A man in exotic green-and-white garb recoils at the sight of a large spherical device hovering through the air. The purpose of the machine is not entirely obvious, but the fact that it is passing over the prone bodies of five men indicates hostile properties: the man in green had best be careful, lest he end up as the sixth casualty. It was March 1929, and Amazing Stories was back for another issue.
Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the month is “Our Amazing Stars”:
What is the reason for this tremendous aggregation of suns throughout the visible universe? Of what purpose are they and why are they in existence in the first place? Astronomical calculations repeatedly have proved that these suns are not at all stable as far as their lives are concerned, but that they go through definite cycles, the same as a human being. They are born in a glory of blaze, become hotter and hotter as time goes on, and when eventually they reach their maximum, they decline from the blue-while star at the zenith of their stellar life, to yellow, then red, and finally they become dead suns, giving forth no more light.
The stars have little bearing on the stories in this issue, however, as the latest batch of Amazing protagonists are a comparatively earthbound lot – albeit not always for lack of trying…
“The Airlords of Han” by Philip Francis Nolan
Here we have the sequel to “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” which continues the exploits of Anthony Rogers – a hero who found fame in other media as Buck Rogers (a comic strip starring the character had already stated in January 1929). The first story was a swashbuckling adventure that established Rogers and his comrades as futuristic counterparts to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, taking swords against the world-conquering Han regime from their forest retreats. “The Airlords of Han”, on the other hand, is focused far more on high-tech hardware:
“Those ships can’t climb out of deep holes, Boss,” he was saying excitedly. “Lay a big barrage against them—no, not on them—in front of them—always in front of them. Pull it back as they come on. But churn h—l out of the ground in front of them! Get the rocketmen to make a penetrative time rocket. Shoot it into the ground in front of them, deep enough to be below their canopy ray, see, and detonate under them as they go over it!”
The “yellow peril” racism of the first instalment is toned down this time around, with the story spelling out that the Han villains “looked little like the Mongolians of the Twentieth Century” and establishing that their vices arise not from their traditional culture but from the decadence caused by technological advance:
These public view and visitation projectoscopes explain that utter depth of laziness into which the Hans had been dragged by their civilization. There was no incentive for anyone to leave his apartment unless he was in the military or air service, or a member of one of the repair services which from time to time had to scoot through the corridors and shafts of the city, somewhat like the ancient fire departments, to make some emergency repair to the machinery of the city or its electrical devices.
Why should he leave his house? Food, wonderful synthetic concoctions of any desired flavor and consistency (and for additional fee conforming to the individual’s dietary prescription) came to him through a shaft, from which his tray slid automatically on to a convenient shelf or table.
At will he could tune in a theatrical performance of talking pictures. He could visit and talk with his friends. He breathed the freshest of filtered air right in his own apartment, at any temperature he desired, fragrant with the scent of flowers, the aromatic smell of the pine forests or the salt tang of the sea, as he might prefer. He could “visit” his friends at will, and though his apartment actually might be buried many thousand feet from the outside wall of the city, it was none the less an “outside” one, by virtue of its viewplate walls.
Rogers engages in much derring-do and experiences many near escapes, but eventually he and the other American rebels succeed in vanquishing the villainous Hans. With world peace established, scientists conduct research and find that the defeated Hans appear to have been the result of crossbreeding between humans and an alien race that landed on Earth in the late twentieth century:
Latterly, our historians and anthropologists find much support for the theory that the Hans sprang from a genus of human-like creatures that may have arrived on this earth with a small planet (or large meteor) which is known to have crashed in interior Asia late in the Twentieth Century, causing certain permanent changes in the earth’s orbit and climate.
Geological convulsions blocked this section off from the rest of the world for many years. And it is a historical fact that Chinese scientists, driving their explorations into it at a somewhat later period, met the first wave of the on-coming Hans.
The theory is that these creatures (and certain queer skeletons have been found in the “Asiatic Bowl”) with a mental superdevelopment, but a vacuum in place of that intangible something we call a soul, mated forcibly with the Tibetans, thereby strengthening their physical structure to almost the human normal, adapting themselves to earthly speech and habits, and in some strange manner intensifying even further their mental powers.
