My issue-by-issue retrospective of Amazing Stories has reached the final instalment edited by founder Hugo Gernsback; I do intend to cover the work of his successor T. O’Conor Sloane, but not just yet. After all, the ballot for this year’s Hugo Awards was announced last month, and it seems right to mark the moment by spending a little more time with the pioneering (if still controversial) editor after which they were named.
Hugo Gernsback’s involvement with science fiction did not end when he lost control of Amazing Stories in 1929. A few months later he launched Science Wonder Stories, the first of multiple new rivals to his earlier success; its debut issue was cover-dated June 1929 and hit the newsstands with an action-packed scene of two futuristic flying machines colliding in mid-air. Gernsback’s first editorial for the new magazine begins by musing about changing fashions in fiction:
Tastes in reading matter changes with each generation. What was acceptable to your grandparents, was hopelessly out of style for your parents. The literature of your parents—the Laura Jean Libby type of story and the dime novels, Buffalo Bill and Deadwood Dick are laughed at by the present generation. The past decade has seen the ascendancy of “sexy” literature, of the self confession type as well as the avalanche of modern detective stories. But they are transient things, founded on the whims of the moment. For the world moves swiftly these days and with it moves literature also.
Today, he argues, is the era of science fiction. “The telephone, radio, talking motion pictures, television, X-Rays, Radium, super-aircraft and dozens of others claim our constant attention […] No wonder, then, that anybody who has any imagination at all clamors for fiction of the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells type, made immortal by them; the story that has a scientific background, and is read by an ever growing multitude of intelligent people.” Gernsback is not shy about underlining his own role in the genre’s development:
I started the movement of science fiction in America in 1908 through my first magazine, “Modern Electrics.” At that time it was an experiment. Science fiction authors were scarce. There were not a dozen worth mentioning in the entire world. I wrote a number of such stories and novels myself and gradually grouped about me a circle of authors who turned out better and better work as the years went by. I still have the best of these authors with me and practically all of them are writing and will continue to write for this magazine.
He goes on to describe how, prior to setting up Science Wonder Stories, he sent a circular missive to thousands of prospective readers about what they wanted from the new magazine; some of the feedback he received is published in the issue’s letters column. Gernsback also takes the opportunity to lay out the sort of material that he intends to avoid: he derides “pseudo-science fiction of a questionable quality” and the way in which “Over-enthusiastic authors with little scientific training have rushed into print and unconsciously misled the reader by the distortion of scientific facts”. Also under fire are stories of a sexual nature: “SCIENCE WONDER STORIES are clean, CLEAN from beginning to end” says Gernsback. “Teachers insist that pupils read them, because they widen the young man’s horizon, as nothing else can. Wise parents, too, let their children read this type of story, because they know that it keeps them abreast of the times, educates them and supplants the vicious and debasing sex story.”
So, which stories did Gernsback and his collaborators pull together to fulfil this brief? As it happens, the debut issue of Science Wonder Stories combines a few familiar names from Amazing (Fletcher Pratt, David H. Keller, Stanton A. Coblentz) with some newcomers to the Gernsback stable…
“The Reign of the Ray” by Fletcher Pratt (part 1 of 2)
Fletcher Pratt, one of the strongest Amazing authors, returns to the Gernsback fold with what was at the time his most ambitious project to date – once again co-credited to “Irvin Lester”, Pratt’s fictitious collaborator. The editorial introduction admits that “Stories of death dealing and super-natural rays are a novelty no longer in this type of literature” but Pratt’s tale is unusual in its epistolary format: presented as a set of documents compiled in 2055, the story strives to give a credible vision of a Euro-American war in which one side has a death ray.
“The Reign of the Ray” kicks off in the recent past with an incident in 1926. Robert C. Adams invents a ray with deadly powers, but is attacked by a man named Schneider who intends to steal the weapon – only for the building to be destroyed in what appears from the outside to be a chance storm, killing Schneider. After this, multiple American weapons magazines are destroyed in what likewise appear to be lightning strikes, prompting the United States Secret Service looks into the matter.
The narrative switches from the report of American agent Adsill to the diary of Bob Adams, filling in the nature of the Adams Ray. “Finished the big tube”, reads Adams’ description of his experiments with Coolidge tubes. “She eats power like a dozen arc lights, but certainly is a wonder. I could probably blow up every automobile and gasoline station for miles around with it if I were to turn it loose.”
Adams turns out to have survived his apparent death during the altercation with Schneider and relocated to Russia. During the winter of 1929-1930 (stretching the narrative into the near future) he is visited by one Commissar Stensoff, who is interested in the capabilities of his invention. The prospects of an arrangement with the Soviets even enters Adams’ dreams:
Still thinking about Stensoff and his “serious measures” Bob drifted off to sleep. It must have been about midnight when he woke to find the room more than usually filled with smoke, and a choking sweetness in the atmosphere. The fire had burned low. Just visible from where he lay it resembled the eyes of fiery dragons. They seemed to move; the dragons were on the march; he could almost hear the clumping of their heavy feet— beautiful dragons, armored in jade and chalcedony. And he, Robert C. Adams, was the king and ruler of these dragons and measureless kingdoms beside.
They would come to his call, would devour Stensoff, Commissar of the Eschgan, and on their burning wings, bear him across the ocean to his home. They knew him and obeyed him because he had the secret of the tube. He was prince of many magical realms, and these dragons, enchanters he had tamed, were his servants. He could hear shouting crowds waiting his coming. Solomon’s Seal—what was it?—Solomon’s Seal that would evoke the genii of earth and sea, it was his. There was one, now, an ugly, powerful squat geni with great goggling eyes and an absurd long nose between him and his dragons, bowing before him to do his will. The geni was seizing him to bear him off through the air and show him the realms that were his. He could see the straining shoulder muscles of the huge, obedient shape. . .
