Amazing Histories, Winter 1929: Gernsback’s Last Quarter

As a medium for the presentation of new ideas, Scientifiction is unsurpassed. It is the cement which unites scientific fact and fancy; the outlet for the idealistic mind

Three men in spacesuits conduct repairs on the hull of their craft. From our perspective they appear to be upside-down; but, of course, such a term has no meaning in space. A second vessel, likewise dotted with tiny human figures, can be seen in the distance.

It was winter 1929, although the image may strike a modern observer as being remarkably close to the space travel that would come into being decades later. Only a few details, like the rudimentary glass spheres worn as helmets or the spacecraft that resembles an Art Deco submarine, serve to date the image as a bygone era’s vision of the future. Amazing Stories had become known for its lurid covers of weird alien creatures and bizarre inventions, sometimes prompting letters of complaint, but the cover to the fifth Amazing Stories Quarterly – the last to be edited by founder Hugo Gernsback – offers a rather more sober vision of the future.

The issue opens with a guest editorial from Frederick Dundas Stewart entitled “Why We Believe in Scientifiction”:

As a medium for the presentation of new ideas, Scientifiction is unsurpassed. It is the cement which unites scientific fact and fancy; the outlet for the idealistic mind capable of seeing beyond the realms of formulae and utilitarianism. Many a valuable thought, otherwise doomed to remain and to stifle within the mind of its originator simply by reason of its immediate inapplicability, finds picturesque expression in Scientifiction, stimulating others who perhaps may use it as a basis for some very practical idea or invention. Even if it serves merely to illustrate or to arouse interest in the possibilities of some technical point, it has fully justified its inception.

“What textbook, what lecturer, can illustrate a scientific principle as forcefully or as vividly as a good Scientifiction story?” asks Stewart, before objecting to how “This valuable use of Scientifiction is too often neglected in favor of the more picturesque and fantastic flights of imagination which frequently characterize it.”

So, what new ideas are presented in Hugo Gernsback’s final Amazing Stories Quarterly? Read on…

“The Evolutionary Monstrosity” by Clare Winger Harris

Biologist Frank Caldwell receives word from an old classmate of his, Ted Marston, who clings to the theory that evolution is caused not by environment, but by “a certain bacterial growth which slowly and continuously changes the cellular structure of living organisms, causing the formation of new tissue and organs, and breaking down the old.” It turns out that Ted has teamed up with another former classmate, a rich fellow by the name of Irwin Staley, to put his theory to the test by speeding up the process of evolution within a laboratory.

The first person Frank meets is Irwin’s wife, who pleads with him to intervene and stop the experiments: “It is my opinion they are guilty of great desecration. One cannot so distort God’s laws without evil results.” Frank dismisses such concerns – until he sees what has become of Mrs. Staley’s pet cat, Cutey:

I have always been very fond of cats, and at one time was nick-named “old maid” because of the fondness I showed for the species. But this unnameable horror! It stood upright on two clumsily padded feet. Furless, its flesh the color of a decaying corpse, it seemed to me a miniature ghoul. The lidless eyes stared up into mine with an implacable hatred. But it was what I presume had once been whiskers that held my half reluctant, half fascinated attention. They bristled separately as though imbued with individual volition.
Suddenly a shrill whining voice spoke and I forced my eyes whence it came. It issued from the tiny, malformed object on the rug; from the travesty on feline beauty as we know it.
“You are wanted in the laboratory. Come at once.”
Yes, that hairless, furless object, no bigger than a mouse, that stood on two feet and gazed at me with deep malevolence, had issued a command, and I could do nought but obey!

Frank does not hesitate to express his disgust: “I think that what you are doing is the most hellish practice since the days of necromancy”, he says. Indeed, he argues that the experiments are the Devil’s work:

“Without the modifying and mollifying influence of a changing environment, evolution is a tool in the hands of the devil.”
“I thought you never believed in his Satanic majesty,” said Marston sarcastically.
“Nor do I now,” I replied heatedly. “I have always maintained that evil was not a positive force, merely negative good; a misdirection, so to speak, of the same forces that can result in good. Just so is evolution a force for good if used as the Creator intended, but woe befall humanity if its laws are tampered with. Electricity is an example of a force that can benefit us or kill us, according as we obey or disobey its laws.”

Frank is still more horrified when he learns that Ted has been experimenting on himself with evolutionary bacteria. Still, he returns to his work and the years pass, until Frank receives word from Irwin’s younger sister Dorothy asking him to visit. She reveals that she has not seen Ted in more than a year, or even her own brother in a week: both have been confined to the laboratory. After coming to blows with Irwin, Frank reaches the lab and finds what has happened to Ted:

I stepped boldly into the first large and well illuminated room.
I say I entered boldly. I did, but with that act my boldness ceased for I was rendered a craven by what I beheld. Upon a cushion at the far end of the room reposed what looked to me like a phosphorescent tarantula. As I gazed with widened eyes and gaping mouth, I realized that it was not of the spider family at all. The circular, central part was not a body, but rather a head, for from its center glowed two unblinking eyes, and beneath them was the rudiment of a mouth. The appendages which had upon first appearance resembled the legs of the spider, I perceived were fine hair-like tentacles that were continually in motion as if a soft breeze played through them.

The evolved Ted Marston explains that he has picked up some new abilities: “The tentacles that surround my body take the place of all the old five senses except that of sight, and in addition to the five senses known to man in your stage of evolution, I have added seven more, and I verily believe more will evolve in time. These tentacles are more sensitive than the radio antennas of your era, and they pick up thought waves with little or no difficulty.” He can even control people’s minds, and announces a plan to rule all of humanity as a God. Through strength of will, however, Frank is able to break through the creature’s mental hold and destroy what was once his friend.

