The most basic difference between the two stories lies in the romantic and
sentimental nature of the latter. As has been pointed out in numerous comments
on the story (to the best of my knowledge there has been no attempt at a
critique), Cummings begins by reprising the situation in “The Diamond Lens” and
continues, not with our hero’s going mad as in Fitz-James O’Briens’s famous
story, but with his determination to find the beautiful girl he observed through
his super-microscope before that instrument unaccountably burst into pieces. He
finds her (she is a real human girl, not a Weena); she returns his love; they
marry. He also involves himself in the politics of her world. One may wonder
whether the heroic conclusion of George Pal’s 1960 film of The Time Machine was
inspired by “The Girl in the Golden Atom,” for the Chemist, just like Rod
Taylor, arms himself for his return to the war between good and evil.
And there was another way in which Cummings earned his title as the American H.G.
Wells. The Tubby stories, beginning in All-Story in 1920, are modeled on “The
Man Who Could Work Miracles.” A declaration by Tubby of the truth about
something or other arouses a dispute among a group of men in a restaurant or
bar, whereupon a stranger appears and amazing events follow until the stranger
departs, leaving Tubby and the reader to puzzle over whether it was only a
The most interesting of the Tubby stories is “Around the Universe” (1923), a
short novel too didactic and discursive for Argosy-Allstory, which begins with
Tubby’s denial, during a poker session, that space is infinite: if you travel
farther and farther outward, says Tubby, you will finally reach land. The
stranger in this story is Sir Isaac Swift Defoe Wells-Verne, who knows
everything there is to know about the universe. They enter a spaceship and,
after touring the solar system, fly on and on until they reach land—the inner
surface of a globe enclosing our universe, which is an atom in some piece of
matter in a larger universe. The Chemist’s theory of worlds within worlds within
worlds, as expounded in “Girl,” is thus vindicated before Professor Wells-Verne
disappears and Tubby finds himself back in the bar where his friends are still
Sir Isaac Swift Defoe Wells-Verne tells us that he has many other names and
mentions (Frank) Stockton (107). Since he mentions “The Fire People” and “my
book about the ‘Golden Atom’” (83) as among the many books and stories he has
written over the centuries, one of those other names would be Cummings. It is
surely relevant to the history of science fiction that Cummings saw himself in
this line of authors of imaginative fiction.
Very little information of Cummings’ life and career is readily available. The
fullest account known to me is the entry by Erich S. Rupprecht in the Dictionary
of Literary Biography, which seems to be based in part on Thyrill L. Ladd’s 1948
interview with Cummings and which is marred by exaggerations. What we learn from
Rupprecht and Ladd is that Cummings was born to a well-to-do family in New York
in 1897, that he attended Princeton for two months when he was about sixteen,
that he then moved with his family to Puerto Rico where his father and brothers
exported oranges to New York City, that a bit later he accompanied his family to
Wyoming where they explored for oil, that he worked a few years for the Edison
Company as editor of its house organs, that following the sale in 1919 of “The
Girl in the Golden Atom” to All-Story he devoted himself entirely to ficiton
writing, that by 1948 he had published at least a thousand stories, and that he
died in 1957.
Rupprecht’s statement that Cummings was “one of the most prolific writers
science fiction has ever produced,” having written “approximately one thousand
stories” is misleading, for the bulk of the stories were in genres other than
science fiction. So far as I can determine from a variety of sources, Cummings
published perhaps 134 sf stories (some of those listed may be fantasy rather
than sf), of which perhaps 21 were of novel or short-novel length.
Rupprecht also credits Cummings with more success than he actually had in book
publication. Though Cummings began well with the publication of The Girl in the
Golden Atom by major publishers in the UK (Methuen, 1922) and the US (Harper,
1923), it was not until 1929 that his second book appeared and his new publisher
was A.C. McClurg, primarily a wholesale stationery house and secondarily a minor
publisher that picked up Cummings as a substitute for its only best-selling
author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had just deserted it for more profitable
arrangements. But Cummings was no Burroughs, and McClurg abandoned him after
four books. He was certainly not a “best-selling novelist” (106).
