A man sits at a desk; he wears a headset wired to some sort of electrical gadget. Standing on his desk is the tiny figure of an oddly-dressed woman. Behind her is what appears to be a glass box containing doll’s house furniture. Is she a mechanical doll? The result of a shrinking experiment? Or something else…?
It was May 1927, and Amazing Stories was gracing the newsstands once more.
Hugo Gernsback’s editorial once again brings up the topic of scientific plausibility. “The editors of Amazing Stories… are trying their best to keep from this magazine stories that belong rather in the domain of fairy tales than in scientifiction”, he says, explaining that true scientifiction “should have a scientific basis of plausibility, so that while it may not seem possible to perform the miracle this year or next, it may conceivably come about 50, 5,000 or 500,000 years hence.”
Gernsback goes on to describe a story submitted to the magazine, which dealt with a “scientist [who] had conquered distance by means of a ray” (today, this would be known as a teleportation device). Gernsback and his crew found this too implausible, and rejected the story. The editorial then turns to A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool, which Gernsback cites as an example of a story that seems fantastic, but may someday come to pass. Speaking of Merritt’s mysterious Shining One, Gernsback claims that “it is conceivable that such an entity might come into existence at some future time, when we know more about science in general and when we know more about rays and radio-activity.”
Which leads into the first story of the issue…
The Moon Pool by A. Merritt (part 1 of 3)
Amazing‘s latest serialised novel is a story originally published in All-Story Weekly in 1918 and 1919. While at sea in the South Pacific, Dr. Walter T. Goodwin and his fellow traveller Throckmartin witness an eerie sight: a nebulous body appearing in the sky, surrounding by seven unearthly coloured lights. After it has gone, Throckmartin reveals that he has already witnessed this entity – the Dweller in the Moon Pool. He recounts at length how he went on an expedition to a Pacific island, accompanied by other explorers including his wife Edith. But only he returned, the others having fallen victim to the mysterious powers of the Moon Pool.
Not long after the apparition is sighted, Throckmartin himself goes missing. Goodwin takes it upon himself to lead an expedition to the Moon Pool and get to the bottom of the mystery.
Where Throckmartin’s account was overwhelmed by mystery, Goodwin takes a more scientific tack. Encountering a stone door that opens when hit by a shaft of moonlight, and remembering Throckmartin’s claims that the Dweller draws its power from moonbeams, he posits a scientific explanation for this seemingly magical phenomena. He suggests that the Moon contains a hitherto unidentified element, which alters the properties of reflected sunlight, resulting in the seemingly magical activation of this ancient technology. He also theorises that the vast cave containing the Moon Pool once housed the Moon itself, meaning that traces of the lunar element may be found within.
As for the Dweller itself, Goodwin suggests that “some members of that race peopling the ancient continent which we know existed here in the Pacific” have survived and live within the caves, maintaining advanced science. The Dweller, he argues, could be the result of their experiments. Goodwin ties these pseudo-scientific concepts to folklore, noting that the people of Papua and Malaysia have a story of a race of Giants, the Chamats, who once ruled the land before being trapped underground.
Tension between scientific discovery and legendary memories occurs throughout The Moon Pool. It turns up again when the explorers catch sight of a “grotesque frog-woman”, causing Goodwin and one of his fellows argue over whether this troll-like being belongs to Labyrinthodonts or Stegocephalia. The reader, however, will recognise it as being closer to a troll or goblin from folklore than to anything that walked the Earth. The struggle between rationalism and mysticism is embodied in the character of Larry O’Keefe, an Irish-American who sees himself as equal parts Irish and American. At times he is a can-do, no-nonsense Yank; at others he is full of stories of Banshees.
Merritt gives the overall impression that his sympathies lie with magical, rather than scientific, explanations. Throughout the book his authorial voice is not the gadget-focused writing of Gernsbackian SF, but rather the florid prose of fantasy. Here, for example, is his description of the seven coloured lights that accompany the Dweller:
One was of a pearly pink, one of a delicate nacreous blue, one of lambent saffron, one of the emerald you see in the shallow waters of tropic isles; a deathly white; a ghostly amethyst; and one of the silver that is seen only when the flying fish leap beneath the moon.
The characters eventually appear to leave the modern world altogether when they reach the subterranean land of the lost race. Here they meet crowds of dwarfs, some green, others red. Presiding over them is the beautiful but “gloriously, terrifyingly evil” priestess Yolara, a figure recalling H. Rider Haggard’s Ayesha.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Amazing‘s republication of H. G. Wells’ science fiction would never be complete without running his 1895 novella The Time Machine. Almost certainly Wells’ signature work, this is a story which not only offers a memorable social satire, but also initiated an entire subgenre of SF.
