In a matter of days we shall know the winner of Worldcon’s first ever Astounding Award for Best New Writer, which replaces its predecessor, the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. But before then, let us take another trip back into science fiction history to learn more about the magazine after which the award is named: Astounding Stories of Super-Science.
The fourth issue of the magazine, cover-dated April 1930, arrived on newsstands with an image of a city under attack: its skyscrapers set upon by strange flying vessels, themselves emerging from the portholes of a vast ocean-going vehicle situated in the city’s waters. Where did this vessel originate? Who is its pilot?
To find out, we will need to look at the brand new stories that would have confronted a reader who put down twenty cents for the latest issue of Astounding…
“The Man who was Dead” by Thomas H. Knight
A conversation about reincarnation breaks out among friends gathered at a country store in a harsh winter; one man, Jerry, expresses disbelief in the concept. The argument is interrupted by the presence of an unnerving stranger with a skeletal aspect: “I have seen ‘walking skeletons’ in circuses, but never such a man as the one who was then sitting at my right hand. Those sideshow men were just lean in comparison to the fellow who had invaded our Saturday night club.” The stranger is silent, until he makes an utterance sounding “like a groan from a closely nailed coffin” and declares that it is indeed possible for a person to return from the dead. He then removes his broad hat, revealing his face for the first time:
But it was all enough to make the blood curdle, with that live, dead thing sitting there by our fire. His face and skull were nothing but bone, the eyes deeply sunk into their sockets, the dull-brown skin like parchment in its tautness, drawn and shriveled down onto the nose and jaw. There were no cheeks. Just hollows. The mouth was a sharp slit beneath the flat nose. He was hideous.
The gaunt man, whose name is Blagett, reveals that he killed a man in an argument and was sentenced to be hanged. Before his execution he was approached by “a doctor or scientist fellow” who made a strange offer: for a certain fee, he would be willing to try and resurrect Blagett after death.
The execution went ahead, with Blagett’s discarnate spirit watching as his body was transported to a laboratory. There, he saw it being injected several times, shot with ultra-violet rays, pumped with a dense white gas and shocked with electricity. Finally, the body came to life and – in true Frankenstein fashion – fled while the creator began to show second thoughts about what he had unleashed. But what happened to Blagett’s floating spirit? Back in the present, he concludes that somehow it never returned to its body, which accounts for his skeletal appearance. In a final twist, it turns out that Jerry’s friend Hammersley – present in the room as the story is told – was the scientist responsible for resurrecting Blagett, and decides to kill his creation.
“The Man who was Dead” is an example of the science fiction-horror stories that were common in magazines of this period but controversial with readers, not all of whom approved of such gruesomeness. This particular example, which borrows some of its atmosphere from The Invisible Man even though its core themes are closer to Frankenstein, tackles spiritual concepts relating to the soul; this is a matter typically left out of such misguided-resurrection narratives – and seeing the slightly clumsy results here, with Blagett’s consciousness somehow inhabiting both his spirit and his soulless body, it is easy to see why. This was Thomas H. Knight’s only story for Astounding, although he also contributed to Wonder Stories and Weird Tales.
“Monsters of Moyen” by Arthur J. Burks
This story by a prolific pulp author takes place in the year 1935, a futuristic period in which all of Africa and Asia have been turned into a war machine with designs on the Western world under the leadership of a man named Moyen:
A strange name, to the sound of which none could assign nationality. Some said his father was a Russian refugee, his mother a Mongol woman. Some said he was the son of a Caucasian woman lost in the Gobi and rescued by a mad lama of Tibet, who became father of Moyen. Some said that his mother was a goddess, his father a fiend out of hell.
But this all men knew about him: that he combined within himself the courage of a Hannibal, the military genius of a Napoleon, the ideals of a Sun Yat Sen; and that he had sworn to himself he would never rest until the earth was peopled under a single nation, with Moyen himself in the seat of the mighty ruler.
Prester Kleig, a secret agent working for the United Americas, infiltrates Madagascar and learns something of Moyen’s operations. Although his ship back to America is destroyed by one of Moyen’s vehicles – an amphibious vessel both plane and submarine – Kleig survives. He arrives back with his colleagues in time for an announcement broadcast by Moyen: the villain has many other such aero-subs, and is poised to strike.
War breaks out, and Kleig is forced to watch powerlessly alongside his associates as the disintegrating rays of Moyen’s aero-subs lay waste to American ships and planes. But there is one American whom Moyen makes a conscious effort to spare: Charmion Kane, “one of her country’s most famous beauties”, whose brother Carlos happens to be a friend of Kleig’s. The megalomaniac has designs on this woman, and so Kleig and company make a particular effort to keep her from falling into his hands.
