Let’s jump back into that ninety-three year old issue of Weird Tales that’s available for all of us to read online and… actually read it! Or, at least, read the first story. I’m going to do that right now, and take notes.
The story is “Invaders from Outside: A Tale of the Twelve Worlds” by J. Schlossel.
We’ve already looked at the first sentence, but now let’s expand that to the first paragraph:
On every hand huge brilliant suns, single or multiple, flashed past with their retinue of small dark planets. Though there was no sound to mark their passage through the heavens, yet one felt that here, indeed, was a roaring inferno. Slowly and steadily did the solar system forge ahead through this veritable whirlpool of mighty blazing suns. It was nothing less than a miracle that the sun should be able to guide his charge of planets safely through this densely star-packed region near the center of the Milky Way. Even though the sun now shone with his greatest possible splendor, he was nothing but a tiny dwarf sun within a region where white-hot giants abounded.
I wasn’t really sure what to make of the first sentence, especially compared against Lester Dent’s (in)famous formula, but there is something about it that I like. The first paragraph seems to build on the opening poetry, presenting us not with a human character (either hero or villain) as our point of view proxy, but the sun itself? And the sun is male, by the way, in case you were wondering.
Honestly, though, I don’t think the Sun as a character was the author’s intent. I think the intent was to establish this as a story about space, as a science fiction story, with a plan to get to a character later. I don’t want to be formulaic and restrictive though my instinct as an editor is to rail against this idea, to insist (as much as I tend to insist on anything) that we begin with a character doing something…
I kinda like this.
And in the end (or at the beginning!) “I like this” is all you need from your readers. Still, the fact that the story continues all the way through without ever presenting a single named character is fuel for vocal complaint, but we’ll keep going!
The next couple paragraphs start to narrow down to a collection of inhabited planets—a group of people doing things (observing ever farther into the universe around them)—and continuing to drill down to the first proper name we get: the Scientific Society of the Twelve Confederate Worlds. Still not a character, but an organization. Come on, J. Schlossel—show me a character!
And as an aside, can anyone see the word that ends the second to last line and begins the last line in the first paragraph of the right column? …missed something through an unavoidable ???-tion, the other members did not?
Another thing that makes me cringe: the “little did he know” moment in which we (the readers) now know something the (as yet unintroduced) character(s) don’t know:
Ignorant entirely of its coming, of the curious zigzag course it followed, or of its desperate purpose, the inhabitants of those twelve civilized worlds went on confidently with their researches and their dreams of eternal peace.
Trying to hold it together already in the face of the impenetrable horror of the omniscient viewpoint. Noooooooooo!
Okay, we’ll remember it’s 1925. The culture will survive this.
So we’re getting an info dump on the Twelve Confederate Worlds but at least we hear that Mars is one of them, so this sun is our Sun. Fascinating stuff this confederated solar system, but fun as it is this is still an info dump. J. Schlossel has decided we have to be taught something, even if his writing is readable and his worldbuilding clever, we’re told the history of the future (or, at least, I assume this is the future) before we get on with the story. I disagree with J. Schlossel on this point. Show me the world within the story, don’t tell me about the world before I can get to the story! Here’s, so far, two good examples of looking at the pulps for what not to do. Instead of what we see in this story, remember:
A POV character is essential: one scene, one POV.
Start with characters doing something, never with any version of an info dump.
Moving into the third page of the story I’m wondering if this is the far future or the far past—I’d be willing to bet, at this point, that the latter is true. I love this setting and could write for the rest of my life inside it, but though there’s mention of an unnamed Martian captain, there is still no character here. J. Schlossel has pushed back so far that we’re reading a sketchy history of some distant past—a sort of fictional article, like a science fiction version of a movie mockumentary.
I’m actually not sure I hate that, strangely enough.
Here’s a “story” that’s (so far) breaking all my most closely held “rules” for writing fiction, but I’m enjoying it?
Yes, actually, the fact that I’m digging the story does matter more than whether or not it passes those tests. See? This is me being flexible in my thinking.
As this goes on I found myself less worried about the writing and more curious about the context of it. As I go deeper into the fourth page of the story it’s clear that J. Schlossel has built a utopian vision of a society that has completely forgotten the concept of war and seem to have a kind of mercantile socialism—at least in the first stages of interplanetary travel, trade is the thing. What does this say about 1925? The Roaring Twenties, the space between World Wars? The brief moment where a lot of the world toyed with the idea of Communism while watching Russia with a mix of hope and suspicion?
Was J. Schlossel a Red?
Or was J. Schlossel (see how I’m avoiding pronouns?) just as tired of war as anyone who lived through World War I?
Then here we see a clearer statement of at least a post-racist, socialist utopia:
The inhabitants of the Twelve Confederate Worlds were not individualists. They had advanced beyond that stage on the day when their separate worlds had united, for on that day each race had given up its deep-rooted dream that its own peculiar species had been created supreme above all others. It was the intelligence, not the form or color of their fellow creatures, that they held in high esteem.
But then the seemingly inevitable question that undercuts any utopian vision:
One question loomed up large: would not this perpetual peace and ease breed a race of cowardly degenerates?
Schlossel then asks—and this I find fascinating—the next question, which other anti-utopianists fail to ask: Why is that so bad? If you’ve eliminated war, how can not having a killer instinct be bad? If you don’t have anyone to shoot at, why learn how to shoot?
