could be plainly seen the hind quarters of the sheep held in the grasp of such a monster as even the drug-laden brain of an opium smoker never pictured. Judging from the sheep, the monster stood about twenty feet tall, and its frame was surmounted by a head resembling an overgrown frog. Enormous jaws were opened to seize the sheep but, to the amazement of the three observers, the jaws were entirely toothless.

Where teeth were to be expected, long parallel ridges of what looked like bare bone, appeared, without even a rudimentary segregation into teeth. The body of the monster was long and snakelike, and was borne on long, heavy legs ending in feet with three long toes, armed with vicious claws. The crowning horror of the creature was its forelegs. These were of enormous length, thin and attenuated looking, and ended in huge misshapen hands, knobby and blotched, which grasped the sheep in the same manner as human hands. The eyes were as large as dinner plates, and they were glaring at the camera with an expression of fiendish malevolence which made Carnes shudder.

But how does such an imposing beast squeeze through the comparatively tight crack? Dr. Bird has the answer:

“This creature is tall and broad, but from front to rear it can measure only a few inches. The same must be true of the froglike head. That animal has been developed to live and move in a low roofed cavern, and to pass through openings only a few inches wide. It’s [sic] bulk is all in two dimensions!”

Furthermore, Dr. Bird deduces that the creature is just a baby, the ridges in its mouth being gum rather than bone – as with the story of Grendel and his mother, there may be still larger specimens out there.

The heroes return to the cave to try and kill the beast through a combination of explosives, cyanide gas and electric shocks. It manages to escape through the crack; nevertheless, Dr. Bird concludes that it has been fatally injured and will pose no more trouble. He decides to keep the affair a secret, due to the lack of conclusive evidence (even the photograph could be dismissed as a fraud, he argues) and arranges to have the crack blocked up.

“The Cave of Horror” uses a formula that would already have been familiar to anyone who followed Amazing Stories (and would be put to use many more times in monster movies). That said, the concept of the wafer-thin monster and the method used to locate it are both inventive. The author would later re-use the characters of Bird and Carnes in future issues of Astounding.


“Phantoms of Reality” by Ray Cummings

Wall Street clerk Charles Wilson receives an invitation from his friend, English aristocrat Captain Derek Mason — “a modern d’Artagnan” — who has a sideline as a scientist. The captain makes him an unexpected offer: to abandon his tedious existence for a new life, “a chance for deeds of high adventuring. The romance of danger, of pitting your wits against villainy to make right triumph over wrong, and to win for yourself power and riches — and perhaps a fair lady. . .”

The captain proceeds to tell his friend about a girl named Hope, who lives in the fourth dimension:

“Hope’s world, co-existing here with us, is dependent upon us. They speak what we call English. They shadow us.”

I murmured, “Phantoms of reality.”

“Yes. A world very like ours. But primitive, where ours is civilized… A primitive world, primitive nation, primitive passions! As I see it now, Charlie—as I know it to be—it seems as though perhaps Hope’s world is merely a replica of ours, stripped to the primitive. As though it might be the naked soul of our modem New York, ourselves as we really are, not as we pretend to be.”

He explains that the society of this other dimension resembles that of pre-revolutionary France, with decadent nobles ruling over downtrodden peasants. The girl Hope belongs to the peasant class, and Derek desires to lead her caste into revolt.

Derek produces his invention, which turns out to be a head-mounted electrode and a belt with a battery attached, connected by wires; he explains that it operates by changing the wearer’s rate of vibrations, transporting them to a realm “in the higher, more rapid vibratory scale.” The two enter the new world, and Charlie sees New York vanish: “The shadows of the great city were around me. They glowed, and then were gone”. Their new surroundings include an open countryside with a river, trees, and people:

A city lay ahead of us, set along this nearer bank of the river. A city! It seemed a primitive village. All was primitive, as though here might be some lost Indian tribe of our early ages. The people were picturesque, the field workers garbed in vivid colors. The flat little carts, slow moving, with broad-horned oxen.

Inside the city the two meet Hope, a pale girl dressed in blue and red (“Exotically lovely she was, with primitive, unrestrained passions – typical of the land in which she lived”). She serves as handmaiden to a woman named Blanca, who in turn is a potential consort to King Leonto. As it happens, the monarch is poised to choose between Blanca (“a white beauty, risen from the toilers to be a favorite at the Court”) and Sensua (“a profligate, debauched woman who, as queen, would further oppress the workers.”) as wife. If he chooses Sensua, Captain Derek explains, the disgusted populace will revolt.

