Figure 1 shows a book cover for an Ace Doubles book, one of the first I read by “Murray Leinster,” way back in the late ‘50s (the cover was painted by Robert E. Schultz, though not credited by the publisher). It was one of many “Murray Leinster” books I read from then until now; it wasn’t till a few years later that I learned that Murray Leinster didn’t exist. (To be fair, it might have been on the end papers, but at that young age, I was only interested in the covers and the contents of SF/F books.)
”Murray Leinster,” a very popular writer of pulp SF, was the creation of Virginia writer Will(iam) F(itzgerald) Jenkins (1896-1975), who would end up publishing about 1800 stories and 74 novels and collections between 1913 and 1974. Not only was he a writer, but he was a lover of science (though he had, according to various biographies, little formal education) and an inventor — both in SF and in real life.
He’s credited with the idea of alternate worlds, computers connected in a sort of internet, and (to an extent) “first contact.” Yet today, with literally thousands of SF/F books available to buy, he’s more or less forgotten by the younger fan.
I, and many others who grew up reading Murray Leinster, were enthralled by such novels as Forgotten Planet, where humans tried to survive in a world of giant insects (Figure 1); or Space Tug, where the world’s first orbital spaceship is under attack by communists; or the Med Ship series, where space doctor Calhoun and his pet/assistant “tormal” Murgatroyd solve medical problems that affect whole planets.
Now, I’m not claiming that Leinster (I’ll keep calling him that, as that’s how I grew up thinking of him) was any kind of stylist—even for science fiction, he was a bit… clunky, shall we say? He had a certain writing style that was pretty consistent in the 1950s and later. Like Clifford Simak, he was not any kind of experimental writer — you read him for the ideas he expressed, and the fun of the SFnal puzzles and situations he set his characters in.
If you wanted great SF writing, you’d certainly look at the Jack Vances, or the Brian Aldisses, or the Robert Silverbergs or elsewhere, but Leinster was a very workmanlike writer who explored the boundaries of SF; and a good many of today’s SFnal “tropes” are based on his ideas. His website on SF site is maintained by Steven Silver.
The First Leinster Megapack is available from Amazon. I’m not sure I’d recommend this book as an introduction to Murray Leinster, but it’s one of several issued by Wildside Press (edited by John Betancourt). Here, for a buck Canadian (78 cents US), you can explore twenty-five of Leinster’s stories and novels (there are three Leinster Megapacks available at this writing; I haven’t bought the other two yet). Contents are as follows:
Murray Leinster: A Selected Bibliography
A Thousand Degrees Below Zero
The Mad Planet
The Gallery Gods
The Red Dust
Morale: A Story of the War of 1941-43
The Fifth-Dimension Tube
Operation: Outer Space
Sam, This is You
The Machine That Saved the World
The Monster From Earth’s End
Long Ago, Far Away
The Ambulance Made Two Trips
Planet of Dread
The Hate Disease
The stories and novels above range in publication dates from 1919 to 1963, and provide a pretty good example of the range of Leinster’s SF (he wasn’t really noted for writing fantasy, although he had multiple credits in just about every other genre) writing.
Take Figure 1 – The Forgotten Planet is a fixup of two of the stories in this Megapack, plus a further one published in 1953: “The Mad Planet,” “The Red Dust,” and “Nightmare Planet,” which isn’t included here. The first two stories were originally published in 1920 and 1921, respectively, and concerned an Earth far in the future where global warming gone mad (and aided not only by anthropogenic warming but also large numbers of volcanic vents) has, over a period of a thousand years, destroyed human civilization and left the few surviving humans in a world of giant insects and fungi.
For later (book) publication, Leinster changed it to humans stranded on such a planet rather than on Earth — probably because 1950s SF readers wouldn’t have accepted the first premise. He also included the scientific names (as an aside to the text) of all the giant insects and arthropods that featured in the story; as an amateur inventor and science buff, he tried to make what he wrote scientifically plausible in some sense.