Arriving at the year 802,701 A.D., the protagonist encounters humanity’s descendants: a race of frail, childlike beings who live in what appear to be a communist society with no hardship or toil, leading to overall decadence.
He then finds that his time machine has been stolen. While looking for it, he comes across another species: a subterranean, ape-like creature. He deduces that both races are descended from contemporary humans: the Eloi of the upper world were once aristocrats while the Morlocks of the tunnels below were labourers, society having pushed the two classes down different evolutionary paths.
Initially, the Time Traveller assumes that the Eloi are still the ruling class. The horrible truth, it turns out, is that the Eloi have actually ended up as the Morlocks’ food source. After a number of scrapes – including the death of Weena, an Eloi woman whom he had befriended – the protagonist gets back to his time machine and heads further into the future.
Having drifted around long enough to observe the Earth in its dying days, with a red sun burning over a land inhabited by giant crabs and slime mould, the Time Traveller returns to his own age, where he tells his story to an incredulous crowd. He later vanishes altogether, leading to speculation as to where, or when, he ended up.
“The Man Who Died by Proxy” by Frank Gates
Having incorporated the entirety of The Time Machine along with the first third of The Moon Pool, this issue of Amazing has little space left. Its short stories are necessarily on the briefer side, starting with “The Man Who Died by Proxy”.
This story begins with two characters, a judge and a colonel, chortling over the exploits of a racially-stereotyped servant (“Yassuh, boss, but I’d just like to ask you a question: is I pale?”) After this comedic introduction is out of the way, the judge moves on to graver matters by delivering an anecdote about a man who died by proxy.
The account deals with Burton, an American who, while seeking treatment for a rare snakebite in Moscow, ended up framed for murder by none other than Felix Dzerzhinsky, head of the Russian secret police. Knowing that he would die from the snakebite even should he escape his current predicament, Burton arranged to be the donor in a blood transfusion to Dzerzhinsky. Three weeks later, Dzerzhinsky died from inheriting Burton’s poison.
A short, curious attempt to imagine a fictional death for Felix Dzerzhinsky, who had died of a heart attack several months before the issue was published.
“The Man Who Was” by Walter Burch
Richard Ames is convicted of murder and sentenced to death by electrocution. His last wish is that, after he is executed, his body be bequeathed to medicine – specifically, to one Doctor Grant, an old friend of Richard who insists his innocence.
It turns out that Grant has developed a method of raising the dead with the aid of a mechanical heart. He successfully resurrects Richard, and presents the revived man to the court which previously sentenced him. After mulling over his legal status, the court eventually declares that Richard can go free, as his sentence has been carried out.
Not everything is the same for Richard – his wealth has been inherited by his heirs, and his marriage dissolved by his temporary death – but as the true culprit behind the homicide has confessed, he is able to escape suspicion. Meanwhile, Doctor Grant declines to make the mechanics of his resurrection device public. “Death is God’s remedy against monopoly”, he explains.
“The Man Who Was” is a slight story that feels considerably longer than it actually is, largely due to Walter Burch’s dense prose. This excerpt is typical:
Nature abhors the vacuum; likewise does human nature. That impulse which urges one with quickened step past vacant houses—that makes one turn aside from unfrequented thoroughfares and causes him to shiver as the sounds of his own footsteps break the stillness of the night—is but the protest of the soul against vacuity. The solemn stillness depressed the witnesses. Before them was the mute successor to the guillotine and hangman’s noose. Here, indeed, was a fit throne for the Grim Visitor; here was the end of life—the beginning of eternity!
After the story is a New York Times clipping about a proposed scientific study into whether the electric chair kills its occupants or merely renders them unconscious.
“The Singing Weapon” by Ben Prout
This story takes place in the 1940s and begins with a family dispute between trainee violinist Josef Kelinev and his father. Josef struggles to learn the instrument, but his cellist father forces him nonetheless. During one argument his father fumbles with the violin and sounds a note so high that it cracks a nearby vase. The older man is distraught at the loss of the family heirloom, but practical-minded Josef is intrigued by the potential of this note.
Then, in June 1945, war breaks out. The “United Asiatic nations” stage an attack on San Francisco, performed by seemingly indestructible aircraft and sea vessels. The Asian forces promise further attacks unless America offers them “the same right in your beautiful country that you extend to Europeans”, along with reparations “for past indignities suffered by our people through your ridiculous discriminations.” The American government responds with a firm refusal, and so the “yellow holocaust” renews.
By this time, Josef has persuaded his father to help him build a weapon called the Vibranon, which uses vibrations to cause destruction in the same manner as the broken vase – but on a much larger scale. Josef takes the new invention to the American military, which puts it into action. The Vibranon is a success, laying waste to enemy ships.
