Sunday, 28 April 2013

Out of the Sub-Universe by R F Starzl

First published in Amazing Stories Quarterly, summer 1928

This story is an example of the anthropic principle in SF: where ever you go in the universe, no matter how far in the future, how remote in time or how distant the alien galaxy, every where is more or less like our world now.

It relies on the idea that that the structure of the atom is not just metaphorically a solar system but literally one, too. I remember this being quite common in comics and movies when I was a kid, but by then even I knew that the concentric circles we were drawing in our science books told only a part of the story, that the reality was far more complicated.

Even for the 1920s this would have been a very simplistic interpretation of atomic structure. Despite the authoritative tone of Professor Halley, the story doesn’t depend on even contemporary science. It’s more like a fairy tale – the plot is a consequence of clear but entirely arbitrary boundaries that the characters are encouraged to break.

Instead of scientific speculation, this is a propagandistic fable about power of scientific discovery.

Like The Coming of the Ice, it opens with a distinguished older scientist, a unique discovery and a youthful student keen to give it a try. Professor Halley has discovered a way to shrink matter to the scale of the micro-verse and his student – Hale McLaren – has volunteered to be the first human explorer of this world. Starzl makes a good fist of the science:
By utilizing the newly discovered cosmic ray, which has a wave-length infinitely shorter than any known kind of light, we have been able to get circumstantial evidence that electrons do not consist solely of negative electric charge , as physicists have thought before, but that this charge is actually held by a real particle of matter, so infinitely small that we would never get direct evidence of its existence by older methods.
Now this suggests a possible solution of the problem of the constitution of the universe. Could we prove that the atom, with its central nucleus and its satellites, called electrons, is really only a miniature universe, in fact and not by analogy only, we could safely assume that the constituents of the infra-universe beneath us and the super-universe above us are only links of a chain that stretches to infinity!
By chance he simultaneously discovered that cosmic rays also held the secret of shrinking ordinary matter down to this sub-atomic scale. He’s been shrunk and brought back inanimate objects, but so far he hasn’t been able to retrieve any of the living creatures he’s sent. Hale McLaren believes this is because the rabbits and guinea pigs have wandered out of the radius of the returning ray in the pleasant surroundings of the sub-atomic paradise. It seems rather na├»ve to me, and I did wonder why they didn’t send a rabbit in a cage to settle the matter.

Shirley is Hale’s fiance and the professor’s daughter, and she insists on going, too, apparently just in case Hale’s inclined to play away.
‘Of course I’m going!’ she retorted with mock defiance. ‘Do you think I want to loose you to some atomic vamp?’
Professor tries to convince them not to go, but they finally convince him. There being no time like the present, they button their jackets and head into the professor’s shrinking right at that minute.

There’s some great pulpy SF writing here, too:
A powerful generator sprang into action, filling the laboratory with its high-pitched whine. The vacuum tubes glowed dully, and a powerful odor of ozone permeated the air. With a loud crash the high tension electricity discharged between adjacent turns of the helix. The professor hastened to adjust a condenser, and again the silence was broken only by the whine of the generator and the low humming.

As the professor continued to adjust the controls, the bell gradually filled with a deep violet light that swayed and swirled tenuously like drapes of an Aurora Borealis. The light swirled around the man and the girl, at times almost hiding them from view. It gradually concentrated toward the bottom of the bell, seeming to cling to the green base, intertwining the tow living forms until it almost hid them from view. Yet they continued to smile and wave encouragement.

And now it was evident that they were growing smaller. Already they were less than four feet tall, and as the apparatus was brought more and more into perfect resonance, their rate of shrinkage accelerated. Soon they were but a foot high, standing in a sea of violet light, then six inches, then hardly an inch.
The denouement depends on an unexpected consequence that follows plausibly – if not perhaps inevitably – from the basic premise of the story. Just as space operates at a smaller level in the sub-world, so does time. In the minutes that the professor waits to operate the machinery and bring Hale and Shirley back, tens of thousands of years pass in the sub-universe.

It neatly satisfies the balance of benefits and consequence that this sort of story depends on. No advantage comes free; everything has its price. In this case, the professor sacrificed his own daughter to his vain pursuit, and he remains thereafter a broken man. He discontinues his studies immediately. As in so many of the tales in this book, the technology is lost and becomes unique to these events, even miraculous. Each is a single instant of transgressing into forces man was not meant to meddle with, and the consequences that come from it.

For Hale and Shirley, however, it’s another matter. When the professor goes to bring them back, he instead transports a small tribe of their descendants. They’re primitives, who’ve clung to the faith that the return would occur one day ever since with literally religious fervour. It’s the first evidence in this volume of an old SF idea that was already well established, the devolved technological cargo cult.

But even so, Hale and Shirley have managed to colonise this new world lacking the barest essentials of life. It’s the colonial spirit, alive and well in American popular fiction as if the American westward expansion could carry on for ever.

Themes: vastness (gulfs of time), vastness (the sub-atomic world), devolved technological cargo cult, adam and eve, the colonial spirit

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