Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Science Fiction of the 30s

Science Fiction of the 30s is a 1975 anthology edited by Damon Knight, comprising stories originally published in pulp magazines like Astounding. Knight provides us with a brief but fascinating history of the science fiction pulp magazines of the era.

While many of the stories do have a rather pulp feel the overall quality is impressive and the stories demonstrate the enormous vitality of the genre at that time. The writers were not afraid to tackle the big subjects and they were not constrained by preconceptions regarding the kinds of subjects that were suitable for treatment. They gave their imaginations full rein.

Robert H. Wilson’s Out Around Rigel shows just how ambitious 1930s science fiction could be, involving as it does the difficulties of faster-than-light travel and the problems posed by relativity theory. Pretty impressive for a story dating to 1931.

In Murray Leinster’s The Fifth-Dimension Catapult experiments with non-Euclidean geometry prove to be rather dangerous when a scientist and his daughter are trapped in the world of the fifth dimension. This is another story that shows just how quickly science fiction writers picked up on revolutionary new theories like quantum physics and relativity. Meddling in non-Euclidean geometry becomes even more hazardous when gangsters are involved.

Frank K. Kelly’s Into the Meteorite Orbit reminds me just a little of Rudyard Kipling’s classic 1905 science fiction story With the Night Mail.

John W. Campbell’s The Battery of Hate tells the story of a young man who invents a source of virtually unlimited incredibly cheap electricity, a power source so efficient it can be used to power cars and aircraft. Not everyone is happy about this new invention and one wealthy financier is prepared to go to any lengths to prevent it from reaching the marketplace. This is a very pulpy story but thoroughly enjoyable.

There are two stories by Howard W. Graham. The Wall is quite bizarre - a scientist invents a paint that creates an enormous wall of force that cuts Manhattan Island in two. The Other is the tale of a beautiful alien woman entombed in ice for 40,000 years. But is she really dead? And what is the strange object she is holding that looks a little like a ray-gun?

David H. Keller’s excellent The Lost Language involves a boy who cannot speak, although he can write. The trouble is that he writes in a completely unknown language known only to himself. An inventor sets out to find a way to turn the boy’s writings into speech.

Frank Belknap Long’s The Last Men is an oddly poignant story of a world in which gigantic insects treat humans the way we treat butterflies.

Stanley G. Weinbaum seemed to have a liking for the creation of extremely strange but fascinating aliens. The Mad Moon feature two alien races, inhabitant of Jupiter’s moon Io. Io is also home to humans such as Grant Calthorpe. The humans have only one interest in Io - the ferva plant which has countless medicinal uses. Life on Io has many challenges, not the least of which is the dreaded white fever which brings hallucinations and madness.

Raymond Z. Gallun’s Davey Jones’ Ambassador is another lost civilisation beneath the sea tale, but an intriguing one. A story of two civilisations with nothing in common apart from curiosity.

In the creepy and rather chilling Alas, All Thinking Harry Bates gives us the story of a scientist who sees the future of the human race and it’s enough to make him give up science.

The Time Decelerator by A. Macfadyen is one of the many stories in this anthology dealing in various ingenious ways with time travel. 

In W. K. Sonnemann’s weird but intriguing The Council of Drones a man changes places with a queen bee and leads a war of the bees against the human race.

Seeker of Tomorrow by Eric Frank Russell and Leslie T. Johnson returns to the subject of time travel, on an epic scale. A late 20th century scientist jumps forward to various futures, sees the results of destructive wars, sees magnificent civilisations and finally ends up on Venus (the human race having by this time emigrated to that planet). The one problem is - he can only go forwards in time, never backwards.

The later stories, from the tail end of the 30s, seem to move away from the cool science concepts towards whimsicality and sentiment. L. Sprague de Camp’s Hyperpilosity is too whimsical for its own good while his The Merman deals with a man who accidentally learns to breathe water but again the story seems to be striving for amusement rather than amazement. Manly Wade Wellman’s Pithecanthropus Rejectus borrows ideas from The Island of Dr Moreau although its more immediate inspiration was probably the Tarzan stories (and movies). It’s quite a moving and effective story. Lester del Rey’s The Day Is Done is a gently melancholic tale of the last Neanderthal.

Compared to today’s science fiction these stories are notable for a lack of interest in bludgeoning the reader with political messages. Some stories do have a message but they’re not heavy-handed. There’s a degree of optimism in these stories although it’s balanced with perhaps more scepticism than the science fiction of the later golden age.

All in all an excellent and extremely varied anthology demonstrating the genuine diversity of the genre in its earlier days. Highly recommended.

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