Even so, it remains true that for readers of science fiction Cummings was
probably the third most popular author of the 1920s and early 30s, ranking
behind Burroughs and A. Merritt. “The Girl in the Golden Atom” and “The Moon
Pool” were surely the most popular sf novelettes ever published in the Munsey
magazines. They were reprinted in the first issue of Munsey’s reprint magazine,
Famous Fantastic Mysteries (Sept./Oct. 1938); in a reader-preference list
published on page 41 of the Nov. 1939 issue, “Girl” ranked first and the Merritt
During my adolescence I was very much impressed by statements in Argosy-Allstory
that Cummings had written a “Trilogy of Matter, Space, and Time,” and in later
years I was puzzled by the fact that the space segment of that trilogy, “The
Fire People,” had never appeared in book form. Cummings’ second book—supposedly
the third segment of that trilogy—is The Man Who Mastered Time, a sequel to and
with the same characters as The Girl in the Golden Atom. There is no apparent
connection between those stories and “The Fire People.” It seems, then, that for
Cummings the concept of the trilogy was only a passing thought, one that
survives only in works such as Donald H. Tuck’s The Encyclopedia of Science
Fiction and Fantasy.
A glance at the titles in Cummings’ sf bibliography (appended to the end of this
essay) will reveal that his books fall into two distinct periods. In the first
period, 1922-1931, five books were published, each shortly after serialization;
in the second, beginning in 1948 when his career was virtually at an end,
stories decades old were issued as juveniles or paperbacks. There is no mystery
about the failure of “The Fire People” to find book publication in the first
period. The puzzle is why it did not do so in the second period, when nearly all
his other book-length stories were reprinted by Ace Books.
There seems to be two reasons why Cummings, from 1928 on, might not wish to see
the novel appear as a book, why, indeed, he might wish it to be completely
forgotten. The first is that the scene in which our hero discovers the winged
Mercutian girl (§§4 and 6) is virtually duplicated in §§2 and 4 of “A Brand New
World” (Argosy-Allstory, 1928), in which another Earthman hero discovers another
winged girl from outer space. The second reason is that in “Tama of the Light
Country” and “Tama, Princess of Mercury” (Argosy, 1930-31 issues), he wrote
again of Mercury and its winged girls, making use of some of the same materials
as in “The Fire People” but changing important details—in sum, wrote as if “The
Fire People” simply did not exist.
The early chapters of “The Fire People” also owe something to The War of the
Worlds. There is no philosophical beginning as in Wells’s book, but the
chronicle-like detailing of events is similar. More striking is the similarity
between Wells’s fidelity to the geography of England, with the Martians
destroying actual towns in a region with which Wells was intimately familiar,
and Cummings’ depiction of the Mercutians ravaging actual towns in a
Wyoming-Montana area in which he had spent some time. An examination of a map
showing the lines of the Burlington and the Northern Pacific railroads as of the
1920s will reveal that the story is correct geographically whether or not
Among the many silly things in “The Fire People,” two strike me as especially
odd. The first is that the flight from Earth to Mercury (last sentences of §11,
first sentence of §12) is passed over in complete silence. We are not told how
long the passage took, but the repeated references to inferior conjunction or
opposition indicate that it must have taken several weeks, for if speedier
flight had been possible, there would have been no point in waiting for periods
in which the distance between the planets would have been minimal. The second is
that it never seems to occur to anyone that our heroes might learn to speak the
language of the Light Country, instead of depending on Miela and Anina (whom
they have taught to speak English) to translate the commands necessitated by
their assuming political and military leadership in the Light Country. The weeks
occupied by the flight to Mercury would have been a convenient time for Miela to
have taught Alan her language.
We may say, then, that in 1922 Cummings was not prepared to write about space
travel, a problem he worked out in the following months for “Around the
Universe” (serialized in 1923). Professor Wells-Verne’s spaceship provides the
model for the interplanetary “flying cube” built by American scientists in Tama
of the Light Country.
