Saturday, March 27, 2010

A deep look at "Undersea Prisoner"

February 1940 was a big month for Harl Vincent; he had stories appearing in no less than two science fiction magazines. There was "Undersea Prisoner" in the venerable Amazing Stories, and "High-Frequency War" in the almost-as-venerable Astounding Science-Fiction. I've speculated elsewhere that "Master Control" from the April 1940 Astonishing Stories was written before "High-Frequency War", and that Astounding editor John Campbell rejected the former story while suggesting one of the characters from it be made the protagonist of the latter story. I now speculate that "Undersea Prisoner" was also written before "High-Frequency War", on the basis that any story was likely to be submitted to the more prestigious Astounding first, and only after being rejected there would be submitted to Amazing. I speculate further that "Master Control" would also have been rejected by Amazing before being submitted to the upstart Astonishing, and therefore was written before "Undersea Prisoner", even though it appeared two months later.

Like Amelia Reynolds Long before him, Harl Vincent looked to the Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard for inspiration. By the late 1930s, though, Professor Piccard had moved on from stratospheric ballooning and was investigating undersea exploration. At the time Vincent wrote "Undersea Prisoner", Professor Piccard had designed a small steel gondola that could withstand great external pressure, and an undersea version of a balloon filled with a lighter-than-water liquid to provide buoyancy. As it happened, Piccard's research was interrupted when the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium in 1940, and it was not until after World War II that he was able to complete work on an undersea balloon filled with gasoline. In the story, it is Professor Francis Augustine who makes Piccard's undersea balloon a reality, some seventy years after the original proposal -- which would place the story around the year 2007.

The early 21st century Vincent imagines is remarkably similar to the early 21st century we're living in now. He describes in vivid detail the media circus that greets Burke and Augustine when they emerge from their gondola onto the deck of the Scipio. There are hordes of television cameras iconoscopic eyes pointed at the two men and helicopters gyrocopters circling in the air above the ship. He even has the captain of the Scipio receive a cell phone televis call from Al Smith Brown, the Governor of New York.

A couple points of interest: Zybyski's crime of kidnaping and murdering a small child is doubtless a reference to the Lindbergh kidnaping and the arrest and trial of Bruno Hauptmann, which occurred earlier in the decade and would still have been fresh in Vincent's mind. I note without comment that Vincent made his Hauptmann-analog a Pole rather than a German. The ship that rescues Burke and Augustine, the Scipio, would have been named after one of the Scipios of the late Roman Republic, either Scipio Africanus the elder, who defeated Hannibal of Carthage at the Battle of Zama, or his grandson-by-adoption Scipio Africanus the younger, who destroyed Carthage sixty years later. The choice of name doesn't seem to have any deeper meaning.

Editorial note: Raymond Palmer, the editor of Amazing Stories, didn't like long sections of scientific exposition in his stories. When he encountered one, he would either eliminate it altogether, or condense it and turn it into a footnote. Isaac Asimov pointed out where Palmer had done this to his story "The Weapon Too Dreadful to Use" in The Early Asimov. Palmer did the same with "Undersea Prisoner", reducing two of that story's passages to footnotes. In reproducing the story in this blog, I have taken the liberty of un-footnoting the two passages and re-inserting them into the main body of the text. I make no apologies.

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