Galaxy Magazine, February 1951 Review

Galaxy Magazine released some of the greatest science fiction of this decade and was at the heights of its success in the early and middle fifties. Galaxy offered authors good terms at this time. Contributors were paid about three cents per word and allowed to keep the rights for everything published. Likely because of this, many stories incubated in the pages of Galaxy went on to become novels or radio plays. With high readership and a growing reputation for quality fiction, Galaxy was able to assemble an informal cadre of great sci-fi writers.

In this issue alone, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov contribute a story each. Bradbury’s “The Fireman” would later appear as a novel called Fahrenheit 451 and enter the cannon of mid-century literature. The Fireman is a lot shorter than the novel it would become, but its dire warning of the authoritarian threat to language and expression is no less keenly felt.

Asimov’s entry is a chapter from a book length serial titled Tyrann in Galaxy and later republished as The Stars, Like Dust. It is a traditional space opera set in the universe of The Foundation and the Robots novels wherein Earth has been destroyed by nuclear war. It’s about a rogue prince trying to recover an ancient document that will help him to overthrow the evil and repressive Tyrann Empire and is a kind of high adventure thing more or less. “The Protector,” a thinly veiled socialist fable also appears as does “Two Weeks in August,” which comes across as a meditation on the virtue of the private market. Each of these is competent but none of them tell a complete story in their own.

This is a worthy collection of science fiction and a window into the psyche of the USA at the dawn of the cold war, fraught with tension and angst about totalitarianism and the threat of atomic destruction. Undercutting that fear and anxiety is an optimism about the potential of human advancement to liberate people from the political, social and physical bonds which hold them back at the time of writing and which may impinge on them in the future.

This issue of Galaxy magazine is available for free at archive.org in a pretty much any format a reasonable person could want. Check it out here if you are so inclined.

… And It Comes Out Here

Lester Del Rey contributes “… and it comes out here,” a more than competent time travel story, on the surface a celebration of the potential of atomic power. Time travel stories actually predate the genre and go back to enlightenment proto-sci-fi works such as Samuel Madden’s Memoirs of the 20th Century. Madden details the political future of the world through a corpus of diplomatic correspondence brought back to the eighteenth century by an angel. This story is not much more that an anti-Methodist, anti-Catholic screed, but it was evidence that speculation on the future and the nature of time was already alive in imagination.

Lester Del Rey tells a story more amenable to our current expectations of time travel fiction––it’s about an inventor trapped in a time loop by his own apparent genius. He has just gone back in time to give himself the time machine he invented before he invents it. The future version of this inventor, who I’ll refer to as Future Guy tells the story through an address to his past self, who will be Past Guy. The entire story is related from Future Guy’s point of view; he’s talking to his younger self while his younger self conveniently drinks his way into a semi-stupor and therefore forgets much of what Future Guy is telling him. We’re told that past guy is about to go to the year 2150 (200 years from “now”) and steal the atomic motor he invented in 1951 so that he can go back to 1951 and “invent” it.

His invention has created a future where humanity has become unbelievably civil. Free, unlimited energy produced by the atomic motor results in a world where guards in museums track you down after you leave with a no doubt priceless historical artifact in order to helpfully provide you with the original patent documentation because the museum doesn’t like for them to be separated. Police stop a man running in the street to tell him to relax and call him a taxi. Buildings are shorter because humanity has expanded beyond Sol. The guard refers to an important political figure from Alpha Centauri and interstellar travel (we’re told) is commonplace. Amusingly, our hero marvels at an elevator which produces no noticeable feeling of acceleration in its occupants and which the story explains away with “false gravity”––our world has managed to produce this already through clever engineering.

There are also strangely fascistic tendencies in this new world, the police officer who apprehends our hero tells him that unnecessary overexertion is not only unpleasant, its illegal. This moment renders the future world disturbing and incongruent on some level, even if the officer does go on to be nothing but pleasant and helpful. There’s also something mildly despotic about the way Future Guy relates his memory to Past Guy, and when Past Guy tries to take a more advanced model of Atomic Engine I can’t help but sympathize; when he fails to get at anything but the original model I’m a bit disappointed for him in a way that he doesn’t have time to be for himself. The hero of our story is railroaded by apparent physical realities into a life where his actions are choreographed immaculately with inhuman, inevitable precision.

So the main drama in this story is driven by one person’s internal confusion. Unlike a lot of time travel stories our reckless inventor’s meddling in time hasn’t ruined the world, in fact nothing he could do would prevent the future from being utopian. He’s made his own personal dystopia though. The story is pretty short but we get to see hints of an emerging fraud complex as the narrator doesn’t know how either the time machine or the atomic motor work because he didn’t actually invent them anymore. He’s trapped in a closed loop in time for thirty years of his life. From the day he arrives to dump some world-saving technology until the day 30 years later when he decides to go and live in the year 2150 after he dumps some world-saving technology on his past self, the narrator is a player to the world and a helpless pawn in his own narrative.

