Science Fiction Studies


#78 = Volume 26, Part 2 = July 1999

R.D. Mullen

Two Early Works by Ray Cummings: “The Fire People” and “Around the Universe”

“He is a Verne returned and a Wells going forward,” remarked “Bob” Davis, dean of American magazine editors. “He is the American H.G. Wells,” say other critics. Cummings has an unusual flair for things scientific as evidenced by the fact that while at Princeton University he accomplished the remarkable feat of absorbing three years of physics in that many months. His five years’ association with Thomas Edison as the latter’s personal assistant also added to Cummings’s scientific knowledge. His bizarre early life, living on orange plantations in Porto [sic] Rico, striking oil in Wyoming, gold seeking in British Columbia, timber cruising in the North, before he was twenty, also left its imprint.

Leaving Mr. Edison’s employ, Cummings began writing scientific fiction for many magazines. His stories gripped the popular imagination and they “clicked.” Mr. Cummings’s success as a writer has been meteoric, for in a few years he has become one of the world’s most popular authors of scientific fiction.... —Argosy-Allstory Weekly 210 (Feb. 8, 1930): 141.

This blurbing of Ray Cummings in Argosy-Allstory Weekly as the “American H.G. Wells” was justified in an ironic way. Cummings’ first and still most famous story, “The Girl in the Golden Atom” (1919, a novelette later merged with a sequel to form the book of the same title), was in its narrative form modeled directly on Wells’s first and still most famous novel:

The Time Machine

§1. Gathered at the Time Travelers house: the Time Traveler, the Narrator, Filby, the Medical Man, the Psychologist, the Provincial Mayor, the Very Young Man, the Rector. The Time Traveler lectures the others on the nature of time.

The Time Traveler announces that he has built a machine that will move through time. He places a miniature version of the machine on a table and causes it to disappear. The machine itself is shown to the guests. The Time Traveler announces that he intends to explore the future. His guests depart.

§2. A second meeting at the house of the Time Traveler, who is absent at first, but then appears, dusty and dirty, haggard and drawn. He must have a bath and some food before telling his story.

§3. The Time Travelers account of traveling through time.

§§4-13. The Time Travelers story of his adventures in the future.      §14. The story is discussed, and the guests depart. Later the Narrator returns to the Time Travelers house, and catches a glimpse of him in the time machine just before it and he disappear. Three years have passed; the Time Traveler has not returned.


"The Girl in the Golden Atom"

§1. Gathered at the Club: the Chemist, the Doctor, the Very Young Man, the Banker, the Big Business Man. The Chemist lectures the others on the nature of matter, and tells his tale of the girl in an atom within a gold ring.

§2. A second meeting at the Club. The Chemist has perfected a size-changing drug that he demonstrates by causing one housefly to grow gigantic and a second to disappear into smallness.

The Chemist takes the drug himself, and dwindles into the ring.

The Chemist having said that he would return in 48 hours, his friends remain at the Club. He  reappears, grows to normal size, and, dirty and bloody, must bathe and eat before telling his story.

The Chemists account of dwindling into the infinitesimal.

§§3-4. The Chemists story of his adventures in the world of the atom.

§5. The story is discussed. The Chemist explains why he must return to the atom, and departs into smallness. Years have passed; the Chemist has not returned. The gold ring is on display, covered by a glass bell, in the Museum of the American Society for Biological Research.


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 dream.

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 playing poker.

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 story second.

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 politically.

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.

¶ 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 stories.
¶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 Weekly, 1935:7/20.
[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

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