The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings
In Irish author Fitz James O’Brien’s classic novella of 1858, entitled “The Diamond Lens,” a scientist, employing his newly invented supermicroscope, is able to observe a beautiful young woman who lives in the impossibly small world of a droplet of water. Flash forward 77 years, and we find British author Festus Pragnell, in the novel The Green Man of Graypec (1935), giving us the tale of a man who is accidentally sucked, via his scientist brother’s new supermicroscope, into the subatomic world of Kilsona, where he is forced to abide for some time. Sandwiched between these two works, however, is a book that has, over the decades, managed to achieve for itself pride of place in these kind of microverse affairs, in which entire worlds are discovered in the heart of an atom, and that book is one that I have finally caught up with, Ray Cummings’ highly influential novel The Girl in the Golden Atom.
The NYC-born Cummings, as I have mentioned elsewhere, was, from 1914 – 1919, the personal assistant of Thomas Edison, and even went on to marry Edison’s daughter. In 1919, Cummings began his career as a writer, his very first sale being the novella-length “The Girl in the Golden Atom,” which initially appeared in the March 15, 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly, its front cover sporting the blurb “A Romance of a World Within a World.” That issue sold for 10 cents and contained 176 pages of prime pulp fiction … including Part 5 (of 6) of Abraham Merritt’s The Moon Pool. Cummings’ first-ever story proved so popular with readers that, the following year, he came out with a sequel that was four times as long! That novel-length sequel, The People of the Golden Atom, ran as a six-part serial in the January 24 – February 28, 1920 issues of All-Story, and in 1922 the two tales would be cobbled together into one novel, The Girl in the Golden Atom, issued as a hardcover by Harper & Brothers. Since its initial appearance as a novel 100 years ago (as of this writing), the book has understandably seen dozens of reprints. The edition that this reader was fortunate enough to acquire is the 2005 one from Bison Books, which happily includes a wonderful introduction by sci-fi Grand Master Jack Williamson, and I see that Steeger Books is currently selling a very beautiful copy today, as well. Perhaps Cummings’ most famous piece of work, The Girl in the Golden Atom would turn out to be just one of the almost 750 (!) stories that this flabbergastingly prolific author ultimately gave to the public before his death in 1957, at the age of 69.
For the most part, Cummings’ novel transpires inside a single room in NYC; to be specific, one of the rooms in the Scientific Club, the setting for several dozen other Cummings stories. Here, in the novella section of the novel, a Chemist relates to four friends – a Doctor, a Banker, a Big Business Man, and a Very Young Man – his latest theories. (Incidentally, it is not till much later in the book that we ever learn the actual names of the five men.) The Chemist had concluded that there is no reason why life shouldn’t be able to exist in the subatomic world, and indeed, using a new microscope of his own design, he had recently seen, inside the golden wedding ring that once had been his mother’s, a beautiful but sad-looking woman sitting at the entrance of a cave! The Chemist had later concocted some remarkable drugs that could instantly miniaturize or enlarge his own person, and in front of the other four, demonstrates those astounding substances. A fly in the room is enlarged to grotesque hugeness, and a sparrow and lizard are shrunk down to micro size and allowed to enter a scratch that the Chemist has made upon the ring. And while the others watch dumbstruck, the Chemist himself shrinks down to nothingness and enters that golden scratch. Two days later, the Chemist returns, and proceeds to tell the others the story of his five-day adventure. (Time, apparently, progresses at a different rate in the subatomic universe.) He had indeed, after many travails in journeying downward into the ring, been able to find the lovely woman by the cave, and had learned that her name is Lylda, the daughter of one of the chief scientists of the Oroid people. Lylda and her people had pleaded with the Chemist from the upper world for his assistance in their recent war against the aggressive Malites, which the Chemist, after growing hundreds of feet in height (measurements in the book being relative, naturally), was more than capable of providing. At the end of the novella section, the Chemist decides to return to Lylda, and the golden ring is placed inside a museum for safekeeping.
