Friday, July 17, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Girl in the Golden Atom - Ray Cummings

Science fiction existed long before people ever called it that, of course, dating back to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells and quite possibly earlier. And there was quite a bit of it published in the pulps before the term came into existence. A couple of examples are the debut novelette by Ray Cummings, “The Girl in the Golden Atom”, originally published in ARGOSY in 1919, and its novel-length sequel, “The People of the Golden Atom”, published a year later, which were combined into the novel THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM in 1923. That novel has been reprinted numerous times, often in an abridged version.

I just read the original pulp versions, courtesy of an upcoming reprint edition from Beb Books. Sometimes these eighty- and ninety-year-old pulp yarns don’t hold up well for today’s readers. What about THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM? Well, it does and it doesn’t.

The original novelette finds five men sitting around their club (gentlemen used to belong to clubs, you know, where they would sit around and smoke and drink brandy and tell each other about their adventures): The Chemist, The Doctor, The Banker, The Big Business Man, and The Very Young Man. Yes, that’s how Cummings refers to them throughout, although eventually he does reveal their names. It seems that The Chemist has discovered by using a super-high-powered microscope that there are worlds within worlds and habitated universes within the very atoms of everything that makes up our world. He has also developed chemicals that will allow him to shrink and enlarge, so he can visit the universe he has discovered within the atoms of his mother’s golden wedding ring. In other words, Cummings was there first with the idea that sparked the plots for countless comic books and movies later on.

In the first part of the story (the original novelette), The Chemist visits the Golden Atom, falls in love with the beautiful girl he spied on there, and helps out her people in a war with an enemy city-state. He does this by growing to giant size and stomping on the enemy army. (To quote Dave Barry, I am not making this up.) Since he decides not to come back to our world, eventually The Doctor, The Big Business Man, and The Very Young Man use the chemicals he left behind to follow him into the Golden Atom. They find their friend there, but they also find a revolution, excitement, danger, and romance, along with a lot of shrinking to hide from enemies and growing to giant size to stomp them. There’s a lot of stomping, both deliberate and accidental, in this book, which at times provides it with some rather bizarre humor.

The first half of the book is pretty slow, an example of what some people call travelogue SF, where the characters walk around, look at stuff, and talk about the history, geography, and social customs of the world where they find themselves. There’s also a lot of pseudo-scientific discussion about the whole shrinking process. In the second half of the book, though, the revolution gets underway and the whole thing turns into a colorful, violent, fast-paced adventure that fits pretty well into the sword-and-planet subgenre of science fiction.

So, is THE GIRL IN THE GOLDEN ATOM worth reading nearly ninety years later? If you’re interested in the history of science fiction, definitely. If you looking for an entertaining adventure novel, it qualifies there, too, although you have to be patient and the writing style is definitely old-fashioned. Cummings isn’t nearly the storyteller that his contemporary Edgar Rice Burroughs was, and the scientific speculation seems pretty silly now, but back then it was pretty dazzling stuff, I imagine. I enjoyed the book and I think some of you would, too.


Richard Prosch said...

A great influence through the decades, one of my favorites being the Hulk-loves-Jarella story "The Brute That Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom" by Roy Thomas, based on an idea by Harlan Ellison.

Bill Crider said...

When I was a kid, I read Cummings' BEYOND THE VANISHING POINT, half of an old Ace Double. I loved it. Don't remember now, if I ever knew, what relationship it has to this one.

beb said...

Doesn't the "I'm nopt making this up" line come from Anna Russell's potted summation of Wagner's Ring cycle?

Bill Crider - I donkt think there's any connection between the Golden Atom stories and Cummings' Beyond the Vanishing Point. Beyond that Cummings' used the idea of shrinking and growing a lot.

Jerry House said...

Bill, The Girl in the Golden Atom is considered part of Cummings' Matter, Space and Time "trilogy", consisting of (go figure) at least five books. Other books in the series are The Princess of the Atom, The Man Who Mastered Time, The Shadow Girl and The Exile of Time. I gather this is a "conceptual" series. Beyond the Vanishing Point is not part of this series (again, go figure), but Cummings knew he had a good thing going with the worlds-within-worlds thing. Other similar books were Beyond the Stars and Explorers Into Infinity.

Todd Mason said...

Cummings indeed beat every idea he ever had deep into the ground, eventually. Frederik Pohl in THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS notes how much he hated the stories Cummings was submitting to him as a young editor at ASTONISHING and SUPER SCIENCE, but was so impressed with him as a pioneering figure he didn't have the confidence/guption to reject the stories.

James Reasoner said...

Richard, I remember that Hulk story quite well. Great stuff!

Based on these stories, I'd read more of Cummings' work. He's not much on characterization but handles action well. I think he's rumored to have written some of the Phantom Detective stories in the pulp of the same name, but I don't know if that's been confirmed.

Bill Crider said...

Thanks for the info, Jerry & beb.