“More on Moron”: The Reader Speaks in Thrilling Wonder Stories
by Ben Boulden
best, the modern world is marvelous. (We won’t discuss the downside of modernity
for fear of allegations, recriminations, and profanities.) But one of the wonders
of today is the easy access to digitized historical documents: newspapers,
magazines, journals, letters, etc. A treasure trove of knowledge about any subject is at our fingertips. The data is often searchable – what would have
taken hours or days of sifting through dusty boxes in a pre-digital collection can often be found in seconds or minutes – and it can be done in the comfort of your own home while wearing short
pants and a t-shirt or nothing at all.
A favorite pastime of mine is crawling through databases looking for documents about subjects like history, especially that of the 19th century Utah Territory, biography, philosophy, and literature. The latter pursuit, literature, is what brings me here now. At Internet Archive (www.archive.org), which houses thousands of scanned pulp and slick magazines from the early- and mid-20th century, I found three letters published by Thrilling Wonder Stories (TWS) in its “The Reader Speaks” section. The first and last were written by Jack M. Bickham (a favorite writer of mine) and in-between was another written by Bud Walker of Maurice, Louisiana. All three letters are connected. (Click on the images for a larger view)
June 1951 – “Quarter-Course”
Bickham’s first letter, titled “Quarter-Course,” was a response to an article written by TWS editor Sam Merwin, Jr., which had asked readers to send in their thoughts about Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Bickham, who was a student at Ohio State University and living with his parents in Columbus, Ohio at the time of the letter, “hesitantly offer[ed his] understanding (?)” – the question mark is his – “of Einstein’s postulations anent the speed-mass size-time relationship.” Bickham itemized his understanding of seven key elements to Einstein’s theory. The most interesting of these are his discussion of what would happen to an object as it traveled close to the speed of light, at the speed of light, and beyond the speed of light. He noted time would cease when an object traveled at the speed of light and identified a “paradox” where an “object would get somewhere before it started” if that object was traveling faster than light. In essence he says, traveling faster than light would effectively allow an object to “travel into the past.”
All of Einstein’s scientific work is beyond my knowledge, but the response to Bickham’s letter from Bud Walker – below – is likely more accurate about Einstein’s theory than Bickham’s, but its snarky attitude is as recognizable to a modern audience as it must have been in the mid-20th century.
October 1951 – “Einstein
Walker’s letter, “Einstein Says…,” cuts at Bickham’s understanding of Einstein’s theory in hurry. It is terse, effective, and super personal:
“I suggest that Mr. Bickham do one of two things: (1) return to Ohio State and complete his course in Astrophysics or (2) get his instructor to take the course so as to learn something about it.”
Walker goes on to challenge many of Bickham’s points. As for timelessness achieved at the speed of light, Walker wrote, Bickham’s point “has no meaning whatsoever.” And continued:
“At the speed of light there would be no timelessness as a simple reflection will readily show.”
As for Bickham’s “paradox” of traveling at, or faster than, the speed of light, Walker wrote categorically:
“There are no paradoxes in nature. Any paradoxes encountered in nature, such as the ones mentioned by Bickham, are in the minds of the people trying to understand nature in their own feeble ways.”
He finished the letter with the same harsh sentiment most of us have felt a few thousand times – where do these idiots come from? – as we traverse social media in our own age:
“I write to you now because, in the years after World War II, there has been an alarming increase in statements such as these made by Mr. Bickham. I feel that these people have been misinformed somewhere down the line”
February 1952 – “More on
Bickham responded with, “More on Moron,” which shows the stinging effect of Walker’s gruff words had had on him. While he defended himself – “I did not pretend to be profound or intelligent; I just had a few general ideas that needed letting out, and admitted it” – and bemoaned the loss of a more civilized “The Readers Speak” forum where like-minded readers could discuss science fiction. Bickham concluded with a couple ideas I agree with – be nicer to each other; and we’re all wrong almost all the time – by saying:
“I don’t have a ‘divine mission’ to instruct the ignorant, as Mr. Walker seems to have. So there’s no need to carry my arguments to great – and insulting – degrees. Whenever I begin to think that everything is simple and easy, I just look at the night sky or the newspaper. None of us know much, and the greatest danger today is unwarranted egotism and conceit. I was wrong – maybe. But let’s not play God, Mr. Walker.
a little more about Jack M. Bickham…
Jack Miles Bickham was born in Columbus, Ohio, on September 2, 1930, to John R. Bickham and Helen Elizabeth Miles. He earned a B.A. in journalism from Ohio State University in 1952 and served as an officer with the U.S. Air Force from 1952 to 1954. He was a newspaper reporter and editor until 1969 when he took a teaching post at University of Oklahoma. He wrote more than 75 books from the 1950s to the 1990s, including five books in the popular Brad Smith thriller series, the cult favorite Wildcat O’Shea western series, written as by Jeff Clinton, The Apple Dumpling Gang, and a handful of instructional writing books. Bickham died from complications of lymphoma on July 25, 1997, in Norman, Oklahoma.
You can learn more about Jack M. Bickham and his writing in Killers, Crooks & Spies: Jack Bickham’s Fiction, which is available as a Kindle and on Kindle Unlimited. Go to Amazon…
Copyright © 2022 by Ben Boulden / All Rights Reserved
Interesting article, Ben. I always get a kick out of reading the Letters to the Editor pages in old digest magazines. I recently read a few of the Old Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazines (IASFM) and took note of a number of letters that seemed intent on one-upping Mr. Asimov himself. I'm not sure why they felt the need to sound smarter than him but Asimov's responses were always a hoot.ReplyDelete
I agree, Benjamin. The letters on the old fiction magazines are great. I'm always amazed at how many recognizable names pop up. Robert Silverberg had an amusing letter in the June 1951 TWS. I've seen other big sf names, too, and they are almost always witty and smart.Delete