The story then jumps five years later, to the fall of 1923. The Chemist, Rogers, has not returned, and so, in observance of instructions contained in a letter that he’d left with the Doctor in 1918, three of his friends decide to use those same wonderful drugs (the formulas for which were contained in that letter) and attempt to find him. Thus, the Doctor (Frank Adams), the Big Business Man (Will), and the Very Young Man (Jack Bruce … hmm, why does that name seem so familiar?) make the hazardous journey, the elderly Banker (George) being tasked with watching over the ring in the club room. The three men, after a harrowing descent into the microverse, are indeed successful at finding Rogers, who is now, after 12 years, happily married to Lylda, living in the Oroid capital city of Arite, and the father of a 10-year-old boy, Loto. But trouble soon attends the arrival of the upper-world adventurers. The economic revolutionary named Targo, from the neighboring city Orlog, manages to stir up the populace not only against their kindly king, but against the newcomers, as well. On the trio’s second day in Arite, both Lylda’s scientist father and the king are murdered, and Loto is kidnapped by Targo’s followers. Jack takes off to Orlog to rescue the youth, accompanied by Lylda’s sister, the lovely Aura, and that is just the beginning of an increasingly dangerous time for our quartet, deep inside the world of a golden atom…
As you may have discerned, Cummings’ novel borrows a little bit from O’ Brien’s work, as well as from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire Gulliver’s Travels (specifically, its Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians) and Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which had similarly contained shrinking and enlarging substances), mixes in a bit of H. G. Wells’ short novel of 1895, The Time Machine (specifically, the setup of a scientist explaining his latest invention to a group of friends), and comes up with something original, as well as seminal. The book itself was an obvious influence on Pragnell’s, and possibly even on Richard Matheson’s The Shrinking Man (1956). Cummings’ novel is hardly heavy on the science, and the workings of the Chemist’s marvelous pills are only briefly detailed, the net effect being more a book of adventure fantasy, rather than science fiction. But once the author’s central conceit is accepted, everything else does logically and consistently follow, to Cummings’ great credit. Like another book by the author that I had recently experienced, The Sea Girl (1929), The Girl in the Golden Atom is simply but compellingly written, almost on the order of a YA novel, in what The Science Fiction Encyclopedia has called “[Cummings’] rather roughshod prose.” Still, the book is endlessly imaginative and filled with any number of pleasing details. For example, I enjoyed reading of the houses and the street layout of Arite, both of which are triangular in nature; of the truly ingenious clock that Reoh (Lylda’s father) had invented; and of how the horizons in this subatomic world curve upward! The scene in which Jack and Aura shrink drastically in size to escape from Targo’s minions, and then manage to walk under a door, is nicely done, too.
Cummings takes the time to show us something of the idyllic domestic and economic setup of the Oroid people, and our five leading men are a nicely differentiated bunch. Perhaps best of all, though, are those highly convincing growth and shrinking segments, in which the subject feels no change, other than some mild dizzying nausea, but notices his surroundings growing smaller or larger, as the case might be. Cummings’ story is often mind-boggling, especially when the Chemist blithely announces that Arite is situated, again relatively, some 160,000 miles from the surface entrance of that wedding ring! (“This is all tremendously interesting … but not very comprehensible,” says the Big Business Man at one point; “It’s too wonderful – really to understand,” Aura declares later on.) And the book is often quite thrilling, such as when its increasingly frenetic plot branches into two parallel story lines, with Jack and Aura going off to rescue Loto in one, while the others remain among the Arite revolutionaries in the other. As Williamson mentions in his intro, Cummings “weaves an engaging and suspenseful narrative.”
In a book filled with any number of tremendous sequences, several managed to stand out for this reader: the Doctor, Banker, Big Business Man, and Jack battling a cockroach in the Scientific Club that had accidentally ingested some of the growth formula and thus turned into a 3-foot-long monstrosity (probably worse than anything to be found in any other NYC dwelling!); the three adventurers finally reuniting with Rogers and meeting his family; Loto’s rescue from the castle of Targo; the desperate fight that our towering heroes engage in with hundreds of enraged Oroids, inside a subterranean tunnel; the battle to the death between a gargantuan Jack and a gargantuan Targo, after the latter purloins some of the growth pills; and the dilemma of Jack accidentally taking too much of the miniaturizing drug – with none of the growth drug on his person – and thus becoming lost from the others, and compelled to face off against that now-dinosaur-sized lizard (again, all things being relative). Cummings also throws in some charming romantic bits, too – between Rogers & Lylda and Jack & Aura – and concludes his book with a lovely coda, on a snowy Christmas Eve in upstate New York. So yes, the author’s novel does end happily for our heroes and heroines, yet with the world of the Oroids in complete disarray. With Targo’s revolution seemingly a success, but Targo himself probably (although not conclusively) dead, the future of the once-Edenic subatomic realm is certainly in question. A second sequel to this classic piece of work, thus, would surely have been a welcome one.
In all its length, very few problems cropped up to distract this reader from his enjoyment of Cummings’ most famous work. Yes, there are a few ungrammatical bits here and there (such as the author writing “try and take” instead of “try to take”). And Cummings manages to misquote the lines from Irish writer Justin Huntly MacCarthy’s poem “If I Were King” no fewer than three times! Perhaps worst of all is the fact that our heroes seemingly forget to recover the supply of growth pills from Targo’s inert body; drugs that could seriously alter the future history of the Oroid people. But no matter. Even with these slight gaffes, Cummings’ book remains a truly imaginative wonder that I can recommend unreservedly for both younger readers and adults. I find myself now wanting to experience all 28 of the tales that Cummings wrote regarding the Scientific Club. Fortunately, I see that Steeger Books has a beautiful-looking volume containing all those 28 stories currently available! Unfortunately, I also see that the selling price of this volume is a whopping $85! Well, at least you all know what to get me for my next birthday now, right?