Wonder Histories, August 1929: Pools of Strange Science

A man and woman sport hairstyles of the late 1920s coupled with black goggles. They look out of a window into the void of space; the Earth and its moon are visible, but the two people are focused on something nearer: a metallic structure shaped a little like a spinning top. Two other objects, one bowl-shaped and the other cylindrical, are connected to it by a cable. It was August 1929, and Science Wonder Stories had a new issue out.

Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the month is entitled “The Wonders of Space”. “Of late, Einstein and a number of other mathematicians, including Minkowski, have pronounced the theorem that space in itself is not infinite, but limited and as they claim, returns upon itself like a gigantic, closed, curved surface”, notes Gernsback. “It seems that, mathematically, they are even able to prove this. Yet, one may ask, if this be true, then what is outside the portion of space that is so curved?” After a few more comments on the wonders and mysteries of space, he concludes

“Indeed, it is quite possible that our entire views on space and matter are entirely erroneous—principally because the workings of the human mind, based upon mundane conditions, can make no satisfactory picture of the tremendous stellar magnitudes involved. It is similar to the problems of the fourth and higher dimensions, which the human mind cannot encompass. Our minds, in short, are too finite and are probably perfectly insulated against all the greater and universal truths.”

As it happens, space is barely touched upon by the stories in this issue, which remain resolutely earthbound – although granted, they are bound to an Earth that is sometimes visited by beings from further afield…

“The Moon Beasts” by William P. Locke

After Explorer J. Everhart Stewart delivers a lecture on the time he spent with the Pygmies of New Guinea, mentioning a curious road that he found in the jungle, the story’s protagonist Joseph S. Crawford steps forward with a tale of his own…

The account begins with Crawford deciding to go on a trip with fellow radio researcher Barry Edwards, as both men “felt like getting as far away from inductances, capacities, electrons, and kilocycles as our time would permit.” While traversing the waters in the lands north of Lake Superior, Crawford catches a glimpse of a mysterious form in the air:

And then a fleeting shadow slid over the canoe and was gone. Looking up, I saw a dark shape passing the face of the moon, its outlines rather sharply defined for an instant; then merging into a faint blot in the hazy ring which I now saw surrounded our satellite. It did not appear to be at a very great height, but that was hard to judge; and there was no doubt of its being the cause of the turmoil in the lake, for the disturbance followed directly beneath.

Whatever this form is, it has a disastrous effect on the local sea life. An array of dead fish float to the surface of the water, and when Crawford picks up the body of a pike, it crumbles apart in his hand. Barry Edwards suggests that the mysterious shape was a dirigible that discharged a substance into the water, but Crawford is unconvinced. Further investigation reveals that land animals as well as fish have been affected in the same manner (“Their bodies were soft and granulous and readily fell apart when touched. Apparently they had met instant death, for one of the rabbits was still sitting on his haunches in a very life-like posture.”) The two men then locate the airborne object, which has since come to ground:

We now had a good look at all sides of the strange craft and wondered at its peculiar outlines. Had we unexpectedly come upon it we might have believed we had happened upon another “Lost World” and taken it for some monster pre-historic turtleshaped amphibian that had just crawled up from the slime of the swamp. Of a certainty we wouldn’t have tolerated the thought that it was capable of traversing the air at all, much less that it did so more efficiently and at greater speed than anything we knew of.

The general dimensions were about fifty feet in overall length, twenty feet at the widest point and fifteen at the greatest height. The top was rounded, the highest part or crown being nearer the end that lay toward the west. At that end was a rounded protuberance extending five or six feet which we had noticed while circling and took to be a sort of observation post, naturally concluding that to be the front.

A close inspection reveals that the form is not a mechanical vessel at all, but an organic life-forrm:

Surely, if these extensions, projections or whatever they might be called, were movable, and of that I had no doubt, then no hand of man ever fashioned a connection such as was here used. No joints or pivots were visible, just a merging of one to the other with an expansion of the covering on one side and contraction on the other. Either Nature had been simulated to the last degree—or Nature herself had been the builder. And if the latter—the=n this was no super man-made inanimate aircraft developed and built in secrecy, but a sentiate, living monstrosity possessed of unaccountable, mysterious powers of whose counterpart there was no existing knowledge in the annals of terrestrial creation.

Noticing glowing lights on the creature’s body, they discuss its biology, concluding that it is capable of converting light into energy: “That is a compounding spectroscope with an Nth power: — a short wave converter that we poor mortals haven’t even imagined yet – a color screen that would make a rainbow jealous”, says Crawford. The being is so still that it may even be dead – that is, until the two men realise that they are being watched: “a periscopic eye, more than a foot across, motionlessly focused and meeting our stare two yards above our heads.”

The creature’s eye begins showing images, like a cinema screen. The two observers see a picture of the Earth, followed by image of creatures like the one before them, at work on some sort of excavation:

Like huge steam-shovels, operating in recessional tiers, they were ranged side by side, hooded eye erect and looking much like a smoke-stack, evidently further enlarging the vast excavation. I centered my gaze upon a certain one to fathom, if possible, the reason for this activity as well as the methods employed in its consummation. It stood, head on, a short distance from the terraced bank. I said head on, though really there was no distinguishable head as with terrestrial fauna; but, anyhow, the one with the rounded extension which subsequent events demonstrated to be the business end. Its two large front flippers, in constant undulatory motion, were pointed forward, their lensed ends directed at the bank from which the material just seemed to disintegrate as from a powerful hydraulic nozzle.

