Amazing Histories, January 1929: Atlantis, Venus and a Frozen Earth

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A skyscraper crumbles and falls. All around it are other buildings doing likewise aste a vast mass of ice – so tall that it rivals the skyscraper — presses onwards through the city. A glowing red sun in the sky adds an appropriately ominous touch to this apocalyptic scene.

The January 1929 issue of Amazing Stories arrived in time to usher in the new year. It was a year in which the airship Graf Zeppelin flew around the world, and Richard Byrd few over the South Pole; Robert J. Van de Graaf invented the generator bearing his name; the BBC branched out into television broadcasts, while colour television received its first public demonstration in America. The inaugural Academy Awards were presented to honour cinematic arts, while filmgoers flocked to see Frank Merrill as Tarzan, Warner Oland as Fu Manchu, Lionel Barrymore as Count Dakkar (alias Captain Nemo) and Disney’s dancing skeletons – along with Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou’s Woman in the Moon, a milestone in science fiction cinema. (Comic-strip paragons Popeye and Tintin also debuted this year, although neither would reach space until some time later).

In this month’s editorial, “Amazing Reading”, Hugo Gernsback contemplates how we take the act of reading for granted, despite the complexities involved:

We have a number of different functions which make the reading act most complicated. Suppose that we admit that the words THE BIG BLACK CAT, let us say, after having been impressed on the retina, are now “sent” to the brain. But long before that occurs, something amazing and most marvelous happens. The light impulses spelling the words THE BIG BLACK CAT are not really registered at all in the brain as letters and words, but a most astonishing transformation takes place somewhere in our brain, whereby the letters and words are translated into something entirely new. Whether this is a picture of a big black cat or whether it is something else, no one can tell.

From here, Gernsback envisions a possible future for the learning of language:

It would not be surprising at all, if sometime in the future children were taught in school to read three languages at the same time, by having each line printed in three different languages. This is only a slight step forward and is only one of the wonderful things in store for the human race ahead of us.

Moving on, we find the stories that Gernsback and his colleagues picked to hail 1929 and beyond…

“The War of the Planets” by Harl Vincent

In this sequel to “The Golden Girl of Munan” things have settled down since Roy Hamilton’s adventure on the island of Munan. He has since married the golden girl Thelda and the two have had a son, Walter, who is now an adult. But strange objects appear in the sky, each four to five hundred feet in diameter: “a mass of closely associated spherical organisms, more like fish eggs than anything else to which they could be compared.”

Roy gets in touch with his old acquaintance Professor Nilsson (who has likewise started a family sine the first story, comprising his wife Zora and daughter Dorothy). The sight of the presumed alien spacecraft leads to a long discussion about life on other planets, with the professor delivering his opinion on how much such beings might resemble us:

We all believe in God. Science has never disproved the essentials of His Word. We have all read that He created man in His own image. Many believe that the word ‘image’ here does not mean a physical likeness. Possibly it doesn’t. But, suppose it does? Is there any reason He could not create, by a process of evolution, if you choose, a physical likeness under any possible condition?

Roy and the professor are then called to meet the Secretary of Terrestrial Scientific Research in Washington, who shows them a message addressed to the President of Terrestrial Government: “This is a formal declaration of war against the peoples of the world by the peoples of Venus. Munan shall be avenged”, signed Mador.

Clearly, the dastardly villains of Munan were not all wiped out when their island was destroyed in the previous story: Professor Nilsson theorises that they escaped to Venus, and have now aligned themselves with that planet’s inhabitants to get their revenge.

The professor dusts off his aircraft the Pioneer, which has now been coated with invisibility paint obtained from Munan, and the heroes fly close enough to the alien vessels to catch sight of a strange occupant:

All members of the party now clustered about the glass covered porthole in the floor of the control room, examining the curious craft closely. While they watched, a black spot appeared in the center of the platform. This immediately resolved itself into a circular opening and from it emerged a strange looking creature. At first they took it for some monster of inhuman mold, but it was soon apparent that this was a man, or a living being greatly resembling one, clad in a heavy suit of armor like a deep sea diver’s equipment, even to the huge helmet surmounting the ensemble and the knapsack to furnish oxygen to the helmet.

