The 2020 Worldcon – and, with it, the first Astounding Award for Best New Writer – have already faded into science fiction history, but there is no reason that we cannot have one more look back at the pioneering magazine that gave the award its name: Astounding Stories of Super-Science.
The June 1930 issue of Astounding arrived on newsstands with a colourful cover illustration of a dinosaur herd grazing among the trees and rocks. They are clearly not extinct yet, although they may soon be: two men stand atop a cliff, pushing vast boulders down onto the saurians. The Earth can be seen in the sky above, revealing that the action is taking place on the Moon. Why are there dinosaurs on the lunar surface? Who are the two men? Read on and find out…
“Out of the Dreadful Depths” by Charles Willard Diffin (as C. D. Willard)
While at sea, Robert Thorpe notices a sailing ship adrift and decides to investigate. It turns out to be abandoned, the captain’s cabin showing signs of a struggle and containing residue of a strange slime. Thorpe returns to his acquaintance Admiral Struthers with the derelict ship’s logbook, which describes the crew being gripped with a strange, inexplicable fear, and eventually descends into gibberish (“The eyes—the eyes—they are everywhere above us—God help—“) before trailing off. Shortly afterwards, the two listen in as a wireless operator receives a distress call from a vessel occupying the same area as the derelict, the message ending on a similar note to the strange logbook: “the eyes—the eyes—it is attack—“
Thorpe ponders the significance of this, wondering if the two ships each saw “some strange aircraft from out in space, perhaps, with round lights like eyes” (pre-empting the flying saucer craze by nearly two decades) or else were attacked by the Kraken of legend. “[H]ow can we know there is no such monster, some relic of a Mesozoic species supposed to be extinct?” he asks. Exploring the seas in the area of the happenings, they find the latter vessel in the same state as the derelict: abandoned, with signs of a struggle on board and coatings of mysterious slime.
The next ship to run into the deadly phenomenon is the yacht belonging to the lovely Ruth Allaire and her father. Thorpe intervenes and finds the yacht in the grip of a vast, tentacled creature that eats the crew members one by one. With the aid of carbide and firearms, Thorpe is able to fight off the Kraken and rescue Ruth.
This issue of Astounding has two stories by Charles Willard Diffin, although “Out of the Dreadful Depths” is credited to a pseudonym – once again, Astounding is artificially boosting its contributor-count. Of the two Diffin stories “Out of the Dreadful Depths” is the strongest, building an intangible threat that suddenly becomes all too material.
Murder Madness by Murray Leinster (part 2 of 4)
Agent Charley Bell continues his investigation into the operations of a Brazilian criminal mastermind known as The Master. After rescues Paula Canalejas, daughter of a Brazilian cabinet minister, his next course of action is to track down and kill The Master before the pair can be framed for the murder of Paula’s father. The two have exploits in the jungle, yet still find time for tenderness:
He put his arm about her shoulder and drew her closer to him. He tilted her face upward. It was oval and quite irresistibly pretty. “I love you,” said Bell steadily. “I’ve been fighting it since God knows when, and I’m going to keep on fighting it—and it’s no use. I’m going to keep on loving you until I die.”
Her fingers closed rightly upon his. Bell kissed her.
“Now,” he said gruffly, “go to sleep.”
As with the first instalment, the story’s categorisation as science fiction hinges on The Master’s preferred means of doing away with his victims: a poison that drives them mad.
“The Cavern World” by James P. Olsen
Geologist Blaine Asher is sent by his employer, oil magnate R. Briggs Johns, to investigate the sudden disappearance of a vast oil field. To the latter’s surprise, Asher blames the dry-up on the machinations of “a lost race—people who went into the earth while man, like us, was coming up onto the earth from the water”. His next move is to try and meet this race up close.
As the story takes place in the near-future of 1940, the oil industry has seen a number of technological advances. Amongst other things, Asher has invented a protective costume resembling a deep-sea diving suit that can allow access to the searing depths below the Earth’s crust; in addition, his contraption uses non-burning and non-explosive helium gas to “create power that will melt away rock or iron—literally dissolve it into nothing” in a matter of seconds. While descending into the mines, Asher is trapped by a cave-in, at which point he witnesses the denizens of the underground:
Frozen with soul-chilling fear, Asher stared with eyes that bulged. What were they? Spawned neither of God nor Satan—what could they be? Black-skinned—or was it skin?—like rubber, with round bodies, like black basket balls inflated to triple size; bodies that seemed to ripple, distort, swell and contract with life within life.
Short, foot-long stems that must have been legs, ending in round balls that served as feet, no doubt. Tentacles, Asher would have called them six feet in length, thick as mighty cables and dotted with suckers like the tentacles of an octopus. And heads—Asher gagged and vomited!