But the affair is interrupted when the main characters’ guide, Jules, fires his gun in the direction of the creature, prompting the other two to run:

“Damnation!” Barry gasped as we reached a safe spot to stop. “That’s what comes of getting excited.”
“Yes, if he only hadn’t fired,” I answered.
“I wasn’t thinking of that,” he replied, beginning to hop around on one foot. “We forgot our shoes.”

The alien from the Moon – as the two observers deduce the creature to be – becomes agitated by the attack and ends up sinking into a swamp. The story then returns to its tongue-in-cheek framing scene, where Crawford suggests that another such alien had landed on Earth and was responsible for the peculiar road sighted in New Guinea.

“The Moon Beasts” (apparently the only published SF story by William P. Locke) is a slow-burning piece of work, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. At a time when non-humanoid aliens were typically cast either as an invading force or as occupational hazards for spacefaring adventurers, this story’s depiction of an alien as a test subject that is ultimately driven to destruction by human overzealousness is both novel and credible.

“The Radium Pool” by Ed Earl Repp (part 1 of 2)

Reporter James Dowell is sent to Death Valley to meet with one Professor Bloch, and together the two hear a local prospector describe an encounter with a strange race: “They ain’t human, they’re frog-faced beasts about seven feet tall, with funny long arms, long legs and big heads!” This turns out to tally with the Professor’s personal theories, as he and his associate Dr. Jamesson have uncovered “strange and almost human remains” in the area.

The prospector then takes over as the story’s narrator as he details exactly how he and a cohort with the evocative name of Driftin’ Sands found the frog-faced race. This story starts out as a typical Western yarn, with fights against Apaches, a hunt for a beauteous maiden and repeated usage of the word “pardner”, but soon heads into weirder territory. They encounter an oddly-coloured cactus with octopus=-like tentacles, and later stumble across a glowing pool:

We stood on the brink of the yawning pit and noted that in the center, surrounded by overhanging lava forming a circular cave, brilliant with a green phosphorescent glow, was a pool probably a hundred feet in width. The pool seemed as alive as that grotesque cactus with its restless tentacles.

Sands deduces that the glowing liquid in the pool, which is capable of eating away at cloth and metal alike, is a radium compound. The pool is surrounded by a circular cave, out of which issues a “weird sound, like the low moan of a woman in mortal agony”; the two men investigate and find the cave so filled with radium that the stalactites glow. The narrator’s mind is consumed by promises of newfound wealth – to him, the cave is a luminous El Dorado – but Sands is left in a state of dejection: he concludes that his beloved Allie Lane, the woman he has been trailing for years, must have perished in this cave. Then, they see a strange sphere emerge from the glowing liquid:

In my wild terrified scramble for safety, I ran past the only exit or entrance down into the crater and soon found myself face to face with the spinning sphere! Bright, swift moving lights passed around the sphere as it emerged from the abyss. The yellow rays were gone now and as I stared at it in my utter terror, the sphere began to glow like a great emerald ball. The high-pitched scream was more terrific here and it pounded in my eardrums with a metal-edged sharpness that sent me blind and unreasoning back around the other side of the pool!

As the two men rush to escape the globe, Sands happens to put his fingers in the liquid and finds that they have been eaten away “leaving instead, completely healed stumps”. This is just the beginning of his transformation as he also begins to rejuvenate, albeit taking on an unsightly pallor in the process:

Sands’ face was actually clearing! Deep furrowed wrinkles that had marked him as an old man, sun-hardened and leathery, were vanishing from his face! Except for a month’s growth of beard, he appeared to have dropped, in those few minutes, many years of his age. His brown eyes that were dim, and watery, were taking on a sparkle that signifies the vigorous health of youth. His bowed shoulders straightened. In spite of the rapid change he was going through, the greenish hue remained to mar his features with a ghastly pallor caused, no doubt, by the radioactive power of the radium.

The narrator wonders if they have discovered “the mythical Fountain of Youth that the early Spaniards actually believed existed in one of the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola”. They also come across two human skeletons, which Sands declares must be the remains of Allie and her father. His sorrow turns to outrage when he sees that the skeletons have been deliberately pinned to the cave wall, indicating that the two were murdered. Finally, the two come face to face with the cave’s inhabitants:

Standing around us in a circle stood a score of the strangest man-like beings I ever beheld. They stood motionless, surveying us. Towering high above Sands and me, the strangers looked down through great eyes that blinked slow and deliberate like owls’ orbs in the night. […] Tall in stature—probably seven feet high, they towered above us. With great heads void of hair, powerful bull necks, barrel chests and long skinny limbs that appeared to be of rubber like the tentacles on the weird cactus back on the Manalava Plain, the creatures to the human eye, were repulsively grotesque!

Their arms, thin and sinuous, like their legs, seemed of rubber and they hung motionless at their sides. I looked for hands. There were none. At the ends of the tentacle-like arms, there seemed to be sucker-like cups like the end of an elephant’s trunk! […] above their heads waved two thin, flexible tubes that curled at the end and were attached to the brows just above their owlish orbs. Like the antennae on a desert butterfly, the tubes twitched this way and that! The absence of ears at the sides of their flat, heads added bestiality to their repulsive features, and their mouths, like the jaws of a toad, were pointed and bony!

