Sand Roughs

No. 3 A Member Journal of Robert E. Howard: Electronic Amateur Press Association

by Gary Romeo © 2001 Gary Romeo can be contacted at:  gromeo8750@yahoo.com

 

Science Friction

A look at two end of the world stories by

L. Sprague de Camp and Robert E. Howard

 

 

Stories and Main Characters:

 

Judgment Day by L. Sprague de Camp

Wade Ormont – A scientist

 

The Supreme Moment by Robert E. Howard

            Zan Uller – A scientist

 

 

Most everyone, including L. Sprague de Camp, believes that he was an ill-suited choice to complete Robert E. Howard’s unfinished Conan tales.  LSdC answers his critics and suggests his reason for being ill-suited in the following quote from his auto-biography:

“Poor Robert suffered from a devilish mass of fears, hatreds, and obsession, from which I have been free.  Howard’s complexes, however, gave his work a peculiar emotional intensity, which shines through his writing and together with his magnificent storytelling gift, accounts for the grip that even his pulpiest fiction has on most readers.”

 

This is, of course, a self-serving statement tempered by a compliment.  Perhaps more on the mark is this quote from REH scholar, Don J. Herron: “One of the major points of difference between Conan and Conantics is that REH's creation reacts to dangerous situations instinctively, whereas the de Camp-Carter imitation reacts logically.”

 

In any event, LSdC’s involvement with REH’s Conan will continue to be discussed for a while.  LSdC, before being a Conan pasticher, was a respected science-fiction writer.  Contemporary SF writers remember him as one of the members of the influential golden age.  (He was recently cited so by Mike Resnick in the Summer 2001 issue of  “The Bulletin of SF and Fantasy Writers of America.”)

 

Robert E. Howard wrote precious little science fiction.  REH once stated in a December 1933 letter to August Dereleth:  “Yes, Astounding went pseudo-scientific.  The editor returned my weird yarn, requesting me to submit some scientific fiction, but whether I’ll be able to make the market or not is doubtful. […] there is so little of the scientist about my nature that I feel no confidence in my ability to write convincingly on the subject.”

 

REH’s forays into scientific fiction are primarily adventure stories similar to the science fiction work of Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  One particular REH science fiction story “The Supreme Moment” bears a remarkable similarity to LSdC’s story, “Judgement Day.”  Comparing the two stories could tell us something about their respective authors.

 

* * *

 

“The Supreme Moment” was unpublished during Howard’s lifetime.  It was eventually published in 1984 in “Crypt of Cthulhu #25” and reprinted in Joe Marek’s “The New Howard Reader #1.”  The story isn’t one of Howard’s best and its political content would most likely have kept it from being published during the post-war science-fiction boom of the 40’s and 50’s had Howard been alive to market it.

 

The story begins with five powerful and wealthy men trying to convince a small and deformed man to save the human race.  A strange fungus is spreading across the earth.  It destroys native vegetation, leaving barren fields in its wake.  The fungus is literally unstoppable.

 

The small and deformed man is a scientific expert on parasitic plants.  He had developed a fungicide but refused to sell it to the capitalist interests that wanted it.  Now that the world was under attack from this fungus, these other capitalists were insistent on buying the formula.

 

The deformed scientist, Zan Uller, is unmoved by the world’s plight.  He tells his life story.  He was born into poverty, a tenement in London.  His mother was thrown into prison for stealing milk.  At the age of 10, Zan was forced to work at a looming mill.  His health was severely damaged.  The employer’s beatings left him a cripple.  Zan became a newsboy, having to fight off other newsboys.  Despite all this adversity, Zan maintained an interest in science and excelled.

 

Once a scientist, Zan still encountered adversity.  A rival scientist caused a laboratory explosion that impaired his vision.  Zan’s book on evolution caused religious zealots to attack him.  Eventually Zan’s scientific success allowed him to live an undisturbed life.  He had discovered the fungi’s harmful effects years earlier but was mocked for his efforts.

 

He began work on his fungicide.  Even though he could have checked the growth of the world destroying fungi he chose not too.  Even now, his formula could save mankind.  But Zan refuses to sell the assembled men his formula.

 

The five rich and powerful men threaten to torture Zan’s formula from him.  Zan delivers a speech:

 

“If I should refuse to give you the formula, you will torture me?”

 

Five voices answered assent.

 

“But what if I do not refuse?  Is it not godlike to forgive?  Who am I to leave the world to destruction?

 

“Gentlemen, this is my vengeance, this the supreme moment! 

 

Zan grabs a gun and shoots himself in the head.  The echoes rebounded through the room like mocking, devilish laughter.  And so ends Howard’s story.

 

* * *

 

De Camp’s story, “Judgement Day” was published in the August 1955 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and later reprinted by Ballantine Books in The Best of L. Sprague de Camp.  It is a good story worthy of republication.

 

A physicist, Wade Ormont, narrates the story.  He has developed a formula for a nuclear reaction using iron.  If Wade simply follows the normal course of his job, writing a report on his discovery, he realizes that someone will eventually use his discovery to destroy the world.  Wade doubts the U. S. government would do that but secrets cannot be kept forever.  Wade considers the “commies but decides any “crackpot” world leader is capable of the deed.

