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An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction: Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 1

Henri Hillinick's matte painting for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film,

Henri Hillinick’s matte painting for the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film, “Forbidden Planet” (1956)

An Author’s Journey: “Amazing Stories” of Science Fiction:  Book Review of James & Mendlesohn’s “The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction,” 1

Good Morning, Everybody!

Frank R . Paul:

Frank R . Paul: “Future Atomic City” (1942)

It’s an exciting time to be a Science Fiction fan because the wide-ranging and diverse potential of the genre is enjoying an unprecedented popularity; that is, while there was certainly a steady increase in SF offerings when I started reading “the classics” in the 1980s (Asimov, Bester, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, LeGuin, Moorcock, et al), today’s proliferation of the genre in literature, comic books, tv shows, films, & gaming reveals  demand on a scale perhaps only dreamed of by original SF creators of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

3788-1Those creators and their stories are the subject of The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).  James & Mendlesohn’s introduction situates the text as a part of an “ongoing discussion” within the Science Fiction (sf) community, organizing their topic by dividing this book of essays into three parts:  “The History,” “Critical Approaches,” and “Sub-Genres and Themes.”

James Gunn

James Gunn

A foreward by sf legend James Gunn—24th Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and author of innumerable sf books—sets the tone for this fascinating book, with Gunn giving his own synoptic history of the sf genre, beginning with an anecdote from 1971’s inaugural meeting of the Science Fiction Research Association and focusing on the pulp magazines, rise of fandom, academic assessments, and sf’s rise in mainstream publishing.

Alfred Bester's

Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” (1953) was part of the “New Wave” science fiction…

The following essays elaborate on these phenomena, with appreciated attention in the first section to the origins and history of sf.  Space permits only a brief look below at a couple of essays, but the entirety of the 19th and 20th Centuries are canvassed in articles by established academic and popular authorities in the field:  Damien Broderick’s “New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980,” John Clute’s “Science Fiction from 1980 to the Present,” Mark Bould’s “Film and Television,” and Gary K. Wolfe’s “Science fiction and its editors.”

Edgar Allan Poe,

Edgar Allan Poe, “Sonnet—To Science” (1829)

Part 1.  The history
Because of their foundational aspects in the books, the initial two essays in the history section deserve closer attention.  The first essay, Brian Stableford’s “Science fiction before the genre,” covers a considerable amount of ground in 16 pages; beginning in the 17th Century with the popular interest that began in the scientific discoveries of the time, Stableford gives examples of utopian fantasy, imaginary voyages, and dream stories that never quite rose above the level of unique literature until the experimental works of Edgar Allan Poe (“Sonnet—To Science”).  He sees aspects of what became sf in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s  Frankenstein, but finds that the work’s Romantic trappings actually made it ‘anti-sf’ because of its fatalism about progress.

Walt Disney's 1954 film

Walt Disney’s 1954 film “20,000 Leagues under the Sea”

Jules Verne,

Jules Verne, “From Earth to the Moon” (1867; here, one of first English translations of “De la terre à la lune”)

Stableford cites Jules Verne as the writer who first took seriously scientific inquiry in stories that used imaginatively rendered technological devices for travel extraterrestrial (From the Earth to the Moon), subterranean (Journey to the Centre of the Earth), and marine (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea).

H.G. Wells,

H.G. Wells, “The War of the Worlds” (1898; reprinted here in 1927 Frank R. Paul cover of “Amazing Stories”)

The essay here has the admirable quality of tracing simultaneous sf developments in Great Britain, the U.S., and France as newspapers and magazines of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries provided forums for fledgling sf writers to experiment with new milieus and expressions.  After Verne, Stableford sees H.G. Wells expanding upon Verne’s fascination with matters technological by introducing visions and dreamscapes into futuristic speculation (The Time Machine, War of the Worlds) and moral fables that included elements of romance (The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man).

Edgar Rice Burroughs,

Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars” (1917)

Magazines and pulp novels were part of the flurry of periodicals that attended the rise of sf in the early 1900s, a time when Edgar Rice Burroughs’s short story, “Under the Moons of Mars” became the first novel in the Barroom series, A Princess of Mars, and inviting a host of imitative tales that started introducing concepts of magic portals and parallel worlds (Abraham Merritt’s “The Moon Pool” [1918] and Francis Stevens’s “The Heads of Cerebus” [1919]).

The second essay in this historical section, Brian Attebery’s “The magazine era: 1926-1960,” assesses the pivotal role that magazines played in promoting sf as what Attebery usefully defines as a “… mode of storytelling, but also a niche for writers, a marketing category for publishers, a collection of visual images and styles and a community of like-minded individuals.”

“The War of the Worlds” (Paramount Pictures, 1953)

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), portrait by Fabian Bachrach

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967), portrait by Fabian Bachrach

Brian Attebery’s story begins with the namesake of the World Science Fiction Society’s “Hugo Awards,” Hugo Gernsback, whose Amazing Stories magazine (f. 1926) seriously attempted to define the sf genre—initially the  style of writing was called ‘scientification’— and in the first issue Gernsback called for more creative works to follow the examples of Verne, Wells, and Poe, with a magazine format and perspective that intended to “… supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain-and…supply it in a very palatable form.’ In other words (Atterby writes), sf, as Gernsback envisioned it, ‘was primarily a teaching tool, but one that did not make its teaching obvious.’

