Pulp Science

By Sherryl VintJuly 21, 2012

Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America by John Cheng

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’s first editor (although he makes no mention of Bates’ role in that regard). In the postwar period, often called the Golden Age of SF (again, as Cheng notes), Campbell’s role in publishing some of the genre’s most famous writers — Asimov, Heinlein, Sturgeon, Pohl — shaped the field as it exists today. Donald A. Wollheim similarly makes a brief appearance in this book as an antagonist of Gernsback’s industry-centric fan club, the Science Fiction League, and a supporter of other, grassroots organizations such the Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction. Wollheim’s later role as editor for Avon and Ace Books, and founder of his own SF imprint, DAW in 1971 — events that also shaped the genre as we know it today — are mentioned, but seem not to factor into the insistent coupling of the term “science fiction” with the legacy of Gernsback specifically.

All of this is to say that as a book about the SF genre, Astounding Wonder has some serious omissions and gaps, including, unfortunately, the claim that the materials Cheng relies on — pulp magazines, their letters columns, and fan publications — are not easily accessible since only recently archived. While some archives have very recently been established at, for example, The University of Iowa, The University of Maryland, and Columbia University, SF research collections have existed for quite some time: for example, the J. Lloyd Eaton Collection held by the University of California, Riverside (founded in 1969), the British Science Fiction Foundation Collection at Liverpool University, and the Merril Collection, held by the Toronto Public Library in Canada. It is particularly unfortunate that the author was not aware of the Eaton Collection, because it has extensive holdings in fanzines of the interwar period, and fan writings are central to his arguments. All of this is to say that Astounding Wonder is a book that presents an image of the genre many seasoned scholars in the field will find rather baffling and frustrating.

Yet this is an important book and one that should not be ignored, despite these limitations. While Cheng fails to engage with the resources and scholarly traditions of the field, SF studies at times is itself too insular, dealing with the history of SF alone, rather than understanding the genre’s popular emergence in tandem with other mass genres. Although his somewhat skewed perspective means Cheng misses or mischaracterizes some things, it also allows him to illuminate neglected areas of inquiry and thus suggests important sites of new research. For example, the book is exemplary in its detailed work on the political economy of pulp publishing and its use of theories of mass culture to understand how SF was both like and distinct from the other pulp genres establishing themselves during the period. Cheng also makes important connections between science and SF through perspectives drawn from the cultural study of science. As the book makes clear, fiction marketed under the label SF emerged in a context in which “many ordinary people wanted to understand” the way science was changing their social world, “wanted to imagine science, its possibility, and its realization.” Cheng points to Gernsback’s well-known promotion of SF as a handmaiden of science and industry, and astutely connects Gernsback’s interest in the democratic possibilities of two-way radio (by contrast with industry-dominated broadcast) to his interest in what Cheng calls “participatory science,” which shaped SF’s emergence in the pulps.

Although letters pages were common in pulp magazines at the time, “Science fiction pulps, in particular, devoted significant space to their correspondence columns,” and Cheng’s work illuminates some of the reasons why this difference might explain the genre’s distinct evolution. In a section called “Practice,” Cheng provides a meticulous history of the establishment of — and schisms among — SF fan clubs in the interwar period, an aspect of the genre’s history that has not been widely discussed. The close relationships among writers, critics, and fans that characterize SF studies originate in the letters and fanzines that Cheng analyzes, exchanges that also led to face-to-face encounters and eventually the first World Science Fiction Convention in New York in 1939. Such fan organizations continue to be central to the genre to this day, and WorldCon has grown from this initial gathering of perhaps one hundred people to a major annual event that bestows the fan-driven Hugo Awards, named for Gernsback, one of the major literary honors in the field. Reflecting the participatory ethos that Cheng so carefully documents during SF’s interwar period, Hugo Award categories honor both professional and fan achievements.

