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Period Piece: An Introduction to Astounding’s Clayton Years

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Back in early 2008 I had finally managed to collect all of the issues of Astounding within my target range, January 1930 to December 1955. Shortly after that, I began reading the very first issue. I had intended to read through the entire Clayton era to start with, but I made hardly any headway, owing to the overall poor quality and repetitiveness of the stories.

As I read I also took some notes, mostly sketching down a short summary of each story along with what I thought of it. I read the first two issues completely (January and February 1930), along with part of the March 1930 issue. The following article is a revised version of my original notes.

I’ve also added four cover scans. Unfortunately, the first two issues are marred by a large band of brown tape wrapped around the spine, encroaching onto the front and back covers. Most of my Clayton issues were owned by the same original owner, so many also feature this large band of tape on the left-hand side. Fortunately, my favorite cover of the Clayton era — for the March 1930 issue — is one of the few Clayton issues I own that doesn’t have this defect.

Those interested in the history of Astounding, and of SF magazines in general, should have a look at my short list of recommended resources.


The Clayton Era
Harry Bates, Editor

January 1930 to March 1933

Astounding was the leading SF magazine for much of its life, from around 1935 to 1955. This was almost entirely the achievement of the magazine’s two finest editors, F. Orlin Tremaine and John W. Campbell, Jr. However, Astounding‘s first editor Harry Bates also deserves his share of the credit, for getting the magazine established during the very difficult first few years of the Great Depression.

For a little over the first three years of its existence, Astounding was published by the Clayton chain and edited by Bates. (Some of Clayton’s other publications include All Star Detective Stories and Ranch Romances.) In its original form Astounding is unrecognizable as the magazine it would later become, catering as it did to the pure escapist pulp adventure market. It is perhaps wisest to consider this first incarnation of Astounding as a completely different magazine than the one it became under F. Orlin Tremaine (1933-1937). As such, it needs to be viewed in its historical context and judged on its own merits.

When I started reading these Clayton issues, it quickly became clear that the contents would lack variety. In its earliest issues, most stories center around mad scientists, and/or “lost worlds,” and/or an assortment of monsters — and these monsters in turn either originated from some lost continent or were the creation of some mad scientist.

There was a seemingly insatiable appetite for such fiction in those days, and as a result most of these tales have (inevitably) aged very badly. They are best regarded as “disposable” fiction — suspenseful and entertaining in the moment, but unimaginative and failing to leave a lasting impression. This transitory appeal puts them on par with crossword puzzles — something to occupy your mind on the bus and never return to again.

But they very much encapsulate their era, and as such possess a delightful period charm. When reading these stories today, we must always keep this context in mind. But, sadly, doing so still does not make these stories any easier to read in great quantities.

Although modern critics bemoan the existence of this kind of science fiction, and feel that it made the genre disreputable for decades, I believe that these stories filled a special role. The popularizing of anything, including a relatively new literary genre such as science fiction, always entails appealing to the lowest common denominator. The general public had to explore how science and technology might influence their everyday lives in the present, before they were ready to extrapolate from that and ponder what the future might hold. The early Clayton Astoundings are very much concerned with the here and now, and it wasn’t until later that the truly far-future and cosmic SF began to gradually appear within its pages.

(It’s amusing to note that many of today’s sci-fi TV shows and movies still use the tried-and-true mixture of faux-scientific balderdash and monsters, a combination that features so heavily in these early issues. Obviously the genre as a whole has not “progressed” as far as many of its leading critics would like you to believe…)

Since these were the products of our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generation, modern readers will chance upon the occasional element that jars with our sensibilities. These elements, however, would not have had the same effect on its intended audience of 80 years ago as they do on us today. In the 1930s they may have viewed the world through a filter of presuppositions and prejudices, but we are no different — it’s just that the presuppositions and prejudices themselves have changed. We are neck-deep in our own age’s views and standards, which blind us to their existence. The attitudes of every historical period can be shocking to those of a different age — this is just something you have to get used to when reading this kind of material.

Aside from its popular appeal, there was one main reason why Astounding was so successful even from the very beginning: authors were getting their money. Astounding paid a higher per-word rate than its competitors, and Bates was prompt in paying his authors. At this time, the editors of the other two leading SF magazines — T. O’Conor Sloane at Amazing Stories and Hugo Gernsback at Wonder Stories — were notorious for being ridiculously slow both when accepting stories for publication, and in actually paying their authors. (There were even some cases where an author was never paid, even long after their item was published.) Even though both of those magazines published the more cerebral brand of SF, authors who wanted to contribute to them were gradually drawn instead to Astounding — they could rest assured in being paid well for their stories, and in a timely manner, and therefore able to reliably feed themselves and their families. This kind of security was particularly important during the Depression.

