A man is falling over backwards. He is putting up a brave fight, even firing a gun as he collapses, but the bullets show no sign of affecting his assailant: an unidentifiable thing with a hexagonal surface, a crystalline structure in the middle, and what appear to be two eyes. Dead birds are scattered across the ominously red-tinged ground below, a possible hint of the man’s impending fate. It was December 1928, and Amazing Stories was wrapping up another year of publication.
Hugo Gernsback’s editorial for the month is entitled “An Amazing Phenomenon”. Inspired by the Clare Winger Harris story printed later in the issue, Gernsback discusses the topic of premonitions:
I, myself, have had any number of premonitions in the course of my life, but none of them actually came about. In other words, practically all of them were false alarms. The nearest one that came near being a fulfillment was only partially fulfilled and had nothing to do with myself at all. I had gone to Europe on the Lusitania before the War, and an hour or two before the boat docked at Liverpool, I remember that I had an exceedingly strong premonition that something dreadful was going to happen. Something did happen, but it was neither terrifying nor dreadful. Something happened to the landing bridge when it was hoisted up and the ropes broke and the bridge fell down with a crash, slightly injuring two stevedores.
Gernsback goes on to contrast premonitions with another variety of phenomena, which he terms “memory phantoms”, more commonly known as déjà vu:
I especially remember a particularly strong impression that I had, some years ago, when my train sped through a Midwest plain. It was the first time that I had ever made that particular trip, and I distinctly remember looking with amazement at a certain scene which composed an unusual configuration of the terrain, a certain little river and other landmarks. I was immediately struck with the conviction that I had seen exactly the same scene some time before. The feeling was so real that even today I cannot rid myself of the thought that I actually, some time in the dim past, saw that scene. Nor is it impossible that I did see the scene.
He offers his theory as to the cause of such occurrences:
Whatever happens, one fact is quite certain, and that is, that in our own physical makeup will be found the actual physical remains of some of our predecessors. That these remains are atomically small, makes no difference. The fact remains that the succeeding crops of humans, for untold ages, have decomposed, chemically, and are again chemically absorbed into other combinations, which later on become parts of human beings once more. This, of course, is not re-incarnation or anything like it.
My theory, then, in short is that a certain human being, not related to me at all, had, perhaps 5,000 years before me, seen a certain scene. That particular picture became engraved in his consciousness, and consequently made a record in his brain. It is quite true that after death all sensations stop, but it is possibly quite true that some particle of my predecessor’s brain may eventually find its way into my brain in the course of the passage of time. For many years, this particle that carried the original impression, may rest in my brain without acting at all, but when I see a certain scene, the particle becomes active in my brain and sends the message that I have seen the particular scene once before.
Readers of the latest Amazing Stories issue might find that they themselves are experiencing a mild form of déjà vu, as the magazine’s writers have come up with a recurring set of locations for their stories: Alaska, Venus, the fourth dimension and the subterranean world all turn out to be repeat destinations for our present band of fictional companions…
“The Appendix and the Spectacles” by Miles J. Breuer
Bank president Cadgett is stern, miserly, ruthless and generally unpleasant: “In the movies and in the novels, an ogre like Cladgett usually meets with some kind of retribution before long. The Black Hand gets him or a wronged debtor poisons him, or a brick house collapses on his head.” When he is hit by appendicitis, Cladgett is too fearful to allow himself to be opened up for surgery, and so asks his surgeon Dr. Banza for a miracle cure – and will ruin Banza’s career if that cure does not come through.
For help, Dr. Banza turns to his friend Bookstrom, a sometime medical student who had to give up his chosen discipline due to financial constraints (partly incurred by Cladgett himself) and instead became a mathematician. Bookstrom reveals that he has been conducting research into four-dimensional travel, and proposes that – by using an elevator capable of moving its occupant through the fourth dimension – it would be possible to remove the appendix from Cladgett’s body without making a single cut. As Bookstrom has the technology at hand, the strange operation goes ahead:
Cladgett quieted down. Bookstrom scrubbed his hands, and wrapped his right one in a sterile towel in order to manipulate the machine. He stepped on the rubber mat, and in a moment, Dr. Banza and the nurse were amazed to see him click suddenly out of sight. Click! and he was not there! Before they recovered from their astonishment, Cladgett began to complain. Dr. Banza had to start giving chloroform. He gave it slowly and cautiously, while Cladgett groaned and cursed and threshed himself about.
“Lie still, you fool!” shouted Bookstrom’s voice in a preoccupied way, just beside them. It made their flesh creep, for he was not there. Gradually the patient quieted down and breathed deeply, and the doctor and the nurse took a breath of relief, and had time to wonder about everything. There was another click! and there stood Bookstrom with a tray of bloody instruments in his hand.
And so, Cladgett has his appendix removed. But after the procedure he begins suffering further medical complaints, and an x-ray reveals the source: Bookstrom left a pair of spectacles inside his body. Cladgett tries to sue, but given that his body’s exterior shows no evidence that surgery was ever carried out, the case is dismissed. Cladgett has no choice but to return to Banza and Bookstrom for another extra-dimensional operation; this time it is Banza who removes the unwanted object, and he gives a description of his four-dimensional experience:
“Can you imagine!” breathed Banza, “standing in the center of a sphere and seeing all the abdominal organs around you at once? Something like that, it seemed; not exactly either. There above my head were the coils of the small intestine. To the right was the cecum with the spectacles beside it; to my left the sigmoid and the muscles attached to the ilium, and beneath my feet the peritoneum of the anterior abdominal wall. But, I was terribly dizzy for some reason; I could not stand it very long, much as I should have liked to remain inside of him for awhile.”
