Thursday, November 16, 2017

Guest Post | G Peyton Wertenbaker, Science Fiction Pioneer

By GW Thomas

Early science fiction writers had it tough. Little or no pay and even if you succeeded, everybody thought you were nuts for writing "that junk." It should not be surprising that many of them were young men trying out a new interest. One of these was Green Peyton Wertenbaker, a sixteen-year-old who submitted his first story to Hugo Gernsback's Science & Invention, a non-fiction magazine that occasionally published "Scientifiction" stories. Wertenbacker's first try was called "The Man From the Atom" and it appeared in April 1923. But Hugo had bigger plans for Scientifiction and G Peyton Wertenbaker.

April 1926 saw the reality of Gernsback's dream of a magazine filled only with science fiction. It was called Amazing Stories and it reprinted Wertenbaker's tale along with Jules Verne, HG Wells, George Allan England, Austin Hall, and Edgar Allan Poe. The entire first issue was made up of reprints. So was the second, with the exception of "The Man from the Atom (Sequel)." As suggested by its odd title, it was the second part of Wertenbaker's tale of the man who could control his size. It was also the first new science fiction story to appear in an all-science-fiction magazine. So why isn't G Peyton Wertenbaker a household name?

Mike Ashley in The History of the Science Fiction Magazines, Part 1 (1974) wrote of Wertenbaker: "He was born in Virginia in 1907, and deserted the science fiction field after but five stories, all competently written and deserving of further reprinting. (Although one must grant the licence of some rickety science)." Like so many writers after him, including RF Starzl, Edwin K Sloat, Charles W Differin, and many others, Wertenbaker would leave SF behind to pursue more lucrative fields. (He would become a professional technical writer, a writer of regional novels, London correspondent for Fortune magazine, serve in the Navy, then work at NASA. He would help Hubertus Strughold write The Green and Red Planet (1953), a scientific appraisal of the possibilities of life on Mars. What more could a SF writer want?

His "but five stories" include:

"The Man from the Atom" (Science & Invention, April 1923 and reprinted in Amazing Stories, April 1926). A young man named Kirby, eager for adventure, volunteers to try out a new device that Professor Martyn has created, one that can expand or shrink someone to infinite size. Kirby experiences growing larger than the planet, then the solar system, then the universe. But afterwards, he pines for Earth when he realizes that while he was expanding, time was moving faster back home than for him. Even returning to normal size, everyone on Earth has long since passed away. The tale ends with a cryptic mention of Kirby's going to live with a cruel, but advanced race that treats him like a primitive caveman. This story was significant, for it built on ideas Ray Cummings had used in "The Girl in the Golden Atom" (All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919) and Henry Hasse would expand on in "He Who Shrank"(Amazing Stories, August 1936).

"The Man From the Atom (Sequel)" (Amazing Stories, May 1926) shows the race that Kirby ends up with. They are an advanced people, but the men are all emotionless scientists and the women, who are considered inferior, are more like our own Earthfolk. Kirby's education into this new civilization falls to a girl named Vinda. It is Vinda's uncle who finds a way for Kirby to get home to Earth -- sort of. He postulates that time is circular and that if Kirby expands to great size in a certain fashion he could return to a world that is the next incarnation of 20th Century Earth. The scientists calculate exactly how this can be done and Kirby is too busy with the expectation of returning home to notice that Vinda has fallen in love with him (even though she is programmed to marry Edvar in a stale, emotionless marriage). Kirby returns home only to realize he too is in love with Vinda and leaves again to find the next incarnation of her and her world. The final product of all this expanding (and time traveling) is pretty annoying since Kirby comes off as being a bit thick. The influence of HG Wells's The Time Machine is obvious, with the Time Traveler returning to Weena's time at the end.