The travellers go on to meet the king, who is coldly indifferent to the land’s workers; they also come across his “scoundral adventurer” of a henchman, Rohbar, who has designs on Hope despite her spurning him. After this, they witness a performance on stage during which Sensua makes her appearance:

There were stringed instruments playing now; deep-toned, singing zithers, and instruments of rounded, swelling bodies, like great viols with sensuous, throbbing voices. Music with a swift rhythm, marked by the thump of hollow gourds. It rose with its voluptuous swell into a paean of abandonment, and upon the tide of it, the crimson Sensua flung herself upon the stage. She stood motionless for a moment that all might regard her. The crimson torchlight bathed her, stained crimson the white flush of her limbs, her heavy shoulders, her full, rounded throat.

A woman in her late twenties. Voluptuous of figure, with crimson veils half-hiding, half-revealing it. A face of coarse, sensuous beauty. A face wholly evil, and it seemed to me wholly debauched. Dark eyes with beaded lashes. Heavy lips painted scarlet. A pagan woman of the streets. One might have encountered such a woman swaggering in some ancient street of some ancient city, flaunting the finery given her by a rich and profligate eastern prince.

She stood a moment with smoldering, passion-filled eyes, gazing from beneath her lowered lids. Her glance went to the king’s canopy, and flashed a look of confidence, of triumph. The king answered it with a smile. He leaned forward over his railing, watching her intently.

Sensua is followed by her rival, Blanca – whom she promptly murders:

Blanca stood watching her rival. The crimson Sensua passed her, took her suddenly by the wrist, drew her forward. For an instant I thought it might have been rehearsed. I saw Blanca as a slim, gentle girl in white, with a white head-dress. A dancer who could symbolize purity, now in the grip of red passion.

An instant, and then horror struck us. And I could feel it surge over the audience. A gasp of horror. The frightened girl in white tried to escape. The musicians wavered and broke. I stared, stricken, with freezing blood. Upon the stage the knife went swiftly up; it came down; then up again. The read Sensua stood gloating. The knife she waved aloft was truly dripping crimson now. With a choked, gasping scream the white girl of the toilers crumpled and fell. . . . She lay motionless, at the feet of the crimson murderess.

Sensua’s slaying of Blanca leads to an outbreak of mob violence, the people rising up against the oppressive crimson nobles. The two travellers from New York are forced to intervene, but they are unable to use modern weapons: “The current used in our transition would have exploded the cartridges of a revolver.”

Derek stands before the denizens of the new dimension, and to the bewilderment of Charlie, the people recognise Derek as their lost prince Alexandre. The dashing captain then uses his invention to send his attackers out of their home dimension:

In Derek’s right hand he held the cylinder outstretched, leveled at the menacing nobles. “Back, I say!”

But instead they rushed him. There was a flash. From the cylinder it seemed that a ray spat out, a flash of silver light. It caught the three men who were in advance of the others. Their swords dropped with a clatter to the balcony floor. They stood, transfixed.

An instant. Derek’s silver ray played upon them. Their red cloaks were painted with its silver sheen. They were shimmering! I gasped, staring. The other nobles, beyond the ray, had fallen back. And they too stood staring in horror. Another instant. The three figures wavered. I saw the face of one of them, with the shock of incredulous horror still upon it. A face turning luminous! A face, erased, with only the staring eyes to mark where it had been!

During the confusion, Rohbar and Sensua murder the king and kidnap Hope. But the day is saved by Charlie: using Derek’s device to return to New York, positions himself so that, when he goes back to the other dimension, he is able to mount a surprise attack on Rohbar and rescue Hope. The villains routed, Derek is claims his rightful place as king while Charlie returns to his life at Wall Street.

“If this were the year 2000, my narrative doubtless would be tame enough”, says Charlie at the beginning of his narration. “Yet in 1929 it can only be called a fantasy. Let it go at that. The fantasy of to-day is the sober truth of to-morrow.” Well, it can hardly be denied that “Phantoms of Reality” makes for a tame piece of science fiction by the standards of the year 2000; but even compared to material available to contemporary readers – such as H. G. Wells’ “The Plattner Story” or Francis Flagg’s “The Blue Dimension” – it is decidedly routine. The only point at which Cummings puts the idea of inter-dimensional travel to inventive use is during the climax, when the heroes adapt the invention into a weapon; other than that, the story is a Ruritarian romance that would have worked without its SF element.