Our hero spends much of his time before permanently removing himself to the distant future wrapped up in self-scrutiny, desperately trying to comprehend his situation and busying himself working to understand how his “invention” actually operates. This is all futile because he actually knows for certain that he will eventually give up trying to understand the time loop in which he lives and go ahead to join the great society he has engineered––now by accident––but he chooses to do it anyways.

The strange mélange of futility mixed with optimism creates a kind of uneasy counterpoint in the stresses of a man who is a prisoner of his dedication to the good of humanity. The hero of the story becomes an involuntary actor in drama much larger than he is – some incarnation of himself is responsible for the world he sees in the future but both of the Guys we meet don’t really have anything to do with the advances they end up taking credit for.

There is a real post WWII angst here and a kind of desperation for a world free of conflict. The narrator has a kind of resigned acceptance to the fact that he will play a role in history which he doesn’t understand or know how to deal with, but which is critically important to the world. With the United States the dominant superpower in the world after the ruination of much of Europe, this kind of sentiment makes sense. The USA had more or less just finished helping to win the war in which it had also subsidized through the lend-lease program. The hero of this story, like the country at the time, assumed a sort of benign but chagrined responsibility for the safekeeping of civilization as it was known.

Second Childhood

Cifford D. Simak offers up Second Childhood, again set far in the future of humanity where the ingenuity of humans has conquered death itself. Andrew Young is over five thousand years old when the story opens and is pleading with the authorities to let him die. He’s an Ancestor, one of the first generation of immortals, alien in a civilization that has gone further in his lifetime – in some ways under his guidance – than any other human has seen.

In his relative youth, Andrew engineers conditioning that makes suicide impossible and physical changes to people’s bodies make natural death impossible. Some of Andrew’s friends were able to achieve suicide before the conditioning was created and the rest killed themselves through intentional carelessness. So Andrew is alone. His progeny offer him little comfort, especially since there are now so many and he has nobody of his own generation left to interact with. The world he lives in is not equipped to understand him and he sees this new society too clearly for comfort.

Memory has become a torturous burden to the aging population of the first generation of immortals. In this world, memory is an infinitely extensible archive where collation and organization becomes more difficult and complicated the more each mind is forced to store. This means the very old, the Ancestors, live with an ever increasing lag between their present reality and the world of their memory. They don’t find the past drifting farther away and their memories of childhood are never buried. Instead it’s their recent lives which are suppressed, until they can be properly sorted and organized.

This pseudo-amnesia in combination with the sheer boredom of living life have made continued existence unbearable for Ancestor Andrew Young. He recalls the wonder and unlighted joy of childhood and thinks that he would much prefer death to a life condemned to become ever more jaded and cynical.

His solution to this problem is to infantilize himself. He has a house built at a massive scale with giant toys to convince himself that he is a child. He enlists the help of the board that rejected his appeal to assisted suicide in this effort and they spend most of the story working quietly behind the scenes to help Andrew build his illusion of childhood. The linchpin on which this plan depends is alluded to, and is predictable enough really but comes at the right time and with enough weight to satisfy.

Andrew has spent months on a journey of intentional forgetting and reached a place of very near, but not entirely childlike innocence. Still, a voice with all the guile and certainty of a five thousand year old man remains in the back of his head despite his attempts to banish it. The naive enthusiasm of childhood has slowly been creeping in over the course of his self-enforced regression, but he is conscious that part of him is holding himself back from abandoning his adult mind entirely. He runs in fear from a bat but knows on some level that the fright is just a pantomime until he reaches the kitchen and is met by a 19 foot tall android with a face like the moon that sweeps him up in its arms, relieving him of the biologically enforced mandate that he care for himself.

Memory, fleeting innocence and the burden of knowledge give life to an implicit discussion of USA life happening just under the surface of many of these stories. Andrew Young is in a position of power and responsibility he never asked for, but is nevertheless obligated to live up to. He’s “seen too much” to go on in the way he has up to this point.

There’s also a bit of prescience here, the ideas of the desire for an abdication of responsibility vs. the obligation to fill a role the world expects of you feel relevant to modern America. The story also has a real connection with the future of sci-fi. Authors of this period working with themes like memory, conditioning and self-engineering set the stage for new wave authors like Frank Herbert, Samuel R. Delaney and William Gibson to take them in wildly different directions over the coming decades.