As the years went by, more and more of the mainstream and respected authors of science fiction appear more and more frequently in the pages of the Clayton Astounding. In fact, E.E. “Doc” Smith, who was a regular staple at Amazing Stories, became so infuriated with Sloane’s cheap and lackadaisical way of doing things, that he offered his newest novel Triplanetary to Astounding. This was a coup of such magnitude for the budding magazine, that it’s hard for us today to fully appreciate the impact of such a shift. Sadly, the Clayton Astounding folded before Triplanetary could appear, and the novel ended up appearing in Amazing after all. It’s interesting to note, though, that the cover originally made for Triplanetary nevertheless appeared on Clayton’s final issue in March 1933 (see above).

The Clayton chain had been experiencing financial trouble since the crash of ’29, and Astounding appeared irregularly starting in mid-1932. After the Clayton chain went bankrupt in 1933 (one of the many victims of the Great Depression), Astounding was eventually acquired by Street & Smith who resumed publication several months later in October. Tremaine was appointed editor, and over the next few years he would build it up into the world’s most successful and long-lived SF magazine — an already impressive accomplishment that his successor Campbell would continue to build on.

So, with all this in mind, prepare to plunge into the pulp jungle of 1930…


January 1930 — 1st Issue


Astounding Stories, January 1930

This is the very first issue of Astounding, which sets the tone for the Clayton era in general. Surprisingly, all the stories in this issue take place not only on Earth but in a contemporary setting as well (give or take a couple of years). Fortunately, Astounding would soon stretch its wings and venture to other worlds, making for a slightly more varied reading experience. Although there are also no aliens at all in this issue a number of “lost species” are featured, which to all extents and purposes fulfill the same role.

Although “Tanks” is indisputably the best story in this premier issue, “The Beetle Horde” is by far the most enjoyable. It also stands out as the single story that, refreshingly, does not take itself too seriously, as it is having far too much fun.

At this point you may well be wondering “You mean you actually read the first issue of Astounding? But shouldn’t it be locked away in a vault somewhere safe?” To which the answers are, respectively, “Yes” and “Yes.”

As with all the Clayton issues, the cover is by Wesso (Hans Waldemar Wessolowski). All interior illustrations are in this issue are by John Fleming Gould, with one drawing for each story. [I briefly considered scanning the illustrations and including them here, but I don't wish to risk damaging the interiors of these rare early issues.]


The Beetle Horde (Part 1 of 2)
Victor Rousseau

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Lost world, monsters (prehistoric), mad scientists

Summary: An expedition to the South Pole uncovers a subterranean world, Submundia, where the humans are herded by giant beetles. Bram, a mad drug-addicted geologist from a previous expedition, has trained the beetles and become their leader. He has decided that humanity is an inferior species to insects and that mankind should be replaced with the beetles, which are due to become a trillion-strong horde when their regular 150-year hatching cycle occurs within days. With the help of Haidia, a young woman native to Submundia who has fallen in love with Dodd, they attempt to escape the underground world.

Comments: Bates certainly made a wise choice in selecting his first lead serial for the new magazine. The Beetle Horde is an exciting and suspenseful tale which skillfully combines the Lost World and Mad Scientist With Monsters type stories. I was also surprised by the amount of humor, some of which is quite surreal. For example, there was one scene in particular (on page 21) that had me rolling on the floor with laughter: Mad scientist Bram, dressed up as a beetle no less!, takes the time in the middle of his nefarious schemes to vehemently argue arcane points of fossil theory with his rival geologist Dodd. Overall, a delightful and fun bit of light-hearted hokum (which never takes itself too seriously) that I couldn’t put down.


“The Cave of Horror”
Captain S.P. Meek

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Subterranean, invisibility, monsters (undiscovered species)

Summary: A scientist investigates an incident in Mammoth Cave, uncovering the existence of a hitherto unknown subterranean creature that is invisible as well as being almost 2-dimensionally flat to allow passage through tight spaces.