The Americans come up with ways of fighting back against Moyen’s forces. Their planes are able to destroy the aero-subs by flying into them in suicide attacks; this is sufficient to hold them back until the scientist Professor Maniel is able to perfect a disintegrating ray of his own. With this, America destroys Moyen’s vehicles, including the one piloted by Moyen himself. The villain offers surrender, but Kleig turns him down – despite the lovely Charmion’s pleas for mercy – and the former dictator is slain in a hail of bullets.
It is easy to guess the likely inspirations for “Monsters of Moyen”. The image of a world-conquering megalomaniac with an aeroplane-submarine hybrid recalls Jules Verne’s novels about Jean Robur, while the sequences of mass devastation wrought by machines armed with deadly rays evoke H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The portrayal of the arch-villain as being almost supernatural is reminiscent of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories; although Burks avoids demonising any particular nationality the way Rohmer did, he nonetheless makes Moyen generically foreign, his exoticness part of his mystique.
More innovative is the story’s heavy usage of television, with hero Kleig watching much of the large-scale action as it happens via a broadcast screen, allowing him to see rather more of the war than the protagonist of The War of the Worlds ever did. Curiously, the story equates Professor Maniel’s television technology with Moyen’s disintegration ray, depicting the former as a reversal of the latter: “Professor Maniel’s apparatus, the Vibration-Retarder, is able to recapture the vibrations, speeding outward endlessly through space, and to reconstruct, and draw back to visibility the objects destroyed by this visible vibratory ray”.
“Vampires of Venus” by Anthony Pelcher
Professor of entomology Leslie Larner receives a strange message purportedly sent from a street address on Venus. He initially dismisses it as crackpottery, but then becomes intrigued: “Seems to me I read somewhere that Marconi had received mysterious signals that he believed came from the planet Venus”, he muses to himself. Then, while on a fishing trip in the countryside, he encounters a somewhat androgynous man and woman “garbed seemingly in the costumes of another world… Neither were more than five feet tall but were physically perfect”. The man, Nern Bela, announces that he and his sister Tula found him using a radio locator tuned to his heartbeat.
Bela and Tula explain that they are from Venus, a planet has no war or sickness, has achieved perfection of body and mind through voluntary eugenics (“We deprived no one of the pleasures of life, but only the most perfect mental and physical specimens of our people cared to have children”) and have avoided the sexual inequality that has held back Earth’s civilisation (“Man and women engage in all endeavor and share all favors and rewards alike”). But their utopian society is now faced with its first real thread in a long time: it has been invaded by a species of gigantic alien insect that drains the blood of any Venusians who leave their homes at night. And so, they require the aid of the esteemed entomologist Professor Larner.
After a trip in a spherical craft of metallised quartz (propelled by “repulsion and attraction ray NTR69X6”) Larner arrives on Venus. He witnesses some of the planet’s wonders, including quartz buildings and fully-controlled weather, and teams up with Zorn Zada (“most profound scientist of the planet”) to sort out the insects.
Together, they deduce that the insects originate on Mercury, having stowed away as grubs on board visiting Venusian ships. Following an altercation in which Tula has to be rescued – Venusian sexual equality having not prevented the female lead ending up as damsel in distress, evidently – they then track the creatures to a breeding nest, which is duly destroyed using ray-guns. “Leslie Larner was given a vote of thanks, and riches were showered upon him by the good people of the sky’s brightest star.”
Anthony Pelcher’s third and final story for Astounding, “Vampires of Venus” gives the impression that the author is more interested in the society of the Venusians than in the actual plot of the fights against the insects. The science fiction travelogue – a recurring format in Hugo Gernsback’s magazines – collides with the more story-driven pulp ethos.
Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings (part 2 of 4)
In the second instalment of this spacefaring saga the heroic Gregg is reunited with his beloved Anita. Despite appearances, she had not been killed in the previous quarter: the body sent into space was actually her brother George, with Anita subsequently undergoing a cosmetic procedure to take his place. The battle between the heroes and the villainous Martian Miko gets heated, with Gregg killing Miko’s steward (“A cold-blooded killing I do protest went against me. But it was necessary. I flung myself upon him. I beat his skull with the metal of my cylinder”). But Miko’s sister Moa becomes infatuated with Gregg, and the two form an uneasy alliance.