The creatures have some form of telepathy (“What are you doing here?’ a strange, silent voice seemed to ask”) and, apparently sensing Sands’ hostile thoughts, make a move to attack, ending the first instalment on a cliffhanger.

So far, The Radium Pool has treated us to some striking imagery. But its visions of a quasi-scientific subterranean world populated with mysterious glowing forms and strange troll-like beings will be familiar to anyone who has read A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool. Notably, Jack Williamson’s The Alien Intelligence – which completes serialisation in this issue – also appears to have been influenced by The Moon Pool. While largely forgotten today, A. Merritt certainly seems to have exerted a strong influence over magazine SF of the twenties. Ed Earl Repp’s main innovation is in mixing Merritt-esque science fantasy with Western conventions; Repp would later become a screenwriter on various cowboy films.

“The Eternal Man” by D. D. Sharp

“The Eternal Man” tells the story of a reclusive chemist named Herbert Zulerich who is preoccupied with thoughts of mortality. “Death! Death!” he whispers to himself. “Man goes through long years of preparation for the few days of accomplishment before the conqueror destroys all. So much preparation… So many brilliant minds polished and blazing for an hour, like roses grown and tended to be cut for an evening’s bloom; hands so skilfully trained, and so soon folded quietly at rest.” And so, like Ponce de Leon before him, Zulerich has set about finding the secret to eternal life. He uses animals as test subjects, producing grotesque results:

His high-walled back-yard soon held some monstrous freaks from his chemicals: dogs with heads as big as water barrels and bodies of normal size, and rats with bodies as big as cows and small peanut-sized heads. And one day he applied a chemical to a horse’s eyes and the eyes grew out of their sockets like long ropes of white sinew with great knobs of gelatine-like iris—limp flabby canes which dragged upon the ground. The effect of this last experiment so cut the kind soul of Zulerich that he killed the monstrosities and wished to abandon his whole business. Then he would look again from his window over the wide world where death laid waste, and he would sigh and tighten his lips to plunge ahead again.

Finally, he produces an elixir with what initially appears to be the desired effect. He tests it on a rat and finds that, although the animal’s heart and lungs cease to function, it carries on living. There is one drawback, however, in that the rat is immobilised: “To see it one would presume it dead, except for the fire in its fierce little eyes and its lack of decay.”

Later, a few drops of washing soda chance to fall into the open mouth of the paralysed rat. The rodent is re-animated, and Zulerich decides that his elixir is a success after all. He gives himself a dose of the fluid, preparing to follow it up with a dose of washing soda — only to run into a flaw in his plan: when the elixir paralyses him, he has no way of imbibing the soda.

His neighbours find his frozen form and conclude that he has been somehow chemically embalmed but is nonetheless dead. He is relatively fortunate, however, in that he retains enough curiosity value that instead of being buried, he is put on display in a glass case. He is forced to watch as generations pass around him, his only constant companion being the immortal rat that periodically visits. When the rat is left in a state of eternal disability after someone steps on it, Zulerich decides that the loss of his discovery was for the best: “He discovered that he should need to improve life before trying to lengthen it.”

The editorial introduction to “The Eternal Man” hails it as “perhaps the greatest science fiction story of the year”. This is overstating things a little: while the brief story is well-written in terms of prose, it offers nothing particularly original and its plot hinges upon some deeply unconvincing absent-mindedness courtesy of the protagonist. Author D. D. Sharp would write a sequel, “The Eternal Man Revives”, which was published in the Summer 1930 Amazing Stories Quarterly.

The Alien Intelligence by Jack Williamson (part 2 of 2)

The concluding part of this novel opens with narrator Winfield still on the trail of his missing friend Austen, having reached a high-tech city called Astran hidden away in the Australian desert. After escaping a line of ships flying “at an incredible pace, stabbing at us with the green and orange rays” Winfield and the local siblings Melvar and Naro finally meet Austen. He reveals that the strange silver liquid found nearby can be used as an explosive:

“There is energy stored in the silver liquid. It may be that that amazing thing in the sky stores the energy of sunlight in the stuff. You know that the energy in sunlight amounts to something over one horsepower for each square yard on which it falls. Or perhaps the atomic energy of the gases in the air is released. It seems impossible to find the key, although I have been able to analyze the stuff pretty accurately. If I had it I could make the silver stuff go off like ten times its weight of T.N.T.”

Winfield is pleased to have found a potential weapon to be used the deadly Krimlu, which blight the land; Austen is uncertain about this prospect:

“Do you think,” I asked him eagerly, “that you could set off some of it and wipe out the Krimlu?”

“Winfield,” the old scientist soberly replied, “even if you could, would you wipe out a whole civilization—a science so high as that which made the Silver Lake—a culture equal to, if not above, that of our own world?”

“If you had seen those purple things—men and women that are old and hideous, and fearfully strong and malignant—you couldn’t move too quickly to blot them off the earth,” I cried.

“I have seen,” he said seriously. “I have seen the purple monsters, and they are terrible enough. But they are not the masters. They are but the servants, or perhaps I should say the machines, of a higher power. I told you that I had been exploring a bit. I have seen some strange things.

