Some time ago I mentioned I had purchased a DVD containing old issues of Weird Tales magazine. I thought the product was reasonable and enjoyed the stories so I purchased some more DVD's of classic titles such as Amazing, Astounding and Wonder Stories. I am also considering adding other titles such as New Worlds and Nebula Science Fiction. I have always enjoyed reading older science fiction with all it drawbacks not the least of which are, misogyny racism, and homophobia (and bad writing). But misogyny racism, and homophobia are everywhere, even today. I am capable of separating truth from lies, and I can read without accepting stereotypes and hate speech. Possibly my reading even gives me a greater understanding of how such ingrained attitudes are perpetuated in our society, but that sounds like a very pompous and self serving claim. I read early science fiction because I enjoy it. What positive elements do I find in these very pulpy stories? I recently found a post by my favourite criticMichael Dirda that captured some of my reasons. He is talking about mysteries, but I think it holds true for my reading of science fiction as well.
"By the time Inspector Richard Queen and his bookish son Ellery arrive at Manhattan’s Roman theater to examine the dead body of crooked lawyer Monte Field, I was registering a distinct sense of well-being and contentment. Here was a classic Golden Age puzzle — Ellery Queen’s first case, in fact — and virtually all the characters were caricatures, the dialogue was stilted and corny, and the elaborate plot verged on the ludicrous. What more could one ask for?
That sounds paradoxical, but artificiality is a welcome attraction in many vintage who-and-howdunits. The stories deliberately leave out the messiness of real life, of real emotions, thus allowing the reader to mentally just amble along, mildly intrigued, feeling comfortable and even, yes, cozy."
I am also interested in how people at the turn of the century, the 1920's 1930's etc. incorporated the tropes of science fiction into their stories, elements like, future war, time travel, space travel, scientific advances, societal change, technology, and environmental degradation. I like to see how these ideas move through the science fiction stories that come after them. I am also interested in how real events bleed over into science fiction, the great depression, the various wars, atomic power, free love, the rise of computers etc. I like to read, ruminate and reflect, it keeps me out of trouble and mildly entertained.
Weird Tales, September 1940, cover by Ray Quigley. Let's be honest, I choose this issue because I was seduced by the, skull headed planes. If this illustration was indeed for Leifred's, "Seven Seconds of Eternity", I have to asume it is only a symbolic representation of events. The cover image was taken from the ISFDB, the interior illustrations are by Harry Ferman.
The story starts in New York, the year is 2001. The city is quiet, moving sidewalks have replaced subways, cabs and private vehicles and the turbines powering the city are underground. The world has been at peace for two months, following ten years of war. The war ended with the sudden death of Marshal Huen Feng Zaryoti, in his headquarters plane seven miles above San Francisco. " Zaryoti might have won that lightning war against North America had not a combination of forces set in motion by a young scientist, working with difficulty against the bureaucracy of government, found a way to combat the world's most deadly weapon-the atomic bomb." (5) I wanted to mention two things before I proceed. First I intend to cover two Weird Tales stories in parts 1 and 2 of this post and both feature some mention of that favourite trope of genre fiction of the period, the" yellow peril". I could discuss this in detail but I think at present I will simply provide a link to the topic at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Marshal Zaryoti doesn't really figure in the rest of the story and basically the plot just needed someone to provide an enemy force in the war.
The second item that interested me was the mention of the deadly atomic bomb is a story from 1940. Much has been made (a lot of it by John W. Campbell) of the government's reaction to atomic bomb in the 1944 story "Deadline" by Cleve Cartmill that Campbell published in Astounding. While the bomb in "Deadline" was described in detail, it is interesting to note that the concept was alive and well in science fiction years before the Cartmill story. Wikipedia has a nice discussion of the controversy around "Deadline" here.
However our focus now shifts to the young scientist Arron Carruthers, having defeated not just Zaryoti but also a stifling government bureaucracy, he should be happy. But a strange mood was on him, he felt all was not right with the world. "He was troubled and a little afraid. Nature, he knew, was never wasteful. Only man threw things away and forgot about them after afterwards. And nature sometimes reclaimed this waste to man's sorrow." (5)
For the stories I pull from the DVD's I will include spoilers, since I want to discuss them in some detail, and I suspect most people will not be reading them anyway.
And indeed Carruthers was right, for ten years man had not only released the toxins from vast explosions but also the smoke from incendiary fires and wastes released from the vast munitions factories built by both sides. All this material has formed great clouds above the earth. Eventually these clouds release a deadly ash like snow that kills everything it encounters. The government reluctantly consults Carruthers, because well be is smarter than them and they feel insecure. He discovers that in one location the clouds have been dispersed by a meteorite, and convinces the government to send up 20 planes to seed the clouds with fragments of meteors. Everyone on the air crew dies because, well not all meteors contain the same elements. Something my collection of How and Why Science books could have told Carruthers, had he looked it up.
Carruthers does manage to isolate the active ingredient but faces two problems, no one in Washington wants to hear from him, and the element is unique to the sample he has and is much too small to be of any use. But Carruthers has the answer, he has Carborlium "Carboralium is a peculiar metal with a powerful affinity for any metal it is brought in contact with." (19) By exposing bars of it to the Neutronium in the meteor they can create all of the material needed to destroy the clouds. However the amount is the meteor is infinitesimal, the only way to place the Carborlium next to to Neutronium is to shrink to the subatomic level, so small that a wandering electron would appear to be moon. Carruthers enters the meteor with George Vignot a fellow scientist and Langham the government's Chief of Intelligence. They are to remain in the subatomic world for no more that seven seconds of Earth time, however time will pass at a very different rate where they are.
So now we have yet another science fiction trope, the alteration of scale as The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in their entry "Great and Small" calls it. It is a trope I enjoy and intend to cover in a longer post. I have read a number of stories of this type from The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings, to The Land of Dreams by James Blaylock, and I am currently reading "The Diamond Lens" (January 1858 Atlantic Monthly) by Fitz-James O'Brien. Looking at the entry below there are lots more waiting for me, and I have to say that the first story I read in my Amazing DVD also dealt with the alteration of scale. I have to admit I did not expect it would be part of this story when I started reading, but that was part of the fun of this type of exploration.
The other thing that I was really surprised with in Leitfred's story was the environmental aspect. I was surprised that someone in the 1940's would discuss the environmental consequences of war, not only the use of but also the production of vast numbers of weapons. If anything I think this was the one element of this story that I will remember, and it was one I wanted to highlight for others.