It is open to debate whether this development makes Nowland’s saga more or less racist, but it could well be evidence that he had come to regret the demonization of a real-life race that occurred throughout the first story in the series and had attempted, in an admittedly clumsy manner, to rectify matters.
The introduction of aliens into a story that had, up until that point, made no usage of space travel also marked the direction in which Rogers’ adventures would take, as he became much better known as a hero of space opera.
Into the Green Prism by A. Hyatt Verrill (part 1 of 2)
This story is narrated by an archaeologist to travelled to Ecuador and discovered a number of hand- crafted beads, so tiny that the details could be seen only under a microscope (as a footnote informs us, the author is here drawing inspiration from real life: “such beads were actually found at Manabi, Ecuador by Prof. Marshall Saville of the Museum of the American Indian Heye Foundation, and are on exhibition at the museum in New York City.”) The narrator’s mentor, Professor Ramon Amador, is fascinated by this discovery and declares that the prehistoric beads could only have been created with the aid of magnifying lenses. Despite the protagonist’s skepticism, the two set off together in the hopes of finding such lenses.
Exploring the jungle, they find carvings “far superior to any Maya, Aztec or Inca work” along with objects that had somehow been plated with gold. They also come across a green mineral that arrived via meteorite, and evidence that fragments of this substance (which the professor dubs Manabinite, in honour of the local Manibi tribe) were used to make lenses.
Amador tries to fashion the mineral into a lens of his own, with unsatisfactory results. Then he makes an unexpected discovery when he sees a chunk of Manabinite seemingly transformed into a giant insect. It turns out that the mineral has the ability to not only magnify objects but to project their images:
“Santa Maria! how I stared, speechless, startled, even terrified. The Manabinite had vanished, and in its place I saw a monster, a huge, a gigantic insect; an enormous bug! His great cold eyes seemed fixed upon me balefully, his hairy legs seemed poised, tensed, ready to spring. I could scarcely believe my eyes. Never had mortal eyes gazed upon such a creature. Cautiously, grasping a stout stick, my curiosity overcoming my first fright, I stepped towards the table the better to examine the giant insect. Then the incredible happened!
“The huge insect vanished before my eyes, disappeared completely, instantly, and in his place, just where I had left it, was the piece of Manabinite! […] It was impossible, incredible, but true. Chance, accident, fate, perhaps the good God Himself, had produced the results I had labored in vain to achieve. The shattered bit of Manabinite had taken on the form that enabled it to project a stupendously magnified image of an object near it. And, most marvelous, most wonderful of all, in doing so, it became itself invisible!
The mineral is clearly functioning as a prism, albeit one with very strange properties (“But how the miracle is accomplished, why the crystal itself vanishes when it magnifies an object, what becomes of its color, what the optical principles and laws that govern it may be — these are all unsolved mysteries, matters to be worked out”). The professor offers a scientific explanation:
“By crowding more than the normal quota of electrons into any object, or by forcing some of the normal quota out, we produce various waves—heat, light, radio, X-rays and what not. And my experiments and my exhaustive calculations have proved, to my own satisfaction at least, that Manabinite, when in the form I have made, has the power of altering the normal movements of electrons in objects placed in a certain relation to it and of reforming these electrons to produce a greatly enlarged replica of the object. Also, I know that in so doing, the Manabinite itself is reduced to electronic movements and actually becomes a portion, an integral part of the increased object.”
The protagonist is bewildered by the implications of this: “you infer that the object itself is enlarged, and that what we look upon as an image, a product of light and shade, is a bona fide object, the same object increased in size! Why, man alive, in that case, we could touch and handle the magnified edition of the object. Utter nonsense, Ramon, that is absolutely impossible!” The professor, however, argues that this is not so far removed from modern technology:
“We can and do transmit pictures—visible moving reproductions of people and other things—for hundreds and thousands of miles through space—by means of television apparatus. You may see a miniature man or woman on the screen of your television receiver. But that does not mean that the actual person has been transported bodily and reduced in size. The original at the transmitting end is still intact, living and unaffected.”
