Amazing Histories, Spring 1928: The Second Quarter

“We believe that America will in time, become known as the hotbed of scientifiction…” Hugo Gernsback, 1928

A metal cylinder with a bullet-shaped tip plunges past a star-speckled backdrop. It is surrounded by an orange-yellow glow, and pointed towards a murky green landscape. Dark crags loom in the background, a yellow moon glowing from behind. It was spring 1928, and Amazing Stories Quarterly had returned for a second issue.

Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the issue is entitled “The Rise of Scientifiction”. Here, he details Amazing‘s evolution from a magazine focused on reprints to a purveyor of original work. “When the magazine was first launched, we had no original manuscripts at all”, he points out. “Little by little, as the magazine continued to grow, original scientifiction manuscripts began to arrive, and it became possible to have less and less reprints.” The only reprints in more recent issues, he tells us, “are some of the stories of the Jules Verne and H. G. Wells type, for which there seems to be a constant demand by the many readers who have not seen these classics before.”

Scientifiction, he says, is in vogue. “Just as there are cycles in style, there are cycles in literature. During the last few decades, for instance, there were cycles of the exposé story; then we had the boys’ detective cycle; next the real detective stories; more recently the sex story; and still more recently, the self confession story […] the scientifiction cycle is now in its ascendancy and is growing rapidly.” With pride, he notes that this is a primarily American phenomenon: “We believe that America will in time, become known as the hotbed of scientifiction, and that more excellent scientifiction will be turned out in this country than anywhere else. Already, in our editorial opinion, our modern authors have far eclipsed both Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.” Gernsback’s conclusion was a little premature – looking back, we can see that none of the authors published in Amazing during this period have really eclipsed Wells in the canon – but he was not too far off: science fiction, as it would develop under John W. Campbell at Astounding, was indeed a largely American phenomenon.

Having boasted of Amazing’s ever-growing platter of original material, Gernsback offers up an issue filled with all-new stories…

A Modern Atlantis by Frederick Arthur Hodge

Set in the near future of 1932, this novel-length story takes place on Isleport Number Two, “one of a system of mid-ocean roadsteads, now moored in the Atlantic wastes, and offering the multifold advantages of hotel, country-club, ocean liner, and marine and airplane base.” In reality, the year before the story was published, engineer Edward Robert Armstrong had proposed a similar system of floating platforms, dubbed seadromes, which could house and refuel aeroplanes; the idea never came to fruition, as long-range aircraft rendered transatlantic refuelling points unnecessary, although similar territory became incorporated into oil rigs.

The main character is Bob Holden, an engineer who goes to stay at Isleport Number Two; due to health problems, he is accompanied by a nurse, Kitty Cromwell. With the world on the brink of conflict between the United States and the eight-nation European Alliance, the two discuss the dire geopolitical situation. Holden identifies the root of the potential conflict:

This European turmoil seems to grow apace. No telling where it will end. If our country continues her demand for payment of war loans, it may mean the eventual bankruptcy of many European countries. We build a tariff wall around American industries to keep out European competition, and in so doing cut off one of their chief sources of revenue. They look upon us as a grasping creditor who, like Shylock, would extract the pound of flesh.

“Will they never learn,” asks Kitty in a rather clumsy bit of didacticism, “that war is no solution of their problems, that it is a test of might and not of right, and that in the long run, industrial and not military supremacy, is the real indicator of a nation’s might?” She then asks Holden a pointed question: “Have you men of science no panacea to offer?” He answers with a rosy vision of world peace brought about by the threat of mutually-assured destruction:

I am convinced that the only thing that will bring an end to wars, is the discovery of some super-power of destruction which will be held in secret by a nation or an individual, and used only to checkmate any warlike disposition. A single man… may at some not far distant day, hold the fate of the world in his hands.

This may come about in any one of a number of ways. A new metal as light as aluminum, yet with a tensile strength many times that of steel would make it possible to armour airships as we now do naval vessels, and equip them with long range guns; a means of sending electric power through the air as we now send radio waves, and yet concentrate such power in any given direction; the discovery of a new ray that will counter-act cohesion in matter; or the harnessing of atomic energy; any one of these might make war impossible.

