A man – presumably a traveller, judging by the large pack on his back – recoils in fear. Accosting him is a gigantic red ant, rearing up and reaching out with its forelegs. Is this insect the product of humanity tinkering with the natural order of things? Or perhaps, as is hinted by the exotic backdrop to the scene, is it simply the local fauna of a land hitherto undiscovered by human explorers?
It was autumn 1928, and readers of Amazing Stories Quarterly would soon learn the answer to that question.
This issue opens with a guest editorial by Jack Williamson (who would begin his career as a prolific science fiction author in the December 1928 issue of Amazing) entitled “Scientifiction, Searchlight of Science”. Williamson argues that science fiction “takes the basis of science, considers all the clues that science has to offer, and then adds a thing that is alien to science—imagination”. He goes on:
Science has made hardly a single step that scientifiction has not foretold. And science, in return, has disclosed a million new and startling facts, to serve as wings for the scientifiction author’s brain. Scientifiction takes a thousand accumulated facts and builds them into a real, impressive picture of ages past, whereby the future of the race may be foretold. It mounts a Time Machine and ventures through futurity, revealing the results of known conditions and tendencies. Science knows that life on other worlds is possible, but it remains for scientifiction to make the vision real, and to suggest the space flier to verify it.
Then science may build the flier, and see for itself. The boundless energy of the atom, the Fourth Dimension, the sub-universe below and the super-universe above, are scientific absurdities all, until scientifiction gives them reality. And science goes on, with scientifiction as the searchlight. Here is the picture, if we can but see it. A universe ruled by the human mind. A new Golden Age of fair cities, of new laws and new machines, of human capabilities undreamed of, of a civilization that has conquered matter and Nature, distance and time, disease and death. A glorious picture of an empire that lies away past a million flaming suns until it reaches the black infinity of unknown space, and extends beyond.
As it happens, a few of the science fictional concepts mentioned by Williamson shall be turning up in this issue’s stories. Let us read on…
The World of the Giant Ants by A. Hyatt Verrill
“Scientifiction stories about ants have been written before”, admits the editorial introduction, “But we unhesitatingly state that the present story, by the well-known writer, is no doubt the greatest ant story that has ever been conceived.” The World of the Giant Ants is another lost-world story by A. Hyatt Verrill, who had previously explored similar territory in “Beyond the Pole”, “Through the Crater’s Rim” and “The King of the Monkey Men”. According to the introduction, “practically the entire story was written in the South American jungle, during Mr. Verrill’s latest expedition.”
Dr. Benjamin Henden, a pioneering archaeologist, sets out to explore mysterious ruins in South America with his Jamaican servant Tom. There, Henden finds mummified remains of the Caucasoid race responsible for the structures; alongside the mummies are carvings depicting otherworldly creatures:
There are strange creatures that resemble dragons, or I might rather say pterodactyls; there are elephant-like creatures with claws and canine teeth; human beings or monkey-like creatures with tails and shaggy hair, and, very commonly, the figures of some insect-like thing with enormous jaws, six legs and no eyes. These are usually shown in connection with figures of semi-human beings with triangular heads, exaggerated bowed legs, immense outstanding ears, attenuated bodies and bald heads, or with monstrosities resembling overfed hippopotami with innumerable legs and antennae.
Heading into an underground tunnel, Henden, Tom and their native guides come to a stone door. After they pass through it suddenly closes behind them, activated by an unseen mechanism. On the other side is a strange new world, which Henden takes to be inside an extinct volcano, filled with enormous fungi that tower like trees. Before long the explorers have their first encounter with the local fauna when they come across what initially appears to be a giant snake:
Then, as I gazed, fascinated and incredulous, the thing reared its head. A huge, rough, dull-red head with immense expressionless staring eyes and vicious saw-toothed horny jaws. Seizing a thick fleshy leaf between these, the mandibles ripped through the leaf with the crunching noise I have mentioned. It was absolutely unbelievable, positively impossible, but true. The thing was a caterpillar, a monstrous gigantic larva fully ten feet in length!
The band then encounter one of the region’s human occupants, who attacks the native guides:
That he was human or semi-human no one could doubt. But he was a monster, a being fit only for a nightmare, and with a shock I recognized him as the original of some of the weird figures I had found at Tupec. His head was hairless, misshapen and almost triangular in form, with immense outstanding ears. His body, thin almost to emaciation, was black as night and covered with close-growing wooly hair, and his short legs were enormously bowed. His back was towards me, and he was leaping about, with his immensely long arms aiming sharp, terrific blows at the Indians, who were already torn, and bleeding from dozens of deep wounds.