Still, if nothing else, Cummings shows a genuine enthusiasm for the gallant adventures of old, and the character of Captain Derek Mason is a vivid if unorthodox portrait of the scientist-hero:

What a strange mixture was this Derek Mason! What a strange compound of the cold reality of the scientist and the fancy of the romantic dreamer! Yet I wonder if that is not what science is. There is no romantic lover gawping at the moon who could have more romance in his soul, or see in the moonlit eyes of his loved one more romance than the scientist finds in the wonders of his laboratory.


“The Stolen Mind” by M. L. Staley

Owen Quest responds to a job offer put out by the Clason Research Corporation. During the interview, corporation head Keane Clason explains that he and his brother Philip have, between them, developed both the most destructive weapon known to man, and the most constructive discovery in scientific history, something that “may even lead to an understanding of the nature of life, and of the future of the spirit after death.” The former is a Death Projector, which is “based on our discovery that invisible light rays of a certain wave-length, if highly concentrated, destroy life – and our additional discovery that if these are synchronized with short radio waves the effect is absolutely devastating.” Philip hopes to sell this invention as a weapon on the grounds that it “will forever discourage war by making it too terrible for any civilized nation to consider.”

Keane, however, believes that the weapon will lead only to calamity, but he has a plan to thwart his brother: a plan that involves the pair’s second invention, the Osmotic Liberator. This invention, Keane reveals, can be used to prevent Philip’s sale by controlling his mind. “Now, it is well known that the vibrations of an individual’s will are as distinctive as the sworls of his fingerprints”, explains Keane. “What is not so well known is that the frequency of vibration in one person can be brought into accord with that in another.” The scheme will require an agent – hence the need for Owen Quest.

Quest agrees to take part in the job in exchange for ten thousand dollars. He enters the Osmotic Liberator, which turns out to be a vat of chemicals with an elaborate apparatus attached, but this turns out to have been a trap. Quest’s mind is sealed inside the head of Keane Clason, “in bondage to a scoundrel”:

With the soundless scream of rage Quest’s will hurled itself against Keane’s. The two met like infuriated bulls, and for an instant too brief to be pictured as a lapse of time they poised immovable. But two wills cannot exist on equal terms in a single body, and in this case the vibration of both was that of Clason. Quest had challenged the Master Will. He could do no more. It hurled him back, crushed him like foam, compressed him to the proportions of an atom in the background of his consciousness. So brief and unequal was the conflict that in the next breath Clason had all but forgotten the presence of the stolen will within him. When he was ready to use his Agent, that would be time enough to summon him!

Despite this suppression, Quest began to see dimly through strange eyes, and to hear vaguely with ears that were not his own. Feelers, tentacles, some intangible kind of conduits carried thought impulses to him from the Master Will. He received these impressions vividly, but those which he gave off in return were so weak, due to the subjection of his will, that Clason was entirely unconscious of any response.

After an elaborate ruse involving hired thugs and feigned ignorance, Keane tracks down his brother and transports Quest’s will into Philip’s head. In his new body Quest is forced to work as an accomplice to the villainous Keane – whose true aim turns out to involve selling the Death Projector to one Dr. Nukharin.

Following a discussion about how the Death Projector works (“These nine tubes, which look like a row of gun barrels, are molded from silicon paste. Each shoots a beam of invisible light and a radio dart of precisely the same wave length”) and a demonstration in which the weapon wipes out a swathe of a nearby meadow and causes the accidental deaths of some bystanders, Quest is able to gain control of Philip’s body and finally thwart Keane Clason.

“The Stolen Mind” is an early example of the body-swap story, a premise that would later become a staple of science fiction television and children’s cartoons. The glass-half-empty reading is that author M. L. Staley is over-reliant on stock stereotypes from the thriller genre, leading to a thinness of character that defeats the purpose of character-swapping. The glass-half-full reading is that Staley depicts the mechanics of two minds existing in one body with far more imagination and ingenuity than so many later treatments of the theme. The threat of mutually-assured destruction as a means to end war is a prescient plot device, but not an original one: see also “The Moon of Doom” and “The Golden Girl of Munan” in Amazing Stories.


“Compensation” by C. V. Tench

The reclusive Professor Wroxton goes missing, the only clue to his disappearance being a visit to his home from a mysterious man named Lathom – who disappeared at the same time. John, the professor’s household servant, confirms that each man’s car remains in the garage, and that there is no sign of the house’s entrance having been unlocked in the night: the two men appear to have simply vanished.

