Shortly after the debut of Science Wonder Stories, Hugo Gernsback launched a sister title in Air Wonder Stories, devoted to science fiction involving pilots and flying machines. Looking back, this might seem like an oddly specific concept for a follow-up to Gernsback’s earlier, more generalised SF magazines. In the context of the time, however, it made sense: fiction magazines about flying were an established genre (Flying Aces, launched just months beforehand, being a particularly notable title in the field) and many SF stories had, indeed, focused on various forms of flying. Air Wonder Stories was at least as viable a project as Scientific Detective Monthly, Gernsback’s next attempt to meld his magazine line with a popular non-SF genre.
“Aviation is no longer a new thought in literature”, says Hugo Gernsback in his first editorial for the new magazine. “Over a dozen such magazines testify to this. But practically all of these magazines are of the purely ‘Wild West’—world war—adventure sky busting type. AIR WONDER STORIES imitates no other magazine in print, rather it pioneers into new and higher realms, yet at the same time into a field that is increasing in popularity every year.” This latest Gernsback publication, he declares, “will present SOLELY flying stories of the future, strictly along scientific—mechanical—technical lines, full of adventure, exploration and achievement.”
The editorial goes on to make a case for stories of this type being a long-established subgenre within science fiction, past examples being Edgar Allen Poe’s “Unparalleled Adventures of One Hans Pfaal” and “The Balloon Hoax”, Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon and H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air. He expresses faith in “that vast army of young and red-blooded men and women who believe that aviation will change the face of this earth—who believe that the future of our country lies in the air”. Above all, Gernsback expresses faith in himself:
Having been closely identified, as a publisher, with scientific publications of a popular nature for over 25 years, I may be pardoned in believing that I will succeed in making this new magazine the greatest and most popular air fiction magazine in its field.
This optimism was not particularly well-founded. Air Wonder Stories lasted for less than a year, clocking up eleven monthly issues before merging into Science Wonder Stories to form Wonder Stories. Nevertheless, the short-lived publication forms an interesting chapter in the development of magazine SF.
The Ark of the Covenant by Victor MacClure (part 1 of 4)
The first of the three complete novels to run in Air Wonder Stories is a serialisation of a book originally published in 1924 and introduced by the magazine as “perhaps, the greatest air story that has yet been written.” It starts with aeroplane engineer Jimmy Boon being awoken to learn that his father’s bank has been robbed, and so Jimmy and his father set off in “an ancient seaplane, built in 1928” to investigate. At the bank, the chief guard Jaxon explains that he and his men were somehow drugged to sleep, and an examination of the scene reveals that the culprit had cut through the window using oxyacetylene. Moreover, four other banks in the area have been similarly robbed, and detectives are baffled.
As Jimmy explores the bank, he notices a number of peculiarities. All gold in the area – the gold on Jaxon’s watch case, the gold leaf decorating the bank, a locket belonging to a passing policeman – now resembles badly-tarnished brass. The mass-drugging affected not only the bank guards, but also the police. He also finds minute traces of glass outside the banks:
By this time I had four ideas firmly fixed in my head, and could not be quit of them; that the crooks had used an anaesthetizing gas; that this gas probably had tarnished the gold; that the gas, in liquid form, had been held in glass containers; and that the smears of powder outside the three banks were what was left of the containers after the release of the gas had shattered them.
The story reaches the press, and Jimmy describes reading an article so overripe that it reminds him of “an old-time ‘movie’ subtitle”:
And the Mind that conceived all this, the Arch-crook, the Master Criminal, brooded the while over the conquered City. For the thousandth time, maybe, he connoted his plan of campaign, and smiled to think that it could not fall. The whole of civilized America lay at his mercy, and he had the power, plus the will, to bring ruin and chaos to its prosperous centers. The wealth of the nation was his for the grasping.
Malign this personality must be, but is it the motive power of a new anarchistic movement against established order? Is it, by any chance, the Master Mind behind a recrudescence of the Idea we used to know as Bolshevism? Until the identity of this Napoleon of Crime is established, until he is immured in our strongest prison, he, with his secret and mysterious weapons, has the wealth of the Nation at his Mercy! If this Master Mind Is to be beaten, only a Master Mind can do it, and we beg leave to doubt if the present Chief of Police, the spineless and supine Conrad Dickermann, fills the Bill!
Meanwhile, a subplot involves suspicious packages being found at the Post Office. These turn out to contain millions of dollars’ worth of radium, and the five of them were sent to five different surgical and scientific institutes in the city.
