The Devolutionist (16)
June 6, 2013
HILOBROW is pleased to present the sixteenth installment of our serialization of Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist. New installments will appear each Thursday for eighteen weeks.
“The Devolutionist” (Argosy All-Story Weekly, July 1921) is the third occult-science-fiction Dr. Kinney story; the others are “The Lord of Death” (June 1919), “The Queen of Life” (August 1919), and “The Emancipatrix” (September 1921). Having learned how to visit other worlds telepathically, without leaving Earth — by means of Venusian technology — Dr. Kinney and his companions enter the minds and share the sensations of the inhabitants of a human-like civilization on other planets. In this story, they visit a double planet: Hafen is the abode of capitalists, Holl of workers. A nearby planet of “cooperative democrats” is in trouble, so Kinney & co. step in.
Cobbler and one-reeler writer Homer Eon Flint (1888–1924) published a number of pulp science fiction stories — including “The Planeteer” (1918; one of the earliest examples of cosmic sci-fi) and The Blind Spot (1921, with Austin Hall) — during the genre’s Radium Age. Everett Bleiler’s Science Fiction: The Early Years calls Flint “in many ways the outstanding writer of s-f in the Munsey pulp magazines.” Flint died in a crash near Oakland, Calif., after supposedly stealing a taxi at gunpoint in order to use it in a bank hold-up.
“I am glad to see so many moving-picture men,” said Mona thoughtfully. “If it were not for photographs, I doubt if coming generations would believe this.”
And she turned her glasses again upon the scene. From the cockpit of Fort’s newest ornithopter, about three hundred yards from the ground and less than that distance from the spot, she could watch operations with exceptional ease. Fort agreed with her comment.
“Yes; to merely state that the mouth of that cannon is a hundred feet in diameter, and that it is set a mile and a half into the ground, at an angle of thirty degrees — it’s too much of a strain on the imagination. However, I understand they’ve taken flash-light pictures from the interior, such as will make it easier to believe.”
A huge compound crane was slowly swinging the first projectile into place over the muzzle of that colossal gun. Mona eyed the immense shell with curiosity.
“As I understand it,” she said, “the projectile is really a number of shells, telescoping, one within another. I’ve forgotten how many there are.”
“Fifty. The idea, of course, is that the original charge of powder within the cannon will send the projectile at something like two miles a second. Upon reaching a certain point in space another charge will be automatically fired in the base of the outermost shell. Thus it will act as another cannon, from which the remaining shells will be shot. And so on, until the forty-ninth shell has been blown to the rear. The remaining one will, by that time, have traveled far enough to get out of our gravitation into Alma’s.”
“What is the size of the fiftieth shell?”
“Only two feet in diameter; [Footnote: All dimensions are necessarily a matter of judgment; but they represent the opinion of an architect, whose sense of proportion is presumably better than average.] but of such length that it will hold five tons of explosive. It is expected to demolish a square mile of their roof.”
The great projectile was carefully lowered until its tip was flush with the volcano-like mouth of the cannon. The proceeding took a long time; and it was well toward the end of the work that Powart’s handsome yacht swept into the space provided for it in the circle of spectators. By prearrangement this space was next to that occupied by Mona and Fort.
As soon as the yacht had come to a stop its thrumming wings keeping it as steadily suspended in mid air as any of the lighter craft roundabout, Powart himself stepped out upon the tiny bridge. It was the signal for a great outburst of applause, in which Fort joined as heartily as any one.
“You don’t seem at all envious of Mr. Powart,” commented Mona, watching the athlete curiously.
He looked around as though surprised, and protested:
“On the contrary, I am really proud of his success. You see, it’s this way, Mona: If he fails, then I fail too!”
And before she could ask what he meant he raised his voice enough for the dictator to hear:
“Congratulations, Powart! Everything coming along all right?”
Powart gave Fort one of his piercing looks, but showed no sign of irritation as he replied: “All reports satisfactory. We shall have our little fireworks promptly on the second.” Then to Mona: “Sorry I cannot invite you aboard my ship; but I shall be so occupied with the ceremonial end of this, you know, that —”
“Of course,” instantly. “I would really be in the way; and I shouldn’t care to be that, to-day of all days.”
And Van Emmon, through Powart’s eyes, judged that the dictator stood mountain-high in her respect at that instant.