In an ugly bit of stereotyping, the long-nosed genie in this dream the Jewish salesman Abe Epstein, who acts as a middle-man between Adams and Stensoff. The ray eventually ends up in Soviet hands and, come 1932, Washington D.C. is hit by a sudden series of devastating explosions. One bystander blames the Kaiser, but another correctly asserts that Bolsheviks were responsible. Either way, America’s capital is reduced to ruins, and the story follows the exploits of one citizen – Jim Blunt – as he flees the destruction. An inventor named Hamilton helps him to escape by motorcycle and takes him to a shack containing a fuelless aeroplane:
Jim would have called the airplane an ornithopter if he had known of such a word. It consisted of a light tubular framework in which the operator sat as one sits on a bicycle, with pedals for the feet. Through a complicated system of bands and heavy rubber cords, these pedals furnished the power for the flapping wings, each thirty feet or more long and amazingly light and narrow for their size.
The shack containing this vehicle is suddenly attacked by a group of men in US army uniforms. Hamilton is apparently killed, while Jim is forced to flee again, this time in the flying machine.
Meanwhile, with the president dead, one Admiral Paul de Roebeck is hastily sworn in as president and assembles a cabinet from high-ranking army officials. The unelected president then establishes a state of martial law, with every citizen now required to enrol in the army.
America is not alone in this new war, and ends up allied with Britain, Poland and Germany against the USSR. Sir Evelyn Oldmixon, sometime Member of the British Expeditionary, describes a battle taking place in Poland:
A humming noise rose inside the tube, which swayed a little as a violet glow began to come from it, reflecting on the men about and adding to their ghost-like appearance. I recall how skeptical I was over the performance. I did not realize that I was fortunate enough to witness a performance as epoch-making as the first gunpowder explosion until some time later.
For a few minutes, there was little or nothing to see. Then some flashes from the wood down in front and a sound of machine-gun firing reached us dimly over the noise of the German artillery. I recall wondering what the Soviets thought they would hit with machine guns at that range and turning to Chamberlain to speak about it just as the first ammunition dump went off. It was not very far behind the wood, and there was a perfect pyrotechnic display of rockets and shells soaring out of the piled up flames beneath, clearly visible from where we stood. A moment or two later there was a second burst like it further to the east and then another.
Through all of this, the ray’s inventor Bob Adams remains in the picture:
The President of the United States, Zinovieff, General Hauschildt, Lord Melton—these men are in the foreground and would have been written down in the older histories as the protagonists of the war that changed history. But in reality they were little more than eminently correct and proper marionettes, who played their parts as leaders unconscious of the strings that controlled their actions. If Bob Adams in the background had pulled another set of strings, they would have played other roles equally well.
The story follows the War of the Northern Alliance (as the conflict is dubbed) through 1932, and shows itself to be interested in the philosophy underpinning the ray-powered war at least as much as the destruction on the ground:
The defect of the science of the early years of the twentieth century lay in emphasizing the mechanical at the expense of the psychological— or perhaps we should call it the moral. Science had taught its children to walk without teaching them where to walk, and stood for a moment, helpless, while they walked to the edge of an abyss. With the discovery of the airplane, of high explosives and of poisonous gases, it had placed tremendous forces at the disposal of whoever cared to make use of them and (to change the figure) like a man who presents an idiot with a revolver, stood in danger of being annihilated by its own gifts.
Commissar Stensoff, a major villain and the mastermind behind a plan to ferment workers’ strikes around the world, is described as “the child of the age – the scientific age; who had added a knowledge of the power of modern weapons to the ability and moral obliquity of a politician of the old school.” Furthermore,
He was dominated by a single idea—that of a workers’ civilization, in which the proletariat should be not merely the ruling, but the only force. He believed that even the arts and sciences of the older nations were tainted with a subtle capitalistic poison and contemplated nothing less than the destruction of the whole edifice, which he regarded as too rotten to endure.
In hindsight, it is notable that the story – which portrays communism as the primary menace to peace after World War I – ignores the threat of fascism. When Mussolini turns up as a character, he is given the role of capable strongman against Soviet attacks:
Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit were the scenes of violent street fighting; there was a railroad strike and St. Louis and San Francisco had disastrous race riots to face. In Europe, the Irish Republic was proclaimed and a Republican air force bombed Liverpool out of existence. The ship workers of the Clyde and the miners of Cornwall attempted to organize Soviets, and the hills of Scotland rang with battle. In France and Spain there were obscure and savage social wars. Paris was half-ruined by the few Soviet bombers that reached it and Communists and Whites waged a wolf-like conflict among the ruins. Berlin blazed to the skies under the impact of the Russian bombs, and the Rumanian peasants joined the Soviet armies in their march on Bucharest. Only in Italy, where it was least expected, did Stensoff’s first effort meet with complete failure. Mussolini gripped the Tyrol with an iron hand and extinguished the Sicilian troubles in a stream of blood.
The arms race goes on, with the Adams Ray not the only new weapon on the battlefield. We are told that “Phosgene and the new and deadly ‘Gas Alpha,’ a product of the Soviet laboratories, appear to have been used in about equal quantities.” Studying these Russian gases, German chemists come up with “Tetra”, described as “a lithium compound analogous to sodium thiosulphate [with] the advantage of being gaseous while preserving hypo’s power of absorbing chlorine.”
The ray still dominates, however, and the first instalment of “The Reign of the Ray” closes over the course of 1933-4 with yet more devastation wrought by Adams’ invention:
Though they were, to the end, unable to unravel the formula for the improved tube, they did succeed in producing an impermanent type that with the captures they made, was quite capable of silencing the guns of the Allied powers and bringing their aeroplanes to earth. Conceive the situation. Here were some hundreds of thousands of men who had come from their homes to kill eacth other, standing in muddy trenches and staring at the enemy without any means of inflicting harm. The weapons had been struck from every hand; and the perplexity of rank and file was mirrored in the perplexity of the higher commands who thus saw their plans brought to nought.
