Astounding Histories, May 1930: Humanity’s Evolution

And so, the 2020 Worldcon has become another memory. It was the event at which R. F. Kuang became the first person to win the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, introduced as a replacement for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Meanwhile, Jeannette Ng – the last person to win the old Campbell Award – won a Hugo for a speech in which she discussed award namesake John W. Campbell in caustic terms. All of this fed into another round of debate on the legacies of Campbell and the magazine he edited, Astounding Stories.

But if we hop back in time ninety years we see no sign of the controversy now raging. In 1930 Astounding Stories was a new publication, edited not by John W. Campbell but by Harry Bates. Anyone looking at one of its eye-catching covers would have seen not the seeds of an ideological debate taking place nearly a century down the line, but rather a promise of high adventure against a backdrop of scientific strangeness.

The cover of the May 1930 Astounding Stories is typical. A frightened woman held by a man in leopard-skin garb; two men, one young and one old, struggling in a pool; and a pillar of purple flame emanating from a strange floating mechanism. Exactly what is happening? Read on…

“Into the Ocean’s Depths” by Sewell Peaslee Wright

In this sequel to “From the Ocean’s Depths”, scientist Warren Mercer invites his friend Taylor to attempt a reunion with the alluring mermaid-like being encountered in the previous story. The plan is to go looking for her by submarine, but while work is underway on the vessel, Taylor catches sight of the aquatic maiden as he relaxes on the beach.

Back in the laboratory, the girl once again uses Mercer’s thought-projection device to communicate with Taylor. He receives mental images in which the girl’s underwater village of coral igloos is invaded by outsiders bearing round eyes, vestigial noses and pulsing gills – “a people that had gone back to the sea ages before the people of the girl’s village.” Taylor learns that these “noseless ones” demanded the village’s young men and women as slaves, and became violent when refused.

And so Taylor and Mercer set off in the submarine to visit the aquatic village and save it from the shark-faced invaders; they are accompanied by the girl, who turns out to be named Imee of the Teemorn people. The heroes go up against the Rorn – as the noseless ones are termed – but are able to wipe them out using flasks of hydrocyanic acid. The submariners are then forced to return to the surface for air – only to lose their charts showing the location of Imee’s village.

The previous issue of Astounding published a letter from schoolteacher Walter Boyle deriding “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”. It seems unlikely that Mr. Boyle would have appreciated “Into the Ocean’s Depths”: in expanding the world of the first story, author Wright comes up with some strong visual concepts but has trouble taking the story in any direction beyond the conventions of adventure stories.

Murder Madness by Murray Leinster (part 1 of 4)

Astounding’s third novel serialisation introduces us to Charley Bell, agent of an American espionage body known as the Trade. More secret even than the Secret Service, the Trade officially does not exist and so is free to get involved with all manner of sensitive operations. Bell is sent to Rio de Janeiro to investigate the fates of eight Secret Service men previously deployed to South America: only one was ever found, and he had been driven insane by some sort of drug. En route to Brazil, Bell witnesses the effects of this toxin first-hand as he sees Ortiz, an Argentinian politician, go mad from poisoning.

At Rio, the agent meets his liaison Jamison who speaks of a sinister individual known only as The Master. Bell’s investigations put him up against Ribiera, the villainous nephew of The Master; he also has to deal with the death of the Minster of War and the kidnapping of the minister’s daughter, Paula.

So far, Murder Madness is rather different from the science fiction typical of Astounding and is closer in spirit to the species of spy fiction that would later be perfected by Ian Fleming. The notion of an elusive criminal mastermind who drives his victims insane with a scopolamine-like drug is fanciful, but hardly outside the boundaries of the thriller genre.

Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings (part 3 of 4)

The latest instalment of Cummings’ novel opens with Gregg, Snap, Anita and Venza stranded on the Moon and hoping to signal Earth. When more Martian brigands arrive, the heroes must prevent them from finding the location of Johnny Grantline’s radium-mining operation, and Anita hits upon the idea of infiltrating the brigands and leading them astray.

Under these false pretences Gregg and Anita meet up with the Martian brigands, allowing Gregg to send a distress signal to Earth. A battle breaks out, and the instalment ends with the heroes flying to the Grantline camp as the brigands make their attack.

As with the past episodes, Brigands of the Moon is an unabashed swashbucklers-in-space narrative that takes delight in the various gadgets afforded by its futuristic setting. The characters find that heat rays are less effective on the airless moon and so instead favour oxygen light flares in glass globes and “occulting darkness bombs” (a footnote explains all: “Filled with an odorless, harmless gas, these bombs were used in warfare taking the place of old-fashioned smoke screens”).

“The Jovian Jest” by Lilith Lorraine

The opening line to this story sets the scene well: “Consternation reigned in Elsnore village when the Nameless Thing was discovered in Farmer Burns’ corn-patch.” The object appears to be a meteor, albeit a very unusual one – almost weightless, glowing at night with a “hellish radiance”, pulsating and gradually growing in size. When the farmer’s young son throws a rock at the Nameless Thing, this triggers a weird spectacle including “Visible waves of sentient color” after which the meteor is destroyed, leaving only a throbbing red spot.