Not heads. Just masses of the black body substance as large as the two fists of a man. In each head was a crooked black gash for a mouth. There were no eyes that Asher could see. Yet, these Things seemed to see one another, and emitted strange, chill, squeaking sounds!
After driving the creatures away with discharge from his static gun Asher unexpectedly runs into fellow scientists Lee Wong and Krenski. They reveal that they have made a deal with the creatures, which they dub the Petrolia: in exchange for the Petrolia’s help in obtaining oil from the fields, they are saving the race from extinction, as the Petrolia both feed and reproduce using oil.
“Petrolia will be out in armies, protecting our underground wealth,” gloats Lee Wong. His ultimate aim is to obtain all of the world’s oil for himself: “I shall be ruler of the universe, surface and beneath, with Krenski to aid me, you see.” Armed with his ingenious gadgets, Asher is able to overcome the villains, escape the mine and leave the Petrolia to their eventual extinction.
In what appears to have been James P. Olsen’s only contribution to Astounding, a fairly routine narrative takes place across some inventive worldbuilding and memorable descriptions. The story is a relic of a time in SF when the subterranean depths were just as likely to house weird new lifeforms as alien worlds.
Brigands of the Moon by Ray Cummings (part 4 of 4)
The final instalment of this novel opens with Gregg, Grantline and their cohorts locked in a lunar battle using heat-rays, zed-rays, electronic projectors, paralyzing beams, bullet projectors, explosive powder bombs, Benson radiance-rays, midget flying platforms and other such technology:
This strange warfare! It was new to all of us, for there had been no wars on any of the three inhabited worlds for many years. Silent, electronic conflict! Not a question of men in battle. A man at a switch on the brigand ship was the sole actor so far in this assault. And the results were visible only in the movement of the needle-dials on our instrument panels. A struggle, so far, not of man’s bravery, or skill, or strategy, but merely of electronic power supply.
Gregg and his beloved Anita mount a sneak attack on the ship of the Martian villain Miko, whose sister Mao changes sides at the last minute to aid the heroes. Once the bandits are routed, a police-ship arrives from Earth to rescue the survivors. A short and sharp conclusion to an early specimen of space opera.
“Giants of the Ray” by Tom Curry
Two tramps, Bill Durkin and Frank Maget, hear word of a mine containing vast wealth. They set off to find it but, on the way, encounter a local labourer named Juan in a state of physical agony next to “a queer tube… filled with smoky, pallid worms of light that writhed even as Juan writhed.” The man falls into a stream and perishes; the strange tube falls in with him, and the stream’s fish begin dying when they go near the broken pieces.
The tramps eventually reach the mine and descend inside, encountering various oversized animals including bats with eight-foot wingspans, condor-sized moths, and eventually a gigantic frog that “stood some twenty feet in height, and from its throat sounded the terrific bellowing which rivalled the thunder” and is accompanied by a vast tadpole. The pair also run into a team of researchers – Professor Gurlone, his burly son and his blind assistant Espinosa – who accompany them out of the mine and into a nearby laboratory.
The professor explains to the two tramps that the mine contains radium deposits, radiation from which has caused the local fauna to grow in size; the strange objects that killed Juan were samples of radium chloride. He also shows some giant animals that he created himself through radium experiments, although these have a degree of deformity not found in those that developed in the mines.
Durkin, who has shown a selfish and mercenary streak, attempts to steal the professor’s valuable radium, but promptly dies as a result of going near it unprotected. The story climaxes in a battle between the survivors and a horde of giant animals, with the latter perishing from a combination of explosives and direct exposure to the radium.
Continuing the issue’s theme of monsters living below the surface, “Giants of the Ray” uses a formula that would later serve countless giant-monster movies well. It develops a group of strong (if broadly-defined) characters and allows the oversized beasts to send them into exciting situations, with scientific plausibility a minor concern at most.
“The Moon Master” by Charles Willard Diffin
While exploring a canyon, Jerry Foster stumbles onto the operations of Thomas K. Winslow, an inventor left bitter and paranoid after his creations were stolen by others. He claims to have split the atom and used atomic power to drive a vehicle that can fly through the air and even enter space. Jerry, having learned Winslow’s secret, is forced by the inventor to take part in a trip to the Moon – and despite the unfortunate circumstances of this arrangement, he eagerly joins the lunar expedition.
On the way through space in their cylindrical vessel, Winslow reveals that their ultimate destination is the dark side of the Moon. The inventor explains that the Moon “is whirled on the end of a rope (we call it gravitation), swung around and around the earth” and as a result all water on the surface is “thrown to the other side by the centrifugal force”. Any lunar life is therefore on the side facing away from Earth.