It would be fortunate for the world, if such a discovery came to one who would use it in the interests of world peace; it would be disastrous, were it to be used for selfish ends or national aggrandizement.

When war finally breaks out, this new Atlantis is literally caught in the middle of the conflict. The population evacuates – but Holden and Kitty find out only too late what has happened and so remain stranded on the isleport.

The Isleport receives a coded radio message; after a long narrative tangent about codebreaking, Holden and Kitty succeed in deciphering it. The message turns out to have been sent by Ravnowickz, an Austrian spy who smuggled himself onto the isleport the day before Holden and Kitty arrived. The novel skips back in time to show how Ravnowickz was followed to the isleport by Holden’s friend Jerry Scott, who spotted the spy in Budapest and subsequently tailed him across a chunk of Europe.

The espionage plot thread leads to multiple counts of mistaken identity. When Kitty bumps into Ravnowickz, he wrongly assumes that she is a fellow spy; she decides to play along. Ravnowickz later gets into a fight with Scott, who he mistakes for Holden. But the spy-story antics – which include a kerfuffle over a forged key – seem strangely low-tech when occurring alongside Holden’s musings on the potential of atomic power:

For years this question of unlocking the energy stored in the atom has interested me as it has many other scientists. If a means could be found for producing positive electric energy, the forces which now bind the atom together might be thrown out of balance. This would disrupt the atom and release the energy stored in it. The production of such a positive ray became possible with the discovery of glorium, a substance whose atomic weight shows that it contains ninety-three electrons to each atom, and therefore, a larger nucleus carrying a greater positive electric charge than any other atom known.

Glorium atoms, like those of radium, are unbalanced, and I have found a means whereby they may be disrupted at will. As the atoms disrupt, their nuclei shoot out into the path of a new type of ray. This ray has the shortest wave length known. It becomes saturated with the positive nuclei which are carried along at a velocity approaching that of light. When these nuclei collide with the atoms of oxygen or nitrogen in the air, the latter are unbalanced and explode, releasing the energy stored in them into the path of the ray.

Thus the heat and electric energy of the ray is constantly increased. No substance can withstand the bombardment of these positive nuclei. By means of it I have been able to dissolve steel, nickel—even a diamond in an instant of time.

Using his engineering skills, Holden succeeds in converting an apparatus on board the isleport into just such a weapon. When enemy aircraft approach, he is able to wipe them out with a deadly ray:

The air about them was filled with an acrid ozonizing odor; a path of faintly violet tinted light reached out from the tube in the direction of the distant plane. Out where the plane had been, there was a soundless flash and a patch of white smoke drifted lazily on the wind like a small feathery cloud, but the place of the winged messenger of war was empty. There was no falling of debris, no buckling of wings or stays; just an instantaneous change of matter back into the original gases from which, aeons ago, it had been formed.

The conflict continues, with battleships joining the aircraft, but it soon becomes clear that Holden’s prediction of a weapon to end all war is coming to pass:

Just a change of state of matter from solid to gaseous form; a sudden release of energies pent up in the atom since the beginning of time; a flash as some of the atoms reunited with the oxygen in the air. Death to those who guided the planes, was painless, simply an instantaneous physical dissolution. One moment they were, the next they were not. There was no struggling, no wracking of the body with pain, no clogging at the throat as with poisonous gases. No aftermath of maimed bodies and sightless eyes, or years of hopeless suffering. Just the final ultimate moment of time moved up to the present. It was war, but war stripped of its terrors and, best of all, it was war that would make war henceforth forever impossible.

Finally, the enemy forces are defeated and world peace is declared.

The editorial introduction to A Modern Atlantis hails it as “a scientifiction classic that will gain in importance as years go by.” Well, this prediction has – like the story’s vision of world peace brought about by atomic weaponry – turned out to be a trifle overoptimistic. Having come up with the central ideas of the isleport and the death ray, Frederick Arthur Hodge appears to have struggled to stretch his story to novel-length, and ended up relying on uninspired spy-story shenanigans.