“There is another form of intelligence here, Winfield. A form of life unrelated to humanity, without any sympathy for mankind, for any share of human feelings. Perhaps it is a danger to the human race. The things would not hesitate, I suppose, to use all humanity as they have used the people of Astran. But that does not solve the problem. Would it be right to wipe them out? Perhaps it would be better for mankind to go under. Perhaps they are superior to us. The purposes of the creation of intelligent life might be better met by these things than by man. I have given it a great deal of thought, and I can’t decide.”

As he travels with his three cohorts, Winfield finds two vast machines. The first comprises “a titanic, shining green cylinder”, each end boasting a mental tower topped with “a fifty-foot globe of blue crystal, slowly turning”. A white liquid flows into this machine, which it uses to produce “a high-flung span of white fire – a great pulsing sheet of milky opalescent light – that roared and crackled like a powerful electric discharge, and lit the chasm with an unearthly radiance.” The second machine resembles a telescope: “The white metal tube was a full two hundred feet in length, mounted on massive metal supports. It did not seem to be in action. The barrel of it was pointing at the sky, like a telescope, or a cannon.” When Winfield notices people toiling on the machines, he realises the horrible truth of their condition:

At once I linked up the raids on Astran, the bracelet that Naro had found on the dead purple beast, and what Austen had told me of superior beings who enslaved the purple things. I knew that I looked upon the captured men and women of Astran, simply man-machines in this strange place!

It turns out that the two contraptions are ultimately responsible for creating the Silver Sea:

As we watched, bright patches of red and green shot up the beam. Slowly the bright yellow faded from the ray, but still the green luminosity clung about the tube, and still I felt that the flood of radiant, purposeful energy was flowing up into the sky. It was not long before I heard, far above us, in the distant west beyond the red-clad hill, the splash of the first great drop of silver into the argent lake. Below us the white torrent was still pouring into the vast green cylinder, the white fire was still arching between the crystal globes, and the purple slaves were still rushing about the pit with feverish and machine-like energy.

When the four reach the entrance to the subterranean region where Austen plans to set off his explosion, the band leaves Melvar and Naro behind. Later on, Austen separates from Winfield, and the latter realises the truth: Austen is mounting a suicide mission. “Dear old Austen! The truest friend I ever had! His wrinkled, smiling face, his kind blue eyes, his low familiar voice, are gone forever!” Austen has at least given Winfield enough time to escape – albeit into the proverbial frying pan of a raging forest fire which, he believes, has claimed Melvar:

At last I staggered into the open space. The last of the giant trees exploded into flames not a score of yards behind me. Sparks rained upon me. My clothing caught fire. I ran on, fighting at it with my hands. The jungle back of me roared deafeningly, an angry, surging sea of lurid red flames, awful, overwhelming, fantastically terrible. Heat radiation poured across the clearing in a pitiless beam. I struggled on across the white sand, away from flames that tossed themselves up like volcano-ridden ranges of scarlet alps, until I reached the shelter of a great boulder on the slope below the cliff.

I flung myself down behind the rock, gulping down the cool air and rubbing out the fire in my clothing with my blackened hands. For many hours I lay there, tortured by thirst and pain. At last I fell into a light sleep of troubled dreams, in which huge, winged, green ants flew after me through burning crimson forests and in which I saw the dear form of Melvar devoured again and again by the flames.

He awakes into a desolate, fire-ravaged world, and encounters a strange mechanical being:

I knew that it was an intelligent, a sentient being. But it was not human, not a thing of flesh and blood at all. It was a machine! Or, rather, it was in a machine, for I felt far more of it than I saw a will, a cold and alien intellect, a being, malefic, inhuman, inscrutable. It was a thing that belonged, not in the present earth, but in the tomb of the unthinkable past, or beyond the wastes of interstellar space, amid the inconceivable horrors of unknown spheres. There was a bright, gleaming globe, three feet in diameter, lit with vivid flowing fires of violet and green. A strange swirling mist of brilliant points of many colored lights danced madly about it—a coruscating fog of iridescent fire—moving, flickering, in an incredible rhythm.

He realises that this is one of the Krimlu. He kills the insectoid creature with a well-placed shot from his automatic; examining the body he finds an organic core within the mechanical body, a brain with atrophied tentacles and rudimentary wings. He concludes that the being “had reached about the ultimate stage of evolution”, a point at which “[m]achines had altogether replaced bodies of flesh and blood” (this idea was possibly inspired by the Martians in H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds). He ponders their role in evolution:

It seems incredible to find great intelligence in any form of life other than human; but science thinks that life and intelligence must rise and fall in recurring cycles, and that the earth has probably been ruled by many different forms of life, each of which has been blotted out by some cataclysm. The Krimlu were a surviving remnant of archaic ages.

After the encounter, Winfield finds the charred body of Naro. Melvar herself turns out to be alive, however, her brother having sacrificed himself to save her. Then, while the two shelter inside a rocket, Austen’s explosives go off, destroying not only the monstrous Krimlu but also Melvar’s home city of Astran, and causing the rocket to blast into the sky:

Then we heard the sound of the cataclysm— a crashing roar like the thunder of a thousand falling mountains, as deep, as vast, as awful, as the crash of colliding worlds. At the same instant we felt the force of the greatest explosion that has ever occurred on earth. The rocket shot upward as though shot out of a mighty cannon.

