Monday, January 30, 2012

Volney G. Mathison (1897-1965)-Part 4

Hugo Gernsback and "Scientifiction"

As I write this (January 2012), the members of the World Science Fiction Convention have begun accepting nominations for this year's Hugo Awards. The Hugos have been given out every year since 1955 in various categories: best novel, best novelette, best short story, and so on. You could call them the Oscars of science fiction. To most people, the name "Oscar" refers to the statuette itself, a somewhat abstract figure holding a sword. The name "Hugo" on the other hand refers to a real person, Hugo Gernsback, sometimes called the father of science fiction, or at least, of science fiction magazines. Born in Luxembourg in 1884, Hugo Gernsback immigrated to the United States in 1904 and immediately got down to business making and selling batteries. That business soon went bust, but Gernsback--never one to stay down for long--got into radio, forming the first mail-order firm in that field, the Electro Importing Company. Described by James Gunn as "a mixture of personal reserve and aggressive salesmanship," Gernsback marketed his own Telimco Wireless radio set and other products in a variety of ways, first through a radio catalog, then in the pages of the first magazine in the field, Modern Electrics (1908). In addition to founding Modern Electrics, Gernsback also founded the Wireless Association of America in 1909, published the first book on radio broadcasting in 1910, and predicted the development of radio networks and television. Gernsback estimated that by 1912 (the year of the Titanic disaster) there were 400,000 people involved in amateur radio in the United States.

In 1912, Gernsback sold Modern Electrics and launched The Electrical Experimenter, which became, in 1920, Science and Invention, and was soon joined by a companion magazine, Radio NewsIn his magazines, Hugo Gernsback printed articles, advertisements, and catalogs of radio parts. He also printed stories in a new and evolving genre variously known in its early years as scientific romance, scientific fiction, or, by Gernsback's coining, "Scientifiction." Gernsback himself authored an early example of the genre, a novel called Ralph 124C 41+, which appeared in serialized form in Modern Electrics beginning in April 1911. (1) Though not highly regarded as literature--Sam J. Lundwall called it "pitiable"-- Ralph 124C 41+ proved to be a seminal work of science fiction, with descriptions of television, radar, spaceflight, and even Skype before there were such things. Gernsback followed Ralph 124C 41+ with other scientific tales of his own. He also began publishing the work of others, including science fiction pioneers Ray Cummings (1887-1957) and George Allan England (1877-1936). In August 1923, Gernsback published a special issue of Science and Invention, a "Scientific Fiction Number," featuring a spaceman in freefall on the cover. If it was not the first magazine of its kind, that scientific fiction number soon led to the founding of the first science fiction magazine, Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, in 1926. (2)

Volney the Fictioneer

Born in Texas in 1897, Volney G. Mathison lived in Oregon, Alabama, and perhaps California as a child. He taught himself about radio, then called wireless, and acquired a radio operator's license at age sixteen. In about 1918, Mathison went to sea, probably as an operator of a shipboard radio. Based in California, he made jaunts up and down the West Coast, to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and probably Alaska aboard tramp steamers. We can imagine a young man with an active and inquisitive mind, manning his radio set aboard ship but with many idle hours in which to occupy himself. Mathison must have known and read Hugo Gernsback's radio magazines. If that's so, he could not have avoided encountering Gernsback's early versions of science fiction. Mathison also grew up in the era of pulp magazines such as The Argosy, The All-Story, The Blue Book Magazine, and Adventure and would have been well acquainted with their brand of fiction. At some point in his seagoing career, Mathison must have decided to give writing fiction a try.

In his brief third-person memoir from the 1950s, Mathison recalled: "He became an adventure fiction writer, and wrote steadily on shipboard while the the vessel was underway." Beginning writers are advised to write what they know. Volney Mathison followed that advice. According to Everett Bleiler, Mathison had "two short pieces" printed in Hugo Gernsback's Radio News. It shouldn't come as any further surprise that Mathison's first magazine credit (the first I have found anyway) was called "The Radio Rescue," a novel published in Sea Stories for October 5, 1922. Mathison followed that up with his first (and perhaps only) hardbound novel, The Radiobuster, Being Some of the Adventures of Samuel Jones, Deep Sea Wireless Operator (Frederick K. Stokes Company, 1924). Descriptions of the book suggest that it's a kind of twentieth century Odyssey. It even includes a trip to Mars. "While contemptible as literature," writes the Website of the Maritime Radio Historical Society of America, "it undoubtedly holds pride of place as the only novel written about the trials of a radioman at a fisheries radio station in Alaska." It's no stretch of the imagination to believe that Mathison had been to such a station and may even have manned one during his many years at sea. (3)

Mathison sold several more tales to Sea Stories between 1924 and 1929, including a series featuring the character Zig Jones. I don't know whether Zig is related to Sam, but the latter showed up again in "The Mongolians' Ray," a story for Amazing Stories for that magazine's June 1929 issue. Mathison also wrote for Weird Tales, the first magazine devoted to fantasy fiction, contributing "The Death Bottle" to the March 1925 issue of "The Unique Magazine." Writing under his own name and the pseudonym Dex Volney, Mathison was also published in People's MagazineAction StoriesAction NovelsShorts StoriesStreet & Smith’s Western Story Magazine, and other pulp titles of the 1920s and '30s. His story "Thor Olsen's Ace" was selected for inclusion in The World's Best Short Stories of 1930. According to Everett Bleiler, Mathison may have been living in New York City and employed with the Pacific Radio Company at the time he contributed stories to Street and Smith (i.e., in about 1932).

