Jack Williamson

With Trimmed Edges

Astounding Stories August 1936

Last time, we looked at the January 1934 issue of Astounding Stories with an eye towards understanding what the transition between the old-time pulps and the Golden Age of Science Fiction actually looked like.

One of the hallmarks of the pulp age is, as its name suggests, the use of low-quality pulp paper with untrimmed edges.  The paper itself felt soft and of much better quality than, say the stuff used in 1970s paperbacks that turns brittle and brown (as opposed to the well-creamed-coffee color of the pulp stock), but there’s no arguing that the untrimmed edges give the publications a bit of an unfinished look.

In the two-and-a-half years between that issue and the other one I’ve recently read (August 1936 – pictured above), however, a major innovation occurred at Astounding: trimmed edges!  This complete break with pulp tradition makes less difference today than it probably did eighty-odd years ago on the newsstands.

Once more, I turned to the letters section, Brass Tacks, to see what reader reaction to the change had been.  As expected, the fans were enthusiastic with what they saw as a major advance, and the section also informed me that the change had happened only a few issues before the one I was holding.  But that wasn’t the only thing they talked about: the letters section had, by this time become a major concentration point for amateur literary critics.  The discussion of the merits of the various authors was quite heated… and the old argument about the pulp-style and Golden Age styles that we discussed last time was still alive and well.  Some of the readers were very vocal against the new, more literary and scientific style of story.

Interestingly, John W. Campbell, though not the editor, was already in evidence by this issue.  He wrote a science article about Mercury, apparently part of a series.  Also, this issue showed the return of two authors who’d been in the earlier edition: Nat Schachner and the great Jack WIlliamson.  Other famous names in this one were Murray Leinster and Stanley Weinbaum (who, the editor informed us, would no longer be appearing in Astounding – he’d died in December at the age of 33… and with an enviable body of work behind him).

With regards to the fiction itself, this one was a lucky buy, as it had the beginning of one serial (The Incredible Invasion – Leinster) and the end of another (The Cometeers – Williamson) which meant that I didn’t get stuck with the middle of anything which is always harder to draw conclusions from.  It was these two fragments plus the Schachner tale “The Return of the Murians” which stuck most in my mind.  There was nothing quite like the story “Colossus” which was the highlight of the January 1934 issue, but on the flip side, there were no real duds in this one either.

In general, we’ve definitely moved one step closer to the Golden Age here.  The style and names are almost all there, as are the trimmed edges.  It took one man’s vision to bring it all together… someday, I should probably read an early Campbell Astounding to see how it looks.  And when I do, I’ll write about it here.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book, Timeless, follows journalist Marianne Caruso as she investigates a mysterious author… only to run afoul of the very criminals the man writes about.  You can check it out here.

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Before the Golden Age

Astounding Stories - January 1934

Many of us who read science fiction were introduced to the genre, knowingly or not, through the authors from the Golden Age.  Essentially, if your foundation in SF comes from Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke, you are a child of the Golden Age (even if you’re no longer a child).

It’s the era of science fiction that has been discussed, anthologized and studied harder than any other.  It is to the genre what “Pride and Prejudice” is to romantic novels (and romantic comedies).  The era towers so far above today’s genre writing that if you ask random readers the name of an SF novel today, most of them will still choose books from that era (especially if we recognize that 1984 and Brave New World are novels from the same period).

To be fair, there have been a few monumental classics, books that have stuck in the canon after the Golden Age ended (Dune, Ender’s Game and, perhaps, Ringworld come to mind), but for the most part, the end of that era marked the end of the public’s fascination with the genre as a literary form (of course, they still flock to theaters to watch genre films, but that’s another story).

The causes are myriad, and today’s SF is often more a platform for political preaching (although, to be fair, it often was in the Golden Age, too) than it is an entertainment medium.

Scholars agree that the Golden Age began on the day that John W. Campbell took over the editor’s position at Astounding.  His new views on what science fiction should be forever changed the genre… and he had a brilliant eye for talent when it came to writers, too.

But as someone who’s already read a lot of what the Golden Age has to offer, and who is conversant with the later eras as well, I was curious to find out what had come before.  What were these famous glory days better than?  I assumed it was something that came before (the people who came later have been fighting the idea that the Golden Age was in any way a good thing… and they’ve been losing that battle for fifty years).

So I went straight to the source (well, actually I went to Ebay) and purchased two editions of pre-Campbell Astounding.  Let’s discuss one of them today: January 1934.

I’ll talk about the stories in a bit, but first, let’s discuss the Letters to the Editor.  Now, astounding, back then, had a section called “Brass Tacks” in which readers would rank the stories, criticize the artwork and argue with each other.  In this edition, readers were saying how much they enjoyed (or hated), the “new” astounding.  Apparently, after a change of publisher (they’d recently moved to Street & Smith), the mag had given a greater focus to literary merit and scientific accuracy, moving away from more adventure-driven SF in the Sword & Planet style.

From this, one gathers that the changes that Campbell so famously cemented were already well under way when he appeared onto the scene (more on that on Friday), and that the Golden Age might have happened even without his shepherding influence, although, to be fair, it would likely have happened in a much-diluted form.

The authors, likewise, were a mix of pre-Golden-Age and Golden Age names.  Nat Schachner represented the old guard.  His tale “Redmask of the Outlands” replaces magic with incomprehensible technobabble and uses that to set the stage for an adventure.  It’s a hell of a good adventure, mind you, but it’s not science fiction as it was understood under Campbell.  On the other side of the ledger, we have the cover story, Donald Wandrei’s “Colossus”, which extrapolates straight from the scientific understanding of the time to create a scenario so huge we still can’t say, eighty years later, whether it’s possible or not.  Also, there’s a story from Jack Williamson.  How cool is that?

As was the custom, there are also novels in serial form…  Even cooler!

Of course, not all of the stories were excellent. “The Confession of Dr. DeKalb”, a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz was a bit of a clunker, and the style in some of the others owed a huge debt to the lurid writing that came before… but in general terms, it’s easy to tell why readers flocked to the newsstands in droves to buy these things.  They were entertaining, the writing was decent for the most part, and the magazine opened windows into world once could lose oneself in (during the Depression, I imagine many people wanted to lose themselves, and this was better than looking at the world out of the bottom of a bottle).

My own favorites?  Impressively, I managed to enjoy the most scientific story (“Colossus”) and the least (“Redmask of the Outlands”) pretty much equally, so I’ll go with those.

Fun stuff.  Reading copies of these mags are still affordable, so I’d recommend grabbing one to anyone with an interest in the history of literature.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest novel, Timeless, was released last week as an ebook for all the major platforms.  You can check it out here.