A reader might notice that Air Wonder Stories’ first story has so far made comparatively little use of air travel. But while the material relating to flying has had little impact on the plot, Jimmy’s narration is full of admiration for all things aeronautical, as when he witnesses a particularly magnificent plane that he had worked on: “To see her so, as an outsider would, was a queer experience for me. I felt pretty much as a dramatist might if he saw a play of his acted for the first time.” The novel’s flying scenes are also written with palpable enthusiasm:
Breathless, we watched the speed dial. The pointer travelled in tiny jerks up the scale: three-eighty- five—six, seven, eight, nine—three-ninety! Gradually, steadily, and the roar of the engine now a screaming, rising note, the pointer crawled round the dial.
A quick look at Milliken, who was sitting in the toggled seat behind me, showed me his ugly old mug streaming with perspiration. His gaze was fixed on the speed dial, and his lips were moving. For myself, my jaws were clenched enough to hurt. Round, round went the pointer: Four-eighty-five—six, seven—back to six—seven, eight—eight—a little more throttle—nine, nine—four-ninety ! Creeping, jerking, the pointer travelled—five hundred!
The separate strands of aeronautics and detective work finally begin to entwine when, towards the end of this first instalment, Jimmy gits upon the possibility that an airship was used to carry out the crime. Readers would have to wait until the story’s continuation to see whether or not this idea bore fruit, however. Until then, they could content themselves with a stirring conclusion in which Jimmy and his airborne friends witness a liner in distress:
I know that my hands were shaking on the joystick, and it was all I could do to master the sick feeling that was creeping over me. We circled round her as slowly as we could, and coming as close as we dared.
“Look!” I said. “There are dead men lying on the bridge!”
“God in Heaven!” Dan Lamont cried, white to the lips. “What can have happened to them?”
“I don’t know,” I muttered, “but we’ll find out.” I swung the Merlin closer still to the liner.
“What are you going to do, sir?” Milliken cried apprehensively.
“I am going to put the Merlin aboard her, if I can.”
“You’ll smash her, sir!”
“Maybe,” I said madly, “but we’re going aboard.”
“Don’t try it, sir! For God’s sake, don’t try it!”
“Shut up, Milliken!” I said crossly—then realizing that he wasn’t thinking of his own skin, but of his beloved Merlin, I grinned at him feebly. “It’s all right, Milliken. I won’t do anything rash. Let’s reconnoitre.”
Upon investigation, it turns out that those on board the liner are not dead, but sleeping, and a vast cargo of gold has disappeared: the affair at the banks has been repeated in a whole new setting.
“Islands in the Air” by Lowell Howard Morrow
“I have invented what I call a gravity repeller,” declares Professor Gustave Steiner, “which causes the gravitation lines of force to bend through 180 ͦand lift an object away from the earth with the same force that it would ordinarily be attracted.” His friend, who narrates the story, fears that the Professor may have succumbed to the insanity that claimed his father and grandfather. Nonetheless, Professor Steiner persists that he has the means to create a set of flying islands; his one concern is that his less than trustworthy associate Professor Van Beck might try and steal his ideas. While the Professor prepares to put his theories into practice, he finds that his assistant McCann has disappeared, and that one of his blueprints has vanished:
The scene that followed I will not attempt to describe. The Professor lost his head. He raved like a madman, condemning everybody, threatening everybody. He said he would give up the work, commit suicide and be through with it all. But at length he grew calm, asked my pardon for the outburst and ordered the work to go on.
Despite this setback, the plan goes ahead and an artificial island is built:
I roamed about over the great artificial island, looking over the wonderful oscillators, condensers, transformers, and so on. I knew their office but vaguely, knowing only that they transmitted the power to operate the gravity deflector. Their number and size were bewildering surrounded as they were by divers other machinery whose nature I could not guess.
At each corner and in its center the island rested on a solid copper pier ten feet in height and about a foot in diameter, and at the points of contact on the island itself were magnet-like apparatus. On the ground near each pier was a dynamo whose current was supplied by a central power-house. There were also many amplifiers and projectors of peculiar construction. The whole fabric beneath my feet with its network of wires and steel and machinery was so heavy that the idea of projecting it into the sky and holding it there suspended like a great captive balloon without the aid of gas or lifting wings appalled me. Only my faith in the Professor’s uncanny power made me hope it might succeed.
