The SF dictum that stories ought to be postulated on
scientific concepts extrapolated from the existing data has not always been an
easy standard for the genre's writers to maintain. Amazing Stories, the
first pulp magazine to segregate science fiction stories under one cover, was
also publisher Hugo Gernsback's editorial forum for just that dictum. Yet, while
beginning publication in 1926, twenty-one years after Albert Einstein
promulgated his Special Theory of Relativity, the magazine and the genre it
occasionally found 20th century physics to be something of
an embarrassment during the years when physicists were "storming the
fortress of the atom."1
A central feature of this embarrassment was the
"Universal speed limit," ascertained by the physicists Lorentz and
FitzGerald: particles cannot travel at, or exceed, the speed of light.2
The same science promising the fulfillment of so many fantasies of power and
prosperity seemingly demolished an equal number focused on interstellar travel.
But since Gernsback's idea of "scientifiction" was an extrapolation of
existing scientific knowledge to the presumably more advanced technologies of
the future, his writers learned to finesse the problem by creating ways to evade
the speed limit. The typical pattern was set by "The Skylark of
Space," in November, 1928, when Edward Elmer Smith, a foods chemist and
fledgling writer, directed his attention to Einstein's equation E=mc2.
Despite the enormity of the explosion resulting from the total conversion of
mass to energy, such forces cannot propel particles faster than light. However,
despite this limit on the extrapolation from Einstein's work, the sheer size of
the forces nuclear power was expected to place at human disposal became a
metaphor for the nearly magical fashion in which heroic scientists could
overcome the inconvenient laws of nature and get spaceborne cowboys out to the
endless frontier of intergalactic space.
As a metaphor, atomic energy filled SF magazines long before
the Manhattan Project demonstrated the actual powers released by the split
nucleus. Atomic power plants were propelling men from star to star as well as
revolutionizing life on Earth. It was the central component of the belief that
technological innovation was the principal revolutionary force in the world.
Once nuclear energy gave promise of actually fulfilling dreams of unlimited
power, boundless social changes could be envisioned. Eventually, this metaphor,
enriched by an awareness of the new, real research into the nucleus which
characterized physics in the 1930's, was combined with the demand for better and
more realistic stories which marked the genre as a whole and Astounding
Science Fiction (ASF) in particular.
Although John W. Campbell, who became Astounding's editor
in 1937 and remained editor until his death in 1971, had originally made
extensive use of the atomic metaphor in a series of adventure stories written in
the early thirties, he soon adapted it to his more thoughtful pieces, self-consciously
historical and cosmological stories written under the pseudonym of Don A.
Stuart. For example, developing the notion — common enough in the genre —
that the Solar System is no more than an atom in some incomprehensibly larger
universe, itself populated by intelligent beings, Campbell suggests a much less
common thought: that the nuclear experiments of such larger beings might
threaten Earth with destruction. The total nature of the catastrophe on Earth,
and the total and rapid salvation following the hero's discovery of atomic
power, emphasize its importance and dual nature. Campbell had been trained as a
physicist at MIT and Duke University. Yet even for him nuclear energy was more
than a powerful technological tool. It also could be the crucial factor defining
the relationship between humanity and the universe around it.3
This duality continued to mark the role atomic energy played
in science fiction as Campbell's efforts as Astounding's editor began to
discipline a new group of writers. Some of these were veterans of the pulps: A.E.
Van Vogt's roots were in the work of Max Brand, not H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.4
Others, like Isaac Asimov, were not yet out of their teens when they began
writing to Campbell's taste. But, more through common assumptions than the
powerful influence of Campbell's editing, both groups developed the central
characteristics and limitations of the atomic metaphor.