The blue sky darkened about us, and the stars flamed out like a million scintillating gems, in incredible myriads, gleaming cold and hard against the infinite empty blackness. We had been hurled out of the atmosphere and into interplanetary space! Austen had struck! The world of the Krimlu was no more! The whole Silver Sea had gone off in a great explosion. From our ever-rising craft we could see the desert spread out around the mountain like a vast yellow sea, rimmed on the south by a steely blue line that was the ocean. The white fire dulled, faded, and was gone as quickly as it had flashed up. The crater of the Mountain of the Moon was left a wild black ruin of jagged, scattered masses of smoking stone. Of the Silver Lake, of the red vegetation upon the upland, of brilliant Astran, not a trace was left.

The rocket, meanwhile, lands near an Australian sheep-ranch. Winfield and Melvar subsequently marry while on the route to Perth.

The Alien Intelligence is an early work by Jack Williamson, whose lengthy career (he died in 2006) would include some pioneering works of space opera. At this point, he appears to have been (like Ed Earl Repp) imitating the work of A. Merritt, particularly The Moon Pool. The weaknesses of The Alien Intelligence are evident, from the stereotyped characters to the rather pat ending in which nobody seems at all bothered by the destruction of an entire civilisation; but Willaimson’s raw talent is evident in the pulpy energy that runs through the story.

“The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller

The Summer 1928 edition of Amazing Stories Quarterly ran a multi-part story by David H. Keller entitled “The Menace”, in which a group of African-American master-criminals tried to take over New York by turning themselves white. With this sequel, Keller uses a similar premise – but moves from racial strife to the battle of the sexes.

The story opens with Martha Belzer, employee of Aviation Consolidated, objecting that she has missed out on a promotion purely because of her sex. The company president admits that this is the case: “We feel that we cannot compete with our opponents in business unless these places of trust are filled by men.” He then placates her with a pay rise. The omniscient narrator informs us that such incidents are commonplace in contemporary society:

During the World War the feminine sex had tasted the sweetness of responsibility with increasing incomes, so that at the close of the war they were reluctant to return to their former humble positions. Well educated, capable, and hard working women were striving to occupy positions on a par with men, and the situation had become so acute that many corporations had passed regulations, strictly limiting the advancement of women in their employ. The stand that Aviation Consolidated had taken was by no means unique in the industrial life of the nation.

Indeed, “It was rumored that a western state was preparing to place a female Senator in Washington.” The priesthood, the story notes, is the sole occupation in which “men dared to entirely exclude the opposite sex.” The powerful men of America react against this trend:

The fact of the matter was that the men of the United States who owned the greatest part of the wealth of the nation were afraid. They did not fear the election of a Democratic president, or a change in the tariff, or even a lowering of the immigration bars. What they were afraid of was the possibility of feminine control of the great corporations of the nation. And they were endeavoring to prevent this in the most logical manner that occurred to them. They believed that the best thing was not to allow the women to start securing that power. Unless they did start, they would never succeed. So, the word passed from the President of one great concern to the chief executive of the next that under no circumstances should a woman be promoted to certain positions in these companies, and it was the following of this rule that had prevented Miss Martha Belzer from securing the promotion which she and everyone else knew that she was entitled to.

Meanwhile, Taine of the Secret Service – the hero of the previous story – is given an assignment in China to investigate mysterious goings-on at a charity hospital in which all of the doctors are women from abroad. He is reluctant to go, as his wife has just gifted him with a diamond scarf-pin and six polka-dot ties (“You know as well as I do that a real detective could not wear such ties – in China. She will feel disappointed if I do not wear them”) but being the only agent who can convincingly disguise himself as Chinese, he is nonetheless duty-bound to take the job. Taine carries out his assignment, which the story details in past tense as the agent explains all to his superior (“I was disguised as a Priest for a while, and then later on I dressed up as a flower girl – I suppose you know what they are in China.”) Taine’s account includes the revelation that poor locals were being paid become subjects of operation, and a description of the Western women responsible for the surgical procedures:

I never in all my life saw women like those Doctors. They just did two things besides eating and sleeping. They operated on those Chinamen and talked about equal rights for women. To listen to them talk, you would think that man was just a worm and that their chief delight was to step on him. They even seemed to take a great pleasure in their operating —brag about it—the different doctors would boast as to the number of Chinks they had operated on.

Taine deduces that “those girls were cutting something out of those chinks and making some kind of a medicine out of it and shipping it to Paris, and it must have been awfully valuable, judging from the cash they were getting and spending.” His superior is impressed by the success of this dangerous mission: “You either have no nerves or you are too dumb to know what danger is.”

The investigator is left with a number of questions. What was being removed from these men? Who was ultimately responsible for the operations? (Taine’s conclusion: “I believe there is a secret society of women, something like the Masons”). And why was the extracted substance being sent to an all-female college in Paris, one visited by a large number of American women?

Meanwhile, American industry is seeing shake-ups. A new generation of businessmen – “young men who were hard workers and did not seem to know the value of recreation” – are rising to the top, being canny enough to win one over the older generations:

Of course, the go-getters, the old timers, had the same determination, but the old men used clubs and bludgeons to accomplish their purpose, and all these young men were smooth; and when they won a financial victory, they did so before their opponents realized what was happening to them. They were smooth, suave, and remarkably clever.