Josef then decides to take the weapon a step further by devising a Vibranon that can destroy not only objects, but also human bodies. His military advisor, Captain Rothstein, approves of this idea: “The enemy as a whole is composed of men much smaller than our average… about your size, Josef. If you could learn how to kill them with a note, the same vibration wouldn’t affect our own men. All we would have to do then would be to have all small men ordered out of range and then shoot away.”
Apparently failing to understand that this fatal tone would be fatal to him as well as the enemy, diminutive Josef sets about constructing the new Vibranon. He tests it on a corpse, as he could not get permission to use a living prisoner of war, and predictably ends up as a corpse himself. Captain Rothstein and Josef’s father reach the scene and, realising what has happened, retrieve the clearly successful Vibranon. The opposing forces finally surrender after being massacred with deadly vibrations.
“The Singing Weapon” is a very of-its-time story, based around the Gernsbackian formula of taking a familiar scientific phenomenon (in this case, the potential of high notes to break glass) and imagining how it would work on a larger scale. Parts of the story are well-handled, such as the relationship between Josef and his father, but on the whole it is let down both by the ugly “yellow peril” backdrop and its failure to realise the horrific implications of its hypothetical weapon. One can only imagine what kind of cold war would follow the invention of a hand-held device that can vibrate scores of people to death…
“The Star of Dead Love” by Will H. Gray
While looking out at his lawn one evening, Dr. Joyce sees rays of blue light forming into the semi-transparent figure of a young woman. The girl is intangible and apparently unable to speak, but shows a number of strange abilities. She produces a sheet and draws sketches on it, explaining to Joyce that she is from Venus. She fires a beam that slices a nearby wooden post in two. She then transforms a pile of Joyce’s books into the same rays of light from which she was made, before disappearing.
Joyce initially dismisses the experience as a dream, but then finds that his books are missing and the wooden post is cut in two. Days later he tries to make contact with the Venusian, writing the word “COME” on a large sheet of paper which he places in his garden. Sure enough, the intangible girl returns, and having read Joyce’s books can now write in English. She reveals some of her civilisation’s history:
Life was altered when we found out that the attraction of the molecules of any substance could be changed. When we applied it to ourselves it meant that we could cease to have the feelings and sufferings of the material, solid body. This dematerialized body—just as you see me now—is not subject to feeling or age, neither do we need nourishment.
The Venusians have also learned to reproduce through parthenogenesis, and became an all-female species. Their reproduction is overseen by a “Supreme Eugenic Committee”, which terminates wrongdoers using the same method that sliced Joyce’s wooden post in two.
Joyce continues his meetings with the Venusian, who eventually manages to arrive on Earth in her corporeal body – which turns out to be two inches tall. But she is followed by other members of her kind, ones who do not want her mingling with men, and who take her back to Venus never to be seen again.
“The Star of Dead Love” briefly mentions the Spiritualist movement when word gets around that Joyce has been conversing with a ghost, and it is likely that Spiritualism inspired the premise: multiple mediums of the day claimed to be in contact with discarnate alien intelligences. At the same time, by depicting a humanoid figure made from light, Will H. Gray prefigures later science fiction usage portrayals of holography. The general ambience of Joyce’s encounters with the Venusian – which include mysterious lights and a was-it-all-a-dream ambiguity – are also similar to the accounts of modern-day UFO contactees.
In this month’s letters section, Daniel D. Moloney touches upon what would now be known as the divide between hard and soft SF by noting that most of Amazing’s writers “exercise imagination upon physical or chemical discoveries or inventions” as opposed to subjects studied by “the psychologist, the sociologist, the industrialist, the human engineer.” He goes on to express hope for an age when scientific knowledge runs in full flow around the world: “The splendid mental endowments of vast populations in China, India, South America, Africa, have scarcely been touched by science.”
M. B. Butler offers praise for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Land that Time Forgot, but also condemns Burroughs’ treatment of the Germans. “O, how he hates the Germans!” runs the letter. “It is amazing that a man of his vision and genius should be so narrow in that respect… During the war, no doubt, they did commit atrocities. But so did the Allies, only we don’t hear much about that.” Other criticisms come from Richard V. Happel (who points out scientific impossibilities in A. Hyatt Verrill’s “The Man Who Could Vanish”) and Manion F. Jones (who derides “those tedious and uninteresting narratives by Jules Verne.”)
Once again, the issue contains a poem by Leland S. Copeland, “Light of Life”:
The Disk of Day, a lonely star,
Shines in the Milky Way
And leads its Eight through spatial fate
A million miles a day.
As on it sweeps with never fear
Of blackened suns or bright,
Its splendors ray the dotted day
Of universal night.
To all the speeding stars that form
A vast white wheel of light,
It flashes hope, as on they slope
Through everlasting night.
And though the earth at last may know
The why no man can say,
The spinning sun will not be done
For eons and a day.