Henden is even more appalled when the figure turns to face him: “The great, staring, expressionless, lustreless, lidless eyes in the black triangular-shaped head; the huge, drawling mouth with flappy lips revealing toothless gums, and the utter absence of a nose, but with two yawning black holes for nostrils, were those of a fiend of the eternal pit, rather than of anything of flesh and blood.” More of these figures arrive, taking Henden and Tom captive after killing the native guides. While held prisoner the explorers witness more giant insects, including a hornet and maggots, and Henden concludes that he has stumbled upon “a land where, for some inexplicable reason, evolution had proceeded along insect lines; where vertebrates had taken second place, and where the conditions of the rest of the world had been reversed and superinsects dwarfed and dominated man.” Indeed, even the local people have an insect-like aspect to them:
To be sure they walked upright and possessed but four limbs and they had more or less human-like forms, but their heads and faces were totally unlike those of men; their eyes were distinctly insect-like; their digits were more claws than fingers; their immense ears savored of short, heavy antennae, and the manner in which the first one I had seen had continued fighting while apparently oblivious of his wounds, was astonishingly like the actions of a wounded insect. It was unthinkable, preposterous to even dream that they were insects; that any insect could have evolved or developed such humanlike characteristics.
But was it not possible that in this land, where I had abundant proof of conditions which favoured the dominance of insects, such vertebrates as there were might have assumed insect-like characters?
Henden and Tom are taken to what appears to be some sort of zoo, in which the insect-men keep interesting specimens that they have found. The explorers’ new companions turn out to include a giant beetle, fly and nymph. After they escape by exploiting the insect-men’s fear of fire (a plot device also found in Verrill’s “King of the Monkey Men”) Henden and Tom carry on their exploration of the strange world.
They meet more varieties of giant insect, including a particularly nasty meeting with gigantic ant-lions, although certain genera are absent from the ecosystem (“I saw no repiptera, none of the carnivorous predatory beetles, no termites, no arachnids other than a few spiders, no millipedes or centipedes and no mosquitos.”) Insects are not the only giant animals: Henden describes giant snails, giant toads, and a few giant mammals (including “some sort of gopher or ground-squirrel” and “some creature I thought to be a hare or rabbit”).
Much of what follows is a rather meandering narrative with a debt to Robinson Crusoe, as we see Henden and Tom crafting hammocks from cocoons, turning the mandibles of dead ants into bladed implements, deriving a tobacco substitute from the inner bark of a certain tree, and working out which animals are edible (they tuck into giant frog legs and broil the meat of an giant hare).
The story also inherits the racism of the Crusoe tradition. The black servant Tom, even at his most productive, is described in deeply stereotypical terms (he turns out to be good at making fires “for he had the primitive man’s knack of such matters”). The rest of the time he defaults into the role of comically fearful black sidekick:
Tom glanced nervously about. “Wa-laa” he ejaculated, “Ah don’t wantin’ for to meet sco’pions an’ tarant’las here ’bout, Chief. Nor cent’pedes neither. A cent’pede mos’ surely be as big as dem bo’on’strictors, an’ a sco’pion de bigness of a cow. No, Chief, Ah don’t longin’ fo’ meet none of dem folk.”
The insect-men, although belonging to an imaginary splinter-race, are repeatedly referred to as “blacks”, “black savages” and in one case “semi-human blacks”. Their society – if it can be called that – is formed along brutish lines with even their more civilised practices showing a marked aggression, as when they are seen “milking” giant aphids by violently hitting them with sticks until the insects secrete a greenish fluid. After noticing mounds of freshly-turned earth where corpses once were, Henden speculates that the savages might have burial practices (“I could scarcely believe that such primitive, degenerate beings would bother to do this, but there seemed no other explanation”) only to learn that the bodies are actually being dragged underground by carrion-eating insects.
Henden eventually catches sight of what appear to be another people – not the black-skinned insect-like tribe, but a people “brown or reddish, like Indians” who cultivate fields and keep thatched huts. “If there were Indians, the chances were they would be peaceful. On all my expeditions I had never yet met a hostile Indian, except where they had suffered at the hands of whites or blacks”. Getting closer, however, it turns out that these are not humans at all, and that he has (somewhat implausibly) mistaken for humans what are actually sapient ants:
Their color was a coppery-red; their great round heads were supported on necks so slender that it seemed impossible that they could support them. They had enormous chests, attenuated waists and short paunchy abdomens, and each had six, strong, powerful limbs. They were insects! Seven foot giants, thoroughly human in their attitudes, their occupation and in their surroundings, but unquestionably insects nevertheless.
Henden greets one of the ants (“In many ways, his actions were strikingly similar to those of strange Indians when meeting a civilized man for the first time; the actions of a man trying to make friends but still a bit suspicious”) and comes to gain a greater understanding of their way of life:
The ant-men among whom I found myself were agricultural ants, very similar in habits to their little Texas cousins, but far more advanced, far more intelligent, and — as might be expected in a different environment — possessing certain distinct habits and characters. Evidently, too, they were, like most agricultural creatures, including human beings, peace-loving and friendly, and I felt sure that neither Tom nor myself had anything to fear.
Author Verrill finds the human-like insects more sympathetic than the insect-like humans and spends a good deal of space imagining a society for them. They have a form of central heating thanks to “a plant closely allied to the yeast-mold, which threw off heat”. They are capable of growing corn and grain, which Tom and Henden mix with the honey of giant bees to make cakes from. The ants are able to communicate with each other soundlessly by use of “some vibratory or other waves emanating from their antennae”, a seemingly telepathic ability so strong that it is even able to affect Henden at times (“It was a most remarkable sensation; something like the sensation one has, when, listening to a conversation in some utterly unknown and incomprehensible foreign tongue, a word is suddenly caught which is intelligible”).