“The Evolutionary Monstrosity” is a solid addition to Amazing’s strand of mad-scientist stories. Like most entries in the genre it owes something to Wells (The Island of Doctor Moreau in particular springs to mind) but author Clare Winger Harris adds enough from her own imagination to prevent things from becoming over-familiar. The story is printed alongside a newspaper clipping which, we are told, inspired Harris to write her tale; the article deals with a Dr. van E. Wallin who, like Ted Marston, theorised that evolution was caused by bacteria.

“The Seventh Generation” by Harl Vincent

Engineer Robert Wright receives a visit from Professor Claude Graham. The Professor, as it happens, has been improving the work of an inventor who “made it commercially practicable to transmit electric power over a concentrated beam of ether vibrations” and demonstrated this technology in 1930, even powering a motor-driven dirigible on a flight from America to Paris.

Thanks to Professor Graham’s enhancements, this technology can now be used to send objects through space: “The action will probably never be fully understood, but apparently the molecules of which the object is composed become disassociated and carried by the beam impulses, resuming their natural relation and assembly when the power is shut off.”

There is more. A mishap involving a kitten has demonstrated that the beam can transport living creatures as well as inanimate objects. Most profound of all, the beam can even allow time-travel:

“While further investigating the action of the first beam, which I have called the ‘Y’ beam, I found that certain impulses of infinitely higher frequency would produce an even more astounding result. The second beam I have called the ‘Z’ beam for identification. The ‘Z’ beam was found capable of transmitting solid objects, including living creatures, not in space but through TIME. That is: it projects such objects in the fourth dimension after the fashion of ‘The Time Machine’ of H. G. Wells. Again, as in the case of the ‘Y’ beam, this projection is accomplished without any harm to the transmitted object.”

The Professor and his assistant George have already visited the year 1450 and the Revolutionary War, while remaining in the same physical area. The next experiment involves travelling through time and space simultaneously, and the Professor arranges to send both Bob and George on a test-run:

As the actuating lever was thrown, Bob involuntarily blinked at the bright purple aura which suddenly surrounded him. He experienced a sinking sensation such as one feels when descending in a high speed elevator.
The sensation became real—he was sinking—in water! All solid support had failed. George’s grip over his shoulder tightened—then released entirely. Bob was submerged—in icy salt water, as an involuntary indrawn breath told him. Opening his eyes, he found himself at the surface again with George floundering about only a few feet away.
“Help!” shrieked George, “I can’t swim, Bob.”
“Don’t worry, old man,” sputtered Bob, blowing like a grampus, “Here I come.” With three powerful strokes he was at the little man’s side—grasped him just as he was going down for the second time.

It turns out that things have gone awry and the two men have landed in the wrong place, leaving them unable to see the Professor’s return signal, and so they have no choice but to explore their new surroundings. The year is 2132, the place Sanscare (“the greatest pleasure city in the world” says one local) located near the Gulf of Mexico, where the skies are filled with futuristic aircraft known as speedboats.

Here, Bob runs into a woman who looks identical to a woman he one loved: her name was Eileen Gummings, and he lost her to another man, “a worthless and vicious idler.” This woman, also named Eileen, correctly deduces that the two men are time travellers: “I know that you two have come here out of the past. I know it by what you may call woman’s intuition, but which is in reality a telepathic sense with which I have the personal good fortune to be endowed to a high degree.”

To his surprise, Bob’s presence incurs the anger of Eileen’s father, Mr. Travis. Even though Bob is a burly fellow (described as “six feet two of erect and solid manhood”) Mr. Travis is able to overpower and abduct both him and George, whereupon he forcibly interrogates Bob as to his origins (“Where do you hail from? Surely from some other world. Or from some other age, if such a thing is possible”).

Behind her father’s back, Eileen explains all to Bob. She reveals that her time has seen contact between Earth and other planets, something that has left Mr. Travis in a state of paranoia: “Father has been obsessed for several years—in fact ever since mother died—with the idea that men were coming from ‘the nothing’ as he called it, to despoil him and to steal his daughter. Poor father! He loves me, and I did not know until to-night that he is the victim of old family history.”

She also reveals that she is a descendant of Bob’s sometime lover Eileen, whose husband built Sanacare on the place of old Sarasota. The elder Eileen came to a tragic end, and initiated a curse on the family that seems to have been fulfilled by the arrival of Bob:

“So brutally was she treated, that she died in less than three years from a broken heart. Her old colored ‘mammy’ laid a curse on the husband and the story of the curse has been handed down through the generations of Travises until the present time—the time set for final fulfillment. Do you wonder father has become unbalanced and that he suspected you two when you came?
“It all reads so real, so true to what has occurred today, that I can scarcely credit my senses. To think that in this day and age, the ancient prediction of an old negro witch should come true!
“The husband of the first Eileen killed himself shortly after her death, leaving the only child, a boy, penniless. This fufilled the first part of the curse. The remainder predicted that the name would be perpetuated for seven generations and that in the seventh there would arrive the first girl child—a reincarnation of the first Eileen.
She was to be wooed and won by ‘one from the nothing,’ an unwitting avenger, who would come with a male companion. The last male descendant of Bert Travis was to be punished thereby for the wrongs his ancestor had perpetrated.”