Ways that sf writers accomplished this teaching were by following these what John Cawelti grouped as “adventure, mystery, and romance,” with mystery the most prominent form of the early pulps.  Attebery next outlines the fictional formulas that characterized the magazine stories of this period:

E.E. 'Doc' Smith's

E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s “Skylark” Series (here with cover art by Frank R Paul)

space opera: E. E. ‘Doc Smith’s’ “Skylark” and “Lensmen” series, where any  “…one of his interchangeable heroes coming across a spaceship in distress, single-handedly defeating a band of space pirates, making friends with a bizarre but good-natured alien and rescuing a beautiful woman.”

Poesque horror: most notably this branch of sf could be seen in Weird Tales magazine (1923-1954), with H.P. Lovecraft blurring the boundaries between fantastic landscapes and supernatural horror

Frank R. Paul sf art; cover,

Frank R. Paul sf art; cover, “Amazing Stories” (1941)

sympathetic aliens & sf technology:  for a couple of decades, the stories that appeared in magazines featured what Attebery calls ‘blandly indistinguishable’ human beings who confronted alien beings and space ships that started to be popularized with the artwork of Frank R. Paul, who “…translated words into images—space ships, domed cities, goggle-eyed creatures—that are still being used to represent the future in advertisements, movies and television shows.”

young scientist saving the world, usually with help of mentor’s daughter:  Attebery writes, “…using this basic plot structure, the [sf] writer could introduce variations regarding the nature of of the threat (aliens, rival scientists, natural disasters) and the invention (a time machine, a device to accelerate evolution, a death ray).  The tone could be sombre, rapturous or comic. The ending, though, was nearly always happy, a vindication of the young hero’s character and the reader’s belief…”

“Amazing Stories,” Vol. 1, no. 1 (April, 1926)

These formulas were successful, with circulation to Amazing Stories reaching over 100,000 subscribers in just a few months; unfortunately, Gernsback overextended himself and went bankrupt in the early 1930s, but a spate of magazines successfully imitated his format and tried to meet demand for ‘thought-variant stories’—Science Wonder Quarterly (1929), Astounding Stories (1930), and Marvel Science Stories (1937), with expansion of formats in editor John W. Campbell’s Astounding Stories-era that are still familiar today:  “… chatty editorials, the advertising (for radio kits, scientific publications, correspondence course, razors and body-building regimens) and, perhaps most significantly, the letters from the fans.”

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles (original site of LA Science Fiction League)

Clifton’s Cafeteria, Los Angeles (original site of LA Science Fiction League)

Attebery traces the interaction between fans and editors during this period (1930s-1950s), where correspondence both within the pages of the magazines were paralleled by the rise of fan clubs and sf associations, the most important of which was 1934’s Science Fiction League, whose offshoots  “… carried on the fan tradition of meeting, arguing, publishing non-professional magazines for one another and generally behaving more like active partners than passive consumers.  One group, the Futurians, included many of the most important writers in the next generation: Frederick Pohl, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Cyril Kornbluth, Isaac Asimov and James Blish…”

Isaac Asimov's

Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series

Robert A. Heinlein,

Robert A. Heinlein, “The Roads Must Roll” in “Astounding Science Fiction” (June, 1940)

Within this milieu, thanks to the influence and editorial decisions of Campbell in Astounding Stories, important sf writers began to reshape the genre into a form that still retains the contributions of each:

Robert A Heinleinin “The Roads Must Roll” (1940) established the prototype of the Astounding Stories engineer/technocrat as action hero

Isaac Asimovin the Foundation stories, invented a scholarly society & ‘psychohistory’ that predicts fall of a galactic empire

A.E. Van Vogt:  “created dream-like narratives about psychic supermen in hiding” and shifted part of the sf form into realms of fantasy

Klaatu & Gort arrive in

Klaatu & Gort arrive in “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951)

Arthur C. Clarke,

Arthur C. Clarke, “Childhood’s End” (1953)

By the 1950s, when feature films began attempting to meet the growing demand for the expanding genre and fan-base, Attebery notes that ‘Science fiction for grown-ups’ began to appear in new magazines such as New Worlds (U.K.) and Galaxy Science Fiction (U.S.), when writers such as Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End), Alfred Bester (The Demolished Man), Theodore Sturgeon (More than Human), and Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) led a creative sf explosion of works that eventually transcended the magazine format and yielded a new kind of sf novel that would become popular in the 1960s.

“Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine,” Vol. 1, n. 1 (Spring, 1977)

That transition in itself created new kinds of issues with the dissemination of sf stories—the shift from a newsstand distribution model to a book format that needed publisher promotion being the most notable—but Attebery’s essay more than satisfies in its conclusion that, fittingly, the major sf magazine that survived into the 1980s and 1990s was Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, a periodical that still made room for out-of-the-box ideas in an increasingly competitive and book-dominated marketplace.

Next Time:  Book Review, Part 2:  “Critical Approaches & Sub-Genres and Themes” 

One Comment Post a comment
  1. lol at the plot point ” > > young scientist saving the world, usually with help of mentor’s daughter: > 😂😂

    But anyway, really informative article! Especially since there IS a rise in SF currently, and in my opinion it’s because we all are trying to figure out what our future is going to look like in the face of deteriorating environmental conditions, rising populations, and rapidly developing technology!

    Who knows though, I’m not the expert! But this article certainly points that you are! So cool!


    August 10, 2015

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