Then, with a push of a button, the island ascends:
Instantly our motion was arrested. The island rocked gently a few times, then came to rest without a jar. The altimeter showed us to be up one thousand feet. Looking down through the steel work I saw the workmen staring up at us. There we rode in the air as steady as a duck on a millpond, sustained by the invisible force of gravitation.
More islands follow, and the Professor’s work becomes a nationwide sensation. But his thunder is thoroughly stolen when it turns out that Van Beck has managed not only to obtain the anti-gravity technology but also to improve upon it, constructing an island adorned with trees, grass and other plant life. Professor Steiner, outraged, mounts a suicide attack by piloting one of his islands into that of his rival:
In my excitement I ran to the very edge of my island, shouted and waved my arms frantically. And then as I gazed in the dumb agony of despair I saw that Van Beck was striving desperately to avert the catastrophe. He and his companion were working madly with the machinery, but somehow the island’s momentum could not be checked. The machinery had gotten beyond their control, and the maddened Professor was coming resistlessly on.
Edge to edge they met. The detonation was deafening. Blue and green and yellow fire enmeshed them for a moment, then the great mass rushed down. I shut my eyes and reeled backward faint with horror. I heard an awful crash as they struck. I looked over the side and as the dust cleared away among the trees, many of which had impaled the falling structures, I saw the ruins of the islands.
Professor Steiner’s sister Greta, a pilot, is caught up in the mayhem, and for a while the narrator fears her dead. While she turns out to have survived, the two inventors are killed and McCann is left fatally injured. As he dies, he reveals that he was never a traitor, Van Beck having kidnapped him. He attempts to reveal some of the technology behind the islands to the two survivors, but perishes before he can do so:
“The great secret has died with him,” I remarked.
“And I am glad,” she said. “Man may aid nature’s laws, but when he reverses them he must
pay the penalty. Gustave’s mad dream has killed him.”
I gave her a startled look. She was not in sympathy with the works of science.
“Nevertheless I wish our island would drift back to earth. With it we might make a new start.”
“If you love it so much perhaps I had better take you back to it,” she suggested quietly.
“Agreed,” I said. “The only condition I impose is that you remain there with me.”
To which she made no answer then, nor has she to this day. We never looked for the island—nor did it ever return. Somewhere off in the far reaches of space it still pursues its solitary way.
“Islands in the Air” is a routine example of Gernsbackian SF. The premise is based around a single strong image – so strong, in fact, that it provided the issue with its cover art – but the actual plot is made up entirely of tried-and-tested building blocks. A personal spat between inventors leads to a wondrous invention going to pot because, well, what else could happen to a wondrous invention in a story like this?
“The Bloodless War” by David H. Keller
This story imagines a near future in which the United States has become “the richest, the best hated and the weakest nation in the world”; come 1940, as the opening line informs us, the country is unprepared for war. Yet according to John Farrel of the Universal Electrics company, war is coming:
“Mexico has formed a treaty with Japan, the object being the complete conquest of the United States. I suppose that when this end is accomplished, Japan will claim the states west of the Rocky Mountains and Mexico some of the South western states. They may even reduce the United States to the territory east of the Mississippi River. That point is a matter of unimportant detail. Japan has to have a landing point. She needs Mexico as a base. Mexico needs money and supplies. Their plan is this; to send a bombing fleet of planes to blow every big city in the nation to splinters. While the country is recovering from this shock and is wondering what it means, an invading army of Japs and Mexicans will capture New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and St. Louis. By the time that our country is ready to fight, everything west of the river will be conquered. They are not going to declare war . . . they are simply going ahead to destroy our cities over night. I believe that they are going to use as many as twenty thousand bombing planes, each capable of carrying over a ton of powerful explosives.”
