Lesson 5: Scientifiction: 1926 - 1938

Lesson 5: Scientifiction: 1926 - 1938

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Describe how the first magazine devoted to science fiction came to be published, and
  • Discuss early contributors, themes, and stories common to Amazing Stories in its first decade of publication.

Readings

"The New Accelerator," by H.G. Wells
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 1-15

"The Tissue-Culture King," by Julian Huxley
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 146-67

"The Revolt of the Pedestrians," by David H. Keller, MD
The Road to Science Fiction #2, pp. 168-95

Introduction

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the low-priced monthly magazines demonstrated that the growing middle class of the nation would buy magazines in quantity. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the pulp magazines demonstrated a sufficient demand for fiction to support a variety of cheap monthly and even weekly magazines. In the 1920s the narrowing currents of specialization produced assembly lines, the division and subdivision of professions and disciplines, hobbies, entertainments, fads, fashions, increasing college attendance and proliferating programs of instruction, and the genre pulps, include science fiction and fantasy.

In the middle of the decade, on April 5, 1926, Hugo Gernsback published a specialized magazine featured on the newsstands of the nation. The magazine was Amazing Stories, and it was the world's first science-fiction magazine.

The new magazine exhibited no indecision about what it would publish: scientifiction. Gernsback had invented the word to describe the contents of his new magazine, and his first editorial defined what he meant: "By 'scientifiction' I mean the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of a story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision." (Gernsback, "A New Sort of Magazine," Amazing Stories. April 1926.) Underlying Gernsback's basic desire to sell magazines and make money was his promotion of understanding of science and technology through fiction; the fiction was candy coating for a pill of instruction.

For the first three issues, Amazing Stories was entirely reprints, including stories by all of the three authors Gernsback had mentioned in his editorial: Verne, Wells, and Poe, as well as O'Brien, Leinster, and Serviss. Following the pattern set by the pulp magazines of earlier days, Amazing Stories always included at least one serial, sometimes two, and reached a peak of four in its October 1926 issue.

With all the reprints, it is not surprising that Gernsback found it necessary in his third issue's editorial to dispel readers of the notion that Amazing Stories intended to publish only reprints. He presented an appeal that would be echoed in later science fiction magazines: new writers wanted, no previous experience necessary but must have fertile and original mind.

Amazing Stories was greeted by readers as the answer to what had been until then an unrecognized need. One of Gernsback's early discoveries was the enthusiasm and dedication of science fiction readers. It was as if some forgotten Diaspora had scattered a nation so thoroughly that not one citizen knew another, but now, through Amazing Stories, each had discovered his Zion, and they could gather together in spirit in a new ghetto to practice their forgotten rites.

In the first issue Gernsback had indicated the possibility of a department entitled "Readers' Letters," but it would not start for almost a year, and when it did it was called "Discussions." The department became a meeting place for fans and perhaps the origin of modern science-fiction fandom, as well as a forum for discussing the fiction that was being published and for working out new lines of development or rejecting old ones. Through the readers' columns in Amazing and later magazines, the opinions of individual readers became a consensus, and, although they were not always successful in obtaining trimmed edges, better paper, more appropriate titles, less-garish covers, or stories by a favorite author, the letter writers and the fans wielded an influence on the development of science fiction far beyond their actual numbers. Through the letter columns and fandom not only would certain stories, themes, and authors be blessed or cursed, but many potential writers would also become aware of science fiction and would begin their own processes of creation.

By the end of Amazing's second year of publication, new authors were on the horizon, and new names were appearing on the cover. The issue of August 1928 featured a serial, Skylark of Space by a new author,E.E. Smith, PhD. The same issue contained a story entitled "Armageddon—2319 AD," by Philip Nowlan, which became the basis for the comic strip "Buck Rogers." Other new writers were appearing, too:David H. Keller, MD, who pioneered psychological science fiction stories; John W. Campbell Jr., who started as a writer of super-science and worlds to wreck and went on to create sociological science fiction under the name of Don A. Stuart and, as the long-time editor of Astounding Science Fiction (now called Analog), to create much of what we knew in the 1940s and '50s as modern science fiction; Stanton A. Coblentz, poet and satirist; Fletcher Pratt, who would become a distinguished naval writer and sometime editor; Harl Vincent; Jack Williamson; Edmond Hamilton; and Miles J. Breuer, MD.

Gernsback was fond of listing the scientific credentials of his writers; he himself was listed on the masthead as F.R.S. (presumably "Fellow of the Royal Society"), and his elderly managing editor, a son-in-law of Thomas Edison, was T. O'Conor Sloane, MA, PhD.

For Gernsback's efforts as a writer and popularizer of science nonfiction, the radio-electronics industry presented him with the silver Hugo Gernsback Trophy in 1953, for fifty years of service to the radio electronic art; however, his most lasting tribute may be the awards presented each year by the fans attending the World Science Fiction Convention to the works they considered the best science fiction of the year. Among Oscars and Emmies, Grammies and Edgars (after Edgar Allan Poe), there is, as well, a Hugo.

Amazing Stories carried the caption:

Extravagant Fiction Today ..................................................... Cold Fact Tomorrow

That was Gernsback's vision, a vision summarized in his formula: "The ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be 75% literature interwoven with 25% science." The vision may have been narrow, but it launched science fiction into a new era. Gernsback died on August 19, 1967, but what he created lives on. Even if science-fiction magazines should disappear from the newsstands altogether, his contribution would continue: Gernsback provided a focus for enthusiasm, for publication, for development. He may not have shaped modern science fiction, but he provided a place for science fiction to be shaped. Before Gernsback, there were science-fiction stories; after Gernsback, there was a science-fiction genre.

Writing Assignment

Some of the stories that you read for this assignment take a satirical approach to science fiction. Do you feel that these stories are effective as satire? Does the science fiction genre lend itself to the satirical form, and if so, why?