I've been looking through 1935 issues of Astounding at the internet archive because I have developed an interest in the drawings of Elliot Dold, Jr. and Mark Marchioni. These issues of Astounding are full of stories by future Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr., some under his real name and others under his Don A. Stuart pseudonym. Let's check out three Don A. Stuart stories, the components of what isfdb calls "The Machine" series. These stories would be reprinted together in 1952 in the Campbell collection The Cloak of Aesir, the 1976 collection The Best of John W. Campbell, and the 2003 collection A New Dawn, but I am experiencing them as SF fans did in 1935, in scans of the original magazines. (Though I did take a look at the scan of the paperback printing of The Best of John W. Campbell also available at the internet archive.)
"The Machine"Raymond F. Jones's "Rat Race" (because some surface elements of it are similar to "The Machine" here) and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's Fury and "Two-Handed Engine." Maybe Campbell's story helped inspire those later stories? In his intro to The Best of John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey suggests that when this story was published the idea was not the commonplace that it seems to me, but counterintuitive novelty. "Every science-fiction reader," says del Rey, "wished for a day when machines would make everything easy for everybody."
It is the early 22nd century. The Machine has provided all the food and kept the weather warm and so forth since the 1950s, so almost everybody spends his or her time lounging naked or playing games half-naked. A life with no challenge, no struggle, no goals, is not very satisfying, and a small number of people have taken up as a hobby doing stuff that people did before the arrival of the Machine, like growing food in the dirt or reading old books and plans and building a propeller plane, even refining fuel to power its engine, even though the Machine forbids flying in this dangerous thing--after all, the Machine provides perfectly safe automatic air cars for everybody! Tal Mason is one of these hobbyists, and he just finished constructing a 1940s airplane and refining the "decane" needed to fuel it, and is our main character.
After we readers are introduced to the milieu and characters we get the paradigm shift that drives the plot. All over the world the air cars and automatic food dispensers and televisors--all the mechanical devices that make life possible--suddenly stop working. The Machine announces that it is leaving, and tells its wild story.
Thousands and thousands of years ago, on a distant world, aliens much like Earth humans built the Machine and give it the command to improve life for people. So it took over government and the economy and all the work and so forth, making life easy for everybody. With no need to run their own lives or solve their own problems, the people over many generations became superstitious ignoramuses, worshipping the Machine as a god. Eventually the Machine realized that giving people stuff and solving all their problems for them wasn't really improving their lives (especially if you consider the "life of the race" and not the lives of individuals) and so it abandoned them for outer space so they would have to relearn how to run their own lives and make their own way. (In my day we called that "tough love!")
In the 1950s the Machine came to Earth and solved all our problems, eradicating disease and vermin as well as running the government and economy for us. But now that it sees we too are becoming ignoramuses thanks to all its help it is leaving us. Before it goes it gives us what it thinks is an encouraging speech about how the race will survive even if lots of individuals die and points out that we shouldn't worry because plenty of those hobbyists know how to grow food. Then it departs to look for some other planet's people to help. (And good luck to them!)
When for the first time in their lives there is no free food and it gets cold at night, most people go psycho, becoming savages who resort to cannibalism, but Tal Mason and a minority of clever self-educated people flee to a city to the north that was abandoned in the 20th century after the Machine arrived. There they scavenge and repair some 20th-century technology and build a community that can fend for itself and fight off attacks from the savages who come up from the south looking for women to rape and/or eat.
Somewhat to my surprise, Campbell ends the story on a pessimistic note that overturns his "triumph of the smart people" themes in favor of his "people will be lazy if given the chance and then the race will degenerate culturally and genetically" theme. After a few generations, the savages to the south have mostly died out, and the descendants of the hardy settlers that followed Tal Mason and built an agricultural society in the north migrate south to where life is easier, where wild food can just be plucked off the trees. They lose the drive to work and think and begin worshipping the memory of the long lost Machine, which they start referring to as "Gaht."
Ending the story on that equivocal note struck me as odd--was the intelligence and industry of Tal Mason all for naught? Was Campbell trying to transmit to us the tragic sweep of real history, in which people make great efforts and do great things but their works decay and their labors are forgotten? Did he expect to write a sequel and, as the show biz adage has it, mean to "leave 'em wanting more?"