In view of Mathison's later association with L. Ron Hubbard, "The Mongolians' Ray," from Amazing Stories, offers an interesting insight into the author. In their book Worlds of TomorrowForrest J. Ackerman and Brad Linaweaver assert:
In this story, [Mathison] created the fictional device that shortly after the introduction of Dianetics, morphed into reality as the E-meter employed today to supposedly reveal the personalities of individuals interested in becoming 'clears' in the Dianetic regimen. (4)
Science fiction historian Everett Bleiler described the story in a different way, writing:
Samuel Jones, former telegraph operator, is associated with Mazerka Magazine in a program to expose scientific hoaxes, fraudulent mediums, and similar disreputable phenomena. (5)
I have already discussed Volney Mathison's attempts to cast himself in the role of the science-minded skeptic. It would seem that--paradoxically--he was not always a critical thinker and may even have been a little gullible, for he associated himself with the kind of people Samuel Jones, former telegraph operator, was in the business of exposing as fakes.

To be continued . . .

(1) Ralph 124C 41+ ran as a twelve-part serial, meaning, I take it, that the last part was published in March 1912, the month before the Titanic went to the ocean floor. Midway through the run of Gernsback's serial, a young writer from Chicago submitted an unfinished novel to the editor of The All-Story. Referring to the fiction he was then reading in popular magazines, the writer later explained his entry into the field: "If people were paid for writing rot such as I read I could write stories just as rotten. I knew absolutely that I could write stories just as entertaining and probably a lot more so than any I chanced to read in those magazines." The author of those words was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his finished novel was published in The All-Story beginning in February 1912 as Under the Moons of Mars, later A Princess of Mars, the first in his series of John Carter books. Could Burroughs have been speaking of Ralph 124C 41+ when he described "rot such as I read"?
(2) By the time Gernsback's scientific fiction number appeared on the newsstand, Weird Tales had been in print for half a year. Incidentally, Amazing Stories would soon fall into the hands of pulp publisher Bernarr Macfadden (1868-1955). If you want to make a web of connections: Bernarr Macfadden's empire was assumed by Ed Bodin after Macfadden's death. Bodin was L. Ron Hubbard's literary agent and mentor. L. Ron Hubbard and Volney Mathison were associates. Mathison--like Gernsback--was involved in amateur radio and contributed to Gernsback's Amazing Stories and Radio News.
(3) A review in the Harvard Crimson Bookshelf (May 9, 1924) includes a good deal of boasting, which I suspect originated with either the author or his publisher. The publisher, Stokes, characterized Mathison's novel as "the Dere Mabel of radio literature." That term--"radio literature"--suggests that there was a whole genre or sub-genre of fiction devoted to radio back in those pioneering days. Perhaps it's a genre waiting to be uncovered. On the other hand, it may be better left buried. Incidentally, Sam Jones wasn't the first radio operator hero in pulp fiction. George Frank Worts (1892-1962), aka Loring Brent, told a series of tales of Peter Moore in Argosy in 1918-1919. "Peter the Brazen," as he was called, is a shipboard radio operator in the Far East. His adventures were reprinted in The Compleat Adventures of Peter the Brazen in 2003 and Peter the Brazen in 2007.
(4) Quoted in Wikipedia.
(5) When he described the story, Bleiler may not have known that Mathison was an associate of Hubbard and thus could have missed the Dianetics angle. In any case, I haven't read the story myself and can't offer an opinion on it except to say that it sounds suspiciously like an early Buck Rogers storyline.
Postscript: Wikipedia gives "A Phony Phone" as the title of one of Volney Mathison's pieces for Radio News.

Hugo Gernsback's Modern Electrics for January 1912, featuring the publisher's serialized novel, "Ralph 124C 41+." The being on the right reminds me of James Arness as the Thing from Another World.
A later reprinting of the novel with a colorful and charming cover by an unknown artist, a cover price indicating this is a British edition, and a cover image showing an early version of Skype. I wonder how much this machine might resemble Volney Mathison's E-meter. 
Gernsback's Science and Invention, Scientific Fiction Number, August 1923. The spaceman looks a little like Gernsback. Was that intentional?
Volney G. Mathison's brass-pounding hero, Sam Jones, made his own trip into space in the 1924 novel The Radiobuster. At the time the novel was published, Mathison was a shipboard radio operator.
By the time Sam Jones showed up in Amazing Stories (June 1929), he was a former radio operator, and a debunker for a popular magazine. The cover is by Hugo Gernsback's workhorse, Frank R. Paul.
Volney Mathison also wrote under the name Dex Volney, the byline that appears on this cover of Action Novels for August/September 1932.

Original text and captions copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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