"Slan" (ASF, September-December 1940), for example,
van Vogt's first novel-length serial, combines nuclear energy, telepathy, space
flight, and the persecution of racial minorities as elements in a complex
narrative. As he flees from an angry society patterned after Nazi Germany, young
Jommy Cross, a telepathic mutant, is searching both for allies in the political
struggle against the persecution of the slans and for clues to his own
parentage. The key to both quests is an invention of his dead father's, an
atomic power device found hidden in a secret laboratory. He develops the device
into a propulsion system for a spaceship which he intends to use as a weapon to
overthrow the government — a motif by then quite traditional in the genre.
However, even with the device — this only link with a father he never knew —
Cross is only projected deeper into the complexities of an increasingly
convoluted political situation which defies forceful solution. Persecuted on the
surface of society, the slans actually control the government and are working
towards eventual popular acceptance of their superiority and rule. "Slan"
is an adventure story, developing its complex themes only inadvertently and
superficially, but within its narrow limits it marks the larger uses to which
van Vogt could, and would, put the metaphor of technological power in such
stories as the "Weapon Shops" cycle and The World of A.5
Political and social problems exist, but the physical power developed
through a nearly magical technology is, increasingly, the central means by which
the varied elements of a situation can be understood.
Other writers, less inclined to adventure than van Vogt, were
developing the atomic metaphor as a symbol of cultural unity. In the series of
short stories which would later be collected into the Foundation trilogy,
Isaac Asimov deliberately uses miniature atomic industrial devices in place of
weapons to illustrate the superior skills of his envisioned political system.
"This is dangerous, but so is a buzz saw," one trader remarks as he
demonstrates the atomic tools with which one remnant of the defunct Galactic
Empire will be integrated into the rising Foundation's economic sphere of
control. Under other circumstances, the Foundation controls several planets by
convincing their inhabitants that nuclear energy is a beneficial magic dependent
upon scientifically trained "priests" whose curses and interdictions
draw great effect by withholding power from sinners who oppose the Foundation's
rule. As undemocratic as this seems, both instances juxtapose the Foundation’s
relatively democratic capitalism with the feudal dregs of the fallen Empire. But
both instances reveal that Asimov finds technology the most useful index for
understanding societies. Despite his marginal membership in the Futurians, a
left-leaning group of fans whose political activities got six of their number
barred from the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, Asimov makes
possession of one particular innovation, nuclear power, rather than economic
organization or social institutions, the key to his definition of civilization
Although the principal function of the Manhattan Project was
the construction of an atomic bomb, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi had first built
a nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago to prove that a sustained chain
reaction was possible. Similarly, it was in several stories involving nuclear
reactors rather than bombs that SF first combined its at least passing knowledge
of actual nuclear physics with the best of the new attempts at realistic
extrapolation that Campbell had promoted. Three of the most prominent stories
deal with reactors within the framework of an industrial structure characterized
by cutthroat competition, political corruption, and charges of the dangers
attendant upon competing technologies. None recognized the growing involvement
of government money and university scientists in research, and, as in the Asimov
stories, all foresaw technology promoting drastic changes in material and
political conditions. All three minimized the ability political, social, or
economic institutions had to shape human life; and the distaste for such
institutions was muted only by a conviction of their ultimate impotence.
In particular, "Lobby," by Clifford Simak (ASF,
April 1944), dwells on the competition between conventional power companies and
the prospective developers of atomic power. Although it anticipates the
development of nuclear-generated electricity under the auspices of private
enterprise, the story is clearly unsympathetic to businessmen. Not only are
established corporations portrayed as corrupt and violent in their campaign to
discredit nuclear developers, but those developers themselves are chided by the
hero, in the name of a fledgling world government, for allowing the game of
defeating the "power gang" to obscure the true goal of providing cheap
power to the world. In the end, the technological power of nuclear energy would
force a reorganization of political and economic power, taking it out of the
hands of both business and politics:
... another hundred years and government by demagoguery
will be done. Little men with talent for grabbing votes will have given way to
men who make a profession of good government. Men who are trained for
government just as doctors are trained for medicine or attorneys are trained
for law. Men of science will govern, running the world scientifically in the
interest of the stockholders — the little people of the world.