The Pioneer anchors itself to one of the spheres, and the professor descends onto its surface via a rope ladder. But the sphere then starts to speed away, tugging the Pioneer with it. Despite this occurrence, the professor is able to make it back to the Pioneer, keeping a captive – a blond man named Kardos – at gunpoint. Holding him hostage, they arrange for one of the spheres to land submissively on Earth. Back on land, the two families of adventurers are greeted as heroes:

The three women had had enough. Elbowing their way through the crowd, they made for the northbound moving way and were soon following the news in the comfort of the Hamilton apartments. The excitement had been almost too much for them and, womanlike, they indulged in a good cry together. But they were happier than they had been in many hours.

Meanwhile, the enemy fleet begins splitting into groups of three, each trio hovering over a major American city. The first to be wiped out is Cincinnati, which perishes beneath a gigantic electric arc:

Far below them spread the industrial city, with the forms of the spherical ships about half way between. They had huddled together like billiard balls set up in equilateral triangle formation. The hulls seemed to contact momentarily. As they did, from each there slowly projected a dark object, cylindrical in shape. These objects approached each other in the open space enclosed by the three vessels. They contacted and a blinding blue flame spouted at the point of contact. At this, the three ships rapidly receded from one another, but the arc which had formed between the three electrodes continued, spreading to a huge, sputtering, roaring flame as the distance increased.

The roar of the tremendous arc increased to such an intensity that it became audible even through the double hull of the Pioneer. The passengers watched in awed silence as the three enemy ships, still maintaining their triangular formation, receded to three points equally spaced about a circle enclosing the city. Still the terrific arc was maintained between the electrodes.

When the outermost limits of the city had been reached, the three vessels started to turn slowly on their vertical axes. This movement continued until the electrodes became tangent to the circle represented by the three, all pointing in the same direction of rotation. The great blue flaming arc now became a whirling vortex, ever curving downward to the doomed city as the spheres tilted slowly, pointing their now white-hot electrodes toward the earth at an angle of about forty-five degrees.

The tide is soon turned, however. Walter analyses the material that the hulls of the craft are made from and comes up with a means of damaging them through molecular friction caused by the projection of a high-frequency beam; using this message, the heroes succeed in destroying three of the spheres. Undeterred, the invaders announce the next cities they plan to attack, starting with New York, but the protagonists continue with their counterattack, destroying ships by the dozen. The battle heats up towards its end, but Earth is successful in fending off the invasion.

“The War of the Planets” is clearly patterned upon H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (a book actually mentioned during the course of the story by Walter) although author Harl Vincent makes an effort to incorporate technological developments that occurred since the publication of Wells’ novel, particularly in terms of aircraft and electrical engineering. Vincent is at home when describing the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the interplanetary conflict, but on shakier ground when he tries to pen action sequences: witness how one of the most potentially gripping scenes, Professor Nilsson’s infiltration of the alien ship, is described in past tense by the professor after her safely makes it back to his own plane. Clumsier still is the dialogue, which remains distractingly jolly even in the heat of city-destroying battle (“All right, darling. I’ll rush to the aero terminal while you do that. Tell mother not to worry, won’t you?”)

Although the story ends with a hook for a sequel, Venus aligning itself with Mars for a second invasion of Earth, no further adventures starring Thelda and company would be published.

The Sixth Glacier (part 1 of 2) by Marius

Scientific News reporter Bender is sent to interview a paelontologist named Stephen Dunraven. Even though the palaeontologist dismisses Bender’s magazine as “a sheet that caters to those who want their science cut and dried, and made up in pill form, energyless ones who lack the spine to fight or the brain to reason out a thing for themselves. Make-believe Pasteurs, milksop Galileos, parrot Marconis” he agrees to take part in the interview.
Dunraven’s discovery is the ruins “of a hitherto unheard of civilization” in Mexico, contemporary with the Neanderthals in Europe:

That they were pre-historic, paleontologic, I was certain beyond a doubt. Skeletal remains, flat-headed, thick-boned, tusked skulls, long bones of ape-like arms and short, crooked legs, gave me so much mute testimony and corroborated my guesswork. I was viewing the remnants of a city which at the most conservative of estimates was well over a thousand centuries old. What business the ape man had there I am still at a loss to understand. The brains that were able to erect so grand a city were by no means enclosed in flat, thick-boned skulls. A nobler race, surely, once upon a time had lived, wrought, and died there.

