The Girl In The Golden Atom by Ray Cummings (book review).

December 3, 2021 | By | Reply More

‘The Girl In The Golden Atom’ was originally released in 1922 and makes its author, Ray Cummings (1887-1957) the first SF writer to shrink people to microworlds, this time onto a scratch on a gold ring. He later adapted the idea for Timely’s Captain America Comics # 25-26, thus responsible for what later became the origin of Henry Pym/Ant-Man/Giant-Man.

A little more research also reveals that ‘The Girl In The Golden Atom’ started off as a short story/8 chapters in 1919 in ‘All-Story Magazine’ that later got absorbed into ‘Argosy’ magazine. I pulled this copy from Letor House, although the story is available from other publishers. Long out of copyright, Lector just wants to ensure old material is available and not discarded.

One has to take into account the time period it was written in and this is my first read of Cummings work and getting used to his style. The lack of names for the characters, who are determined by their professions, does slowly get revealed over the course of the story. The Chemist, who is the lead character who devises the shrinking chemicals is later revealed to be called Rogers. His friends are loyal and no agendas of their own and, in some ways, resembles the opening to HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’.

Cummings gives a brief explanation of the microscope that Rogers the Chemist spots a living girl in a mark on a golden ring and creates a chemical process to shrink and enlarge and with his team keeping an eye on the ring reduces his size to investigate. Cummings very carefully or cleverly explains how the chemicals allow for whatever Rogers is wearing to shrink with him to give him some plausibility to the method and we don’t see what happens until he returns and relates it to his friends how he learns to communicate with the girl, Lylda, and helps out in a war they are facing.

There are shades of Gulliver in all of this and openly acknowledged but a similar scenario was, as I pointed out earlier, carried out in HG Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’. I do get the feeling that Cummings didn’t think he was doing something new in some aspects of his story other than finding other worlds in an atom.

When Rogers doesn’t come back from his second trip, his doctor friend is given instructions on how to make the chemical formula for them to follow, although their tests to make sure it works on a bird, rat and, accidentally, a cockroach with dangerous results. Make note not to let such chemicals spill on the floor. Cumming makes a good observation not to add the chemical to ordinary water in case it enlarges microbes although doesn’t note he’s actually using distilled water. It does show Cummings is thinking about the problems that needed to be sorted before going back to the adventure aspect. When you bear in mind this predates Hugo Gernsbeck and John Campbell who saw some aspect of some sort of scientific explanation, pseudo or otherwise, in the stories they published, he must have had some influence there.

When his friends get there, they find several years have gone by and Rogers is the top advisor to the king, Lylda is his wife and they have a son, Loto. He also has destroyed his shrinking/enlarging drugs, fearful of it getting into the wrong hands. Alas, there is also a revolution going on and things change very quickly with the king’s assassination and we follow the different lead characters far more than Rogers, especially with the Very Young Man, later named as Jack Bruce, who has the hots for Lylda’s sister, Aura. Discovering that Loto has been kidnapped, they also seek to rescue him.

Cummings very swiftly moves from showing this world as near utopic to dystopia as the revolution takes place and it’s the existence of the size-changing drugs that became the key. If you thought that the plot was becoming standard, just a change of environment, Cummings continues to explore its ramifications. In some respects, the size-changing drug is just the McGuffin and the means to do this. When you consider Henry Pym used a shrinking gas before switching to pills, it’s just something we get used to. You would have to wonder why they can’t have an unlimited quantity of the drug by just leaving it at one size while they shrink independently of it.

The change to the Very Young Man’s perspective seems an odd choice although from the last few chapters was probably to emphasis the lack of experience. More so, when he shrinks rather than enlarges when he lacks the right pills. He also comes across the lizard and sparrow that had previously been shrunk and seeing them fight. You can see how elements of this had some effect on the 1957 film ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’.

Bearing in mind when Cummings wrote this story, SF was still nascent. His characters are not that extraordinary. Quite ordinary in fact. It just felt odd that he avoided giving them real names until he needed to in the dialogue. I suspect, before he turned the 8 chapters into a novel, probably felt it might not have been needed. He certainly didn’t feel he needed to redraft this but, then, that wasn’t common. More a matter of keeping consistent with what was written before. Certainly, this didn’t reflect in the dialogue where the real names were finally dropped in.

The violence of the revolution is underplayed but that might be the result of the times and would need comparison to other 1920s SF to see just how much. Obviously, chemicals that can shrink or enlarge people is a little absurd, more so the group lick the pills as much as swallow them to get the right size change. You would have to hope that the chemical blending was an even mix. Back in the day, chemical compounds would have been a mystery to the American populace so you could use it as the necessary fudge without going into details.

Don’t forget, this is the first story dealing with shrinking and enlarging people and, as such, should be considered in that light and Cummings was finding his way. The sub-atomic state inside the gold ring was more like a micro-universe than composed of gold material. Not brilliant but certainly competent as he explores various aspects of its problems.

From a historical POV, it is worth a look, despite the passage of time, just to say you’ve read it.

GF Willmetts

November 2021

(pub: Lector House. 218 page enlarged paperback. Price: I pulled my copy for £ 7.00 (UK) . ISBN: 978-93544-472-3)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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