Still, A Modern Atlantis deserves credit for the character of Kitty. While none of the cast are exactly three-dimensional, Hodge has made a concerted effort to create a vivid female lead – a rare thing in SF stories of this period. Kitty is described as “a product of the modern age and a firm believer in the economic independence of women” (albeit one who also “held to a few old-fashioned ideas, among which was the doctrine that every woman should be able to prepare an appetizing and wholesome meal”). We are told that during her teenage years she carried out “a prodigious amount of war work”, picking up experience with a revolver – indeed, it is Kitty who shoots Ravnowickz dead towards the end of the story. Despite her willingness to carry out such dirty business when necessary, she is the novel’s voice of pacifism:

[H]er soul recoiled at the contemplation of another reign of strife. It maddened men, made them hate because of an intangible something called patriotism, which stirred up a tangible atavistic lust to kill. Would the world never learn that war meant inevitable loss no matter what the fancied gain?

The novel spends time articulating Kitty’s inner thoughts and feelings, as when she falls in love with Holden because of his intellect: “She had reached that stage in life and experience which rates mental attainments as paramount to all others.” The narrator notes that this places her in contrast with “[t]hat coterie whom the social set denominated as thinkers, the pseudo-philosophic clique, who manufactured a philosophy to suit the demands of their own existence, who centered their system in the relations of the sexes, and used biology and psychology as a cloak for libertinism” because “for them the emotions stood in place of the mind.”

“The Vibrator of Death” by Harold F. Richards, Ph.D

French industry has been disrupted by a series of strikes. In the words of police chief Flocon, the workers are “not really dissatisfied” and are acting purely as a result of propagandistic literature that gives a false impression of excess on the part of the workers’ employers and plays on fear of a declining exchange rate. The authorities are unable to trace the origin of these seditious publications, but suspicion falls upon the elusive Gaudet, “the leader of the Left”.

A beloved opera singer, Marie Denbaule, speaks out against the strikes – only to receive a death threat from one of the would-be revolutionaries. And so Elon Hopkins, an American investigator, sets about finding who was responsible; he is accompanied by Andrews, the story’s Watson-like narrator. The action moves to a resort with a vibrating amusement ride:

The lofty steel shaft rose vertically to a height of fully sixty-five feet above the concrete foundation in which it was fixed. It was about four feet thick at the base, and from this width it tapered upwards as a slim pyramid. The tip of the spire bore a canopied structure large enough to hold easily the two chairs which were fastened to it, one at each side of the pole.

Close to the bottom, fifteen feet from the ground, the largest electro-magnet I had ever seen was built into a massive foundation. The magnet must have weighed two tons, and I reflected upon the immensity of the magnetic force which would be required to deflect the huge column and so start its vibrations.

From here, the singer tries to negotiate with the striking workers:

“My poor countrymen, are you hungry?”

No reply was ventured, The tip of the rod swung back to its other limit, returned, then Denbaule spoke again.

“Are your aged parents comfortable?”

This time there were a few rough cries. “No! No!” as if the leaders had recovered their wits and wished to break the spell; but Denbaule continued, at the end of the next swing of the lofty vibrator, which thus seemed to punctuate her simple remarks with dramatic emphasis.

“Are your children suffering?”

“Yes,” came in stronger chorus, then one loud voice shouted, “We want the money of the parasites, we want—“

“Then why don’t you go back to work and earn it honestly?” came the reply, smooth and clear, yet as full of feeling as if straight from the heart without passing through the throat.

But then disaster occurs: the machine begins vibrating at a lethal speed (“Denbaule’s cries had ceased, and now jets of red spurted from nose and mouth every time the violent reversal of motion occurred at the ends of the short arc in which she swished”) until the singer is finally killed by the harsh movements. Hopkins and Andrews now have a murder to solve, as well as a conspiracy.

After some detective work and mathematical equations (“I found by a mathematical investigation that 3,798 pounds of material must be removed from the upper part of the shaft in order to increase its rate from 30 to 180 vibrations per minute which were the values I had noted at the park, and the double fact that the acceleration had occurred gradually and in public indicated that this material must have flawed down from the interior of the shaft after being released by a timed valve”) Hopkins traces the man behind the conspiracy: Jacobs, the “cringing Jew” who owns the resort, and who “filled the chair of Physics in the College of New York until 1916, when he was expelled on account of his radical socialistic activities.”