While imprisoned, Bob is forced to reconsider his optimistic vision of the future:

Bob had, in his own time, thought of the future as a time of idealistic life, of complete understanding between all peoples, of true collective governments and the complete equality and happiness of all mankind. But this city—Sanscare—the great world resort, with all kinds of excesses rampant, with the elite of the entire earth gamboling and gambling, was a hotbed of viciousness.
Its government was evidently run on the principles of Big Business, of one of the great heartless corporations of his own time—with the impossible Travis as its head. Eileen was the one bright oasis in this desert of disillusionment.

George manages to escape, and is tailed by Travis’ personal secret service. Meanwhile, Eileen breaks Bob out of prison by strangling the jailer with a silk scarf (“You’re a brick, Eileen,” says Bob). The two time-travellers are reunited, only to be tracked down by Travis and his police. A fight breaks out, culminating in Travis becoming so consumed with fury that he suddenly dies:

The man was overcome by his own emotions. He stopped short; clutched for his throat; screamed and screamed like an animal in its death throes. His face purpled horribly; his eyes popped from his head. Eileen rushed to his side.
“The vengeance of long ago,” he gurgled. “It’s got me. I’m done. Sorry Eileen—sorry—not been myself—”
He dropped in his tracks, lay motionless. Eileen fell to her knees, bent over the dead body.

Using the futuristic technology at his disposal, Bob is able to return to his own time, after which he realises that the entire adventure was merely a dream. But another dream soon comes true when he is reunited with Eileen – the Eileen of his era. It turns out that she never married; Bob had simply been given false information by her father.

Having drawn on an H. G. Wells novel for inspiration in “The War of the Planets”, author Harl Vincent now gives the same treatment to another Wells classic, The Sleeper Awakes. He seems more interested in heaping great ladle-loads of gooey romance on his narrative than in predicting the future – something tacitly acknowledged by the “it was all a dream” ending.

“The Murgatoyd Experiment” by Captain S. P. Meek

In 1936 an attempt was made to place the world’s armed forces under sole control of a Senate of Nations, but the Chino-Japanese Empire nonetheless continued building its military and eventually started a war in 1967 (“a war of white against color; of the science of the west against the man power of the east and south”). Then, in 1978, the peace-loving Chang T’sen Lo and his protégé Katar Singh successfully converted Asia and Africa to the cause of peace. The only problem facing humanity now was overpopulation: “By 2030, the population of the world had grown to such an extent that it was found necessary to limit somewhat the consumption of food […] It was not until 2060 that the situation became acute. By that time, the population of the world had grown to the enormous figure of thirty-one billions and the average length of life had increased to one hundred and forty-two years through the development of serum therapy made in the laboratories of Tibet and Norway.”

By that time, it has become a scientific possibility to convert energy into matter – including food – but the are problems with the conversation of solar energy, the process of which relies on chlorophyll. Dr. Murgatroyd, a respected biologist, finds the current process too uneconomical and proposes something more extensive: “It is my opinion that it is possible to replace the hematin of the blood by superchlorophyll or some related substance and thus enable mankind to utilize directly the energy derived from the sun.”

Murgatroyd eventually develops a means of using “rays of various wavelengths and intensities” to convert hematin into a new compound that he dubs hemaphyll:

He took the rabbit from the cage and, puncturing its hide, drew a few drops of liquid from its veins into a test tube and held it to the light. The “blood” was a brilliant green and it did not need the analytical tests that he made to assure me that he had indeed changed the nature of the blood in the luckless rabbit from that of an animal to that of a plant.

Subsequent experiments with his creation proved the correctness of his theory. The rabbit was indeed a moving plant, able to assimilate water, carbon dioxide and soil matter and transform them into tissue with the aid of the sun’s rays.

Murgatroyd progresses to experimenting upon “human defectives” (specifically, physical defectives: “There were no mental or moral defectives among them… no one of them had a mental index below 1.7 nor a moral index below 6.9”). They are all enthusiastic volunteers, with one exception: “a young man of about fifty, a Russian, who had inherited the virus of revolution from his forebears. He sulkily replied, that as he had been condemned to be murdered, it was immaterial to him how it was done.”

The first successful test subject is a young woman named Hilda Erickson (“one of the few specimens of the pure blonde type left in the world, as the blonde type had proved very unresistant to disease and consequently had become nearly extinct”). The experiment brings on an immediate change in appearance:

Gradually color was restored to the marble-like body and the parting line between the lips and cheeks began to show again. But what a difference! Gone forever was the coral of those lips, replaced by a vivid green. The rosy flush that had been on her body was changed to a pale green hue, and even the blue of the eyes had a decided green cast.

The story’s narrator Harry Wilbur, hitherto a passive character in the saga, has a tender discussion with his beloved Eileen, the daughter of Dr. Murgatroyd. Since the ultimate aim of the doctor’s experiments is for all of humanity to undergo this transformation, she is concerned about her appearance: “will you love me when I am green like that?” she asks. “I don’t believe that I’ll be pretty when I’m green.”

Meanwhile, Hilda adapts to her new part-plant body (Dr. Murgatroyd’s advice: “Go out and sit in the sun. No, don’t clothe yourself, the sunlight must fall on your skin. Drink plenty of water and should you feel hungry, try eating a little soil”). The changes she experiences are unexpected: she begins eating raw meat rather than soil, and while her mental index remains the same, her moral index drops sharply. Another test subject, Professor Holmburg, reports on his own moral decline:

“On the first day that I was restored to consciousness, I was acutely embarrassed by the presence of Miss Murgatroyd when I was unclothed, although my scientific training allowed me to overcome it. To-day, I would feel little, if any, embarrassment. I feel strong tendencies at times toward prevarication and to-day as I was leaving the laboratory, I secreted a knife in my garments and was about to take it with me, when I suddenly realized what I was doing. It is evident that my mental power has so far held my moral balance true, but there is no telling when it may tip. […] To-day Miss Erickson, who is the farthest along the decline we are all on, caught a young mongoose and eagerly tore its throat and drank the blood and then devoured the body. Two males tried to take it from her, but she fought them off with snarls like an enraged cat. I confess with horror that I was strongly tempted to join them in their attempt at robbery.”