"The Coming of the Ice" (Amazing Stories, June 1926) was written when Wertenbaker was nineteen and was the first new story not based on a reprint. This tale follows Dennell, a man who gains immortality by an operation. The doctor Sir John Granden and Dennell's fiancee Alice die in an auto accident, leaving the immortal to suffer the long years ahead in loneliness. We follow his years as an academic, taking multiple PHDs, but ultimately being left behind as the human race evolves beyond his capabilities. Dennell suffers as a primitive curiosity as the human race grows large brain and weak bodied. When the ice comes, this proves to his advantage, being physically superior to the future humans. It becomes bad, with only a remnant of mankind living at the Equator. The immortal is forced to feed on his fellow men until the last survivors commit suicide together. He is alone and writing a history of mankind that no one will ever read. The story showed a much finer touch to the clunkier "The Man From the Atom."

"The Chamber of Life" (Amazing Stories, October 1929) follows Barret, a filmmaker who wakes up in a lake. While returning home he recalls the night before when he had met a scientist named Melbourne. Piecing together what has happened, Barrett remembers that Melbourne showed him his "Chamber of Life," a virtual reality room that took Barrett to a perfect world where he met Selda and fell in love. The Chamber of Life acts directly on the brain so when Barrett left the chamber he experienced both worlds before ending up in the lake. The story ends with the man sadder, knowing he will never see Selda again, but unwilling to find Melbourne and return to her. Many SF critics credit Ray Bradbury's "The Veldt" as the inspiration for the Star Trek holodeck, but this story predates Bradbury by twenty-one years. It even has the germ of the famous Geordie LaForge/Leah Brahms love story arc. That Bradbury read this story in his youth is likely. Beside the holodeck inspiration, this story, with its fragmented structure, shows Wertenbaker taking a new, maturer command of his writing. It is in my opinion his best work.

"The Ship That Turned Aside" (Amazing Stories, March 1930) (as Green Peyton) is a variation from Wertenbaker's usual formula. In this tale, a ship passes into the fourth dimension and a scientist named Pretloe offers his ideas on what has happened. Captain Weeks discovers an island that the narrator, Pretloe, and Weeks explore. There they find a city that they approach, only to find themselves in Paris. Another doorway from the fourth dimension lies there. Wertenbaker anticipates much of the interest in the Bermuda Triangle with this tale. EF Bleilier thought this tale one of the best to appear in Amazing Stories.

"Elaine's Tomb" (Amazing Stories Quarterly, Winter 1931) tells of a college professor, Alan Frazer, who is madly in love with one of his students, Elaine. He goes to Egypt with a fellow teacher, Weber, who is trying to decode an ancient secret that predated the Egyptian civilization. While there, Frazer dies of a tropical fever, but before he dies he gives Weber permission to preserve his body as the ancients did. He wakes to find himself in the far future where the sun is old and red. He is revived by the future humans who turn out to be lazy, disinterested folk, who have all their needs met by robots. Frazer discovers there is a famous building in the north called "Elaine's Tomb" and he must go there. Ice has claimed the northern and southern points of the globe, but Frazer flies from Cairo in a flying machine. He stops at Mexico City and the Tower of Science. There, a scientist named Kivro, helps him to locate the tomb, which lies in what was once Chicago. North America is covered in glacial ice and inhabited by diminutive savages. Frazer finds the tomb resting in a village of these primitives. He uses a ray device to break into the tomb and revives Elaine. When they leave, the villagers appear and tell Frazer that Elaine is their queen. In the struggle to escape, the flying ship is damaged by the ray device and the couple are stranded in the cold. They decide to walk even though they know they will freeze to death. Exhausted, David covers Elaine before passing out. He wakes to find they have been rescued by Kivro. The tale ends with the couple contemplating their life in this strange world. This last romance shows that Wertenbaker had grown to be an SF writer of some ability.

Wertenbaker's favorite device is the younger man who tries out a scientific discovery made by an older man, always an avante garde scientist, working outside the accepted norms of science. Sometimes he is a kooky inventor like Professor Martyn; sometimes a respectable surgeon like Sir John Granden. The device is always the same though: the older man makes a discovery, but the younger man is game to try it out, usually with terrible consequences. If he had continued to write, it would have been interesting to see how he would leave this formula behind. How much of it was his own - and how much simply done to please Gernsback's requirement for scientist heroes and weird gadgets - we will never know. Wertenbaker's increasing ability to handle the human story within his narratives suggests better things to come.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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