Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Complete SF of Sylvia Jacobs

The Complete SF of Sylvia Jacobs

a survey by Rich Horton

In surveying SF of the 1950s recently I came across the name of a woman writer unfamiliar to me. This was Sylvia Jacobs. She published 8 SF stories in all, beginning with "A Stitch in Time" (Astounding, April 1951). Seven more stories followed, the last being "Slave to Man" (Galaxy, April 1969). There was also an article in Astounding, "Hold That Helium!", about spacesuit design and the similarites (and differences!) from deep sea diving. 

I have had great difficulty finding much biographical data about Sylvia Jacobs. With the yeoman help of Paul di Filippo, a few newspaper stories, mostly from the San Pedro, CA, local newspaper, the News-Telegram, reveal that she and her husband Harold ("Jake") Jacobs lived in San Pedro from some time in the 1940s through at least 1960. (San Pedro is a neighborhood of Los Angeles, abutting the Los Angeles harbor, and between Torrance and Long Beach.) Jake Jacobs was a professional deep sea diver, and he worked for Marineland of the Pacific, a now defunct oceanarium, that operated in Los Angeles from 1954 to 1987, at which time it was bought by Sea World in San Diego and abruptly closed.

I got some additional help from Bill Mullins. He found newspaper and journal articles from the San Pedro News-Telegram, the Long Beach Press-Journal, the Electrical Workers Journal, and even The Nautilus, a journal about conchology (the study of seashells.) The latter journal published a scholarly paper from Jacobs about color variations in a rare seashell, Pedicularia California, based on a collection assembled by her diver husband. One news item concerns a presentation Jacobs made about her employer as of December 7, 1941: the Honolulu Advertiser, and about their press breaking down as they were trying to put out an edition covering the Pearl Harbor attack. Her letter in the Electrical Workers Journal is from early 1942, and discusses life in Honolulu under wartime conditions. An article from 1947 is about "trailer life" -- it seems that Sylvia and Jake Jacobs spent some years travelling around the country in an RV. (As it happens, my own half-sister-in-law spent years doing the same thing, including writing articles for an RV magazine.) She wrote about the Army Corps of Engineers removing sunken ships from shipping channels. At least one of these articles introduced her as "Dr. Sylvia Jacobs, English instructor at Palos Verdes College." She also at least flirted with Dianetics/Scientology, as did many SF writers in that period.

For SF readers, the most interesting detail may be that the Jacobs made the acquaintance of Robert A. Heinlein in the late 1940s, when Jake helped Heinlein make a few dives as research for a planned juvenile novel about "ocean farming". Jake Jacobs himself claimed to be an ocean farmer. Heinlein apparently abandoned this novel after health issues made it clear that it was unsafe for him to keep diving. Other newspaper articles mentioned Sylvia's sale of a story to Astounding, and the "Hold that Helium!" article, and that she had plans for a couple more articles for Astounding. (These never appeared.) A visit to one of the West Coast worldcons was also mentioned. Finally, a book about Marineland, called Marineland Diver, was published in 1960, by "Jake Jacobs as told to Sylvia Jacobs". 

Jacobs is referenced in Lisa Yaszek's Galactic Suburbia, which explores the increasing emergence of women writers in science fiction post World War II -- from about 1945 through the 1960s. However, her fiction is only mentioned in passing, while Yaszek takes a close look at the science article "Hold That Helium!". (Yaszek is quite interesting on the way Jacobs presents her authority on the subject -- as the wife of a deep sea diver (apparently not mentioning her doctorate).) 

It's clear from all this that Sylvia Jacobs lived a full and interesting life -- she held a doctorate, worked as a journalist and as a college instructor, was in Hawaii at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, and wrote somewhat regularly on a variety of subjects. In this context her slim output of SF is just another facet of her life, and evidence that she was busy enough that she only wrote fiction when she felt like it. 

Here then are Sylvia Jacobs' eight science fiction stories, just over 50,000 words. (Enough for a collection, especially if "Hold That Helium!" were added.)

"A Stitch in Time" (Astounding, April 1951) 19000 words

Dr. Arlich is a 60 year old scientist who believes he's invented a time machine. The only people who believe in him are his beautiful young wife Stephanie, and Bob Schilling, his plant manager. But Arlich's rival, Fred Morrison, is trying to get the project cancelled, especially as all the animals sent to the "future" have died or disintegrated. Of course, the dastardly Fred also has his eye on Stephanie. One night, in despair, partly over his feeling that he has failed Stephanie (they haven't been able to have children, and too he feels the age difference is a problem,) he decides the only way to prove the machine works is be a guinea pig himself -- and he decides to send himself 20 years into the future. By then Stephanie will be in her 40s -- not such a terrible age difference.

Not a bad setup, and then Jacobs pulls a nice twist. When Arlich comes out of the machine, he realizes he has aged 20 years -- but that only a few minutes have passed outside. He reasons that the time sped up inside the machine only. He figures he need only reverse the electical leads and get back in the machine, and at least he'll turn back his own clock! Indeed, maybe he could come out as young as Stephanie!

I called it a nice twist, and it is, but it's also ridiculously preposterous. The rest of the story complicates things a bit more -- because there is a screwup, and instead of reversing aging by about 30 years, Dr. Arlich ends up a baby. The next day, the baby is discovered, and it is presumed that Dr. Arlich decided to experiment on a baby, a shocking ethical violation. But Bob Schilling and Stephanie both guess what really happened, and Stephanie takes the baby home to raise him as her own, while Schilling maneuvers things so that Fred Morrison is discredited. Meanwhile, the government is investigating, and the prospect of a machine that might confer a return to youth on people is raised -- a potentially interesting, but also very scary, idea. Alas, Bob Schilling and his team don't quite have the expertise to figure it out, and so the idea is buried (perhaps for the best.) But in the meantime, Stephanie and Bob Schilling have become a couple -- and they are raising a child,who might, we understand, have the capacity to solve the problem!