 

Wade muses about his own sanity but decides he has ample reason for wishing to kill off mankind.  He begins to tell his story.  Wade was a sickly skinny intellectual kid fond of big words.  He was picked on.  He was bullied.  He was intellectually opposed to exercise so stayed skinny and uncoordinated his entire life.

 

Wade becomes quite the unforgiving misanthrope.  Wade is more sympathetic toward women.  Wade married late and had an unsuccessful marriage but he has no lingering animosity toward women.

 

Wade recounts his schooling at a military academy as a particular grueling experience.  His mother’s decision.  He grudgingly admits the school afforded him a better education than a public school despite the hazing and name-calling.

 

Wade eventually got admitted to MIT.  Wade summarizes:

 

For thousands of years, priests and philosophers have told us to love mankind without giving any sound reason for loving the creatures.  The mass of them are a lot of cruel, treacherous, hairless apes.  They hate us intellectuals […].

 

Wade recounts a hobby he once had of studying conversations for a statistical analysis of speech.  A woman noticed him taking notes.  She asked him what he was doing.  He explained his hobby.

 

“My goodness, Dr. Ormont, you are a nut!”

 

She never knew how close she came to having her skull bashed in with the inkwell.

 

Wade tells of a visit to a psychiatrist.  Wade is told he has a schizoidal personality.  Wade decides against continuing therapy. 

 

After recounting his life story, Wade ponders publishing the formula once more.  He guesses the formula would be discovered and used by a madman within a decade or two.  Most likely he would not live to see the end of the world.  He is only 53 but he has a heart condition and little will to live.  The only genuine emotion he has is hate.  Wade considers his sympathies.  He is for civil rights but says Negroes would probably be persecutors of others if they held power.  He remembers some particular cruel neighborhood boys.

 

There is one way I can be happy during my remaining years, and that is by the knowledge that all these bastards will get theirs someday. […]  I hate everybody.  […] I shall write my report.

 

* * *

 

There are similarities and differences in these two stories that need discussing.  Howard, like his writer model, Jack London, is anti-capitalist.  It is important that there is class antagonism as well as personal antagonism in Howard’s story.  De Camp’s story is apolitical (except for the historical “Cold War” context.)  Wade’s hates are all personal. 

 

Howard never mentions whether Zan Uller is married or not.  The reader would assume not as Zan is physically repulsive.  Wade is normal looking enough to have attracted a wife but his personality has been stunted and he is incapable of a normal male-female relationship.

 

It is of course tempting to examine both of these stories as autobiographical.  Any reader of REH’s letter would know that he had a lot of animosity for mankind.  In one letter, Howard recounts a story at his job as a soda jerk.  REH is ready to kill an oil worker roughneck for attempting to steal a magazine.  De Camp, in the afterword to the Ballantine collection says that “Judgement Day” comes the closest to being autobiographical: “[…] several incidents are taken straight out of my boyhood.  It was, as you can infer, not a very pleasant one.”

 

Of course neither story is strictly autobiographical.  Howard’s parents were not victims of capitalist exploitation.  Howard’s life was fairly devoid of hard labor.  Howard was physical fit and healthy.  (He had overweight periods and a possible heart problem, but these weren’t debilitating.)  De Camp was happily married and raised a family.  He maintained close friendships with his peers and has been described as quite charming.  Obviously, unlike Wade Ormont.

 

Still within these stories, is the core of the difference between REH and LSdC.  REH’s story is full of passion.  LSdC’s story is full of intellect.  Zan Uller knows the end of the world is imminent.  The fungus is physically destroying the earth.  No one can stop it except Zan.  Zan is the key to the world’s salvation and he destroys himself with passion and glee.  Wade Ormont’s formula will most likely bring the world to its end.  It is an intellectual certainty.  Wade does not have to sacrifice himself to cause destruction.  Wade simply has to do his job, write a report, to end the world. 

 

These two stories are a perfect metaphor for the difference between Howard’s Conan and de Camp’s Conan.  It isn’t a matter of writing style; both are fine writers with finely written stories.  It isn’t a matter of theme.  Both writers are capable of having meaning in their stories.  It is a matter of personality as de Camp said all along.  De Camp might not have the “devilish mass of fears, hatreds, and obsession” that he felt Howard had but this story gives Howard fans clues for examining LSdC’s own fears, hatreds, and obsession.  De Camp is clearly similar to Wade Ormont.  De Camp’s editing of Howard’s work, appropriation of the Conan character, and dealings with Novalyne Price and Glenn Lord must be considered in the light of Wade Ormont.  That detached intellect, which has Wade’s (LSdC’s) own motives as the center of his universe.  Time, distance, and yes, chance can teach us things.

        

 

Addendum:

 

Trying to understand L. Sprague de Camp is not the same as condemning him.  De Camp, for whatever motivation, was the primary force behind the multi-million selling Lancer “Conan” series.  Robert E. Howard’s reputation as a premiere fantasist and the creator of the sub-genre known as “Sword & Sorcery” was cemented by this popular series.  The Conan stories by Howard were clearly separated from the de Camp/Carter stories and De Camp’s introductions pointed readers to Howard’s other works as published by Donald M. Grant, Glenn Lord, and others.  De Camp was clearly a Howard fan and was instrumental in getting Howard’s stories (albeit in sometimes edited form) before the reading public.