Then, tentacles of light emerge from the spot; one grabs a nearby farm-hand and pulls him inside. When he is freed he has a glassy stare and jerky movements, having experienced “something possible only in the abysmal spaces of the Other Wise of Things.” Another member of the observing crowd, a scientist, prepares to venture a theory as to what is happening, only to be himself grabbed and taken over by the alien intelligence. Through him, the Nameless Thing addresses the onlookers.

The alien announces that it has found the ideal host in the professor (“’His brain is a lumber-room in which he has hoarded a conglomeration of clever and appropriate word-forms with which to disguise the paucity of his ideas”) and introduces itself as “a Space Wanderer, an explorer from a super-universe whose evolution has proceeded without variation along the line of your amoeba.” Life on Earth, it explains, is the result of a cosmic mishap that led to “diversified and grotesque expressions of the Life-Principle”.

The amoeba, which can regenerate organs and is therefore immortal, chides humanity for its short lifespan and minds “pitifully blocked and criss-crossed with nonsensical and inhibitory complexes that stand in the way of true progress”. However, it reassures the crowd that the human race shares a Divine Spark with the amoebas, and encourages our species to continue striving for its true potential.

The alien then departs, and the two men – the professor and the farm-hand – whose minds it had interfered with regain consciousness. However, in the Jovian Jest of the story’s title, the pair find that they have had their minds switched.

“The Jovian Jest” starts out looking like an imitation of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space” but then goes in a very different direction, using the cosmic unknown as an object of aspiration rather than of terror. Author Lilith Lorraine never returned to the magazine – except, perhaps, under a different name.

“The Atom Smasher” by Victor Rousseau

Miles Parrish, “the world’s greatest authority on physical chemistry”, converted a remote farmhouse into a laboratory and worked with his colleagues Jim Dent and Lucius Tode in an effort to unleash atomic power using their straightforwardly-named Atom Smasher. But their experiments ended in disaster: the laboratory was destroyed while Tode and Parrish were never seen again, with Dent having been away from the laboratory at the time. Since then, the area of the lab was dubbed the Vanishing Place by locals, who spread eerie rumours of mysterious violet fires.

Five years later, Jim Dent hears a strange report from Parrish’s daughter, Lucille: she claims to have received a telephone call from her presumed-dead father. After she sets off to the Vanishing Place alone Jim takes a private jet to follow her. From the air he witnesses the mysterious purple flame – which has something still more disturbing inside:

It was a face—a human face, with bestial featured distorted and enormously magnified through the substance in which it was. Such a face as might look back upon an observer our of one of those distorting mirrors at Coney Island, or some other place of amusement, but twisted and enlarged beyond conception, so that it covered half the area of a city block.

Curiously blurred, too, as if each atom of that face was in isolated motion on its own account. And beneath the face appeared the vague outlines of a hand, apparently manipulating some sort of infernal mechanism.

The face is that of Lucius Tode, a man who had always unnerved both Jim and Lucille. He had previously manifested a cruel streak, testing the Atom Smasher on a stray dog “not for experimentation, but in mere ruthless savagery, converting the living beast instantly into a shapeless mass of flesh and bone”. As Tode grins from the violet flame, Jim’s plane melts away and finds himself being sucked into the fire.

Within the violet light, Jim is reunited with the villainous Tode, the emaciated and gibbering Parrish and the captured Lucille. Tode, it turns out, has adapted the Atom Smasher into a machine that grants control over different dimensions – including the fourth dimension of time. Demonstrating this, Tode takes Jim on a trip back to the Stone Age and introduces him to a Neanderthal named Cain, whom Tode has recruited as a servant.

“I’ve won, Dent! I’ve won!” proclaims Tode. “I’ve solved the problem that gives man immortality! All the epochs that have existed since God first formed the world are mine to play with!” Indeed, Tode has even found a place where he himself can be revered as a deity: Atlantis.

The heroes end up captives in this fabled land, where the civilised inhabitants – the Cro-Magnons – are preparing to escape and colonise Europe. They have a deadly ray that they can use to fend off attacks on their capital city from Tode and his Neanderthal worshippers, and so Tode has procured technology from the year 3000 in order to complete his conquest. But despite his time machine, he is unable to see all of the future: “The future isn’t quite clear, like the past” explains Parrish. “There’s a dark cloud moves across the spectral lines and blurs them. I think it’s the element of free will—or God!”

Parrish assures Jim that he is able to thwart Tode’s schemes. The Atom Smasher, he explains, has a lever connected to a hidden chamber containing uranium, and when pulled will destroy the machine – and possibly even the Earth with it. “And he burst into a peal of such wild laughter that Jim realized the old man’s wits were gone.”

Jim, Parrish and Lucille watch from afar as a battle breaks out: on the one side are Tode, the Neanderthals and the Atom Smasher, on the other are Atlanteans armed with mechanical wings, flaming balls and the deadly ray. The travellers are later captured and taken to the city, which turns out to be no utopia: the Atlanteans practice human sacrifice, their victims horribly mangled by mechanical blades built into idols “like the great stone figures of the Aztecs, or some of the hideous Indian gods” and then eaten by cannibalistic priests.

