Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Voice From the Ether by Lloyd Arthur Eshbach

First published in Amazing Stories, May 1931.

You can download this story from this link. I'm not sure if it's  in the public domain: if you're the copyright holder let me know and I'll take this link down if you want. Otherwise I'll leave it up as a service to readers.

My favourite pulp-era cliché is the ranting mad scientist super villain. The best pulp villains are like tragic romantic heroes, driven to extreme acts by the power of their passions. Spurned in love or by society, they exact their revenge.

'The Voice From the Ether' tells the story of Tuol Oro, one of the greatest scientists on Mars. When his latest amazing discovery is dismissed as a mistake by the Martian scientific establishment, Oro decides to exact  ironic revenge – he will destroy them using the very discovery they mocked so cruelly! Like the scientists in Out of the Sub Universe, he’s discovered life in the sub-atomic realm and using Mad Science he’s able to grow the sub-atomic creepy crawlies to a macro-scale and unleash them against his tormentors.

Oro’s spirited description of his ghastly revenge makes this an enjoyable take on a story that never gets old. Tuol Oro is just a vehicle for the legendary forces of retribution that have been in existence since ancient times. Like a storm from the heavens, he merely unleashes the forces that destroys a decadent society.

Eshbach disguises this biblical tale behind a smoke screen of detailed science of the sort that Amazing Stories built its reputation on. It begins with a framing device set, rather specifically on August 22nd, 1924 – the night, we’re told, when Mars is at its closest to Earth for over a hundred years. Alongside the astronomers hoping to observe the Red Planet, one foresighted radio enthusiast has set up a wireless to see what broadcasts he can pick up from the Martian civilization that so many still expected to find in the first half of the 20th century.

In this story, the idea of Martian civilization is less important than the old-fashioned tale of obsessive revenge. The framing device of the radio ham and his amazing recording, and the in-depth descriptions of the sub atomic world just serves to dress this ancient folk tale in a way that would pass muster for the scientifically inclined audience of Amazing Stories.

Life on Mars was still a plausible idea for a story in the 20s and 30s, despite the general consensus among astronomers in the late 19th century the Mars was a lifeless desert. It was, I suppose, just a few decades after The War of the Worlds was published and Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars was still selling well, so the idea lived on in the popular imagination. Perhaps due to the influence of Burroughs and Wells, it’s usually a civilization on its last legs, with its greatest days behind it and only catastrophe or decline ahead, a tradition that extends all the way to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles.

Now I think about it, we're still looking for life on Mars today. If we find it, maybe it'll be in the form of bizarre protoplasms of a sort that Tuol Oro might recognise.

Themes: Mad scientist, vastness (the sub-atomic world), revenge, the destructive power of science, decadant Mars

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