Fort listened with the utmost indifference, seeming to take a boy’s rapt interest in the spectacle below him rather than in the affair at his elbow. He glanced at his watch and remarked: “Less than half an hour now. I can hardly wait!”
Mona eyed him speculatively. “What did you mean, just now, about your success depending upon Mr. Powart’s?”
“Just that,” he returned lightly. “Why, if he fails, my little scheme is a miserable fiasco! I shan’t be able to marry you at all; that is, unless you grant an extension!”
Mona did not respond to his levity.
“I wish you’d be serious!” she rebuked him. “Just think what this affair means!”
He pretended to be thoughtful. “Oh, to Alma, you mean! Yes, indeed; the folks will be badly upset, I imagine, if the projectile actually reaches their roof.”
“Why, do you think it may not?” surprised.
“It’s barely possible. The whole thing has been very scientifically calculated, of course; but the slightest flaw in the mathematics could cause a miss. Yes, the projectile may never reach its mark; it’s something to be considered.”
“In which case,” returned Mona, evidently convinced that he was teasing, “in which case, your own scheme falls through!”
“Oh, no,” with the utmost calm. “My scheme depends upon the cannon, not upon the projectile.”
Mona nearly lost her temper. “I wish you wouldn’t talk in riddles!” But Fort was plainly unwilling to say anything further just then; he changed the subject, directing Mona’s glasses toward a point far to the rear, where the blue wall of the contact loomed, some twenty miles away. The spot had been chosen, of course, because there were fewer inhabitants in that locality than any other; the discharge of the gun would mean an immense volume of smoke and gas, likely to prove disagreeable for days. Nobody cared to live near the contact, because of its queer, sunless conditions.
“Almost time we were getting out of here,” said Fort, after another look at his watch. As he spoke a warning whistle on Powart’s yacht sounded shrilly; and with one accord the surrounding horde of sightseers — all belonging to the leisure class, of course — began to back away from the spot. The workmen, down below, were already taking flight. A moment later Powart, speaking for the benefit of a recording phonograph, began as follows:
“Precisely at the hour, minute and second determined by the commission’s mathematicians the projectile will be slid into the cannon. The concussion will explode the powder in the breech. This final act is to take place”— he glanced at his watch —“within two minutes.
“By so doing, the people of Hafen and Holl, through me, their commander-in-chief, do hereby deliberately take the offensive against Alma.” He hesitated, then went on with fresh determination: “Rather than permit them to prepare for the threatened invasion, then, we thus proceed to bombard their roof, in order to so harass them that they shall be made helpless against us.”
Mona turned her gaze from the dictator, and took up her glasses. The great cannon was nearly a mile away from them now; not a single aircraft was closer than Fort’s and Powart’s, which were still backing away. The blast was not a thing to be sneered at. Mona’s hands shook with excitement.
Powart’s eyes were on his watch. “The thing is beyond all human power to prevent now. The projectile will be released by clockwork. In fact”— his voice rose, his excitement finally getting the better of him —“it is even now sliding! It is only a matter of seconds; the projectile is lubricated so as to slide easily.”
A breathless pause; another look at the watch, then:
“By this time, my friends, the projectile has reached —”
And even as the words quit his mouth, the cannon belched forth.
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.”
HILOBOOKS: The mission of HiLoBooks is to serialize novels (both original and reissued) on HiLobrow, and to reissue Radium Age science fiction in beautiful new print editions. The following titles can be read in serial form via HiLobrow.com and/or purchased in gorgeous paperback form online or via your local independent bookstore: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. Also serialized on HiLobrow: W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet”, Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist, Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon — 2419 A.D., Jack London’s “The Red One”. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
ORIGINAL FICTION from HILOBROW: James Parker’s swearing-animal fable The Ballad of Cocky The Fox, later published in limited-edition paperback by HiLoBooks; plus: a newsletter, The Sniffer, by Patrick Cates, and further stories: “The Cockarillion”) | Karinne Keithley Syers’s hollow-earth adventure Linda, later published in limited-edition paperback; plus: ukulele music, and a “Floating Appendix”) | Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention, published by Red Lemonade | Robert Waldron’s high-school campus roman à clef The School on the Fens | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD by Stephen Burt | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | EPIC WINS: GOTHAMIAD by Chad Parmenter | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”