“The Vibrator of Death” is another of Amazing’s less-than-convincing forays into SF-flavoured detective fiction. The story’s virulent anti-union overtones and anti-Semitic undertones come through more strongly than its science fictional element.

“The King of the Monkey Men” by A. Hyatt Verrill

Meredith, an explorer, loses his two-year-old daughter Ruth in a shipwreck. Fifteen years later, while staying among natives in South America, he becomes intrigued by the sight of some exotic purple feathers. The locals tell him that they come from a bird called the Waupona and give him directions to the valley where this creature lives – but warn him that the Waupona is worshipped as a god by “savage men, men who climb like monkeys in the trees and who kill all who enter their valley.” Despite this advice, Meredith goes searching for the bird. He finds it – and one of his guides, Tanina, kills the bird:

Instantly I knew it for a trogan, but a trogan three times as large and a thousand times more vivid and wonderful in color than even the’ famed Resplendent Trogan or Quetzal. From its head a great curved crest fell forward over its beak and down its neck while, from above its tail, long, graceful fern-like plumes extended for several feet. From head to tail the creature was intense purple, gleaming with hues of gold and violet as the light played upon its plumage, while from shoulder to shoulder across the breast was a broad white band edged with crimson.

It was the Waupona, truly the king of birds. All these details I took in at a glance. Cautiously I cocked my gun, but before I could raise the weapon to my shoulder, Tanina had placed his blowgun to his lips; with a puff of breath the tiny dart sped on its way and with fluttering wings the magnificent bird came tumbling to the earth.

Sure enough, the two are soon surrounded by the fabled monkey-men. Meredith is unsure as to whether these are apes or men, but the fact that they are armed with blowguns confirms that they are human.

There was no doubt that they were human. But they were the most repulsively hideous men that the wildest fancy could conceive. Black as coal, with bowed legs and enormous ape-like feet, stooping shoulders and long gorilla arms, they appeared like a troop of Calibans.

Their faces were broad, flat and brutal, with high cheek bones, enormously developed jaws, small turned-up noses, and little restless, roving eyes like those of an elephant. Their chins were covered with thick matted beards, and a mop of tangled hair overhung their foreheads and extended down their necks and shoulders in a sort of mane.

Despite their hideousness, there was a certain expression of intelligence in their faces and eyes, and their high foreheads bespoke a large brain capacity very different from what one would expect in such low primitive types of man. Every one, too, was a giant, with great corded, rippling muscles under his black skin. Mostly they were nude, but a few wore strips of bark about their loins, and one or two had spindles of wood or bone through their ears and noses. And nearly every one grasped a short blowgun scarcely three feet in length.

The monkey-men take Meredith’s native guides and take him captive (“I never carried a compass, flint, steel and tinder, or the various other articles which story tellers are so fond of utilizing in their tales, when the hero desires to work seeming miracles to impress savages”) before hauling him through the trees into a cliffside cavern. He meets the king (“by far the ugliest being I had ever seen”) who flies into a rage upon learning that the sacred bird was killed – but who simmers down when he learns that Meredith did not blow the fatal dart.

Moreover, Meredith shows a number of skills that impress the monkey-men: he can throw ammo cartridges in a fire, sending them shooting around the cave in a stark demonstration of his power; he can capture the monkey-men’s images using a pen and notebook; and he introduces them to bows and arrows. “I felt very much as Mark Twain’s Yankee hero must have felt at King Arthur’s Court, except that the king of the monkey-men was several thousand years behind King Arthur”, he says.

The attention afforded to the newcomer excites the envy of the tribal ruler, who tries to kill Meredith but – thanks to an accident involving the explorer’s ammunition – ends up killing himself. Meredith is formally crowned king of the monkey-men. He still desires to return home, however. With the aid of a machete retrieved from one of his dead guides, he builds a canoe and escapes with a few emeralds from the valley.

Outside the land of the monkey-men, he encounters a group of natives (“Myankos—the fiercest, most implacable cannibals of the South American jungles”) who have a white girl as captive. Meredith drives the Myankos away with another round of the ammunition-in-the-fire trick and rescues the girl; but who his surprise she fails to understand any European language, and he is able to communicate with her only by speaking a native tongue.