Thornton, a friend of the professor, decides to investigate the missing man’s home. He makes his way through his eerily abandoned surroundings, and in the laboratory he finds a glass case containing a diamond from the professor’s ring. The case has no apparent opening — so how did the diamond get inside?

The police chief begins to suspect Thornton of doing away with the professor for his inheritance. Under an impromptu interrogation, Thornton explains the professor’s line of research: he was attempting to achieve a state of absolute zero. “According to my friend, an absolute zero has been the dream of scientists for ages”, says Thornton. “Once upon a time it was attained, but the secret became lost… An absolute zero is a cold so intense it will destroy flesh, bone and tissue. Remove them… leaving no trace.”

Thornton jogs his own memory and details some of the results of the professor’s experiments: “He told me that, with the aid of electric currents he had been able to invent the absolute zero, but he could not invent a container… there was difficulty in controlling the power. Besides destroying living things, it would destroy bricks and mortar, stone and iron. Only one substance it could not wipe out — crystalline of diamond hardness.”

From here, Thornton reaches the obvious conclusion that the Professor Wroxton used this method to destroy himself, and even proposes a motive arising from the professor’s turbulent romantic history. Years ago Wroxton’s wife found him to be too absorbed in his work, and left him for another man who subsequently abandoned her. When the professor finally met her again, she was in bad health and soon died. Since then, the professor tried to track down his rival, his failure to do so turning him into a recluse.

“My friend told me that the law of compensation would atone to him for the tragedy of his youth”, says Thornton. “Absolute zero in suffering would be atoned for by a real state of absolute zero… Don’t you understand? This is the perfected dream of my friend. It is the absolute zero.”

But this leaves the mystery of the other missing man, Lathom. The puzzle is solved with the discovery of a letter by the professor, where he reveals that Lathom was the man who abandoned his wife, and announces his plan to reduce both Lathom, and himself, to a state of absolute zero.

Discussing the science of “Compensation” is, perhaps, missing the point, as this is a story built around an atmosphere of intangibility and eeriness more than thermal physics. The Gothic tone of the sequence where the characters explore the dead professor’s laboratory is hard to positively dense:

Through the transparent surface I could see John and his wife. They were watching me furtively, wondering, no doubt, why I lingered. As I looked at them John suddenly lumbered up to the case on the opposite side. Dropping to his knees, he stared. Turning an imploring gaze to me, he pointed. His lips moved soundlessly. I followed the pointing finger with my eyes; gasped at what I saw. Near the center of the cage, on the floor constructed of the same crystalline substance, something glittered […] In a sudden frenzy of horror I pawed my way around the cage to where John still knelt. As I reached him he jerked his head in a numb way as he croaked, “It’s a diamond, sir! The professor’s!”

“But how?” I implored. “How can it be? There’s no way into this thing. Perhaps he was working here, and the stone came loose from its setting. He couldn’t have dropped it after the cage was completed.”

“It’s his diamond, sir,” intoned the old man, dully. “I know it is.” Then a sudden unreasoning terror filled me. I shrank away from that shining box. It seemed to be mocking me, gloatingly, malevolently.

“Quickly!” I threw at the aged couple. “Let us get out of here! Now! At once!” They needed no second urging. I knew that they felt as I felt: the laboratory was a sepulcher!


“Tanks” by Murray Leinster

Here we have an early specimen of military SF that imagines a conflict in the near-future of 1932 that is dependent upon tanks:

The general staffs of both the United States and the prominent nation—let us say the Yellow Empire— at war with it had come to a single conclusion. Tanks or infantry were needed for the use of victories. Infantry could be destroyed by tanks. But tanks could be hidden from aerial spotters by smoke-screens.

“Tanks” is an atmospheric story, depicting a war of mist, smoke and gas: with each and every infantryman equipped with a gas grenade, and the tanks protecting themselves with smoke-screens, much of the action takes place against a backdrop of dense vapour. It is also a bitter, cynical story. We are told with irony that the war “had already been christened, by the politicians at home, the last war” (the story was, of course, published little more than a decade after the “war to end all wars”).

The narrative is split between two settings, each portraying a different aspect of the conflict. On the one hand we have an American general, who sees the tank battles as no more than a series of coloured sparks on a board. On the other hand we have the story of two downtrodden infantrymen, Sergeant Coffee and Corporal Wallis:

He hung up, gloomily, and turned to Corporal Wallis.

