Thursday, August 9, 2018

Three science fiction stories by Ray Cummings from 1940

In our last episode we read five tales of gore, female nudity and inheritance schemes penned by Ray Cummings, who in his youth worked with Thomas Edison and who wrote quite a few SF adventures like Brigands of the Moon, a novel full of energy guns and futuristic vehicles which has the MPorcius Seal of Approval.  In 1940 Frederik Pohl began editing Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, and during his 20-month reign over these periodicals Pohl purchased numerous SF stories from Cummings.  In his fun memoir The Way the Future Was, which I recommend to anybody interested in classic SF, New York intellectual life in the 1930s and '40s, and what it is like to follow a career centered on the printed word, Pohl makes it clear that he thought all of the stories he bought from Cummings sucked--he bought them because he liked Cummings as a guy and wanted to do him a solid.  "[Cummings] was a personally engaging, roguish human being.  What he was not was a source of good stories."

When we think at all here at MPorcius Fiction Log, we think for ourselves, and I'm not going to just take Pohl's word for it that Cummings's 1940 and 1941 stories were bad.  So today we are reading three stories by Cummings that were printed in 1940 in magazines Pohl edited.  I read all of these at the internet archive, a treasure trove for all of us interested in the popular culture of the early 20th century. 

"Arton’s Metal" 

This piece appeared in Super Science Stories.  The cover of this issue is too cramped, crowded, confusing.

In 1939 James Blakinson stole Georg Arton’s wife! Our story is set forty years later, in the futuristic world of 1979, as Blakinson arrives at Arton’s laboratory, where Arton is said to be producing a new material of tremendous value!  Blakinson, who carries a cane and wears a cape, doesn’t just steal wives—he steals money, and has embezzled enough funds from the bank that employs him to end up in the "ghastly Polar Prisons of Antarctica" should the authorities uncover his crime.  So he needs cash, fast, and has come to see Arton for the first time in four decades in hopes of getting it!

After this set up, which has some dramatic potential, Cummings craps out on us. Arton demonstrates to Blakinson the process, which involves glowing electrodes, showers of sparks, and clouds of acerbic fumes, by which he creates or condenses, apparently out of the air or maybe from an almost invisibly thin wire, hunks of gold, platinum and radium. I couldn’t understand this whole system, and think Cummings did a poor job of explaining it, or just didn't bother to do so.  In any case, Arton, who, by the way, is in very poor health, uses his apparatus as a trap for Blakinson, as a means of revenge. Arton sets his machinery up to malfunction in such a way that both men are, I think, killed, perhaps totally annihilated, and the lab is destroyed in an explosion that produces lots of valuable metal.  The last part of the story has a chemist and a journalist examining the rubble; there are no human remains and the chemist suspects Arton’s apparatus led to "two material bodies...trying to occupy the same space art the same time," which of course causes an explosion.  (Cummings, I guess, is presenting this idea of "two bodies in the same space" as linked, poetically and metaphorically, to the way Blakinson had sex with or won the love of Arton's wife, this woman's body or affection being the space they were both trying to occupy.)

I didn’t understand what was going on with the apparatus, and I thought the "occupying the same space" poetic justice angle was weak, so I have to give this one a thumbs down.

"The Thought-Woman" 

Here's another story from Super Science, this one named on the cover.  This cover is better than the last one, with a dynamic and easy to "read" cover with more expressive and interesting faces and slightly less silly monsters.

At the center of "The Thought-Woman" is a strange conceit: that in another parallel dimension are stored all the ideas that people will ever have, put there by God Almighty, and that when an idea pops into our heads, we are withdrawing it from this idea warehouse.  (Cummings compares this to the realm of unborn children from Maurice Maeterlink's 1908 play, The Blue Bird, the basis of numerous movies.)

Stanley Durrant is a young inventor, wracking his brain to complete the big invention that will make his fortune. His childhood friend, Dorothy Livingston, is always hanging around—she has a crush on Stan, but he doesn’t see her as a woman, just a platonic buddy. She brings up the theory of the realm of unthought things, then goes home to pray or hope or something that Stan will receive the ideas he needs from that unearthly realm. And, wouldn’t you know it, after she has departed the inventor has a dream or vision of going to this place, giving Cummings an opportunity to bore us with a rapturous and sentimental (and tedious) celebration of technology and invention. Billions of empty shelves and galleries represent ideas that have already been thought up— Cummings refers to Edison, the Wright brothers, Fulton, blah blah blah. Some niches are filled with vague outlines of objects—inventions that have not yet been thought up, and Stan recognizes his own half conceived invention among them.

The realm of unthought things doesn’t just feature technological advances—a ghostly figure guides Stan among the galleries, and he eventually realizes it is the idea of Dorothy (or, as he calls her, "Dot") seen not merely as a platonic chum, but as a sexually mature, sexually attractive woman. When he wakes up and sees Dot again he immediately recognizes her nubility and embraces her, and we have every reason to expect they will live happily ever after.