Comments: A mysterious and suspenseful story that, although far-fetched and not particularly memorable, has many interesting things to say on the subjects of light and invisibility. The cave setting is also well used, conveying a suitably claustrophobic atmosphere. This is the first of Captain S.P. Meek’s “Dr. Bird” stories which appeared frequently during the Clayton era, and they are all fine examples of the typical Clayton-type story at their most enjoyable.


“Phantoms of Reality”
Ray Cummings

Settings: Earth (contemporary); Another world in a different dimension co-existing in the same space as ours

Themes: Travel to other dimensions

Summary: A man in New York City invents a device for traveling to another dimension, a world existing in the same space as ours but at a different vibration level, making the two worlds “invisible” to each other yet sharing the same world topography (hills, rivers, etc). The man takes with him his friend, and together they overthrow the tyrannical king and corrupt nobles of this other world. The inventor is revealed to be the rightful heir to the throne and stays and rules the land justly with his new queen, and his friend happily returns to his more comfortable humdrum life in our world.

Comments: Formulaic and rather bland court intrigue that could take place just about any place and at any time. For most of the story the other-dimensional nature of this other world is largely ignored. Thankfully the story’s resolution makes rather ingenious use of this, as one of the heroes transfers back into our world and then to the other dimension to get past some guards, rescuing an otherwise dull and lengthy story from being totally devoid of interest.


“The Stolen Mind”
M.L. Staley

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Mind transference; mind control; mad scientist

Summary: Quest, a undercover Secret Service agent, gets himself hired by a scientist he is investigating, Keane Clason. Keane has invented a mind-transference process and claims that he plans to use it on Quest to foil the plans of his evil brother, Philip, who is trying to sell their highly destructive weapon to a foreign power. Quest has been tricked, however — Keane uses him to take control of Philip, who is in fact the good brother and has refused to sell the weapon. When demonstrating the weapon for the buyer, the test goes awry and a boat full of innocents are killed. The authorities trace Keane to his laboratory where he panics and dies of a heart attack, but not before both Quest and Philip are fully restored to normal.

Comments: Although clumsily told and for the most part unabsorbing, this story has some interesting (though far too technical) passages describing the mind transference process and mind control.


“Compensation”
C.V. Tench

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Extreme cold / absolute zero; eccentric scientist

Summary: A scientist uses his absolute-zero temperature machine to take revenge on the man who stole his bride many years ago, annihilating himself as well in the process. His friend is temporarily suspected of the professor’s murder until a letter from the professor arrives, revealing what happened.

Comments: This tale speeds along and is easy to read. Moderately suspenseful and skillfully told, but not of much further interest.


“Tanks”
Murray Leinster

Setting: Earth (near future)

Themes: Future war; yellow peril

Summary: America is invaded by an Asian power in 1932. By now wars are fought almost exclusively with tanks on battlefields smothered with artificial obscuring fog and poison gas. Two U.S. infantrymen stranded in no-man’s land are instrumental in uncovering the enemy’s battle plans, allowing the American general to outwit his enemy and win victory.

Comments: A particularly gritty and atmospheric tale that makes excellent use of imagery to create a mood of desperation and gloomy futility. The tanks groping blindly in the fog, using sound to locate and target each other, eerily evokes submarine warfare, but on land instead of in the sea. The scenes of camaraderie and commiseration between American and enemy infantryman lend the story a charm that helps to lessen the bleakness of the opening pages, and help pave the way for the positive resolution.


“Invisible Death”
Anthony Pelcher

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Invisibility; eccentric scientist

Summary: Darius Darrow, an elderly scientist, is murdered in his home by an invisible assailant, and a large corporation soon thereafter begins receiving extortion letters. The investigation uncovers the culprit, Darrow’s mentally unbalanced neighbor, who stole the scientist’s new machine which works by “vibrating” an object to the point where it becomes invisible.

Comments: Rather bland and predictable, especially since invisibility featured in an earlier story in this issue. If nothing else, this story highlights the extreme lack of variety in these early issues. It also features a bizarrely irrelevant sub-plot involving triplets raised in secret to fool people into thinking it’s the same girl in three places simultaneously.


February 1930


Astounding Stories, February 1930

The stories in this issue are decidedly of inferior quality to the first issue, and the repetitiveness of the stock ingredients in the stories starts to become truly irritating.

A beautifully digitized version of this issue is available from Project Gutenberg in a wide variety of formats. Sadly the January 1930 issue is not available, so you’re missing out on the vastly superior Part 1 of Rousseau’s The Beetle Horde.


