The novel “The Girl in the Golden Atom” by Ray Cummings was published for the first time in 1922. The novel is available on Project Gutenberg‘s website. The audiobook is available on LibriVox’s website.
In the course of his research, the Chemist realized that in a golden atom of his mother’s wedding ring there’s a whole world. With a very sophisticated microscope, he’s able to discover the presence of inhabitants of that world and in particular a beautiful girl. Charmed by her, he looks for a way to reach that world and invents a drug that can miniaturize him together with one that can make him bigger.
The Chemist tells his friends about his discoveries and announces them that he intends to miniaturize himself to get in touch with the world in the atom he examined. When he does it, he meets a civilization that lives on that world and Lylda, the girl he saw during his research. There he discovers that Lylda’s people are threatened by their neighbors’ aggression.
Before being a writer of the genre that only after a few years had its current name, Ray Cummings worked as an assistant to the famous inventor Thomas Edison. In 1919 he published in the magazine “All-Story Weekly” the short story “The Girl in the Golden Atom” which the following year had a sequel in the same magazine entitled “People of the Golden Atom”. In 1922 the two stories were subsequently fixed-up to form the novel “The Girl in the Golden Atom”.
In his job, Ray Cummings accumulated experience in science but his novel’s foundations are far-fetched even for the time when it was written. The idea is that there are subatomic worlds inhabited by beings very similar to humans, so much that the protagonist can communicate with them very easily. A man of our world and a woman from a submicroscopic world can even have children.
To go from our world to one of the subatomic worlds, you need only to have the right drug that miniaturizes those who take it orally and curiously it seems that your clothes are miniaturized with you. Another drug allows a person to obtain the opposite process, again together with your clothes. In short, today we need a strong suspension of disbelief to read “The Girl in the Golden Atom”.
The novel is narrated in a typical way of the time, mostly as a report told by the protagonist and for the rest from his friends’ point of view. The names of a couple of them are mentioned a few times in some dialogues but the author always refers to them as the Chemist, the Doctor, the Very Young Man, the Banker and the Big Business Man and developes them in a limited way.
Ray Cummings wrote the two stories that form “The Girl in the Golden Atom” in the years immediately following World War I and you can feel it in the plot. The Chemist realizes the danger that the drugs he invented can be used in negative ways in our world. During his journey into the subatomic world, the powers deriving from those drugs’ use have increasing consequences that must be taken into account.
Ethical and moral considerations are also connected to a kind of utopia that the Chemist finds in the subatomic world. In some ways this element is also very outdated because what’s described is basically a peasant civilization. However, for that time that civilization was also really progressive because it was egalitarian with equal rights between men and women.
When the Chemist arrives in that world, that civilization is in danger because of the aggressiveness of the neighboring nation, which threatens to overwhelm enemies who are peaceful and therefore not used to waging war. The protagonist intervenes in favor of Lylda’s people but that has long-term consequences.
These ideas, together with those of a social nature, are not particularly developed but give at least a little depth to the story going a bit beyond the simple adventure. This choice sometimes slows down the pace, nonetheless those elements made “The Girl in the Golden Atom” a success and made it a classic of proto-science fiction.
Today “The Girl in the Golden Atom” is very outdated from many points of view and should be read keeping in mind not only its age but also the fact that it’s after all a work written for the pulp magazine market. Keeping that in mind this might still be a pleasant reading.