At the ruins, Dunraven found a gold tablet warning of a forthcoming ice age – an ice age due to soon to hit twentieth-century earth. The media dismisses this prediction, but it becomes clear that the world is indeed getting colder when a Danish ship reports of being caught in an unseasonable rush of ice-floes. Lowering temperatures are reported around the world; northern countries like Canada and Siberia are the first to be hit, but others further south soon follow. Mass migrations begin, leaving chaos in their wake:

“Trampled children, tired women falling by the roadside, the aged, the crippled abandoned” (here I noticed that the corpulent city official was nervously fingering his derby hat) “to a cruel fate. The terror-stricken people will rise against their superiors, upon whom they had learned to rely.” (The corpulent one gave a sudden twitch and dropped his derby). “The southern states will become overcrowded and the result shall be war, because the refugees will be desperate men and women.”

Entire cities are crushed by the oncoming glacier:

Then like a wolf gone mad with days of hunger, a ragged wall of ice, fully fifty feet high, suddenly came from behind the curtain of falling snow in from the sea and threw itself without mercy upon the doomed city. In one day’s time Copenhagen became one with Babylon and Troy, a crushed city under thousands of tons of jagged peaked ice.

Even the areas not yet hit by the freezing cold are instead gripped with panic:

New York City was in the grip of terror and uproar. Her East Side ghetto districts were a series of noisy madhouses day and night with which police and militia both were unable to cope. The inherent emotional trait of the peasant manifested itself in wild orgies, mad religious revivals which bordered on insanity, and desperate riots which always terminated in the shedding of blood of overworked policemen and of fire-brigades.

The palaeontologist Dunraven, faced with this mass destruction, is greatly amused:

The amateur scientist was jubilant. The formerly inattentive press had not only vindicated him, but had actually thrown themselves at his feet, craving pardon and begging advice. He was the most sought after person in a madman’s world and to him, revenge was sweet indeed. “Let ’em freeze” was his favorite phrase.

Much of the novel’s first instalment is taken up by Bender traipsing across the freezing world in the hopes of meeting his beloved Clara. The pseudonymous author Marius (whom genre historian Sam Moskowitz would later identify as freelance writer Steve Benedict) shows a flare for phrase: throughout Bender’s journey we read of “those hoary Asiatic pillars of the Blue firmament of the Far East bowing down before the polar foe” or the ice arriving “in an echelon formation, like the battle-phalanx of Alexander’s conquering Greeks”. A degree of social commentary crops up, too, as when European refugees flee to equatorial Africa (“Woe unto the poor black man, I thought, the white man has come to stay.”) The first part of the serialised story ends with Bender arriving in Mexico in the hopes of meeting Clara.

“The Roger Bacon Formula” by Fletcher Pratt

This story opens with its protagonist, musician Edwin Hart, getting into a public argument about Marxism:

I have never been deeply impressed by the economic theories of Karl Marx, and when someone mentioned the “class struggle,” I entered my usual demurrer, backing it by the statement that Marx had nothing new to offer, “Why,” I cried, “read old Roger Bacon! That medieval monk anticipated and answered every theory your muddy German had to offer, and besides had a grasp of general science that makes Marx look like an ignoramus.” Naturally this touched off the explosives, and in the end, overborne by press of numbers, I sought refuge in flight from the restaurant.

An elderly man overhears this and approaches Edwin, explaining that he too is an admirer of Roger Bacon. The stranger invites Edwin to his home, which turns out to contain a laboratory (“Its layout resembled the tower of a medieval alchemist more than any modern apartment”). Here, the man produces a set of Bacon manuscripts hitherto unknown to the public. Included therein is the recipe for a drug called mandragordeum (“I can assure you, sir, it is nothing like mandragora”) that the old man has already put to use. Edwin imbibes the concoction and, after a burst of light, finds that his surroundings have changed. Before long he is flying above New York, heading into space and eventually arriving on Venus.