Bob Olsen had already written a story on this subject, “Four Dimensional Surgery”. Miles J. Breur’s take on the theme goes into less detail about the surgical process, and is more of a character-driven piece as it spends most of its time building up before bringing down the utterly dislikeable Cladgett.
“The Metal Man” by Jack Williamson
Narrator Russell receives an unexpected and very strange shipment: a chest containing a metal man. He recognises the figure as that of his friend Professor Thomas Kelvin, a geologist who had been prospecting for radium in Mexico before, according to rumours, succumbing to a mysterious illness. Also inside the chest is a letter in which Kelvin details his exploits in Mexico, which include finding a river with traces of radiation, following it in the hopes of finding a radium deposit, and coming to a wondrous spectacle:
I soared over the cliffs and came over the crater. A great pool of green fire it was, fully ten miles across to the black ramparts at the farther side. The surface of the green was so smooth that at first I thought it was a lake, and then I knew that it must be a pool of heavy gas. In the glory of the evening sun the snow-capped summits about were brilliant argent crowns, dyed with crimson, tinged with purple and gold, tinted with strange and incredibly beautiful hues. Amid this wild scenery, nature had placed her greatest treasure. I knew that in the crater I would find the radium I sought.
And then the center of the green lake rose up in a shining peak. It flowed up into a great hill of emerald fire. Something was rising in the green — carrying it up! Then the vapor flowed back, revealing a strange object, still veiled faintly by the green and silver clouds. It was a gigantic sphere of deep red, marked with four huge oval spots of dull back. Its surface was smooth, metallic, and thickly studded with great spikes that seemed of yellow fire. It was a machine, inconceivably great in size. It spun slowly as it rose, on a vertical axis, moving with a deliberate, purposeful motion.
The narrative continues, with Kelvin’s plane being enveloped in a blue glow and plunging into the green pool. He lands in a strange subterranean area filled with the bodies of birds that have been turned to metal: he first stumbles across a metal eagle (“The color was white, tinged with green. It weighed no more than the living bird. At first I thought it was a cast model, and then I saw that each feather was complete and flexible”) followed other species, and even a metal pterosaur. Rather than wonder, this sight fills him with dread:
I made a fearful examination of myself, and to my unutterable horror, I perceived that the tips of my finger nails, and the fine hairs upon my hands, were already changed to light green metal! The shock unnerved me completely. You cannot conceive my horror. I screamed aloud in agony of soul, careless of the terrible foes that the sound might attract. I ran off wildly. I was blind, unreasoning. I felt no fatigue as I ran, only stark terror.
But some life can survive in this region: Kelvin finds plants with purple berries, and deduces that they have a property that preserves them from the effects of the radium. He squeezes the juice of the berries on his skin and, sure enough, the symptoms fade (“I have analysed the fluid and it corresponds in some ways with the standard formulas for the neutralization of radium burns and doubtless it saved me from the terrible burns caused by the action of ordinary radium”). Not all of the life in the region is as beneficent, however, as Kelvin finds when he witnesses some strange sort of crystalline animal:
The thing was of a glittering, blazing crystal. A great-six-sided, upright prism of red, a dozen feet in length, it was, with a six-pointed structure like a snowflake about the center, deep blue, with pointed blue flanges running from the points of the star to angles of the prism! Soft scarlet fire flowed from the points. And on each face of the prism, above and below the star, was a purple cone that must have been an eye.
Kelvin eventually escapes these strange lifeforms, but the effects of the radiation return – eventually turning him into the metal man delivered to narrator Russell and presently housed, so Russell informs us, in the Tyburn College Museum.
The editorial introduction to “The Metal Man” compares it to A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool. While it is rather shorter and simpler than that story, it does share a streak of ominous fantasy with Merritt’s novel – along with a touch of dreamlike morbidity that would come to characterise later work by its author Jack Williamson.
“Flight to Venus” by Edwin K. Sloat
Television reporter Les Shepherd is sent to speak to young genius Professor Randall Morteshang about his proposed flight to Venus. While not the first space traveller, the professor is the first prepared to deal with what he terms cosmic currents: “With the rocket, however, I have a primitive combustion force that will be unaffected by the electrical properties of the current and will hurl me at top speed through the current while the rudder of the rocket acting in the fire stream will give me sharp and distinct steerage.”
As eager crowds gather to watch the rocket being launched, the professor makes a surprising admission to Les: although the public will be led to believe that Morteshang is inside the vessel, it will actually be unmanned. He explains that, after a fellow scientist named Peabody tried to reach the moon and ended up trapped in orbit around that body, Morteshang had second thoughts about space travel:
Peabody tried to go to the moon because the public wanted someone to. He sacrificed his life, his savings, and left a young widow to mourn his loss, trying to achieve that empty bubble, fame, and riches, doubtful rewards that he thought would be his on returning from his lunar adventure.
Had Peabody made it back, the professor argues, all he would have had to show for his efforts was “several thousand feet of moving picture film of the lunar mountains and desert wastes which could have been faked far more realistically in any studio”:
It is more than lkiely [sic] that the public would have raised the cry of ‘Fake!’ before he had done very much toward collecting his fortune—you know there are a considerable number of persons even now who believe that he never left the earth—and he might have lost out altogether after all.
