The Retro-Hugo Awards

The Novels of 1938
by Claire Brialey

A version of this article was first published in a booklet distributed by Loncon 3 at the Hugo ceremony at LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon.

So you’re in your time machine, about to head for 1939 to attend the first Worldcon. We won’t ask you about your expectations, hopes and fears; we’re expecting you to cover all that when you write about it on your return – or when you get trapped in the past and have to send us coded messages through science fiction magazines.

Instead there’s the question we ask people before any trip: what are you taking to read? And you tell us that there’s no need for that this time. (No risk of wiping out the whole genre by accidentally leaving behind a modern SF novel. No risk of being stuck in the past without the charger for your e-reader.) After all, you’re going to the Golden Age of Science Fiction; you’ll pick up all the reading material you need when you get there.

You might have under-estimated, though, how much of it there was. If you can, I recommend popping back to 1938 and taking the extra time to keep up with the new novels as they’re published. Or at least bring some back with you, because unless you’ve already got a pretty good collection – including magazines – then not too much of it is likely to be on your shelves now.

If you’re reading this after you’ve returned the time machine, though, don’t despair: most of the novels from 1938 are quite short. And back in the twenty-first century, there are still libraries as well as the Internet. So you’ve got time to take an informed view about potential nominations for the Hugo Awards that weren’t presented at the Worldcon in 1939, and thus contribute to Loncon 3’s own time travel experience.

Modern readers will doubtless look in older works for commentary on current affairs and contemporary visions of the future – and equally make judgments on their absence. In Europe, we expect 1938 to be full of foreboding, with the Spanish civil war still under way and the second world war looming. And there were natural disasters around the world that year: the collapse of the Niagara Bridge; Black Sunday at Bondi Beach; the New England Hurricane; fires and avalanches and floods, oh my.

But it was also an era of possibility and pioneering, with world records being set for speed (the new steam locomotive Mallard in the UK) and distance (Howard Hughes’s round-the-world aeroplane flight), the first ascent of the north face of the Eiger, the discovery of nuclear fission and the rediscovery of the coelacanth. Both Glasgow and Helsinki hosted events classed as a world’s fair – although 1939 would surpass this, with five in addition to the one that concerns us in New York; nylon began to be used commercially, and the ballpoint pen was patented in the UK.

Meanwhile, Amelia Earhart remained officially missing for the whole year.

It’s debatable whether that indicates a trend reflected in science fiction publishing of the time. Even while the debate raged in the letters column of Astounding about whether all that women brought to science fiction was “love interest”, their long-form fiction in 1938 wasn’t entirely helping.

Strange Awakening, by Dorothy Quick, offers us a young woman kidnapped from Earth by the ruler of Venus (the Great Mind) and has been described as an erotic fantastic adventure novel. Different SF readers choose their own distinctions about what to claim for the genre; maybe in 1938 we would pre-emptively have known to point at the same things. On this basis, though, Elizabeth Goudge’s Towers in the Mist may present more as a historical romance, set in Elizabethan Oxford, but contains fantastic elements blending fairytale and religious imagery. Yet The Sea Priestess by Dion Fortune (a pseudonym, apparently, for a prominent British occultist of the time), whose narrative could be clearly categorised as fantasy, was arguably intended at least partly as a teaching guide to practical ritual.

Also not helping mutual understanding between men and women of the Golden Age was a novel from August Anson, When Women Reign, depicting the misfortunes that might be observed in future centuries when such unnatural social conditions apply.

Restoring some hope for the genre, however – albeit taking the form of a narrative poem – Josephine Young Case’s At Midnight on the 31st of March describes how a village in New England finds itself alone in an apparently uninhabited America. It’s an early exploration of themes which continue to engage not only science fiction but many of the other stories that we tell about humanity.

1938 also saw the publication of some fantastic literature for children and young adults, which may thus already be more familiar to SF readers of all ages – and, then as now, was produced by both female and male authors: The Lord of the Rushie River by Cicely Mary Barker, Dead Ned by John Masefield, The Journey of Tapiola by Robert Nathan, The Silver Princess in Oz by Ruth Plumly Thomson, More About Worzel Gummidge by Barbara Euphan Todd, and The Sword in the Stone by T H White.

It’s clear that what we might describe, for the era, as The Matter of Europe was ripe for exploration through science fiction, mostly through stories set in the very near future.

Demonstrating the long-standing popularity of at least one Dumas novel as a springboard for speculative fiction, Fedor Kaul published A Modern Monte Cristo, featuring a self-evident Hitler character, domestic oppression and genocide and the oncoming shadow of war. Meanwhile, Chaos by Shaw Desmond considers a future war between the UK and Germany; and Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Time – the original version, serialised in three parts in Astounding – features an imminent world war amidst choices about which future the Earth should inherit. Although that last might really be a novella.