It was clear that the rule of such men would be a repudiation
of business' commercial concerns, although, as in "Lobby," maverick
businessmen bucking the system were heroes often enough. But such businessmen
were most often portrayed as primarily tough-minded technicians, as in Robert
Heinlein's early stories. An Annapolis graduate trained in the non-commercial
professionalism of the Navy, Heinlein had only brief business experience. From
the first, his capable and cynical heroes represented the engineer's critique of
the boardroom, a protest against the subordination of ingenuity and
craftsmanship to a safe rate of return. It was even possible for him to envision
a situation in whlch a nuclear reactor explosion might threaten to destroy all
life on Earth while the corporation controlling the reactor balks at any
protective measures until faced with a smear campaign backed up by the
President, himself convinced by zealous scientists. The protective measures
themselves — exporting the dangerous reactor into orbit — are made possible
by two technicians' independent, spare-time research. Together with
"Lobby" and Lester del Rey's "Nerves" (ASF, September 1942),
Heinlein's "Blowups Happen" (ASF, September 1940), illustrates the
hopes invested in the salaried but nonetheless independent and idealistic
engineers whose initiative is separate from company policy or the pursuit of
That initiative itself is always a personal one, rooted in
the history of Edison's and Ford's inventive tinkering despite the constant
involvement of theoretical scientists, research teams, and large sums of money.
Missing is an appreciation of the size and organization which had come to
established science, partly through the concepts of mass production and the
research laboratory pioneered by Edison and Ford themselves and partly through
the sprawling, international, theoretical study of the atom which culminated in
the Manhattan Project. Few stories gave much attention to the kind of
industrialized science and time-clock punching characteristic of modern research
particularly the wartime research establishments where many SF writers,
including Heinlein himself, were later to work:
. . . mechanics to keep equipment in condition, electrical
and chemical and other kinds of engineers. Foremen who ride bikes to get from
one part of a floor to another to check operations. Fitters and men who bring
in uranium to feed the apparatus. Girls out of college supervising girls out
of high school who stand in front of a dial watching to see if a needle jumps
from zero to ten. Ph.D.'s who turn Knobs.7
Such organizations (as much as the profit motive underlying
Business), alienated SF writers from large corporations and the government.
Simak, in "Lobby," even went so far as to make practical atomic power
an industrial secret which one inventor had and from which others were "a
million miles off base." Acutely aware of the competition among established
corporations and newcomers for control of technological innovations, few writers
indicated an awareness of the changing structure of business or the uneasy
relationship between business and government brought about as a result of the
Depression by the New Deal. Nor were the implications of the Tennessee Valley
Authority considered — which indicates that these men who were willing to make
educated speculations on the future of technology were neither aware of nor
prepared for the directions being taken by contemporary industrial innovations.
This was true even when, as in the case of the TVA, technology was transforming
the social structure of a region previously devoid of its benefits; or where, as
in Heinlein's case, their interests were explicitly political.
Later stories emphasizing the peaceful uses of atomic energy
were overshadowed by two stories dealing with its military uses. Easily the more
substantial of the two was Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory"
(written under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald): a story revealing his disdain
for politicians' abilities to deal with technological change and his intense
distrust of every government in the world, including the United States, under
the wrong management. The lesser of the two, Cleve Cartmill's
"Deadline'" a routine melodrama, entered SF lore because Cartmill’s
incidental description of an atomic bomb was close enough to the design under
development at Los Alamos to earn both Cartmill and Campbell visits from
intelligence officers after the story appeared in Astounding's October
In retrospect, it seems ironic that intelligence officers
would single out Cartmill's story for attention, as it represents perhaps the
worst kind of SF — an ordinary commando yarn transposed into an interplanetary
and superficially scientific milieu. The scientific realism which earned its
author and publisher security interviews is forced into the background, allowing
the story to proceed with such scenes as a fight between otherwise human beings
with prehensile tails, Cartmill's only concession to his story's interplanetary
setting and far more common in Astounding's competitors.