Knowing all of this, Mortshang decided that it would be simpler to ride his vessel during the initial launch, parachute back to Earth, and hire Les to ghost-write an account of the professor’s supposed journey to Venus while he himself spends time relaxing in South America (“You’ll probably bring back an Amazon for a wife and call her a Venus—which may be proof of something or other” quips Les.)
The launch takes place. Later, while awaiting Mortshang’s return, Les receives a letter from Alaska: the professor needs his help. With the aid of a guide he tracks down Mortshang and finds him suffering from pneumonia near the wreck of his craft, and now sharing a cabin with a girl, a young man and an elderly woman — all with green-tinged skin. None of the green people can speak English, but the girl presents Les with the professor’s logbook.
In it, Mortshang describes arriving on Venus and being escorted into its capital city, Cherwa. Les initially assumes that this is part of the hoax, but soon finds the truth: due to a technical problem the professor was unable to leave the rocket during launch. As a result, he ended up going to Venus after all, and even managed to bring some of the locals back with him.
Mortshang recovers, and relates more of his findings to Les. He explains that the people of Venus are a spacefarng race, but have never reached Earth before because they, unlike him, never developed a method of surviving space’s electrical currents. The story then goes on to briefly describe the professor being captured and used as a test subjct on Venus at the behest of a sahdy group called the Unknown Society, before being rescued by the royal siblings Loama and Vomi, who used their “atomic ray machines” to free him and then pursuaded their father the king to execute the entire Unknown Society. Les, narrating, justifies skipping details on the grounds that they can be found in Mortshang’s full-length autobiography.
The professor soon becomes a celebrity – as do the aliens, although the latter are less eager about this status (“They care nothing for silver screen fame, nor, in fact, for anything of the earth which they regarded in about the same light as that in which a confirmed New Yorker looks on life in Patagonia”). But trouble is afoot. Two antagonists in the form of Professor Hibbs (a scientific rival to Mortshang) and Hyman (a journalistic rival to Les) turn up and declare that the whole endeavour was a hoax. While his book sells well, Mortshang becomes a public pariah. Confronted with the high price of fame, the professor decides to take another trip to Venus – this time, one way.
The idea of an inventor building a spacecraft and flying off to a kingdom of elfin aliens was still a stock plot at this point, but Edwin K. Sloat – a newcomer to science fiction – clearly realised that the premise needed an update. “Flight to Venus” turns out to be a wry and surprisingly sophisticated treatment of the theme, its future history sketched in with a few choice details (Les mentions another adventurer’s failed trip to Mars occurring after the professor’s Venus expedition, while Charles Lindbergh – whose famous transatlantic flight occurred less than two years before the story’s publication – is namechecked as a historical figure.) This is itself notable at a time when stories of this sort often took place in the present day, with alien worlds and future-Earths apparently being viewed as an overwrought combination.
But more notable still is the satirical bent of “Flight to Venus”. The idea that a genius inventor might fake their journey into space – and that, even if they did not, the exploit might be dismissed as a hoax by the public – is remarkably cynical for a science fiction story of the Gernsback era. It is also an amusing premonition of certain modern conspiracy theories regarding the moon landing…
The World at Bay by B. and George C. Wallis (part 2 of 2)
The second half of this novel concludes the exploits of reporters Max Harding, Dick Martin and Rita Courtney as they are caught up in a conflict between humanity and the Troglodytes: a technologically-advanced subterranean species that is invading the surface world.
The heroes arrive in London, where they aid human resistance against the invaders. Armed with firepower and thin sheets of lead to protect against the Trogs’ paralysing ray, they are able to successfully overpower and capture a Tog craft along with its seven crewmembers:
The engineering details of the ship were a revelation to us. In particular, the simple construction and tremendous power of the radium motor excited our admiration. The method of breaking up the radium and releasing its atomic force was very wasteful, we could see; but what did that matter to the Trogs when they had tons of the material only requiring to be mined? There was enough motive power aboard, we calculated, for a five-thousand-mile non-stop flight. There were ten gas bombs, three nerve-paralyzing guns, and four flame pistols.
The reporters become stranded in the Trogs’ underworld again after their plane is damaged. The Trgolodyte chief, Ul-Ulfa , catches an illness from one of their number, so they are able to bribe him with medicine in exchange for help escaping. Venturing back to the surface in a radium-powered craft with a number of Trogs captive, they find that humanity has already begun turning the tables on their attackers, with plans underway for the treatment of the Trogs after hostilities cease:
The Troglodytes must cease all hostilities; they must send up all prisoners; they must pay us a yearly tribute of radium ore; they must lend us their best chemists and engineers and instruct our people in all their discoveries and inventions; their world must be open to periodic visits by safeguarded parties of our people; the top and bottom of the Outlet must be garrisoned and held by us; there must be neither comings nor goings between the two worlds except by special permission of our General War Council.
Indeed, so quiet has the conflict become that the reports are able to make a short vacation in their commandeered Trog craft:
We saw the ruins of the old Inca temples and towns, the remnants of their wonderful roads, of their marvelous industry. Where now a few slave-peons scratch a precarious living from a bare land, thousands of Indians fared well on the produce of their irrigated soil, their terraced hills. The Spaniards found Peru an empire run on socialist lines, an empire in which every man’s living was guaranteed from birth to death, an empire where poverty was unknown; they left it to become capitalistic, republican, a land of contrasts. But, of course, this has nothing to do with my story. Turn up the files of the Daily Scoop if you want to know more about our aerial holiday.
