Saturday, September 12, 2015

Nonlethal Biological Warfare?

David H. Keller, an older contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft, published often in Amazing Stories and occasionally in Weird Tales, from the late 1920s to the early 1940s.  He wrote both science fiction and fantasy, but the latter was considered his forte by critics.  According to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1998), Keller wrote “compulsively” for over 60 years.  Much of his work still remains unpublished.  Keller often submitted his work without charge to obscure amateur magazines and small presses, where it is now difficult to find and catalogue.  This is too bad, because many of his stories are memorable and effective. 

Keller was a psychiatrist—a “horse and buggy doctor”, as he describes it, with a private practice in a small rural community—before turning to a career in fiction.  He sold his first story at age 48, and began writing professionally two years later.  Compared to other pulp magazine writers of the time, Keller, along with Stanley G. Weinbaum shows a greater interest in human emotions and relationships.  Keller was also an early scholar of H.P. Lovecraft circa the mid-twentieth century, and thought to be the originator of the theory, unsubstantiated, that Lovecraft inherited syphilis from his parents.  (Two of Keller’s stories were discussed in earlier posts; see also Vermiphobia  and Look Both Ways!)

Keller’s The Yeast Men (1928) depicts an alternative universe closely parallel to our own in the early 20th century. Superficially it appears to be science fiction because of its weird pseudo-technology.  However, the paraphernalia that appear in Keller’s fiction have a different, even playful quality when compared to the devices and extrapolations invented by other pulp science fiction writers of the time.  It is not always clear how his technology works, but Keller was not concerned about scientific believability.  Looking back on his career, he wrote that “For years I was known as a science fictioneer…In these tales I introduced a new form of science-fiction by writing of human emotions and reactions to new inventions.  Thus the important part of the tales was man and not the gadget.”

In The Yeast Men, two fictional European kingdoms, Eupenia and Moronia have been at war with each for centuries.  One of these, Eupenia, is ruled by people with suspiciously German sounding names. As the story opens, things are not going well for democratic, peace-loving Moronia, a mountain principality surrounded on all sides by its relentless enemy.  Eupenia has engulfed its historic foe like an amoeba, and Premier Plautz, the mercurial dictator, wants to put an end to the Moronians once and for all in a final onslaught.  

Eupenia and Moronia may remind older readers of the classic Marx Brothers comedy, Duck Soup (1933), a political farce in which two European nations, Freedonia and Sylvania, also go to war. The Yeast Men contains elements of satire, but is not played strictly for laughs.

In their darkest hour, the Moronians turn to the humble and self-effacing Mr. Billings, “one of Moronia’s staff of scientific investigators.”  He is described as “a harmless fellow from America”, an older gentleman who needs to be humored and respected because of his age.  Mr. Billings may be an avatar of the author himself.  Billings has an invention, a biological weapon that may save Moronia and win the war:

“It is a peculiar form of yeast.  In the machine we compress it.  Just as soon as it is liberated, it begins to extract nitrogen from the air, and expands.  It not only expands but it actually grows by the rapid division of the yeast cells.”

“I do not understand it”, said the King, “but I am willing to take your word for it.  What makes them move?”

“Radiant energy.  Before the yeast is put into the guns, it is thoroughly energized with a form of radium.”
That is, made radioactive.  Radium, discovered in 1898, was still a mysterious substance in the 1920s.  Because its nature and properties were less well known at the time—as was radioactivity in general—radium appears as a plot device in a number of science fiction stories of the period.
For example, in P. Schuyler Miller’s The Arrhenius Horror (1931), the seed of an alien life form thrives and grows inside a large deposit of glowing radium.  Evil aliens contrive to steal all of the Earth’s valuable radium in Donald Wandrei’s Raiders of the Universes, (1932).  (See also How to Make a Silicon Life Form and An ‘Astounding Story’ by Wandrei.)  Though he does not mention radium by name, H.P. Lovecraft’s narrator in The Shunned House (1928) hopes to destroy the vampire-like entity with “vigorously destructive etheric radiations”. 

