Thursday, December 4, 2008

A look at "Terrors Unseen"

"Terrors Unseen" by Harl Vincent appeared in the pages of the March 1931 issue of Astounding Stories, and nowhere else. Pulp fiction was a form of disposable entertainment, and nobody -- least of all the authors -- expected stories like it to see any existence beyond their issue's month spent on the newsstand. Not until after World War II did magazine science fiction begin appearing in the more permanent medium of books, and by then Harl Vincent had left his writing career behind. As a result, "Terrors Unseen" can now only be found between the crumbling covers of the few thousand -- or few hundred -- remaining copies of the March 1931 Astounding. And now, on this blog.

Normally, the publishers of magazines can, and do, renew the copyright on back issues. However, in 1933 the original publishers of Astounding, Clayton Publications, went bankrupt, and the magazine was eventually transferred to the control of Street and Smith Publications. When the original copyright on the Clayton issues began to expire in the late 1950s, Street and Smith did not bother to renew them, though they did renew their own issues, beginning with the October 1933 issue. As a result, the 34 issues of Astounding published by Clayton fell out of copyright and entered the public domain. Mind you, authors can also renew copyrights on individual stories, and some of the stories from the Clayton Astounding were renewed and are still copyrighted by their authors (or, more commonly, their authors' estates). But most of the stories that appeared in the Clayton Astounding were not renewed, which is why many of the science fiction stories now available at Project Gutenberg, such as "The Radiant Shell" and "The Raid on the Termites" by Paul Ernst, "Morale" by Murray Leinster, and Harl Vincent's own "Creatures of Vibration" were originally published there.

Harry Bates, the editor of the Clayton Astounding, preferred to publish stories that fit the standard pulp fiction pattern: "plot, physical action, conflict, suspense, human interest, a hero and heroine to sympathize with and a villain to dislike"was how he put it in advertising for writers. With "Terrors Unseen" Vincent delivers all this, although in a curiously shaped package. The story features many tropes that had already become familiar to science fiction readers: the mad scientist and his secret laboratory and beautiful daughter, with a couple of out-of-control robots on the side. But David Shelton didn't create his killer robots from scratch -- he used to work for Universal Electric, a robot manufacturing company (here we probably see Vincent's own experience as a mechanical engineer employed by Westinghouse). Also unlike the standard Mad Scientist, Shelton is neither a professor nor a PhD -- he is simply Mr. Shelton. Shelton's motivation is not simple hubris; it's actually a combination of hubris, idealism, and patriotism that causes him to develop invisible robots to provide the United States with an army of stealth battle droids. Finally, Shelton's robots do not simply rise up and attack him on their own; instead, they are taken over by the story's villain, Al Cadorna.

Which brings us to the most unusual feature of "Terrors Unseen": halfway through, this pulp science fiction story turns into a pulp gangster story. The criminal kingpin Al Cadorna is clearly a fictionalized Al Capone (Vincent may have picked the surname Cadorna from General Luigi Cadorna, the incompetent head of the Italian Army during World War I). No doubt Vincent had a lot of fun putting his fictional Capone through the wringer. With its mix of robots and crime, "Terrors Unseen" faintly resembles Isaac Asimov's later Elijah Baley novels (though it's doubtful Asimov consciously remembered the story twenty years later when he was writing The Caves of Steel).

Although we see little of the larger society within which the story takes place, there are a few interesting hints. We learn that Universal Electric sells robots with built-in guns for use as prison guards. Vincent mentions a war between the United States and Germany in 1944, which is eerily prescient, especially considering that when the story was written the Nazis were still several years away from taking over Germany, and the United States was fervently isolationist. On the other hand, Vincent fails to predict the end of Prohibition; in his future, organized crime is still in the bootlegging business.

All in all, "Terrors Unseen" is a competently written piece of pulp fiction that combines two different genres into an unusual mix.

UPDATE: Thanks to Google's sorting algorithm, which is weighted toward newer content, this series is now the #1 return for "harl vincent". Hello to all Harl Vincent fans out there on the internets!

UPDATE 2: As of March 2009 Google's sorting algorithm has dropped this series down to the #4 return for "harl vincent". Such is internet fame.

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