Company president Jacob Strange initially dismisses Farrel’s claim on the grounds that 20,000 bombing planes would require more experienced pilots than are available in all the world. Farrel responds with the argument that Japan has access radio-controlled planes: the fleet will not need pilots. He is aware of this because he invented the technology himself before it was stolen by Japanese agents. Furthermore, he can confirm that the technology has reached Mexico, as he personally witnessed the planes being trialled at remote point in the Mexican mountains. Things look dire, but Farrel has a trump card: as the planes’ inventor, he knows exactly what wavelength they use, and consequently how to disrupt their signal, sending the automated planes harmlessly into the sea or prairies. And so, a few well-placed operatives in the target cities are able to foil the Mexican-Japanese attack:
The battle in the air was one of waves, not of machine guns. From the date of this battle, men flew in the air, but gave up all idea of duelling with each other. Twenty thousand deadly planes crossed the border that night, and their only opposition was composed of one hundred and fifty trained radio operators at fifty stations, one station in each of the threatened cities. Three men to save New York from destruction; three more men to keep desolation from Chicago; three men to ward off threatening doom from cities like Denver, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
Compared to “Islands in the Air”, this brief story from Gernsback regular David H. Keller finds a more interesting narrative for its central invention. The idea that 1940 would see America going to war against an alliance between Japan and – of all countries – Mexico now seems bizarre, but bear in mind that the Border War that arose from the Mexican Revolution had occurred only ten years previously. While fanciful, the background allows Keller to bring some geopolitical depth to his story – something missing from so many works of SF in which world-changing inventions have no impact outside the lives of a few super-intellects.
“The Beacon of Airport Seven” by Harold S. Sykes
While taking a passenger plane to the airport, pilot Tommy Royce ends up flying below a beacon. His superior McCrea gives him a tongue-lashing for this mishap, but he pleads that he followed the beacon correctly; his relief pilot Tillotson, meanwhile, claims to have seen the light of the beacon suddenly shoot up into the sky. Later, another plane lands, and the pilot delivers a similar account of a moving beacon: “Boys, I’ll swear I followed the beacon true as an arrow, but when I got close it suddenly switched around to my right and I found I was way to the south.” A similar incident occurs to another plane, this time causing a crash, and it becomes clear that the problem is not with the pilots but with the beacon.
“I have asked for experts out on the first passenger ship in the morning”, declares McCrea. “That is, if there are experts able to figure out this blankety blanked double dashed beacon.”
Even as catastrophes are still occurring, experts examine the beacon and notice strange phenomena: form certain angles the beacon appears to move, yet from others it remains still. They are unable to find a solution. However, one curious lead turns up: the beacon is remarkably close to the home of a reclusive scientist named Dr. Lawson. Royce and his group visit Lawson and receive a curmudgeonly welcome (“These men, Newton, Leverrier, Michelson, Einstein, they thought they knew what to look for but they go at it wrong. They try to prove these things from the stars and by trying to measure the velocity of the ether! I can show in my researches how man can bend light in degrees, many degrees, mind you, where others observe a bending of star light during an eclipse of less than two seconds!”) Undeterred, they examine his laboratory and find a table bearing “row on row of radio tubes, large coils, condensers, and switches, scattered ‘breadboard fashion,’ and connected with wires to other instruments, unfamiliar in design”. This apparatus, they deduce, is connected to an antenna outside and serves to bend the light from the beacon. Dr. Lawson admits all:
“Yes, it is!” the scientist shouted, turning again to stare at them unwinkingly with his sparkling blue eyes. “Fly your planes somewhere else. Day and night those infernal mechanisms roar over my head, interfering with my research. If your light is rendered useless, I am glad of it! I installed my laboratory here long before the air field was opened. I chose this location to be alone. If your planes are wrecked I am glad! Glad! Glad!”
He goes into more detail about the exact workings of his invention:
“It’s not radio—it’s magnetism. Ordinary magnetism attracts metals; the magnetism I have discovered attracts light, because it is of a frequency in resonance with the wave-length of light. That is why the sun bends the light of stars passing near it. Astronomers have discovered the parallax but they have been too blind to know that it is because the sun is discharging wave-lengths of all frequencies! One particular frequency bends the star light while all the others do not affect it. I have found that frequency and control it as I will.”
This is followed by an altercation in which the scientist is electrocuted, leaving the airport safe once more.
Like The Ark of the Covenant, “The Beacon of Airport Seven” adapts the formula of the scientific detective story for a setting relevant to Air Wonder Stories’ central theme. Although the plot is simple, author Harold S. Sykes includes a considerable amount of worldbuilding to imagine how international air travel might develop over the following years:
Short feeder lines connected some of these airports with the larger population centers along the way, offering an expeditious means of reaching either the Atlantic or Pacific coast. Passenger traffic over the line however, was only an adjunct of the fast freight and express service. The “sealed” express planes, carrying sealed compartments from coast to coast, were a link in the rapidly expanding World Corporation belt-line, inaugurated in 1932, and connecting all continents in the northern hemisphere. A subsidiary of the Transcontinental operated a fleet of amphibians on regular schedule between San Francisco and Manila, while associated European interests controlled the Transatlantic and Eurasian routes.