The ship stops off at the habitable asteroid seen in the previous instalment, so that Miko – a comparatively humane villain – can dispose of his captives with no loss of life. Here, we see the story’s debt to nautical adventure fiction, as Gregg himself all but acknowledges: “My vagrant thought flung back into Earth’s history. Like this, ancient travelers of the surface of the sea were herded by pirates to walk the plank, or put ashore, marooned upon some fair desert island of the tropic Spanish main.”
Gregg and his friend Snap remain on board as captives, while Anita continues to masquerade as her brother George. Miko eventually sees through her disguise, but his attention is drawn to a somewhat graver issue: the ship is about to crash-land on the moon. Gregg survives alongside Anita, Snap, and the Venusian girl Venza who unexpectedly turns out to have been hiding on board; they then hook with Grantline, the head of the lunar settlement, to explore the wreckage. The remains of the ship are strewn with bodies, but some of the passengers are still unaccounted for – including the dastardly Miko and Moa.
This second chunk of the story shows a mixture of derring-do and a certain carefree enthusiasm on the part of author Ray Cummings. The narrative has no qualms about shifting from Gregg’s first-person adventures on board the doomed ship to a third-person description of the lunar observers below. Meanwhile, hefty footnotes describing various aspects of the story’s worldbuilding, from Miko’s invisibility cloak to underwater buildings that apparently exist back on Earth, sit alongside stretches of the most delightfully purple prose:
Moonlight upon Earth so gently shines to make romantic a lover’s smile! But the reality of the Lunar night is cold beyond human rationality. Cold and darkly silent. Grim desolation. Awesome. Majestic. A frowning majesty that even to the most intrepid human beholder is inconceivably forbidding.
Once again, we see the makings of the space opera genre being laid out before our eyes.
“The Soul-Snatcher” by Tom Curry
Professor Ramsey Burr is striving to make it possible to “travel through space in invisible form, projected on radio waves” but disaster strikes when his test subject, Mr. Smith, perishes. The blame falls unjustly upon Burr’s assistant, Allen Baker, who is sentenced to death while the professor himself is free to continue his dubious experiments. Allen’s anguished mother confronts the devilish scientist, and he agrees to help save his assistant’s life. But first, he must demonstrate the progress of his invention.
Mrs. Baker watches in bewilderment as Professor Burr uses his apparatus to switch the minds of two test animals, causing a cat to begin acting like a monkey and vice versa. This, he explains, is the first step in the transportation process: next, he causes the animals’ bodies to swap position. He then reveals that the same technology will be used to carry out Allen’s escape.
Mrs. Baker visits her son in prison and provides him with a metallic suit, allowing the professor to use the apparatus on him. The first part of the process is a success and the two swap minds. Allen-in-Burr tries to carry out the second stage in the laboratory, But before he can finish the task, the execution is carried out earlier than scheduled: Burr’s mind dies with Allen’s body, while Allen’s consciousness remains trapped in the body of the professor.
From M. L. Staley’s “The Stolen Mind” to Will Smith and J. R. Robbins’ “The Soul Master” and now this, body-swapping stories had already become something of a fixture in Astounding. The main innovation from Astounding newcomer Tom Curry is in combining the concept with that of teleportation (depicted as a form of radio, as it often was in stories from this period; see also “The Monsters of Moyen”).
“The Ray of Madness” by Captain S. P. Meek
Astounding’s very own Holmes and Watson, Dr. Bird and Operative Carnes, return for another mystery. This story opens with the two characters discussing two seemingly unrelated events: first, a scientist named Von Beyer claims to have discovered a new element in the spectra of the moon; second, the president has apparently gone mad, displaying strange behaviour at night.
The two decide to investigate, and pay a visit to the White House solarium in which the commander in chief sleeps. Dr. Bird deduces that the president is being affected by a beam that comes through one of the solarium’s quartz windows; using his latest piece of apparatus Bird then traces the beam’s origin to a building inhabited by a Russian named Stokowski. The authorities break into Stokowski’s room, killing him in a gunfight (“We could probably never have secured a conviction and the matter is best hushed up anyway”, remarks a satisfied Dr. Bird) and confiscating the device that he had been using to drive the president mad.
Dr. Bird concludes that Stokowski was a Communist agent, trying to sabotage relations between America and Britain through the use of moonlight collected onto a plate of the newly-discovered lunium and reflected into a focused beam.