Entering a dome-shaped Venerian building, Edwin comes across the planet’s inhabitants:

The Venerians bore a comic-supplement resemblance to seals. They had the same short-barrel-like body, surmounted by the same long, narrow head, though the heads of the Venerians were very high and deep as became a greater intelligence.

Their legs were pillar-like muscular appendages, short, and terminating in flat, spiny feet, webbed between the four toes. I learned later that while swimming, these feet trail behind them, furnishing at once the propulsive force and direction for the effort. Accustomed as I was to the stout arms of earthly people, it was something of a shock to observe that the Venerians are quite without them, possessing instead three groups of tentacles which dangle from their bodies. Two of these groups are set at the place where the short, thick neck joins the trunk and a third set, much smaller, at the center of the back, high up.

Edwin continues to observe the Venerians. They turn out to be perfectly adapted for this ocean-heavy world, equipped to swim and catch the fish that forms the bulk of their diet. The story takes the opportunity to establish not only the Venerians themselves, but also the local flora:

The vegetation was a perfect tangle. I wondered how these Venerians with their short stumpy legs could penetrate it, while off the beaten path, until I saw one of them blunder against the trunk of a sickly-hued treefungus all of twenty feet high and send it crashing to the ground as though it were paper. Then I realized that the greater number of these fungoids were no more solid than those of the earth-air blown things ready to fall to pieces at a touch.

The Venerians also turn out to be technologically advanced, as Edwin finds out when he witnesses them mining. But he then feels the effects of the drug wearing off, and after some existential anxiety (“would I remain thus disembodied, an ionized brain, afloat through all eternity?”) lightning strikes and he is able to make it back to Earth. The narrative ends with Edwin contemplating a return visit to Venus, if he can procure more of the drug. The story’s framing device establishes that he was subsequently found in a trance and died shortly afterwards, indicating that he did indeed manage to make another journey – but this time never returned home.

“The Roger Bacon Formula” ultimately belongs to the science-fiction-travelogue mode that was common in Gernsback’s Amazing but later fell out of fashion, for the obvious reason that it tends to make for a static narrative. It is a testament to the ability of Fletcher Pratt (again credited alongside his non-existent co-writer Irvin Lester) that he is uses the travelogue format to create a story which, even today, remains an engaging read.

“Cauphul, The City Under the Sea” by George Cookman Watson

Archaeologist Sidney Gregden is placed by his friend Darby Ross in charge of an expedition to study Mayan ruins. One of the finds made during the dig is an inscribed metal disc; Ross’ bodyguard John Kelly sees it and announces that he has a similar object in his possession: it was given to him by his grandfather, who found it while sailing in the Azores. One of the assembled researchers – Professor van de Gould, an expert in ancient languages – takes this as evidence to back up his theory that the Mayans were related to the Phoenicians. After another round of discussion – and the discovery of a parchment – they are on the trail of the land that formed the centre of this trans-continental migration: Atlantis.

It does not take long for the researchers to find the entrance to this sunken but still-occupied city. The first Atlantians they meet are two men (“clean shaven, light in complexion, with high foreheads, prominent noses and wide cheek bones… dressed in tunics, apparently of linen, and golden in color”) who guide them to the interior of the lost civilisation:

Wonderful fountains, without water, appeared on either side of us, and for some time we walked through the grandeur of what appeared to be an ancient pantheon. We proceeded about two miles, always descending, and along a path some eight or ten feet wide that had an appearance of being traveled for centuries. Overhead, at a height of from 50 to 200 feet, was the ocean-bed roof, while all around us, seemingly coming from no particular spot, was the soft greenish light.

