Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Effects of Gravity

The figure of the inventor, mad or otherwise, is quite common in pulp science fiction of the early twentieth century.  Inevitably his creations are examples of unrestrained hubris and egoism, and achieve spectacular, if ironic consequences.  (Her inventions on the other hand, had they received the attention due them and been documented with as much care, almost certainly would have been more sensible, more helpful to the commonweal.)  There are numerous examples of this stock character. 

Dr. Strange makes evil use of a device that combines hypnotism and radio waves in Hugh B. Cave’s The Murder Machine (1930).  Dr. Pollard develops technology that focuses cosmic rays and accelerates human evolution in Edmond Hamilton’s The Man Who Evolved (1931).  In another story by Hamilton, Dr. Detmold creates an artificial intelligence capable of reproducing itself.  It later marshals a giant robot army with which it attacks the eastern United States in the H.G. Wells inspired The Metal Giants (1926). 

More poignantly, a bereaved scientist develops technology by which he hopes to communicate with his deceased wife.  He nearly destroys the world in William Sloane’s marvelous The Edge of Running Water (1936), which is several cuts above the science fiction typical of the period.  (This novel is actually one of two recently published as The Rim of Morning just last year.)

Like Sloane, David H. Keller’s work in this subgenre is markedly different from the usual fare.  Keller was an older contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft’s, about 10 years his senior.  He was a psychiatrist before he turned to writing as a second career later in life.  This occupational background is reflected in his convincing portrayals of characters and their reactions to unusual circumstances.  Whereas Lovecraft tended to write himself in as the protagonist of most of his stories, Keller wrote about other people who may have been versions of some of the patients he knew.

The Flying Fool (1929) is about an inventor, though this one does more assembling than outright invention.  Unlike the protagonists in the afore-mentioned stories, Robert Smith is not a scientist, nor particularly deranged.  He is unhappy and restless, however.  He wants something better in life—he literally wants to rise above his work-a-day world as a department store clerk, and the contraption he builds is an obvious metaphor for economic transcendence.

The Flying Fool is in a collection published by Arkham House in 1952, Tales from Underwood.  The stories in the book are divided into sections reflecting Keller’s three broad areas of interest:  “the science-fictioneer”, “the fantaisiste” and “the psychiatrist”.  Most of his work originally appeared in Amazing Stories and in Weird Tales.

The setting of Keller’s story is New York City at the beginning of the Great Depression.  The poverty of the lead character and his wife—symbolized by her endless darning of socks that cannot be replaced with new ones—empowers the theme of the story:  the ruination of hopes and ambitions by a faltering economy that cannot support them.  Money is scarce, and its lack is the impetus for the main character, the amateur inventor Robert Smith, to explore various money-making schemes.  One of these involves developing a technological means for individuals to fly.
The Flying Fool (1929) begins as many stories of this type do, with a smattering of half-baked scientific theory:

Many centuries ago man realized that light and heat were related.  Then Joule and Rumford showed that light, heat, and energy were related according to definite physical laws.  Thus, energy was added to light and heat.  Now, gradually the scientists have proven that to these three forces can be added matter, space, time, gravitation, and electricity.  The only factor absent was to determine the relation between electricity and gravitation.  According to Einstein, [a frequently cited authority by pulp science fiction inventors—editor.], there is only one substance, ‘the field’, and this contains electrical and gravitational components which are closely tied together by a single formula…

It is a short leap from here to conceive of a device that operates through a combination of electricity, magnetism and a unique substance called “permalloy”.  Permalloy, recently invented, is strongly repelled by magnetic fields.  Conveniently, Smith learns that the Bell Telephone Laboratories nearby has some permalloy for sale, at ten dollars per pound.  This is a small fortune for the inventor, but the material is critical for Smith’s experiments. He sews it into the fabric of his suit—surely a tangible expression of his desire to move upward in the world.

(“Permalloy” may remind older readers of “Upsadasium”, featured in numerous episodes of Rocky and His Friends.  These aired in 1960 through 1961.  Bullwinkle’s uncle owns an upsadasium mine, and Rocky and his associates struggle to safeguard the anti-gravity material for the United States government, keeping it out of the hands of Boris and Natasha and the evil Pottsylvanian leader, Mr. Big.)  

As he nears the completion of his invention, Smith has to solve various technical problems:  how to keep the unit stable in flight, how to propel it horizontally, how ensure there is a safe amount of power to prevent him from plummeting back to earth like Icarus.  Keller weaves in some irony here, for the various innovations Smith makes on the way to mastering flight technology would have been money makers in themselves:  

And right there Robert Smith hovered on the edge of becoming a multimillionaire.  Had he patented that little idea and protected the patent, his wife would have had no more need to darn sox, but all he could think of at that time was going up in the air.