To top things off, these men (who might today be termed yuppies) are snappy dressers, “always being just a little ahead of the prevailing masculine fashion.” So confident are they that one of these young upstarts even announces a plan to run for President. Another notable occurrence is that American birthrates begin to favour girls, who outnumber boys three to one. Meanwhile, three years after Taine’s trip to China, his wife has a fainting fit and subsequently visits one Dr. Williamson. The doctor’s advice is to make sure that Mr. Taine dotes on her every desire:

He had said that if her husband really loved her, he would see that every desire of her life was granted. Taine promised her that he would see to it that this was the case, and silently he promised himself that he would see this wonderful physician and give him a pointer or two as to how to handle women.

Upon meeting Dr. Williamoson, Taine is struck by a resemblance between this man and one of the female doctors he had encountered in China: right down to their choice of ring, the only physical difference between the two is their gender. Taine then gets a new mission, one that involves spying upon an exclusive gentlemen’s club where all of the servants are women. His investigations lead him to witness a meeting held by Patricia Powers, an heiress briefly mentioned earlier in the story:

The meeting was held that evening as arranged. It was a peculiar gathering. Probably never, in the history of the world, had there been one like it. At the head of the table, as was her due, sat Miss Patricia Powers, now nearly sixty years old. When her father died, she had been the richest woman in America. Now, she was probably the richest woman in the world. During those years, following her father’s death, her financial life had been interesting on account of the fact that every investment that she had made had been directed by another woman. Not a single dollar had been under the control of the masculine sex.

As for Powers herself, well…

She was a rather ugly woman, and her elaborate costume, her garish display of jewelry, her peculiar taste in regard to cosmetics but accentuated this ugliness. Gossip stated that no man had ever offered to marry her. It may easily be seen that this neglect had been a large factor in her conduct during the past ten years.

Also present at the group is one Dr. Hamilton, who gloats about the success of the scheme that was masterminded by Martha Beizer (central character of the opening sequence), bankrolled by Powers and enabled by Hamilton’s own biological genius; and at this point, the story reveals all. Various successful women have faked their deaths and taken on new identities as men (amongst them being Martha Beizer, who is now known as Mark Bonds). This process necessitated more than a change of clothes, with their operations in China having “secured material for twenty-five thousand ampules of male gonadal solution”. Then, at the French college, the subjects were “thoroughly treated with radium and the X-ray to produce bodies that were natural,[sic] as far as sexual characteristics were concerned,” After that, they were dosed with a substance isolated from the gonadal solution (dubbed MALE-FINE XXX). All of this had the intended effect:

In a remarkably short time, these heroines experienced the desired physical changes, their voices deepened, became wonderfully masculine; they developed such growths of hair on the face that they had to begin shaving once a day. There was also a rather typical change in certain deposits of subcutaneous fat.

Inserting these newly-minted transmasc yuppies into positions of power was just one step in the wider female conquest of America. Hamilton also manufactured a maternity food that impacted birth-rates, causing girls to outnumber boys. The endgame, as Dr. Hamilton explains, is an “effort to make this world perfect by the complete extermination of the hated male element of our population”:

“That brings me to my final dream of a manless world. I feel that our organization can easily be spread over the entire globe. We do not want two sexes in this fair world of ours, not as long as one sex can run it so efficiently. But, of course, that sex has to continue on in its existence; we do not plan to destroy humanity. What I have in mind is the perfecting of parthenogenesis. By that I mean the reproduction by virgin females of eggs which develop without being fertilized by the male principle, or sperm cell. This is an actual fact at the present time in certain insects, worms and crustaceans, the most familiar example being that of the aphid, in which a number of parthenogenetically produced generations occur entirely composed of females.

“If worms and crabs can do that, the human female can; and the time is near at hand when we will. Later on, we will consider the production of females from ovamaters in the laboratory and thus save our mature females the time and suffering of bearing their young. The growth of the young female, from the egg up to the second or third year of life, will be provided for in our Government laboratories and nurseries. I am at work on these problems now, and, just as soon as we feel strong enough to take over the government, I shall be able to present a perfect plan for the development of future feminine generations that will in no way have the curse of masculine associations.”

Taine is then discovered and captured, but delivers an impassioned speech:

“You want to run this world, and have all the men die off and make it a female Paradise, and you forgot there was a God and that He made man just the same as He made woman. I admit that some men are rather bad sort of fools, but some of us are really rather good sorts — take me, for example. My wife thinks I am wonderful — of course, all my boys are girls, but, at the same time, she would have been tickled had the last one been a boy. You go and change your bodies, and try and make men out of yourselves, and all the rest of what you call your programme, and now you think that you are going to win out by killing me. If it were not for the Missus and the kids, I would not mind much if you did, but even if you were able to, what good would it do you?!

He then reveals a fatal flaw in the conspiracy: the Chinese men operated upon had been infected with a disease that is mild in people of their race, but which causes insanity and death in whites. He closes with some harsh words: “You took five thousand of our best women, girls who would have made loving wives and wonderful mothers if they had been well advised – you took the best that we have bred, and, through your desires to rule, you have changed them into five thousand insane women.

The story is illustrated with a clipping from the New York Times. “TELLS OF A TUMOUR THAT MODIFIED SEX — Medical Journal Tells of Woman Who Began to Grow Beard – Operation Restored Her.”

