Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Three early 1930s stories by Donald Wandrei

It feels like just last month we were talking about stories from 1930s magazines like Weird Tales, Wonder Stories and Astounding.  Well, the good times of last month do not have to end!  Those 1930s tales were by Edmond Hamilton, and in the comments to one of those posts Guy of the cool A Jagged Orbit blog mentioned Donald Wandrei, a writer who sold stories to some of the same markets that published Hamilton.  I don't think I've ever read anything by Wandrei, so I'm starting July 2017 by filling in this lacuna in my SF knowledge, reading three Wandrei stories, two from the Astounding of the pre-Campbell era and one that appeared in Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.

Cover artist Wesso gave Phobar some nice
shoes and stockings
"Raiders of the Universes" (1932)

Normally, if you look at a star which is four light years away, you are seeing light that is four years old, and thus events that happened four years ago.  But in the 34th century the Mercia nullifier has been invented, so that the most advanced astronomers of the Five World Federation (Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) can witness events thousands of light years away as they happen.  Phobar of Earth is just such an astronomer, and when he gazes off into the interstellar void he discovers an unprecedented phenomenon: new stars abruptly appearing, one after the other over a series of days, each one closer to our solar system.  And then the cataclysm: a dark body enters our solar system, sets Neptune on fire, and hurls it out into deep space, a new sun!  The ejection of Neptune throws the other planets of the solar system into new orbits, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the dark star starts sucking the energy out of our own life-giving sun!

Phobar finds himself  teleported onto the dark star, which is a space ship as big as a planet, inhabited by 100-foot-tall aliens made of liquid metal, the refugees of another universe.  Their universe, immeasurably older than ours, ran out of energy and so they have been travelling from one universe to the next, plundering each.  The leader of the aliens, Garboreggg, when he is not comparing humans to gnats and giving long history lessons about his own superior race and the history of the universes, tells Phobar he has been selected to act as a liaison between the aliens and the Earth authorities.
"There is no vegetable life in our universe.  There is only the scale of elements ranging from 842 to 966 on the extension of your own scale.  At this high range, metals of complex kinds exist.  There is none of what you call water, no vegetable world, no animal kingdom.  Instead there are energies, forces, rays, and waves, which are food to us and nourish our life-stream just as pigs, potatoes and bread are food to you."
Earthmen are to mine all the radium from the Earth to present the aliens, or else.  To demonstrate to Phobar the price of disobedience, Garboreggg casually triggers an electric weapon and melts, in its entirety, my old stomping grounds of Manhattan! (Nooooooooooo!)  After a few more pages of science lectures, Garboreggg has a guard take Phobar back to the lab to be teleported back to Earth.  But the alien generalissimo gave Phobar one too many science lectures!  Phobar distracts the guard and manages to throw switches that cause the particles of the atoms of the space ship to move closer together, causing it and the aliens to shrink to almost nothing.  Phobar, being from a different universe, is exempt from the effects, and teleports himself back to Earth, the savior of our race.

"Raiders of the Universes" is very reminiscent of those 1920s and early '30s Interstellar Patrol stories by Edmond Hamilton we read in Crashing Suns, capers in which aliens need a new star or something and propel a star towards the Earth in order to steal our sun or whatever.  But while Hamilton's tales were adventure stories full of battles and people getting captured and tortured and then escaping, "Raiders of the Universes" is almost all science lectures--speculative astronomy, physics and technology--with a little of what you might call cosmic horror--humans are so inferior to the aliens that we can't fight them, we can't even comprehend them, and the common people of the Five Planets go crazy in response to the aliens' dismantling of our solar system.  The power of the story is supposed to come from our amazement at vast intergalactic distances and mind-boggling speeds ("By the time we left our universe, we were hurtling at a speed which we estimated to be 1,600,00,000 miles per second"), incomprehensibly alien environments and forms of life, and the manipulation of entire planets and stars.  I think it works, and it is a definitely interesting to read a SF story which is single-mindedly focused on the hard sciences and is not, like so much of the SF published in my lifetime and so much of the SF I read, primarily a drama about crime or warfare or an argument for or against socialism, religion, traditional gender roles, etc.  (Though Wandrei does get some digs in at religious and superstitious people in this story.)  I couldn't take a steady diet of this sciency material myself; violence, sex, government and religion are the stuff of our very lives and thus inherently exciting, while how many elements are on the periodic table and how fast a photon moves are abstruse trivia to most of us, including me, but "Raiders of the Universes" is a good reminder of an earlier period of SF history and what you might even call SF's roots.