I was amazed. This lovely, fair-skinned girl was calmly and very sincerely informing me that she was an Indian, a Patoradi, a tribe of which I had never heard. Was I dreaming or had I taken leave of my senses? Then I thought of the many tales I had heard of so-called “white Indians”; tales I had always considered pure fiction, based perhaps on Albino Indians who are common enough. Was it possible that there were White Indians after all, and that this girl was a member of such a tribe?

The girl, Merima, says that her family has been eaten by cannibals, and so Meredith decides to adopt her as a daughter once he reaches the nearest Christian settlement. But there is a hurdle to his plan: Merima must first be baptised, which involves being converted from her tribal faith to Christianity. This proves a struggle to Meredith:

Why, she asked, was the Christian God superior to the gods of the Patoradis? All her life she had been given health, food, shelter, friends and everything she desired. Could my God give ber anything more? But, I pointed out, the Indians’ gods had failed them when the Myankos attacked them. “And does the Bearded One’s God never fail His people?” she demanded. “Do the people of my Bearded One never have wars, and are they never killed?”

I flushed and hesitated, but I was forced to confess that the Christian God apparently allowed His worshippers to meet with disaster as frequently as did the gods of the Indians.

But the girl is willing to at least present as Christian so as to please her rescuer; Meredith, not a particularly devout person himself, is comfortable with this arrangement:

I do not belong to any particular sect or church, and I firmly believe that every man and woman has a right to worship any deity or deities he or she prefers. I have dwelt among many races with many beliefs, and it seems to me one religion is as good as another, provided a person has true faith and lives up to the teachings of that religion. In fact I have never had any patience whatever with those misguided individuals or sects who are forever striving to force their own personal beliefs and religions down the throats of others who do not agree with them. As far as I personally was concerned, Merima might have remained a pagan forever, or rather, I should say, she might forever have adhered to the beliefs of her tribe.

The pair run into more trouble from members of a hostile tribe, but are saved by the fortuitous appearance of a swarm of army ants, who devour the attackers until “two piles of clean-picked white bones and two grinning skulls were all that remained of the fierce savages”. This has the unexpected effect of clearing up the theological dispute between Meredith and Merima:

Staggering from my hammock, I fell upon my knees and thanked God fervently for our deliverance. For a moment Merima watched me curiously, and then, dropping to her knees beside me, she, too, in her own way gave thanks to him who had guarded us through that terrible night. As I rose, Merima gazed at me fixedly for a moment, a peculiar expression in her eyes.

“Yesterday, Bearded One, I had no faith in that God of yours,” she announced. “I believed only in your magic and the gods of the Patoradis. But neither your magic nor the Patoradi gods could have sent the ants to kill our enemies, so it must have been your God, and henceforth shall I, too, worship Him.”

Finally, the pair escape the jungle and arrive at a settlement with a church. Meredith makes steps to adopt Merima as his daughter, only to find out that – as the reader has by now likely guessed – she is actually his long-lost daughter Ruth.

Another “lost race” narrative from Amazing regular A. Hyatt Verrill, and as with his earlier story “Through the Crater’s Rim” he has invented a fictional ethnic group to portray in grotesquely dehumanised terms. His tales of exploration had some basis in his personal experiences: the story is accompanied by a clipping of a New York Herald Tribune article entitled “Explorer Finds Strange Tribe Deep in Brazil: A. Hyatt Verill First White Man Seen by Indians in Seclusion of Jungles”. It is unlikely that Verrill encountered anything quite like the scenes in “King of the Monkey-Men” during his expedition, but then, it is clear that he did not intend this story to be taken entirely seriously. Before introducing Meredith’s narrative – which is framed as a story within a story within a story – Verrill opens his tale with a consciously tongue-in-cheek scene where a reader scoffs at an implausible story printed in a magazine:

A crusty millionaire gets shipwrecked and floats about in mid-ocean. At the psychological moment a yacht turns up and a sailor rescues the old Croesus. Yacht belongs to a society snob engaged to millionaire’s daughter. Sailor turns out to be an impecunious rival who has shipped in disguise to protect the girl from the dissolute chap who owns the yacht. Of course the latter proves to be a crook and the rescued millionaire bestows daughter, blessing and all on the sailor.