As the professor explains, he is far from alone: “Every one of your subjects has become a moral degenerate. The males and females have invaded each others’ sections of the building, and thievery, lying and promiscuity are the order of the day.” He advises Dr. Murgatroyd to abandon his scheme, or else “change mankind into a race of degenerates that would be below the status of the savage tribes of the nineteenth century.”

Before long the plant-people revolt against their creators, a matter made worse by the fact that they now have superhuman strength and can even withstand bullets. Dr. Murgatroyd is killed, but Professor Holmburg retains enough morality to help Harry and Eileen to escape.

Using the rabbits from Murgatroyd’s earliest experiments as subjects, Harry and Eileen develop a means of reversing the process and turning plant-animals back into animals. Professor Holmburg, despite his physical changes (“He was naked and soiled and his skin had lost its animal characteristics and looked like bark. His hair and beard had grown to immense length and to my horror, it had turned green and resembled shaggy moss”) is still lucid enough to volunteer for this cure. However, it turns out that they are too late: the plant-people have already started to propagate, and within a month their numbers will have grown from a mere thirty to tens of thousands. But as chance would have it, Professor Holmburg turns out to be familiar with a particular species of malignant fungus; he and so he has himself converted into a fungus-man and, in an act of self-sacrifice, wipes out the green menace.

If “The Murgatroyd Experiment” has any value, it is as a case study of how science fiction evolved after its publication. The central idea of humans being converted into half-plant beings to solve food shortages is intriguing and a good starting point for a story, but author Meek is unable to develop the concept beyond the plant-people becoming another batch of rampaging Frankenstein monsters (the only reason the story proposes for the hybrids eating human flesh is that they view the consumption of vegetables as cannibalism; somehow, this is even less convincing than the plot device of the “moral index”).

The simplicity of the plot would have been less of a problem had the story been brisker and punchier. Instead, “The Murgatroyd Experiment” spends a considerable amount of its word-count establishing a future-history that turns out to be largely irrelevant to the climax with the plant-people. The stories that Meek would begin contributing to rival Astounding Stories not long afterwards are more adventure-driven and satisfying – embodying how the Gernsback model (purporting to offer sober-minded visions of humanity’s future) would struggle to survive when putted against unabashedly two-fisted pulp SF.

“The Beast-Men of Ceres” by Aladra Septama

Severus Mansonby, Interplanetary Investigator, receives a strange repot from scientist Calder Sandeson. While flying in an aerocar, Sanderson saw his wife Thelma Lawrence suddenly vanish from the seat beside him: “She gave a short cry, ending in a smothered gasp, and began to fade from my sight, as a picture fades from the screen.” His only clues as to the identity of the kidnapper are a glimpse of a hairy arm and some words spoken in an unknown language. Masonby discusses the case with his operative Cyrus Marlon, and after a round of deduction comes up with the working theory that Thelma was abducted by a race of aliens originating on Mars, as described by his Martian operative Maltapa Tal-na:

“Maltapa says there was an ancient and highly developed race on Mars which had long given itself up to the refinements of abstruse science. Their numbers had greatly diminished, and when the later and more warlike races grew up, they drove them into the remote mountain regions and—well, finally they decided to exterminate them. But when they—“
“Why exterminate them?”
“Some very ugly things were said about them. Martian girls were being missed, and it was rumored they were using them in their biological research. They were said to have become inhuman monsters of incredible depravity. Well, when they found their mountain fastness, they were not there. They were gone, to the last one, and it was supposed they had just died out. Maltapa says they had advanced to where metageometry and the fourth dimension were rudimentary. And that’s all there is to the story—so far. That, and the fact they haven’t been seen or heard of since. It’s not inconceivable that they became hairy men.”

In due course, Masonby encounters just one such hairy man:
The being that appeared in the doorway was of somewhat greater height than an average man of Earth. He stood quite erect and in all other respects resembled themselves, except that instead of clothing he was heavily covered with hair, which overhung his eyes and came well down upon the phalanges of hands and feet. He held a cylindrical object the size of a cigar in other hand.

Despite being armed with explosive cylinders, the Beast-Man is shot down by Marlin. His body then vanishes, leaving not so much as a trace of blood. it turns out that he is not the only one to have disappeared: during the confusion, the invisible Beast-Men made off with Signa Latourrelle, Masonby’s wife. The detectives then receive word of activity on the desolate planet of Ceres and head off to investigate, taking part in space battles along the way:

At fifty thousand miles the Cereans began work in earnest. The shells came in floods, and while hundreds missed, many struck. The ships’ staunch sides were punctured and dented and scraped in a hundred places. The protective netting was badly wrecked, leaving thd ships a fair target. It was an even question whether they could weather another volley.

Arriving on Ceres with a band of Martians, the detectives speak with the disembodied voice of a Beast-Man. He reveals that his species is no longer able to have children, and so has resorted to abducting Earth-women en masse. As a token of goodwill, the Beast-Man frees both Signa and Thelma; but the other women are nowhere to be seen, having been taken into space by their captors in search of still another new home.

The voice goes into further detail about the Beast-Men’s science and technology, explaining how the race has achieved invisibility:

The old nursery theory that a solid body obstructs the sight, is hardly tenable these days. You see your sun, for a time after it has actually passed below the horizon, due, as you, of course know, to the refraction, or bending of the light rays into a curve by the atmosphere. We bend them by other means. That is all. Simple isn’t it?

