TALES OF TWENTY HUNDRED (1911-1912) – Written by William Wallace Cook, originally serialized in the monthly publication Blue Book Magazine from December of 1911 to May of 1912. This is Balladeer’s Blog’s third look at a work by THE William Wallace Cook and in this case it’s a six-part serial consisting of a half-dozen interconnected short(ish) stories.
PART ONE: THE BILLION DOLLAR CARGO (December 1911) – The year is 2050 A.D. Airships run by solar energy fill the skies while land vehicles are powered by radium engines. At hospitals “germicide treatments” can heal people of virtually any illness. Mind-reading machines called psychographs are used to read the thoughts of people who are on trial.
The United States, Great Britain, Japan, Germany, Austria and the nations of Scandinavia comprise a huge geopolitical entity called the Quadruple Alliance. That alliance’s greatest global rival is the Federated States of South America, made up of the nations of Central and South America.
Geo-engineering on a massive scale has become possible. Wealthy industrialist Vincent Blake has already completed a project involving the elimination of the Aleutian Islands to allow the warmer waters of the Pacific Ocean to turn the Arctic region into a place with more moderate temperatures. Hilariously, this is depicted as having no adverse effects on the planet. (Hey, it’s a 1911 story.)
Next on the schedule for Blake is an even more ambitious project – he plans to straighten the Earth’s axis and provide mild summer conditions year-round all over the world. This type of absurd notion was also featured in the 1894 book A Journey in Other Worlds, previously reviewed here at Balladeer’s Blog.
In that earlier story the establishment of year-round moderate weather was presented as a fait accompli and had had no negative side-effects. In this tale the Federated States of South America are convinced that Vincent Blake’s project will negatively impact them and launch violent plans to stop him.
The Quadruple Alliance nations are all for Blake’s axis-straightening venture, and in exchange for one billion dollars worth of radium from the magnate they will sign a contract to throw their considerable geopolitical weight behind his venture.
As the opening story from December 1911 continues, Blake has until just 9am the next day to deliver the billion in radium or the axis-tampering project will be dead AND he will be out one billion dollars.
The radium shipment sets out for Chicago on the Meteor, an airship commanded by Captain Trawl. Vincent Blake’s fiancee, the beautiful adventuress Arlie Fortescue, is on board the airship as well.
A stowaway named Bryce is discovered after the ship is on the way to Chicago. Bryce is suspected of plans to sabotage the Meteor because of the black glass spheroids he sports and is thrown in the brig.
Bryce claimed he had the spheroids to use as weapons against air pirates and gets to prove their worth when air pirates really do attack in their own airships. The stowaway’s weapons burst near the pirate vessels, blackening the air and lowering its buoyancy. This causes the pirate ships to fall from the sky and the Meteor reaches Chicago on time with the radium.
PART TWO: THE MAN WHO FORGOT (January 1912) – The events in this second installment unfold simultaneously with the events in Part One. Bajo Sol, an intelligence agent of the Federated States of South America, plots the assassination of Vincent Blake.
Obtaining information from Pendleton, Blake’s traitorous male secretary, Bajo Sol (sounds like a Star Wars character) sets up the industrialist to be killed by the renowned international assassin known only as El Cid. The killer plans to knock off Vincent Blake with a futuristic electric rifle – the power source is concealed in his clothing while a joy-buzzer sized disc in his hand will fire the fatal shot.
Bajo Sol, playing his part in leading Blake to the slaughter, takes a Lethe Tablet to wipe out his memories of the planned assassination so as not to have those thoughts picked up by the tycoon’s psychographs. (Decades before All My Sins Remembered!) In this case, his lack of recollection accidentally winds up getting HIM shot dead by El Cid instead of Blake.
PART THREE: THE STEEL CYLINDER (February 1912) – This part picks up with Arlie Fortescue in Chicago right after she has arrived with the billion dollars in radium in tow and turned it over to Quadruple Alliance treasury agents. A uniformed messenger arrives, claiming to have a message from her fiancee Vincent Blake but he turns out to be working for the opposition.
The phony messenger abducts Arlie in a large cylindrical aircraft called the Naiad. The plan is to use Ms Fortescue as a hostage to force Vincent to abandon his axis project.