“We’ got to be heroes,” he announced bitterly. “Sit out here in th’ stinkin’ fog an’ wait for a tank t’ come along an’ wipe us out. We’ the only listenin’ post in two miles of front. That new gas o’ theirs wiped out all the rest without report.”

He surveyed the crumpled figures which had been the original occupants of the pill-box. They wore the same uniform as himself and when he took the gas-mask off of one of them the man’s face was strangely peaceful.

“Hell of a war,” said Sergeant Coffee bitterly. “Here our gang gets wiped out by a helicopter. I ain’t seen sunlight in a week, an’ I ott just four butts left. Lucky I started savin’ ’em.” He rummaged shrewdly.

The story’s usage of a “Yellow Empire” as antagonists fits into a common stereotype at the time (See also Amazing’s “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” and “The Singing Weapon”, which likewise used East Asians as default opponents in wars of the future) and, indeed, an enemy soldier captured by Coffee and Wallis is described as having “the beady eyes and coarse black hair that marked him racially as of the enemy”. Yet, at the same time, Leinster makes a point out of humanising the antagonists, as we see when the American soldiers share banter with their Asian prisoner:

“Say, you,” he said curiously, “you talk English pretty good. How’d you learn it?”

“I was a waiter,” the prisoner explained. “New York. Corner Forty-eighth and Sixth.”

“My Gawd!” said Coffee. “Me, I used to be a movie operator along there. Forty-ninth. Projection room stuff, you know. Say, you know Heine’s place?”

“Sure,” said the prisoner. “I used to buy Scotch from that blond feller in the back room. With a benzine label for a prescription?”

Coffee lay back and slapped his knee. “Ain’t it a small world?” he demanded. “Pete, here, he ain’t never been in any town bigger than Chicago. Ever in Chicago?”

“Hell,” said Wallis, morose yet comfortable with a tailor-made cigarette. “If you guys want to start a extra war, go to knockin’ Chicago. That’s all.”

A vivid piece of characterisation comes into play when the American general describes his opponent as “an artist… the sort of person who delights in the delicate work of fencing” and who, despite having the stronger forces, “will want to defeat me by a plan of consummate artistry, which will arouse admiration among soldiers for years to come.” This depiction of the enemy general as an artist is restated later on:

“But general! You’re ordering a concentration there! You’re falling in with his plans!”

The general laughed.

“I had lunch with the general in command over there, once upon a time. He is an artist. He won’t be content with a defeat like that! He’ll want to make his battle a masterpiece, a work of art!”

While this talk of artistry is occurring up the ranks, the men below remain in squalor. “This ain’t my battle”, exclaims Sergeant Coffee at one point. “It’s a parade of a lot of damn tanks!” The story ends on a sour note, as the soldiers contemplate their place in the wars of the future:

“Listen to ’em,” said Coffee bitterly. “Tanks! Tanks! Tanks! Hell! If they’d given us infantry a chance—“

“You said it,” said the prisoner savagely. “This is a hell of a way to fight a war.”

Corporal Wallis turned a greenish face to them.

“The infantry always gets the dirty end of the stick,” he gasped. “Now they—now they’ makin’ infantry ride in tanks! Hell!”

Compared to the futuristic weapons and interplanetary conflict of later military SF, “Tanks” is comparatively subdued. The technology on show is a minor extrapolation of what already existed at the time, and the geopolitical background to the war is left vague. Leinster’s main concerns are the timeless themes of military fiction – the ordeal of the men on the ground and the activities of the generals above – shot through with the timely topic of warfare’s mechanisation. This phenomenon was already well apparent in World War I, and would become only more so later in the decade, with the outbreak of what J. R. R. Tolkien dubbed “the first War of the Machines”.


“Invisible Death” by Anthony Pelcher

Inventor Darius Darrow has died, and his wife Susan suspects murder: her husband had been working on “an invention that he said would do away with war and would make the owner of the device a practical world dictator”. Shortly before the death, Susan had experienced strange phenomena about the house, sensing an invisible presence and seeing a laboratory door apparently open and close by itself. When she found her husband dead and bleeding in the laboratory, his invention was missing. The inventor’s gardener also noticed strange occurrences, including a car that seemed to be driving away from the building by itself.

Meanwhile Perkins Ferguson, head of the Schefert Engineering Corporation, receives a threatening letter demanding a sum of $100,000: “We are in a position to destroy you and all the pot-bellies in the Wall Street crowd. If you want to die of old age, remember what happened to Darrow and begin declaring us in on Wall Street dividends. If you do not you will follow Darrow in the same way.” The letter is signed, simply, “Invisible Death”. As they discuss this development, Ferguson and his associates are suddenly hit by what seems to be a spate of poltergeist phenomena: people are tripped, papers are scattered, furniture thrown around the room.

