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A Correspondent to the Past, Part 1: 1939

The good folks at SF Signal waited 15 installments before letting me in on their little secret: back there, in that storage room, behind the shelves of bagels, and the teetering stacks of ARCs, and piles of videos (including a complete set of Star Blazers, including the rare “Bolar Wars” season), back there amidst all that dust and pressed paper was a time machine.

“We thought you could be a real correspondent for a few weeks,” John DeNardo said to me, “Interview the people that helped to shape science fiction, hang out with them, see what they were really like.”

“You’re joking,” I said. “Look, my minor was in journalism, but I have no real journalistic experience.”

He gave me a strange look. “That’s what you’re worried about.” Well, what else?

So I agreed to do it. We talked it over and I decided to visit what I thought to be four pivotal periods in the history of science fiction. John agreed with all but the fourth, which when I told him what it was, said that wasn’t something he’d really considered.

“Take risks,” I said. “Where would Asimov be if he hadn’t hand carried in those first manuscripts to Campbell? Where would Del Rey books be if Lester del Rey hadn’t tossed that magazine against the wall and shouted, ‘I could do better!’ Where would Kurt von Rachen be if not for a little essay in the May 1950 Astounding?”

“By golly let’s do it!” DeNardo said. “But understand that SF Signal will in no way be responsible for any changes to the present by your actions in the past, nor will SF Signal be held liable for the spewing of any new alternate time tracks.

So a few weeks ago, I made the first of four trips using SF Signal’s time machine (which only takes Texas quarters). I figured I should start near the beginning and so I set the dial for Sunday, July 2, 1939, Manhattan, New York and darn it if that machine didn’t deposit me on the corner of 72nd and 5th. This wasn’t so bad because it allowed for a leisurely stroll down 5th to 59th and then across to a building between Park and Madison. Inside that building was a gathering of science fiction’s best and brightest for what they called “The First World Science Fiction Convention.”

Talk about star-struck! I knew most of the names, but I had no idea what their young faces looked like. I listened carefully and soon was able to pick out Jack Williamson and Nelson S. Bond and Harl Vincent. L. Sprague de Camp I recognized right away. And there chatting to some people off in one corner was John W. Campbell.

It was an odd juxtaposition. First, the fact that I was seeing him in real life, plain as day. And second, how young he looked. I always pictured Campbell as this older, well-worn fellow, but when I saw him standing there, he was barely 29 years old. I was a full decade his senior! I also realized that I hadn’t prepared very well. I never expected to actually meet Campbell. Why would I? Now that I could see him across the hall, I began to wonder what on earth I would ask him without sounding like a blabbering idiot.

When I finally got up the courage to introduce myself, I took his hand and told him that I was a reporter from an out-of-town paper, doing story on the convention. “And I have to say, Mr. Campbell, that I just loved your story, ‘Who Goes There?'”

He gave me an odd smile and shook his head. And then, Campbell gave me ten minutes of his time. I asked him about the changes he’d instituted in Astounding when he came on board and how he thought that would affect the stories he received.

“I’m trying to get stories that show what science is all about. Real science with practicing scientists. And I am augmenting this with science articles, written by those who do the work, or have done it before.”

“Do you have any favorites?” I asked him.

“My favorites are always the next thing,” he said. “Keep your eyes out for a new serial from Smith a few months from now. That one will have people talking.” I knew at once he was referring to “Gray Lensman” which appeared in Astounding from October 1939 – January 1940.

“I’ve got to go talk with some people over here,” he said, indicating vaguely some indistinct part of the hall. “It’s been nice chatting with you.” He paused for a moment and added. “When are you off to next?”

I felt my heart clench in my chest. “Uh, what do you mean ‘when’?” I said.

Campbell smiled. “I’m John W. Campbell,” he said, “do you think you’re the first time traveler to come visit me? I can spot them a mile away.”

To be continued…

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

4 Comments on A Correspondent to the Past, Part 1: 1939

  1. I guess I am too junior for John to have revealed this secret to me…

  2. Heh…you said “Bolar Wars.”

  3. Jamie,


    you be careful!  VERY careful.  Don’t go saying stuff to Ike like “how about a world where the stars never come out?” or Frank like “what about a drug that’s necessary for FTL?”

    It may not be the best, but this is the future we’ve got and I don’t want no one messing with its origins, capische?

  4. Steve, all the trips have been completed. At this point, all I can say is, uh, stay-tuned…

    Paul, I think it was the bagels that did the trick. πŸ˜‰

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