But things take a turn for the worse when a band of human rogues form a raiding party to head into the underworld and plunder its resources, only to be taken captive. The heroes’ ally John Rixon goes down after them, and returns with a harrowing tale: the raiders are dead, and the anger of the Trogs has been stoked anew, endangering the peace treaty (“They have spoilt everything with their rapacious commercial greed”). All of this leads to a civil war between the Trogs which, in turn, causes a vast underground explosion that that forever seals the entrance to the Trogs’ domain. The world saved, the novel then ties up its love-triangle subplot, with Rita choosing Max over John.
The World at Bay’s premise – a War of the Worlds rewrite with Morlocks instead of Martians – was never particularly inspired, and this second half sees the novel run out of steam. The decision to send the heroes underground once again serves mainly to lessen the tension and confirm that the two authors were low on ideas. The story does have some noteworthy points, however – for one, Rita is an unusually competent and proactive heroine [for a story of this period. Alas, the novel’s racial politics are not quite so forward-looking:
The worst news came from South Africa. The Trogs had been more thoroughly vicious there, in a more wholesale way, than anywhere else. Their raids had so disorganized the life of the community and so worked on the superstitious fears of the natives, that there had been a great black uprising.
A new T’Chaka had arisen, and the dreaded Zulu impis once again swept over the land in a torrent of slaughter. Coherent resistance there was none, though the holding of Johannesburg by the whites will rank in history with the heroic defense of Lucknow. The railways were deserted and rapidly overgrown. The smoke of Kaffir kraals went up where once had been white men’s towns; the beasts of the wild came back south of the Orange River. It was a melancholy story—a glimpse of what might have happened in Northern Africa, in India, in the Southern States of America, had no fortunate help come to the world, had not Rita and myself escaped in time.
“It is not modern to talk of Providence, of a Controlling Hand in our affairs,” said Rita. “I once used to scoff at such ideas myself. But now I’m not so sure. I have a feeling which I can’t get rid of, that there has been more than coincidence in our adventures. We have been guided, protected, spared—for a purpose.”
“I believe that, too,” said I.
“The Fifth Dimension” by Clare Winger Harris
While pouring tea for her husband John, Ellen has a strange feeling: “that feeling that we all have occasionally; that the identical set of circumstances that surround us has existed before in some remote eon of time.” John is unimpressed. “I hope you aren’t getting to believe in all that rot about soul transmigration”, he says. Ellen explains that her view on the matter is more scientific than spiritual: “My explanation of the oft repeated phenomenon that my life has been lived before exactly as I live it now, lies solely in the theory that time which is the fourth dimension is, like space, curved, and travels in great cycles.” Her thoughts then move from science to philosophy:
“After all,” I mused, “the difference between the great and the small, tire infinite and the finite, right and wrong, good and evil, is sometimes one of degree and not of quality. The most difficult is simple if we follow the rules. The people, who make a muddle of their lives, have deliberately, though unknowingly, chosen the harder way. They are law-breakers, not necessarily in our legal sense, but they are transgressors of Universal Law. Had they simply worked in harmony with the Law, success would have come easily.”
“I have not always worked in harmony with the Law,” I thought. “None of us have. Do I, now in this cycle of time, possess the ability to change errors performed in previous eons, or am I a mere puppet, destined to a certain definite course of action throughout eternity? Was Henley right or wrong when he wrote, ‘I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul’?”
Later, looking out of the window and seeing her neighbour walk towards a garage, Ellen has the same feeling – this time with a sense of foreboding, as she is convinced that something terrible shall happen should the neighbour reach the garage. She tells herself that this is irrational, only for the neighbour’s garage to explode. For months afterwards, Ellen is despondent: “There is no hope! We mortals cannot escape. The cycles of time like the wheels of the ancient Juggernaut ruthlessly grind us to our destruction and there is no hope!”
She eventually has another premonition, this time concerning her husband, and despite his skepticism she talks him out of catching a certain train. The next morning they learn that the train in question has crashed, forcing John over to Ellen’s way of thinking: “Ellen, it was the 8:15, and I have been on it in the other cycles of time. I know it now.”
The story ends with a further discussion about the cyclical nature of time:
“Well, that would help some,” I admitted, “but tell me what makes you believe that evolution and progress are fact, despite the eon-worn ruts of the cycles of time.”
“The fifth dimension,” he replied in a quiet voice.
“The fifth dimension?” I echoed, puzzled.
“Which is simply this, Ellen. There is a general progression of the Universe over and above the cycles of time which renders each cycle a little in advance of the previous one. We see and recognize this truth daily in the phenomena of humanity. Every baby born starts life a little in advance, materially and mentally, of its father. This process is very slow and we call it evolution, but it is a perceptible progress nevertheless. It may be aptly likened to the whorls of a spring as compared to a mere flat coil of wire. The earth follows an orbit around the sun, and every year it is in the same relative position with regard to the sun as it was the previous year. It has completed one of its countless cycles. But you know as well as I do that the sun and the earth, as well as the other planets, are all farther along in space together. There is a general progression of twelve miles a second on some vaster orbit. This general progression, then, is analogous to our possibility of change and growth; the power to better our conditions; in other words, it is a fifth dimension.”