“The Diamond Maker” by H. G. Wells
Reprints of H. G. Wells’ stories had served Gernsback well at Amazing Stories, and Science Wonder Stories returns to this practice by publishing a Wells tale from 1894. The story’s narrator meets a man whose bedraggled appearance suggests a life of poverty, yet he speaks of being an experienced businessman. The stranger then claims to be in the business of creating diamonds – and even offers the narrator a precious stone for the modest sum of a hundred pounds.
When the protagonist expresses disbelief, the man describes how, since his teenage years, he has devoted his mind to the creation of diamonds which – unlike the small, dark specimens hitherto produced by chemists – have value as jewels. However, to preserve the commercial value of his creations, he had to do so in secret, working in a squalid room containing laboratory equipment and a straw mattress.
The method he hit upon worked, but had drawbacks. For one, it turned out to be very time-consuming, meaning that he had to scrape by in poverty before seeing the fruits of his labours. For another, it involved the use of explosives – landing the chemist in hot water when a nosy neighbour alerted the authorities (the story was published mere months after executions of the French anarchists Auguste Vaillant and Émile Henry for their bombings, and Wells’ diamond-maker expresses a fear of being mistaken for an anarchist). The fact that he possesses diamonds of dubious origin would only add to suspicion, and so he fled his operations. The story ends with the narrator, who has since lost contact with the man, wondering whether the diamond-maker was what he claimed to be.
“The Diamond Maker” is not one of Wells’ better-known stories, but it demonstrates his ability to incorporate credible science into an engaging character-based narrative.
“Warriors of Space” by J. P. Marshall
This story is the sequel to “The World in the Balance”, which ran a 1927 edition of the Argosy All-Story Weekly (the two stories appear to have been J. P. Marshall’s only published works of SF). For the benefit of any readers who had not sampled that tale, this follow-up recaps the plot of its predecessor early on.
Professor Arthur Maynard receives a telegram from Washington reporting that green globes have been sighted near the Pacific coast. Authorities are concerned, as this suggests a sequel to an event that occurred thirty years previously: back then, a spherical craft (whose commander claimed via telepathy to be an inhabitant of Saturn’s moon Dione) destroyed the Statue of Liberty with a ray as a threat of what would happen unless America surrendered. Many people were killed, but the young Maynard noticed that any gold ornaments they wore were unaffected by the ship’s rays. This gave him the ultimately successful idea of wearing gold armour while destroying the alien ship by using a mirror to reflect its deadly ray back on itself.
Now the Dionians are back, this time with a whole fleet of spheres, and proceed to attack San Francisco. Since the first conflict, however, Professor Maynard has invented a gravity-defying space car – a bullet-shaped craft that he enters with his son Donald and two assistants. Armed with a bladed weapon and protected with gold, the car is able to fight off the globes. This counter-attack leaves only three spheres, all of which retreat.
Weeks pass without another attack from the aliens, until Donald is accosted by a man armed with a cylinder that fires a green ray. After the attacker is killed, Professor Maynard reveals that he was a Dionian spy. Then, the three remaining spheres return and attack the Washington mint, plundering it of gold. The Professor suggests destroying the aliens’ homeworld, a notion that sparks outcry (albeit on the sole grounds that it might also doom Earth):
“Hear me! Hear me! In God’s name, Professor Maynard, are you mad?” It was a European astronomer who cried the words. “We are separated from a planet by millions of miles, a planet that is vastly larger than our own world—and you propose to destroy it! You cannot! You must be mad!
“Do you realize what you would do if you could succeed? The whole planetary system depends on its units as a whole to give it stability. Destroy one of its members and you have destroyed the equilibrium of the whole! Would you attempt to wreck the universe?”
“Yes!” the professor spat out the word. “Rather would I destroy the whole universe than have it at the mercy of a world of human wolves. Is it not better to strike hard for peace and safety and run the risk of quick extinction, rather than to see the world die a lingering death with its peoples subjected to unknown horrors?”
Donald proposes a solution. He points out that the flying car operates by altering the pull of gravity; if a whole fleet of such as were produced, then they would be able to create enough of a gravitational pull to disrupt the orbit of Saturn. The vast distance involved should offer no hindrance: “in space there is no friction, allowing the cars to carry on accelerating indefinitely”, says Donald. “If you can imagine such a thing as infinite speed with that speed constantly added to by an infinite number of miles per second, then you will have some idea of the ultimate speed of the space car”.
And so, when the plan is put into action, the space cars reach a speed of 10,000 miles a minute and arrive in the vicinity of Saturn in a matter of days. Finally, the fleet of cars are able to exert enough of a gravitational pull on the planet to pull Saturn and all eight of its moons into the sun:
Adrift within the field of the sun’s full force, already moving with a velocity so great as to be unrecordable, it rushed straight toward the heart of that fiery mass, carrying with it the eight moons. To the watchers in the cars it seemed eternities; actually it was but a little time before it struck. As the distance grew the girth of the planet became smaller, dwindling until it appeared only as a black marble against a curtain of molten gold. Then—it was gone! Dazzling rays of even brighter hue seemed to leap from the sun, hang quivering, and die. The space cars lurched giddily as the two great masses came together and fused into one. A cry came from one of the men. He pointed a trembling finger at a series of black dots, just as they too became lost in that sea of white heat the eight moons of Saturn, following their master to doom!
