OBIR: Occasional Biased and Ignorant Reviews reflecting this reader’s opinion.
¢ENT$ OF WONDER, Science Fiction’s First Award Winners
Publisher: The Experimenter Publishing Company, LLC.
Editor: Steve Davidson
Proofreader: Lloyd Penney
Cover Art: by Kermit Woodall
Apologies: Normally I review only Canadian books. But I love early pulp fiction, and this book is right up my alley. Couldn’t resist grabbing the kindle off Amazon and reading it right away. In my defence I note that the first prize winner in the first contest was Cyril G. Wates of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Introduction: by Allen Steele
Allen outlines the history of SF literary awards. It is clear Gernsback intended his writing contests to be a promotional device. I would argue that all literary awards are a promotional device. That is their primary function.
Allen details, quite precisely, the evolution of SF Awards. I think his account is accurate. He’s quite right to point out the internet and social media has altered how the awards are perceived. He goes so far as to describe a paradigm shift in which purpose “a” has now become purpose “b”. There is an implied regret that times have changed. Not on my part. I would argue that purpose “b” has merely been added to purpose “a” and the result reflects the fact that we currently live in the greatest “golden age” of science fiction to date, an era of incredible diversity and wide scope of imagination and creativity coming in from myriad sources. There has never been a science fiction genre as splendid as today’s. Sturgeon’s law still applies, but the contemporary 5% is huge compared to the past.
Nothing has been lost. Nothing has been replaced. Anybody can read (even find it online) just about everything that has been published in the genre throughout its history. All a matter of personal preference. Yes, modern authors stand on the shoulders of giants, but that simply means they are reaching even higher and accomplishing wonderful works.
To conclude, modern SF is proof that SF itself has evolved into something very science fictional in terms of going beyond what was imagined in the past. I see the nature of SF literary awards today as proof that science fiction is alive, healthy, and still kicking. Lots of room for growth. Allen offers an excellent summary, but I feel he draws unjustifiably pessimistic conclusions. But that’s just my opinion. It’s well known my public SF persona is that of a Pollyanna cheerleader. Can’t help it. I’m a science fiction enthusiast.
Notes: by Hugo Gernsback and Steve Davidson
Lots of interesting stuff. Main thing is the promotional genius of Hugo Gernsback. In the December 1926 issue of Amazing Stories the colour cover art by Frank R. Paul depicted a bunch of naked women with head/arm fins/crests staring out over waters enclosed by basalt pillar cliffs and watching a gigantic spherical space craft manipulating an ocean liner of obvious Earth origin. Gernsback invited readers to send in stories based on the image. Winner would get $250 USD. He received 360 submissions, ultimately publishing 7 of them which are reprinted in this book. He repeated the process for his Science Wonder Stories magazine in November 1929, and the 7 stories from that contest are also published here.
Most of the writers were never published again. Nevertheless, their submissions are Ur-sf-pulp exercises that are quite innovative for their era. Great fun to read. A veritable archaeological expedition into the dawn of modern SF.
FIRST CONTEST FICTION
The Visitation – by Cyril G. Wates
A meteor strike causes a tsunami to lift an ocean liner into a landlocked harbour on an unknown Pacific island.
I enjoyed the ocean voyage opening. I detected traces of influence by Verne, Wells and Conon Doyle. To be expected, I guess. I can see why Gernsback loved this story. It made the most of the contest picture and managed to slip in some irrelevant bits of science to “educate” the reader. At the same there were some nice touches of character-based humour.
Once the lost race showed up I was less enthusiastic. They were entirely too perfect and beautiful for my jaded tastes. Reminded me of the Martian “hippies” in the 1917 anti-war Danish film Himmelskibet or Skyship. And that in turn led me to conclude the fading Bohemian movement (the hippies of their day) may have helped inspire the perfection of the islanders. Main thing is their portrayal is something Gernsback would heartily agree with, that advanced technology is the sole key to the creation of total bliss for the human race.