Minimum Man, or, Time Be Gone by Andrew Marvell (no, not that one) features both a fascist coup in the UK in 1950 and a new race of telepathic supermen, who seem likely to out-evolve homo sapiens and should doubtless be considered symbolic. Supermen also feature in John S Martin’s General Manpower, in which the eponymous corporation displays no greater sensitivity and charm than we would expect in fiction of our current century – from which perspective the novel is narrated; the corporate goal in this story, however, is the development of ways to implement eugenics.

Billed as satire and thus perhaps aiming for symbolism more subtly, J Storer Clouston’s Not Since Genesis placed the nations of Europe at risk of a meteor disaster (although, as it happens, 1938’s actual meteorite incident took place about 12 miles above Pennsylvania).

But it wasn’t all about Europe. The World Goes Smash, by Samuel Hopkins Adams, is set in 1940 and describes an American civil war. Frederick C Painton’s six-part Argosy serial is entitled The Invasion of America. And J B Priestley published The Doomsday Men, featuring a mad scientist in a tower in Los Angeles which might or might not have been a sign of the times.

Identifying those more explicit examples isn’t to imply that other novels are less engaged with contemporary issues or the human condition. Saurus, by Eden Philpotts, provides an alien observer of human behaviours and events. C S Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet (the first in what became his Cosmic Trilogy) introduces his human characters to the culture and philosophy of alien races and vice versa; in customary Lewis fashion, the book is underpinned by theological concepts alongside its scientific romance. Separately, the near future of Neil Bell’s One Came Back includes the founding of a new religion after the apparently miraculous resurrection of a politician.

Alongside Chaos, in 1938 Shaw Desmond also published World-Birth, which considers the future history of mankind through to the development of an ideal state. Lest we rush too enthusiastically towards that ideal, though, The Adventure of Wyndham Smith by S Fowler Wright presents a Utopian state which isn’t – leading to a nearly unanimous decision to commit suicide and the consequent need to hunt down those displaying slightly more optimism about the future, to discourage the others. Thomas Calvert McClary’s Three Thousand Years, appearing in three parts in Astounding, describes the attempts of scientists to build a utopia after the Earth has been placed in suspended animation for a period of time I’ll leave you to guess.

Leaving aside the long look and the big issues, new technology could be a defining feature for the still new genre of science fiction in 1938. Thus Arthur Bruce Allen’s The Pyromaniac includes a heat-operated ray gun; the first English language edition of La Machine à Lire Les Pensées (The Thought-Reading Machine) by André Maurois offers thoughts recorded on photographic film; and Asleep in the Afternoon by E C Large, while partly a reflection on a writer’s life, includes a storyline about a device that induces sleep.

To wake the reader up again we have novels of the prolific and the popular (often overlapping categories). 1938 readers were treated to a dozen of the fantastic adventure “Doc Savage” novels – published under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, but written in the main by Lester Dent and otherwise, in these cases, by Harold A Davis or Ryerson Johnson. Legions of the Accursed Light was a Spider novel, similarly published under the house name of Grant Stockbridge although written, as most were, by Norvell Page. A separate six-part serial, Genius Jones, appeared under Lester Dent’s own name in Argosy, concluding in January 1938.

Edgar Rice Burroughs continued two series through six-part serials in Argosy which concluded in 1938: the third Carson novel, Carson of Venus, and the twentieth Tarzan novel, The Red Star of Tarzan (also published in the same year in book form as Tarzan and the Forbidden City). Burroughs’ The Lad and the Lion was also published as a separate volume, evidently expanded for this purpose from the 1917 serial version.

The fourth and fifth Jack Mann “Gees” books, featuring supernatural detective Gregory George Gordon Green, also appeared in 1938 (The Kleinart Case and Maker of Shadows), and Sax Rohmer published The Drums of Fu-Manchu. And “lost race” novels remained, if not a major theme, at least a minor note. S Fowler Wright’s The Hidden Tribe might have lost out in the innovation stakes to The Secret of Tibet by William Dixon Bell, since the latter also features airship boys.

E E “Doc” Smith’s Galactic Patrol became the third “Lensman” novel in 1950, but this original serialisation (an Astounding six-parter, concluding in 1938) contains the first parts written of the Lensman stories.

This overview doesn’t attempt to provide a complete and definitive list of the eligible novels; I’ve not, for instance, covered anything published in 1938 in a language other than English, and there were other serialised novels which aren’t included here either.

As ever, this also isn’t making specific recommendations about what you should nominate. Like some of those novels, it’s here mainly to kick-start your enquiring mind and sensawunda – and in particular to encourage some exploration and (re)reading before the nominations deadline rolls around in March 2014.

Your choices about what to nominate for the best novel of 1938 in Loncon 3’s Retro-Hugo Awards will help to determine how we come to remember the speculative fiction of that year: pioneering spirit, brooding menace, the comfort of familiar characters or the challenge of undiscovered opportunities. Or something of them all.

© Claire Brialey, 2013

Acknowledgement and indeed grovelling appreciation for research and fact-checking to the online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the Internet Speculative Fiction Database, Kees van Toorn, and Mark Plummer.