The destruction of Saturn causes knock-on effects throughout the solar system, leading to massive tidal disruption on Earth: vast areas of land are submerged, and elsewhere seas dry up entirely. But the day is saved, and Donald (who led the fleet of cars) arrives back home to his father and lover:
“Donald, my Donald, come back to me.” The girl’s eyes were bright with the light of growing happiness. She raised a hand to touch him lightly, as if she were afraid to find him only a shadow.
“My wonder-man,” she breathed, “moulder of a new universe!”
While its predecessor “The World in the Balance” belonged to the sphere of War of the Worlds-derived alien invasion stories, “Warriors of Space” pushes things in the direction of what would now be termed space opera. Examined today, it stands as a transitional fossil from this development of science fiction’s more romantic, adventurous species. The treatment of global genocide as an acceptable solution to interplanetary conflict is typical of early space opera.
“The Marble Virgin” by Kennie McDowd
Respected sculptor Wallace Land is at work on his latest project, “a superb marble virgin seeming to stand at the threshold of all God intended His priceless creation woman to be”. His neighbour Professor Carl Huxhold, a man who “had the shape of head that fiction writers like to ascribe to Martians”, happens by and remarks on how great it would be if the marble could be brought to life.
Land comes to fall in love with his work-in-progress, which he calls Naomi: “I loved her as any artist loves a pet brain-child, a work that he is proud of and responsible for, and that is all. Am I to be blamed if I entertained the wish that she was real?”
Meanwhile, the Professor unveils a project of his own, an invention called the electron dissolver. He demonstrates it by placing a dog inside, and to Land’s horror, the animal disappears (“I gazed at Huxhold as though he were Satan incarnate. This was necromancy, black art, demonology! Conjuration raised to the nth degree, and aided by the bewitchery of a genius in science!”) For his next performance, the Professor places the broken leg from one of Land’s statues inside the electron dissolver, which transforms the lifeless stone into flesh and bone:
It grew whiter, a faint pink then suffused it, and then—the knee bent, and I distinctly saw the toes wriggle! A second later it had collapsed onto the bottom of the cabinet, the stump end, where the marble had parted when the statue was broken, revealing itself as quivering, bloody flesh!
After making the leg disappear in the same manner as the dog, Professor Huxhold explains that the device operates using what he terms Huxhold Rays, which alter the number of electrons in atoms and consequently can change one element into another, even turning marble into flesh. As for the ultimate fate of the severed leg, well: “I shot it forth in dissolved electrons, as I did the dog before! It now inhabits the plane of split electrons, and supposing that it has any shape or form, it is one that even I, Professor Carl Huxhold, do not know!”
The Professor desires to try out his invention on the statue, Naomi. Land refuses to sell his masterwork no matter how large the sum, but is eventually persuaded to loan the statue long enough for it to be brought to life:
Before my eyes, I saw a delicate something—like the roseate tinge of an oyster shell—suffuse what an instant before had been cold marble! A wave of pink flooded her breast and climbed into her face! Her cheeks glowed; between lips suddenly carmine, I saw the gleaming pearls of two, white, perfect rows of teeth. Naomi’s eyes took color—blue like that of an Italian sky, as the Bay reflects it at Naples! I saw dark brown hair fluff up on her head, and saw little tendrils of it escape the soft heat at her temples, to waver in a stirring of the air! Naomi lived!
The two men who had a hand in the birth of Naomi – the sculptor who carved her and the scientist who animated her – get into a jealous scuffle that ends with Land hurrying the woman out of the Professor’s sight. During his time with her, Land notices the “quasi-humorous” nature of the situation:
I had on my hands a girl, young woman, who did riot know the meaning of clothes! She was perfectly content to remain without them, it seemed; running about my workroom like a Sappho, picking up things, dropping them; and always with movements as light and effortless as those of a dancer.
She is initially unable to speak beyond repeatedly saying “oooo”, but over the following days learns a few words. Land educates her in speech, fashion and manners, while Huxhold (“demon spirit of awful, evil genius”) becomes consumed with envy. He forces himself upon Naomi, and after she refuses him, he shoves her into the electron-dissolver:
Naomi half raised beautiful arms to me; her lips voiced one low tragic cry — “Wal-ly!” Then the beam, like a wave of live malignancy, became a blood-hued shaft! Barely uttered, trembling in the very air, Naomi’s voice ceased! She . . . was. . . gone!
I saw that Huxhold’s cabinet stood empty; only the luminosity from the electron-dissolver striking and being beaten back and repulsed by the scientific capability of that curve of shimmer-surfaced lead! Utterly, irrevocably, Naomi had been torn from me!
Knowing that the Professor intends to dissolve his own electrons so that he can join Naomi in whatever plane of existence she now inhabits, Land kills him before he can do so. The sculptor then decides to follow Naomi himself: “Then, in the twinkling of an eye, I shall dart into the eternity of space, myself a swirling mass of split-electrons, to find Naomi – the girl of my dreams, whose form I made by my skill in sculpture!”
The editorial introduction to “The Marble Virgin” compares it to Sergei Brukhonenko’s experiments with reviving the severed head of a dog, as is par for the course with a magazine ostensibly focused on scientific possibilities. A closer and more obvious comparison point, however, is with the Greek myth of Pygmalion, who likewise loved his statue so much that he desired for it to become animated. Despite its modern-day update “The Marble Virgin” still belongs more to fantasy than to science fiction: note that Huxhold, a supposed scientific genius, is so completely oblivious to wold-changing possibilities of his invention that the only use for it he can propose is as a replacement for the electric chair.
Author Kennie McDowd appears to have had no further fiction published, although “The Marble Virgin” was reprinted in a 1942 issue of Startling Stories. As an aside, Frank R. Paul’s illustration for the story borrows rather liberally from his cover to the July 1927 issue of Amazing Stories.