“The wheels of the Juggernaut can be turned aside,” I said reverently, “and there is hope!”
A short but engaging piece that is geared more towards inquiry than narrative: Harris latches onto the subject of déjà vu, and explores the philosophical implications of the notion that we have, in fact, lived our lives before.
“Before the Ice Age” by Alfred Fritchey
An accident occurs in a mine, causing a vast explosion that opens an entrance to a cavern. After some poisonous vapours have dissipated, the miners enter the cave and find a heap of skeletons, a bronze box, and a mosaic:
But at the other end, along a walk of leopard-spotted agate, was a figure in mosaic, which held them spell-bound. It was of heroic size; and seemed to represent a woman’s head on an immense snail’s shell; the woman’s eyes were large rubies and her head-dress, somewhat like the Grecian statues of their goddesses, was a helmet, made up of innumerable flakes of moonstone. The woman’s face seemed remarkably life-like; colored as it was with some shining enamel, which seemed to match the glow of health.
Two professors descend into the cavern to investigate. They deduce that the skeletons are the remains of people sacrificed to the woman in the image, who represents either patience or resurrection (the experts differ on this point) Meanwhile, the box – which is adorned with Aramaic writing – contained a mechanical trap designed to deploy poisonous gas.
Excavating farther, the miners and professors reach another chamber, in which they catch sight of an imposing man: “a big-muscled fellow… He held toward us menacingly a black tube of five barrels, which had a curious arrangement at the other end, as if it might be some kind of a gun.” The figure mysteriously disappears, after which one of the professors declares that he was a pre-glacial man, has evidence by a robe made of mammoth hair, and theorises that the figure might have been a projection somehow activated by their entering the room. Their attention is then drawn to the room’s various adornments:
But say! You ought to have seen that wall. It was made up of an infinite number of squares, so that the roof was neither round nor square, but a kind of a compromise between. And on the walls! There were pythons and dinosaurs in wondrous color, together with gorgeous butterflies, much larger than any now known, and a funny bird which Doctor Eddy announced as a “near relative of the pterodactyl.” It was quite a funny looking bird. (Only the pterodactyl was not a bird but a flying saurian reptile. — Editor.)
Then, our attention being attracted to a great golden lizard—he must have been the god of all lizards, for he was colored like it—had fire in his mouth, a great golden head, flakes of blue, scarlet and orange on his back, which seemed outlined on what appeared to be a row of shells around the whole room.
The band accidentally activate another unseen mechanism, this time causing two caskets to spring up from the ground. Each casket sits atop a carved figure of a mammoth, and contains a body: one male, the other female, both perfectly preserved and clad in fine clothing. Also in the tomb are tiny gold boxes that turn out to contain moving images:
Each of us, the professors as well as the workmen, selected a box and looked in. In that tiny box, in each of them, in fact, was an inner eight-sided wheel, each side of which contained a picture, which the front lens made real, of some grand scene of the recumbent monarch’s reign. Now don’t get the idea it was like present-day moving pictures. It was far more natural. It was so made that not only were the scenes in their exact colors, but there was also some arrangement by means of which the figures seemed to stand out like in real life, instead of being flat like moving pictures are. Here they had some knowledge which the present-day moving picture industry would have given thousands of dollars to obtain; and they had it maybe ten thousand years ago.
Perhaps the greatest discovery of all, meanwhile, is a series of tablets containing the history of this antediluvian world in Aramaic. The miners’ shift ended, the band leaves the tomb for the day, planning to return for further analysis. But the corporation running the mine shows little interest in the archaeological discovery, and when the team return, they find that stray shots from the night shit have reduced the tablets, the statues, and even the effigies in the caskets to nothing more than shards of glass. “No wonder nothing remains of that age,” says one of the professors. “Nothing of the pre-glacial age! It was an Age of Glass!”
Clearly inspired by the sensational discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb earlier in the decade, “Before the Ice Age” is not particularly original in outline; but it is on the whole a well-executed piece that fits a lot into a confined space. It starts out with a brisk depiction of the mundane details of the miners’ lives (the explosive accident occurs during a conversation about a film) before providing imaginative descriptions of the tomb’s wondrous contents, all put forth in a conversationalist tone. The tragic end is inevitable, but the author takes the opportunity to introduce one more intriguing idea – that of the Glass Age.
If Alfred Fritchey wrote any other fiction, it appears never to have seen print. That said, either he or another author of the same name did self-publish a poetry collection, The Jars of Life, in 1920.
“Monorail” by George McLociard
Globetrotter John Nally misses his boat from Seattle to Alaska, seemingly thwarting his attempt at a timed journey around the world. However, a stranger – who turns out to be the British Consul – informs him that a still faster method remains available: monorail. Nally heads north to Mono City for his first taste of this futuristic transportation method:
As the hours flew by and the train dashed across the wastes, Nally began to see the advantages of the monorail system over all other means of transportation. Elevated on a single thin ribbon of steel, propelled by airscrews which know no icy, slippery track, the “mono” had every and all the advantages of the modern steam or electric “two-rail” railroad plus the speed of the airplane.