Henden concludes that in some ways the ants have a better society than humans, as in this passage in which Verrill takes the opportunity to share his thoughts on ecological practices
No doubt, also, the ants themselves destroyed countless larvae and eggs, as well as insects incapable of flight as they tilled the fields. Here again the ants exhibited intelligence and common sense m advance of our human farmers. Despite every effort of scientists and the government, our farmers still persist in destroying birds, mammals, reptiles and carnivorous insects, and as a result, are constantly fighting a losing battle with insect pests. Despite numberless pamphlets and monographs and widespread propaganda and lectures proving beyond question that birds of prey, crows, snakes and countless other forms of wild life—as well as innumerable insects—are the farmers best friends, the human agriculturalist will still adhere to his hide-bound superstitions, ideas and beliefs and will ruthlessly destroy the very creatures that if protected and encouraged, would save him countless thousands of dollars annually.
“[D]id the human race with all its super-intelligence, its boasted progress and enlightenment, really accomplish anything more than did these ants?” Henden wonders. “When all was said and done, were not all our lives, all our efforts, all our civilization, our wars, everything devoted to enabling us to eat, sleep, toil and propagate our species? And to what end? Men toiled that they might eat and sleep.”
Meanwhile, Henden and Tom have more encounters with the local fauna. A giant tarantula and wasps turn up, while the hare-like creatures are found to be both marsupials and monotremes, having pouches and laying eggs. When Henden encounters gigantic tortoises, his conservationist streak manifests: “They were harmless, useless creatures provided by Nature with ample means of protection in lieu of means of defense, and yet I knew that, should civilized men ever invade this country, they would wantonly destroy these monstrous tortoises as ruthlessly as they had exterminated the giant turtles of the Galapagos. For the first time since entering the place, I felt thankful that it was not inhabited by my fellow men.”
In the world of the insects, things are not always what they seem. What initially looks like a tree turns out to be a giant stick, while what appears to be a bunch of snakes turns out to be the tentacles of a giant, carnivorous plant. In one memorable scene, the characters catch sight of what seem to be fairies:
So fairylike were their pale, semi-transparent, graceful bodies, their gauzy iridescent wings and their flowing draperies, that even the most prosaic and non-imaginative person might have been converted to a firm belief in the existence of woodland sprites. Silently as wraiths, they circled and floated in the golden haze, their movements orderly and rhythmic, their motions graceful and following a well defined system, and as ephemeral and unreal as a fragment of gossamer rainbow.
But the deadliest creature to appear on the scene is another variety of giant ant, this time with most unusual physical characteristics: they have mammal-like eyes, well-developed ears, hand-like appendages on their middle legs and lobster-like pincers on their front legs. “That they represented an entirely new order of animal life,” concludes Henden, “a peculiar connecting link between the true insects and the crustaceans, seemed certain, and yet their eyes and their actions appeared to be almost those of vertebrates”.
These creatures attack and overrun the village of the black savages, taking the inhabitants captive. Tom also ends up as a prisoner, but the ants let Henden go free, apparently beecause he is white (“Possibly, I thought, these weird, puzzling, ferocious beasts might classify human beings by color alone”). Henden sets off to rescue Tom, who is able to fight back once “all the long dormant savage blood of his African ancestors was aroused”. Tom’s escape has unforeseen consequences: it encourages the savages to likewise escape and seek refuge with the agricultural-ants. The slave-owning ants, in response, lay waste to the agriculturalists – with Henden and Tom unaware of the massacre as they are busy investigating a ruin. Henden concludes that the structure was built by a people who later fled the valley and established Tupec, and finds jars inscribed with the pictorial history of the people.
The trip to the ruins completed, Henden and Tom find out what has happened to the agricultural-ants at the claws of the slave-owning ants. “Countless times in the past they must have suffered grievously from their natural foes”, says Henden. “Still they continue to live on with a care-free, false sense of security. If ever there was a living proof of the fallacy of universal peace and international disarmament, it is these ants.”
Henden’s support for civil defence leads him to whip up an impromptu military: he domesticates bombardier beetles to fight off hostile ants with gas, trains giant dragonflies for aerial warfare and contemplates taming giant tortoises to use as army tanks. He even decides to form an alliance with his erstwhile enemies, the savages: “if men can train elephants, lions, seals and other creatures as they do, why, I reasoned, could I not train these savages to a far higher degree?” Tom is able to learn the savages’ language (“probably because of some inherited aptitude for the tongue of his African ancestors”) and furthermore, it turns out that the savages can communicate with ants:
I have come to the conclusion that it is some form of hypnotism, that these savages, only a step above the animals and insects, are much closer to the lower forms of life, mentally, than are we, and that their minds, although far below ours in development, are yet so immeasurably above those of the insects, that they can dominate the latter by will or hypnotic power.
But it turns out that the explorers have underestimated the intelligence of their opponents, and the slave-owning ants manage to outwit Henden’s insect army. Tom, in particular, begins to wonder if their foes are more than mere insects (“Like all of his race, he is extremely superstitious, and while he had—by the greatest efforts of self control—overcome his dread of the agricultural ants, he still insisted the others were not real insects, but ‘jumbies.'”)