“The Threat of the Robot” by David H. Keller
Ed Ball, a former American footballer, spends decades travelling the world (“For twenty years he had explored places where the white man was almost unknown, hunting for reptile eggs in Asia, King Solomon’s lost cities in South Africa, and rare fossils in Australia”) before returning to New York. There, he learns that a number of technological advances have been made while he was away. Television is now commonplace, with broadcasting stations using radio-style codes like W2RX When he attends a university football match, meanwhile, he sees human players being roundly beaten by a team of robots.
The story spends considerable time imagining how the rise of television will affect other forms of entertainment. The patents for television are owned by the theatre industry, which snapped them up to avoid being put out of business by the new competitor, and television now exists on an entirely pay-per-view basis. Meanwhile, hardly anybody attends sporting events anymore – after all, before the advent of television, the stadia had become unmanageably overcrowded:
The stadiums could be built larger but, even as they were, a large percentage of the audience was so far away from the players that they had to use field glasses to get even a small idea of what was going on. Another thing that made an increase in the size of the audience impossible was the difficulty in getting them to their seats. Most of them thought it was necessary for them to come in their cars. And when one hundred thousand people arrive at an athletic field in automobiles, in an hour’s time the congestion is frightful. There was no place to park the cars.
And then, of course, we have the robots, and we see that author David H. Keller was almost certainly inspired by Televox, the “mechanical man” built by Roy J. Wensley in 1927 Televox was a sound-operated device whose abilities were greatly exaggerated by showmanship, and this exaggerated presentation appears to have been the basis for the following description:
“That’s it exactly,” Drach said quickly, “a robot is a complicated machine, made up of batteries and motors and springs. The first one was brought to New York from London in January, 1929. It was a rather crude affair, but it could walk and talk and obey a few simple commands. It looked like a machine—in fact, no one would mistake it for anything else. It has some radio apparatus in it, and the vibrations of the air by the voice would cause the radio apparatus to operate and set in motion a motor. By this means the machine man would wave his hand, start walking, or begin to deliver a speech which, of course, was nothing but a cleverly arranged phonograph in his interior. There was a great deal of excitement about it, but in a short time that died away, because the machines became so common that they lost their thrill.
The engineer Drach is responsible for adapting this technology to create a robot footballer:
“I built this robot, geared him up to bend over and snap the ball back between his legs and to buck the line and a few simple movements. I would stand near him and shout the signal, and at the proper sound he would make the desired movement and then snap back into his normal position of bending forward with his hands on his knees. We made a fighting face for him, put him in football togs, and he became quite a favorite with the team.”
Advances in radio, meanwhile, allowed more sophisticated controlling mechanisms. Human players became reluctant to compete against robots, but television audiences cared little who was mechanical and who was biological and accepted the robot players.
“I believe that when you put machines in to take the place of men, you caused the human race to lose something”, remarks Ed Ball. Drach’s response is dismissive:
“This is a machine age, an age of electricity and radio and television. We are up in the air in every way. Our bodies may suffer, but our minds are certainly expanding. Think of ten million amateur radio experts in the United States! Think of the millions who can repair their own automobiles or airplanes! No one walks anymore. The pedestrian as a race is doomed. So is everything that is old fashioned. We are living in an age of jazz.”
The most interesting thing about the story is how its predictions are half wrong, but half right. David H. Keller wrote at a time when Televox was easier to swallow than a microchip, yet in its own analogue-minded way, his story is not too far off from reality. The robot footballers, operated via radio control, can be read as a rough prediction of video games. The robot traffic cop, meanwhile, fills the role of computerised traffic lights:
This traffic robot had an automatic eye, which was extremely sensitive to light. The change from light to shadow set the arms of the robot in motion. He was controlled by a beam of light which shone persistently in his eye. When a car crossed this beam of light, cutting it off from the eye, the robot reacted by moving its arms in such a way that the traffic signals were changed, thereby allowing the automobiles causing the change to proceed. The signals were changed again only when thirty seconds of the uninterrupted shining of the beam in the robot’s eye had passed, thereby allowing all the cars on that street to move on.
Indeed, Keller even predicts the development of sex robots when Ball is offered a mechanical woman – although naturally he refuses (we all read what Hugo Gernsback said about sex stories, after all):
“I understand you are a single man, Mr. Ball. We made a few of these dainty feminine robots just for men like you. I would be glad to give you this one. She can dance, has a good line of modern slang, can smoke and in the privacy of your hotel room can entertain you in many ways. It will take about a half hour to teach you how to handle her. Will you take her with you?”
The story also depicts mass unemployment arising from new technology, something that would become a major social issue in the 1930s. In one sequence Ball has a nightmare of “a world in which the conflict between the machine robots and the worker was so intense that unemployment was serious problem.” In this bad dream, “The robots were selling tickets in the subway stations, directing traffic, digging ditches, building new skyscrapers, forming new and unheard of additions to the army and navy. And some of them, connected to adding machines, and to typewriters in large offices were actually keeping sets of books and doing part of the stenographic work in a purely mechanical way by very capable machines.” It goes on:
In these dreams, Ball saw the gradual starvation of society, first, for the real pleasures of life, then, for the comforts, and later on for the actual necessities. He visioned parades of unemployed workingmen, demanding of capital a right to earn a living. But these very parades were policed by robots with blue-coats on who were very perfect in preserving order by mechanically-wielded batons. In his dream Ball saw one strike a poor woman on the head. The baby that she carried dropped out of her lifeless arms and would have fallen to the pavement, but Ball caught it with one hand and struck the robot in the face with the other. At once he was the center of an attack from a dozen machines who pounded him into insensibility. As he fell, he tried to save the child, crying in his terror, “You are killing civilization instead of the man.”
