by Willy Ley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Astounding Science Fiction, December 1940
as by Robert Willey


August 2010

Campbell's lead-in

Willy Ley's novelet, "Fog", is not much of a story, fictionally speaking. Yet it has some virtues that are worth looking at. John W. Campbell, editor of the leading science-fiction magazine, tells us the essential theme in several lead-in locations within this issue of Astounding:

A tale of revolution in an American city — by a man who's lived through five revolutions in a major power. See the Editor's Page.

Contents-page teaser
Astounding Science Fiction, December 1940

... Astounding does, not, ordinarily, publish author biographies; it is comparatively seldom that an author's background has much meaning in relation to his science-fiction work. In this case, there is a very real and interesting relationship. Willy Ley is thirty-four, which means that he was twelve years old in 1918. A German citizen then — he is no longer — he saw the revolution that ended the World War. Since that time, there have been four revolutions in Germany, of greater or less extent .... He knows from first-hand experience the churning uncertainty of revolution's fog. There was no radio dome in those revolutions — but neither was there a radio set in very home.

"Fog" was written at my suggestion after Ley and I had been discussing Heinlein's "If This Goes On —". Ley had remarked that telepathic sensitives were precisely what was needed if a revolutionary leader had any hope of keeping his lines of communication open, and that even with them, only the leaders would be able to know. ...

Editor's Page; this issue's also titled "Fog"

What a revolution in a major nation is really like — by one who has lived through five of them. They're not mad action — they're maddening uncertainty.

Title-page teaser for "Fog"

Revolutionary uncertainty

Willy Ley (1906-1969) was an important pioneer in German amateur rocketry, leaving Germany in 1935. He spoke five languages and went on to write excellent popular-science books on a range of subjects. What he provides in this story is a impression of what someone in a big-city office might experience and feel in a revolution: not the excitement of planning and counter-planning, marching and counter-marching, shooting and being shot at.

Although the viewpoint character in "Fog" moves through this brief period in abstraction and disassociation, that is the common and typical situation in revolutions. After a revolution succeeds we enter some new order; or if it fails we revert to the status quo ante, more or less. History tells us that there may be far more misery and death after a revolution is declared a success or failure.

None of Ley's characters are leaders of the revolution, of the government, or the armed forces. They are swept up and pushed around, without knowing hardly anything of what is going on. We see the distortion of workaday routine without knowing who is deciding, what the import is, or even being clear almost to the end who are the revolutionaries and whether they are winning.

The theme is uncertainty, the fog of war as Clausewitz's concept is usually paraphrased. Recall that revolution is a special variety of war, sometimes itself beginning or ending a general war, sometimes short and with minimal violence — in which case we term it a coup or a putsch. This inherent uncertainty is an important point to remember:

... the general unreliability of all information presents a special problem in war: all action takes place, so to speak, in a kind of twilight, which, like fog or moonlight, often tends to make things seem grotesque and larger than they really are.

Carl von Clausewitz
"On the Theory of War", 1.1.2
On War  (1832)
translated by Michael Howard & Peter Paret

Vulnerability of electronic communications

The "radio dome" in Ley's story, fore-mentioned by Campbell in the middle quote above from Astounding, blocks radio communication in and out of the city. Like a two-edged sword, of course, this is a blockage that down-grades everyone's access to news, exhortations, commands, and other information. Any ordinary citizen, the man-in-the-street, has only scraps and rumors and posted propaganda to give him a blurry picture of fragmented events which may effect his life profoundly, or even end it abruptly.

Variations on the radio dome idea have been used elsewhere in science fiction, including by Robert A. Heinlein. As our society becomes increasingly dependent on electronic communications for processes as basic and essential as dispatching food to stores, it behooves us to keep in mind how much damage can be done to our society by fogged communications. Not knowing the latest headlines is only the beginning of it.

In 1940, Ley and Campbell thought that the vulnerability of modern communications should be a cause of concern to the ordinary citizen. I think so, too.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

R. W.Franson's review of
Shells and Shooting
by Willy Ley

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