Eventually Jim manages to get the Neanderthals on his side and attacks Atlantis, destroying the mechanical eye that emits the deadly ray. This causes the city to collapse into chaos, and all four time travellers are lined up for sacrifice. Parrish manages to get hold of the Atom Smasher and activates “the instrument of universal death—the uranium release of untold forces of cataclysmic destruction”.

Atlantis is destroyed, but Tode and his three captives manage to escape in the Atom Smasher. He makes a move to head even further afield, into the fifth dimension of nothingness so that he can be with Lucille forever. The girl is unimpressed: “There’s one factor you haven’t reckoned in your calculations,” she says, “and that’s called God.” Jim, Lucille and Parrish find themselves safely returned to 1930 while Tode is killed – the Atom Smasher having been damaged by the Neanderthal Cain’s meddling.

“The Atom Smasher” is a textbook example of how science fiction was being adapted for the blossoming pulp market at this point. The story touches upon genuine scientific concepts, citing Einstein, Eddington and the Planck-Bohr quantum theory, and in its early stretches it conjures up the feeling of a mysterious new world just ready to be explored.

But by its end, it has become a conventional lost-world yarn with a few hi-tech elements bolted on. That the dark-skinned Neanderthals are interchangeable with the native tribes appearing in sundry stories of adventure and exploration is underlined when they are referred to as being “perhaps a little lower than the Australian aborigine” and, compared to the Atlanteans, show “as much difference as between a modern a modern American and a blackfellow from the Australian bush”. Still, while innovation ultimately eludes him this time around, the prolific Victor Rousseau shows a knack for pacing and peril.

The Readers’ Corner

Astounding Stories Readers' Corner

In this month’s letters column another batch of readers weigh in on the magazine’s contents. Joseph Kankowsky provides the most atmospheric letter:

One dreary, dreary night I walked into my newsdealer’s store to get a paper. While there I happened to glance upon the bookstand—I saw the word Astounding and, my curiosity aroused, I walked over to the stand and pulled the magazine out. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out what it was!

Linus Hogenmiller complains about the magazine’s binding and praises Harl Vincent and Ray Cummings as “two of the best in the science fiction field”. 11-year-old Billy Wright states that “I prefer stories of the Fourth Dimension”, being one of several readers this month to chime in on the topic of favoured subgenres. C. E. Anderson, similarly, remarks that “Stories of other worlds or of the Fourth Dimension always interest me”. Continuing the theme, 15-year-old Ward Elmore shows his fondness for “stories that concern the future of aviation… interplanetary stories, also the stories about the Fourth Dimension.”

Nathan Greenfield speaks approvingly of several stories from the first issue, but dismisses M. L. Staley’s “The Stolen Mind” as a “fairy tale”. He also expresses his fondness for the genre of interplanetary stories, as do some other letter-writers – namely D. C. Cowherd and the later-to-be-infamous Forrest J. Ackerman, the latter requesting “an interplanetary story in each issue.” Ackerman would have been fourteen years old at the time, and his detractors might question whether this attribute ever changed.

Ruth Miller shows similar tastes to the above readers, and portrays herself – with justification – as typical of Astounding’s readership:

I believe that readers, like myself, who are interested in scientific fantasies, prefer stories of interplanetary travels and fourth dimensional stories, and variations of these themes. Such as various space-ships and vibration machines for visiting other planets and traveling backward and forward in time. Stories of lost continents and of strange races of people living in unknown places on our own Earth are interesting also.

M. R. Bercovitch expresses gratitude that the magazine’s contents are “not trashy love stories” and proposes a correspondence society for readers interested in science – another manifestation of an idea that had repeatedly been touted in the letters column of rival magazine Amazing Stories: “Each member would receive a list of members’ names and addresses, a quantity of official stationary or inter-correspondence, and a certificate of membership suitable for framing.” Another reader, Louis Wexeler, promotes the existence of just such a club: a New York-based outfit called “The Scienceers”.

Electrical engineer C. Harry Jaeger criticises Ray Cummings’ “Phantoms of Reality”, accusing him of borrowing the premise from Francis Flagg’s Amazing contribution “The Blue Dimension” without showing that author’s understanding of science. He requests some of “the Francis Flagg type of fiction” along with stories by A. Hyatt Verrill, David H. Keller, Clare Winger Harris and H. G. Wells. James Brodent also stresses the importance of scientific accuracy (“every story must be examined to discover any false statements by the author concerning present-day science”) but unlike Mr. Jaeger he speaks approvingly of Cummings.

Another reader, Worth K. Bryant, apparently prefers fantastical adventure to hard science, requesting stories by A. Merritt and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Wilbert Moyer also requests Burroughs, along with Harl Vincent, Otis Adelbert Kline, Garret Smith and Ray Cummings.

So, on the whole, the letters column consists of some very happy customers. Perhaps T. J. Creaff captures the mood best: “you are charging only 20c a copy for a magazine that is really worth several times that amount.”

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