The pair arrive and find that the Moon’s dark side is a snow-swept wasteland. Jerry is aghast by this “frozen hell of desolation” but Winslow is gleeful: where there is water, there may be life. Time passes, sunrise brings with it “a vast kaleidoscopic coloration that rioted over a strange world” and, sure enough, there turns out to be life on the Moon: fungi, trees, vines and other plant life suddenly erupts from the surface. The travellers are forced to make a dash back to their craft so as to avoid being caught up in the jungle.
But before they can make it back they run into the lunar wildlife. First is a comparatively inoffensive herbivore; then a herd of carnivores, and eventually “caricatures of men” who ambush them from the undergrowth. The earthmen are taken by the natives to an underground cavern, where they receive aid from a beautiful lunar princess named Marahna – but as the princess is due to be sacrificed herself, the help she can offer is limited.
The three eventually go up against Oong, a giant monster worshipped by the Moon people as a god, which Winslow is able to slay using a flamethrower. The religion of their cruel priests overthrown, the Moon-people offer Jerry the chance to rule as king, but he declines and returns to Earth with Winslow after an emotional farewell to Marahna.
As well as “Out of the Dreadful Depths” seen elsewhere in this issue, Charles Willard Diffin had previously contributed a story to Astounding called “Spawn of the Stars”. Where that was obviously modelled on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, “The Moon Master” takes its cue from The First Men in the Moon, and the results are less successful. “Spawn of the Stars”, despite its derivative plot, showed imagination in the portrayal of its protoplasmic aliens; but here the lunar monsters are described too vaguely to leave an impression (cover artist H. W. Wesso resorts to depicting them as generic dinosaurs) while the clash with the Moon-men is an assortment of clichés from adventure stories about lost races.
“I like the book very much, and expect to buy it every month” says reader Isaac Dworkowitz, summing up another praise-filled letters column for Astounding Stories.
Quenton Stockman and F. J. Michasiow each give thumbs-up to Sophie Wenzel Ellis’ “Creatures of the Light”, while Adolph Wasservogel picks Anthony Pelcher’s “Invisible Death” as his favourite. Ward Elmore asks for more Dr. Bird stories from S. P. Meek, and elsewhere Ronald Bainbridge requests a sequel to Sterner St. Paul’s “Into Space”.
Warren Williams praises the magazine’s stories as being “of the very highest value in the line of science fiction”, with the exception of Hugh B. Cave’s “The Corpse on the Grating” (“It did not have an inkling of scientific background”). Joe Stone has a similar complaint: “The worst fault is the tendency to print terror stories. Please don’t do this. If I never see another story like ‘The Corpse on the grating’ in your magazine it will be too soon.” Harold Rakestraw disagrees, calling the story “enticing and fantastic.”
Some readers list their favourite types of science fiction, in the process helping to illustrate what subgenres were seen as prominent at the time. “I like stories of vibration as in ‘Mad Music,’ and of acceleration, as in ‘The Thief of Time’” says Jack R. Darrow, referring to two stories from the February issue. “I like best interplanetary stories and stories of the aircraft of the future”, writes J. W. Latimer. “I would like to see a good interplanetary story by R. H. Romans in this magazine pretty soon.”
C. E. Anderson says “I like interplanetary stories and stories of what might be on other planets” then requests stories by H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Ted Shatkowski also calls for stories from Burroughs, along with A. Merritt. Another reader, A. G. Jaweett, requests not only Burroughs and Wells but also A. Hyatt Verrill, David H. Keller, Otis Adelbert Kline and Stanton Coblentz.
A. W. Bernal – who would later become a contributor to Weird Tales and Amazing Stories, amongst other publications – is yet another who chips in with his favourite types of story:
The type of story I prefer is the kind that is fanciful, odd and interesting. Some tales deal with a new invention of some sort, but contain no action or plot. However, I fail to see any like that in the present A. S., unless it’s “Mad Music.”
A few utterly impossible stories are so interestingly told that it is worth while to publish them. Some examples are stories by A. Merritt (whose stories are the most fascinating I have ever read), H. P. Lovecraft (master of the bizarre and the grotesque) and G. A. England.
Compared to rival Amazing Stories, the Astounding letters column contains much less discussion about where real science ends and science fiction begins, although the topic does turn up. “This magazine is very popular in my community and is just what is needed to instill scientific interest in the mind of the general public”, writes Wayne Bray. “The stories do not have to stick to cold science, but should no violate an established fact without a reasonable explanation, as this might cause a mistaken idea in the minds of the readers.”
Still more enthusiastic is Walter P. Dennis, who introduces himself as a representative of the Science Correspondence Club – “an organization whose existence was founded through the medium of Science Fiction” – and praises the magazine’s contributions to a genre with much to say about the future: “Science Fiction, first introduced by Verne, Poe, Wells, Haggard and other old masters in this line, is a type of literature that typifies the new age to come—the age of science”.