The agriculturalists’ colony is badly damaged in the conflict, and while ants from neighbouring colonies arrive to help rebuild, the agricultural ants respond to the defeat by driving away their erstwhile allies Henden and Tom. The two explorers instead team up with a pair of savage: “They bred and matured so much more rapidly than other human beings, that I had no doubt that the undertaking to develop them would be far simpler and quicker than with barbarous races possessing more of the human attributes.”
Together, they work on developing explosives from natural resources in the hopes of blasting open an exit to the enclosed world of the ants. But in a surprise twist, Henden and Tom are confronted with a militarised strain of the agricultural ants: “Not the ordinary, hard-working, peaceful creatures we had known, but highly specialized fighting units; ants developed, transformed—Heaven alone knows how—by some treatment of the larva? until, just as special treatment of a beegrub results in a queen, the larvae, instead of becoming ordinary workers, had become veritable warriors.”
Henden suspects that these new ants are trying to prevent him from leaving. The agriculaturalists may have evolved fighting ability, but they have sacrificed their intelligence; their opponents, meanwhile, are also evolving. Trapped in the middle of an impending battle, Heden concludes that he is doomed, but holds hope that Tom might escape (“I believe he, with his latent savage instincts and his African ability to move stealthily in the darkness, might get safely through the red ants’ lines”). In the final entry of his journal Henden reveals that his mortally wounded, and dies before he can pen his last words.
The World of the Giant Ants is a good example of A. Hyatt Verrill’s strengths, telling as it does a ripping yarn in a richly-textured world of evolutionary oddities, and also his weaknesses: the thick strain of racism is hard to miss. If you can get past its unfortunately dated aspects this remains an engaging mixture of adventure, science and horror, driven by a sincere passion for exploration:
Also it struck me forcibly, for the first time in my life, that man’s desire to explore, to see strange sights, to discover amazing facts, was not a question of personal gratification or a thirst for individual knowledge, but was really due to an inherent, egotistical vanity; a love of publicity and a longing to be applauded, praised and regarded as famous by his fellow men.
“Stenographer’s Hands” by David H. Keller
Jerome Smith, president of Universal Utilities, is determined to improve the productivity of the stenographers he employs. For help, he turns to Dr. Billings, a biologist and sociologist. While Billings previously provided a dictation machine, this turned out to be flawed (“All of our men spoke English, but they all had a different accent, and none spoke as perfectly as the actor. The machine typed exactly what they spoke, but the letters it produced were certainly queer affairs”) and so Billings tries to come up with a new solution:
For the next month, Dr. Billings and his subordinates studied the race of stenographers. He found that practically every statement that Jerome Smith had made about them was correct. Those who were capable ceased to be mere stenographers and filled offices of trust as private secretaries. They ceased to function as mere letter writers. Many married. The dull ones remained dull. Gaps in the ranks were easily replaced by very ordinary material from business colleges. Replacements were frequent and the yearly turnover large. The average office worker was fairly capable but absolutely undependable. Most of them had ambitions and day dreams, but these did not extend in the direction of writing a perfect letter. A few grew old in the service, but most changed occupations before twenty-five. Socially, they were middle class, poorly housed, inadequately fed, but rather elegantly dressed.
Then, inspired by a dream, Billings hits upon an idea: breeding a new and improved race of stenographers. “When man wanted to develop the carrier pigeon for speed, the trotting horse for racing, the pointer dog for hunting and the cow for increased milk production, he bred them. Burbank bred a spineless cactus—we will breed errorless stenographers!”
Billings argues that “there are certain undeveloped areas in the brain, especially in the frontal lobes, and that, as the use of the hand increases, these lobes will correspondingly be developed to greater usefulness.” Furthermore,
If we can develop new sections of the cortex, deepen the grooves between the convolutions, we can produce stenographers who are more nearly errorless. If we can breed them for accuracy and speed, we will have creatures as highly specialized as the racing horse or the bird-dog. These stenographers will remain faithful to their work, because they will be so bred that they will never want to do anything else, even if they are able.
The scheme devised by Billings is to encpurage male and female stenographers to marry each other by offering comfortable living arrangements (so long as each half of the couple passes an efficiency test). While the parents are working, their children shall be brought up in community nursaries and schools that train them from an early age to become stenographers, marry other stenographers, and repeat the cycle. As the generations pass, the pool of stenographers will be perfected. The company president dismisses this idea on the grounds that it would take too long to achieve a result. But Billings has a solution to this issue, as well – a method of artificially accelerating the children’s growth:
With these foods we will incorporate certain chemicals, especially some obtained from the ductless glands. Thus, the growth of the babies will be accelerated. They will mature more rapidly than the average children. The first generation will be ready to marry at sixteen, whereas, the next generation will be working at ten and marrying at fourteen. Eventually, these specially bred stenographers will be doing full duty at six and marrying at eight.
