Friday, 24 January 2014

"Old Crompton's Secret" by Harl Vincent

Hey guys! Did you realize that the Gutenberg Project has old science fiction? It does! (I don't know why this surprised me, but it did.) So, hey, why not read some of them and review them? Not to poke fun at the old science fiction, although there might be a little of that. No, I'm more interested in looking at what this old science fiction tells us about the worlds that were being imagined at the time. What did they think about science? Gender? Race? The eventual fate of the world?

Next Up: The second issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, from February 1930.

This story is not bad. It's a little morality tale wrapped up in a science fiction veneer, and it does what it's trying to do quite well. There were few moments of hilarity, although the overtones I've noted in other stories of scientists overreaching acceptable bounds are very much present in this one. The author, Harl Vincent, apparently wrote many pulp science fiction stories through the 1930s and 1940s, and while this isn't literature by any stretch of the imagination, it's a solid little story.

(Do I use the word "solid" too much? I've noticed it a lot recently, but I haven't thought of another word that works as well yet. It denotes a story that isn't fantastic, but isn't wracked with major flaws either. Enjoyable without being inspiring.)

At any rate, this story is about Old Man Crompton. I'm sure that comes as a shocker. He's a recluse in a small-town, who becomes obsessed with his new neighbour (no, not in that way), a young scientist who is experimenting in a lab he convinced his wealthy father to create for him. Tom is after nothing less than immortality and rejuvenation, and with the help of "rays," he succeeds. (At least it's not vibrations this time!)

Going along with the theme I've previously noticed of "scientists are kind of dicks," although Tom rejuvenates his old dog, he refuses to do the same for Old Man Crompton, spurning him as not the rich captain of industry he envisioned selling his services to. (Although, really, wouldn't you want at least one human test subject before trying it on a captain of industry? And Crompton's right there, offering himself up. Seriously.) So Crompton takes a swing at him, believes he's killed him, climbs into the machine, rejuvenates himself, then wrecks the whole thing and runs away.

And this is the point where it turns into a morality tale about how the human race isn't ready for immortality. It always kind of depresses me that so many science fiction writers, then and now, always decide that, without really taking the time to explore what immortality might do to us as people, what ethical adjustments might occur (views on suicide, for example, would have to undergo a complete overhaul), what it would do to society. Nope, it's almost always a gut reaction of "We Aren't Ready For This!" Maybe we're not, but could we, you know, explore that?

But at any rate, Young Man Crompton finds that his old mind doesn't match his young body, and he can't run away from his past. So he comes back to turn himself in for murder, but finds there was no murder. (Seriously, didn't he check the newspapers when he was on the lam? The son of a very rich man is found bludgeoned to death in his lab, it's going to make the news.) But Tom has grown up too, and recognizes that the human race isn't ready for immortality.

And then, for some reason, Crompton ages 60 years in 60 seconds, for no real reason. (The rejuvenated dog has had no such incident - it seems to be the guilt and relief that ages him in seconds.)

I am sort of tired of being a little repetitive here, but then again, it's the stories that are repetitive in their lack of certain things, and the only way to acknowledge that is, well, to acknowledge it. So, again: race is notable by its absence.

So are women. Not a single woman in this whole story.

And as for non-heterosexuality? Not unless you want to read something into Old Man Crompton's obsession with Tom, but in this case, I don't think the text supports it.

Class? Well, yeah, sort of. Tom is obsessed with wealth as a marker of worth, and partly scorns Old Man Crompton because of his lesser class status. He grows out of it, apparently.

And what about science? Well, this is another cautionary tale of the things scientists are doing that could doom us all. And Tom, in the beginning is single-minded and selfish. He doesn't really come off that well, and that we've seen before.

But for all that, this is a good little pulp story, and less ludicrous than most.

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