The Atlantians turn out to be familiar with the surface world. Indeed, in 1873 a group of them made an expedition to the upper regions and were encountered by a sailing ship, the crew of which they took back to Atlantis with them to prevent their secret from getting out (the ship in question, of course, was the Mary Celeste). Another subject of a famous disappearance – Johann Salvator, son of Leopold II – likewise ended up in Atlantis.

The author spends time describing the Atlantian language, identifying it as an amalgam of Early Phoenician, Old Hebrew and Maya and establishing that it has a letter for the gh sound, called “gay” (“For example, the word ‘gold,’ instead of ;g-o-l-d,’they spelled it ‘gh [gay] -o-l-d'”). We also learn something of the local politics: Atlantis has ten princes, each of whom rules for one day of a ten-day week; the eleventh day is put over to religious observance. The national history blurs into mythology, with Atlantis supposedly founded by Atlas 30,000 years ago, the inhabitants later descending into catacombs to avoid natural disasters; other deities to turn up in Atlantian religion are Poseidon, Cleito and Virachocha. Technology, too, is a topic of discussion: the Atlantians have not only harnessed electricity, they have invented telescopes and cameras that pass through the fourth dimension, allowing view into other time periods. Still another aspect of Atlantian life covered at length is its legal system, illustrated by an anecdote about the execution of a prince’s daughter.

The undersea world is also home to an underclass, the Deep Folk, who resent being denied full citizenship. Rather predictably, the researchers’ trip is cut short by a Deep Folk rebellion.

Unlike “The Roger Bacon Formula” elsewhere in this issue, “Cauphul, The City Under the Sea” (the author of which appears to have published no other work) represents the travelogue mode at its more static. Stanton A. Coblentz tackled essentially the same premise with better results in The Sunken World.

“Absolute Zero” by Harold Moorhouse Colter

In 1925, the small hamlet of White Manitou receives a hydro-electric power line; shortly after this a travelling salesman sells an electric refrigerator to local miser Philander Jones. Captivated by this gadget, Jones becomes obsessed with the goal of obtaining te zero temperature: “he had established an elaborate liquid air plant in the second story of his house. There were electric gas compressors into which cold water ran and came out steaming. Philander presided over this like a hoary old wizard.” The miser begins going on raids for iron to use in his experiments – until he suddenly dies under mysterious and gruesome circumstances:

The next morning Mr. Jones was found dead, crushed to a shapeless pulpy mass. It appeared as if something had fallen on him from a tremendous height and had carried his body through two floors to the basement. But this theory was proved impractical owing to the fact that the roof of the house was uninjured.

I happened to be there when his body was removed for burial. There were pieces of thick glass mingled with the flesh. I made some investigations on my own account but was unable to explain satisfactorily the results of my enquiries.

The story’s bewildered narrator can discern that Jones was killed by a large glass vessel (forming part of the liquid air apparatus) falling on him, but cannot understand what could have pushed the object downwards with such force. After some investigation, our unnamed protagonist hits upon the answer – Jones’ attempts to obtain absolute zero succeeded in producing a substance of immense density:

Neutronium! That was the answer. A single electron united with a single proton to form a substance of which only one cubic inch would weigh sixty million tons. The cold of the vessel had made the mad whirl of the electrons about their nucleus cease. Electrical conditions were suitable for the union which took place. Oddly enough, the cold walls of the vessel retained the neutronium which gathered on the bottom of it. The deposit was only a slight discoloration but it weighed many tons. The fact that the table collapsed the moment that Mr. Jones was beneath it was a strange coincidence but may have been due to the extra vibration caused by his fall. Once the tremendous weight started in motion, it was almost resistless.

While Amazing’s forays into the mystery genre all too often amounted to little more than standard detective yarns in which the sleuth happens to have a lie detector, “Absolute Zero” turns out to be a solid locked-room enigma with a satisfying explanation. The author appears to have no other published works of fiction.

Discussions

Once again the magazine treats us to a lively letters column.

H. W. Finlay is inspired by Samuel M. Sargent’s “The Telepathic Pick-up” to discuss the possibility of detecting thought waves with a radio receptor, although the editorial response is unimpressed: “We believe that it is going too far to take seriously the idea that there are such things as thought waves or that they are analogous to what we may call radio waves.”