The two Tama stories, in effect a single novel, although silly enough overall,
are much more sensible than “The Fire People” as narratives of adventure and
depictions of heterotopian politics. The narrative in Tama of the Light Country,
as in “The Fire People” and nearly all of Cummings’ novels, begins with a
chronicle of public events as recalled by a young reporter or “newscaster” who
happened to be on the scene and to be acquainted with the famous scientists who
will be called upon to save the Earth; it continues with the appearance of a
girl from another world who is opposed to the plans of the evil men of her
world; and it goes on to depict a political struggle in that world, a struggle
in which our Earthman hero plays a leading role.
In Tama of the Light Country, the opening political situation on Mercury is not,
as in “The Fire People,” a plan to invade and conquer the Earth, with the plight
of the winged virgins a mere side issue, but a Lysistrata-like strike by the
virgins, who refuse to marry until the law is repealed that requires when they
marry the clipping of their wings—the wings “given them by the Creator as a
protection against the pursuit of the male” (“Fire,” 19; TLC 42-43). The
Mercutian men, who are born wingless, respond to the strike by passing a law
requiring that the wings of virgins be clipped when they have reached an age
equivalent of sixteen Earth years. Since the dewinged girls still refuse
marriage, the men decide to raid Earth for a supply of wingless brides. Tama of
the Light Country therefore begins: “The first of the midnight raids was made
upon a girls’ school on Moose Head Lake in Maine. It was a summer camp, with
something like eighty girls, almost all between the ages of fifteen and twenty.”
Cummings’ “The Fire People” was published as a book-length serial in Argosy-Allstory
Oct. 21-Nov. 18, 1922. “Around the Universe” was first published in Science and
Invention July-Dec. 1923, and was later reprinted in Gernsback’s Amazing Stories
in Oct. 1927.
Cummings, Ray. “Around the Universe.” Science and Invention 11 (July, 1923):
226, 282-89, (Aug., 1923): 331, 398-407, (Sept., 1923): 434-35, 505-11, (Oct.,
1923): 540-41, 604-07, 609, 611-13, 615-17, 619, (Nov., 1923) 642-43, 715-17,
719-21, 723, and (Dec., 1923): 748-49, 794, 798, 800. Rpt., slightly revised, in
Amazing Stories 2 (October 1927): 626-61, 675.
─────. “The Fire People.” Argosy-Allstory Weekly 146 (Oct. 21, 1922): 481-99,
(Oct. 28, 1922): 696-715, (Nov. 4, 1922): 87-107, and (Nov. 11, 1922): 300-17.
─────. “The Girl in the Golden Atom.” In Under the Moons of Mars: A History and
Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines, 1912-1920, ed.
Sam Moskowitz. New York: Holt, 1970. 175-220. The text is that of the original
as it appeared in the magazine All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919, differing
somewhat from the text of the opening chapters in The Girl in the Golden Atom
(New York: Harper, 1923).
─────. Tama of the Light Country. New York: Ace, 1965. First published as a
serial in Argosy (Dec. 13-27, 1930).
─────. Tama, Princess of Mercury. New York: Ace, 1966. First published as a
serial in Argosy (June 27-July 18, 1931).
─────. The Tubby stories: a series of short stories in All-Story and Argosy-Allstory
during the early 1920s, beginning with “The Man Who Discovered Nothing,”
All-Story, January 10, 1920. Some of the stories were reprinted in various pulps
1939-55, and some have been anthologized.
Currey, Lloyd. Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors: A Bibliography of First
Printings of their Fiction. Boston: Hall, 1979.
Day, Donald. B. Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1926-1950. Revised ed.
Boston: Hall, 1982.
Ladd, Thyrill L. “Ray Cummings: A Meeting.” In The Girl in the Golden Atom.
Westport, CT: Hyperion, 1974. vii-xiv.
Rupprecht, Eric S. “Ray Cummings.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 8
(Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, Part 1: A-L). Detroit:
Gale, 1981. 105-08.