I think this story had promise, but Jacobs' skill wasn't up to the task of making it work. Not to mention the rather creepy ending! It remains, though, by far the most ambitous of her stories. Jacobs does return in a couple further stories to executing twists on the idea of time travel.

"The Pilot and the Bushman" (Galaxy, August 1951) 9000 words

This story turns on a now pretty familiar premise -- the Earth is visited by powerful aliens, and the notion that humans might become victims of a "cargo cult" sort of situation. The aliens are rumored to have matter replication technology, which humans of course covet. However, the aliens refuse to share -- it's too dangerous. Alas, Earth's economy is already in shambles because of the anticipation of this new technology making human manufacturing obsolete. What can Earth do? Well, humans have one technology the aliens don't -- advertising! And our hero, an advertising man, works out a campaign to make Earth an attractive tourist destination, and, more importantly, to restore human faith in human manufacturing. 

Kind of middle range Christopher Anvil (before Anvil, to be sure). It's all a bit busy, and not terribly convincing, and (as became a habit) Jacobs paints her concluding moral too explicitly, but it's an OK read. 

"Old Purply-Puss" (Vortex, Volume 1, Number 1, 1953) 4000 words

Vortex was a magazine edited by Chester Whitehorn that lasted two issues in 1953. Their strategy was to stuff as many stories as possible into each issue -- 20 in the first, 25 in the second. Most very short, of course. It is one of the worst SF magazines of all time, in my opinion, even though the first issue included some well-known writers (Jack Vance, Lester Del Rey, Alfred Coppel, S. A. Lombino (better known as "Evan Hunter" or "Ed McBain") and Milton Lesser (better known as Stephen Marlowe.) The second issue is best remembered, if remembered at all, for featuring Marion Zimmer Bradley's first two pro sales.

In the Jacobs story, a charlatan employs a genetic engineer to create fake "aliens", including trying to duplicate one that supposedly landed with a UFO. The eventual twist ending is obvious.

"The Sportsmen" (Vortex, Volume 1, Number 2, 1953) 900 words

Alien hunters on a new planet. They shoot an animal that seems to want to communicate ... I mean, the so-called punchline here is beyond obvious, and really silly. 

"Up the Mountain or Down" (Universe, September 1953) 7200 words

A new colonial administrator comes to a planet called (perhaps unwisely) Tonga. He is appalled at the relations between the two intelligent species on the planet -- the reclusive Masters completely dominate the very human-like sholaths. But he is assured that the sholaths like it this way. He determines to confront the Masters, though travel to their mountain home is forbidden to humans. He sets out instead, with a party of sholaths, and his faithful dog. 

It's actually an intriguing setup, but the story does nothing with it. I was expecting a revelation about the Master/sholath relationship, and a comeuppance for the obviously misguided administrator. Instead, we get an instantaneous conversion by the administrator, who is convinced by his dog's faithfulness that, I guess, he was wrong after all. I mean, probably this is a plausible resolution, but it's clumsily handled, and the story ends with a mini-lecture telling the readers what to think.

"Time Payment" (If, July 1960) 4400 words

This story concerns a gangster who realized the Feds have the goods on him. But he's heard of a time machine under development, so he confronts the scientist in charge and order him to send him 20 years into the future. The scientist tries to convince him that all the machine does is make the subject fail to experience time passing in any conscious sense. The gangster doesn't understand or care, and grabs the scientist's child (as insurance) and both go "forward" 20 years. The point? There's some mumbo-jumbo about "fore-memories" and about it being possible to "condition" people under the influence of the "time machine" to remove criminal tendencies. The upshot is that prison sentences are replaced with this conditioning treatment. All well enough, except I couldn't buy it for a second, and it really doesn't make sense in story. 

"Young Man from Elsewhen" (If, March 1961) 4500 words

Another look at time travel. This one works a bit better, though it suffers from a labored setup to get to an amusing but minor resolution. A very old man, confined to a wheelchair, is traveling to visit one of his children (it seems they shuffle him from home to home.) He resents this, and wishes he could get up to the fun he did when younger. Then he meets a curious young man, who doesn't seem to understand the customs well. He learns that this is a time traveler -- but that for ethical reasons time travelers have to travel by in vat grown temporary bodies, that for unexplained reaons can't be returned to the future. The only way to return is by finding a natural human body to mentally occupy -- and so the traveler offers the old man a deal -- he can switch places, so that the traveller will have a body, no matter how decrepit, from which he can return to the future, while the old man gets a vigorous young body that will only last a brief while -- but think of the fun he can have!

The complicated time travel setup makes no sense, but the finish is decent enough. If this could have been done at half the length it could have been pretty good. 

"Slave to Man" (Galaxy, April 1969) 3600 words

A slight but amusing story about an editor for a line of "adult fiction", who has seen his ambitions to improve the quality of the line frustrated. One day he gets a package of stripped covers (for return) from one bookstore, and sees a message written on several of them "Help! Save me! I am in bondage!" At first he thinks it a gag based on the books' contents, but decides to investigate, and finds (to our non-surprise) that the writer is a robot who learned English from reading the adult books. He rescues the robot, and soon realizes that the robot knows the genre well enough to ... well, you can see where it's going, and you can probably guess the conclusion.


  1. Rich, thanks. This is great work. I need to reread more of these.

  2. Thank you for sharing your research on the life and identity of "Dr. Jacobs". When I read "A Stitch in Time" I suspected that she must have had some experience in academia. I wonder if Jacobs was a fan of Isaac Asimov and if Asimov's story "Galley Slave" might have influenced the writing of "Slave to Man".