Although the blizzard howled and tore, and snow, small stinging particles from the mountain tops, made sight of objects fifty feet away impossible, the “mono” shot over the rail at daring speed. What mattered a head wind when forty racing screws thundered their defiance? The motorman knew the section and relied upon his safety devices and signal lights, spaced every eighth mile, to warn him of danger.
Even as he marvels at all of this, Nally expresses concern at possible safety issues; but a fellow traveller assures him that all necessary security measures are in place. Then, some of the passengers turn out to be bandits after a shipment of gold on board (“Alaska was the last frontier and a few of Jesse James’ descendants roamed her mountain fastnesses and plains”). The robbers hold the passengers and crew captive and leave the automatic controls to take over, with the bandit leader gloating that the bridge ahead has been blown out. Just as Nally is having visions of the end (“He saw the train rushing over the snow-drifted valley down which the train was plunging, with grinning Death at the controls”) a relief motorman manages to halt the train just in the nick of time. To their surprise, those aboard see the bridge ahead of them, still standing – the claim that it had been blown up was merely a distraction to allow the bandits to escape.
Reprinted from a 1927 edition of the Lane Tech Prep’s student magazine, “Monorail” is a very brief story where the actual conflict – the business with the bandits – takes up roughly one page. Up until then, the bulk of the story consists of Nally marvelling over the transportation technology that surrounds him. At the time the story was published, monorails of one sort or another had existed for decades, but the idea of a monorail capable of taking passengers on a journey of nearly 2,000 miles from the Seattle-adjacent “Mono City” to Nome, Alaska is the stuff of science fiction even today. (Meanwhile, the gyroscopic technology depicted in the story had been tested in monorails, but ultimately never caught on). The editorial introduction downplays the role of artistic license, however:
The chief attraction about the present story is that it contains 100% fact and not much fiction. It might better be called a “scientifact” story than a scientifiction tale. The monorail system is well known and has been in use for some years. The author, who is an engineer, has improved the old system considerably and there is no reason at all why the machine, as described by him, could not be used whenever we are ready to do so.
“The Space Bender” by Edward L. Rementer
Randolph S. Forbes receives a mysterious delivery: a bottle made of an unknown glass-like substance, bearing his name and address. The foreman who presents it to him explains that it was found underground. Opening the bottle, Randolph finds a written document: “The manuscript found in a bottle, eh? By Edgar Allan Poe, alias Tom, Dick or Harry of the football team. A clue to Captain Kidd’s treasure, no doubt.” Taking a closer look, he finds that the paper and ink are – like the bottle itself – made of unknown substances; he also recognises the handwriting as being that of his former teacher Professor Jason T. Livermore, who had disappeared without a trace many years beforehand. In it, the professor tells a story…
The professor starts his narrative by dismissing the idea that the fourth dimension is time, arguing that time is no more than a system of measurement and that the fourth dimension must therefore be something else. He goes on to describe his experiments with four-dimensional travel, his first hurdle being the basic matter of survival: “A four-dimensional world would be so far removed from anything which the five senses of humanity are capable of appreciating, that the functions of the human body—made for use in a world of three dimensions—would cease, and death would result.”
However, a trip to the fourth dimension should be survivable if it is sufficiently brief, and – so the professor reasoned – could be used as a means of travel from one area of three-dimensional space to another, even if the two points are tens of millions of miles away.
The professor’s account goes on to describe how he built a four-dimensional vehicle called the Space Bender, which “looked like a large, ill-shaped pair of tongs having two sets of grasping implements, one on each end, with the handle in the middle. There” and boasted an exterior “made of a new metal I invented, resembling copper, but much harder”.
The Space Bender’s maiden voyage took the professor to Venus, where he finds yellow grass, enormous white mushrooms, creatures resmebling mice that are the size of sheep, and the pervasive odour of catnip. He then meets an intelligent lifeform, resembling a human but with attributes that remind the professor of cats (“His forehead, while fully broad enough to vouch for an excellent mentality, nevertheless was flatter and more receding than ours. His ears were slightly triangular and, most remarkable of all, they were pitched or slanted forward”). Other locals arrive and take the newcomer in a sedan-like vehicle to the nearest city.
Taken to the court of King Tabi, Professor Livermore is taught by a Venus man named Tomasso to speak the local language, which resembles the purring of cats. After doing so he is able to learn the history of Venus’ inhabitants, and finds that they evolved from felines (“Although Venus is a younger planet than the earth, the more rapid breeding propensities of the feline had compensated for this adverse time-factor with the result that their evolution had been fully accomplished”). These roots are still evident across their society:
Their civilization (equally as intricate and highly developed as ours) was a feline civilization, based on feline hopes and desires and suited only to feline inhabitants. Its good points were the virtues of cats; its faults were the imperfections of cats, in which no other animals save cats would have gone astray. In them, as in us, the life force had bred true. No matter how cultured, no matter what intellectual heights they might scale, cats they were and cats they would remain until their act was played out and their curtain rung down.
‘Our government,’ said King Tabi, leaning back on his cushion, on which was beautifully depicted in gold embroidery, a mythological legend representing a dog presenting a gift of a mouse to some cat-god, ‘compared to yours is a strange mixture of freedom and despotism. […] Our earnestness of purpose’ (a cat never fools; it always means business, you know) ‘holds that absolute authority is the most efficient way of getting things done. Hence, in public matters, I exercise a power beyond any power known to your kind. […] On the other hand,’ he went on, ‘our love of personal freedom prevents any attempt to regulate the lives of the people in private matters. If I tried to interfere in morals, education, religion and what-not, in the way you tell me your governments do, my reign and my life, by a simultaneous end, would pay forfeit to my temerity.’