As for how the Beast-Man can communicate with Mansonby by afar, well, this involves the surprising properties of ether.

The truce having lasted logn enough to provide the necessary exposition, it looks as though the conflict is set to resume. But then comes a twist revelation: it turns out that the earth-women are quite happy to marry the Beast-Men, whose civilisation is technologically advanced and provides plenty of creature comforts. Indeed, the Beast-Men are not even particularly beastly in appearance: rather than having hairy bodies, they simply wear close-fitting garments of fur. The reason for their surreptitious behaviour, it is explained, is because they were wary of Earth’s warlike nature. The story ends with peace made between Earth and Ceres.

It would be hard to argue that “The Beast-Men of Ceres” has aged well, but at the same time, it is easy to see how readers of 1929 might have been captivated. The familiar format of the detective story is transplanted into an interplanetary future, with the sleuth having to deduce not only culprit’s identity but also their species. The futuristic setting is established well, with dialogue introducing us to advanced technology (“Marlin, turn on the super-sound receivers, quick! Set one about 39,000 vibrations per second up to 41,000 and one from 41,000 to 43,000! And focus the ultrasight on that entrance there! Hurry, Marlin!”) and making throwaway references to relations between alien species (“You remember Vemurth Quartz, the girl that won the last interplanetary beauty contest? Well, her father was born on Mercury, her mother on Venus, and she herself on Earth”). It may not stand up to the closest inspection, but we can see the groundwork for much future pulp science fiction being laid out before us.

“The Hollister Experiment” by Walter Kateley

Professor Hollister is researching the causes of dwarfism and giantism in the hopes of finding a cure for both. Experimenting with the thyroid glands of various animals, he uses grasshoppers as test subjects and succeeds in causing one to grow in size – only for it to escape. Shortly afterwards, locals begin reporting the strange sight of a three-hundred-foot-long insect abroad in the countryside…

The authorities try to hunt down the beast, and for a moment it looks as though they have located the giant insect – but it turns out that they have been misled by its cast-off exoskeleton. The grasshopper itself migrates from state to state, becoming so huge that it can devour whole trees and blow down frame houses by flapping its wings. In Baltimore, a tremendous effort leads to the grasshopper being bound by cranes with vast cables, like Gulliver captured by the Lilliputians; but it breaks free and flees to the oceans, never to be seen again.

The story ends on an ominous note: “I only wish to add that scientists are still investigating the possibilities of the thyroid gland; and doctors are making gratifying progress in the use of thyroid extracts.” This tone of concern is reinforced by the editorial introduction: “the time may not be far off, when it will be possible to artificially breed animals or human beings to almost any size desired within reason.”

Stories about giant rampaging insects were nothing new for Amazing – see “The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika” back in the fourth issue – and with the decades of monster movies produced since then, “The Hollister Experiment” can hardly stand out. The story does at least have a fairly inventive approach to structure, with the unnamed narrator spending the climax from a fictitious author’s autobiographical account of witnessing the giant grasshopper’s attack on Baltimore.

“What the Sodium Lines Revealed” by L. Taylor Hansen

While examining Jupiter with a customised telescope (a diagram of which is included as part of the story), amateur astronomer Larone notices something peculiar: “the two sodium lines which are normally black because of their partial absorption by the photosphere of the sun, were flashing yellow at regular intervals. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. There was no doubt about it—the sodium lines were flickering.” Moreover, the flashes occur in numbered sets, including one series of flashes that corresponds with the Morse code for SOS. Larone calls the professional astronomer Dr. Esteban over to investigate, and the two find that the flashing occurs only when the telescope is directed at Jupiter.

The pair call upon a third man – Captain James B. Matthews, who is in charge of his army HQ’s telegraph department – to help with the investigation. Together, the three men intercept a coded message from space, which Matthews transcribes…

All of the above turns out to be a framing device for a story contained within the coded message. The narrator is Davis, a young man whose father is on the run from the law despite being innocent. Fortunately, his father also happens to be an inventor who has built a vessel (“not really bullet-shaped; the base was fashioned more like a carrot”) capable of escaping Earth altogether and landing on Mars. Armed with such supplies as hardtack and dried moose meat, the pair blast off and arrive in the skies of the red planet, witnessing not only the legendary canals but a sparkling white city. Unfortunately, a lever breaks and the vessel is sent outside of Mars’ orbit: “Cheer up. Dad. We have said goodbye to Mars, but you know we have the edge on Alexander. We have plenty of more worlds to conquer!” remarks Davis. The craft (which evidently travels several times the speed of light) continues through the solar system, has a near scrape with Jupiter, and finally crashes on one of that planet’s moons; Davis survives, but his father perishes.

Alone on this alien world, Davis is attacked by a creature resembling a large centipede that wounds his arm; next, he meets an intelligent species: a race of foot-tall beetle-like beings. They are able to heal his arm and take him into their underground city via a globular vehicle. Here, he witnesses a event in which an egg hatches into “a creature about man-size, but cleverly costumed to represent a worm” which then undergoes a strange transformation:

“Then, seemingly from the darkness, it drew a golden thread and began to weave a shimmering cocoon about itself. Under the changing lights—subtly blending— the glossy cocoon grew and stilled, until a butterfly crawled out, keeping its back to the audience and quivering its iridescently golden wings in the orange glow. Slowly it turned—and Good God—it was a woman! I started to my feet with my heart in my throat. The beetle man turned quickly and stroked my boot gently as one would pet a nervous horse, at the same time motioning for me to sit down. I pointed to her. He nodded in a maddeningly indifferent manner and motioned me back to the fur robe. A woman up here, I thought as I took my seat again. Impossible! The chances were but one in a billion that evolution would take the same turn here in this far world under conditions so different. And such a highly organized creature as man? It was a clever illusion instead, I reflected bitterly, put on undoubtedly for my entertainment. If so, it was well done.