The premise is nonsense; if memory serves, the square-cube law would prevent those bugs from even breathing at the sizes cited, but the story of a lone human facing these giants, nearly naked, with only his wits to keep him alive (I say “his,” because Leinster was a product of his times; modern readers will probably find his writings to be what we’d call chauvinistic), is as exciting as heck, and Leinster’s descriptive powers are in full flower.
As an aside on social shifts, I found it amusing, while reading the description of the giant space station being constructed in Arizona (in “Space Station”), to find ashtrays included. And the girlfriend of the protagonist was responsible for the “homey” touches, like wall colourings, kitchen accoutrements and the plants included in hydroponics. “Girls will be going into space, won’t they?” [Sally] asked, not looking at him. “If there are colonies on the other planets, they’ll have to. And some day — to the stars….” As I say, he was a product of his times.
He also more or less predicted the internet in a way; in his story “A Logic Named Joe,” published in Astounding in 1946(!), a “logic” (a computer), gains a sort of independence — in that story, all logics (every household has one) are connected together and get their information and instructions from a central data unit. There are restrictions on what they can retrieve — for example, there are age limits on certain “native fertility rites” videos; and limits on information retrieval for making bombs, etc. But a certain Logic has a worn cam, and gains a personality of sorts, and starts making all kinds of data connections that have hitherto been forbidden for retrieval. I found it hilarious, and it’s definitely prescient!
As a bona fide Leinster fan, and a Leinster reader for many years, I don’t recommend you start your Leinster reading with this Megapack, however. (I don’t even recommend reading it straight through — the earnest description of every single scientific detail he thought up can get very tiring after a while. But that’s the kind of thing readers demanded in the 1920s, 1930s, and probably up through the 1950s.)
Rather, I’d recommend you start — and I believe most of Leinster’s work is available either free through Project Gutenberg or through low-priced editions like these Megapacks, because of copyright expiration — with something like the Med Ship novels, or Pirates of Ersatz, The Wailing Asteroid, or even his novelizations (in the 1960s) of several TV series like Land of the Giants. Some of these are included in the second and third Megapacks. An internet search will turn up many possibilities.
Oh, and I almost forgot — Leinster as inventor: if you’ve seen the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’ve certainly seen one of his inventions in use! He invented — and I knew this even before I went to see the film in 1968 in the Cinerama Theater in San Francisco — the front-projection system used in the African protohuman sequences. Prior to this system, movies used rear projection (you’ve seen this if you’ve seen almost any b/w film of the ‘40s and ‘50s, where the background is dimmer and blurrier, like the background for Cary Grant driving a car), which gave unsatisfactory results. They couldn’t use front projection, as the film being front projected would a) show on the actors’ bodies, and b) have shadows behind the actors.
But Leinster figured out a system which — if I remember the article in Popular Mechanics correctly — used a glass-bead screen behind the actors, with several synchronized dim projectors. The image being front-projected was too dim to show on the actors’ bodies, but would show up well on the glass-beaded screen; plus having several synchronized projectors there would be no shadows obscuring any part of the background.
As far as SFnal inventions (as opposed to real ones), he invented the landing grid. If we had any idea of how to do it, it would make space travel — at least within the solar system — quite practical; it uses beams to lift ships to space and down from space. Imagine how much weight is saved, for one thing, when you don’t need all the fuel a rocket must carry for takeoffs and landings! That one invention is used in a lot of Leinster’s books.
So there you have it; your introduction to the works of Murray Leinster; if you have any interest at all in old SF; exciting SF; low-priced SF, like the Megapacks cited above, you should check out Mr. Will F. Jenkins! I give him a solid 3+ whoozits! ¤¤¤+
Last notes: Last week I watched Part 1 of the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes (I reviewed that book here a couple of years ago); it stars Brendan (“Mad-Eye Mooney”) Gleeson as Bill Hodges. Since it appears to be trying to be faithful to the book, the opening was hard to watch; and if you’ve read the book, you know how it opens. I’m looking forward to this week’s episode. Good TV! (So far I’d give it four whatsits! ¤¤¤¤!)
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