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.