Ball’s anxieties drive him to rebel against this machine-dominated world. He organises the training of a human football team and pits them against robots; in a sporty reworking of the John Henry story, the machines are beaten and man is shown to be superior to robot. After this, the “ethereal waves which made television, radio and robots possible” suddenly cease to function, and all such inventions are left worthless.
Ball reveals that he was responsible for this turn of events, having hired an inventor named Scherer to produce a device that will negate all of the etheric waves. He also takes the opportunity to address and admonish the companies responsible for the new technology:
“You destroyed the best there was in sport, took away the pleasure of attending amusement in a mass, and, by placing all entertainments in the home, you turned mankind into a selfish, introverted, anti-social animal, who cared for little save his own entertainment. You did this to make money—there was little of the altruistic, the love of humanity, in your efforts to popularize these scientific discoveries.”
Finally, Ball reveals that the inventor Scherer will soon restore the etheric waves, but further use will be monitored closely:
When he arrives at his home tomorrow he will press the other button and restore to you all your former control of the air. Whether he will ever press that button again will depend on yourselves. Your activities will be under the observation of a group of humanitarians, men who love their fellow man, and these men will be in my employ. If they think that your work is harmful to mankind, they will first warn you and then will stop you by notifying Mr. Scherer, who will press the appropriate button, Mankind must never again be threatened by the crushing weight of machinery.
Read today, this optimism in a society kept in check by a technocratic elite may well be the hardest aspect of the story to follow – but in fairness, the idea had been a part of the science fiction landscape since the utopian books of H. G. Wells.
“The Making of Misty Isle” by Stanton A. Coblentz
In the capital of an unspecified country, a man named Dr. Turnbull takes part in a discussion with a president, a political secretary and a general. Together, they outline a secret plan to create an island for military purposes from an undersea volcano:
“We will induce the legislature to vote an extra ten millions under the blanket term of ‘military appropriations.’ With those ten millions we will set about, in absolute secrecy, to carry out our scheme. The main thing, of course, will be to keep the facts concealed. When our island has been created, its uses will be many. It will be invaluable as a military center. It will serve as a naval coaling station; it will be a center for the harboring and re-embarkation of military forces; it will be indispensable as a submarine and aviation base, from which our undersea craft may harry Asiatic commerce and our bombing planes destroy the coastal cities. Then at last the conquest of eastern China or Siberia, or of Japan itself, will not be beyond our grasp.”
This endeavour will require the volcano to be forcibly erupted using a new explosive that Turnbull terms hyperblast, “ten thousand times more powerful than dynamite” and “made of a thorium oxide, associated with radioactive compounds” that has a devastating effect when its radioactivity is accelerated. The plan is put into action, although the cause is kept under wraps. All the outside world sees is a presumably natural disaster in which tidal disturbances cause thousands of deaths around the world and the skies fill with volcanic clouds. Afterwards, a new island is located in the central area of the disaster, and is dubbed Misty Isle – but any ships that get near it soon vanish.
Turnbull and his associates oversee the construction of military settlements on Misty Isle, a project kept such a closely-guarded secret that the workers are forbidden from ever leaving the island. From here, they begin laying out plans to attack enemy nations using bombing planes with hyperblast discharge: the first target is to be Japan, followed by China and Siberia.
Before this scheme goes ahead, Turnbull and the three officials decide to visit the island themselves, the president arranging a cover story to explain his absence. But no sooner have they finished gloating about the prospect of annihilating the population of Japan, the four men realise that the volcano is due to erupt once again:
Perhaps it was well that they did not see the greatest wave of all, which, swollen to the height of a tall hill, came sweeping from above the horizon. Perhaps it was well that they did not know what frantic efforts the captain was making to turn and meet that wave prow forward. All that they realized was that suddenly there came a jolt as of whole mountains piling upon them; that all things outside their cabin were lost amid a dull thundering fury; that there was a ringing in their ears and an overtowering dread in their hearts; that it seemed to them as if the ship were turning bodily, was falling upon its side; and that, while it rose and shuddered and then fell with a world-drowning roar and crashing the blind waters came rushing in upon them, lashing out at them, choking them, quenching all things amid a chaos of mad, hopeless struggling. . . .
Every so often, science fiction stories from this period come up with an idea that could be read as predicting the invention that would come to dominate so much of the twentieth century: the atomic bomb. “The Making of Misty Isle” is one such story, and the fact that its characters propose the destruction of Japanese cities as the first military use of their “hyperblast” could be read as prescient. The author shows little interest in engaging with geopolitics, however, and puts his weapon into the hands of an unspecified country run by the sort of characters who would later be termed supervillains – and like most supervillains, they get their comeuppance in the end.
News and Reviews
Hugo Gernsback amps up the non-fiction material in this new magazine, including a Science News of the Month section that takes up four pages. This covers recent developments in geology (“A new attempt to climb Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the highest peak in the world, will be made this summer… [by] a party of Dutch alpinists and scientific men aided by Swiss and Indian guides”), chemistry (“That women of the future will wear clothing made of asbestos was predicted by Professor Paul Q. Card, of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science”), medicine (efforts to prevent tuberculoisis are the dominant theme), physics (“An electric eye that puts on the lights in a room, when the room becomes too dark, was tried out successfully in a Schenectady school by the General Electric Company”), broadcasting (“The sending of daily images by television is announced by Station W2XBS”), aviation (“The use of a rotating beam of light, half red and half white, to guide aviators to the landing field is now in use in the Cleveland Municipal Airport”) and astronomy (“The moon is not made of green cheese, but of a porous material similar to volcanic ash, says Dr. Paul S. Epstein of the California Institute of Technology”).