With seven intermediate airports between the two coastal cities. Airport Seven was arbitrarily located in north central Nevada, at a point east of Reno and south of Elko, the most desolate of all the stops along the route. […] Contrary to forecasts made several years earlier that planes would make non-stop flights from coast to coast on schedule, the rapid progress of aviation with large planes had demonstrated the advantage of operating with a system of division points, as used by railroads.
“Men with Wings” by Leslie F. Stone
The issue’s longest self-contained story begins with a foreword purportedly written circa 2445 by an individual belonging to a futuristic race of winged people. The narrator introduces a manuscript from the year 1945, depicting that bygone age when most people had no wings; this forms the main body of the story…
“NORDIC FEMALES UNSAFE IN LATIN AMERICA!” declares a newspaper of 1945. “MANY OF AMERICA’S FAIREST HAVE VANISHED WITHOUT TRACE!! New Race of Men with Wings Believed Responsible for the Strange Disappearances of Visiting White Women!” Harry Brent, the author of the report, claims to have found evidence of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Scandinavian women disappearing in South America as far back as two hundred years before. However, this did not cause an outrage until Marian Hally (“daughter of the well-known Herbert Hally, sportsman and dilettante artist of New York”) went missing in Rio de Janeiro; the woman in question was last seen riding on horseback alongside a man who had a large black cape and a hawkish face. A similar figure was sighted at the scenes of other kidnappings, and on one occasion throw off his cloak to reveal what lay beneath:
The man was standing in a close-fitting costume of white that seemed skintight, decorated with a snow of colored feathers—bright and glistening. However, that was not the strangest part of him. He was winged! On his back pressed against his shoulder blades were a pair of wings, wings such as a condor might have. The boy swore they were easily five feet in length from the shoulder blades to within a few inches of the man’s heel, wings with long glossy feathers of golden brown intermingled with yellow and darker shades of brown. For joy of being free from the binding cape the wings seemed to stretch themselves and there was easily a spread of twelve feet from tip to tip.
The notion of a race of winged men hiding in South America sparks heated discussion (“Where would Darwin and his monkeys be now?”) while more specimens of this race are sighted, with one particular dramatic encounter being described by a pilot in a prefiguration of postwar UFO reports. An international uproar ensues:
All South American governments were calling for aid from their northern neighbors with their superior air-craft and air-men. Nor was America quiet. Its people were up in arms demanding that the government do all they could to fight this menace to American womanhood. The winged men must be exterminated Their lair must be discovered and wiped out. Planes left daily for Latin America. The air was to be made unsafe for flying men!
However, one report notes the detail that “the abductors were such handsome fellows, that the kidnapped did not appear to object at all” after describing an incident in which a woman willingly threw her arms around a winged man and allowed herself to be carried off into the air after a brief conversation.
Protagonist Jim Kennedy, a reporter with knowledge of South America, heads to Peru to investigate. An elderly man of Incan ancestry, who refers to the winged men as “Children of the Sun”, explains that the beings “will lead my poor people back again to the lands that rightfully are theirs”. The man also describes being taken to see the home territory of the winged men, which he indicates is in Bolivia. The reporter continues exploring further, and during a plane trip encounters a flock of winged men. The men are hostile and cause the plane to crash.
After this, Kennedy awakes to find that he and his surviving cohort Wormley are prisoners in a land called Mentor – specifically, in Mentor’s underground capitol, City Number One. This situation is not all bad, however, as Kennedy meets a beautiful winged woman named Lois:
She carried her wings as angels should, the tips appearing just at the shoulder line, the end feathers, long and fine, dragging several inches on the ground behind her. (Such Mentorites as have gone a-kidnapping usually cut those long ends to prevent detection). Her hands were long and slender with the blue veins outlined under the sun-browned skin. It always puzzled me (I noted these last items at a later period) how the tall girl (she was five feet and nine inches tall without heels) managed to walk so easily and lightly on the tiny little feet she possessed which were so beautifully molded that they did not appear to have been constructed for use. Her shoes, incidently, were but flat soft pieces of tanned bird skins of about two dozen thicknesses, held on the bare foot by straps that crossed and recrossed.
Wormley, who recovered before Kennedy, gives an outline of Mentor’s society: “Everything here appears to be under a communistic sort of regime. Everyone works for a common cause—food, clothing and work is doled out by the city administration plan. Children are raised by the state, lives are directed by the bell. Everyone does his work on schedule. And over it all is this Patriarch.”