"Raiders of the Universes" first appeared in Astounding, as the cover story, and was included in a 1950 issue of the Avon Fantasy Reader (helmed by editor extraordinaire Donald A. Wollheim) with a sextastic cover.  (Poor Wandrei isn't even mentioned on the cover of that later magazine.)  "Raiders of the Universe" was also included in the 1989 collection Colossus: The Collected Science Fiction of Donald Wandrei.  I read the Astounding version at the internet archive.

"The Fire Vampires" (1933)

"The Fire Vampires" first appeared, not in Astounding, but in Weird Tales, and its first line is, "This is a tale of war, and terror, and tyranny, and flaming death."  Now we are talking MPorcius's language!

Like "Raiders of the Universes," "The Fire Vampires" begins with an astronomer (this guy's name is Norby, and he lives in the year 2341) spotting something strange with his telescope.  It is a comet heading toward Earth that, when it gets close enough, orbits our innocent planet and starts electrocuting individuals from space, burning them to a pile of "calcined" bones!  After murdering fifteen thousand people, the comet flies off into deep space, only to return six years later to burn up more people!  A message appears in the sky, its letters crackling electric bolts: Earth is now the property of the people of the comet Kytnga, who demand a "payment" of fifteen thousand human lives every six Earth years!  Even more shocking (for Norby, at least) is the demand that Norby make sure he is outside next time Kytngan tax day rolls around, so he can be one of the fifteen thousand victims! The signature at the bottom of the electric message is the Lovecraftian/Clark Ashton Smithian name "Fthaggua, Lord of Ktynga."

Norby figures out the nature of the enemy--Fthaggua is in fact the only Kytngan, a single corporate being of pure electricity able to split into many parts and able to learn all the knowledge of any human it immolates--and uses this knowledge to lay a trap for it, saving the human race.

This story is pretty crazy.  I liked the audacity of some of the concepts and scenes (like when Norby refuses to surrender himself to Fthaggua and the alien punishes the Earth by slaying over a hundred thousand people!), but I'd be hard pressed to call it "good."  An entertaining oddity, let's say.  "The Fire Vampires" was reprinted in a 1965 collection, Strange Harvest, and a 1997 collection, Don't Dream: The Collected Fantasy and Horror of Donald Wandrei.  I read this tale of killer electricity and an heroic astronomer at the internet archive.

"Colossus" (1934)

"Colossus" appears in my hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov's 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age, and I read it there.  It was first printed in Astounding, as the cover story, and was included by August Derleth in his 1950 anthology Beyond Time and Space.  Seeing that it is the title story of that 1989 collection mentioned above, and was recognized for its merit by both Derleth and Asimov, I am going to assume "Colossus" is Wandrei's most honored, most influential, perhaps "best," story.

It is the late 20th century, and the World League for the Advancement of Science has built the world's finest telescope up on Mount Everest. Astronomer Dowell has made a strange discovery--the universe is, apparently, smaller than theorized.  He explains this to a visitor, Duane Sharon, a pilot who, in a few months time, will be flying off in Earth's first interstellar spaceship, the White Bird.  Maybe Sharon can test Dowell's theory that our universe is analogous to a single atom, merely one of innumerable constituent parts of a much larger universe!

