Monday, May 19, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age #1: Blitz Against Japan

"Blitz Against Japan," by Robert Moore Williams
Appeared in Amazing Stories, September 1942

"Who thought he had developed a secret weapon that was going to end the war," York harshly corrected. "He talks some politician into using pressure in Washington so he could get a trial. He brings his weapon out of Hawaii and installs it on two battleships. He says it will knock planes out of the sky as far as they can be seen, that it will smash the biggest battleship that was ever floated. He takes the battleships out for tests. Blooie! Two battleships gone. Only they were our battleships, the ones on which the weapon had been installed. This might not have been fatal if only the Japs had not chosen the very next day to attack the islands, with every carrier, every cruiser, every destroyer, and every battleship they had, not to mention a couple of hundred transports loaded with troops. We were two battleships short, two ships that might have meant the difference between victory and defeat. That's why we lost the Hawaiian Islands. That's why I'm damning Riemann..."

Here's a fun fact--I bought this issue of Amazing Stories specifically because this was the cover story. I knew it would not be particularly pleasant, and I was not proven wrong.

Picture this: it's Monday, December 8, 1941, smoke is still rising after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and just like that the war that's been raging for two years already has pulled the United States in. It was a conflict that some saw coming--hell, the October 1933 issue of Wonder Stories includes a story that posits the eruption of a war between the US and Japan in 1940--but even if you see the punch coming, that won't make it hurt any less if it hits. That's when you start smarting over it, maybe wondering why it happened at all, but more importantly figuring out how you're going to get back at the guy who swung at you.

That's the atmosphere in which Robert Moore Williams wrote the novelette "Blitz Against Japan," a story you've probably never heard of. Appearing as it does in the September 1942 issue of Raymond Palmer's Amazing Stories, which would itself have hit the stands by August at the latest, fresh wounds ooze through this story. Palmer himself called it "inspired and smashing." With the bright light of morning seventy-two years later falling on it, though, its more problematic aspects are thrown into sharp relief--and damn if there aren't a lot of them.

"Blitz Against Japan" is set in a dark, unpleasant future: specifically, 1943. The Pacific War, at least, is not going well for the United States--Hawaii has been captured, the Pacific Fleet has been sunk, and a gigantic Japanese invasion force is bearing down on the West Coast. We're introduced to our protagonist, Lieutenant Dave York, as he discovers the invasion fleet in a scout plane with a radio shattered in a dogfight with Zero fighters, races to bring the news back to the last American carrier in the Pacific only to find it sinking, runs out of gas within sight of the California coast, and ditches in the water rather than leave his back-seat buddy Red Johnson afloat and alone. They get picked up by a fortuitous seaplane, at least, so it's all good--I mean, except for the whole "the good guys are up against the wall" theme, which is hardly unique to this story. In fact, one of the things that came to mind while reading this story was that this was reminiscent of The Last Starfighter, except with less CGI and a hell of a lot more casual racism. 

Aside from the near-future setting, the story's main science-fictional element comes after York and Johnson return to land, when Johnson lets slip that his uncle, an inventor and scientist named Reimann, is looking for pilots for a secret weapon project that's so secret not even the US government knows about it--shades of the Manhattan Project, certainly. Reimann, we were told earlier to fill space before York and Johnson were picked up by the seaplane, had invented a weapon--the "radium projector"--capable of destroying planes and battleships with equal ease, but the weapon ended up destroying two US battleships instead... and wouldn't you know it, the Japanese attacked literally the next day and conquered Hawaii! The fact that York blames the conquest on Reimann, and not the monumentally massive intelligence failure that allowed the entire Imperial Japanese Navy to attack Hawaii with complete surprise, says a lot about the care with which this story was put together--though it could also be Williams commenting on Pearl Harbor.

So, Riemann has this secret weapon, but he's persona non grata among the military brass because of the battleship incident, and so York and Johnson decide to go AWOL--a capital offense during wartime!--and track down Riemann's secret laboratory, hidden at a horse ranch near San Francisco that Riemann himself owns, because who would ever think to look there? It's there that York discovers the secret weapon: a refined version of the radium projector, a radiation beam which can "accelerate the action of the forces normally present in the metal that cause it to disintegrate." These whiz-bang ray guns come mounted on rocket ships, because in 1942 everyone knew that rocketry was the wave of the future, even if they weren't sure how exactly it would come about. Riemann's rockets, despite having no wings--hell, from the bit visible on the cover, they don't have any control surfaces at all--will be enough to turn the tide of the war.