Clearly not meant to be taken seriously, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” at least chooses a somewhat less provocative topic than its predecessor, its portrayal of women taking over society by becoming transgender men (a curious inversion of the fears expressed by modern “gender critical” feminists) feels more silly than hateful, unlike the rampant racism in “The Menace”. The casual racism towards the Chinese is, however, regrettable, and also serves to enable the arbitrary conclusion. David H. Keller was not finished with Taine, and would write several more stories featuring the character; meanwhile, this second outing retained enough curiosity value to be reprinted decades later in the anthologies When Women Rule, Womanthology and Gynomorphs.

News and Reviews

Amongst the issue’s non-fiction quotient is the middle part of “The Problems of Space Flying”, a serialised excerpt from Herman Potočnik’s book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums which imagines the construction and operation of a space observatory (this is depicted on the issue’s cover: as with the previous month, Science Wonder Stories is drawing upon non-fiction for its cover illustration). The observatory system, Potočnik argues, should be divided into three separate objects: the observatory proper, the engine room, and “the ‘rotary house,’ in which an artificial condition of weight is constantly preserved by rotation (accordingly creating the same condition for life as on earth). This house would then be used normally for occupancy.” The essay goes into a detailed account of each object, particularly the rotary house, followed by a proposal for space suits that are similar to contemporary diving suits but with greater tensile strength, special padding to insulate heat and mirrors to divert radiation from the sun, plus radio equipment for communication.

Then comes a hypothetical account of a trip to the space observatory, with all of the logistics involved, followed by a list of potential uses for such an observatory (these range from experiments with the near-absence of heat to identifying enemy positions during times of war). As well as various technical diagrams, the essay is illustrated with stills from the 1925 German film Our Heavenly Bodies (“That the Germans are taking space flying perhaps more seriously than the rest of the world is best shown by some of the science fiction films which they are now turning out”, says a caption).

The magazine again includes a column on science news, divided into sections on astronomy and meteorology (“In order to get the great amounts of power necessary to achieve a Utopia we must be able to build up atoms, not disintegrate them, according to Professor Millikan”), aviation (“Air mail, freight and passenger service between San Francisco and Honolulu on a thirty-six hour schedule is the plan of the Goodyear-Zeppelin Company”), biology (“Birth control clinics are advocated in greater numbers as they can allow those who have the greatest tendency to multiply – usually those who offer the least in brains and creative ability to the world – to limit their offspring”), chemistry (“The result of a recent case in Hawaii where a boy under the influence of a drug confessed to a murder he had never committed, probably will spell the doom of the use of such drugs, says Doctor Morris Fishbein in the Scientific American“), geology (“Recent studies by the Department of Geology of Columbia University together with the National Research Council and the United States Geodetic Survey have disproved the contention made that the Atlantic seaboard is slipping into the ocean at the rate of a foot or two a century”), medicine (“A cat lived for several hours with a rubber heart pumping blood through its system according to Dr. O. S. Gibbs of Dalhousie University”), physics (“Professor R. S. David, of Columbia University has invented a device to measure the emotions of a human being”), broadcasting (“demonstration of television and radio by means of ultra-violet rays was made by the United States Radio and Television Corporation”) and general science and technology. This last section includes an obituary for Garrett P. Serviss, some of whose science fiction had been published in Amazing Stories.

Finally, the issue’s brief column of book reviews covers At Home Among the Atoms by James Kendall (“Professor Kendall attempts what might be considered the impossible, to explain to one, who is presumed not to have a knowledge of chemistry, the mystery of atomic structure”) and The Life of the White Ant by Maurice Maeterlinck (“the facts themselves are often so astonishing as to give the work the external aspects at least of colorful and fantastic fiction”).

The Reader Speaks

Once again, the magazine publishes some choice entries to a contest, the object of which was to write a guest editorial on the topic of “what science fiction means to me”. F. P. Swigget Jr takes first place with a florid endorsement of the genre:

It is a tale of the efforts of primeval man boring upward and onward from the dark depths of ignorance to the ultimate goal, the white light of Eternal Truth. It is a story of the far-flung mysteries of the stars, of the secrets of gigantic forces locked up in the unconquered atom, of the mastery of disease, of the lengthening of the span of life, and it is a symbol of the puzzle of life itself. It is a story of Humanity!

James O. Walker says that science fiction “means to me a chance to measure ideas in a big way, not confined to mere pounds or pennies, but to grow out into the blue.” J. Roy Chapman hails the genre as a providing a method of learning about science “infinitely more pleasing than the tedious process of prying such information from textbooks”, while Nicholas Mizihrocky makes a similar observation in more poetic terms:

Here on the American continent is a great clamor—a clamor for things cultural. A hope gleams—a hope that a distinctive art, a distinctive literature may evolve. There are many forces contributing to the cause. Literature without science fiction is food, but not a feast, a flower without fragrance. Personally, I believe that my whole life will be brighter and more intense in every way for reading these tales of science fiction.

