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Science Fiction Prophecy

November 1948

November 1948 (left) and November 1949 (right) issues of Astounding Science Fiction.

Copyright © 1948, 1949 by Street & Smith Publications Inc.

Click on an image for a larger version

     November 1949

"Science Fiction Prophecy" is the title of John W Campbell's editorial in the November 1949 issue of Astounding. At the end of the editorial, Campbell writes:

"Generally, a desirable, practically attainable idea, suggested in prophecy, has a chance of forcing itself into reality by its very existence. Like, for example, this particular issue of Astounding Science Fiction."

Now what does Campbell mean by that? Twelve months earlier, in the letter column of the November 1948 issue, Campbell printed a letter by one Richard A Hoen of the University Club in Buffalo, New York. In his letter, Hoen provides a brief critique of all the stories and articles appearing in -- you guessed it -- the November 1949 issue! Now, the letter is obviously a spoof, and Campbell's comment at the time was: "Hm-m-m -- he must be off on another time-track. 'Fraid it's not THIS November '49."

But Campbell must have been amused by Hoen's idea, and when the November 1949 issue finally came around he tried his best to "force Hoen's prophecy into reality". Here are the details, in the order mentioned by Hoen.

(1) Cover by Rogers - "even better than the best work he did before the war," according to Hoen. The cover is indeed by Rogers, and it's pretty striking as you can see from the reproduction above.

(2) Cover story - "We Hail" by Don A Stuart (this being a pseudonym used by Campbell himself, as Hoen's phrasing shows he was aware). Now, Campbell had effectively given up writing fiction by this time, and he hadn't used the Stuart pseudonym since the 30s. Ironically, therefore, this is the only story "predicted" by Hoen that failed to materialize. Instead, the cover story is "...And Now You Don't" by Isaac Asimov (actually the first of two parts). This is the last of the original sequence of Foundation stories (for people who are only familiar with the book versions, it equates to the final two-thirds of Second Foundation).

(3) "Gulf" by Anson MacDonald. Again, it's clear from Hoen's letter that he knew this was another pseudonym -- this time belonging to Robert A Heinlein. In fact, Heinlein only used the MacDonald byline during a very prolific period in 1941 and 1942, so while "Gulf" does indeed appear in this issue, it's by Heinlein and not by MacDonald. Like the Asimov story, it's the first of two parts -- obviously Campbell had a lot he wanted to cram into this issue!

(4) "Final Command" by A E van Vogt. This story appears in the November 1949 issue with exactly the title and byline cited by Hoen in November 1948 (and the same is true of the next three stories). However, "Final Command" is far from being Van Vogt's best short story since "Vault of the Beast", as Hoen describes it in his "prophecy". It's certainly not in the same league as The Players of Null-A, the second instalment of which appears in the same issue as Hoen's letter.

(5) "Over the Top" by Lester del Rey. This prophesied story came to pass, and like those by Heinlein and Sturgeon it's among the author's best -- which is a pleasant observation given that (if you want to be cynical) Campbell might have been inclined to accept anything by these authors that had the required title! However, he liked del Rey's story enough to include it in his Astounding Science Fiction Anthology of 1952, which contains 23 of his favorite stories (by 21 different authors) from the twelve years 1940 to 1951.

(6) "Finished" by L Sprague de Camp. There's not much to say about this one -- it's probably the weakest story of the bunch, although de Camp (like all the other authors in the issue) was very much in the first rank of writers working at the time.

(7) "What Dead Men Tell" by Theodore Sturgeon. In his letter (written before the story existed!) Hoen ranks this in sixth place out of the issue's six stories, while acknowledging that it's still "way above average". This it certainly is -- and indeed it's remarkably similar in theme to Heinlein's "Gulf" in the same issue (i.e. the central character being groomed and recruited by a secret group of super-humans).

(8) Articles by R S Richardson and Willy Ley, one (according to Hoen) suggesting that the "galaxy is full of planets" and the other on the subject of "magneticity". In fact, there's only one article -- about accurate time-keeping -- but it is indeed by R S Richardson.

A final twist on the subject of "science fiction prophecy". The only fiction contribution in this issue that wasn't "predicted" by Hoen is the first instalment of "...And Now You Don't" by Isaac Asimov. On the penultimate page of this instalment, one of the characters exclaims "What the black holes of space are you d...doing aboard this ship?" (For the benefit of anyone who has encountered this quote in a recent reprint of Second Foundation, I can assure you that it appears verbatim in the 1949 magazine version). As far as I've been able to determine, the term "black hole" was first used in its astronomical sense by the scientist John Wheeler in 1968!

Copyright © 2003 Andrew May Visit

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