The underlying theme was reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Made me wonder if Clarke had read the story in his youth. He had seen a 1928 copy of Amazing owned by a neighbour, but it wasn’t until he read the March 1930 edition of Astounding Stories of Super Science that he got in to reading science fiction. On the other hand, despite the haphazard distribution of American zines in England, by 1938 he claimed to possess copies of “every science fiction magazine that had ever been published.” So, maybe he read The Visitation and the theme stuck in his mind consciously or unconsciously. In 1946 he wrote a story Guardian Angel which was later expanded into the novel Childhood’s End. Had Cyril G. Wates planted the germ of the concept? We’ll never know.
The Electronic Wall – by Geo R. Wall
A troopship carrying 12,000 soldiers is lifted off the Earth by aliens.
Gernsback liked this one “because of the excellent science contained in it and the plausible manner in which the entire story is developed.” Uhmm, not quite. There’s a great deal of scientific bafflegab explaining how the aliens lift the troopship into space without harm to its crew and passengers. Gravity, for instance, is now centred on the ship so people can walk about the hull and even the keel yet remain firmly attached and unable to jump or fall off. The description of this is delightful, but I wouldn’t say plausible, except for the sake of the premise.
Turns out the aliens take the soldiers and sailors to Mars to help out the inhabitants, who live in marvelous underground cities. Bunch of do-gooders, these aliens. If you are familiar with the 1954 English film Devil Girl From Mars you’ll understand what the Martians need, though not in so violent a manner. There is “nothing of the gross” in the Martian nature.
Again, the typical Gernsbackian approach of super technology solving all social problems. Creates a lengthy revelation of one marvel after another at the expense of character and drama. But this was a sure-fire way of inspiring that “sense of wonder” back in the day.
The Fate of the Poseidonia – by Mrs. F.C. Harris (Clare Winger Harris)
A young lover fears there’s something odd about the other man courting his girl.
This is apparently the first time a science fiction pulp published a story by a woman under her own name. As Gernsback puts it “That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest, for, as a rule, women do not make good scientifiction writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited. But the exception, as usual, proves the rule.” He later published a number of stories by her. Quite a progressive policy for that era. A collection of her short stories was later published under the title ”Away from the Here and Now, stories in pseudo-science” in 1947.
The science in the story is muted, following a “take-for-granted-without-explanation” approach unusual for Gernsback’s Amazing. There is an actual plot, involving the protagonist descending into paranoia and obsession while spying on his rival. Discovering that his competitor is a Martian only adds to his ire. Harris concentrates on the love triangle while managing to fit in every aspect of the contest picture. Quite a feat.
The Ether Ship of Oltor – by S. Maxwell Coder
An alien star system passes through the Solar System.
Naturally an inhabited alien planet is left behind and contact is soon established. Seems the red-skinned aliens use gold for atomic fuel and platinum for furniture. This piques humanity’s interest. Turns out multiple races dwell on the planet. One brown-skinned race, the Ektars, is enslaved (not to worry, their numbers are kept down by “humane” methods), and another brown-skinned race, the Royas, are at war with the red-skins. Bit of a problem, as the Royas have a ray which dematerialises matter. Fortunately, human visitors come up with a solution.
This is old-fashioned space opera, albeit fought on a planetary surface. Definitely a period piece. Various kinds of death rays are scientifically justified at great length. Sure, why not? But what brought tears to my eyes (I exaggerate) was the arbitrary scene where one of the humans is hunting giant bats in a cave on the alien planet just for fun, and a giant spider attacks him. The same event (in fact the same man-sized rubber spider) occurs in a number of films from the 1950s, like Cat Women of the Moon, Missile to the Moon, and World Without End. Who knew that B-movie cliché derived from a pulp-fiction cliché? Cool, if true.
The Voice from the Inner World – by A. Hyatt Verrill
To quote Gernsback introducing the story “That there should be a race of cannibalistic females somewhere in our world is after all, not impossible nor improbable.”