Further experiments reveal that the prism is powerful enough to magnify individual atoms, as the narrator learns when he witnesses “thousands, millions, trillions perhaps, of pale-blue globular objects; translucent, with radiating internal lines; objects that reminded me of globular jelly-fishes, and each and every one whirling, rotating upon its axis and about each of its fellows.” Curiously, however, the prism will not reveal the atoms that comprise any substance of animal origin (“It has something to do with the vibratory waves of animal tissue” says Ramon).
The story’s first instalment ends with the indication that the professor is growing increasingly obsessed with his discovery – perhaps dangerously so. All in all, an intriguing beginning to Amazing’s latest A. Hyatt Verrill novel.
“The Face of Isis” by Cyril G. Wates
A man named Pete bumps into his old classmate Elliott Courtland, who shows him an unusual object: the sarcophagus of the Fifth Dynasty Egyptian ruler King Kutamen-Pash. When Pete points out that an inscription on the sarcophagus resembles the diagram of a machine, Courtland launches into a peculiar narrative…
The account begins with Courtland heading off with his mentor Dr. Myron “Waddles” Wadsworth on an archaeological trip. Wadsworth believes that the Egyptians travelled across the Atlantic and became the ancestors of the Aztecs, and hopes to find evidence of the Egyptians’ travels in Morocco. Sure enough, the archaeological team digs up a Fifth Dynasty Egyptian musical instrument.
The pair then chance to meet an English aviator, Ainsley, who claims to have found something even more significant: an entire temple located on top of a mountain, too high to be seen from the ground. Scaling the mountain, the travellers find the temple, which contains the distinctive carvings and hieroglyphs of the ancient Egyptians. Inside is an 800-foot pit, deep enough to reach down to the interior of the mountain’s base, and after descending the men find a monument to the pharaoh Kut-Amen-Pash: “Here we have proof, not only of the early settlement of Mexico by the Egyptians, but that the expedition was actually led by Pharaoh himself.”
The Professor translates some of the hieroglyphics and reads an account of the Pharaoh, “who setteth foot upon the face of Isis”, travelling far away in a journey somehow connected to a certain rock. At first, this would appear to reinforce the theory of the Pharaoh travelling to Mexico – but the Professor comes up with an even more remarkable interpretation. Noting that Isis was a lunar deity, he proclaims that the text describes the Pharaoh landing on the Moon with the aid of “some mineral substance which, under certain conditions,” had the power of becoming opaque to gravity” (“Like cavorite in Wells’ book,” exclaims Courtland, acknowledging the story’s debt to The First Men in the Moon). The mountain-deep pit, then, must have served as a vast cannon out of which the Pharaoh’s vessel was launched.
The two men conclude that this mission must have been a failure, as the Pharaoh would not have made adequate protections against the cold of space. However, armed with modern scientific knowledge, Courtland and Wadsworth are in the perfect position to improve upon the methods of this ancient Egyptian space-flight. Back home, the two re-create the Egyptian spacecraft as best they can, and try to prepare themselves for the impending test-drive, and contemplate the prospect of undertaking a journey that they had hitherto considered the realm of fiction (Courtland “thought of the dramatic effect, with which Verne described the emotions of the three adventurers shut up in the projectile, as they waited for the pressure of a button to blast them into space…. He tried in vain to bring his mind into the state which all writers of fiction regard as indispensable to such a time. But somehow, it wouldn’t do!”)
But the launch is a disaster: while something happens, paralysing the Professor and destroying a number of nearby trees, the vessel never leaves the ground. After further investigation, the Professor concludes that the mineral acquires anti-gravity properties when combined with a specific alkali, the identity of which has been lost to history. Without it, the would-be space travellers had ended up increasing gravity rather than negating it.
“The Face of Isis” is an of-its-time story, and quite charmingly so. Like many Amazing contributions from this era, it not only draws upon Wells and Verne, it has its characters namechecking these authors during the course of the story. At the same time, it reflects trends from well after Wells and Verne wrote their stories of lunar travel: Tutankhamun’s tomb had been discovered in 1922, and its hold on the popular imagination remained throughout the rest of the decade.