Another new feature is a column of book reviews. The volumes covered are W. M. Smart’s The Sun, the Stars and the Universe (“The so-called Martian canals, said by fiction writers to be of human origin, receives much attention from the author, who deduces a fair possibility of human life existing on the planet”); William J. Luyten’s The Pageant of the Stars (“A book for laymen written by a professor of astronomy of Harvard University, who has recently received the Guggenheim Medal for his contributions to science”); William S. Sadler’s The Truth About Mind Cure (“When an illness is caused by fear, worry, anxiety, depression, etc., it can be cured by an injection of optimism, cheerfulness, determination or faith”); Michael Pupin’s The New Reformation (“Professor Pupin attempts the great task of reviewing the contributions to science of a half dozen great men such as Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Roentgen and Gibbs, and to find, from what they revealed about our physical universe, the unfolding of a physical and spiritual plan”); Dr. Daniel Deerforth’s Knock Wood: Superstition Through the Ages (“the author is in dead earnest in showing how man’s fears and phobias, which persist with him still, have shackled his intelligence”) and the sole work of fiction in the round-up, Colin Craig’s A Suitor from the Stars.
The Reader Speaks
The debut issue of Science Wonder Stories comes with two letters sections, the first containing the results of a contest in which Gernsback asked his readers to submit short essays on the topic of “what science fiction means to me”. The winning entry is from B. S. Moore:
As a child I was thrilled when the knight rescued the princess; as a lad I marveled at the imagination of Jules Verne. But as a man, the fantastic faded. Gradually I came to see beyond the veil, to glimpse the cold fact of future possibilities. I like to read science fiction with this last in mind, feeling that the writer has the same viewpoint. I need only mention that the fiction of yesterday is common occurrence today. […] A few months ago I could not understand the fourth-dimension, that is, as the scientific world regards it. Today I do understand it, as it is understood in theory, of course, and I owe it to science fiction.
In second place is Jack Williamson:
Science fiction has met and solved every problem connected with building a machine to guard man against the cold and the emptiness of space […] The ships of man will follow his dreams as the caravan followed the dreams of Columbus. Science will answer the call, with a thousand new invention—inspired by science fiction.
Various other readers chime in. “I truly believe that in time most of the stories that are of a scientific nature will come true, though they are still a few years ahead of our time”, says Frank H. Dunfee. “Science fiction has opened up a new and unexplored vista for me and I hope for many more instructive”, opines George P. Trayer. “I think that every American boy or girl should read any science fiction magazine, and when they do, you will see the result”, comments S. Weinberg. “Many people think that such stories are just lies and out of use, but I, who have been reading science fiction stories and experimenting, have been helped greatly along that line” pleads Michael Cangelosi. R. P. Tooker, meanwhile, declares that “Without fiction first, be it the magazine kind or the hypothesis of the master mind, there can be no fact, which is obvious” and derides “scoffers and unbelievers, all propagandists of bigot [sic] and crass conservatism”.
“We look to science fiction to give us ideas that will some day enable the races of the earth to unite in one body and with the massed intellect of the world carry us forward to an Utopian world”, says Roy Wicks. “If any one should tell me that I am foolish to waste my time on reading science fiction stories, I would know at once who is the fool,” comments Edward Alpert. “It is highly probable that men such as these will never rise above an ordinary level.”
Perhaps the most interesting of the editorials (even if it achieved only third place) is the one sent in by E. E. Smith. Here, the pioneering space opera author outlines why a scientist might be expected to choose science fiction over magazines of other genres:
To the mind of this type the fiction offered by the ordinary magazine has little appeal. The scientist is ordered and precise in habit of thought—thus poor workmanship, loose writing carelessness, and incoherence in his fiction will not be tolerated. He does not consider the high-brow magazine worth while—while the workmanship is masterly, the material is too often valueless. What shall he read? The eternal triangle leaves him cold. In general, he is married; perchance has a family grown. He has been married to one woman for years—he knows real marital love, deepening and becoming richer with every passing year. He is intrinsically decent, and knows that the vast majority of his fellow-men are likewise decent. Why waste time with such trash? Shall he read the classics? He is already thoroughly familiar with them, they hold nothing new. Love-stories? Once in a while he enjoys a real love-story. Detective stories? Occasionally. But none of these really satisfy him. The end is always clear, from the beginning—those stories were written expressly for readers having a low level of intelligence and have no appeal to the mind of which our scientist must be the possessor.
In the main letters section we find more responses. to the “what science fiction means to me” witting prompt. “Science fiction is one of the most pleasant forms of mental relaxation that I know of,” writes Stephen L. Brown (who has been reading Gernsback magazines since the age of 8) “as it allows one’s mind to relax without leading it too far away from one’s favorite subject, as other forms of relaxing most certainly do.” J. Lawrence Collier argues that “Science fiction means, among other things, entertainment plus. It might be likened to Aesop’s ‘sugar-coated pills of wisdom.‘” He praises in particular the work of David H. Keller, Vincent Starret and A. Hyatt Verrill.
“I can truthfully say that I have learned more about Time, Space, Motion, Astronomy, Fourth Dimension, and the countless other mysteries of the Universe while reading magazines of science fiction than through any other means that I know of”, says Neil H. Tasker. Meanwhile, Sanford Gordon tells us that “Science fiction gives people a chance to break away from the rut that the average run of human minds are always in. Science fiction gives a chance to open fields of new power, vision, etc., beyond all past human conception.”
Stanley G. Stalte is particularly passionate:
In regards to science fiction, I can only state that it is the “revelation” the REAL revelation, that the thinking world needs, the freedom from the ignorance and superstition that have for ages kept man in religious slavery. Facts and truth have always been kept from man… always we were taught (and ordered!) to bend humble knee to the false gods and creeds, to the monsters of our own creation, never to ask why or to doubt.