Finally, then, the interloper planet is detected and the Twelve Worlds activates its version of the Emergency Broadcasting System. And here, he just got me:
No attention was at first paid to those who let their emotions run away with them, but later, when the hysteria of the few was spreading like wildfire, it was decided to banish all who were inclined to excessive nervousness to some far off spot until the crisis was either past, or their fate definitely settled.
Let’s get the scared people out of here.
I wonder if that would work for America, 2018?
Although there would be about forty of us left.
Is this the author’s reaction to the difficult (at best) to nail down causes of the First World War? The sense that people overreacted to a few small events and marched off to a disastrous war half-cocked?
I don’t know.
Then the scientists decide this is no big deal, that the approaching planet will miss the solar system, but then the repeated sin of the omniscient viewpoint blows up that fleeting hope:
If their instruments could have seen beneath the snowlike covering, seen what was going on there, the Confederate Worlds would have begun feverish preparations for one of the most desperate struggles that had ever been fought.
This is interesting—did J. Schlossel accidently identify dark matter in 1925?
And that approaching world and many others had come from somewhere out there, not from a living, glowing star cluster, but from the outskirts of a dead, intensely black region, from a region, if such a region can be imagined, where all matter is nearly stable, and so all matter almost dead. There were no flaming suns there to give light to that terrible darkness. Each body within the borders of that lifeless region was breaking down. the molecules were disintegrating, the atoms flying free. In the boundless sea of ether the atoms were moving sluggishly away in vast, cloudlike masses. This was the end of the universe.
Science fiction meets science… accidentally? I love it when that happens. And it will happen in this story twice—maybe even three times.
The second is the reveal that the strange planet is actually a sort of starship housing what looks like a cryogenically preserved population of strange, bipedal creatures. The planet is looking for a star to orbit so its atmosphere can unfreeze. Another fascinating science fiction concept described from a distance—and was he the first to think of that? Sending frozen astronauts out into space so they can sleep through the long trip? I’m not sure.
That aside, though, I’m just going to say it right now: This isn’t a story, this is a synopsis for a story (sans characters) and I’m finding myself more and more desperately wanting to take this outline and write this novel myself! Put characters into this, show them doing this stuff in the moment, conveying only what those POV characters know in that moment and attaching the meat to this weird, groovy, Old School SF skeleton.
Anyway, the “story” continues with the strange invaders acting like a disease, colonizing and expanding without any sense of proper resource management. Who, I wonder, in the world of 1925, are these invaders supposed to be? Who was colonizing like this, moving in, setting up cities, pushing out local populations? Or were the Europeans the invaders from outside and the Twelve Worlds are Native Americans?
We get back to the anti-utopian thing with this grim passage:
The Confederate Worlds awoke to their danger at last. Was it too late? They sought in their museums and in the old archives of their early histories for plans of death-dealing devices that their own ancient, blood-thirsty ancestors had used. They discarded their foolish dreams of peace and selected the ideas for the most terrible weapons that they could find and they began to manufacture these with lightning rapidity.
“Foolish dreams of peace”? That’s sad, isn’t it? What I thought started as a call for a more peaceful post-war world seems to have degenerated into a clarion call for what, in 1925, was the as-yet unimagined military industrial complex. Maybe I don’t want to write this book now!
Anyway, the story descends into all out war.
As the war rages, we start to see the principle advantage the Twelve Worlds has, and that’s a superior technology. The aliens still behave like invading germs, and the inhabitants of the solar system fight back first with the advantage of their matter transporters allowing them to move much, much faster than the invaders, who are relying on reverse-engineered spaceships. Then a long-range ray weapon is invented that “seemed the weapon of a child, and yet whatever it touched was destroyed.”
This brings up the old Guns, Germs, and Steel concept that greater technology always wins out against the masses—a theory that certainly seemed proven true in the war still more than a decade in J. Schlossel’s future, as it did in his past with the European invasion of the Americas.
The story then takes a weird turn once the tide of war turns in the favor of the Twelve Worlds where the invaders start to sing: “It was their death song.” This is the only sign of “humanity” we see from the outsiders.
When he planet “No. 5” is destroyed there’s an interesting bit in which we see the creation of the asteroid belt and a large chunk of it hurled onto the primitive Earth, home of “four-legged creatures,” and “Life there was instantly destroyed.” Was this the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs? Even if maybe it wasn’t an asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, this story predates the impact theory by fifty-five years. And then the survivors of the Twelve Worlds all move to Earth to start over, the dinosaurs now extinct.
That ending was dissatisfying for me because it depends on that terrible old concept that war is inevitable and it’s impossible ever to evolve beyond it because you’ll inevitably be threatened by some other less evolved guy, so let’s all agree not to evolve? I hate that.
But then here’s that weird moment when science fiction predates actual science by fifty-five years—with J. Schlossel describing the mass extinction of the dinosaurs via asteroid impact. Further research shows that a Dutch astronomer had suggested dark matter as early as 1922—and J. Schlossel was probably aware of that work. Still… pretty cutting edge stuff in 1925.
And then a quick Google search for J. Schlossel reveals that his first name was Joseph and he was a Canadian author and “Technocrat” who died in 1977.
All in all, I have mixed feelings about this story, or more accurately, this science fiction mockumentary, but it was absolutely worth a read and got me thinking.
You can jump to the next story here!