Tuck, Donald H. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vol. 1 (Who’s
Who, A-L). Chicago: Advent, 1974.
Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. New York: Holt, 1895. This edition, which differs
somewhat from the UK edition (London: Heinemann, 1895) and from all subsequent
editions, is most probably the one read by Cummings.
THE SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES OF RAY CUMMINGS
¶ Magazine stories (year: month/day). ● Books.
(Argosy = Argosy-Allstory Weekly 1921-29, thereafter Argosy Weekly)
¶1. The Girl in the Golden Atom. All-Story, 1919:3/15. See #1B.
¶2. The Other Man’s Blood. All-Story, 1919:10/18.
¶3. The Man Who Discovered Nothing. All-Story, 1920:1/10. The first of the Tubby
¶4. The People of the Golden Atom. All-Story, 1920:1/24-2/28. See #1B.
¶5. The Thought Girl. Live Stories, 1920:5.
¶6. The Light Machine. All-Story, 1920:6/19.
¶7. The Big Idea. Argosy, 1920:7/10.
¶8. The Time Professor. Argosy, 1921:1/1.
¶9. The Other Road. Live Stories, 1921:1.
¶10. The Spirit Photograph. Argosy, 1921:2/12.
¶11. The Curious Case of Norton Hoorne. Argosy, 1921:4/2.
¶12. Moon Madness. Argosy, 1921:4/23.
¶13. The Gravity Professor. Argosy, 1921:5/7.
¶14. The Peppermint Test. Argosy, 1922:2/24.
¶15. The Fire People. Argosy, 1922:10/21-11/18.
●1A. The Girl in the Golden Atom. London: Methuen, 1922. Not seen: the text
(according to Currey) differs from that of ●1B. See ¶1.
¶16. The Thought Machine. Argosy, 1923:5/26.
¶17. The Three-Eyed Man. Argosy, 1923:7/7.
¶18. Around the Universe. Science and Invention, 1923:7-12.
●1B. The Girl in the Golden Atom. New York: Harper, 1923. With conclusion
revised to make continuance possible (see ¶1 and ¶4).
¶19. The Man on the Meteor. Science and Invention, 1924:1-9.
¶20. The Man Who Mastered Time. Argosy, 1924:7/12-8/16.
¶21. Tarrano the Conqueror. Science and Invention, 1925:7-1926:8.
¶22. Into the Fourth Dimension. Science and Invention, 1926:9-1927:6.
¶23. Explorers into Infinity. Weird Tales, 1927:4-6.
¶24. A Bar of Poisoned Licorice. Science and Invention, 1927:7.
¶25. What the Typewriter Told. Science and Invention, 1927:8.
¶26. Beyond the Stars. Argosy, 1928:2/11-2/25.
¶27. The Giant World. Weird Tales, 1926:1-3.
¶28. A Brand New World. Argosy, 1928:9/22-10/27.
¶29. The Sea Girl. Argosy, 1929:3/2-4/6.
¶30. The Shadow Girl. Argosy, 1929: 6/22-7/13.
¶31. Princess of the Atom. Argosy, 1929:9/14-10/19.
¶32. The Snow Girl. Argosy, 1929:11/2-11/23.
●2. The Man Who Mastered Time. Chicago: McClurg, 1929. See ¶20.
¶33. Phantoms of Reality. Astounding, 1930:1.
¶34. The Man Who Was Two Men. Argosy, 1930:2/8-2/15.
¶35. Brigands of the Moon. Astounding, 1930:3.
●3. Tarrano the Conqueror. Chicago: McClurg, 1930. See ¶21.
●4. The Sea Girl. Chicago: McClurg, 1930. See ¶29.
¶36. Jetta of the Lowlands. Astounding, 1930:9-11.
¶37. Tama of the Light Country. Argosy, 1930:12/13-12/27.
¶38. The Great Transformation. Wonder Stories, 1931:2.
¶39. Beyond the Vanishing Point. Astounding, 1931:3.
¶40. The Exile of Time. Astounding, 1931:4-7.