A childish, boring, feckless (remember a few weeks ago when that was everybody’s favorite word?) fairy tale with no drama or surprises or compelling ideas, "The Thought-Woman" is no more than a sterile celebration of things (technological advance and erotic love) we all already think are good that gives short shrift to the challenges associated with these good things, which of course cripples the story because and it is those challenges that make good fiction!

"Personality Plus" 

"Personality Plus" appeared in Astonishing, behind a pretty bland cover.  Fortunately, here we have a legitimate SF story with a comedic edge.  There was science in "Arton's Metal," but all the fluorescing bulbs and calipers and sparks were just pointless window dressing, and in "The Thought-Woman" the science was mind-numbing romanticizing of inventors. "Personality Plus," on the other hand, not only addresses interesting science (the perennial nature vs nurture debate) but pokes fun at scientists. Also, the jokes are actually funny!

It is the year 2000 in New York City—I myself was living in NYC in 2000 (good times, good times...) though of course the Gotham of my salad says didn’t have slidewalks and aircars and criminals armed with heat guns.

Our narrator is Jack Rance, a synthetic food salesman. He gets mixed up in the work of Dr. Butterworth, whom I guess we would call a (research?) psychiatrist. Butterworth believes that your personality is determined by your experiences, and is bitterly opposed to the thinking of scientists who argue that personality is determined by genetic inheritance. Butterworth’s niece Dot (that's right, "Dot" again) has married a man Butterworth describes as a real jerk, George Trent, known to one and all as "Georgie," a man who, because of his superior intelligence and good looks, has become arrogant, selfish and totally unlikable.  Butterworth has invented an amnesia machine (Jack tells us it is a "gruesome apparatus" that looks like the “death chair at Sing Sing”) and tricked Georgie into sitting in it (Doc B told him it was a headache cure!) The machine erased Georgie’s memory of the past eight years, when he allegedly evolved into the jerk everyone detests, and fogged up earlier memories, leaving Georgie's character practically a blank slate! Butterworth says that Georgie will now be able to develop a whole new, more agreeable, personality, and asks Jack to observe this development.

In short order Georgie is acting like a dangerously selfish jerk, a man brimming with confidence who fears no personal risks and does not care if he puts others in jeopardy. He runs an insane scam, like something out of a Wodehouse novel or a Desilu production, and our narrator Jack is right there in the middle of it. Georgie, who doesn’t seem to take his marriage vows overly seriously, has attracted the adoration of an heiress who wants to be a famous actress in nude films. She isn’t very good-looking (“got a figure like an ironing board”) so she and Georgie plan a publicity stunt to jump start her career: Georgie is going to pretend to kidnap her, and a corrupt cop friend of his will then rescue her and allow him to escape. (Jack gets pulled into this dangerous ruse because Georgie needs a stooge to hold the ladder steady while he carries the aspiring actress down from the second story window of her suburban mansion.)

This stunt is a total disaster, and leads to the twist ending in which Dr. Butterworth reveals the true nature of his experimental treatment of Georgie!

It was a relief to read this entertaining story after those two inert clunkers "Arton's Metal" and "The Thought-Woman." Why can’t all of Cummings's stories be like this?  Maybe because Cummings needed to mass produce stories to pay the bills and thus didn't have time to carefully craft all of his stories.  Pohl theorizes that this is the case.


In a letter to Super Science, printed in the February 1943 issue, Chad Oliver, the guy who writes all those SF stories about anthropologists going native among primitive aliens, grouses that Cummings includes a “female” in every story he writes, and it is true that all the Cummings horror stories we read in our last blog post included courtship and/or marriage as a plot element, and it is also true of all the SF stories we read today. I actually think sexual relationships are a very good topic for literature, but, unfortunately, in only one of today’s stories does Cummings do anything actually entertaining with this classic subject. One out of three is not good, but let’s give Cummings another chance—in our next episode we'll look at Cummings stories from Astonishing and Super Science issues printed in 1941!


  1. I must admit I've never heard of Cummings before. OK, sounds like I haven't missed that much. I have to say (and you know that coming from me, Lafferty will be mentioned in the comment) that R. A. Lafferty did a much better job of a story about the dimension where ideas come from in his story "Oh, Whatta Ya Do When The Well Runs Dry." Lafferty's story is about the "deep well of unconscious cerebration" where all ideas come from, and what happens to the world when the well runs dry.

    Again, thank you for these reviews!

    1. Thanks for your kind words about the blog and your Lafferty-centric comments!

      I think critics consider Cummings's early work to be important and worth reading, and Brigands of the Moon, as I recall, had cool weapons and vehicles and espionage devices in it, but these 1940 things I have been reading do seem largely like hack work done to keep food on the table. I definitely plan to read the four 1960s Ace book printings of Cummings space operas and planetary romances originally printed in Argosy in the late '20s and early '30s which Joachim Boaz sent me.

      I also definitely plan to read more Lafferty!