“The Worm” by David H. Keller
A valley community has dwindled as resources dried up until only one resident is left: the reclusive John Staples, reclusive miller, who remains in the mill that his family has inhabited for centuries. On Christmas Day 1935, Staples is surprised to hear the sound of grinding, even though his mill has been disused for fifty years.
Investigating the matter over the following days, Staples concludes that the noises are caused by something that is somehow eating through the solid rock upon which the mill was built – as evidenced by a vast tunnel appearing in the mill’s foundations. He blocks the hole with cement, but is then troubled by a different set of noises. Whatever ate through the stone is seemingly eating through the cement, as well. He tries to fill the hole with water, but to no avail. Then, he comes face to face with the creature responsible for the disturbance:
In front of him was a black wall on which the light played in undulating waves. It was a wall and it was moving. He touched it with the end of his rifle. It was hard and yet there was a give to it. Feeling the rock, he could feel it move. Was it alive? Could there be a living rock? He could not see around it but he felt that the bulk of the thing filled the entire cellar and was pressing against the ceiling. That was it! The thing was boring through the first floor. It had destroyed and filled the cellar! It had swallowed the river! Now it was working at the first floor. If this continued, the mill was doomed.
As the mill is steadily eaten away, Staples himself is consumed by his Ahab-like determination to destroy “the Thing”. In a twist prefiguring Ray Bradbury’s “The Foghorn” we learn that the giant worm had spent the last two centuries burrowing towards the mill because it mistook the grinding sound for a noise made by a member of its own species.
David H. Keller was an Amazing regular who seems to have been at home in horror at least as much as he was in science fiction. With “The Worm”, he delivers a story that feels like an attempt to replicate Poe – in terms of subject matter, if not necessarily in writing style.
The issue closes with another round of readers’ letters. Verne Denney comments on Geoffrey Hewelcke’s “Ten Million Miles Sunward” (“in the story I have been referring to, the author says the comet passed 18,000,000 miles from earth. In 1770, according to Flammarion in ‘Popular Astronomy,’ the comet of Lexell passed 150,000 miles from earth, yet no ill effect was felt, though the earth passed through the comet’s tail.”) Ruth Chaoderdon questions the astronomy in Clare Winger Harris’ “The Menace of Mars” and comments that E. E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space “was very good, although the third instalment became somewhat too ‘slushy.'” R. A. Eades joins an earlier conversation about the properties of light (“what would happen if we went at twice the velocity of light in a direction directly opposite to that of a beam of violet rays coming say from some star? Their frequency would be trebled, i.e. they would no longer be violet rays, to us, but would go far beyond into the realms of ultra-violet rays [almost actinic rays] and we would get “sunburnt” if we exposed our skin to them”) while George Mulholland has a question about the speed of sound. George Lasky points out a flaw in Clare Winger Harris’ “The Miracle of the Lily”: “she mentions the hero finding a beetle, after all of the insects on the earth had been killed off; I do not understand how it got there unless by spontaneous generation, which has been disproven.”
“In the October issue of the Amazing Stories, I noticed that a woman reader is heard from” writes Lovina S. Johnson. “I was glad to know that there are other women readers of my favorite magazine, than myself.” She goes on to defend the magazine’s sometimes-derided covers (“I am not ashamed to be seen carrying an Amazing Stories magazine. Those who make fun of its cover do not know of the fascinating things the magazine contains”) and weighs in on the topic of romance in stories (“I noticed that some of the readers wanted a little of the ‘love element’ in the stories; personally, I do not care whether there is a ‘love element’ in them, or not.”) The editorial response alludes to the 19th Amendment, ratified less than a decade previously: “We are very glad to say that you are not the only member of the fair (and voting) sex who writes us nice letters and who contributes to our discussions columns.”