In the climactic scene, he sits in his specially designed electromagnetic chair on the balcony, about to throw the switch for the first trial run.  But from the interior of his cramped apartment he hears his two year old daughter begin to stir and cry in her sleep…

The Flying Fool is not as psychologically disturbing as Keller’s The Worm (1927) or The Thing in the Cellar (1932), nor as edgy as The Doorbell (1934).  The overall tone of this invention story is one of affection, sadness and irony.  Robert Smith will not be able to transcend his circumstances, even with a permalloy powered flying device.  It seems he would have achieved the same negative results if he had pursued door-to-door sales, taken a correspondence course, or engaged in some other get rich quick scheme.  Keller is describing a character type, or perhaps a character situation, one that is still very familiar to us today.  In hard times, what can an average Joe or Josephine do to overcome their economic fate?

Which brings to mind an individual of roughly the same time period—late 1920s to the mid 1930s—who was also unable to escape impoverishment despite grand ambitions.  H.P. Lovecraft subsisted for a couple decades on the dwindling estate of his deceased grandfather, and experienced only minimal success as an author during his lifetime.  It is remarkable, given his materialist bent and enthusiasm for science, that his fiction is almost completely devoid of inventions, technology, or scientists.

There were of course studious, antiquarian investigators poring over obscure tattered documents and connecting the dots.  In Lovecraft’s work there are numerous sorcerers, scholars and occultists, but almost no one wielding experimental gadgetry or applying the scientific method.  Scientists do begin to appear in his later work, for example At the Mountains of Madness (1936).  There is considerable evidence that Lovecraft was aware of contemporary advances in scientific knowledge and technology.  “Riemannian equations” and “the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum” appear in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933).  An adapted Crookes tube is used as weapon in The Shunned House (1928). 

But for one reason or other Lovecraft never completely made the transition to science fiction, was never able to transcend or rise above horror.  In fact, he barely rose above ground level, literally speaking, much less achieved flight.  “Who can, with my knowledge, think of the earth’s unknown caverns without a nightmare dread of future possibilities?”  Though he surely did not seek salvation in religion, it seems he did not think scientific invention would provide much hope of deliverance, either for his characters, or himself.


George Allan England, author of the frequently anthologized The Thing From Outside (1923) has some amusing advice for aspiring science fiction writers, circa 1924.  Much of it is focused on stories involving scientific inventions.  See If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…                                

Several earlier posts have discussed pulp science fiction stories featuring weird inventions:

Technology and Timeframes in Weird Menace Fiction (Hugh B. Cave’s The Murder Machine)

Our Cerebral Future (Edmond Hamilton’s The Man Who Evolved)

1. Robots Run Amok (Edmond Hamilton’s The Metal Giants)

2. Mad Scientist, Mad Gardener (R.G. Macready’s The Plant Thing)

Clues at the Scene of the Slime (Anthony M. Rud’s Ooze)

Necromantic Epiphenomena (William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water)

Don’t Look Now, But… (Frances Steven’s Unseen—Unfeared and H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond)


  1. I really must read Keller. Lovecraft's position is interesting, especially since he knew of Carnacki, Hodgson's creation, but was very dismissive of the Ghost Finder. Carnacki, of course, was scientific and meticulous, and those stories introduced such devices as his electric pentacle.The science-based approach was obviously not to HPL's taste, except in passing. Incidentally, I referenced your Smeltzer interview last week on greydogtales. Hope that is OK (I did link back, naturally).

  2. I saw the reference and appreciated it--thanks.

    Keller is interesting because of the way he applies his psychiatric experience to characterization. With the exception of Stanley G. Weinbaum and a very few others, many pulp writers, Lovecraft included, did not display much knowledge of human nature in their characters, much less a familiarity with women. Which is why authors like Smeltzer and his contemporaries are interesting to watch, as they combine Lovecraftian motifs with a more balanced and modern view of gender and ethnicity.

    1. Quite agree (although it's years since I read Weinbaum). When the Cthulhusattva anthology is out in May, I could send you the text of my 'Messages' story for amusement, if you'd like. Lovecraft from the angle of a mother and her daughter in present-day Anchorage. The next author I want to cover, if I get time, is H R Wakefield, who has a better understanding of human nature, but who seems almost misogynist at times.

  3. Please do--I'd be interested in taking a look at it.

  4. Keller was IMO the most interesting of the SF writers writing for the pulps from 1928 to 1933, before Stanley Weinbaum appeared as a super nova in 1934.

    BTW, Permalloy is, despite the "scientifictious" name, a real alloy that was invented in 1914.


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