Billings assures Smith that the stenographers will be obedient and easily-controlled:
When the realization comes, it will be too late to resist. They will have only one ambition then—one primitive urge—to write perfect letters. Then they will only want to sleep and eat and work. All initiative will be gone except the desire to take dictation and write perfect letters. They will be machines, but human—they will know the difference between to and too and two. Can they be controlled? Why, Mr. Smith, the only strike you will ever have will come when you are unable to supply them with work!
The scheme goes ahead, and the story skips forward two hundred years. Mirabella Smith, daughter of the company’s current president, decides to abandon college and become a stenographer. Her father, scoffing, shows her the mechanised lives of the company’s stenographers:
Mirabella stifled a swelling groan-like scream, mingled with nausea, as she looked into the cell of human machines. Live beings—god-like with the most lovely, most perfect, long-tapering fingers she had ever seen—hands, the sight of whose beauty summoned worship; but ere the sacred rite was completed, those emaciated faces, bulging foreheads, staring eyes, hideous expressions met the view. She was sick. Her ancestors had done it—martyred humanity for commercial greed.
She begins yearning for simpler times, when she could have become a different sort of stenographer: “one of the old-fashioned kind I have read about, the gossiping, gumchewing, error-making, soda-water-drinking, flirtatious kind of a girl, who went into the business world for the thrill she received.” Meanwhile, the company’s stenographers begin making large numbers of mistakes for no obvious reason. After her father dies, Miravella takes over and reveals that the selectively-bred workforce has ended up with large-scale nocturnal epilepsy. “I will try to make the lives of the new stenographers happy”, she says, “but never again will any effort be made to interfere with the normal progress of nature in the breeding of human beings.”
Although very of-its-time, “Stenographer’s Hands” is nonetheless further evidence that David H. Keller was one of the most interesting authors to have been picked up by Gernsback. Here, Keller returns to one of his favourite themes: the mechanisation of society, as seen in “The Psychophonic Nurse” and “The Revolt of the Pedestrians”. The latter story makes for a particularly close comparison, as it also involves the artificial evolution of humanity and a character turning out to be an atavistic throwback (in this case, the physician who marries Mirabella is revealed to be descended from the eugenically-created stenographers, but through a chance mutation is indistinguishable from a normal person).
Perhaps the most notable thing about the story is its negative portrayal of eugenics, coming at a time when many science fiction authors worked on the assumption that a benevolent eugenics programme would naturally be part of a future society. The editorial introduction predicts that “Stenographer’s Hands” will be controversial:
Here is a story that no doubt will arouse a good deal of controversy. It probably will be denounced in many quarters while in others it will be praised to the skies. We live in a machine age. Only efficiency and accomplishment is of any importance in our present scheme of life. Everything works along the stencil line nowadays. We wear the same clothes, of which several thousand are cut with the same die; we wear the same sort of shoes, all made by the same machines and all alike, including the polish; we eat the same sort of food, coming out of the same cans, by the million; we read the same kind of literature, printed by the thousand and the hundred-thousand.
The stamp of the machine is upon our bodies and upon our minds. We all act alike, and come very near thinking alike. It seems to be quite the thing for all of us to be as exactly alike as we possibly can be. If ire vary this formula, ever so little, we become conspicuous at once, which is not always to our liking.
“Four Dimensional Transit” by Bob Olsen
This is Bob Olsen’s fourth story for Amazing about four-dimensional technology, following on from “The Four-Dimensional Roller Press”, “Four Dimensional Surgery” and “Four Dimensional Robberies”. This time around, Professor Banning expresses his passion for transport.
“Rapid transit is the world’s greatest humanizing influence”, says Banning to his assistant Bryan. “It wipes out boundaries of states and nations. It breaks down racial and religious prejudices. It clears up misunderstandings and cements friendships among all the people on earth. It is the only means through which the millennium of universal peace can be attained.” He announces that his latest plan is to build a machine capable of circumnavigating the globe in a single day, and also raises the possibility of space travel.
Discussing current attempts at space travel, Banning argues that shooting people into space via a projectile in the manner of Jules Verne would be impracticable (“To leap in a single instant from a position of rest to a speed greater than eight miles per second would hurl the bodies of the passengers against the rear wall of the rocket with such force that they would be instantly crushed to death.”) He then cites real-life engineers Andre Mas and Drouet – along with Gernsback’s Science and Invention magazine – as he outlines a more plausible means of getting into space.
His idea, as it happens, hinges upon the development of a four-dimensional rudder. After all, Bryan and Banning have created previous devices for interacting with the fourth dimension; why not use this technology as a means of transport?
The rudder is built (“It is rather difficult for me to describe this peculiar device without using the terminology of hyper-space, which would he unintelligible except to a student of higher mathematics”) but it still needs a vessel. Joined by Colonel Charles Berghlin they succeed in building the plane – which incorporates a sophisticated new motor that runs on a novel variety of synthetic fuel – and dub their craft the Spirit of Youth. They are able to attach the rudder, and subsequently find that four-dimensional travel gives them an unusual perspective on the world:
The insides of all buildings were visible to us. They looked like doll houses that are open at the tops or fronts, so that all the furniture and other objects inside the rooms are plainly visible. The most peculiar thing was that the roofs and the nearest walls did not look transparent or totally absent as they should logically have been in order to expose the interiors to our gaze. On the contrary, they seemed to be as solid and substantial as the rest of the buildings.