Howed J. Bradforde requests sequels to E. E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (given time, he would get his wish). Booth Reed also writes in about this story, this time questioning its physics: “If a vacuum had been created around the ‘Skylark,’ would the occupants have been able to discharge their ‘X-Plosive’ from the space-flier? Wouldn’t the sudden (too sudden) change from the white hot heat to the snow and frost covered space-flier have ordinarily split the metal?

R. Ross objects to Amazing’s title (“in calling it that you attract to it the people who want to be amazed, not those who want to read good Scientifiction”) and cover art (“I have not bought many of your issues because of their exceptionally gruesome covers”). While many readers have written in requesting stories of trips to other planets, Ross does the opposite:

Please don’t try to satisfy the demand for interplanetary stories. The real good ones of that class are few and far between. The others just go through the routine. It is certainly very queer that every space flyer that starts for another planet usually gets there or at least out of the earth’s atmosphere to another world.

Interestingly, the editorial response concurs with this low opinion of the subgenre:

We feel as you do about our interplanetary stories. But the trouble is that our readers want them; they tell us so in their letters. It is fair to say the interplanetary stories must involve some absurdities. The acceleration has got to be such that no living creature could stand it. We must give some interplanetary stories. We hope that your letter will be read by many of our present or prospective authors.

Leslie F. Brunk announces the shocking revelation that a letter in the October 1928 issue from G. N. Garrison, pouring sarcastic scorn upon a reader who insisted upon correct grammar, was plagiarised from William Cower Brann (or “Mrs. W. C. Brann” as Brunk curiously refers to him). “It is a sad commentary on human nature that so weak a passion as vanity should lead a man to do such a thing” opines the editorial response.

L. A. Putnam criticises the magazine’s critics: “Any man or woman who reads a book, magazine or paper that is published weekly or monthly, and finds that he must criticize, I would advise not to read any more of its copies, as it will do him more harm than good, for he is bound to be more or less skeptical and therefore, he will not get all the good out of the literature.”

Milton Emlein objects to how the letters column is handled: “like too many other magazines, yon have committed the abominable editorial fault of calling for criticism and then attempting to overbear and crush those comments by the mere weight of your position. If the criticisms—which you called for—are good enough to print, they ought to stand on their own merits or at least be attacked from the standpoint of logic and none of the author knows enough about this subject, etc. Does one have to be a Bacon to criticize Shakespeare?” Switching the topic, Emlein then contributes to ongoing debates about the fourth dimension by quoting excerpts from Henry Parker Manning’s The Fourth Dimension Simply Explained, a book from 1910.

The letters column also has a contribution from one of Amazing’s fiction writers, Dr. Miles J. Breuer, in which he takes aim at fellow contributor W. Alexander. He starts his letter with a short spoof story about an astronomer using a device to change the colour of the moon and knock it about the sky, before declaring that Alexander’s stories of organ transplantation are just as loose with biology as Breuer’s parody is with astronomy:

If Amazing Stories were some sort of a burlesque refuse-heap, the sport of innocent clowns, that might get by. But the stories in this magazine are supposed to carry an air of plausibility with them; they are supposed to be built on some sort of foundation that has at least an appearance of being scientific […] Mr. Gernsback would never permit such a raw fizzle as this to get by him in the field of physics, chemistry, or astronomy. But they get by him in the field of biology, especially the highly specialized department of biology. Why not get someone with a thoroughly trained biological, especially medical mind, to pass on that class of material?

Gernsback responds by citing the work of Dr. Serge Voronoff and unnamed German investigators as evidence that Alexander’s stories may not be as implausible as they seem – and, indeed, the history of organ transplantation has proven Gernsback right.

The letter has a curious footnote: Miles J. Breuer may have been laughing at his own expense here, quite literally, as there is a theory that he and W. Alexander were actually the same person. This theory, discussed by Mike Ashley in The Gernsback Days, is based on the fact that the June 1927 issue of Amazing includes an editorial comment crediting Breuer with “New Stomachs for Old”, a story that had been attributed to W. Alexander when published.

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