1922 – The Girl in The Golden Atom

1922. President Warren G. Harding installs the first radio device in the White House, and becomes the first president to deliver a broadcasted speech, while dedicating the Francis Scott Key Memorial in Baltimore. Radio is now a very popular source of news and entertainment. In the United States, there are over 500 commercial radio stations – the two newest being WLW in Cincinatti, and KGU in Hawaii. In the United Kingdom, the BBC is founded – and with it the future promise of Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock Holmes.

The popularity of radio means that literacy is no longer a requirement for learning about the latest and greatest discoveries, and these are many: gummy bears, eskimo pies, insulin, the unlooted tomb of Tutankhamen, robots (the word, not the artificial human being); and that the substance which promotes human growth can be found in the pituitary gland (thank you Herbert McLean). The last one is important because Ray Cummings has just published The Girl in the Golden Atom, a pulp novel which demonstrates how pharmaceuticals can be used for shrinking and growing humans to atomic or titanic proportions; people might have been confused.

Raymond King Cummings (1887-1957), AKA Ray Cummings, was an American science fiction and detective writer, one of the founding fathers of the science fiction pulp genre. Between 1914-1919 he worked as a personal assistant and technical writer for Thomas Edison.

Cummings output was considerable. During his career he managed to produce over 750 novels and short stories, which he wrote under his own name and a variety of pen names (Ray King, Gabrielle Cummings, and Ray Wilson). Cummings also contributed anonymously to several comic books. He wrote for Timely Comics a two-part Captain America story (Captain America #25-26), and he contributed to the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner comics, which his daughter, Betty Cummings frequently wrote.

The Girl in the Golden Atom is Cummings’ first, and possibly best, story. He originally wrote it in two parts: “The Girl in the Golden Atom” (1919) and “The people of the Golden Atom” (1920). These stories were original serialized in the All-Story Weekly pulp magazine, and published together as a book by, London based, Methuen and Co. in 1922.

The first part of the book is a young men’s club story. It is 1918. Four men, a doctor, a big business man, a banker, and a very young man have gathered together in a club to hear the tale of the fifth man, a chemist. The chemist had made an amazing discovery. Through his microscope he had learned that there are infinite universes within the atoms of our world waiting to be explored and all you need to do to visit them is shrink down to atomic size. In one such universe, which could be found within the scratch on a golden ring he wore, there was a beautiful girl. The chemist then proceeds to tell the other men about pills he invented that allow him to shrink down to atomic size or grow to titanic proportions (along with his clothes), and how he used them to visit the girl in that hidden world. He then proceeds to demonstrate their use and shrinks before the other men’s eyes before embarking on a long-term journey into the ring.

The second part is an adventure story which takes place five years later. The chemist had left the formula for the pills in a letter entrusted to the doctor, enabling the other men to embark on a journey into the atom, and join the chemist in the hidden world. Unfortunately for everyone, Star Trek’s Prime Directive had not been invented yet. Their presence in the tiny realm inflames existing tensions amongst the people of the ring, and the previously peaceful realm learns violence.

If Mystery Science Theater 3000, had a book adaptation, this book would be a prime candidate for riffing. There were the protagonists who are introduced according to their profession (doctor, chemist, banker) or age (the very young man), and behave accordingly. The shrinking and growth pills very conveniently have the magic pants effect, allowing the characters to shrink and grow without having to worry about modesty issues. There were experiments on shrinking a bird and lizard, which later resulted in the shrunken characters having to deal with a dragon-bird and dinosaur sized lizard, (from the perspective of our atom-sized protagonists). Of course, the characters lose control at one point resulting in a giant cockroach that needs to be killed quickly. There are numerous attempts at problem solving by growing into giants to crush all opposition, or charming into submission (in the women’s case). And finally, towards the end, the villain of the story, Targo, and the very young man each take a growth pill to become titans and fight a colossal battle to the death. These types of scenes are exactly the type of thing I was expecting from a pulp novel, so I wasn’t exactly disappointed – more like hilariously amused by how badly the action played out. The writing itself is decent, and I would probably recommend this book to others because sometimes being really bad can actually result in enjoyment.

The Omer today is kindness in eternity. The Girl in the Golden Atom explores the theme of infinity, which is similar, but not the same as eternity. However, if you have one you can usually find the other, and our characters, in their exploration of one of the infinite universes hidden inside an atom managed to encounter a fairly important eternal attribute – kindness. The natives of the ring are a trusting, kindly people, having never been exposed to selfishness, ambition, and violence. It is only when outsiders are introduced that their kindness is put to the test. Once the outsiders leave it is theorized that their natural kindness will reassert itself, revealing the eternal nature of this attribute. Kindness can be diminished, and even temporarily replaced, but it can never be completely eliminated. Kindness is eternal, and you will always be able to find it, in any of the infinite universes you choose to visit.

The Girl in The Golden Atom

Author: Ray Cummings

Publisher: Methuen and Co.

Published: 1919 and 1920 (serial), 1922 (book)

Pages: 344

Format reviewed: Digital