Another amazing thing was that we seemed to be able to view the objects beneath us from all directions at once. For instance, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a red-faced corpulent human biped dressed in his B.V.D.’s and manipulating his body into ridiculous postures. I swear that at one and the same time I could see the top of his head, the soles of his feet, his right and left sides, his chest and his back.
After a test trip, Banning publicly announces his intention of circumnavigating the world. This provokes the scorn of Pontius Bragg, “the most colossal bluff, four-flusher and egoist that ever tried to get his name in the papers”, who wagers $20,000 that the Spirit of Youth will fail in its venture.
At this point, “Four Dimensional Transit” clearly takes its cue from Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (indeed, the interior illustrations even depict Banning as looking rather like Verne). But then comes a twist when the vessel heads into space: “WE ARE FLYING THROUGH SPACE ABSOLUTELY INDEPENDENT OF ANY DIRECT CONNECTION WITH THE EARTH OR ANY OTHER BODY!” Banning decides to take advantage of this situation by going on a trip around the moon – allowing the story to crib from another Verne novel, Around the Moon. Once the crew get up close and personal with the satellite, author Bob Olsen invokes his model by name:
If I were writing a piece of extravagant fiction, and had the creative imagination of a Jules Verne or an Edgar Allan Poe to help me, I could undoubtedly make a fascinating and amazing chapter out of what we were supposed to see on the moon.
I could clothe it with grotesque vegetation and people it with preposterously queer beings. I could describe the peculiar buildings and fantastic monuments of a departed race of former inhabitants. Gigantic insects and abortive monsters could be made to prowl amid lakes of blood and mountains of glittering jewels. Had there been any such freaks on the moon, we could easily have distinguished them clearly—even without the aid of our telescope.
But what’s the use of idle speculation? My job is that of a historian rather than a fabricator of colorful yarns—so I’ll have to stick to the truth. Much as I regret to report them, the facts concerning what we saw on the moon were exceedingly drab and uninteresting.
From the perspectives of the crew, the manoeuvre takes place over more than a month – but this turns out to be a trick of four-dimensional travel, and once thy get back on Earth, they find that the journey was short enough for Banning to win his bet.
The story’s reliance on Jules Verne underlines how Bob Olsen had trouble coming up with plots to showcase his vision of four-dimensional technology – and by this point, the vision was not exactly new. That said, the heavy use of equations lend “Four-Dimensional Transit” some interest as an early example of hard science fiction.
“When the World Went Mad” by Ronald M. Sherin
Russian scientist Professor Ivan Teranhoff has discovered a means of obtaining atomic energy “by subjecting small quantities of specially prepared or activated hydrogen to conditions analogous to those found in stars of spectral class A and B—that is to say, a vacuum with the highest possible temperature.” His goal is to use this energy for powered space-flight, and he builds a spherical vessel for such a purpose. Then, both professor and craft go missing – and the media, dismissing his theories of space-travel, treats his disappearance as a mystery.
Things soon take a stranger turn. Teranhoff is located in the Andes, and the effects of his latest experiments become all too apparent: the Earth’s rotation begins speeding up, and gravity is lessening. “Science, which had hitherto been man’s chief benefactor, was no longer merely a useful servant; it had now become master of the earth; not metaphorically, but in grim earnest.”
The military sends planes and ships to the professor’s hideout, with disastrous results:
“My God!” exclaimed the pilot excitedly, “they’ve found him.”
Hardly had the words been uttered when a thin bluish ray of light leaped suddenly from the earth, striking the lower machine. For a moment the plane appeared to be suspended lifeless in the air. Suddenly, without warning, it was seen to crumple, and a second later only a charred and twisted mass was plunging to the ground. Not the slightest noise accompanied its destruction.
Another scientist, Professor Jopplin, reacts scornfully to the military’s manoeuvres: even if they succeed in killing Teranhoff, he argues, the earth will still be spinning out of control. The efforts are futile, in any case, as Teranhoff escapes in his spaceship – his alteration to Earth’s rotation having finally given him enough momentum to reach space. Down below, the world is left to its gravitational fate:
Suddenly, a large stone edifice began to totter upon its foundation. As it occupants became aware of the movement their stupefaction was succeeded by cries of horror and consternation. Gradually the heavy building freed itself from its supports, rising perceptibly above the ground. In another instant scores of other buildings could be seen rocking under the same influence. The entire city of Quito, it appeared, was about to leave forever the planet which had given it birth.
But the day is saved when Professor Jopplin makes it to Teranhoff’s subterranean laboratory and reverses his machine.
Mad scientists had appeared in the magazine plenty of times before, but “When the World Went Mad” gives us a particularly pristine specimen: an inventor willing to destroy all of humanity purely to get his spacecraft to launch, apparently unmoved by the prospect of returning from his experiments to a desolate world. The pulpish story is well-enough told that the absurd elements become part of the fun. Author Ronald M. Sherin, who previously wrote “The Lost Comet” for Amazing, subsequently disappeared from science fiction.
