This weekend marks VCON 36 here in Metro Vancouver, and so I've been giving some thought to science fiction beyond simply why my goddamn keyboard won't write brilliant and astounding stories for me. It's at conventions that you really get a sense of the genre's history, the degree to which it extends past just what you can see in the stores today. It's true that there's a lot of things that science fiction writers of the past didn't see coming, and so a lot of historical stuff feels kind of bumpy today. Truly timeless stuff doesn't get put down on every last page, after all.
While some stuff holds up so well that it never goes out of print, there's doubtless plenty of material that's just been forgotten among the reams and reams and reams of paper that represent the output of organized science fiction since Amazing Stories started up in 1926. I think I discovered one such thing, a brief piece that headed up the letter column of Wonder Stories in December 1935 - "The Alien Hah-Rah," which takes us through the plots and tropes that were already considered tired less than ten years after the genre, then known as scientifiction, launched.
I was entertained by it more than seventy-five years after it was first published, and that alone is enough for me to want to share it - to do what I can so that piece of the genre's history isn't totally forgotten. I've searched through U.S. Copyright Renewals 1950 - 1977 and cannot find it attested as having been renewed, so to the best of my knowledge the following letter is presently in the public domain. So hah-rah, and let history take it from here.
"The Alien Hah-Rah," by Richard G. Kerlin
Originally printed in the letter column of Wonder Stories, December 1935
A strange communication came into my possession last year, at which time I was a member of that well-known exploration party, the Ackerman-Darrow Scientifictionic Expedition. As you know, we were then investigating the Gobi desert for those missiles resembling meteorites, of which we have so often read in your magazine. These seeming meteorites, as everyone knows, are always really hollow containers of unknown metals, and they contain either poisonous gases which kill everyone in the world, or a monster which kills everyone, or the seeds of a new life whose growth eventually dooms mankind, or, as in the majority of cases, a message written on a number of ultra-thin, indestructible, peculiar sheets of a substance which of course defies analysis.
I need not tell (but I will) how we found such a meteorite. Toiling wearily along one day, we came upon a great pile of rocks which obstructed the trail which we were following. At once we noticed the pitted surfaces of all these globular stones, which lay in heaps all around. Of course we recognized them at once for what they were: Hollow containers filled with poisonous gases, etc. (see previous paragraph) which had arrived here from outer space.
The first one that we picked up gurgled as we shook it, so, fearing that it contained some virulent liquid whose release would spell mankind's doom, we threw it away. (This missile was later found to be a coconut.) The next one, upon being shaken, responded with a faint rustle, as of manuscript pages. This we opened after an hour's application of our electro-disintegrator ray and a subsequent three-second application of our old can-opener. An old copy of WONDER STORIES fell out. (You all remember the great panic that followed our discovery, as thousands of science-fiction collectors from all over the world rushed to the Gobi desert to prospect for these meteoric missiles.) The following message was written on the edges of the pages:
To the finder of this message (it said): give this communication to the editor of WONDER STORIES. He is to blame, to a great extent, for my troubles. Here is how it all happened.
I was in the Three Hundred and Ninety-Seventh National Bank Building at three a.m., lighting the fuse to the charge I had just placed in the vault door, simply minding my own business, when a sweet odor came to my nostrils and something was clapped to my face. It was chloroform.
I came to myself in a laboratory. the mad scientist in charge of the joint noticed me and at once addressed an assistant. "Take him up there. You know where," he said significantly. I saw the assistant shudder and a look of awful horror came over his face. Reluctantly he came over and seized me (I was still groggy and weak) and marched me out of the room. As we ascended a flight of stairs, he whispered encouragingly, "Don't let this ordeal get you. He's trying to injure your mind, leaving it tortured and weak forever. When the mental damage is done, he turns his victims loose, to affect sane people by their ravings."
He shoved me into a room and locked the door upon me. I looked around for torture instruments, and saw a file of WONDER STORIES upon a long shelf. Having nothing to do, I read some of them. Then, too late, I realized! Already that insidious menace was creeping into my very brain. Plucking fingers tore at my intelligence, and it gave way. Helpless now in the influence of those stories, I read more and moer of them. I raved, I wrote fan letters, I frothed at the mouth and begged for new copies. I had become one of those pitiful science-fiction fans.
One day the Professor came in and saw the title of the story I was writing, "The Master of the Doom of the Menace of the Terror of the Horror Plague of the Curse of the Scourge of the Conqueror of the Green-Purple Peril of the Onslaught of the Malignant Invasion of the Fatal World-Wrecking Death."
"Aha!" he exclaimed. "Great! In the last stages of scientifictionitis; trying to write stories himself!"
At once I was carted out of hte room and placed in a cone-shaped contrivance. The door was sealed upon me. A terrific roar, unendurable pressure, and unconsciousness followed. I awoke to find myself on Mars.
I stepped from the ship only to be surrounded by insect-men who firmly led me into a great stone building and into a tiny room. So - they would throw me into a dungeon! I laughed, for I had read hundreds of stories about escapes from Mars, Ceres, Phobos, fire, and debts, and my experience as a safe-cracker stood me in good stead. Noticing some nitroglycerine in a cup on the table, I went to work. (Lucky, huh?) After getting everything all set to blow, I first exhausted every other possibility of escape before trying this last resort. No windows; walls four feet thick; no trapdoors in either ceiling or floor; no secret panels; no machine by which to rotate myself into the fourth, fifth, sixth, or blue dimensions; no machine enabling me to walk through walls; no contrivance to shrink me out of my difficulty; no apparatus to transport my component atoms elsewhere in the form of vibrations; no ability to yearn myself back to Earth. I turned to the door and lit a match for the fuse. Then a thought struck me - I tried the door. It opened. I left.
As I stepped out of the doorway, I instinctively struck out blindly in all directions at once to overcome the guards. Any stf. fan would have done the same. After ten minutes of furious struggling, I sank to the floor, exhausted; then I noticed that there had been no guards there at all. (What! No guards?) This made me mad, so I left the narrow corridor.
I came out into a great hall, and an insect-man greeted me nervously. "Didn't you like the room?" he clacked. "We gave you the best in the hotel." My mind, already weakened by scientifictionitis, collapsed utterly, so I sent this message which will fall on the Gobi desert, thirteen miles, seventeen feet, and nine and one-half inches from any designated point. Nuts to thee...
So ended the tragic message in the second missile in that great heap of fused meteorites (actually hollow containers, etc.). We of the Ackerman-Darrow Scientifictionic Expedition hope to send you others of these amazing messages after translation by Pretcher Flatt and verification by Prof. Crackpot, Sfn. D.