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Jerome Walton: An Appreciation

Astounding Stories, January 1935
Jerome Walton
Jerome Walton was born in 1914 in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He received his BA in radio engineering from Washington University, then worked as a midshipman for the US Navy during World War II. Much of his life he lived in Nebraska and Idaho. He never married.
Past Feature Reviews
by Steven H Silver

Looking back on the golden age of science fiction, there are some names which everyone can call to mind. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, L. Sprague de Camp, and Jerome Walton. Jerome Walton? How did he get in there?

For those who don't know, Jerome Walton published at least one story in each issue of Astounding between January 1935 with the publication of "The Green Death" and April 1957 when he suddenly disappeared following the appearance of "The Lost Planet." Shortly before his disappearance, John W. Campbell, Jr. commented, "Jerome Walton is the Iron Horse of science fiction. His by-line should read 'Lou Gehrig'."

Walton was among a select few whose career managed to successfully make the transition from F. Orlin Tremaine to John W. Campbell. In fact, Walton's career blossomed under Campbell and in 1955, his novelette "Looking Backwards and Forwards from the Middle of the Century" lost the Hugo to Walter M. Miller's "The Darfstellar" by only three votes.

During his reign as Astounding's most prolific author, Walton, under either his real name or a pseudonym, topped the Astounding reader's poll a truly astounding 54 times. Although mostly forgotten today, many science fiction authors have pointed to Walton as the source of their inspiration to enter the field. Even when his science was shoddy, Walton managed to convey the sensawunder that is so important to science fiction.

"The gravel of the Sea of Dreams crunched under Commander Smith's boots as he became the first man to step on the moon. A brilliant, full earth shone overhead, giving him a clear view of America. He saluted his country and raised the star-spangled banner on his rocket's antenna."

--"The Race is Won," 1937

Walton's earliest works, from "The Green Death" to "Raiders from Beyond Antarres" (1938) were derivative space operas, similar to, but lesser in quality than, the works of E.E. "Doc" Smith, Edmond Hamilton and Ray Cummings. Walton really came into his own with the September 1938 publication of "Ice and Sleet," in Amazing Stories, ironically under the pseudonym "Walford L. Pickering." This tale, set in the Arctic, introduced realistic descriptions to Walton's work. According to a blurb written by Amazing editor T. O'Conor Sloane, "Pickering [Walton] traveled throughout northern Green Land (sic) to research this story." While Sloane's claim is patently false, the details in the work indicate that Walton did research into Arctic conditions.

Once Walton broke through the realism gap, his stories became more and more realistic. Whether or not Walton actually acquired a Ph.D. in physics, as fannish historian Sam Moscowitz implied, is unknown. What is known is that his stories could inspire readers to discover how much of his science was accurate and how much was invented. Following "Ice and Sleet," nearly everything in his stories was possible using the scientific theories of the time.

"Although the Moon's gravity made him want to hop around like a human kangaroo, Eric Simpson shuffled carefully, hardly letting his feet leave the lunar soil. In his hand, he carefully clenched his prospector's pick, aware that the slightest mishap could mean the end of his life."

--"Mining the Moon," 1947

No explanation was ever given for Walton's eventual disappearance from the pages of Astounding, but after "The Lost Planet," Walton is not known to have published any more science fiction. His total output is limited to 312 short stories, 286 of which appeared in Astounding, and a single novel, The Way the World Begins, published in 1954 by Doubleday.

In The Founders of the Future, science fiction historian Robert Rede claimed that Walton was killed in a car accident in early 1957 and that his last four stories were published posthumously. Rede points to police records from Waltham, Massachusetts, where Walton was living at the time. However, Moscowitz claims that he spoke to Walton in 1962. According to Moscowitz's story, Walton turned his back on writing science fiction to take a job working for the government, first on the Dyna-Soar project and later on Mercury.

In any event, Walton's life, or death, after 1957 is not important to the enjoyment of the fiction he wrote before. A quick perusal of any of his stories demonstrates that he was ahead of his time in almost all areas. Stylistically, the best of his writing could give Gene Wolfe a run for his money.

Walton tossed out ideas which were later picked up and expanded upon by other authors. In The Trillion Year Spree, Brian W. Aldiss pointed out that a single Jerome Walton story, the novella "Wishing I Was Here," (1956) inspired such disparate works as Poul Anderson's "The Longest Voyage," Robert Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil and James Tiptree, Jr's "Happiness Is a Warm Spaceship."

Unfortunately, and surprisingly, none of Walton's short stories have been anthologized in the past twenty years. The science fiction field is in danger of losing its memory of one of the greatest authors who ever allowed himself to look towards the future. With luck, a publisher will collect some of Walton's greatest stories and rescue him from the oblivion toward which he appears headed.

Recommended list of Jerome Walton's stories (and good luck finding them).

"Alone Among the Planets" 1957
"A Darkling Upon the Shore" 1945
"Ice and Sleet" 1938
"Keeping Up with the Joneses" 1951
"Last Flight from Armageddon" 1952
"Looking Backwards and Forwards from the Middle of the Century" 1955
"The Lost Planet" 1957
"The Menace from Gamma Scorpii" 1954
"Mining the Moon" 1947
"Never on a Tuesday" 1943
"The Race is Won" 1937
"Ravagers of the Outer Planets" 1946
"Spaceship" 1936
"Who Speaks for the Bourbells?" 1949
"Wishing I Was Here" 1956

Copyright © 1999 by Steven H Silver

Steven H. Silver is one of the founders and judges for the Sidewise Award for Alternate History. He sits on concoms for Windycon, Chicon 2000, and Clavius in 2001, and is co-chair of Picnicon 1998. Steven will be serving as the Programming Chairman for Chicon 2000. In addition to maintaining several bibliographies and the Harry Turtledove website, Steven is trying to get his short stories published and has recently finished his first novel. He lives at home with his wife and 3200 books. He is available for convention panels.

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