The police attempt to catch the perpetrator, only to run into still more strange happenings, including an entire car vanishing before their eyes. Ferguson refuses to give in to the extortionist’s demands, and so his vice president is struck dead by an unseen hand.

Elsewhere, young engineer Walter Lees conducts some research of his own. He speaks to the dead inventor’s neighbour Adolph Jouret, a retired stage magician who has taken up scientific pursuits. Lees comes to suspect this man of the murder, and aided by two detectives he keeps an eye on Adolph Journet’s house. In the process, they make a bzarre discovery: Journet’s daughter Doris appears to be capable of existing in different locations simultaneously, each of the three investigators noticing her heading to different parts of the city at the same time.

All of this concludes in a police chase and a car crash, after which Lees explains all. Darrow, it transpires, had managed to “arrive at the exact mathematical time, tone, or rate of vibration producing invisibility and to construct a vibrator tuned to produce this condition”. He made two such devices, and the earlier, cruder model was stolen by Adolph Jouret to allow the theft of the second; Darrow also had plans for a still larger device that would have made entire planes and battleships invisible, giving America an immense military advantage. Jouret had accomplices in his criminal exploits, albeit unwilling ones: during his days as a performer he hired three identical triplets for use in his illusions, later passing them off collectively as a single daughter and hypnotising them to take part in his schemes.

The crimes of invisible men were an established theme of science fiction by this point, H. G. Wells’ treatment being the most famous example, and it is hard to argue that Anthony Pelcher’s approach to the concept is particularly sophisticated. “Invisible Death” inserts its SF elements into what is for the most part a mundane detective story, of the sort where a character’s shoe size becomes a vital plot point. That said, Pelcher’s decision to make his invisible man a former stage conjurer is inspired, allowing the memorable (if superfluous to the story) detail of the three triplets. Perhaps the piece might have been better had Pelcher moved away from the heroes and focused more on the villain.

And so, we conclude the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science.

The magazine attracted contributions from both old and new talent. Victor Rousseau, Murray Leinster and Ray Cummings were all established names in the pulps; the latter two had also been reprinted in Gernsback’s magazines, while Rousseau was more closely associated with Ghost Stories and Weird Tales than with the science fiction field. S. P. Meek was a relative newcomer, but his work had appeared in Amazing and Science Wonder Quarterly the previous year. Charting the careers of pulp authors can be notoriously tricky, with so much of their work buried in obscure publications or hidden under sundry pseudonyms, but Anthony Pelcher, C. V. Tench and M. L. Staley all appear to have made their debuts here. None went on to become noticeably prolific – indeed, M. L. Staley seems to have vanished after writing “The Stolen Mind”.

Most of the stories in the issue apply their scientific concepts, with varying degrees of success, to established themes, formulae and conventions from other, more mainstream genres. This was a common approach in Amazing, and there is little surprise in seeing Astounding follow suit. “Compensation” and “Invisible Death” are locked-room mysteries, a story type that would have been familiar from countless detective and mystery publications. “Tanks”, a war story, is likewise not far from the accepted formats of contemporary popular fiction. “Phantoms of Reality” is a swashbuckling Ruritarian romance, and “The Stolen Mind” is structured ultimately around the conventions of crime thrillers.

S. P. Meek’s “The Cave of Horror”, with the otherworldly creature at the core of its story, has roots in more fantastical soil; its emphasis on clarifying and explaining the monster, meanwhile, owe something to the Gernsback tradition. Finally, Victor Rousseau’s The Beetle Horde is a lost-world adventure, something that was already well established as a popular variety of speculative fiction. It has definite similarities to the stories of lost worlds and lost races penned by Amazing regular A. Hyatt Verrill – indeed, Verrill had covered oversized insects in The World of the Giant Ants, published in Amazing Stories Quarterly a little over a year beforehand.

So, thus far Astounding has a lot in common with Amazing. But there is one distinction that is worth bringing up. Amazing, when it began in 1926, was heavily reliant on older work: in fact, its debut issue consisted entirely of reprints. Astounding, meanwhile, appeared on the scene with an all-new selection of stories. Astounding Stories of Super-Science arrived at a time in which science fiction magazines were beginning to truly blossom – and it would go on to play a vital role in their development.


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