C. A. Livingston has an eye on the romantic aspect of the genre:
Science is cold, uninteresting and hard to understand. By itself it attracts few followers; but coupled with it something that appeals to the average person’s love for romance, excitement and the mystery of the unknown—in short fiction and the result is something that cannot be equalled in the realm of literature.
Peter Pastorius Nelles’ response sums up the general consensus:
I know many people who do not expect any new developments of science in the future. When I mention a theory about an engine running by sun-power or by gravity powerful enough to run a factory, they laugh and say that men cannot harness nature’s forces. […] To them a theory about a machine to navigate space or to prolong life is pure madness. But such things are bound to happen and I hope it will be soon.
Tom Olog’s letter is similar in content to that of E. E. Smith. He argues that science fiction provides more adventure than other popular genres – and in the process, tidily demonstrates which genres were popular at the time:
We’ll compare them, what? All right, what’ll come first? Westerns, I hear some one say. All right. The log fire is smoulderin’ warm and cozy. Snow’s pilin’ up on the window-sills but what do I care. Tummy’s full and pipe’s smoking’. I feel the old, old call of adventure and the unknown. So I settle’s down to my easy chair and picks up a handy magazine. It’s a Western. Instantly a picture of a little ramblin’ Western town filled with rambunctious, sky-ridin’ sons of guns. The desert and mountings in the distance. Unknown, huh! What’ll happen next? Why out yonder behind that rock hides Wild and Wooly Bill, ready to fill my pore hide fulla holes. He’s kidnapped ma best gal, besides swipin’ horses, ruslin’ cows, and whips his trusty steed cruelly. Unknown huh? Why, I’ll oil my six-shooter up and go on the war trail.
Well, mystery stories, then. Ah, ha! Somebuddy’s murdered. Not a clue! Just another unsolved crime. And here is our unbeatable detective. He allus gets some little clue, some overlooked fact, solves the murder, and then yaps—
Oh, gettin’ tired of that. Air stories then, we are up in the air in the trustworthy old crate against immense odds. Oh, I’ll not go into any more details but you see how it is, but WAIT. Shh! What if we set down to a science fiction. We can’t possibly know what we’re gettin’ into. Giddap, Nap!
We’re off for the unknown, and I’ll say we set on tacks till the end. Where to? No way of telling. Maybe to the moon, maybe to some other dimension, but honestly, did you ever see two alike? Attracts the attention, sustains and stimulates interest to the last. Puts over its little bit of romance and leaves us sitting, dadgasted, and thinkin’. That’s what counts.
Herman Finkelstein is slightly more formal, but nonetheless favourable:
It is great fun to sit down and read the works of some embryonic philosopher who thinks the world can be saved in only one way. Also to read of a man liberating atomic energy in a thoroughly impracticable manner. But what of it? It broadens my mind and strengthens my imagination. Who knows that some day, perhaps, I might explain the phenomena of solutions of light of electricity all through the reading of “filthy trash” (fondly of course).
He is, however, unimpressed by the proposed section on science news:
Please don’t put into the magazine that science news department. It spoils the magazine as the questionnaire did the other. It snaps the web of romance woven by the stories by trying to put a practical value on them. It shouldn’t be done. If one wants news of the science world they should read the journals and get it first-hand.
E. L. Middleston is similarly hostile to the idea: “Do NOT put a science section in the magazine, which is a straight fiction proposition. You might possibly put in an article which particularly applies to some story in the magazine, but a general science section would duplicate what most of the readers get elsewhere.” F. B. Eason, meanwhile, feels differently about the matter:
Allow about two pages in each issue, with sky map for each issue, naming the constellations, and important stars with a short description of them, as, distance from the earth, dimensions, temperature, etc. Also photos of clusters, nebulaes, moons, planets, etc. That is a large order, but at the same time, the publication would be of immense aid to amateurs throughout the country.
Back when Gernsback asked for suggestions, the magazine still had no name. Eleanor B. Gill comes up with a few possibilities: “The Pioneer or the Cyclops (single eye) or something like The Universe or Looking Ahead or The Vision.” Helen M. Reid also comes up with a few names, her choices being Science and Adventure, Cosmos, Cycle and The S. F. Magazine. She is also – according to the editorial reply – one of many readers to propose Wonder Stories.
Elsewhere in the letters section we find readers discussing Gernsback’s previous magazine. Nyle L. Katz has an anecdote about being introduced to Amazing Stories in 1927 by a chemistry teacher. W. Mollenhauer Jr, on the other hand, and objects to how the earlier publication depicted the political left (the story depicting Felix Dzherzhinsky is Frank Gates’ “The Man Who Died by Proxy”):
One particular matter I object to is your concealed slaps at labor, such as in “Ralph 124C 41+ something or other” and your vicious attacks on communists such as the dirty slander about Dzherzhinsky, the title of which I forget, but which you probably remember. However, I know better than to expect an “intellectual” to be fair to workers in general and to left workers in particular, so put up with it as at present there is nothing better. As to your ability as an editor or writer, I have no quarrel, but as to our ever agreeing on fundamentals, I fear it is impossible. I put up with you as I crave the type of fiction you put out, thought I detest your economic theories, and I believe that knowing my ideas you will also tolerate me, as under this best of all possible systems, the main thing is to get the jack. Even Sir Henry [sic] Deterding is willing to compromise with the Bolsho Bandits when necessary to protect his profits.
Finally, allow me to close this overview by moving from past to future with this letter from Ed Earl Repp, who would later become one of the magazine’s contributors:
Within the next few days I hope to send to you another science fiction yam that in my opinion ought to “click” as we say in theatrical parlance. Of course that is my opinion, but it will be yours that counts. However, this yarn is a real American adventure and has to do with the mysteries of Death Valley. I have a great desire to be considered as one of your authors and to that end I am working tirelessly.