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Size Matters


by Hank Davis

Read any good monsters lately? Here’s a big book full of even bigger monsters, one in a story over a century old, others in newly written stories, and a generous helping of stories from the years between.

I don’t want to rehash the points I made in my introduction to In Space No One Can Hear You Scream, since I’m sure you already have that book on your shelf or in your to-be-read stack. (If you somehow overlooked it, fortunately it’s still available, both in dead tree and e-book versions.) As I wrote there, briefly, people who don’t read science fiction but get their notion of SF from movies and TV have a tendency to think that SF equals horror. In particular, the SF movies of the 1950s, many of which were also horror movies, laid a foundation for that perception, and a lot of them involved giant critters of all sorts: revived dinosaurs, enlarged insects and spiders and at least one giant lobster from outer space (in the awesomely awful Teenagers from Outer Space), giant snails, giant leeches, giant amoebae, giant crabs (no jokes, please), a giant octopus, and even giant people.

That was what was playing at your local drive-in theater, but for written SF, the 1950s was a period of the genre taking itself Very Seriously (and maybe even Constructively), with the emphasis on possible futures, logical extrapolations of current social trends and realistic technologies, no more beautiful Martian princesses (*sigh*), increased attention to psychology and sociology, and did I mention being Very Serious? Space opera in general was mostly confined to four minor magazines and Ace Double-Novels, while the onetime space adventure pulps Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories cut back on covers by Earle Bergey with his celebrated babes in brass bras menaced by loathsome alien creatures and instead displayed serious covers illustrating serious stories inside. Alas, it didn’t help those two venerable magazines, which soon shuffled off to the pulp Valhalla accompanied by the space opera pulp, Planet Stories. Nothing gold can stay . . .

All this seriousness wasn’t conducive to stories of giant monsters. For one thing, with all the attention paid to using authentic science (with rivets), any story about giant monsters had to work around what’s usually called the square-cube law. If you wanted to write a story about giant ants, you had the problem that insects, including ants, breathe through holes in their chassis called spiracles that let air circulate inside. This works fine for something the size of an insect, but if an ant is somehow doubled in its size, the surface inside its air passages increases by four times (the square of the size) while the volume of its body increases by eight times (the cube of the size), so that its respiration quickly becomes less efficient. An ant the size of a man or larger would suffocate. If an author wrote about ants as big as a man, he’d have to somehow give them something like lungs (Frederik Pohl did that in his 1949 story, “Let the Ants Try”—and they did, too).

There’s also the problem that instead of an internal skeleton, insects have an exoskeleton, a setup that works very well for tiny critters, but, once again, double the size of an ant, say, and the volume of its exoskeleton increases eightfold. Increase its size ten times—still much smaller than a man—and its exoskeleton’s volume and weight increases a thousand times. The exoskeleton would become very heavy if an ant somehow became as big as a man. There’s also the problem that the strength of a muscle is proportional to the size of its cross-section. Double the size and the muscular strength is squared, but (again) the weight of the body is cubed. That man-sized ant might not even be able to stand up on its spindly legs . . . before it fell over from suffocation.

The square-cube law works in the other direction, too, and is responsible for the apparent feats of super-strength that insects routinely demonstrate. A flea can jump a distance that corresponds to a human leaping over a tall building in a single bound (I hope that phrase isn’t copyrighted). An ant can lift a pebble half its size not because it’s unusually strong, but because that pebble’s inside volume shrinks faster than its surface area, so it’s not as proportionately heavy as it looks. An ant-sized man would be able to lift the same pebble—of course, a man that size would have problems, such as freezing because his surface area is rapidly radiating heat away from his comparatively small-volume innards, his eyes not being designed to function at such a tiny size, and other things.

Evolution has shaped insects to operate efficiently at one size and humans to operate at a much larger size, and everything is not relative. (By the way, I’m certain that Einstein never said that, “Everything is relative,” if only because the speed of light not being relative is the basis for special relativity.)