In terms of intellect, the cat-people have developed a rsizeable bell-curve:
At the top of their society was a ruling class of actual geniuses, who reached their high position, not by political pull or the might of wealth, but by sheer, downright brain power. For every one of our people who cannot read or write, they had a thousand, but for one Columbus, Shakespeare, Verdi or Edison, they had ten or twenty. Which was better? Their way or ours?
The Earthman next examines the world’s science and technology, guided by fellow savant Professor Leo, M.E.O.W. In terms of technology, Venus is far ahead of Earth, something the professor attributes to a cat’s ability to achieve perfect balance and patience (“Compare the untiring persistence with which puss watches a mouse hole with the restless, nervous leaping about of Jocko from perch to pole, and a slight idea of the superiority of the cat’s descendants in a calling needing patience can be imagined”). However, the planet’s medicine is primitive to the point of barbarism, the cat-people being too selfish to bothered even developing anaesthetic.
Professor Livermore is subsequently invited to attend the royal wedding of Princess Pummas, where still more aspects of feline culture are on show. Their natural cleanliness has led to immense vanity, with the attendants clad in the most sumptuous suits and gowns. But they are also brutal: a love triangle ends with one tom-cat casually dismembering his rival with a sword, an event largely ignored by those present.
The professor’s manuscript ends with him announcing that he cannot return home until the feline engineers help to fix his Space Bender, and even then, he will only be allowed to leave if the king’s Yow-Yow (general council) grants permission. Until then, all he can do is send his bottled manuscript back to Earth. His friend Forbes, finishing this strange account, notices the manuscript’s date and realises that the professor has been gone for twenty years – indicating that some calamity or another has prevented him from returning. Unusually for Amazing, the story has an editorial note at its end as well as its beginning: “Every one of us has met the cat-man and the cat-woman”, muses Hugo Gernsback (or one of his colleagues). “Why not a whole race?”
As with “Flight to Venus” in the same issue, “The Space Bender” uses the inventor-visits-aliens narrative for satirical purposes. The satire here is more straightforward, comparing and contrasting us with the aliens (as Wells did in this subgenre’s definitive work, The First Men in the Moon). The decision to portray the aliens as cat-people is a neat shorthand, harking back to the tradition of animal fables.
The magazine concludes with another selection of readers’ letters. Digging back into the March 1928 issue, Mark Colling points out a scientific inaccuracy in Gernsback’s Baron Munchhausen story, while Kenneth Bradforn continues a discussion about the physics of light from the August issue. Charles Wilie also has questions about physics (“would not the speed of its source tend to speed up or retard the speed of sound? Yet the speed of both light and sound are always taken to be constant, regardless”).
Moving from physics to language, R. P. Vogenitz – principal translator at the Washington D.C. Post Office Department – writes on to inform Amazing that the correct term for an inhabitant of Venus is not “Venusian” but Venerian: “the occurrence in an otherwise well-written story of such an etymological monstrosity as ‘Venusian’ is sure to jangle on the nerves of those who are familiar with the correct processes by which new words of this kind should be coined.” Alas, Microsoft Word spellcheck currently recognises Venusian but not Venerian, so Vogenitz’s side of the argument was clearly unsuccessful.
Art, too, turns up in discussion. Drug store clerk Melvin Brody draws upon his experience as a retailer to comment on the magazine’s design sensibilities: “I find that there are three faults in this magazine in the eyes of prospective readers; the paper, the name and the cover […] The name Amazing Stories loudly shouts out ‘I am cheap fiction.'” He singles out the covers for strongest criticism:
A typical example of what the cover (or rather cover design) did to a prospective buyer happened last night. Looking over the rack of magazines a man was attracted by the blinding, searing yellow background of your magazine. He hesitated whether he should pick the periodical up or not; but curiosity got the best of him. Picking it off the rack he glanced through the contents gingerly, as though afraid the loud colors would burn his hands. I approached the man, as I always do, when someone picks up Amazing Stories, and told him what a wonderful magazine it really is; how I have read every issue since the first one, and how I would not trade any magazine out for this one. I showed him the “Discussions Department” and then had to go away to “jerk” a few sodas. When I glanced up, I saw the man look at the cover, sadly shake his head, and walk out. Another sale lost because curiosity which attracts, cannot make one buy.
Despite these comments, he generally approves of Frank R. Paul’s artwork, with one caveat: “I could not find any thing in ‘The Skylark of Space’ to indicate that it was to take place in the future; yet the queer clothes that Paul draws on the characters seems to point this fact out. Will you please enlighten me?” (the editorial response is bemused: “we certainly do not find anything very futuristic in the costumes given the characters, and as the fair sex are dressing in this vicinity at least, we are inclined to consider the clothes rather old-fashioned.”) Carol Hooges, after requesting more stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, likewise passes judgement on Paul’s artwork: “Mr. Paul has improved, mightily in his black and white illustrations, and it seems to me that there is very little lacking in them now, but—and now I make both enemies and friends—his cover drawings have failed to keep pace.”
Morrison P. Helling, meanwhile, is interested in more metaphyiscal matters:
Man has at least one more “sense” besides his ordinary five. The sense of the perception of spiritual values or what has sometimes been called the reality that lies behind the material universe. You see now, don’t you, why I cannot rightly call its (the soul’s) discovery a scientific one? It is rather an art. One has to develop the sixth sense that lies dormant within one—every one!