There are probably other examples, and it would be interesting to explore the appearance of radium as a trope in the speculative fiction of the time.  How did the fictional depiction of this material reflect the growing uneasiness about its use?

Because radium glows in the dark, it was used in luminescent paint, for example, on the faces of clocks and watches—at least until the 1960s.  However, even in the 1920s, when Keller wrote his story, the hazardous effects of exposure to radium were starting to becoming known.  (The Geiger Counter was invented the year The Yeast Men was published.)  This was the decade of the “Radium Girls”, young women who suffered terrible cancers and premature death as a result exposure to the material—they had been trained by their bosses to sharpen the ends of their radium laden paint brushes with their lips.

Billings’ radioactive yeast does not produce “men” so much as humanoid shaped blobs of congealed microorganisms that are capable of movement.  Gravity drives them down from the mountain kingdom of Moronia to the plains of Eupenia below.  After a growth period of several days, the yeast corpus dies and dissolves into a putrefying slime, the odor of which induces intense nausea, but not death.  The Moronians plan to overwhelm the enemy with nasty, foetid sludge.  Here is how the “yeast men” are weaponized on the battlefield:

…peculiar-looking machine guns were being placed at intervals of one mile, each manned by a group of trained Moronian soldiers.  These guns were simple in construction, and mounted on sturdy tripods.  Above each was a small hopper, from which yeast was fed to a small but powerful press operated by condensed air.  Each blow of the ram produced a yeast man one-eighth of an inch high.  These were dropped into the barrel of the gun and shot into the air several hundred yards from the gun.  Like thistle-down they floated, gradually dropping to the ground, base downward and head erect.  Immediately on touching the earth, they began their peculiar shuffling movement, which was to continue in the exact direction in which they had started.
Near the end of the story it is revealed that the yeast men can make a nutritious bread if they are baked before they dissolve.  And once they have gone through their period of intense putrefaction, their remains become useful as high grade fertilizer.  This information is not initially shared with the vanquished Eupenians, however.

On the surface, The Yeast Men seems silly and preposterous.  However, it is helpful to know something of the context in which the story was created.  In the mid to late 1920s, Europe had become increasingly unstable both politically and economically. The Nazis made rapid progress in seizing control of the German government.  (Hitler published his infamous Mein Kampf in 1925.)  Keller’s evil Premier Plautz is an over-the-top caricature of Adolph Hitler—if such a thing is possible—but people at the time did not yet know the full horror of what he was to bring about. 

The Yeast Men is primarily a fantasy, interesting not so much as a story in itself, but in what it attempts to do:  suggest a nonlethal path to resolving armed conflicts, just a decade after the first World War.  The story betrays the author’s wishful thinking that another devastating war could be avoided, perhaps by using alternative technology.  Ironically, the use of radium to activate a nonlethal weapon of mass destruction is exactly the opposite of how this material, in a more refined form, was used to end the terrible war still on the horizon.


  1. Since reading his "The Revolt of the Pedestrians", I've always meant to read more Keller. I had never heard that a lot of his stuff was published free in amateur publications.

  2. I've only recently discovered him. Keller was strongly recommended by the owner of a local used book store that I visit often. (The shop specializes in science fiction--it's a gold mine.)

    A good collection is Tales from Underwood (1952).

    Keller reminds me of Stanley Weinbaum, but has more of a melancholic tone in his writing. Over the next year I would like to discuss more of his work, though my focus will remain primarily on Lovecraft, Howard and Smith.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. Having a look at a couple of Gutenberg texts now, Tiger Cat and Rat Racket. Thanks for bringing him to my attention.

  4. Hi John.

    What would we do without Gutenberg? There's some interesting stuff tucked away in their archives. Haven't read "Rat Racket" but I found it there and may give it a try when I get a moment.



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