“The Nth Man” by Homer Eon Flint

This story begins in 1920, with a nine-year-old girl playing by the sea. Soon afterwards she has a fall from a cliff, and nearly drowns in the water – only to somehow end up back on dry land, as though placed there by some miraculous power. In 1922, a group of sailors go looking for a lost treasure – a gold nugget. Just as they are about to give up hope, they find that the fifteen-ton nugget has materialised on the deck of their vessel. In 1924, the head of the Sphinx in Egypt is inexplicably transported to the top of a nearby pyramid overnight. In 1926, a massive black crepe is draped by persons unknown over the Statue of Liberty. The public comes to attribute these strange events to a single mysterious individual, whom they dub the Nth Man.

The story then skips ahead to 1927, where an entire bank goes missing in Hamburg; this has the side-effect of preventing a conspiracy to re-instate the German monarchy (bizarrely, at the behest of an anarchist named Bertha) from being financed. Next, in December 1928, a ship flounders in a storm, only to find itself abruptly transported to Australia. After this the plot moves further into what was then the future to outline an incident in 1930

Two missionaries in China discuss how a “certain well-known Oriental government” has become openly autocratic. Moreover this government is now interfering in Chinese affairs by promoting ancestor-worship and thereby preventing “our Christian and scientific truths” from spreading in the country. One missionary fears that this will culminate in war, with “great hordes of well-armed, obedient Celestials, under the control of that emperor—overrunning the Anglo-Saxon world!” But then the Great Wall of China is mysteriously destroyed – an omen that prompts China’s population to convert to Christianity en masse.

The events come to a head in 1933 when, finally, the Nth Man puts in an appearance as he emerges from the sea towards San Francisco:

It was difficult for the eye to appraise him at his full value. He was too immense. He was so enormously large, that it was a problem to find any other large objects, with which to compare him.

Was he taller than the Spreckles Building? Yes; much taller! But—how much? The eye could not answer.

In place of typical human skin the giant is covered with “unknown, rigid material of chocolate hue” suggesting bone or hard leather, arranged like the plates in a suit of armour. To preserve his modesty, he wears the flattened hull of a ship as a loincloth. He strides across America and arrives in New York, where he replaces the Statue of Liberty’s torch with the ship’s gun (“The substitution gave the statue a very different appearance”).

The Nth Man – or Gulliver II, as the story sometimes refers to him – makes it to Washington D. C. There, he announces that America is no longer a republic: a multi-millionaire named Daly Fosburgh financed the election of the current president and effectively rules the country. The giant threatens a war against America unless the commander in chief to re-writes the country’s financial laws so as to rob this plutocrat of his undue influence. The giant disappears into the sea, and America mulls over this remarkable incident. Some take the side of the Nth Man – amongst them Daly Fosburgh’s son Bert. Although lined up to take his father’s place as secret ruler of America, Bert yearns for the freedom to marry a lower-class woman named Florence Neil (who, as a little girl, was rescued by the Nth Man at the very start of the story).

The government declines the giant’s offer, and so he re-emerges from the sea and goes to war against America. The military hits him with aerial missiles fired from electro-magnetic projectors, but this serves only to anger him. The Nth Man drives the president to surrender and prepares to eat the men who made war against him; it falls upon Florence Neil to climb his giant body and plead for mercy. Swayed by her words, the Nth Man allows his foes to live so long as Daly Fosburgh is arrested and stripped of his wealth. The giant then returns to the sea, leaving behind documents explaining his origin.

These tell of a medical student named George Pendleton, whose academic progress was sabotaged by his snobbish mother-in-law to prevent her daughter marrying a man of lower social rank. His wife committed suicide but left behind a son named Park, and the elder Pendleton began a plan of vengeance by injecting this boy with “the chemical elements which filled the vital glands of the Galapagos tortoise”. This process drove the species to extinction, but successfully caused Park to grow in size at the same rate as a giant tortoise, and also to develop a tortoise-like shell across his body. In his youth he used his abilities for childish pranks like the incident with the Statue of Liberty; but upon growing to manhood he set about confronting the financial inequality which ruined his father and drove his mother to death. A final plot twist reveals that the now-repentant Daly Fosburgh is actually the Nth Man’s maternal grandfather.

