Oct 30, 2016

Men of Steel

I first came across a "man of steel" in the 1960s. After 1965, episodes from the 1950s Superman television show were finally shown in color, but I don't think I saw any in color until the 1970s when my family got a color television set. Some time in the late 1960s I saw "bad guys" (in black and white) shooting at Superman and the bullets bounced off of the "man of steel". I don't recall that I ever saw the first episode of that television show, so I don't think I ever took seriously the idea that Superman came to Earth from another planet.

able to leap over tall buildings
I've never read a Superman comic book or seen a Superman movie. The days of Superman radio broadcasts were before my time. My interest in Superman does not extend far beyond a mild curiosity about the possible influence of Superman on Isaac Asimov.

1949 Avon edition
I've seen it suggested that Gladiator was a possible source of inspiration for the comic book idea of a "man of steel". In Philip Wylie's 1930 story, the titular "gladiator" is a man (Hugo Danner) who was given super-human physiology by his father. Abednego Danner worked as a biology professor at a small college and in his spare time he experimented in his home laboratory. One day he discovers how to magically endow animals with great strength and epidermal toughness. By injecting his pregnant wife with a magic potion, Abednego transforms his son into a superman who can jump over buildings and whose skin deflects bullets.

cover art by Frank Paul
Imagine the young Isaac Asimov, going off to the public library where he could voraciously consume the literature of the world. In his family's store, there were pulp magazines, some of which he got permission to read because they had the word "science" on the cover (and he argued to his father, they must be educational). In 1930, who might have guessed that such a nerdy little boy would help create a new literary genre?

cover by David Bergen
Before Gladiator, a slightly earlier tale of amazing magical chemistry was "Crystals of Growth". Another biologist, professor Brontley, discovers the perfect food that can make people grow to great size. Such non-scientific ideas were certainly "in the air" when Asimov was a boy, having been spread to the world by many fantasy stories including that of Wells in his The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth.

cover art by Howard Brown
We must look to the influence of science fiction pioneers such as Hugo Gernsbeck, David Lesser and John W. Campbell if we want to understand how Asimov managed to become a revolutionary science fiction writer (and not a fantasy author) after growing up in a world full of biofantasy stories. Asimov wanted to study biology and become a doctor, but he was deflected into the study of chemistry.

Asimov apparently read every 1930s science fiction story that was published in the pulp magazines. "Cosmic Quest" by Edmond Hamilton provides an example of the kind of science fiction story available to the young Asimov, and it is an example of a story that had its roots in physical science.

Astronomers had long made use of spectroscopy to study the composition of stars, but Hamilton extrapolated to a super telescope that could be used to identify exoplanets with Earth-like atmospheres.

Now, after 80 years, here in 2016, science fact is starting to catch up with Hamilton's imagination.

pulp magazine ad
Also in those 1930s pulp magazines were advertisements such as the one shown to the left. Such was the environment that Isaac Asimov was educated within.

Hugo Gernsback had called for a new type of fiction and he designed new pulp magazines to market science fiction stories, but creating a new fiction genre that was firmly rooted in science was no easy task.

Gernsback made use of the available talent, but writers from Gernsback's generation, such as David Keller, were trapped in the past. A new generation of writers was needed.
The Time Projector

Hugo Gernsback and David Lasser
When it was Asimov's turn to walk upon the science fiction stage, he knew enough about biology so that he could mostly avoid dabbling in absurd biofantasy. Under the mentor-ship of Campbell (who was trained in physical science), Asimov often centered his stories on physical science topics. It is easy to imagine Asimov being amused by magical plot devices such as the "Time Projector", a device with all the sophistication of a "gargantuan watch". When Asimov wrote his own time travel novel, he could harness the power of imaginary electronic computers to power his time machine.

cover art by Ralph McQuarrie
Similarly, Asimov's "men of steel" were robots with positronic brains.

What were writers such as H. G. Wells and Philip Wylie thinking when they imagined a science of biology that could control and re-shape the human body?

Both Food of the Gods and Gladiator only tangentially touch on science. Philip Wylie may have taken science classes before he dropped out of college (I've seen it claimed that he studied physics), but the biology in Gladiator seems like a joke. The film that was "inspired" by Gladiator certainly went with the joke angle.

I can't really imagine a place for Gladiator in the science fiction genre. Wells and Wylie were more interested in politics than science. What kind of retro-configuring would be required to bring Wylie's tale into the realm of science fiction?

Openly adapted as a comic book story
after Wylie's death
Perhaps we should imagine that Abednego Danner was a time traveler, sent back from the future in order to make sure that Germany lost World War I. Imagine that a time traveling Abednego Danner came into the past equipped with nanotechnology: a swarm of nanobots that could replace some of the cells of the human body, providing artificial muscles with great power and a thin, protective epidermal layer that was as strong as steel. Or, it seems far easier to just go along with the folks and Avon books and declare Gladiator to be a story about the "lusty and uninhibited life of a superman".

I'll always be grateful that a few scientifically-literate authors such as Asimov were able to give us a some thoughtful stories about robotic men of steel. That is a rare gift to hold on to; something other than the absurd and endlessly rehashed pop culture super-heroes.

Next: the scientific novel
Philip Wylie's Gladiator re-imagined with the Vietnam War taking the place of World War I.

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