Sharon makes a test flight to the moon with his scientist girlfriend, Anne, and then makes final adjustments to the White Bird.  Anne and Sharon plan to get married and that same day set off on their intergalactic flight, but, horror of horrors, that is the day Japan launches a sneak attack on Communist Russia and Rusia's ally, the USA--America, the land I love, the home of the free and the brave, in this story is run by a communist dictator!  Anne (along with the government officiate!) is killed minutes before the wedding in the Japanese bombing of New York City, and Sharon takes off for the outer limits in the White Bird alone, a bitter and misanthropic man who barely cares whether he lives or dies!

The White Bird, powered by cosmic rays and other types of radiation it absorbs and then redirects as propulsive force, achieves speeds thousands of times the speed of light.  Under these Einstenian conditions the ship, and its contents, become attenuated, gaseous, their individual molecules so far apart that Sharon and his vessel can pass through obstacles unimpeded.  Sharon reaches the end of our universe, a place of total blackness because no light has yet reached it.  Then he bursts through into another universe!

The British 1978 paperback edition of
Before the Golden Age was printed in
three volumes, each with a cover designed
to make Joachim Boaz groan!
Dowell's theory is proven correct: our universe is a single atom of a vastly larger universe.  The White Bird appears on a glass microscope slide in a lab--even though he is now larger than our entire universe, in this universe Sharon is tiny, and from his perspective the scientists in this alien lab are three miles tall!

These Titans, as Wandrei calls them, communicate with Sharon via telepathy. One Titan astronomer has just discovered a planet, Valadom, where people are the same size Sharon is.  (Lucky coincidence!) Sharon offers to go meet and study these little people, Margaret Mead-style, and bring back the kind of data these Brobdingnagian boffins would love to have, including a dead body for dissection.  An impatient Titan biologist itches to just dissect Sharon now, but the astronomer wins the argument and soon Sharon is flying off to Valadom, where he meets a beautiful green-haired girl and, we readers assume, enjoys a happy life.

I can easily believe this is Wandrei's best story.  Not only is the idea of growing larger than the universe and breaking into another, still larger, universe, mind-expanding, but leavening all the science lectures and descriptions of astronomical phenomena with the inclusion of the love stories and the dystopian political jazz adds additional interest to "Colossus."


These stories are not bad, but they are a little short of human feeling and literary style, and Wandrei presents us with the same kind of elements again and again: heroic astronomers, molecules moving closer together or further apart, killer electricity, and so on.

In his comments after "Colossus" in Before the Golden Age, Asimov (besides pointing out science errors in the story) calls Wandrei an "unjustly neglected author."  In a world with so many authors better able to elicit human emotion than Wandrei, I can't say I'm certain that neglect of him is "unjustified," but I like his willingness to think big and his desire to blow the reader's mind.  I do not regret having read these mildly entertaining stories and expanding my knowledge of SF's early days.

1 comment:

  1. Hi

    Thanks for the mention, I have to say that while I enjoy Wandrei, his output is a bit uneven. I love the cover of Raider of Universes but it suffers from a problem many of the early SF writers, Hamilton and many SF TV shows have it was well, of what I call the switch syndrome. Earth will be destroyed and you are powerless to stop us ha! ha!, unless you push this oddly unguarded very conspicuous button. The most frustrating thing about the Fire Vampires for me was Norby's assistant, but Wander could have fleshed the characters out more. The twist for me was as you mention Norby's very unheroic refusal to allow himself to be killed to save others, how unSF. Colossus was okay it used a a theme that would be oft used by Ray Cummings, the big or small exploration of the universe, The Diamond Fitz-James O'Brien was one of the classic of course. I agree that Wandrei is a typical pulp writer of his time and your impressions of his writing seem fair. I will see if I can put a post together on some of my favourite stories by him in the fall, I think. that his stories that I would describe as eerie, an intersection of SF and the Weird are his most effective, probably because of his association with HPL and Weird Tales. The only book by him I have at the cabin is The Web of Easter Island. I was really pleased that you gave him a try.

    Many Thanks