“I studied her thoughtfully. From under the cap which held the antenna of the butterfly, it seemed that I could see a black curl. I was at too great a distance to guess the nationality that they had chosen to represent, but the movements of the dance were Oriental rather than Occidental, and had certain steps that reminded me of the Navajo Eagle dance.”

The figure vanishes in “a shower of golden rain” but Davis demands to see her. He is duly taken to her resting quarts, where he finds her wearing “a dark Egyptian-looking costume… she looked like the Beautiful Queen Nefertete come to life.” Communicating with her in mime, he asks where she comes from; she responds by drawing a diagram of the solar system and pointing to the third planet, which she calls Mu (“I remembered that in the language of the Chaldean priesthood, which was already dead in the time of King Hannibal, ‘Mu’ was the word for land’ or ‘place'”). With a further diagram, the woman indicates that she comes from Atlantis; after this, the two find that they have a common tongue in Greek.

The woman, Moa, explains that twelve thousand years ago Atlantis was visited by Martians, who took some of its residents back to Mars; a few thousand years down the line, their descendants were moved to the caves of Jupiter’s third moon, where the atmosphere is closer to that of Earth. Moa is descended from these Atlantian captives on her mother’s side, although her father was a more recent abductee, having been taken from a sailing ship thirty years beforehand (her fashion sense, meanwhile, was inherited from some ancient Egyptians who were abducted along the line).

Davis is later taken to meet a Martian, who turns out to resemble a giant wingless wasp. He asks the alien for help in getting back to Earth but is refused, with the Martian declaring that humanity “has not advanced enough intellectually to make such a communication profitable or even safe.” Through a viewing device, he shows Davis a terrestrial battleship: “It is this sort of thing that we object to. The elements of scientific knowledge in the hands of a race just emerging from barbarism is perhaps the most dangerous period in the evolutionary history of a life type.”

Mars, he explains, abolished war millions of years ago; he goes on to argue that if humans expect help from Martians, then they should in turn be prepared to uplift ants – which, as an egg-laying species, have evolved to become more co-operative than humans anyway. As is often the case with enlightened species from this period of science fiction, the Martian also endorses eugenics, arguing that Earth should take measures to “to keep its unfit from degenerating the race… the first step from a state of the savage. Left to itself, evolution is turned this way and that by environment and circumstances. On every hand we have arrested the degenerate species.” He is appalled to learn that humans send their best into war, rather than using it as a means to cull the unfit.

The Martian is bewildered to learn that, even though the ancient Greeks knew of atoms, modern Earth still has yet to master atomic power: “all of the science of the Ancients was lost after Greece fell”, Davis explains to him. “Rome was only a sort of hang-over. Then came Christianity and the Dark Ages. Oh, we have slumped, but it was a chain of circumstances”.

However, the Martian does provide assistance in one respect. He reveals that his species has invented a means of communication with other worlds via a flashing sodium light; this brings the narrative back to its framing device, as Davis – now preparing to marry Moa – broadcasts his life story back to Earth via Morse code.

The editorial introduction to “What the Sodium Lines Revealed” declares it “a most unusual interplanetarian story that certainly does not follow the general path of stories of that kind.” This is debateable, as the author is clearly using H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon as a general template (the ending, with Davis’ message cut off abruptly and his fate ambiguous, is a direct lift from the Wells novel) with an added dash of romance. That said, the story does have its original touches.

The Martians’ practice of abducting people from various points in human history is novel: “alien abduction” would not enter vernacular for decades to come, and the idea of aliens interfering with human history was still fresh in 1929.

As a final note, “What the Sodium Lines Revealed” is the first story by an enigmatic author: L. Taylor Hansen may have been one of the few women working for SF magazines during this period, or her stories may have been ghost-written by her brother. Still, those who hold to the saw that you can identify a female writer by her descriptions of clothes might like to note the elaborate costumes afforded to Moa…

Ralph 124C 41+ by Hugo Gernsback

The main attraction for the issue is this short novel by Gernsback himself, which was originally serialised in Modern Electrics during 1911 and 1912. The novel’s republication makes a fitting capstone to Gernsback’s tenure as editor of the magazine, although at the same time it does rather underline how – just under two decades later – the story had not dated at all well: by this point, Gernsback and his co-editors had discovered multiple novelists capable of doing a considerably better job than he did. The reprint comes with an editorial introduction that plays up the predictive qualities of Ralph 124C 41+:

It may be of passing interest to note that several of the predictions made by the author when this story was written have already become verities. Notable among these is what, the author termed the Hypnobioscope, the purpose of which is to impart knowledge while asleep. The author was greatly astonished to read the results obtained by J. A. Phinney, Chief Radioman, U. S. Navy, who, having tried the system himself, in 1923, introduced it at the Pensacola, Florida, Naval Training School. Here one may see naval students stretched out on long benches asleep with casket-like coverings over their heads. The caskets contain two telephone receivers through which radio code is sent to the sleeper. It has been demonstrated that the sleeping student can be taught code faster in this way than by any other means, for the sub-conscious self never sleeps. Poor students have passed examinations after being taught by this method.