But the real importance of this tendency to see nuclear power
as a metaphor for an unlimited human technological capability is seen in the
genre's self-conscious, serious work, rather than in the light adventures.
Campbell, in his November, 1945 editorial (the first off the press after the
public announcement of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), reinforced the
metaphorical view of atomic energy in two ways. While tipping his hat toward the
fledgling United Nations as a stopgap, the editor pronounced a death sentence on
the civilization that had existed before the July 16, 1945 "Trinity"
test firing of the first atomic bombs. It was, he wrote, "the death of a
cultural pattern based on a balance of military power controlled exclusively by
big and wealthy nations" (ASF, November 1945). But if this real
manifestation of the technological metaphor was enough to alter the world's
cultural and political patterns, another, as yet unrealized, might be powerful
enough to save the status quo. The creation of the bomb, in Campbell's opinion,
might lead to the construction of another device common in the genre, a
"force field," capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. With the
balance of offensive and defensive technology restored, there might be no need
for massive cultural changes.
With Hiroshima seemingly providing such powerful validation
for both science fiction's anticipation of nuclear energy and for the
metaphorical use to which the genre put the technology, there was a certain
sense of pride in many of the letters flowing over Campbell's desk into the
magazine's "Brass Tacks" correspondence column. Urging Campbell to
reprint the seemingly prophetic pre-war stories along with the Smyth Report (the
official Army history of the Manhattan Project) and articles on the peaceful
uses of atomic energy, fans justified their much-maligned hobby as "an
education of a public for a future which is now, as it always has been, amazing
to consider." With letters from even Los Alamos (home of the laboratory
which built the original bombs) complimenting Campbell on his editorial policy,
the self-congratulations extended into the network of amateur, fan-published
newsletters which had existed since the thirties.9 Forrest J.
Ackerman, among the most prominent of active fans, used his "fanzine" Glom
to reprint an article by W. Bradford Shank, a physicist and member of the
Federation of Atomic Scientists, who credited science fiction writers:
not . . . because their fevered imaginings have pointed the
way for research, but because they have sold a substantial bloc of the
American people the idea that scientists can do almost anything.... Writers
and cartoonists with much less knowledge but a better sense of the inherent
accelerating tendency of technological progress . . . presented atomic power
in all sorts of applications.10
Eventually, this backslapping led Chandler Davis, a fan as
well as an occasional and thoughtful writer for Campbell, to note that many fans
were thinking far more about the justification that the atomic bomb gave science
fiction than they were about the implications of the weapon itself. "The
fact that your life is in danger," he wrote in his mimeographed Blitherings,
"seems to interest you less than the fact that Anson MacDonald
predicted your life would be in danger'' (Spring, 1946).11
The story to which Davis was referring is Heinlein's
"Solution Unsatisfactory" (ASF, May 1941), an excellent example of
both the power and limitations of the technological metaphor. As weapons, the
atomic devices in Astounding's "realistic" stories strengthen
the image of nuclear energy as an "ultimate power" against which there
can be no defense. By breaking the traditional military cycle between offensive
power and defensive strength, Heinlein creates a situation of maximum terror,
which he uses, years before Hiroshima, to support his contention that a major
revolution in international relations would be necessary should atomic power
ever be used as a weapon (and incidentally placing Campbell's later comment on
the end of balance-of-power politics in a most ominous light). By conjuring up a
vision of a "death dust" (which Manhattan Project engineers had
actually rejected as impractical), Heinlein removes every sort of protection or
succour from the victims of atomic bombing. Even food and water supplies, he
imagines, would be hopelessly contaminated. Moreover he clearly points out that
an ultimate weapon would also, by definition, be universal: its secrets would be
available to all industrial nations, and they all would be vulnerable to its
This was a point made more widely, but with little public
impact, by the various scientists' movements hoping to influence American policy
once the atomic bomb became a reality. Once it is even suspected that a
particular scientific process is possible, anyone with sufficient creativity and
physical resources can undertake it, regardless of any security procedures
invoked.12 Cartmill, the adventure writer, could invest his hopes in
a commando team. Heinlein, whose intentions were to demonstrate the extended
implications of scientific developments, assumes that the power of such a
destructive development would force a political revolution, in this case a
worldwide American military dictatorship. Perceiving technology solely as power,
Heinlein concluded that the only alternative to destruction was political power
equal to the force of the bomb: a revolution led by tough-minded individuals as
ruthless and unstoppable as the rules of physics, even if, as in the case of the
dictator in "Solution Unsatisfactory," they dislike and regret what
they are forced to do.
1. Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand
Suns, transl. from the German by James Cleugh (New York: Harcourt, Brace
& World, 1958), p. 51.
2. Martin Gardner, The Relativity Explosion
(New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 29.
3. Don A. Stuart (pseudonym for John W.
Campbell), "Atomic Power," Astounding Stories, Dec.1934. See
also Campbell's "When the Atoms Failed," Amazing Stories, Jan.
1930, and "The Mightiest Machine," Astounding Stories, Dec.
1934 - Apr. 1935.
4. Personal interview with A.E. van Vogt, June
5. A.E. van Vogt, "The Seesaw," ASF,
July 1941; "The Weapon Shops, ibid., Dec. 1942; "The Weapon
Makers," ibid., Feb. - Apr.1943; "The World of A," ibid.,
6. Isaac Asimov, Foundation (New York:
Avon Books, 1951), III:6-7: 107-116, V:8:162-164, V:13:180, after initial
publication as "Bridle and Saddle" and "The Big and the
Little" in ASF, June 1942 and Aug. 1944. See also Sam Moskowitz, Seekers
of Tomorrow (New York, 1967), p. 254, and Damon Knight, The Futurians (New
York, 1977), pp. 38-39. Charles Elkins undertakes an extensive critical
exploration of Asimov's conception of historical change in "Asimov's
Foundation Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted into Cyclical
Psychohistory," SFS, 8 (1976).
7. Robert A. Heinlein, "Lifeline,"
ASF, Aug. 1939; "Let There Be Light," Super Science Stories, May
1940 (under the pseudonym of Lyle Monroe); "Blowups Happen," Sept.
1940. See also Moskowitz, Seekers, pp. 194-195 and Lester del Rey,
"Nerves," ASF, Sept. 1942. The description of the giant plants at Oak
Ridge, part of the Manhattan Project, is from Daniel Lang, Early Tales of the
Atomic Age (Garden City, NY, 1948), p. 36. The use of a time clock at a
military research station is from Isaac Asimov's account of his tenure at the
Naval Air Experimental Station, Philadelphia in The Early Asimov (Garden
City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972), p. 397. Asimov joined Heinlein and L.
Sprague DeCamp in substituting military discipline at the Philadelphia
establishment for Campbell's.
8. John W. Campbell, "Science Fiction and
the Opinion of the Universe," Saturday Review, May 12,1956.
9. James Bourne, J.M.B. Churchill, and an
anonymous letter (from a self identified Los Alamos worker) to ASF, Dec. 1945,
pp. 170-176; William Lawrence, ibid., Apr. 1946, p. l 78.
10. W. Bradford Shank, "Need Shown for
Scientific Not Fictional Prophecy," Glom, No. 4, Apr. 1946. after
initial publication in the Los Angeles Daily News, Apr. 5, 1946.
11. Davis' magazine was published under the
aegis of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA), which circulated copies
of member publications to approximately 65 people, each obligated to contribute
to each mailing. For a description of FAPA and the fan community generally, see
Harry Warner, All Our Yesterdays (Chicago, 1965).
12. Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a
Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945-47 (Chicago, 1965) and The
Atomic Age, Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch, eds. (New York, 1963).
The latter is a collection of articles from The
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
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