Deadline (science fiction story)

Last updated
Author Cleve Cartmill
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Science fiction
Published in Astounding Science Fiction
Publication type Periodical
Publisher Street & Smith
Media typePrint (Magazine)
Publication dateMarch 1944

"Deadline" is a 1944 science fiction short story by American writer Cleve Cartmill, first published in Astounding Science Fiction . The story described the then-secret atomic bomb in some detail. At that time the bomb was still under development and top secret, which prompted a visit by the FBI. [1]

Science fiction genre of fiction

Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction, typically dealing with imaginative concepts such as advanced science and technology, space exploration, time travel, and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a "literature of ideas".

Short story Brief work of literature, usually written in narrative prose

A short story is a piece of prose fiction that typically can be read in one sitting and focuses on a self-contained incident or series of linked incidents, with the intent of evoking a "single effect" or mood, however there are many exceptions to this.

Cleve Cartmill was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories. He is best remembered for what is sometimes referred to as "the Cleve Cartmill affair", when his 1944 story "Deadline" attracted the attention of the FBI by reason of its detailed description of a nuclear weapon similar to that being developed by the highly classified Manhattan Project.


In 1943, Cartmill suggested to John W. Campbell, the then-editor of Astounding, that he could write a story about a futuristic super-bomb. [2] Campbell liked the idea and supplied Cartmill with considerable background information gleaned from unclassified scientific journals, on the use of Uranium-235 to make a nuclear fission device. The resulting story appeared in the issue of Astounding dated March 1944, which actually appeared early in February of that year.

John W. Campbell American science fiction writer and editor

John Wood Campbell Jr. was an American science fiction writer and editor. He was editor of Astounding Science Fiction from late 1937 until his death and was part of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Campbell wrote super-science space opera under his own name and stories under his primary pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. Campbell also used the pen names Karl Van Kampen and Arthur McCann. His novella Who Goes There? was adapted as the films The Thing from Another World (1951), The Thing (1982), and The Thing (2011).

Uranium-235 isotope of uranium

Uranium-235 (235U) is an isotope of uranium making up about 0.72% of natural uranium. Unlike the predominant isotope uranium-238, it is fissile, i.e., it can sustain a fission chain reaction. It is the only fissile isotope with a primordial nuclide found in significant quantity in nature.

Nuclear fission nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller parts

In nuclear physics and nuclear chemistry, nuclear fission is a nuclear reaction or a radioactive decay process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into smaller, lighter nuclei. The fission process often produces free neutrons and gamma photons, and releases a very large amount of energy even by the energetic standards of radioactive decay.

By March 8 it had come to the attention of the Counterintelligence Corps, who saw many similarities between the technical details in the story and the research currently being undertaken in great secrecy at Los Alamos. Gregory Benford describes the incident as told to him by Edward Teller in his autobiographical essay "Old Legends":

Los Alamos National Laboratory research laboratory for the design of nuclear weapons

Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory initially organized during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project. It is located a short distance northwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico in the southwestern United States.

Gregory Benford Science fiction author and astrophysicist

Gregory Benford is an American science fiction author and astrophysicist who is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of California, Irvine. He is a contributing editor of Reason magazine.

Edward Teller Hungarian-American nuclear physicist

Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist who is known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb", although he did not care for the title. He made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy, and surface physics. His extension of Enrico Fermi's theory of beta decay, in the form of Gamow–Teller transitions, provided an important stepping stone in its application, while the Jahn–Teller effect and the Brunauer–Emmett–Teller (BET) theory have retained their original formulation and are still mainstays in physics and chemistry. Teller also made contributions to Thomas–Fermi theory, the precursor of density functional theory, a standard modern tool in the quantum mechanical treatment of complex molecules. In 1953, along with Nicholas Metropolis, Arianna Rosenbluth, Marshall Rosenbluth, and Augusta Teller, Teller co-authored a paper that is a standard starting point for the applications of the Monte Carlo method to statistical mechanics. Throughout his life, Teller was known both for his scientific ability and for his difficult interpersonal relations and volatile personality.

Coming three years later in the same magazine, Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline" provoked astonishment in the lunch table discussions at Los Alamos. It really did describe isotope separation and the bomb itself in detail, and raised as its principal plot pivot the issue the physicists were then debating among themselves: should the Allies use it? To the physicists from many countries clustered in the high mountain strangeness of New Mexico, cut off from their familiar sources of humanist learning, it must have seemed particularly striking that Cartmill described an allied effort, a joint responsibility laid upon many nations.