"The Machine" would be reprinted all on its lonesome in 1946 by Groff Conklin in his oft-reissued anthology Best of Science Fiction and in 1973 in Roger Elwood and Vic Ghidalia's Androids, Time Machines and Blue Giraffes.
Until today, that is! Two lovers, Jan and Meg, are relaxing next to a stream when an alien space ship lands and they, along with a bunch of other Earth people are seized by the aliens. We got violence-against-women cannibalism and human sacrifice scenes in "The Machine," and we get a violence-against-women horror scene early in "The Invaders" when Jan watches as the three-eyed aliens dissect Meg.
The aliens enslave everybody, and selectively breed them--Jan is a dolt, but tall and strong, and he is paired with one of the few smart humans, Wan. It would be typical for a writer to portray aliens who dissect a human, enslave the human race and use drugs to trick humans into having sex with partners in whom they have little interest, as horrendous villains, but throughout his life and career Campbell would take counterintuitive or controversial stands, say outrageous things and play devil's advocate, if only to spark a livelier debate and generate what we might now call "outside the box" thinking. (According to Barry Malzberg's essay in The Engines of the Night, "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," Campbell characterized this as "shaking 'em up.")
And so the aliens are presented as heroes who are helping the human race, which has degenerated over the centuries because life was too easy. These aliens see that mankind was once great, and by making us work hard and through eugenic breeding they are putting us back on track for greatness--Campbell uses the metaphor of finding disassembled pieces and putting them back together again. After dramatizing all this from the point of view of the humans in Chapter I of "The Invaders," in Chapter II, presented as a report written by the leader of the alien expedition, Campbell makes all this explicit. The brief Chapter III pushes Campbell's uncomfortable argument to the limit when he portrays the aliens euthanizing Jan when he is too old to work and breed!
"The Invaders" was the cover story of the June issue of Astounding--right there on the cover you can see Jan respond as the aliens begin dissecting Meg. Yikes! I don't think this one was ever published all by itself without "The Machine" and "Rebellion" flanking it.
Bar-73-R32 is the human managing director of the eugenics department. The aliens allow humans high positions like this because our kind have been bred for centuries to never keep secrets and never lie. Bar-73-R32 is strongly considering trying to breed smarter people capable of more original thought, and when looking at the records sees somebody tried this fifty years ago and the new independent strain was quickly destroyed by the alien authorities. Bar-73-R32 wants to pursue the project anyway and "invents" deception, becoming the first human in thirty centuries to withhold information and feed falsities to his alien masters! He begins breeding humans for initiative and independence, and teaching them these values, keeping all of it from the aliens. He trains and handpicks his successor, who is even smarter and more inventive than was Bar-73-R32, and who continues the project right under the oblivious metaphorical noses (they don't have actual noses as you can see in all the illustrations of them) of the aliens. Bar-73-R32 accepted the social order into which he was born, and only wanted to breed humans with initiative in order to aid Earth's economic and technological growth, but the independent-minded humans whose development he fostered are more independent-minded still--they want to become their own masters and kick the aliens off Earth!
In just a few generations careful breeding has produced a small elite minority of humans with super intelligence--they have photographic memories and even have psychic powers that can hypnotize, stun, or kill--and that kind of intelligence has powered research that has recovered invaluable knowledge about the human race and its history and technology, as well as about the aliens. Campbell describes in some detail how these rebels reproduce and improve alien ray projectors and construct a secret base under a city, where it takes them just three years or so to puzzle out the scientific principles of anti-gravity used by the Machine and develop a forcefield that will make them invulnerable to the aliens' ray guns. The aliens discover the rebel base, try to crush the rebellion, but fail utterly. In the face of humanity's superior intelligence, the aliens have no choice but to surrender and accept exile to Venus.
Like "The Machine," "Rebellion' has stood on its own in some anthologies, being reprinted in 1974 in both a US anthology, Alden Norton's Futures Unlimited, and the German Science Fiction Stories 43, which reuses one of the relatively few Richard Powers covers that prominently features the human face, which we saw on Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life back in 2018.
Campbell's "The Machine" stories are definitely interesting from an historical perspective, and I found them pretty entertaining on their merits; no doubt we'll be returning to 1930s Astounding and Campbell's Don A. Stuart stories. But first, it's back to Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales in our next episode!