Tuesday, 21 January 2014

"Invisible Death" by Anthony Pelcher

Strangely, the last story in this particular issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science was also probably my favourite. It's pulpy as heck, with some hackneyed writing, but it's also entertaining, bounces along well, and has several surprising moments. Plus, in a lot of ways, it breaks thematically with some of the things that I've been analyzing in the last few old SF reviews I've done.

The title, of course, is over the top. But over-the-toppedness is really part of the fun, isn't it?

This story starts at an inquest into the death of a scientist. He was killed in his lab, but no one saw the intruder (hence, the title). Then, a car seen near the site disappeared. Then, the wealthy industrialists who worked with the scientist, in a remarkably cordial relationship, are blackmailed. If they don't drop money in a package on a crowded street, they will be killed, one by one. Attacks do happen. Each is preceded by a loud humming noise, and no one can be seen.

The intrepid police officer assigned to the investigation first goes down the red herring of the foreman in a plant, who was overheard "cursing capitalists," but it turns out he's just crazy. (We'll talk about class in just a moment.) In the end, the police officer found out that the deceased scientist had been working on the mysteries of invisibility, harnessed, of course, using the POWER OF VIBRATION. Sound familiar?

I mean, at this point, in this one issue of the magazine, vibration has allowed invisibility, mind control, and shaking yourself through to another dimension. What can't vibrations do? Apparently, nothing. They're practically a shorthand for "magic."

Shall I give away who the bad guy is? I'm not as concerned about spoilers in these reviews, but look away quickly.

It is, of course, the former circus performer who lived next door to the scientist and was secretly a homicidal maniac with delusions of grandeur who stole the devices, killed the scientist, oh, and has secretly been hypnotizing a set of triplets for years and years.

Those circus folk, amiright?

Let's talk first about what was not different. Race is present by its absence. So is any kind of non-heterosexuality.

But women, now that's interesting. Remember that scientist I was talking about at the beginning? Okay, yes, he was a man. But his wife was also a scientist, and the two were childless (there's a hint that they had children and they died) and worked together out of their home. She's not a huge character in the story, as it turns out, but hey, a female scientist who is quite competent showing up and testifying at the inquest into her husband's death? I'll take it.

That does, of course, have to be juxtaposed against the other female characters, the beautiful and hypnotized triplets. One of whom is described, pricelessly, as displaying her "nether charms" when the policeman comes to call, presumably to distract him.

It's not that it's great on gender, but man, that female scientist is the first that I've seen.

As for class, the industrialists are all pretty kindly old men. And that foremen cursing capitalists is only mentioned twice, and is quite the red herring.

But most interesting are the scientists. As I've pointed out in previous reviews, in many of the stories in this issue, the scientists were not the heroes. They were evil, or at very least, more concerned about their careers than the public at large. It's sort of refreshing to have scientists who aren't mad. This is one of the only stories that doesn't seem to regard science with a certain amount of horror. (I except that one that was really more fantasy than science fiction, as there weren't really any scientists in it, and no science except a magical vibrator - the one that shook you into another dimension.)

It's funny because I've read assessments of old science fiction that talk about the first wave of science fiction, where the scientists were all the heroes, and then later people started to question what was coming out of the laboratory - but these stories are definitely in the latter camp, suggesting that, as always, life is more complicated. As early as 1930, some authors are certainly working the mad scientist trope for all it's bloody worth. So much so that it was a surprise to find a positive depiction.

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