“Old Crompton’s Secret”
Harl Vincent

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Immortality; rejuvenation; reanimation

Summary: A brilliant young scientist discovers the secret of life, resulting in the ability to rejuvenate the old and even restore life to the recently deceased. A bitter old man attacks the scientist when the scientist refuses to restore his youthful vigor, and the young man apparently dies by accident. The old man rejuvenates himself and sets out to begin a second, more successful life. However, after twelve years he returns and confesses to his crime, his conscience having tormented him all these years. It turns out the young man was not in fact killed, and the old man’s confession turns out to benefit both the scientist and himself in an unexpected way, and the young man forgives him. At that point the rejuvenation wears off, and the old man eagerly accepts his mortality, since men were not meant to live forever.

Comments: A surprisingly poignant treatment of the immortality theme, perhaps unique among such stories — which are often bleak — for featuring strong themes of forgiveness, repentance, and acceptance of one’s own mortality. Definitely a story that deserves to be remembered.


“Spawn of the Stars”
Charles Willard Diffin

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Alien invasion; weapons of mass destruction

Summary: Various Earth cities are destroyed one by one by a group of alien ships that drop horrifically powerful bombs. After investigating a crashed ship, a scientist devises a means of killing the aliens in their ships by using a special type of radiation.

Comments: An all-too-familiar setup and an all-too-familiar solution, along with a jumbled prose style and exceptionally foggy scientific hogwash, make this tale of alien invasion into something of an ordeal to read. The aliens are mildly interesting and described in suitably gross detail, but more tailored for juveniles (who like that sort of thing) rather than as a plausible race. However, all that said, it should be remembered for its special places in SF history as the very first story in Astounding to feature aliens. Thankfully, the best was yet to come.


“The Corpse on the Grating”
Hugh B. Cave

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Reanimation

Summary: A scientist devises a way of returning life to dead things but is unsatisfied with the results and dumps the body in a nearby warehouse, unaware that it continues to live. He invites two associates to discuss the matter, a doctor and a researcher into the mind, but when the doctor expresses scornful disbelief they both leave. When they see a dead night watchman in the window of the warehouse, the researcher dares the skeptical doctor to spend the night there. He does so to prove he’s not a coward, and, in a dark room, reads the same book of horror that the watchman was reading. As he reaches the climax of the story, the reanimated corpse makes it appearance, and the doctor flees, now knowing that the watchman died of true fright.

Comments: A feeble, nonsensical, predictable, and incoherent horror story that falls completely flat. It’s little more than a poorly written Lovecraft pastiche, but without a shred of imagination or mood — it even resorts to using phrases like “Stygian gloom,” but to no effect.


“Creatures of Light”
Sophie Wenzel Ellis

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Accelerated growth; accelerated entropy; eugenics; temporal displacement

Summary: A man is involved in the work of an eccentric scientist who has ambitions of perfecting humanity through science in a secret colony in Antarctica. His supermen, however, are ruthless and hateful — though improved mentally and physically, they still exhibit the worst characteristics of human nature. Their selfish schemes result in the destruction of the entire superman colony. Only the young man and his newfound love survive, along with the scientist who comes away from the disaster a wiser man.

Comments: Although primarily a morality tale about not tampering with nature — which was a far too common theme during this era — this is a remarkable story, crammed with ideas and engagingly told. This is undoubtedly the first tale to appear in Astounding that exhibits the more intriguing concepts and sophisticated treatment that would eventually make this the top magazine in the SF field.

One of the early prominent woman writers of fantastical literature, it’s too bad the talented Sophie Wenzel Ellis didn’t devote more of her time to writing science fiction rather than tales of the supernatural (most of her work appeared in Weird Tales and Strange Tales).

Exhibits many similarities to works such as Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, dealing with various ways of “perfecting” humanity with disastrous results. The Life Rays described in this story, as well as the culture surrounding them, is strikingly similar to many of the central themes in the works of Richard S. Shaver.


“Into Space”
Sterner St. Paul
[pseudonym of Captain S.P. Meek]

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Space flight; gravity; magnetism

Summary: A scientist discovers that gravity and magnetism work on the exact same principles, and builds a ship capable of space flight. He miscalculated, however, and ends up stranded halfway between Earth and the moon where the opposing forces of the two bodies’ gravity is equal.

