“Unsung Hero” is a humorous science fiction short story by Ruth Washburn, that was published in the Spring 1944 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and would have been eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.
Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.
When I embarked on the Retro Review project, one of my goals was to spotlight the works of the forgotten women SFF authors of the golden age. And so I reviewed not just stories by the big name female authors of the era such as Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore, but also by lesser known and largely forgotten women such as Allison V. Harding, Dorothy Quick, Alice-Mary Schnirring and E. Mayne Hull. However, there was one woman publishing science fiction in 1944 who is so obscure that even I, who was explicitly looking for women authors of the time, overlooked her, namely Ruth Washburn.
During the early forties, Thrilling Wonder Stories ran an amateur story contest and published the winning story in their magazine. Ruth Washburn was the winner of the story contest for the Spring 1944 issue. Almost nothing is known about Ruth Washburn except what she herself wrote in the short biographical blurb that ran alongside her story (and the child psychologist Ruth Wendell Washburn who comes up on Google is definitely not the same person as the author of “Unsung Hero”).
According to the brief biography she provided, Ruth Washburn was born between 1901 and 1909, i.e. during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, in Vermilion, South Dakota. She seems to have been a rebellious youngster who repeatedly ran away from home and amassed a remarkable resume of odd jobs ranging from farmworker, factory worker and cook to cosmetics saleswoman and carnival worker. By the time she wrote “Unsung Hero”, Ruth Washburn was living in Chicago with her husband and working as a dressmaker, even though she always dreamed of being a writer.
I really wish we knew more about Ruth Washburn, since she seems to have had a fascinating life. “Unsung Hero” is her only published science fiction story, at least under that name. I did come across a 1932 cookbook for Old-fashioned Molasses Goodies by one Ruth Washburn Jordan who may have been the same person. At any rate, our Ruth Washburn worked in the food industry and molasses are briefly mentioned in the story.
“Unsung Hero” opens in a newspaper office Washburn’s hometown Chicago during WWII. In addition to “war on a dozen fronts”, as a journalist character puts it, Chicago is experiencing a homegrown crisis, for an invisible barrier is blocking the Chicago River and impeding the war effort.
The news also reaches a would-be inventor named Lester Brant in his private basement laboratory. Lester is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Matilda who places no trust in his abilities as an inventor and would rather that Lester keep earning money as a lensmaker. I wonder whether this is a gender reversed commentary on Washburn’s own position as a woman who wanted to write, but had to work as a dressmaker to support the family. Was Ruth Washburn’s husband as unsupportive of her writerly ambitions as Matilda is of Lester’s inventor spirit?
Lester theorises that the unseen barrier is due to a parallel world colliding with ours. And so he grabs one of his apparatuses, which allows him to look into other dimensions – at least in theory. But before he can take off for the Chicago River to test his theory, Lester is interrupted by Matilda banging on the door of his lab. Determined not to let Matilda stop him now, Lester switches on his device and promptly sinks through the floor in front of the eyes of a stunned Matilda.
Lester finds himself in an alien world, where he meets beings with large saucer-like eyes, which look like cartoon ghosts and can project random tentacles from their bodies. The beings, called Tnn and Mmmm, are telepathic and Lester begins to communicate with them. However, he has problems making Tnn and Mmmm understand his plight, while the two aliens are incredibly fascinated by Lester’s clothes and proceed to strip him to his underwear.
Eventually, Tnn and Mmmm teleport Lester to see their leader, one Ool. Ool, it turns out, is having problems, for he is trying to create a force dome by combining the mental powers of a large group of aliens. However, the alien minds generate too much power and so the force dome won’t close, but the power just projects outwards, eventually piercing the dimensional barrier and blocking off the Chicago River.
Lester decides to test his theory by turning his device off and promptly materialises – in striped boxers – on a bridge across the Chicago River near the barrier. Lester’s suddenly appearance startles the onlookers and attracts the attention of a young female news photographer in a scene which is also charmingly illustrated in the interior artwork by M. Marchioni.
Lester quickly turns his device on again and returns to Tnn and Mmmm, who are in the process of dissecting (quite literally) Lester’s clothes. Lester gets angry, accidentally telepathically blasts Tnn and Mmmm’s house and then returns to Ool to explain that he must switch off the force wall, because it is causing problems and impeding the war effort in Lester’s home dimension. Ool certainly has sympathy for Lester’s problem, but points out that his people need the wall to shield themselves from stray thoughts in order to solve complicated problems.