Cover art is a recurring topic this month. 19-year-old Alice Franklin defends the covers with an anecdote about how the colourful August 1927 issue caught her eye in a newsstand, while H. V. Goord is more critical:
If I buy the book, immediately my friends see it they say, “A penny dreadful,” “Blood, and thunder,” and similar remarks. I don’t like to be thought of or described as a reader of penny dreadfuls. Nor do I like to hear the only magazine I have ever had a real interest in, described as “trash.”
Another reader commenting on the magazine’s artwork is 17-year-old James Whiting Saunders, who starts with Frank R. Paul’s cover for the September 1928 issue:
In the first place I notice that the cover is at least human (though of course it isn’t, after all); at any rate nobody would mind showing it to old aunt Agathie or old uncle Zeb. To tell the truth I was surprised, I actually mean it, surprised. I didn’t believe that I had Amazing Stories. Many more covers like this and you’ll make hundreds of friends that have been hitherto frightened away by the frightful fancies of Paul. Now perhaps I don’t mean that exactly. Paul is all right as long as he doesn’t draw a human being from the rear. When he does that, the faces are frightful. And then, sometimes the faces are, anyway. Paul may be competent at drawing machinery, but when it comes to humans (as a rule) they’re not humans, but monstrosities.
…before moving on to R. E. Lawlor:
Lawlor’s drawing of “The Head” in the August issue was a perfect nightmare. In fact, both aunt Agathie and uncle Zeb would have been disintegrated by it. If any human faces ever looked like any of those in the picture, then I claim no kin to the human race; to them, a gorilla is a handsome creature—one to be aped by every one (yes, that was intended!) I’m glad I never dream—at least I don’t remember any—for if I did I might be compelled to have a squad of detectives around.
Harry Alonzo Barnes, who requests a pronunciation guide for scientific terms, defends the magazine’s illustrations:
I have given much thought to the illustrations and the style of cover which has received such a deluge of burning and specious criticism. It is impossible to find one thing which will please the multitude. Criticism is the xiphophagus of modern literature. Amazing Stories contains the most unusual type of fiction that is published in the United States today. Is it not all in the line of good policy that the illustrations should be as extravagant and apparently preposterous as the stories which they illustrate?
Ten-year-old Richard L. Geiger discusses his favourite authors: “Please don’t put in so many “Scientific Detective Stories” as they really have no science in them at all. Interplanetary stories are good and some of them contain good science.” “We are delighted to hear from so young a reader,” runs the rather condescending editorial response, “but if he will wait for about twenty years, he will adopt a more moderate tone of criticism”. J. Gibson requests more reprints of Edgar Allan Poe (“To my mind, Poe is the genius and the inventive mind that first brought Scientifiction into being. He is greater than all your other marvelous writers and I must confess that it was really his name that made me actually read Amazing Stories.”)
P. H. Wood attacks the writing style of A. Merritt:
Surely the superficial bombast of his glittering and gaudy wordiness must be painful to others, as well as to me. The “Moon Pool” was a source of real grief, for never, in all my reading, have I sat on the reviewing stand before such a wearisome procession of chocolatecoated and honey-dipped expressions. My mind fairly reeled at the gay colors and weird scenes that were so vague as to he grotesque.
This letter also dismisses stories of fourth-dimensional travel, derides “the use of profane utterances in the stories”, complains that the magazine’s title “smacks too much of the vulgarly sensational, and causes many people to classify Amazing Stories with the putrid stream that is defiling our newsstands”, comments on the stereotype that alien women are always beautiful (“Aren’t there any homely women anywhere in the universe except here on earth? Why must we, of all the creatures in the universe, gaze upon such faces?”) and makes some sardonic remarks upon the physiognomy of Frank R. Paul’s characters: “an abnormally large head or forehead is indicative of one of two things, undeveloped babyhood, or a moronic condition. Eyes that are too bright often mark a lunatic. Perhaps Mr. Paul is indulging in a little delicate satire at the expense of your writers in portraying the intellectual (?) character of the activities of these leading men.”
To conclude our overview of the month’s discussions, John D. Schmidt contemplates the future:
Sometimes authors leap too far ahead into the future and draw almost wholly upon the imagination for their facts. The present age is moving so fast that even ten or fifteen years from now, we will look upon 1928 as quite antiquated.