Indeed, people from the outside world appear to prefer living here. One of the first people the two travelers meet underground is Dr. Morris, who “had come to Mentor of his own accord, preferring his work here among the flying people to his fashionable clientele on Park Avenue.” Wormley relates Morris’ description of the good life led by the captives: “no ‘sasiety’ to do, no continual run of social duties, no match-making mamas, no fighting to hold their places before the world. Here they are given what work they wish to do and the hours are easy; they can choose their own mates and live a simple quiet life.” Kennedy is unconvinced, however: “that’s all right for a change, but how does a steady diet of it go?”
It turns out that the history of the winged race can be traced back to a sixteenth-century scientist named Howard Mentor. This individual came from a long line of scientists and philosophers sharing a common desire: “an ambition to put wings onto man long before they had the idea that machinery could be made to fly”. Howard conducted experiments that involved transplanting glands from birds into the bodies of mammals, which he also injected with “some sort of solution”. After successfully causing small animals to grow wings over the course of generations, he conducted the experiment on his own wife, and then on the spouses of his children. This prompted much strife within both his own household and the families of his in-laws, but the process was ultimately successful as one of his daughters begat a baby boy with arms like the wings of a fledgling bird:
There was a soft down on the strange appendages and it looked as if the little fellow would one day be able to fly! Fly he might, but his arms had been sacrificed. The little mother must have wept over her maimed darling and Mentor surely wasn’t happy over it, but at the same time he knew that the first rung of the ladder had been climbed. They could only hope that this was an accident. The scientist again went into his laboratories and brought forth another mess that was added to the diet of his family.
When the authorities got wind of Mentor’s experiments he tried to flee with his family to Virginia, although a storm disrupted the journey and sent them to Brazil. Facing persecution by the native tribes, the Mentor clan continued travelling and eventually ended up as the winged, subterranean race of today. The descendants of Mentor require outsides to propagate their numbers, however, due to a high rate of death in childbirth: “One mother out of eight usually died in giving birth to the winged babies. The death rate had been higher before the coming of Doctor Morris and he was doing all he could to reduce it still more.” This is the reason for them having resorted to large-scale kidnappings, although they “refuse to breed with any but people of their own race, hence the fact that Latins, Semites et cetera are never captured by them”.
Perhaps as a result of having been founded by a scientific genius, Mentor is a technologically and
scientifically advanced nation. Disease has been almost eradicated, and Wormley theorises that the Mentorites were able to bring down his and Kennedy’s plane with a man-made tornado: “What I think they did was to electrically ionize the dust of the air probably even throwing great quantities of dust into the air. And then they must use some gigantic machine to suck in the air to create the cyclonic movement in the higher regions.” Mentor funds its wealth with the produce of mines and rubber plantations, which the Mentorites sell to the outside world – the buyers being completely unaware that their trading partners have wings.
While at Mentor, Kennedy happens to meet one of the celebrity captives, Marian Hally. This leads to an ominous conversation with Lois:
I told her of her father’s offers of rewards for her recovery. Beyond that I knew nothing else. She sighed and without another word returned to the group she had deserted.
“That,” said Miss Lois, “is the trouble of stealing these poor girls. They could be happy with us, I believe, if only they could get in touch with their people and let them know that they are well …”
“Yes,” I said, “the world is not going to stand for this wholesale abduction of yours very long!”
Up came Miss Lois’ chin. “We do not have any fear of that, Jim Kennedy, Mentor knows how to protect herself!”
“Well, why don’t you come above board and show your hand to the world instead of this miserable woman-stealing ?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “It is not for us to ask, Jim Kennedy. The Patriarch will deal with the world when the Time comes!”
“Then there will be a Time?”
She smiled. “Yes, the time is coming when the world will realize that we are a factor to be reckoned with! They will gladly give us our place in the World Court!”
“Unless they annihilate you entirely!”
“And that is impossible of course.”
Upon hearing this, Kennedy’s mind turns to the prospect of conflict with the half-million Mentorites, but he concludes that they would not easily be wiped out: “You can’t wipe out a half a million people easily… not unless you dynamite half of South America!” He accuses Dr. Morris of being unpatriotic for siding with the winged race, but the latter argues his case eloquently: “A great many of the ‘original settlers’ of the States were criminals and convicts sent from England in order that the new colonies could be populated. Do we look down upon Britain because that was once her policy? Then why should we condemn these people for taking the best of womanhood from the countries round about to establish themselves?”
