One story about the origins of science fiction points to the specialty pulp magazines that appeared in the 1920s, when terms like Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” first came into popular usage, distinguishing certain stories from the detective, romance, sports, and western tales featured in other pulps. There are competing origin stories, however, since such magazines did not invent a new genre out of whole cloth, but rather provided a fresh label for a kind of story that had already been appearing in the general fiction magazines of the 1890s and 1900s — and even before that if one includes other possible contenders for the title of “first” SF work: Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516, Johannes Kepler’s Somnium in 1634, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1816. The distinctions among these various texts point to the difficulty of defining SF: is it a genre about the future? about the way science and technology influence daily life? about alternative ways of organizing social life? about thrilling adventure stories set on exotic planets?
John Cheng’s Astounding Wonder is an important study of one origin and one kind of sf, examining as it does the pulp period from 1926 to 1941 and in particular the role of Gernsback, who founded the genre’s original magazine, Amazing Stories, in 1926 and a later journal, Science Wonder Stories, in 1929 — where he first promoted the label “science fiction.” As Cheng notes, in launching Amazing Stories, Gernsback promised to deliver “a new kind of fiction magazine,” but at the same time early issues of Amazing also published reprints, particularly of the work of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe, whom Gernsback named exemplars of this new fiction. Further, as Cheng also points out, Gernsback had himself already published some original fiction of this type while editing magazines about emerging technologies such as Modern Electrics (1908-1913) and Radio News (1919-1929).
Thus, Cheng’s claim that SF was invented by Gernsback and his insistence on tracing the genre mainly through Gernsback’s interventions produce an odd vision. The argument that “it was Gernback’s use of the phrase that established its popular and sustained presence in public discourse” is compelling, but the preference given to Gernsback’s later Science Wonder Stories, founded when Gernsback lost control of Amazing but which folded within a year, over the continued centrality of Amazing (publication of which extended into the 1990s) is not. Further, despite this book’s title, Cheng makes almost no mention of the main competitor to Gernsback’s magazines, Astounding, a publication launched in 1930 that continues to be published today, although it has gone through many redactions of its title, including Astounding Science Fiction (from 1938) and now (since 1960) Analog. The importance of Gernsback’s place in the history of SF cannot be denied, but another editor whose influence on the genre has clearly been greater, Astounding’s John. W. Campbell, appears only in the book’s epilogue.
To be fair, Cheng’s focus is interwar SF, a period during which Gernsback’s influence was more evident than Campbell’s, and he does rely heavily on the memoirs of Harry Bates, Astounding...read more