The gallant Blake pursues the Naiad in an aircraft of his own, determined to rescue his fiancee. Over Lake Michigan the magnate’s vessel intercepts the enemy craft, only to lose it when the Naiad plunges into the water, proving to be a combination aircraft AND submarine.
Our determined main character tracks down the engineer who originally designed the Naiad only to have it stolen from him by enemy agents. The designer informs Blake that the Naiad frequently needs to slip into the opposition’s helio-works in Milwaukee to replace its solar power cylinders.
Vincent and some hirelings lie in wait in the Great Lakes waters in one of the tycoon’s submarines, staking out the Milwaukee Helio-Works. At length the Naiad shows up to replace the power cylinders. Blake and his paramilitary forces raid the enemy vessel and recover Arlie.
PART FOUR: THE INFERNAL MACHINE (March 1912) – Dominguez, a new intelligence agent sent forth by the Federated States of South America, takes over from the dead Bajo Sol to slay Vincent Blake. Dominguez kills off Pendleton, who had become more of a liability than an asset.
Next, the crafty agent sends a solar energy bomb to Blake’s palatial residence via the magnetic tube postal service of 2050. Unaware of this, El Cid, the assassin who failed to kill Vincent in Part Two, is planning to burgle Blake’s home for axis project plans AND any loose valuables.
To that end he lures Vincent and his colleagues out of the home and begins his robbery attempt. Thinking the package from the magnetic postal tube might be of importance to his former employers he opens it and dies in the resulting explosion. Blake’s mansion is also destroyed.
PART FIVE: THE VOICE IN THE CLOUDS (April 1912) – The Quadruple Alliance has many irons in the fire, as you would expect, and an at-first seemingly unrelated project involves beaming signals to Mars in hopes of contacting intelligent life.
A treacherous American scientist working as an agent for the Federated States of South America has intercepted the messages for his FSSA masters. They work with the brilliant inventor to carry off a monumental deception.
Using his technology the enemy fakes a reply message to the Quadruple Alliance purporting to be from intelligent Martians. They claim to have translated Earth languages via their “Acousticon” and warn the QA not to go through with their axis-straightening project.
The phony Martians claim that they tried a similar experiment on their planet long ago and it unleashed untold destruction. They order the Quadruple Alliance to break their contract with Vincent Blake and abandon the axis project or they will attack Earth with their superior technology to stop it themselves.
Just when it looks like the QA will back out of their contract with Blake in order to avoid a war with Mars, it is revealed that the traitorous American genius is really a Double Agent. He has smoked out the FSSA’s role in trying to kill Vincent and sabotage the axis project.
Next, a REAL reply comes from intelligent Martians, who say they have long wanted to contact Earthlings. They not only encourage the Quadruple Alliance to go through with the axis-straightening project but they want to hire Blake to advise them on how to straighten Mars’ axis, too.
PART SIX: THE PSYCHOGRAPH (May 1912) – Vincent Blake and his true love Arlie Fortescue inspect the vaults beneath Chicago’s Temple of Justice to check on Blake’s collateral – the billion dollars in radium. Another FSSA agent strikes, trapping the couple in a vault and leaving them there to die when a bomb goes off at noon, destroying the entire structure.
Elsewhere, Dominguez is being swiftly tried for his espionage offenses after America’s Double Agent exposed him in Part Five. The courtroom Psychograph reveals all of Dominguez’s misdeeds AND the way he had an agent trap Blake and rig a bomb at the Temple of Justice’s vaults.
It is just about to strike noon, however, making it too late for QA authorities to save him. Just then the Martians strike long-distance with their superior technology, neutralizing the bomb, freeing Vincent and Arlie and killing the FSSA agents.
Blake is now free to carry out his plans to straighten Earth’s axis and then work with the Martians to do the same to their planet.
Like so many of these “ancient” works of science fiction, Tales of Twenty Hundred is a fun blend of classic Doctor Who and old Republic Serials. The axis-straightening project is pretty absurd, but this is a very imaginative tale with plenty of Steam-Punk or Diesel-Punk appeal, whichever category you would assign it. +++
FOR WASHINGTON IRVING’S 1809 depiction of an invasion from the moon click here: https://glitternight.com/2014/05/05/ancient-science-fiction-the-men-of-the-moon-1809-by-washington-irving/
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