Monday, September 14, 2009

"Neutral Vessel" Ahoy!

Last month, the Johnny Pez blog brought you “Neutral Vessel” by Harl Vincent, from the January 1940 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction (starting here). Like most of Vincent’s work, its original magazine appearance was the only time it ever saw print. At this point in his writing career, Vincent had been selling stories to the magazines for twelve years, and was an established pro in the science fiction genre. Those were probably the most innovative years in the genre’s history, either before or since. When Vincent first appeared in the June 1928 issue of Amazing Stories with “The Golden Girl of Munan”, Amazing was only two years old, and was still the only science fiction magazine in existence. Most of the stories that had appeared in it during those two years had been reprints, some of them decades old. (For example, H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, which appeared in the August and September 1927 issues, had originally been published thirty years earlier, in 1897.) The few original stories appearing in Amazing, such as Vincent’s own “The Golden Girl of Munan”, were similarly old-fashioned.

Two months after “The Golden Girl of Munan” appeared, the first installment of E. E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space was published in Amazing, and the science fiction genre would never be the same. The contrast between the bold, mind-blowing interstellar adventures of Skylark and the Wells-and-Verne vintage stories that preceded it was as great as the contemporary contrast between silent movies and the talkies. Every writer who followed after Smith, including Vincent, imitated his wide-ranging style of storytelling. New tropes, styles, and sub-genres appeared, most notably Stanley G. Weinbaum’s stories of exotic alien lifeforms; Murray Leinster’s introduction of the alternate timeline motif; and John W. Campbell’s introspective writing style as “Don A. Stuart”, all in the mid-1930s.

Although Vincent didn’t adopt Weinbaum’s exotic-aliens motif, he still kept pace with the science fiction field as it advanced throughout the 1930s. When Campbell began to emphasize accurate science after becoming editor of Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, Vincent responded with “Neutral Vessel”. In “Neutral Vessel”, Martian agents hijack the largest spaceship ever built, the 80,000-ton interplanetary passenger liner Spirit of Terra, and send it accelerating towards Venus, turning the ship into science fiction’s first kinetic weapon. In the story, the ship is due to hit Venus while traveling at nearly 800 miles per second. Vincent never explicitly states just how big a bang the ship will make when it collides with the planet; possibly so that he could let the magazine’s readership work out the result for themselves, possibly because in those pre-atomic days there was no convention established for expressing such high-energy events. At any rate, my own back-of-the envelope calculation indicates that the Spirit of Terra would have hit Venus with roughly the impact of a 10,000 megaton bomb, decisively ending the war between Mars and Venus. (If anyone reading this likes doing these sorts of calculations, let me know in comments just how close my own result was.)

One area of science fiction’s growing sophistication that Vincent did not adopt was, as I’ve pointed out before, the advent of non-human aliens introduced by Stanley G. Weinbaum in 1934. His story “The War of the Planets” indicates that Vincent’s resistance to this innovation was religious in nature. Whatever his motives, however, his continuing use of human aliens allowed him to maintain a story milieu that included earlier stories such as “Thia of the Drylands”, “The Roadways of Mars”, “The Barrier”, and the Ridge Coler trilogy. “Neutral Vessel” depicts an inner solar system that is growing together culturally as the inhabitants of Venus, Earth, and Mars intermarry, setting the stage for chronologically later stories such as “Vulcan’s Workshop”, “Too Many Boards”, and the Carr Parker stories, in which the three worlds have joined together under a single government.

As I noted in my remarks on Vincent’s “High-Frequency War” (which appeared in Astounding one month after “Neutral Vessel”), Campbell was running stories about five months after accepting them, which would indicate that “Neutral Vessel” was composed during the summer of 1939 and accepted by Campbell in August. Thus, like “High-Frequency War”, “Neutral Vessel” would have been written against the backdrop of looming war in Europe. It was widely believed in the United States that the country had been tricked by war profiteers into taking part in World War I, and the increasingly stringent Neutrality Acts passed by Congress were an attempt to prevent the same thing from happening a second time and maintain American neutrality. And in “Neutral Vessel”, Earth has maintained its neutrality through two years of war between Mars and Venus. In the end, though, Earth is drawn into the war anyway – not through trickery by war profiteers, but by the deliberate actions of one of the warring planets. Which was how the United States would eventually enter the war that was bearing down on the world while Vincent was writing his story.

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