Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Pioneer Murray Leinster


Schools of science fiction come and go, and so do most of the writers associated with them. In SF, as in other fields of literature, immediate popularity doesn't necessarily guarantee lasting appeal.

One of the exceptions was William Fitzgerald Jenkins, who under the name Murray Leinster enjoyed a career in science fiction that spanned 50 years and who died only last summer at the advanced age of 79. Although most of his works have gone out of print since he retired in 1968 after the death of his wife, Ballantine Books has plans to issue The Best of Murray Leinster in about a year as part of its series of "best" books.

When Leinster began writing SF in 1919, almost by accident, it wasn't even called "science fiction," and the most popular form of it was the "scientific romance" pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs that was about nine-tenths thrilling adventure to one-tenth science—or, more likely, pseudo-science.

His first works were in this vein, including "The Runaway Skyscraper" (1919), in which the Metropolitan Life building travels backwards in time for no particular reason; and "The Mad Planet" (1920) and "Red Dust" (1921), which pitted degenerate humans of a future Earth against giant insects that somehow got around easily despite the square-cube law.

Even then, however, Leinster rationalized his "science" more than most of his contemporaries ("The Mad Planet," "Red Dust" and a later sequel eventually were novelized in 1953 as Forgotten Planet, with the locale changed to another planet seeded with primitive life forms by a bureau that neglected to follow up with advanced varieties), and he was by avocation a scientist-inventor himself. Jenkins Systems, a process by which filmed backdrops can be projected on a screen from the front—without showing up on the actors playing against them—was his most famous invention, and one he had to defend in court when the producers of 2001 tried to pirate it.

In the late 1920s, when scientific romance gave way to apocalyptic science fiction of mad scientists with inventions that menaced the world, Leinster caught the trend with works like "Darkness of Fifth Avenue" (1929), "The Storm that Had to be Stopped" (1930) and The Murder Madness (1930), in which scientific criminals threaten society with a device that can black out the sun, artificial hurricanes, and a drug that drives the populace into homicidal frenzy.

But by the 1930s, the demand was also growing for more soberly-realistic works, and Leinster was again responding with "Tanks" (1930), a battle in a future war as seen by ordinary soldiers; and "The Power Planet" (1931), an international incident involving a space station—and incidentally, the first realistic work about such a station by an American.

In the 1940's, Leinster was one of the few old-timers to survive the advent of John W. Campbell Jr. and the rigorous new standards of Astounding—as a matter of fact, he not only survived, but flourished: it was for Campbell that he wrote "First Contact" (1945), which is still his most famous story. "First Contact" involves the encounter of a Terran starship with that of an alien race in deep space. Both sides consider their own intentions peaceful—but how can either of them trust the other? If they go home, will they be trailed, and leave their worlds open to invasion? Leinster works out an ingenious—and incidentally libertarian—solution: the parties swap ships!

Leinster's story, incidentally, inspired a response from the Soviet Union's Ivan Yefremov: "The Heart of the Serpent" (1959), in which the Terrans and aliens don't have to fear each other because both have advanced to Communism and the former can look back on "First Contact" as the expression of "the heart of a poisonous snake." Leinster took this in good humor; one wonders, though, what would have happened if Yefremov's Soviets of the future had encountered Maoist aliens.…

Another Leinster story in Astounding was "A Logic Named Joe" (1946), which was perhaps the only story to realistically anticipate the problems of computerized information storage: Joe is a computer who'll answer any question, including how to murder your wife or embezzle from your bank and get away with it. Still another was "The Strange Case of John Kingman" (1948), a psychological story dealing with efforts to reach the mind of an alien humanoid who has been mistakenly locked up in a mental hospital for more than 150 years as a "paranoid."

Through the 1950's, Leinster maintained his popularity with works like the Colonial Survey series of scientific problem stories, one of which, "Exploration Team" (1956) won a Hugo. And into the 1960's, he won new readers with his Med Service series, which took the celebrated Dr. Calhoun from planet to planet dealing with medical emergencies which, in keeping with the changing nature of science fiction, often involved sociological complications. Doctor to the Stars (1964) and S.O.S. from Three Worlds (1966) collected most of these stories.

But Leinster created trends as often as he followed them. His "Sideways in Time" (1934) was the first story to deal with the idea of parallel worlds—worlds like our own in which history has taken a different course. His concept has since been elaborated by H. Beam Piper in his Paratime series (1950f.) and, more recently, by Keith Laumer in Worlds of the Imperium (1962) and its several sequels.

Leinster was also one of the first writers to realize SF could be funny. In "The Fourth Dimensional Demonstrator" (1935), for example, the hero invents a duplicator that will make copies of anything—including his girl friend and an over-curious cop—with hilarious results.

True, he also wrote a lot of pot-boilers—in later years, even adaptations of Land of the Giants. Perhaps because of this, his reputation has suffered. And even when he was alive, indifferent editors occasionally caused him to be underrated. In 1964, for example, he had a serial in Analog titled Spacemen—a routine story of space pirates, save for the denouement, in which the hero ingeniously manages to drive the pirates mad by using his knowledge of the ship's communications system to project an insane but seemingly "real" universe on all the monitoring screens. When the serial was published in book form as The Other Side of Nowhere, however, the editor chopped most of that out—the best part of the story!

Leinster was too easygoing to even protest, and indeed a generous humanity was characteristic of the man. He seemed to share none of even the minor vices some SF writers are known for, being neither a womanizer nor a hard drinker. A convert to Catholicism in the 1920's, he could discourse learnedly on St. Thomas Aquinas or Teilhard de Chardin—but never tried to force his religion on anyone, or even into his stories.

Now that SF is more self-consciously literary, some "advanced" types act as if Leinster's sort of writing is something the genre has to live down. One editor, rather pompously, felt compelled a few years ago to point out that Leinster obviously "isn't a Dostoyevsky." As if he'd ever claimed to be! Well, Scott Joplin wasn't a Stravinsky, either—but that doesn't seem to be keeping even "cultured" people from enjoying the Maple Leaf Rag or flocking to see Treemonisha. Let today's readers give Leinster a chance, and they may be surprised to find themselves enjoying him.

John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.