Astounding Wonder also demonstrates links between early SF readership and rocketry clubs, including the American Interplanetary Society (AIS). This club was also characterized by active community participation and by a desire to eschew contemporary patterns in scientific research that favored large-scale, corporate, and collaborative research, minimizing the role of the isolated, autodidact inventor who was, as Cheng demonstrates, often valorized in pulp SF stories long after institutionalized science ceased to operated in this way. This chapter, like the section on industry practices, is painstakingly researched, and here the value of the archives Cheng did consult — particularly the papers of G. Edward Pendray, co-founder of the A.I.S. — is apparent. The importance of science to SF is often alluded to in discussions of the genre, but few have done archival work in nonfiction collections, and Cheng’s careful documentation of the discussions of SF among science enthusiasts provides a valuable new window through which to view the genre’s history. The material drawn from Pendray, who was also an SF fan and who, when employed by Westinghouse, was central to the creation of the famous Time Capsule at the 1939 World’s Far, is particularly compelling. These links among SF pulps, the material objects of commercial technoculture, and an emergent space program demonstrate that there is much more work to be done connecting the SF imagination to other contemporary cultural changes.

Astounding Wonder is at its strongest when doing this kind of context-building, and it is worth reading for its excellent sections on “Circulation” (the political economy of the pulps) and “Practice” (the fan and rocketry clubs). Its middle section, “Reading,” traces four main motifs of interwar SF: the authority of science, the role of women, the characterization of aliens, and time travel. This section is uneven: the chapter on science is the strongest, consistent with Cheng’s valuable work on the rocketry clubs, and it effectively makes the case that early SF readers were concerned about the accurate representation of science and engaged in debates about scientific possibilities in their exchanges. Cheng does tend to overstate the case, however, taking this one strand of fan comment and involvement to represent all of interwar SF; fans were simultaneously debating whether there should be a distinction between SF and fantasy, with many concluding “no.” Similarly, although many pulp SF stories included detailed (and sometimes accurate) scientific explanations, the two most popular narratives published by Gernsback — and certainly the ones that have had the greatest influence since — E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark of Space and Philip Nowlan’s “Armageddon 2419 AD,” which introduced Buck Rogers — were not meaningfully engaged with contemporary science.

The other chapters in this section are similarly flawed, over-generalizing a motif in interwar SF as the essence of interwar SF. The chapter on gender attempts to explain pulp SF’s notoriously rare and meager roles for women by pointing to the ways in which femininity may be seen a respite from public science, an unconvincing claim that ignores the distinct visions of female pulp writers such as Clare Winger Harris, Leslie Stone, and Lillith Lorraine. More persuasive is the argument that Asians most commonly figure as the racial other — and template for the alien — in pulp SF given their cultural status as US immigrants resistant to assimilation and the legacy of legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Only recently has SF scholarship substantially investigated racist and colonialist discourse in the genre, and Cheng’s arguments are a valuable contribution to this conversation. The chapter on time travel is the weakest, mainly seeming to demonstrate that interwar SF did not acknowledge the contemporary scientific shifts in relativity theory — and hence inadvertently undermining Cheng’s claim that “interwar science fiction was a science fiction more than it was speculative fiction,” a thesis that shapes the rest of the book.

For all these flaws, however, Astounding Wonder is an absorbing book. It tells fascinating tales of an often-neglected period of SF’s history and brings contemporary actors to life through frequent quotation from archival sources. If it elucidates only one aspect of SF’s heterogeneous and conflicted history, it illuminates that facet well. And like all good research, it both satisfies by producing new and valuable knowledge, and stimulates by pointing toward places where more work remains to be done.

LARB Contributor

Sherryl Vint teaches at the University of California, Riverside. She co-edits the journals Science Fiction Studies, Science Fiction Film and Television and Humanimalia. She is the author of Bodies of Tomorrow and Animal Alterity, co-author of The Routledge Concise History of Science Fiction, and co-editor of the books The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Beyond Cyberpunk.


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • Boiling Point

    The literary world tends to think of genre fiction in very short-hand terms, defined by rigid conventions, styles, plots, and readerships.

    Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

    LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!