Sunday, October 15, 2006

Whatever Happened To Morton M. Zeitlin?

I’m poking around the used books shop when I stumble across an interesting little publication. Decades old, its pages are just beginning to yellow, taking on a brittleness that will eventually give way to complete disintegration.

It was a stapled literary magazine published by the pupils of Watertown High School, Watertown, NY, back in April of 1930. I open up this edition of The Owl, flip through its pages, and I spot an interesting title to one short story: “The Retreat from Mercury.”

Science fiction? Yup, but it’s more like early SF, i.e., scientifiction.

The story opens in the year 3509 at the Astronomer’s and Spaceflyer’s Club in the city of Dragonum, a thriving futuristic metropolis that sits on the site of an ancient city called Chicago. The narrator tells his friend, Ralph X2AFXW53, that he believes it’s possible to take a trip to Venus.

“We have made calculations,” the narrator tells his friend, “and believe that there is sufficient air to support life. Even if there is no water there, we can draw it from the surrounding fog bank.”

At this point the narrator interrupts the story and speaks directly to the reader, throwing in some history. He explains that ordinary last names have disappeared, as he has shown with the name of his friend Ralph. Back in the year 2756 everyone was individually “ticketed.” The first letter in a ticket indicated the country where the person was born, accompanied by a number designating the district within that country. The following letter combination was the name assigned by the world’s government and the last number showed his standing in the community of 1000.

In 3143 birth control was established; too many people, not enough room. And in the year 2471 the “earth-men” finally traveled to Mars. They discovered a few hundred Martians were still alive and to save them from extinction, these survivors were brought back to the earth. But conditions on earth didn’t suit them and so the Martians died out. (Mac Tonnies, please take note.)

Even though it’s the year 3509 and earth-men have been to Mars, no one has made it to Venus. The narrator explains that back in 1991 a Professor Robert E. Alguire tried to rocket there but missed by several millions miles and ended up plunging into the sun.

But despite the challenge, the narrator and his buddy Ralph decided to go, but not via rocket. As the narrator explains:

“My machine was not the usual type of space-navigating contraption but rather of the old-type cabin aeroplane but fixed in a manner so that if a runway of two thousand miles were provided we could rise from the earth’s gravitation.”

December 21, 3509. On this fateful day the narrator and his crew begin their voyage to Venus, using the long runway starting in Dragonum. At this point the narrator explains:

“We maintained a speed of such an immense rate that almost before we knew it I told Ralph to turn towards Venus, which I pointed out to him by writing the directions. As we wore oxygen masks, we could not hear each other speak.”

But disaster strikes. The steering gear jams and despite the mechanical skill of Bob and Hal, the two engineers on board, the aeroplane crash-lands on Mercury less than a day later. The air is breathable but the heat is infernal. To keep cool the stranded crew digs a large and deep hole. On the advice of Ned, the chemist, they dig ten miles into the Mercurial surface and find water. Fifty miles down they find gold, an important find because the substance could be used to fix their ship.

Repairs are made and the aeroplane takes off from Mercury. (Apparently there was enough smooth surface on that planet to act as a two thousand mile runway.) The crew returns safe to earth.

Two years later, after the adventure on Mercury, the narrator meets his friend Ralph in the library at the Astronomers’ and Space-flyers’ club. Ralph looks up from his book and greets him. During their conversation Ralph mentions he sort of misses Mercury because it wasn’t crowded, there was plenty of elbow room there. But he adds: “But gosh, the steering gear might jam and we mightn’t be so lucky.”

The narrator agrees and so the story closes.

Morton M. Zeitlin, class of 1932, wrote this story. Now here in the year 2006 it’s so easy to point at the technical mistakes and bad predictions in “The Retreat from Mercury.”

But have you read science fiction from the late 1920s/early 1930s? Check out an issue of Amazing Stories, the pulp magazine published by Hugo Gernsback that introduced many readers to stories of “scientifiction,” helping to inspire SF writers like Isaac Asimov.

I have an issue of Amazing Stories dated 1928. In it an inventor travels to another planet by means of a propeller driven ship that uses the medium of ether that exists in space. Maybe the aeroplane in Zeitlin’s story also made it to Mercury thanks to ether. But since he doesn’t mention this detail, it seems that his ship just built up tremendous inertia during its mad dash down that two thousand mile runway.

Anyway, Zeitlin’s “science” is no worse that what was appearing in Amazing Stories at that time. Obviously he read that pulp title because of his character, Ralph X2AFWX53. Hugo Gernsback once wrote a story called “Ralph 124c 41 +.” (In Gernsback’s case the “ticket” was a play on words: “One to foresee for one.” The story is set in the year 2660; it predicts the creations of inventions such as the “Language Rectifier” and the “Telephot.”)

And as for predicting the future –- well, no computers exist in Zeitlin’s future, but at least libraries with books are still around. That’s good news for someone like me who enjoys reading a book more so than a computer screen.

I wonder if Morton M. Zeitlin continued with his writing, even trying to sell a story to Gernsback. I’ve Googled Zeitlin’s name but no leads. (Maybe he dropped his last name for a “ticket?”) I would like to see a Watertown High School yearbook for 1932 with a picture of Zeitlin. I imagine that he looked like the shy, studious type, tall, lanky, stuck with eyeglasses, the perfect victim for bullies.

The way I was when I was an aspiring SF writer in high school.

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