As it happens, I covered Ralph 124C 41+ in the very first part of this series, so allow me to repeat myself…

Set in the 27th century, the story follows the titular Ralph 124C 41+ (“one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name”) as he falls in love with the beautiful Alice 212B 423, eventually using his scientific know-how to save her from a Martian evildoer.

The thin plot serves mainly as an excuse for Gernsback to take us on a tour of an imagined future, with almost every chapter introducing us to a new technological marvel, be it anti-gravity, synthetic food or stage plays projected into living rooms. Ralph 124C 41+ comes across less as a narrative, and more of a manifesto: here is the future, now let us write about it.

Readers’ Editorials

This Quarterly features another round of editorials about science and science fiction, as contributed by readers. Robert S. Withers makes a case for science fiction as an integral aspect of real-life science: “Scientifiction is constructive. Without it science would be like the old Chinese, alive and living but unprogressive.” Decima Azulay discusses the merits of incorporating the scientific method into fiction: “Stark, barren science is repulsive to many people who would be utterly absorbed in a fictitious exposition of it in the form of literature.” Robert N. Slate imagines the future:

I sit back and think. My mind sees things not yet established as known. Who knows enough to claim it is only my Imagination? Great cities flash before my mind, great machines perform their duties without the hand of man. Above in the sky machlnes fly by so fast the eye cannot realize it. The timetable from New York to London reads one hour. Men figure in four dimensions. I listen to music from planets outside of our solar system—so far in miles, so near in time. Ah! Here is a message from Mars saying they have discovered what ether is. War is a thing of ages before. This civilization is one of truth and exploration. We all co-operate. We have no system of lords, we are truly all equal, no longer verbally so. We are conquering everything. We know how to get a full winter’s heat out of a glass of water. Conversation is no longer necessary. We read each other’s thoughts.

C. William Smith argues against the notion that human knowledge shall ever reach its limits:

Some writers have already predicted a day when all knowledge shall be ours. They imagine a civilization troubled by no loves, hates, wars, famines, deaths, or disasters of any kind. What a dull and cheerless world to live in! Their predictions may come true but the possibility seems to grow fainter each day […] no modern Jules Verne can yet describe the boundaries of knowledge nor even begin to imagine a day when the minds of men will become stagnant because of the solving of all the riddles of the universe.

Judson W. Reeves responds to an earlier editorial musing over whether Martians might resemble humans, positing that this could indeed be the case if a long-forgotten Earth civilisation had succeeded in colonising Mars:

Roy Chapman Andrews returns from the Gobi with tales of “tools used by human beings 150,000 years ago.” Dr. John Winthrop Sargent, back from the land of the Incas, thinks “men lived in North and South America 200,000 years ago.” Let us wake up our imaginations! Why, civilization after civilization had been born, flourished and passed trackless away, while the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals lay yet in tho dim futurel Yes. even before the Heidelberg Man or the Pithecanthropus Erectusl Any one, or many, of these may have gone afield of their home planet, and left their seed. The Martians are our cousins. We can talk when the line is up.

Harry Henson places great stock in the importance of science fiction:

Scientifiction and science are bound together with bonds as strong as the human mind can forge, for without the latter the first could not progress. Scientifiction. whether published and given to the public in story form, or locked in the brain of some scientist in the shape of speculations or visions of the future, is the basis from which all great things are developed […] as we go on in the future, Scientifiction will become more popular and will win for itself the recognition it deserves as a vehicle for the expression of scientific possibilities and as a stimulator of that desire or urge which has caused man to battle untold obstacles and climb over the mountains of public criticism and ridicule.

Raymond P. Henze delivers a rather flowery outline of the hurdles faced by science fiction:

As a reader, the constant production of scientifiction stories, astoundingly multifarious in plot and science, is sufficient manifestation of a great upheaval in the world of letters. Heretofore, only a few such stories had been published but the majority were decidedly juvenile and ephemeral. Sophisticated society frowned and scoffed at stories having a vaticinated background —excepting biblical revelations. The embryonic author grew up in a bombastic atmosphere, assumed the code laid out for him by publishers of the old school, and writers’ guilds, matched their code as best he could, amistifled all latent desire to be original and to write unhampered on any subject. Who knows what literary treasures of scientifiction were penned and instantly shelved merely to release that pent up longing to write without regard to tradition? Only a few pioneers ventured against these staid opinions and breasted the storm of ridicule that was sure to follow. For that reason Verne and Wells and a few others must always have our respect no matter what we may think of their stories.

Jack Williamson praises the work of Wells and Verne, in the process outlining a distinction between science fiction and science fantasy:

While this form of literature was invented by an American. Edgar Allan Poe, and while America is the land of scientifiction today, Wells and Verne were its first two great masters, and it is chiefly to their work that we must look for scientific predictions that have been fulfilled.

Scientifiction stories can be divided into two general classes. In one. imagination predominates; the other is chiefly scientific. The fascinating romances of Rider Haggard are not likely to be realized. But fantastic as the tales of Wells and Verne sometimes appear, their imaginative structure is based on accurate scientific reasoning; and science is now far past the mark set for it in some of them.

Harold Donitz examines the place of science fiction in the larger literary landscape:

Those who love scientifiction must resign themselves to the cold fact that it has no place in literature, at least no recognition in the time at which it is written. There seems to be an unwritten precept that literature must be based for the most part on analysis of human character and the effect of its environment, or else on other literature. […] Perhaps scientifiction is only of the day, but so, too, is the tiny coral, who adds his dead body to the mighty reef, If an “amazing story” has made one tired man happier by taking him out of this sordid world after his day’s work was done; if it had been read by one inventor, who was influenced thereby to create a device that has added to the comfort and knowledge of mankind—scientifiction has justified its existence.

