Thursday, March 26, 2009

Taking aim at "High-Frequency War"

Earlier this month, the Johnny Pez blog brought you Harl Vincent's "High-Frequency War" from the February 1940 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction (starting here). Vincent's story is a startlingly grim picture of the United States of America suffering from foreign invasion in the mid-1970s. As unlikely as that seems today, it's important to place the story within its moment in history, at the cusp of the debate between isolationists and interventionists. At the time, it didn't seem unreasonable to suppose that an unprepared America might eventually find itself being invaded.

Just when was the story written? As it happens, we can make a good educated guess about that. Isaac Asimov's first two published Astounding stories neatly bracket "HFW": "Trends" from the July 1939 issue, and "Homo Sol" from the September 1940 issue. In The Early Asimov, we learn that Asimov wrote "Trends" in December 1938, and revised it the following month at the request of Astounding editor John W. Campbell. Campbell accepted the revised story on January 24, 1939, and the story appeared five months later in the July 1939 Astounding. Asimov wrote "Homo Sol" in February 1940, and again revised it at Campbell's request the following month. Campbell accepted the story at the end of March, and it appeared, again, five months later in the September 1940 issue. This gives us a consistent five month lead time between a story's acceptance by Campbell and its appearance in Astounding. If we accept a similar lead time for "HFW", then Campbell would have accepted it for publication sometime in September 1939, implying that Vincent wrote it in August or early September.

In the four years leading up to the writing of "HFW", isolationists in the U.S. Congress had passed a series of Neutrality Acts placing ever greater restrictions on American commerce with nations at war. At the same time, the world saw a series of aggressive moves on the part of various totalitarian nations: the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in October 1935, the German remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936, the Japanese invasion of China in July 1937, the German annexation of Austria in March 1938, the German annexation of the Sudetenland in September 1938, the German annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the Italian conquest of Albania in April 1939, the Italo-German alliance of May 1939, and finally the Soviet-German nonaggression treaty of August 1939.

Interventionists such as Vincent believed that if the United States continued to ignore the aggression of totalitarian states, the end result would be the domination of Europe and the western Pacific by hostile nations, with the United States finally left alone to face the aggressive dictatorships sometime in the future. This is the situation Vincent depicted in "HFW": an isolated United States being invaded by the nations of the Quadruple Alliance. Vincent doesn't name the members of the Quadruple Alliance, but given the recent Nazi-Soviet treaty it isn't hard to guess that the QA consists of Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union.

"HFW" takes place in 1976 or 1977. The Alleghenies mark the battle zone between the occupied East Coast of the United States and the rest of the country, one of several fronts in the war between the United States and the Quadruple Alliance. The war began in 1974 with a surprise attack by the Quadruple Alliance using powerful high-frequency radio waves that killed or injured millions of Americans. Those not killed outright by the radio weapons were left with amnesia and demyelination.

Vincent's depiction of an unprepared, isolationist America at the mercy of foreign invaders places "HFW" firmly in the tradition of invasion literature, a genre of cautionary tales that goes back to 1871's The Battle of Dorking. Vincent combines the traditional invasion story with a science fiction background, placing his story decades in the future and showing the use of scientifically advanced weaponry by both sides. In "HFW", fleets of aircraft sweep across the sky while radio weapons, both offensive and defensive, are brought to bear against them. However, Vincent failed to anticipate two important classes of weapons, atomic bombs and rockets, even though both were staples of science fiction at the time he was writing, and military rockets were actually under development.

Vincent was a writer of the Gernsback Era, when radio waves were at the forefront of engineering. By 1940, twelve years after the appearance of his first story, advances in both science and science fiction were leaving Vincent behind. It may have been for this reason that Vincent would soon give up his career writing science fiction. The next story he published in Astounding, "Deputy Correspondent" in the June 1940 issue, would be his last.

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