So giant insects are impossible, really giant humans wouldn’t be able to function (nor would giant apes—sorry, Kong), and if a human shrank to insect size, he’d have more immediate problems than just having to fight off regular sized insects or spiders.

But that’s no fun.

Before things got so serious, stories in the SF pulps of the 1920s and into the 1940s had stories about people who had shrunk down to microscopic size, such as Paul Ernst’s “The Raid on the Termites” in the June 1932 Astounding Stories and “He Who Shrank” by Henry Hasse, in the August 1936 Amazing Stories, and even subatomic size—Ray Cummings made a cottage industry of the latter, writing “The Girl in the Golden Atom,” “Beyond the Vanishing Point,” and others. Other stories starred enormously enlarged insects, as in Victor Rosseau’s “The Beetle Horde,” in the very first issue of Astounding. The same month, in the January 1930 Amazing Stories, saw a story by Miles J. Breuer, M.D., “The Hungry Guinea Pig,” which was hungry because it was very, very big. (Don’t get between it and a warehouse full of grain.)

Even earlier, H.G. Wells wrote The Food of the Gods, which is mostly about giant people, but also had a side order of giant rats and wasps, IIRC. (Maybe somebody will someday make a good movie of that novel, and we can forget about the bloody awful three movies that Bert I. Gordon perpetrated.) Much later, in the middle of the seriousness of the 1950s, Richard Matheson wrote The Shrinking Man, which opens with its microscopic protagonist running for his life from a regular-sized spider. It was published as a paperback original by Gold Medal books, a paperback line known for westerns, mysteries, suspense—but not for science fiction. Although Matheson had sold numerous stories to most of the SF magazines of the time, I doubt that any of them would have serialized the novel, even without the harsh language and controversial scenes (which read as very mild now). Damon Knight wrote a killer review of the book, bringing his heaviest artillery to bear—and it didn’t matter. The novel became a popular movie, The Incredible Shrinking Man, with a screenplay by Matheson, and the book has been in print almost constantly for nearly sixty years, because (here’s that word again) it’s fun.

People never (well . . . hardly ever) argue that vampires, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night actually exist (there are also ghosts, but a lot of people take them more seriously). One can enjoy a fantasy story without believing in elves, dwarfs, dragons, unicorns, or other such creatures of institutionalized fantasy. Giant monsters may be impossible or at least very unlikely without complicated reengineering, but they’re fun. Vive las giant monsters. (What’s French for “giant monsters,” anyway?)

Some monsters have become icons. In the 1960s, before home video, when King Kong only occasionally appeared on TV, everybody still recognized the context of cartoons, political or otherwise, of a giant ape, or a giant something else, clinging to the Empire State building. A bumper sticker proclaiming that “King Kong Died for Your Sins” needed no explanation, nor did such jokes as “What’s between King Kong’s toes? Slow natives.” There was even a series of bubble gum collectible cards with ol’ K.K. on them. Not bad for the star of a movie more than thirty years old at the time.

And the fascination with purportedly real monsters goes back decades. The Abominable snowman and Bigfoot may not qualify as giant monsters, but the Loch Ness Monster does. In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer noted a headline where “Nessy” (usually written as “Nessie”) was identified as female, and cited this as an example of the contempt the mass mind had for females of the human species. Actually, she just didn’t get it—people might not want to get too close to Nessie, if she (or he) exists, but they have affection for the crypto-critter, and people often refer to even unliving objects (ships, cars, planes, even outboard boat motors) as female when they have affection for them. Nessie has fans!

In summary, stories about giant monsters may be fantasy disguised as science fiction, but it doesn’t matter, because (I’ll repeat myself) giant monsters are fun! And here’s a book full of such fascinating critters and equally full of that sort of fun. I hope you enjoy these guilty pleasures.

—Hank Davis

June 2014

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