Then we have Al Browne, who felt inspired to write an entire poem in science fiction’s honour:

Science fictionist, all hail the thought)
Whose fleet wings lightly span the gulf of space.
Revealing mighty mysteries; Time-wrought;
And scales the heights none other dares to face.
A tragedy of life thou dost rehearse
Between the mystic spectrum’s flashing bars,
And from a sub-atomic universe
Thy dauntless hands reach out, and grasp the stars.
Science fictionist, all hail to thee!
We contemplate thy works with bated breath.
Thy Cosmic playground is Infinity;
Thy toys: Time, Space, Creation, Life and Death.
Thy flashing lightnings strike the doubter cold;
Old canting dogmas ’neath thy thunders quail.
Do! Dare! Defiance! is thy challenge bold.
Science Fictionist, to thee, all Hail!

The main letters section includes comments on the material that has run in Science Wonder Stories during its short existence. One story from the previous issue that comes under scrutiny is J. P. Marshall’s “Warriors of Space”, in which the heroes thwarted an invasion from one of Saturn’s moons by hurling the planet and all of its satellites into the sun. “I think they could have pulled Dione into the sun without taking Saturn and its whole system” argues David Orstein, while James G. Scribner is even less patient: “The idea that a slight force could draw Saturn into the sun is ridiculous. The solar system would automatically adjust itself to almost any changes you could make in it. A planet falling into the sun would be as plausible as an atom destroying itself by the electron uniting with a proton.” Burris Cunningham, meanwhile, sinks his teeth into Kennie McDowd’s “The Marble Virgin”:

By far the worst fault of the first issue lies in your publication of that piece of sentimental drivel, “The Marble Virgin.” This story, aside from its pseudo-scientific background, is such as may be found in nine-tenths of the cheap fiction magazines that clutter the modern newsstands. The “science” in the story is worse than non-existent, for it gives the untaught reader a bunch of false ideas that are the very opposite to real science.

Cunningham follows these comments with a lengthy deconstruction of the story’s science. Indeed, these two stories come in for so much criticism that the magazine gives the respective authors a platform to defend themselves. First, James P. Marshall clarifies some of the physics in “The Warriors of Space”:

It must be remembered that the space cars in themselves had no power to create energy. They merely acted as mediums, as valves, through which the infinite power which holds the whole universe was liberated and directed, and that power so liberated and controlled had not to move a deadweight mass, but merely to unbalance a mass which depended entirely on the nicety of its balance to hold its place in the universe.

And Kennie McDowd defends the matter-changing device depicted in “The Marble Virgin”:

The refulgent phosphorescence shooting from the horn of Huxhold’s Electron-dissolver to play over the statue standing in the curve of the Cabinet, was not ONE ray merely; it was literally thousands of vitally effective rays carefully calculated by Huxhold’s mad genius to perform the task of transubstantiation!

Elsewhere in the letters column, Maurice Rahinovitz questions the anti-communist slant of Fletcher Pratt’s The Reign of the Ray:

The science and technique of the Reign of the Ray are excellent and I have no fault to find with them. I cannot say as much for the political and social structure. Let it be understood at the outset that I am decidedly opposed to the Soviet form of government. Dictatorships imposed by force and based on the theory that the people are made for the government do not appeal to me. Nevertheless, I honestly believe the authors of the Reign of the Ray presented a distorted and biased picture. Authors of scientific fiction, as a rule, are men and women of progress, who believe in evolution in all its phases. Soviet Russia, regardless of its defects politically and economically, has made tremendous strides along social and particularly scientific lines. This is a fact that cannot be disputed. Fascist Italy, on the other hand, notwithstanding its alleged economic progress, is slowly but surely returning to the medieval standards, which curtailed the thought and limited the action of the individual, which accepted the rule from above as the inevitable, which stifled inventive genius, and which allied itself with the rankest sort of intolerance and superstition. Yet in this story, the authors deliberately praise the Fascist form of government and bitterly denounce the Soviets.

Both are dictatorships, both were imposed upon the people against their will, both are maintained by force. And the best that can be said is that Russia is slowly recovering her sanity and in time will undoubtedly realize that social democracy cannot be achieved by force, but only by education and not until the people are ready to accept it. Italy is daily becoming more and more conservative, dedicating its future to a false, antiquated, narrow conception of nationalism, which bodes no good for the efforts of republican and democratic nations to establish and maintain good will, peace and cooperation. Scientifically, Russia has completely outclassed Italy. Why, therefore, all this tommyrot on the part of the authors of THE REIGN OF THE RAY?

An editorial response summarises Gernsback’s view on the matter: “While he takes no partisan view of the political sentiments of ‘The Reign of the Ray,’ he feels that very interesting things are happening in Russia, scientifically, at least, regardless of what her future destiny is.”

M. Ashman has a question about space (“There is supposed to be an absolute cold in space. Why this is so I cannot see, for space is filled with ether and in outer space there is no obstacle to heat waves”) while Dean St. Clair Mitchell has general praise for the magazine: “Being only a sophomore in high school, I haven’t bad enough experience in the field of science to understand all the scientific material in your stories, but I certainly find them interesting to say the least, and wish you the greatest success with your future publications.”

A. B. Maloire writes about the recently-created Science Correspondence Club (“Up to date we have a membership of twenty-five enthusiastic science fiction fans all anxious to devour every bit of science fiction that they can grab”) and announces the near-completion of a story called “The Price of Peace”, about a future war, which will be duly submitted to the magazine; Maloire’s story was never printed, however.

Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure. https://www.patreon.com/amazingstoriesmag

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Article


Next Article


You might be interested in …