The situation is unknowingly resolved by Tnn, who is trying on Lester’s hat and finds that it blocks out all stray telepathic thoughts. This gives Lester an idea. If felt and leather, unknown to Tnn’s people, can block out stray thoughts, then there is a solution to Ool’s problem that doesn’t involve invisible force walls blocking off the Chicago River.
Lester asks Ool how many people there are in his colony and then returns to his own dimension, only to promptly be arrested, because men in underwear suddenly appearing out of thin air is frowned upon in Chicago. And as if getting arrested for disturbing the peace wasn’t bad enough, Matilda also appears waving a newspaper with Lester’s portrait – in striped boxers – on the front page.
Lester and Matilda are taken to the police station, where Lester tries to make everybody understand that he alone knows how to solve the problem of the invisible barrier blocking the Chicago River. But of course no one believes him. And so Lester is about to be thrown into jail with bail set at fifty dollars, which must have been a significant sum indeed in 1944.
Matilda has no intention to bail him out, but Lester, who has finally found his courage, threatens her with divorce and tells her to hand over the money, since he knows that she has quietly embezzled money from him. Grudgingly, Matilda does so.
Lester once more tries to explain that his device allows him to travel to other dimensions and once more no one believes him. The police sergeant wants to try out the device. Lester lets him and the police sergeant promptly vanishes, only to reappear a few seconds later, now convinced that Lester is telling the truth.
All of a sudden, the police are a lot more helpful. They escort Lester to a sporting goods store, where he buys football helmets for all the beings in Ool’s colony. Lester returns to Ool’s dimension to drop off the football helmets, whereupon Ool switches off the force field and the Chicago River is free again
Lester is now the hero of the hour and even Matilda grudgingly promises to make him pork chops, when Lester threatens that next time he’ll disappear for good. So Lester gets his happy ending. Not only is Matilda a lot nicer to him, he also has a limitless number of strange worlds to explore.
This is a charming little story reminiscent of Henry Kuttner’s humour pieces such as “A God Named Kroo” and the Gallegher stories. In many way, “Unsung Hero” is a science fiction screwball comedy.
The henpecked husband and overbearing wife dynamic between Lester and Matilda grates a little, because it’s very much a cliché by now. Not to mention that I wonder why the threat of leaving or divorcing her works on Matilda. She clearly has no respect for Lester, so why would it bother her, if he left her? It’s briefly mentioned that Matilda primarily views Lester as a meal ticket, but I don’t think a woman would have had problems finding a job in Chicago in 1944. For that matter, why doesn’t Lester leave Matilda? Surely, he could find someone to make him pork chops who doesn’t steal from him and is a lot easier to get along with.
Honestly, the gender dynamics in this story are not great, especially for a story written by a woman. Though it is notable that the random news photographer who gets a snapshot of Lester in his underwear is a woman.
Even though this was Ruth Washburn’s first and only published story, she clearly had talent. It doesn’t feel like a debut story and I have certainly read far worse SFF stories published in 1944.
Stylistically, “Unsung Hero” is closer to what was published in Astounding Science Fiction than the grab bag of adventure focussed pulp science fiction that was found in the likes of Thrilling Wonder Stories and its sister magazine Startling Stories. Did Washburn originally submit this story to John W. Campbell at Astounding, only to have it rejected? Or was she a reader of Astounding and unconsciously mimicked the style of the stories therein, but it never occurred to her to try to submit to Campbell?
At any rate, I wonder how Ruth Washburn’s writing career would have gone, if she had sold “Unsung Hero” to Campbell at Astounding rather than to Oscar J. Friend at Thrilling Wonder Stories. After all, we know that Campbell for all his flaws did nurture the careers of new writers, including some women.
But unlike Lester Brant, we cannot peer into the alternate universe where Ruth Washburn became a popular science fiction author of the golden and silver age with a lengthy career. And in our universe, this is the only story of hers that we have. I for one find that a pity, because based on “Unsung Hero”, I wouldn’t have minded reading more of Ruth Washburn’s work.