Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Girl in the Golden Atom

The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings (1887-1957) is one of the early classics of American science fiction. It was originally published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly in 1919. Book publication followed in 1922 (apparently in a slightly longer form). It was an immediate success and the basic idea was one that the author retuned to rather obsessively in his subsequent incredibly prolific career.

It’s undeniably a clever idea. A scientist (whose name we are never told) develops an ultra-high power microscope and makes a startling discovery. There really are worlds within worlds. Within the atoms he observes an entire world, with people in it. He speculates that our world may in fact be such a world contained within another infinitely vaster world, and that there may be an infinite numbers of worlds within worlds within worlds.

Within this microscopic world he sees a girl. And he becomes obsessed by her. Somehow he must find a way to enter this microscopic world. He finds a way to do just that. In the process he finds that he may be able to save not just this miniature world but also our own world.

This is definitely not hard science fiction. You just have to accept that these scientist chappies are terribly clever and if they need to reduce themselves to less than the size of atom they just whip up a special potion that does the trick. But this was 1919. This was still the age of the scientific romance, the age of Verne and Wells and Burroughs, when playing around with cool ideas (often with political overtones especially in the case of Wells) was more important than working out plausible theories to explain the events of the tales.

Cummings was less political than Wells but he was influenced by the Great War and uses his story to make some observations on war and the fate of human society. Or in this case human societies. In some cases his observations on these matters become a bit disturbing when he intervenes in a war in the microscopic universe and ponders the possibility of doing something similar in our world. There’s certainly an element of scientific hubris here although I’m not sure just how conscious he was of this or of the staggeringly naïve approach of his scientist hero.

He was also presumably influenced by the scientific ferment of that time, with quantum theory and relativity suggesting that universes could be more strange and complex than had ever previously been imagined. In some ways this tale can even be seen as an anticipation of the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum theory although obviously Cummings’ idea of a multiplicity of universes is very different from the quantum one.

It’s an interesting curiosity from the earlier days of science fiction. Not a masterpiece but definitely worth a look.

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