“The Nth Man” is a quirky story whose concern with democratic systems being subverted by wealthy autocrats makes it an interesting leftish counterpart to “The Vibrator of Death” and its fear of communist corruption. If the story is remembered at all, it is as the inspiration behind the notorious 1957 B-movie The Amazing Colossal Man. However, it has other spiritual successors of note.

The story’s portrayal of a superhuman social reformer resembles the early, distinctly anti-authoritarian incarnation of Superman, who made his debut ten years later; this is particularly true in the first half of the story, when the Nth Man is a mysterious, unseen figure rather than an armour-plated giant. The character’s tragic backstory likewise prefigures the origin of many a superhero or villain: one line in particular – “Park Pendleton became the Turtle Man” – could easily have been a caption in a Marvel comic. Meanwhile, the story also raises the possibility that the armoured giant is “a huge machine of some kind, manipulated by a hidden intelligence” – a concept that would go on to become a firm favourite in the world of manga.

“The Second Swarm” by J. Schlossel

Beginning in “the year 12,000 of the New Era”, this story depicts a time when interplanetary travel is a reality, and voyages to other planets in the solar system are mundane affairs. Travel to other stars is still rare, however, and fraught with danger: an expedition to Altair runs into a dense swarm of planetoids, while survivors of a trip to Sirius return home with a harrowing tale of their expedition being almost totally wiped out by hostile aliens on the star’s only habitable planet. Earth responds to this latter development by mounting a full-on invasion of the Sirian world, on the grounds that it now poses a potential threat to Earth:

Upon the surface of that ringed world there were a number of interstellar ships which the creatures had managed to bring down. Some were instantly destroyed, others were not. To creatures as intelligent as they undoubtedly were the machinery within the interior of those interstellar ships was not too intricate, nor the driving mechanism too hard to understand. To the race of man there were three reasons why their extinction was a vital necessity: they were too well prepared for war, too near the solar system, too near level of man.

Earth’s interplanetary ships, designed for exploration, are readied for war – as are the crews:

All over the Earth it was the. same, east or west, south or north, the members of the Second Great Expedition were taking their last leave of their parents, of their brother and sisters and friends who were either too old or too young or physically unfit to accompany them on this stupendous adventure, which was being launched into that boundless void of space out beyond the bounds of the solar system. Keepsakes, locks of hair, and every Imaginable remedy for pains and wounds were being thrust upon them from all sides and steadfastly refused as they personally packed their slender kits. Only pictures of those whom they would probably never see again in flesh were being reverently placed away, All this activity was like that of a busy hive of overcrowded bees preparing to swarm.

An army of sixty million people sets off for the alien planet, a journey that takes thirteen years. They are attacked by spherical craft en route and suffer heavy losses, but are able to fight back (“They had weapons of unlimited destructive power, the pale-yellow glow, in particular”). They eventually arrive at their destination to confront the aliens, who turn out to resemble giant tarantulas, and the mission ends with the genocide of the intelligent race:

The large doors in the sides of the ships opened and men equipped with individual flying wings strapped upon their backs stepped out of the ships and flew down. In a wide strap around their waists they carried a score of tiny but extremely powerful bombs. They were the rank and file of the expedition and fluttered down like a plague of locusts, destroying everything. When satisfied that no living thing remained upon that world, they began to explore the wrecked cities of the former owners. Every one was eager to stretch his legs upon solid ground once again.

The surface of that world was covered with the bodies of the intelligent creatures, who had inhabited it. On Earth there were creatures who resembled them a little. The inhabitants looked like giant hairy tarantulas, over a hundred times larger than the largest tarantula that ever existed on Earth. There was not one living spider-like creature to be found, though there were countless millions of them in various stages of putrefaction strewn along the thoroughfares of their queer cities. Millions of them it was found had killed themselves long before the rank and file started dropping their bombs.