The story then dips into the travelogue mode that often turns up in Gernsbackian SF, with Kennedy getting a closer look at Mentorite society and reconsidering some of his assumptions:
They were healthy, strong, happy, normal. There were no police nor courts for the simple reason that there were no thieves, no madmen, no vicious tri-cornered affairs that necessitated litigation; no murders, no divorce. Children were as gay and happy as if they had a mother’s care, as joyous and carefree as any child upon the Outside; more so, I should say, since there were no class distinctions, no race prejudices, no snobbishness; the same abundance of food, the same clothing, toys and play hours. What more could children want? Love? Could any normal man or woman help but love the little things? They had their little friendships, their little loves, the comfort of each other’s arms and guardians who had only kind words and loving pats for them. A teacher who mistreated a child was taken from her charges and put to other work.
He concludes that the adults, like the children, lead joyous lives:
For the adults there were their own friendships, their mates, their amusements. A man had a right to take the woman he loved to mate, but he was not compelled to take her for life. True many a man or woman took upon themselves a single mate for their life-time and they were happy in each other’s love and lived their full happy days knowing that with the end of the days they would have each other again. And there was the pure blue sky and the bright sun above into which one could plunge or climb to the dizzy heights, race with the birds and look about and survey the world as far as the eye could see. He could know that he is the happiest of all creatures on Earth because he possessed the medium to express his soul’s desire . . . wings . . . to climb with the eagle . . . to sing with the lark!
Indeed, Kennedy begins imagining a place for his own profession in this world. When granted an audience with the ruling Patriarch (“in him I saw a very human man with a deep sense of humor as well as honor. I had admired him intensely from the start and now I found I had not placed my regard improperly. Here was a man of power who could take his place in the world among kings”) he provides suggestions on introducing newspapers to Mentor.
Speaking with the locals, Kennedy hears a story-within-a-story about the love between a winged woman and a man from the outside, which has a distinct fairy tale quality (“He longed to clip the wings of his love, but he was too much a man for that”). He then samples Mentorite art, and witnesses an aerial sham-battle between troops who are divided up by wing colour (“Last and most beautiful were those of the rainbowed wings, and among them was Miss Lois who ranked a captain”).
Then, our hero is charged with an offence: in all the time that he has spent in Mentor, he has failed to take a mate; as a result, the powers that be shall choose for him. After listening to a black-winged government representative deliver a speech on building a strong nation through selective breeding (“The man’s cold-blooded eugenic creed disgusted me”, comments Kennedy, a notable exception to the often pro-eugenics stance of this era’s SF) he finds himself partnered not with the lovely Lois, but with a complete stranger. Still, he manages to marry Lois instead.
Despite this ugly incident, Kennedy remains resigned to his new life in Mentor and goes ahead with establishing a newspaper, which he titles the Aerial; he even hires a women’s correspondent in Lottie Walker, one of the female captives. The publication is well-received: “The Patriarch was quite enthusiastic about it and laughed heartily over a caricature of himself that had been drawn by an art student. I realized that I must introduce one or two chaps to the art of comic-strips.”
Meanwhile, the conflict between Mentor and the wider world grows. The Mentorites continue to bring down planes that come too close to their home, and some winged men are successfully captured by outsiders Kennedy’s friend Wormley is killed after trying to escape. Finally, the outside forces commence an all-out bombing campaign on the Number One city; the winged warriors take up arms in an early prototype of the hawkman battles from Flash Gordon:
I have mentioned earlier that I knew of no other destructive weapon possessed by the Mentorites outside of the Machines, but I discovered they were not unprepared to do battle. They knew electricity perhaps better than the world. We have had scientists who have made for themselves thunderbolts, but as yet no use had ever been discovered for them. The Mentorites did have a use for them. Each man and woman carried a small stick, harmless enough looking, but harmless it was not; for each “stick” had within its barrel six discharges, discharges of electricity that could travel a thousand feet, and with each discharge of a thunderbolt a plane fell. That had been the reason for the practice battles with red marked wands!