“The Gravity King” by Clelland J. Ball
In the year 1940 aeroplane magnate Elias Craig receives a letter from an inventor who claims to have developed a new means of flight via the repulsion of gravitation. Craig and his cohorts head off to see a demonstration of the experimental vessel as a scale model (which turns out to resemble a submarine with no conning tower) after which the inventor reveals something of his personal story. He describes how he had previously come up with a new design for an aeroplane, only for his plans to be stolen by his acquaintances; the resulting scuffle led to him being imprisoned for ten years while his former colleagues profited from his labours.
At that point, those assembled in the room recognise the inventor: he is Jim Rodman, and the colleagues who stole his plans were the men of Elias Craig’s aeroplane company. Craig tries to depart the room, only to find that the model vehicle is not the only thing to be hovering in air:
He strode to the door and jerked it open, then stood petrified with amazement. Gone was the narrow hallway—gone were the stairs—the room in which he stood, hung five thousand feet in midair, far above the quiet moonlit streets of the city. Craig’s eyes bulged with fear and unbelief. He rubbed them violently, thinking himself the victim of a troubled dream. But no, it was reality—-the room, like Mahomet’s Coffin, hung suspended between Heaven and Earth.
It turns out that the room is just one chamber of a full-sized flying machine, the Gravity King, and the inventor announces his intention of abandoning his captives on an Antarctic island. Craig shoots a gun at him, only to destroy the vessel’s controls and send the entire craft, along with its occupants, shooting into space: “Insane terror filled their eyes, and reason tottered, but the ‘Gravity King,’ unheeding, hurtled upward like a metallic demon released from the pit, and was lost forever in the illimitable reaches of space.”
This story, reprinted from a 1922 edition of Science and Invention, is slight; but the short length, broad characters and memorable imagery all work together to make it a success. The character type of the swindled genius was not common in Amazing at this point, and so Jim Rodman stands out as one of the more sympathetic mad inventors to have appeared in the magazine.
Although Jack Williamson’s piece received pride of place at the front of the magazine, it was not the only reader editorial submitted to the magazine. Towards its end, the issue publishes a number “inspiring or educational letters” which discuss not the specific stories running in the magazine, but the broader topics of science and science fiction.
Victor L. Osgood muses about the speedy development of science and technology in recent centuries (“Houdini nor Marconi nor the Wright brothers were possessed of the devil, yet they would have been burned at the stake a short while ago if they had performed their respective deeds there”). He goes on to praise science fiction as a “carrier of scientific knowledge” and a “furtherance of interest among the disinterested” before listing some of the elements that might accompany the educational factor (“A little love and sex is sometimes included, for they will always stand out as a source of interest in life, but they are not treated sordidly in scientifiction… Thrills and adventure are unlimited to the writer of scientifiction because he is not held down to human experiences and to the realm of known possibilities”).
James T. Brady Jr. traces the history of science fiction, starting with Aristophanes’ The Clouds, moving through the Arabian Nights, Bergerac, Swift, Poe, Verne, Wells, Luis Senarens, A. Merritt, Garrett P Serviss and A Hyatt Verrill; after this he gets into a bit of a mess (“Germany has Wollstonecraft, who wrote ‘Frankenstein’). George McLeod Winsor, Arthur B. Reeve and Hugo Gernsback round off the list. W. Melvin Goodhue offers a more thorough history of the science fiction field, and contemplates the future development of the genre:
Is scientifiction changing? So simple was the original idea, better expressed probably by Jules Verne than by Edgar Allan Poe, that one would not expect change of an innocent thing like prediction in pleasant narrative form. Yet we may see a faint outline of different stages of development, rather more logical than chronological, for some authors have almost jumped to the higher stages, and some authors may never reach them, though they write forever.
The first stage, with its good taste and simplicity, needs no comment. In the second stage we have isolated specialization. Corresponding to tragedy in ordinary fiction, we have stories showing a dark future for civilization; to comedy, a dark present and alluring future. More personal subdivision has appeared in love stories, humorous stories, dramatic tragedy, O’Henry [sic] endings, etc
The third stage was totally unexpected. Several stories appeared lending a peculiar emphasis to beauty. We thought when we started one of those stories that it was a sensual Arabian Nights dream of riotous beauty. But we found the author trying to express an elusive thought, an uncrystallized goal, and trying, he gained artistic taste, and succeeding he did not produce a mere fairy tale, but thrilled us with a new phase of art—shall we call it esthetic [sic] scientifiction?
Daryl McAllister also predicts the future development of science fiction: “We believe further, that much development is coming in the use of psychology and the mind as themes, and that mental and spiritual forces will be more commonly dealt with. These elements belong to the subject as surely as the latest model space flyer”.
What is science fiction good for? “Ceasless realiarion and endless inspiration” should he the goal of science fiction, argues J. A. Coomes, and so stories “implying that evolution and science are fundamentally destructive [should] be curtailed in favor of those of greater inspirational value”. The letter cites Stanton A Coblentz’s “The Sunken World” as an example of the second category.
R. C. Smith waxes lyrical about the genre: “A destination is chosen among the innumerable planets of space. Our giant ship, true to the directional impulses given by the operator points her nose in space. Our chosen destination rushes to meet us at an unbelievable speed. We land upon the strange surface of this foreign land. Many are the adventures we meet with. Strange creatures are met, some with intelligence for below ou own, some with intelligence as far superior.”