By the practice of certain methods of mental discipline, the sixth sense can be awakened, I have proved this for myself as many others have, but one cannot prove these things to another; one has to “taste and see” for himself. Religion is based on this faculty of the “perception of reality,” but as only a few have the persistence to go ahead with the discipline necessary, religion has been handed on to the masses as a mere matter of faith. The leaders themselves have lost sight of the vision of the founder of the religion, and this leads to the teaching of “faith,” etc., etc. Imagine Edison, for instance, asking people to accept the statement that he had discovered the electric light. He wouldn’t get away with it for very long would he? But mankind has been trained to think of spiritual things as “sacred” to the priests .or those “in authority” and their efforts to make discoveries and* to tell people the truth have been (sometimes violently) discouraged!
David R. Thornton sends in an article clipped from the San Francisco Call about a theory posited by Dr. Dinsmore Alter of the University of Kansas that electrons might be inhabited by intelligent life:
How do we know that in every atom of our body there is a miniature world, or rather universe, stars revolving around a central sun? Living beings may exist on these electrons whirling about in our thumb nail. Time was when an atom was supposed to be the smallest conceivable thing, for the word atom means not capable of being divided or “uncuttable.” Then came electrons which are supposed to be even smaller than atoms. Atoms are conceived of as being composed partly of revolving electrons. Even in solid substances such as iron, or human skin, some of these electrons are revolving in their various atoms about a central nucleus, others are in the nucleus. And now comes the interesting speculation; these electrons being miniature worlds like ours, have they miniature inhabitants?
There is no reason to suppose that sentient life is confined to beings like ourselves. Maeterlinck conceived of a soul in bread, and in flour, etc. Why would it not be possible in some other world for souls to inhabit flame, or metal? What “soul” is nobody knows. With us it is certainly within the human organism, but elsewhere it may not be. There is no limit also to speculation as to what takes place in the microscopical world. Perhaps our world, this little planet, bears the relation to the vast cosmos around us and above us, that the atom in our finger bears to our whole body.
To conclude for the month, a reader identified simply as W.A.K. compares contemporary American science fiction with its European forerunners by the likes of Verne and Wells and finds much to complain about:
In my school days, I was an inveterate reader of this type of fiction, as well as of the Sherlock Holmes stories, which are the outstanding part of Doyle’s work. I remember numerous stories of trips to the moon, by rockets, by means of a substance which eliminated the force of gravity, and by drawing the moon to the earth with a huge electro-magnet; stories of great interest to my young mind, and which, I believe, would still hold my interest if I read them today, because they had to do with material things that were reasonably within the range of possibility, although, of course, the probability of these things coming to happen is very small.
I read “The Invisible Man,” and the “Time Machine,” by H. G. Wells, and “The Poison Belt” and “The Lost World,” by Doyle, and although there were things in all of them that were impossible, they were told in a very interesting manner and, therefore, their faults were pardonable. “The Time Machine,” in fact, was an exceptionally good work, because, although its subject is an impossibility, (I say this without fear of contradiction), Wells gave us a look at some possible social developments of the future, which may or may not actually come to pass, but are interesting possibilities. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, is another very interesting contribution to “Scientifiction,” because it offers a very amazing possibility, and because of its excellent construction of plot.
Of late years, however, there has sprung up, either in imitation of the old “scientifiction,” or as a result of the American weakness for overdoing everything, a new school of “scientifiction.” (This “weakness” for overdoing things is by no means limited. When I was in San Francisco last winter I read a book, the name of which I have forgotten, by an author, whose name I have also forgotten, who takes the title of “The American Oppenheim,” which contained an account of a war between the United States and Japan, in which the fleets of both nations were entirely wiped out and the harbor and bay of San Francisco were captured by the Japanese civilian population of San Francisco and Oakland, and a great portion of the Union Pacific tracks between Ogden and Chicago was destroyed by Japanese spies to prevent the American troops from reaching the coast. At this point I closed the book. The strain was too great.)
The old “scientifiction” was founded on the theory that whatever is within the bounds of reasonable possibility or contained intelligent discussion as to future possibilities was good reading. The new school, however, seems to base its activities on the theory that nothing is impossible. As a result, there has been developed a type of story in which no situation is too far-fetched, no fantasy of the imagination too over-drawn, and writers vie with one another for the honor of writing the most impossible situations into their stories. One cannot help wondering what will be done, when the saturation point has been reached, when the situation has been evolved to a point when and where it is impossible to conceive of anything more impossible. Perhaps these writers of the new school will then turn their attention from the production of absurdities to the development of a style of writing which will lend to these absurdities at least a respectable appearance.
W.A.K. goes on to compare such material to mind-numbing alcohol (“I maintain that there is a close analogy between the mental intoxication induced as the result of reading claptrap and the physical intoxication resulting from the overuse of liquor. Both produce a condition favorable to erroneous reasoning, the only difference being that the former takes effect more subtly than the latter and is not so easily perceived by others”) before ranting about what is clearly another pet peeve, namely astrology (“In this day and age, when the worship of the dollar seems to have taken the place of the worship of God, of science, of intelligence or whatever it is we ought to worship, it behooves us to be on our guard against fakers of every kind”).