Author S. P. Meek remains the Astounding contributor most willing to delve into actual science, right down to having Dr. Bird express doubt as to whether lunium is truly a new element rather than an allotropic modification of cadmium, yet his stories still tend heavily towards the fanciful. This is best summed up by the scene in which Dr. Bird waxes lyrical about the spiritual connotations of the moon:
“My dear man, I absolutely refuse to move a step until you pause in your headlong devotion to duty and pay the homage due to Lady Luna. Don’t you realize, you benighted Christian, that you are gazing upon what has been held to be a deity, or at least the visible manifestation of deity, for ages immemorial? Haven’t you ever had time to study the history of the moon-worshipping cults? They are as old as mankind, you know. The worship of Isis was really only an exalted type of moon worship. The crescent moon, you may remember was one of her most sacred emblems.”
This fourth issue of Astounding Stories marks a new commitment to a degree of non-fiction content. As well as a short article entitled “Safe Flying in Fogs”, which details the achievements of Lt. James H. Doolittle in navigating a plane through fog using radio technology and “a sort of heat cannon that goes forth to combat like a fire-breathing dragon of old”, the issue introduces a letters column that opens with an introduction from editor Harry Bates:
Three months ago the Clayton Magazines presented to lovers of Science Fiction everywhere a new magazine with a brand-new policy—Astounding Stories—and now it is the Editor’s great pleasure to announce to our thousands of friends that this new magazine is enjoying a splendid success.
The letters themselves offer a broadly positive assessment of the magazine’s debut issue. “While the class of stories that you publish do not appeal to all,” writes R. E. Norton, “I feel quite sure that there are many like myself who will welcome your publication and wish it all success.” Donald Sialer expresses his love for interplanetary stories, and “would like to see many of them in the new magazine”. Irving E. Ettinger declares that “the debut number of your magazine contained the best stories I ever read”. James Nichols asks Astounding to avoid reprinting anything from Verne, Wells or Poe, and rates the first issue’s stories from excellent (“The Beetle Horde” and “Tanks”) to poor (“The Stolen Mind”). R. O. Marks Jr requests stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, David H. Keller, G. Peyton Wertenbaker and A. Merritt. Stephen Takacs also requests Burroughs, along with Edmond Hamilton, A Hyatt Verrill, Stanton A. Coblentz, Ed Earl Repp and Harl Vincent.
Chicago schoolteacher Walter Boyle sings the praises of “Tanks” by Murray Leinster. “The author does not start out, ‘Listen my children, and you shall hear a story so wonderful you won’t believe it. Only after the death of Professor Bulging Dome do I dare to make it public to a doubting world.’ No, he simply proceeds to tell the story.” He also praises this tale for the characters’ humanity: “Some authors of stories of the future make their characters all brains—cold monsters, with no humanity in them”. The editor, in his introduction to the letters column, singles Boyle out for having “grasped the essential difference of the new Science Fiction magazine over the others.”
Boyle then makes a case for the potential of what would later be termed space opera, while offering a few reservations:
It seems to me that interplanetary stories offer the best vehicle for all the desirable qualities herein enumerated combined. There is absolutely no restraint on the imagination, except a few known astronomical facts—plenty of opportunity for violent and dangerous adventures, strange and terrestrially impossible monsters. The human actors, set down in the midst of such terrifying conditions, which they battle dauntlessly, grinning as they take their blows and returning them with food will, cannot fail to rouse the admiration of the reader. And make him buy the next month’s issue.
But spare me, please, the stories in which the hero, arriving on some other planet, is admitted to the court of the king of the White race, and leads their battles against the Reds, the Browns, the Greens, and so on, eventually marrying the king’s daughter, who is always golden-haired, of milky white complexion, and has large blue eyes. Kindly reject stories of interplanetary travel in which a member of the party turns against the Earth party and allies himself with the wormlike Moon men, or what have you.
Boyle also pours scorn on the mad scientist genre: “Stories in which a great inventor goes crazy threatening to hurl the Earth into the Sun leave me cold and despondent, for the simple reason that crazy men are never great inventors.”
Allen Glasser is another who contrasts Astounding with its rivals in the science fiction field:
True, there are other magazines which specialize in Science Fiction; but, to my mind they are not in a class with Astounding Stories. In most of them the scientific element is so emphasized that It completely overshadows all else. In this magazine, happily, such is not the case. Here we find science subordinated to human interest, which is as it should be. The love element, too, is present, and by no means unwelcome.
Meanwhile, Conrad H. Ruppert writes in to promote the Science Correspondence Club, “an organization the purpose of which is to spread the gospel of Science and Science Fiction”. This early foray into organised fandom was, at the time, aiming to assemble a monthly bulletin and organise a Big Science Fiction Week to take place in February 1930. Named in this missive are the group’s founding president Aubrey Clements, and its secretary Raymond Palmer – who would later become editor of Amazing Stories and earn notoriety for running the alleged “true stories” of Richard Shaver’s detrimental robots.