“The Second Swarm” is an early space opera which, while certainly rough around the edges, is nonetheless inventive. Its far future setting where interplanetary travel is commonplace may be standard today, but at the time it was more original. Where Verne, Wells and Burroughs all defaulted to contemporary settings for their stories of space travel, Schlossel took the time to work out a future history where attempts to colonise other planets were already underway. Schlossel hits on the idea that long-haul space travel would require some form of stasis for the ships’ occupants (crewmembers are kept in “a lethargic state which resembled suspended animation […] induced by drugs”) and, while he settles on a loose reference to “rays” as an explanation for the ships’ means of propulsion, has clearly put thought into the logistics of space flight:

Six interstellar ships capable of making a round trip to any distance up to thirty light years from the solar system were planned and built. A driving mechanism producing rays powerful enough to hurtle them along at two-thirds the speed of light through the utter void of space between the stars was installed in each of them. The three farthest stars of the seven was their destination. They left the Earth in the order of the distance they had to travel so that they would all return around the same period.

The story’s attitudes towards race deserve comment. It depicts a future where the races of mankind have undergone a global segregation, divided by climate:

At the hundred and twenty-first century of the New Era the world was divided into three zones of almost equal land surface and inhabited by the three great divisions of man; the White, the Yellow, and the Black. Each zone was inhabited by the race which could best stand the climate. The zones were named after the color of the inhabitants. The Black Zone was situated at the equator, a wide swath of land above and below the limits of the Black Zone was known as the Yellow Zone, while the White Zone extended to the Arctic and Antarctic Circles.

As a result of this, the six commanders leading the invasion of the alien planet are divided along race and sex, so that the group includes two members of each race and three of each sex:

Upon the balcony, on either side of the president, stood Zenofia, Commander of the Black Female Quota, and Ureena, Commander of the Yellow Female Quota; each was watching the marching officers through a pair of powerful binoculars. The two leaders had over their uniforms their flaming-red capes, the insignia of their rank.

Thadeus, the Earth president, feels a mutual affection for Yellow Female commander Ureena; we are told that “their feeling for each other was a throwback to when love, not eugenics, ruled mating.”

This notion of an Earth where governments are divided along racial lines – doubtless convenient as a literary shorthand, but raising extremely ugly implications – can be seen in a few other stories from this period (for example Tarrano the Conquerer by Ray Cummings, serialised in Hugo Gernsback’s Science and Invention from 1925-6). Schlossel’s treatment is unusual in its “separate but equal” approach, with the members of each race being humanised; this is in contrast to stories such as Ben Proiut’s “The Singing Weapon” (or, to a lesser extent, this issue’s “The Nth Man”) where Asians are cast as default villains. Also of note is that the story gives women and men equal roles in its futuristic military, and actually ends up spotlighting the women: the female commanders Zenofia, Ureena and Matilda are given names and character traits, while only one of the male commanders – Keelen of the Yellow Quota – receives this distinction.

The story’s ending, with the genocide of an intelligent alien species at the hands of the human heroes, is typical of early space opera, with similar conclusions used by Edmond Hamilton, E. E. “Doc” Smith and John W. Campbell. In “The Second Swarm” humanity briefly shows remorse for its actions: “Realizing his mistake too late, man searched in every nook and cranny of that world in the hope of finding some of them alive. Their civilization was great and much could have been learned from them.” However, as it turns out that the aliens were planning to invade other worlds using hollowed-out planetoids as vehicles, the story ultimately vindicates their destruction.

On the whole, the genre of space opera gets off to a reasonably good start with “The Second Swarm”. Schlossel uses broad strokes to paint an epic vista, generally foregoing the drama of individuals in favour of emotions of whole species, as when humanity is united by pride mixed with melancholy as the sixty million soldiers go off into space. The results may be crude by today’s standards, but it is easy to imagine the story firing the imaginations of readers in 1928.


Editor’s note:  Homer Eon Flint’s The Nth Man is available in an Amazing Stories Classic edition, as well as John Taine’s Seeds of Life, The Best of the Year anthologies and facsimile editions of select issues of the magazine, available on Amazon and in our store

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