Discussion of Cartmill's "Deadline" was significant. The story's detail was remarkable, its sentiments even more so. Did this rather obscure story hint at what the American public really thought about such a superweapon, or would think if they only knew?

Talk attracts attention, Teller recalled a security officer who took a decided interest, making notes, saying little. In retrospect, it was easy to see what a wartime intelligence monitor would make of the physicists' conversations. Who was this guy Cartmill, anyway? Where did he get these details? Who tipped him to the isotope separation problem? "and that is why Mr. Campbell received his visitors."

Fearing a security breach, the FBI began an investigation into Cartmill, Campbell, and some of their acquaintances (including Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein). [3] It appears that the authorities eventually accepted the explanation that the story's material had been gleaned from unclassified sources, but as a precautionary measure they requested that Campbell should not publish any further stories about nuclear technology for the remainder of the war.

Isaac Asimov American science-fiction and non-fiction writer

Isaac Asimov was an American writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University. He was known for his works of science fiction and popular science. Asimov was a prolific writer who wrote or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards. His books have been published in 9 of the 10 major categories of the Dewey Decimal Classification.

Robert A. Heinlein American science fiction author

Robert Anson Heinlein was an American science-fiction author, aeronautical engineer, and retired Naval officer. Often called the "dean of science fiction writers", He was among the first to emphasize scientific accuracy in his fiction, and was thus a pioneer of the subgenre of hard science fiction. His work continues to have an influence on the science-fiction genre, and on modern culture more generally.

Nuclear technology technology that involves the reactions of atomic nuclei

Nuclear technology is technology that involves the nuclear reactions of atomic nuclei. Among the notable nuclear technologies are nuclear reactors, nuclear medicine and nuclear weapons. It is also used, among other things, in smoke detectors and gun sights.

Campbell, in the meantime, had guessed from the number of Astounding subscribers who had suddenly moved to the Los Alamos area, that the US government probably had some sort of technical or scientific project ongoing there. He declined to volunteer this information to the FBI.

Critical evaluation

"Deadline" was described by Robert Silverberg as "a klutzy clunker" and by Cartmill himself as "that stinker". [4] According to Silverberg, Cartmill also used the phrase "it stinks" when describing the story to a postman who was acting as an informer for military intelligence.

Military intelligence is a military discipline that uses information collection and analysis approaches to provide guidance and direction to assist commanders in their decisions. This aim is achieved by providing an assessment of data from a range of sources, directed towards the commanders' mission requirements or responding to questions as part of operational or campaign planning. To provide an analysis, the commander's information requirements are first identified, which are then incorporated into intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination.

However, the story was included in the anthologies The Best of Science Fiction (1946; ed. Groff Conklin), Science Fiction of the Forties (1978; ed. Joseph Olander, Martin Harry Greenberg, and Frederik Pohl), The Golden Age of Science Fiction (1980; ed. Groff Conklin), and The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 6, 1944 (1981; ed. Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg). [5]

Groff Conklin American science fiction editor

Edward Groff Conklin was an American science fiction anthologist. He edited 40 anthologies of science fiction, one of mystery stories, wrote books on home improvement and was a freelance writer on scientific subjects as well as a published poet. From 1950 to 1955, he was the book critic for Galaxy Science Fiction.

Frederik Pohl American science fiction writer and editor

Frederik George Pohl Jr. was an American science-fiction writer, editor, and fan, with a career spanning more than 75 years—from his first published work, the 1937 poem "Elegy to a Dead Satellite: Luna", to the 2011 novel All the Lives He Led and articles and essays published in 2012.

Martin Harry Greenberg was an American academic and speculative fiction anthologist. In all, he compiled 1,298 anthologies and commissioned over 8,200 original short stories. He founded Tekno Books, a packager of more than 2000 published books. As well, he was a co-founder of the Sci-Fi Channel. Greenberg was also a terrorism and Middle East expert. He was a long-time friend, colleague and business partner of Isaac Asimov.

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  1. Cartmill, Cleve, "Deadline". Astounding Science Fiction, Vol. XXXIII, No. l, pp. 154-178. New York: Street & Smith, March 1944
  2. Silverberg, Robert, Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair: One Archived 2013-06-18 at the Wayback Machine , Asimov's Science Fiction
  3. Silverberg, Robert, Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair: Two Archived 2014-10-06 at the Wayback Machine , Asimov's Science Fiction
  4. Rogers, Alva (1964). A Requiem for Astounding. Advent. ISBN   0-911682-16-3.
  5. See "Deadline" title listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database