As expected, there’s a lengthy description of the giant sphere and how it works. The mechanism of its flight and tractor beams is different in every story, but all equally implausible. No matter. It’s an intriguing demonstration of the assorted authors’ imagination. H.P. Lovecraft used to rant about the formulaic idiocy of pulp magazine editors. Certainly, if you wanted to sell to Gernsback, scientific bafflegab consistent within it’s own logic was vital, and a virtual guarantee of acceptance. But then, there are elements of that in Star Trek, and in much military SF, so it’s not as if Gernsback was unusual or unique in the history of the genre, but he was perhaps the first to insist on this formula.
The villains are merely horrible monsters, but there is a reasonable amount of context explaining their nature and history. Unconscious misogyny on the part of the author? No more so than the script writer for the 1958 film Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman. Not to be taken seriously, though if you do, the plight of the protagonist hiding out from cannibalistic giants is a bit worrisome. Gernsback thought the story had “its gruesome moments,” but also “good science” which justified it winning honourable mention. I have my doubts.
The Lost Continent – by Cecil B. White (Another Canadian! From Victoria, B.C.)
Professor Lamont has invented a giant flying sphere and a time machine!
So naturally he grabs a shipload of scientists and takes them back in time to prove his deceased and much derided dead brother’s theories about the reality of Atlantis. Sounds like a plan. After all, nothing can go wrong with a machine powered by atomic engines which utilize bursts of X-rays for propulsion, can it?
This is one of those stories where plot and characterization are sacrificed for the sake of explaining impossible technology. But what if it were possible? That’s what stirs the sense of wonder among readers back in the day. Still, I would have liked to learn more about the Atlanteans. Nice that they were noble-looking and appeared to appreciate the beauty of the ocean liner suspended above them (and not the sphere?) but their lack of apparent fear is explained away as a feature of their advanced culture. Now I know why they got wiped out. Bunch of smug, complacent idiots, maybe. Anyway, a classic science-dominates-all Gernsbackian story.
The Gravitomobile – by D.B. Mccray
A mathematician invents a giant sphere in order to visit Mars.
He decides to take along a 200 foot ship for the scientists accompanying him since it saves him the trouble of building a specialized vessel apart from his sphere. Got a keen eye on the budget, he has, which is not unusual for a mathematician.
Gernsback states the author has worked out “mathematically, some very ingenious ideas on gravitation.” That may be, but not in the story. No math at all. Just the idea you don’t have to cut off gravity ala H.G. Wells, but simply direct it with nozzles. Ah, I suspect that is an incomplete explanation, though I suppose the bafflegab about protons and such is meant to fill out the details.
Gernsback also stated “the O’Henry ending will leave you nonplussed for a moment.” Only because I was picking my jaw off the floor. Quite a cheat. The mother of all cliches. But maybe this was the first time it was ever used? I don’t know.
I did enjoy the brief exploration of Mars. Had an old-fashioned, comfortable feel to it.
SECOND CONTEST FICTION
Note: This time the contest picture, the colour cover of the November 1929 issue of Science Wonder stories by Frank R. Paul, depicted a flying saucer in deep space tugging along a skyscraper in its tractor beams. Submissions were limited to between 1,500 and 1,400 words in length.
The Colour of Space – by Charles R. Tanner
The Russians use flying saucers to kidnap buildings and inventors.
But all is not as simple as the Russian interrogator claims. There may be a way off the flying saucer. The title is a subtle clue. Intelligence and attention to detail are useful for confounding villains. A slight but amusing tale.
The Relics from Earth – by John Pierce
Humanity has emigrated to Neptune’s Moon Triton. Now, at long last, an archeological expedition to Earth is underway.
I was amused to note that the saucers slip “edge-wise” through space to avoid meteorites. The mission is a success. The Woolworth building in New York city and the Eiffel Tower in Paris are wrenched from the Earth. But problems arise during the voyage home.
There’s a bit of drama, though the references to the dread insects of Earth is a bit of a red herring. No matter. I was intrigued by the overall concept of travelling to a dead Earth to recover artifacts. I wonder when that concept first appeared in science fiction? It’s one that still holds possibilities for new writers.
