A RUNAWAY WORLD (1)
November 6, 2022
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize “A Runaway World,” by Clare Winger Harris. This story, her first, appeared in the July 1926 issue of Weird Tales; it entered the public domain in 2022.
The laboratory of Henry Shipley was a conglomeration of test-tubes, bottles, mysterious physical and chemical appliances and papers covered with indecipherable script. The man himself was in no angelic mood as he sat at his desk and surveyed the hopeless litter about him. His years may have numbered five and thirty, but young though he was, no man excelled him in his chosen profession.
“Curse that maid!” he muttered in exasperation. “If she possessed even an ordinary amount of intelligence she could tidy up this place and still leave my notes and paraphernalia intact. As it is I can’t find the account of that important nitrogen experiment.”
At this moment a loud knock at the door put an abrupt end to further soliloquy. In response to Shipley’s curt “come in,” the door opened and a stranger, possibly ten years older than Shipley, entered. The newcomer surveyed the young scientist through piercing eyes of nondescript hue. The outline of mouth and chin was only faintly suggested through a Vandyke beard.
Something in the new arrival’s gaze did not encourage speech, so Shipley mutely pointed to a chair, and upon perceiving that the seat was covered with papers, hastened to clear them away.
“Have I the honor of addressing Henry Shipley, authority on atomic energy?” asked the man, seating himself, apparently unmindful of the younger man’s confusion.
“I am Henry Shipley, but as to being an authority—”
The stranger raised a deprecating hand, “Never mind. We can dispense with the modesty, Mr. Shipley. I have come upon a matter of worldwide importance. Possibly you have heard of me. La Rue is my name; Leon La Rue.”
Henry Shipley’s eyes grew wide with astonishment.
“Indeed I am honored by the visit of so renowned a scientist,’ he cried with genuine enthusiasm.
“It is nothing,” said La Rue. “I love my work.”
“You and John Olmstead,” said Shipley, “have given humanity a clearer conception of the universe about us in the past hundred years, than any others have done. Here it is now the year 2026 A.D. and we have established by radio regular communication with Mars, Venus, two of the moons of Jupiter, and recently it has been broadest that messages are being received from outside our solar system, communications from interstellar space! Is that true?”
“It is,” replied La Rue. “During the past six months my worthy colleague Jules Nichol and I have received messages (some of them not very intelligible) from two planets that revolve around one of the nearer suns. These messages have required years to reach us, although they traveled at an inconceivable rate of speed.”
“How do you manage to carry on intelligent communication! Surely the languages must be very strange,” said the thoroughly interested Shipley.
“We begin all intercourse through the principles of mathematics,” replied the Frenchman with a smile, “for by those exact principles God’s universe is controlled. Those rules never fail. You know the principles of mathematics were discovered by man, not invented by him. This, then, is the basis of our code, always, and it never fails to bring intelligent responses from other planets whose inhabitants have arrived at an understanding equal to or surpassing that of ourselves. It is not a stretch of imagination to believe that we may some day receive a message from somewhere in space, that was sent out millions of years ago, and likewise we can comprehend the possibility of messages which we are now sending into the all-pervading ether, reaching some remote world eons in the future.”
“It is indeed a fascinating subject,” mused Henry Shipley, “but mine has an equal attraction. While you reach out among the stars, I delve down amid the protons and electrons. And who, my dear fellow, in this day of scientific advancement, can say that they are not identical except for size? Planets revolve about their suns, electrons around their protons; the infinite, the infinitesimal! What distinguishes them?”
The older man leaned forward, a white hand clutching the cluttered desk.
“What distinguishes them, you ask?” he muttered hoarsely. “This and this alone; time, the fourth dimension!”
“The two men gazed at one another in profound silence, then La Rue continued, his voice once more back to normal: “You said a moment ago that my planetary systems and your atoms were identical except for one thing — the fourth dimension. In my supra-world of infinite bigness our sun, one million times as big as this Earth, gigantic Jupiter, and all the other planets in our little system, would seem as small as an atom, a thing invisible even in the most powerful microscope. Your infra-world would be like a single atom with electrons revolving around it, compared to our solar system, sun and planets. I believe the invisible atom is another universe with its central sun and revolving planets, and there also exists a supra-universe in which our sun, the Earth and all the planets are only an atom. But the fourth dimension!”
La Rue picked up a minute speck of dust from the table and regarded it a moment in silence, then he went on: “Who knows but that this tiny particle of matter which I hold may contain a universe in that infra-world, and that during our conversation eons may have passed to the possible inhabitants of the planets therein? So we come to the fact that time is the fourth dimension. Let me read you what a scientist of an earlier day has written, a man who was so far ahead of his time that he was wholly unappreciated:
“‘If you lived on a planet infinitesimally small, or infinitely big, you would not know the difference. Time and space are, after all, purely relative. If at midnight tonight, all things, including ourselves and our measuring instruments, were reduced in size one thousand times, we should be left quite unaware of any such change.’
“But I wish to read you a message which I received at my radio station on the Eiffel Tower at Paris.”
La Rue produced a paper from a pocket and read the following radiogram from Mars:
“‘A most horrible catastrophe is befalling us. We are leaving the solar system! The sun grows daily smaller. Soon we shall be plunged in eternal gloom. The cold is becoming unbearable’!”
When the Frenchman had finished reading he continued addressing the physicist: “A few astronomers are aware of the departure of Mars from the system, but are keeping it from the public temporarily. What do you think of this whole business, Shipley?”
“The phenomenon is quite clear,” the latter replied. “Some intelligent beings in this vaster cosmos or supra-universe, in which we are but a molecule, have begun an experiment which is a common one in chemistry, an experiment in which one or two electrons in each atom are torn away, resulting, as you already know, in the formation of a new element. Their experiment will cause a rearrangement in our universe.”
“Yes,” smiled La Rue significantly, “every time we perform a similar experiment, millions of planets leave their suns in that next smaller cosmos or infra-world. But why isn’t it commoner even around us?”
“There is where the time element comes in,” answered his friend. “Think of the rarity of such an experiment upon a particular molecule or group of molecules, and you will plainly see why it has never happened in all the eons of time that our universe has passed through.”
There was a moment’s silence as both men realized their human inability to grasp even a vague conception of the idea of relativity. This silence was broken by the foreigner, who spoke in eager accents: “Will you not, my friend, return with me to Paris? And together at my radio station, we will listen to the messages from the truant Mars.”
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., 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. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: 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 | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.