R. Gordon Reed sings the praise of science fiction writers as a group:

They are authoritative, they are scientific, they are instructive, they are preeminent. Their field is perhaps the broadest and the most exacting of all literature. No farflung, fanciful inspiration for them! They must adhere strictly to scientific principles. Among their readers are students and critics of mathematics, physics, and chemistry, sharks ready to pounce upon the least discrepancy—the smallest exaggeration. Such expert surveillance ensures correctness. The scientifictlonists have studied their subject and are capable of instructing others.

L. Taylor Hansen talks about Aristotle, positing that if the ancient philosopher had seen forward in time to the medieval period, “he would have died of a broken heart.” However,

…if after piercing the elements of time for two thousand years, that old scientist Aristotle could have pushed back the veils for a few hundred more, lie would have been enabled to look into our own age and see a new type of renaissance—the rebirth of science. For as the Elizabethan age was one of exploration and discovery, so our own age is also one of exploration and discovery, the difference being that where the Elizabethan adventurer explored new lands, our adventurers explore new realms in Physics and Chemistry, and we believe now that this second cycle of exploration is but the preparation for a third—the exploration of other worlds and the discovery of new lands across the sea broadening man’s knowledge of his own; while in the field of literature he would have seen the second great period of its history came to flower.

F. D. Harris starts by asserting that “Nothing deserves permanence that does not offer values necessary to human wellbeing and progress.” Does scientifiction meet this criteria? Yes, argues the editorial, in that it offers the values of entertainment (“Nothing is more harmful to human efficiency than monotony, and monotony inevitably results from the lack of proper entertainment”), instruction (“The infallible laws of nature, the bases of the sciences, are set before men who might otherwise never observe and appreciate them”) and the fostering of open-mindedness (“It is notorious that bigotry stood in the way of scientific progress in the past… As the circle of readers enlarges the spirit of openmindedness increases and the future is freed from the curse of the past”).

Purcell G. Schuhe paints a picture of how man’s ability to imagine the future has improved from the Enlightenment onwards:

The folly of unreasonable and untenable ideas are still pictured vividly before him. He has been taught that statements should not be made, predictions should not be enunciated unless they are backed by sound scientific reasoning, theory and fact… He attains the point where, as a result of his knowledge of natural law, he can predict with great accuracy the production of certain results provided certain things are done. He can predict with great accuracy, the absolute evolution of a civilized race.

Finally, Alfred H. Weber declares that “The spirit of scientifiction, whether or not the world in general recognizes it as such, is of paramount importance to the progress of civilization.” Elaborating upon this point, he offers an account of science fiction’s origins, in the process indicating that he disagrees with Gernsback’s general contention that the genre was founded by Edgar Allan Poe:

One day, let us suppose, one of our primordial forbears grasped n sharp piece of flint, inflicting a deep cut in his finger. Probably be was not the first man ever to cut himself in this way, but he was different from the others in that he possessed the spirit of scientifiction. His Imagination was active and slowly his undeveloped mind pieced together a story—one of the first scientifiction stories.

Your Viewpoints

As well as readers’ editorials, the issue has another letters column in which readers discuss the magazine’s contents.

John Pierce praises A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The World of the Giant Ants” on the grounds that it contains no romance. “I hate to spend good money for a ‘different’ magazine and get a collection of cheap, so called ‘romantic’ junk thinly disguised as scientifiction”, he complains. “I can read that sort of stuff in any fifteen-cent magazine.” He also objects to heroes and villains in science fiction: “The average villain is not villainous; he is ludicrous. In a like manner the average hero is not virtuous, he is merely an atavist: an original ‘cave man’ actuated not by he broad perspective which should characterize a scientist, but by the time-worn codes of ‘chivalry’ and childishness.” Verrill’s story, argues Pierce, represents the future of the genre; the editorial response to his letter defends romance as an integral aspect of many canonical literary masterpieces.

Samuel Simon comments on the magazine’s art: “Paul is just the man for your pen sketches and drawings. He has the knack of working out the fantastic machinery in detail, and this is just the stuff necessary for your stories. Your new artist Mr. Lawlor is a wonderful designer, but he is a little green on scientific pictures.”

James Suller finds fault with Bob Olsen’s science in “Four-Dimensional Transit”: “he attempts to explain the fourth dimension. The only thing wrong about his explanations Is that they are all wrong, he merely builds up an ununderstandable explanation on the example of two dimensions, since any object with the aforesaid dimensions is not a solid.” Meanwhile, John W. Reeves objects to Ronald M. Sherin’s “When the World Went Mad”: “The increased gravitational speed of the earth would not do away with gravity, but merely cause the centrifugal force to balance it.”

Finally, M. Galenter comments on a number of recent stories, including “Stenographer’s Hands” by David H. Keller:

Any biologist knows that in attempting to breed a new race there is great danger of some fault being emphasized through interbreeding. This danger did not seem to be considered by the author in picking out the original specimens with which lo start the experiment. At the end of the second century the stenographers were becoming epileptic. This is a disease which is inherited from one’s parents and therefore for the descendent to become epileptics, the originators or one of the originators must have had the same disease.

This letter also criticises the magazine’s covers: “Is there any possible way to change to a more conservative cover design without losing any of your readers? If so, I would look upon your changing the cover as a personal favor. I am rather tired of being classed with the type of reader who devours such magazines as purvey ‘ghost stories.’”

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1 Comment

  1. Interesting that the “we would have colonised Saturn by now if not for those evil anti-intellectual Christians” fallacy appeared so early.

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