Comments: A light, undemanding story that makes some ingenious use of the similarities between gravity and magnetism. I initially thought a paragraph near the end — where a scientist’s body is kept in perpetual orbit for millions of years — may have provided some inspiration for Neil R. Jones when he wrote “The Jameson Satellite”. However, I later learned that the first draft of “The Jameson Satellite” was actually written in 1929 and not published until years later, in the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories.


The Beetle Horde (Part 2 of 2)
Victor Rousseau

Setting: Earth (contemporary): Antarctica & Australia

Themes: Lost world; monsters (prehistoric); mad scientist

Summary: They escape Submundia via underground caverns, ending up in Australia. The beetle horde is not far behind and ravages the continent. However, after gorging themselves, they molt and lie dormant, and are easily exterminated by the survivors.

Comments: Much weaker than the first installment and not as well written. It’s an action story, rather than one of humor and discovery, but thankfully (like the first half) it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It is deliberately and unashamedly over the top, ensuring that the conclusion to this story is nonetheless entertaining and satisfying.


“Mad Music”
Anthony Pelcher

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Skyscrapers; music; resonance

Summary: A skyscraper mysteriously collapses, and the investigation uncovers the cause: a mad musician who used his sympathetic vibration instrument to shatter the building, just as opera singers can shatter glasses with the right pitch.

Comments: A trite and lackluster story filled with unmemorable characters and needless pseudo-drama.


March 1930 (partial)


Astounding Stories, March 1930

Whereas the first issue was charmingly quaint, and the second issue only mildly annoying in places, this third issue was downright tedious. Brigands of the Moon, which showed great promise to start with, soon becomes a swooning melodrama that quickly descends into pure unreadability. An attempt to read the other stories in this issue made it very clear that repetition was the order of the day, with the ingredients from the first two issues being re-tread ad nauseam. As such, I was only able to read the first two stories before giving up.

“Cold Light”
Captain S.P. Meek

Setting: Earth (contemporary)

Themes: Temperature; absolute zero

Summary: An airplane carrying a valuable cargo is brought down using a “cold light” beam that freezes the target to a temperature near absolute zero.

Comments: One of the least interesting of the Dr. Bird stories, it nonetheless contains a unique idea of a “cold” light producing cold, just as normal light produces heat.


Brigands of the Moon (Part 1 of 4)
Ray Cummings

Setting: The solar system circa 2080

Themes: Life in the future; mystery and suspense; piracy; interplanetary war

Summary: A passenger liner destined to pick up a secret cargo of radium ore is hijacked.

Comments: Cummings had an interesting goal in mind when penning the tale, as described in his foreword: to write an “ordinary” novel from the year 2080. Sadly, it’s a bit too ordinary and fails to live up to its potential. The prospect of having to read three more installments of this tedious and badly written novel filled me with dread, and finished off my aspirations to read through the entire Clayton era, after a mere two-and-a-bit issues.


After stopping in the middle of the March 1930 issue, I’ve only read the occasional story in a handful of the following Clayton issues — stories which either sounded interesting, or were by authors I liked (mainly Captain S.P. Meek’s Dr. Bird stories).

In order to familiarize myself with the contents of the stories I chose not to read, I consult Edward Bleiler’s superb reference book Science Fiction: The Gernsback Years, which contains detailed summaries for every SF story published between 1926 and 1936. I acquired this fabulous book several months after reading the first two Clayton issues, in part because I wanted learn about the other stories of the Clayton era without having to wade through them in their entirety.

This system spares me the tedium of enduring the lousy stories, while letting me read the interesting ones. I’ve even been known to go back and read a story in full whose summary in Bleiler sounded worthwhile. But since Bleiler’s work is so comprehensive in this regard, I decided not to write any further summaries or comments on stories I read from now on.

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3 responses »

  1. Gutenberg has the February and March Clayton’s. But (Alas!) no January 1930 issue to download.

    Thanks for the posting.

    Reply
  2. Archive.org has all the Clayton issues here:

    http://www.archive.org/search.php?query=subject%3A%22Astounding+Stories%22

    These scans are sadly of very low quality, but that’s still better than nothing I suppose.

    I’d love to see the first issue (at least) given the same beautiful treatment as the February 1930 at Gutenberg. One can hope…

    Reply
  3. Thanks for the Archive.org tip. I downloaded the January 1930 .cbr file and it looks perfectly readable with CDisplay. I’ll certainly be reading Leinster’s “Tanks”.

    Reply

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