C. E. Caulkins is concerned with definitions: “Scientifiction… should mean that it should be emphasized that it does mean a statement of virtual possibilities that after they have become or been found to be actual, science can and will classify, dissect and otherwise take the credit for ‘discovering'”.
H. A. Frazier takes things in a theological direction: “Man does not create the iron or steel which goes to make the great locomotive or the dream that runs it. He merely changes and adapts it to his own ideas. the power of creation has, and always will belong to the Supreme Architect alone and man is merely fulfilling his destiny in adopting it to his own needs and uses.”
Gilson Willets submits a piece of fiction as his editorial, opening with two co-workers arguing over the magazine’s contents:
“That magazine published the most ridiculous, absurd and insipid stories that have ever been placed before the public,” remarked an executive whose entire life had been spent in the prosaic confines of a San Francisco Office.
“Why feel that way?” I inquired.
“Because it published trash, rot, piffle! The pictures are enough to warn any sane person not to waste time reading it”
“They call the stories ‘Scientifiction,’ meaning scientific fiction. They don’t claim them to be possible, and readers like myself find many potential scientific conquests in them”
“Scientific conquests be damned! You’ve been telling me of machines that travel through space—sunken cities—fourth dimensions—visiting other planets. Bah! It’s all rot! A fine young man like you should find a more educational way to spend his time”
The twist revelation after all this is that the conversation takes place in the future, with a moon landing scheduled to take place in a few days’ time.
On a slightly different topic, B. S. Moore has an anecdote about an invention that failed to take off:
A fellow reader once came to me with an object that roughly resembled a telescope. He explained that it was an arrangement of lenses for the purpose of peering into the fourth dimension. Of course I laughed as i gazed through it. He wanted to try it out in the projection room where I work. He believed the carbon light and the lens would disclose the fourth dimension between the machine and the screen. The experiment failed, and I must confess I was almost as disappointed as he.
As well as the area for readers’ editorials, the issue features a standard letters section for feedback on the magazine’s contents.
“I usually read before I go to sleep, and i found that after reading a story I could lie awake for hours just thinking if the different ideas expressed in it” says Elthu Shott. Simon Becker declares that the magazine “is surely proving a cultural benefit to myself” although he requests “fewer stories by Verne and Poe and those other old timers. These stories may have been good fifty years ago, but are old and no good now.” Dady A. Ghandy enjoys the magazine despite the trouble he goes through to get it in Bombay, although he admits to preferring the short stories: “what I don’t like is the crowding out of good-sized stories by very long ones”. High school freshman Louis Gardner submits a clipping about perpetual motion, although this is not reprinted in the magazine.
Francis D. Uffelman praises “The Sunken World” by Stanton A Coblentz before trying to work out how thick a glass dome would need to be to protect an undersea city. Clement Van Velsor also has comments on the physics of this story (“when the water was rushing in through the crack why did not the surrounding edge give way under the strain, and the water rush to and inundate everything at once…?”) Meanwhile, Cadet Douglas Riecks of the Kemper Military School takes Earl T. Bell’s “The Moon of Doom” to task for its depiction of air flight.
Everett Beran points out a plot hole in R. F. Starzl’s “Out of the Sub-Universe”, arguing that increasing the size of the microscopic people would not have extended their lifespans; the editor responds with the plea that “Although the stories are supposed to embody correct science, there must be room for fancy and invention”.
James Whiting Saunders praises the Amazing Stories Annual, both for its fiction from A. Merritt, Austin Hall, A. Hyatt Verrill and Edgar Rice Burroughs and for its cover (“I wish you would design the cover design of the Quarterly after that of the Annual, ie, the arrangement of words. It was much more novel and dignified.”) He then goes on to provide assessments for various stories that run in Quarterly.
“It has always seemed to me a little childlike, for a person of normal intelligence to wish to be amazed” writes L. G. Townsend. “It is a hard thing to explain, but I have had the feeling myself, when picking up your publication, that I was afraid someone was watching me—like a grown man found playing with his small son’s toy train.” He goes on to compare Amazing with its newsstand rival Weird Tales (“The only difference seems to be, that they occasionally print morbid articles and stories which lack the sparkle and science of your contributions. I hope that your magazine never becomes ‘weird'”)
William G. Moore questions the magazine’s covers (“many people have a ‘Bug a Boo’ about purchasing literature with a as wild, fantastic covers”) but predicts great things to come for the publication (“I believe the day will come, when people who sneer at it today and consider it a compilation of nonsense, will say Amazing Stories was the pioneer and forerunner of present day literature.'”) Harry R. Wickline has a different verdict on the covers: “I can’t see why so many of the readers delight in tossing brickbats at you. They speak of your covers, if it hadn’t been for the cover, I don’t believe I ever would have noticed the magazine.” Baldwin Aneiand, meanwhile, questions the title “I think it would be better to change the name of our [sic] magazine to ‘Scientifiction’ as I think the name Amazing Stories gives many people a wrong impression, making them class it with ‘Weird Tales,’ ‘Mystery Stories,’ etc”