The Manuscript.. Found in a Desert – by Frank J. Brueckel, Jr.
A traveler enters a mesa cave looking for water. It turns out to be the interior of a spaceship. Both he and its occupant are startled.
The fate of humanity as witnessed on a view screen. Could perhaps have been better told from the viewpoint of the man in the Woolworth building fighting the aliens, but hey, what can you do with a short, short? In a way, the awestruck curiosity of the traveler reflects the reader and is perhaps easier to identify with. An oddly written story.
Raiders from Space – by Harold A. Lower
The first thing you see when you turn on your new television is live coverage of an alien invasion.
The television is the main gimmick. Though description of massive destruction in all the world’s capitals certainly entertains. Yet another predictable O’Henry-style ending is a bit of a groaner but maybe seemed fresh at the time.
Cosmic Trash – by Bob Olson
How do you depose of old buildings when cities are no longer needed?
That’s right, the flying saucers are garbage machines releasing derelict buildings toward the sun. But are they up for the ultimate mission?
The humour and premise remind me a bit of the Earth-destruction scene in Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy (book, radio show, TV series and movie). Just the right light touch to make it work. Even the corny closing line works. The story is all of a piece. Nothing grand, but amusing.
The Day of Judgement – by Victor A. Endersby
An alien spacecraft seizes the Woolworth building and places its occupants in a state of suspended animation. They are to be judged. The survival of the human race depends on the outcome.
An actual bit of speculative fiction here. The opening paragraphs are a good stab at describing the nature and thought processes of a truly alien alien. Well, okay, it’s sort of a sentient jellyfish, but it really does think differently from us. An interesting effort predating Stanley G. Weinbaum’s Tweel in his 1934 story A Martian Odyssey, which usually gets the credit for originating the portrayal of aliens as aliens. Mind you, the alien jellyfish in this story has somewhat human-like motives, avoiding punishment for mistakes made, determination to please his superiors, but he’s still rather off-centre from a human point of view. A worthy experiment.
Our judgement hinges on the moral nature of the kind of people you find in a corporate office building. Let’s just say we need more than luck to be acquitted. The story does offer a plausible (if somewhat racist) philosophical solution.
The Menace from the Skies – by A. G. Stangland
Aliens steal the Woolworth building and the Eiffel Tower.
Scientists twist and turn to figure out how they did it. How did they approach the Earth without being seen? How did they cut the buildings loose? Where are they going? Answers are given. What happens now?
Steve Davidson points out that at the time these stories were written a civilization on Mars was still considered a possibility and some scientists believed there was definitely life on Mars. Other things like the ether between the planets were taken for granted. Much of today’s knowledge concerning radio waves or atomic energy was then purely speculative. Even the size of the universe was unknown, hence the reference to light from the most distant stars taking, at most, a few thousand years to reach us. In short, what seems like mindless bafflegab now appeared potentially plausible then.
Many people today consider the original Star Trek, with its beehive hairdos and mini-skirts lame and corny. But I saw them when they were first broadcast. Believe it or not, back then the show was ground-breaking and incredibly futuristic. It was exciting. Inspiring, even. A blast of fresh air and oxygen invigorating those who believed in the future.
Likewise, these amateur stories, most by non-professionals, caught the eager futurism and belief in technological progress so ripe and blossoming in early science fiction fans. To read these stories you have to put yourself in the mindset of readers back in the late 1920s. Everything was new and exciting. What now seems dull and boring sent imaginations soaring back then.
Sure, no literary masterpieces here. But Gernsback’s publications are one of the foundations of modern science fiction. He and they deserve respect for what was accomplished a century ago. Yes, science fiction has matured and developed almost beyond belief. But sometimes it’s fun to look back at beginnings.
Personally, I had a heck of a good time reading this book. Historically speaking, it’s a treasure. Kudos to Steve Davidson and Amazing for assembling and publishing it. A wonderful blast from the past.
Check it out at: < ¢ent$ of Wonder > Kindle available now. PoD available soon.