●5. Brigands of the Moon. Chicago: McClurg, 1931. See ¶35.
¶41. The Insect Invasion. Argosy, 1932:4/16-5/14.
¶42. Tama, Princess of Mercury. Argosy, 1931:6/27-7/18.
¶43. Bandits of the Cylinder. Argosy, 1931:8/29.
¶44. Flyer of Eternal Midnight. Argosy, 1931:10/3.
¶45. The Jungle Rebellion. Argosy, 1931:10/31-12/5.
¶46. The White Invaders. Astounding, 1931:12.
¶47. The Mark of the Meteor. Wonder Stories Quarterly, 1931:W.
¶48. The Derelict of Space (collab.). Wonder Stories Quarterly, 1931:F.
¶49. The Disappearance of William Rogers. Argosy, 1932:1/9.
¶50. Wandl, the Invader. Astounding, 1932:2-5.
¶51. Death by the Clock. Argosy, 1932:8/6.
¶52. Rats of the Harbor. Argosy, 1932:12/14-12/31.
¶53. The Fire Planet. Argosy, 1933:9/23-10/7.
¶54. Terror of the Unseen. Argosy, 1933:11/4.
¶55. Brigands of the Unseen. Argosy, 1934:1/28.
¶56. Flood. Argosy, 1934:7/27-8/10.
¶57. Earth-Mars Voyage 20. Argosy, 1934:10/20.
¶58. The Moon Plot. Argosy, 1935:2/16.
¶59. The Polar Light. Argosy, 1935:4/13.
¶60. Crimes of the Year 2000. Detective Fiction Weekly, 1935:?
¶61. Crimes of the Year 2000, No. 2: The Television Alibi. Detective Fiction
[1936-1950. Day lists 73 new stories, none of book length.]
●6. Into the Fourth Dimension. London: Swan, 1943. See ¶22.
●7. The Shadow Girl. London: Swan, 1946. See ¶30.
●8. The Princess of the Atom. New York: Avon, 1950, paper. See ¶31.
●9. The Man on the Meteor. London: Swan, ca. 1952, paper. See ¶19.
●10. Beyond the Vanishing Point. New York: Ace, 1958, paper. See ¶39.
●11. Wandl the Invader. New York: Ace, 1961, paper. See ¶50.
●12. Beyond the Stars. New York: Ace, 1963, paper. See ¶26.
●13. A Brand New World. New York: Ace, 1964, paper. See ¶28.
●14. The Exile of Time. New York: Avalon, 1964. See ¶40.
●15. Explorers into Infinity. New York: Avalon, 1965. See ¶23 and ¶27.
●16. Tama of the Light Country. New York: Ace, 1965, paper. See ¶37.
●17. Tama, Princess of Mercury. New York: Ace, 1966, paper. See ¶42.
●18. The Insect Invasion. New York: Avalon, 1967. See ¶41.
Ed. Note: The preceding article by our late friend and founder of SFS, Dale
Mullen, was recently found among his papers. It was to serve as an introduction
to a book manuscript featuring two early sf novelettes (never before reprinted)
by Ray Cummings—“The Fire People” and “Around the Universe”—which Dale had
transcribed from their original serial publication in 1922 and 1923. This book
manuscript, which he completed in 1992, was never published, although a much
shorter version of this introduction entitled “Ray Cummings as the American H.G.
Wells” appeared in Extrapolation (Winter 1991): 306-308. Characteristically
modest about his own work, Dale wrote a number of critical essays on sf through
the years which he often set aside, either because of lack of space in the pages
of SFS (as editor, he always gave priority to others’ scholarship) or because he
judged them not “substantial” enough to appear in print. While respectful of his
wishes, we nevertheless feel that many of these essays should be published
since, as he once reminded us, “literary scholarship is an ongoing cooperative
endeavor in which resources are shared....” (SFS 24.3 [Nov. 1997]: 532). In the
interests of making his extensive critical and editorial work on sf more
accessible, we hope to publish a special issue on the “Collected Essays of R.D.
Mullen” in the near future. Arthur B. Evans