The winged army suffers heavy losses, but through sheer strength of numbers wins the First Battle of Mentor. The outsiders begin regrouping their forces, but the winged people strike back by attacking camps and cities, aided by the local natives who “saw in this new race a savior who would give them their own again.” Outsiders have poison gas, but Mentorites have “a gas that was more potent than even cacodyl isocyanide the gas that had been discovered some fifteen years earlier and which destroyed any life it touched.” Amidst this conflict, the hero and his wife have a child: “Jimmy Junior, as Lois insisted on naming him, was born. The day he arrived almost became one of mourning for me, for Lois, the dear little mother, almost died in giving him life. But Doctor Morris saved her as he had saved many mothers,”
Eventually, the Mentorites send a delegation to Washington D.C. and make their case for acceptance in world affairs. Their request is accepted, and the conflict ends; within years much of the animosity is forgotten: “gradually the antagonism wore off, and it was not an uncommon sight to see the winged people in the cities of Quito, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires as well as in American and European cities.” The underground cities move to the surface, and Mentorite society changes for the dawn of a new era: “Mentor became less and less communistic. The dormitories had been forsaken, and men and women were beginning to establish their own homes, their children attending the city schools conducted by educationalists from America.”
Tensions return, however, when talk arises of winged people settling permanently as United States citizens. Conflicts break out once more, one even killing the President (the Patriarch, meanwhile, dies of old age and is replaced by Jimmy Jr). But the story’s foreword made clear, the winged people interbreed to such an extent that after a certain point in the following centuries, all of humanity has wings.
“Men with Wings” is a striking story, despite being made up largely of familiar elements. The premise of the exiled scientist creating human-animal hybrids in a remote corner of the world was likely inspired by H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, and the wider narrative mixes the lost world romance with the science fiction travelogue – not, itself, a particularly innovative combination. Yet author Leslie F. Stone brings a considerable degree of nuance to her arguably derivative tale. The bird-people alternate between admirable and sinister, never settling into the obvious role of either heartless monsters or dull utopians; and while so many writers would have simply wiped the whole
lot out at the end of the story, Stone is bold enough to end with the winged race taking over the world – perhaps for the better. The setting she created was rich enough to warrant a return visit, “Women with Wings”, which ran in the final issue of Air Wonder Stories.
News and Letters
Following the structure of sister title Science Wonder Stories the magazine devotes a few pages to technological news, in this case focused specifically on aeronautics.
In the section on construction, we are told that “A helicopter (bird-like airplane) designed by a Brazilian workman has been completed with the aid of his government”. The page on operations news informs us that “What appears to be the first job of towing an airplane Is recorded in Aero Digest”. The magazine also offers news about aviation as a career: “The present membership of the Caterpillar Club, composed of aviators who found it necessary to jump from their plane by parachute to save their lives, now numbers 120 men […] Col. Lindbergh, by virtue of four such dives from his plane, has earned the title of ‘Noble Caliph, Grand Vizier and High Mogul.’” To round things off, we have general aviation news: “That Rabelais, the famous French writer of the sixteenth century foresaw the possibility of flying and many other scientific triumphs is indicated in an excerpt from his writing as recorded by Aero Digest.”
Finally we have a letters column, “The Reader Airs his Views”. “As a retired business man and engineer free to indulge my fancy,” says Morris Glassberg, “I have spent a good deal of time In rather extensive reading. I must say that I like your SCIENCE WONDER STORIES very much and if your new magazine approaches it in interest, entertainment and instruction you can certainly count me among your readers.” William Kendall, a self-described “embryo aviator”, expresses optimism in the new publication but is firm in his expectation of high standards: “I am very critical of anything that is said in the name of aviation, for as you probably note there is a lot that has been said about it by people that don’t know what they are talking about.” John Farrand, meanwhile, is bewildered about the proposed magazine: “I don’t understand what sort of stories it is going to carry. Are they going to be stories of the present or of the future?”
Milton Yost is another skeptic. “I suppose you know that there are already a lot of aviation magazines out,” he writes, “but I suppose yours will be different, at least I hope it is […] I am sort of leery about most air magazines so I am waiting until yours comes out to are what it is going to be”. Yost also enquires as to how gliders and helicopters work.
Burt Kane requests a non-fiction component to help readers keep up-to-date with aeronautics: “I, for one, find myself at sea when I try to orient myself and know whither we are drifting.” Frank Parsons, however, expresses doubts about such a column. “I am rather sceptical about how a fiction magazine can go off into technical sidelines about which it knows little. I am only interested in the fiction side, as I believe that real stories of the air that are well written can beat anything I ever read.” Still the editorial team clearly have faith in the air news section: when Wesley Brown asks for recommendations for books on aeronautics, the reply simply directs him to the magazine’s news column.