Then the Nazi saboteurs, fresh from sabotaging the original radium projectors, show up. That's right, what the hell did you expect? This is a war story after all. Here we also see the only female character in the story, York's girlfriend Rita, who exists primarily to sob, be called "kitten," and follow York to the secret laboratory, thereby leading the Nazi saboteurs right there as well. Thankfully, York received literally seconds of training on these experimental aircraft that bear no resemblance to anything he's ever flown before. It's just in time, because the big Japanese invasion of Los Angeles is proving to be only a feint, but before he can launch the Nazis invade the lab and start monologuing! They even let the characters listen to radio reports about how the Japanese are attacking San Francisco with poison gas--specifically, poison gas "released from thousands of hidden generators," only released after all the Japanese residents were evacuated, and the result of a plan that had taken years of preparation. Because, you know, every Japanese person in the United States was a deadly danger and a sleeper agent for Tokyo. The United States would never do anything so heinous as put innocent civilians in internment camps behind barbed-wire fences, so obviously those civilians must not be innocent at all! Everything falls into place, and the American people can believe they're doing the right thing.

That's hardly the way to go, though! The good guys manage to get the upper hand long enough for York to hop into one of these experimental rockets, fire up the engines, induce an oscillation because he's got no idea what he's doing, and slam into the side of a mountain. Wait, no, that's what would really happen.

Video: what really happens when you put an untrained person behind the wheel of a rocket.

Nevertheless, York manages to get the rocket in the air and keep it there. The Japanese fleet has assembled off San Francisco for the invasion, but with almost every plane on the West Coast fighting at Los Angeles, it's up to York to defend the Frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada. He gets a carrier in his sights, triggers the radium projector--and nothing!

Then there's one of the mid-scene scene breaks that happened all the goddamn time in 1930s and 1940s pulp stories, and we find it in fact did something. Then we encounter the Japanese, who start talking like characters from racist propaganda, or racist shoe advertisements. ("What happened to honorable carrier?" "Regret that this lowly one must report to honorable admiral that one carrier has been sunk.") I know that the Japanese language is really up about honorifics, but seriously, people. We then get reflections on how one 1940s destroyer could have sunk the Spanish Armada, and seeing as how the only danger York is in comes from his own skill at piloting, Williams had to throw in a final enemy worthy of his newfound power: the head Nazi spy, who appears in one of the other rockets. This epic duel of the fates lasts for an astonishing six paragraphs before the Nazi is shot down, and afterward the conclusion is obvious. The Japanese fleet is annihilated, and with its newfound advanced technology America is on the march for Tokyo.

In all, not exactly the sort of story that had a lot of staying power. Like the pulps themselves were seen by many, it's fundamentally disposable: meant to be read and then chucked away, tied absolutely to its time. It's not particularly strong, science-fictionally speaking--aside from the rockets and the radium projector it's just invasion literature, though SF has historically owed a lot to that genre. Kenneth Hite once described Gernsback's Amazing Stories as being filled with "odes to antigravity machines," and that's the sort of viewpoint that's echoed in "Blitz Against Japan." It's an entire story about how no matter how much we may screw up and get things wrong, if we put our faith in Blast Hardcheese--by which I mean technology--we'll make it through in the end.

Beyond that, it's just weird. The key to suspending any disbelief whatsoever for this story is to understanding the viewpoint of early 1942. In the United States, Japan was by and large a mystery--in his editorial, Palmer mentions that not even photos of the Zero fighter were available for artist Robert Fuqua to use as reference, though aside from minor details in the wing shape it's remarkably accurate. People were willing to believe that Japan was a juggernaut that would roll across the Pacific, that fifth columns of spies and saboteurs would hamper the war effort, and that the United States was weak and vulnerable. From a modern, historical perspective, it's flatly impossible. Japan did not have the resources to overwhelm the United States, but worst-case scenarios will always prosper in wartime.

This story did get one thing right, though: Japan's defeat came by way of nuclear weapons. Just not the kind you're thinking of.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tailings of the Golden Age: Introduction

Recently there's been a lot of talk about the Golden Age of Science Fiction, and how the field has changed since the days of Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein. That it has changed is something everybody agrees on; it's the nature of that change that feeds modern fires. Beyond that, though, the nature of the Golden Age is harder to pin down than a smeerp in heat. There are plenty of folks who look back to it as a grand, idealized time when arguments like those we deal with didn't happen.

Golden ages aren't just about what we remember, lionize, or pine for, however. What's just as illuminating is what we choose to forget, and god damn have we forgotten a lot about the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Not entirely without reason, in some respects--while editors of the time did print things that are still talked about today, if you open a Golden Age magazine at random you're not likely to find a table of contents filled with familiar names. Fact is, you're going to find things that might challenge your view of what it was like.

Myself, I keep my eyes open for pulp magazines still in readable condition--you'd be surprised how well eighty-year-old pulp paper holds up under the right conditions--so that they can illuminate history. I'll be starting a new series of reviews using them as a source, looking at science fiction published between 1931 and 1964 that catches my attention. Look for it here soon.

history: it's rad