Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Astounding Stories: January 1937

The appearance of the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science (soon to be just Astounding Stories) in December 1929 marked an important advance for the infant genre known then as scientifiction. At the time, the three already-existing magazines had all been founded by the genre's creator, Hugo Gernsback. Scientifiction had become sufficiently popular that Clayton Publications, an established pulp magazine publisher, decided to get in on the action.

As Isaac Asimov notes in his anthology Before the Golden Age, Astounding published stories that were "heavy on adventure" and seemed, to Asimov's ten-year-old self, to be less sophisticated than the other magazines. Then, too, 1929 turned out not to be the best time to launch a new magazine. As the Great Depression deepened, Astounding Stories switched from monthly to bimonthly publication before finally coming to a halt with its March 1933 issue.

However, Astounding was unexpectedly reborn half a year later when Street & Smith Publications took over the title from the bankrupt Clayton Publications, and with the October 1933 issue resumed monthly publication. The first few issues under the new imprint ran leftover stories from the Clayton days, but under new editor F. Orlin Tremaine Astounding quickly began to change for the better. As Asimov writes, "Astounding Stories had the best stories, the most interesting artwork, the liveliest letters column." Astounding was recognized by Asimov and his fellow science fiction fans as the field's leading magazine, a position it would maintain for the next fifteen years.

I recently acquired a copy of the January 1937 issue of Astounding. To someone used to the current digest-size SF magazines measuring seven and a half by five inches, the pulp-size Astounding is a bit of a shock. It's nine and a half by six and a half inches, and half an inch thick. There's no getting away from the fact that the old pulp-size magazine looks and feels more impressive than the digest size. And of course, the extra space allows for more stories.

Mind you, in a way the modern SF magazines shouldn't exist at all. The market niche that the pulps filled was taken over in the 1950s by comic books and mass-market paperback books, and by the end of the 1950s all the pulp fiction magazines were dead except for the science fiction magazines and the mystery magazines. Science fiction magazines are the coelacanths of the publishing world.

So, what would you find between the covers of the January 1937 issue of Astounding Stories? In brief, you would find a tug-of-war going on between three different writing traditions. The oldest style can be called Gernsbackian, and it's represented by John Russell Fearn's story "Metamorphosis". The Gernsbackian story begins with several pages of technobabble-laden exposition in the form of a conversation between two or more scientists. The plot is then allowed to move forward in language strongly reminiscent of Victorian melodrams. "Metamorphosis" begins with the requisite conversational exposition between two scientists who have been working for three years on a device to re-create the conditions of the Big Bang (though they don't call it that, since the term "Big Bang" wouldn't be coined until 1948). The scientists switch on their device and it explodes, leveling every building in a hundred mile radius. The two scientists have managed to create a form of living energy that goes on to consume the entire world, and eventually the entire universe. Another Gernsbackian story is "Linked Worlds" by R. R. Winterbotham, in which a scientist (after the obligatory exposition) uses a new invention to transform himself into an energy being.

The second tradition is the super-science story, represented by the cover story "Beyond Infinity" by Nat Schachner. (Since Schachner already has a story in the issue under his own name, by custom "Beyond Infinity" appears under a pen name, Chan Corbett.) The super-science story was pioneered by E. E. Smith in his 1928 serial "The Skylark of Space". Violent action, wild inventions, and a cosmic scale described in standard pulp fiction prose are the hallmarks of the super-science story, and Schachner provides plenty of it in "Beyond Infinity". The story opens with Earth under assault by aliens from Antares. The last surviving humans huddle in a fortified bunker miles below the surface while the Antareans slowly battle their way down. The valiantly heroic Garth Anders fights off the Antareans while the great scientist Peter Loring works out the nature of the universe. Loring designs and constructs a device that will allow the last humans to escape extermination at the hands of the Antareans by transcending the limitations of space and time.

The third tradition can be called Campbellian, and it's represented by Earl and Otto Binder's "SOS in Space" and Raymond Z. Gallun's "Luminous Mine". Although John W. Campbell made his name as one of the leading practitioners of the super-science story, he established a new style of science fiction under the pen name Don A. Stuart with his ground-breaking 1934 story "Twilight". The Campbellian story features realistic science and realistic characters with a minimum of pulp fiction blood-and-thunder. The Binder brothers' "SOS in Space", for example, takes the form of a series of messages between the radio operators of two interplanetary space liners in transit between Earth and Mars. One of the ships is caught in a wave of solar radiation caused by sunspot activity, and the consequences could be deadly. In Gallun's "Luminous Mine", a prospector in the Arizona desert who has just murdered his partner stumbles across an alien device that is using advanced technology to mine the Earth's minerals.

Although the Gernsbackian and super-science stories were still appearing in Astounding Stories in 1937, their days were numbered. By the end of the year, John Campbell himself had succeeded Tremaine as editor. He soon retitled the magazine Astounding Science Fiction, and by the end of the 1930s he was building up a stable of writers who would take the Campbellian style to new literary heights. Under Campbell and his new writers, Astounding would become the center of science fiction's Golden Age.


lartronics said...

Hugo Gernsback was an absolutely amazing person and personality. He hired me back in the 58 as an assistant editor for what was then Radio-Electronics magazine. In 2003 as owner of Gernsback Publications Inc. we shut the business down. At that time I found an old manuscript.

I’ve recently published a new 900-page biography about the life and times of Hugo Gernsback. It is available on Amazon. Just follow this link:


The manuscript was found while I was in the process of closing down Gernsback Publications Inc. in 2003. It was apparently written some time in the 1950’s. It covers all the areas that Hugo found interesting: wireless communications, science fiction, publishing, patents, foretelling the future, and much more.

Want more info? Contact me at PoptronixInc@aol.com

Nancy Green said...

i've just started reading science fiction after about ten years.
one of my favorite stories is
'The New Atlantis' by Ursula LeGuin. very 70's, and very relevant today.