Birthday Reviews: Nat Schachner’s “Ancestral Voices”

Birthday Reviews: Nat Schachner’s “Ancestral Voices”

Cover by Howard V. Brown
Cover by Howard V. Brown

Nat Schachner was born on January 16, 1895 and died on October 2, 1955. Schachner was an attorney who began writing in collaboration with fellow attorney Arthur Zagat. After about a year working together, each man began writing solo, but after publishing science fiction for a decade, Schachner turned his attention towards biographies, focusing on early Americans.

“Ancestral Voices” was a solo effort published by F. Orlin Tremaine in the December 1933 issue of Astounding Stories.It has never been reprinted in English, although a French translation appeared in 1973 and an Italian translation ten years later.

Schachner opens “Ancestral Voices” with a brief look at several people for whom their ancestry helps define who they are in a very basic way, from a Hitlerian dictator of “Mideuropa” (although Hitler is also mentioned) to the crème-de-la-crème of Boston society, to an accountant who is convinced of his superiority over his boss because he is Anglo-Saxon rather than Spanish. Schachner also posits a boxing match between an Aryan champion, Hans Schilling and a Jewish challenger, Max Bernstein, clear stand-ins for Max Schmeling and Max Baer, who fought in the year the story was published.

The main thrust of the story, however, is the arrogant scientist Emmet Pennypacker, who has created a time machine. Denying his assistant any part of the glory, Pennypacker travels backwards in time, without knowing when or where he’ll wind up. To his chagrin, he finds himself in Aquileia during the Hunnic attack of July 18, 452. Unable to return to his own time until the machine is ready to take him there, he winds up rescuing a Roman girl from her Hun rapist.

Although the idea of going back in time and stopping your parent from being born has become cliché, that is the scenario Schachner wrote. However, given the fifteen centuries that separated Pennypacker from his distant forebears, it means he eradicated the common ancestor of about 50,000 people living in the Twentieth Century.

Schachner’s way of dealing with this is to have all those descendants wink out of existence, generally impacting at least one of the more ancestrally conscious people in each of his modern vignettes. The story is satisfying, although Schachner’s expository mouthpiece, Pennypacker’s assistant Sam Corey, fails to explain why people have any memory of the Hun and Roman’s descendants existing at all.

Reviewed in its only published English appearance in Astounding Stories, edited by F. Orlin Tremaine, December 1933.

Steven H Silver-largeSteven H Silver is a fifteen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW and NESFA Press. He began publishing short fiction in 2008 and his most recently published story is “Big White Men—Attack!” in Little Green Men—Attack! Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 5 times as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7. He has been the news editor for SF Site since 2002.

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Amy Bisson

Weird that it’s never been reprinted. I know I had heard of this story before. Perhaps it was mentioned in one of the introductions in Before the Golden Age or something. I’m pretty sure I had heard of this story from multiple sources.

Rich Horton

I listed “Ancestral Voices” in my (defunct) page of SF stories with titles taken from “Kubla Khan”.

(I’ll have to restore and update that page — but I’ll need to get a website first, after the death of (Sob.))

I haven’t read it, however. I did rather enjoy “The Dragon of Iskander”, which I read (and discussed in these pages) in the July 1963 Fantastic. And I have the impression that Schachner was somewhat well-regarded among ’30s writers.

Thomas Parker

It’s also on the short list of sf stories featuring a protagonist named Pennypacker. Just one more reason to love the Golden Age!

Nick Ozment

And just to think — If someone went back in time and erased this story, that James Mann and his convention would not exist today!


I’ve always enjoyed Nat Schachner’s stories. I wish that more of his stories would be reprinted.

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