Thursday, September 17, 2009

Taking a shine to "The Golden Girl of Munan"

For some science fiction writers, we know quite a lot about how they came to write their first published story. For instance, Jack Williamson, living with his parents on their isolated ranch in New Mexico, saw his first copy of Amazing Stories at the age of nineteen and immediately decided to write science fiction stories. His fifth story, "The Metal Man", was written in the summer of 1928, and Williamson didn't find out it had sold until he passed a drugstore in Canyon, Texas and saw the story illustrated on the cover of the December 1928 issue. Twenty-two year old Lester del Rey was complaining to his then-girlfriend about Manly Wade Wellman's "Pithecanthropus Rejectus", and she challenged him to do better. Del Rey wrote an eight thousand word story called "The Faithful", edited it down to four thousand the next day, mailed it to John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction on Christmas Eve, 1937, and got back a $40 check from Campbell fifteen days later. Isaac Asimov's first published story, "Marooned Off Vesta", was the third he had written, and he came up with the plot on Monday, July 18, 1938, while returning home to Brooklyn on the subway after submitting his second story, "The Callistan Menace", to Campbell. Campbell rejected "Marooned Off Vesta", but Raymond A. Palmer accepted it for Amazing Stories, and it appeared in the March 1939 issue.

Unfortunately, we don't know the circumstances surrounding the writing of Harl Vincent's first published story, "The Golden Girl of Munan". All we have is the story itself. Everett F. Bleiler, in Science Fiction: the Gernsback Years, dismisses the story as "Ersatz Ray Cummings, and a bad job." The mention of Cummings brings to mind his 1919 story "The Girl in the Golden Atom", and the similarity of titles suggests that Vincent was imitating a favorite author, which is commonplace among beginning writers.

Another common symptom of a first story is the appearance of a Mary Sue-type Author Avatar, a character who is an idealized version of the writer. For Harold Vincent Schoepflin, mechanical engineer, the author avatar is clearly Professor Nilsson, the World's Greatest Scientist. As the story unfolds, Roy Hamilton, the point-of-view character, actually plays almost no role in the plot. He receives the warning from Thelda, and persuades Nilsson to act, and after that he does no more than accompany the Professor and watch as he becomes the story's hero.

Professor Nilsson displays no skepticism about Hamilton's story -- indeed, he had long suspected there was something fishy about the whole disappearing cruise liner story. The Professor happens to have an experimental aircraft that can travel to Munan, and he happens to have a cache of weapons to bring along (some of which he invented himself), even though the world has been at peace for 456 years. When he joins the Munanese resistance cell, he quickly assumes command without so much as a murmur of protest from Thelda and the others. He is able to devise a plan of attack that not only thwarts a plan that the Munanese have been working on for centuries, but even destroys the entire island and every last Munanese man, woman, and child, except for the nineteen surviving members of La Resistance. Although Hamilton gets the Golden Girl, the Professor also gets a girl (well, a 40 year old woman) who's almost as pretty.

It's hard to say which is more disturbing about "The Golden Girl of Munan", the fact that Nilsson destroyed the entire island and everyone on it, or the fact that everyone in La Resistance cheered when it happened. While it's true that they're a persecuted minority (or a terrorist group, depending on your point of view), you'd think that some of them would have at least one or two friends or relatives among the general population whose deaths they would mourn, or at least regret. Nilsson doesn't express any regret either, but he has the excuse that he's saving his own civilization. Besides, he's the author avatar, which means he can do no wrong in the author's eyes, no matter how objectively awful he is.

As for the Munanese people themselves, conceptually they are an interesting set of bad guys. In the backstory, the nations of the world joined together to form a global government in 1950 after the invention of weapons so fearsome that a war would wipe them all out. (It might have happened for real around that time if it hadn't been for the ideological rivalry between Communism and liberal democracy.) All the people who refused to go along -- in other words, all the hardcore nationalists -- eventually wound up on Munan, swearing vengeance on the rest of the world. It sounds an awful lot like a modern-day far-right revenge fantasy against the allegedly imminent "one-world government", except that in Vincent's story the world government are the good guys and the vengeful nationalists are the bad guys. So score one for Harl Vincent.

(continue to the sequel, "The War of the Planets")

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