Amazing Stories

In today’s diverse world the saying “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” refers to the importance of representation.  While the wording may be modern, the sentiment is perennial.  Trailblazers, however flawed or rudimentary they might be, provide pathways for the giants to follow.  As it is with other aspects of life, this is true of literature as well.  Scholars disagree on whether the first science fiction novel is Kepler’s Somnium (1634), or Andreae’s The Chemical Wedding (1616), or something else entirely.  Scholars even disagree on who wrote the first American science fiction novel, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or George Tucker, all writing in the early nineteenth century.

However, without question, the first English-language science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, started in April, 1926.  The first issue surely caused a stir.  The cover features a bright yellow background, with two sailing ships caught on a mountaintop, a colorful ringed Saturn-like planet in the sky and several people ice skating on a frozen lake.   By contrast, other newsstand publications that month had pale white or beige cover backgrounds.  Good Housekeeping showcased two rosy cheeked cherubs sheltering under an umbrella; Pictorial Record had a similar background and scene, with one cherub in a big feathered hat and two puppies.   Cosmopolitan featured a white background with the shoulders, neck, and head of a relaxed woman.  Even other pulp fiction titles, like Action Stories, had pale covers and tended to feature Western scenes or standard “women in jeopardy” images.  Covers depicting other planets?  Sailing ships anchored or moored on mountaintops?  Lurid colors?  This was something new.

Hugo Gernsback, who had previously published scientific publications, and included some science fiction in them, started Amazing Stories.  Prior to that science fiction stories may have appeared in other publications but not in any regular or systematic way.  No real outlet existed for those who enjoyed that literary genre, no shared publication, no spot on the public literary square. The lack of a shared vocabulary prevented readers from even having a name for their interest.  Gernsback coined the term science fiction after first trying out scientifiction.  Initially the content primarily focused on reprints of previously published stories; the first new story appeared in the second issue, in May, 1929.  Gernsback lost the publication in bankruptcy proceedings in 1929 and the magazine changed hands several times, but, with some gaps, is still published today.  Gernsback’s role allowed him to be the first of the big science fiction gatekeepers, deciding what was and was not “science fiction” by what they chose to publish.  These gatekeepers played a dominant role in the development of the genre.  His commentaries in each issue provided early examples of literary criticism for science fiction.  Thus, while he did not control the publication for long, his influence remains.  In fact, he went on to start other science fiction magazines, with varying degrees of success.  He created the structure for the readership, scholarly study, and even fan appreciation (by setting up the Science Fiction League) of science fiction as an accepted form of literature (Westfahl, 1999).   Gernsback’s assistant, T. Sloane O’Connor, served as editor for the next ten years, 1929-1938, continuing Gernsback’s policies and general outlook, though in a somewhat toned-down fashion.

Gernsback’s mixed record in the publishing field mirrored his accomplishments in other areas.  For example, while he was not overly enthusiastic about women writing science fiction he welcomed women as readers and was known to say that women made up half of his readership (Matze).  The publication continued under O’Connor and other editors and publishers down through the years, all with mixed records of their own.  Even fans would acknowledge that the quality of the stories published varied, not only under the leadership of various editors, but sometimes from issue to issue.

Yet, just the existence of such a publication, inspired readers.  Isaac Asimov, who for some years published an eponymous science fiction magazine, recounted in a 1985 collection of Amazing Stories stories, seeing an issue of that magazine in 1929, as a nine-year old.  He was so fascinated and inspired by it that he started writing himself a few years later.  In 1938 he sold his first story, to Amazing Stories.  As a side note, it was not Asimov’s first choice, as that publication did not pay as well as others, but it was the publication that was willing to take a chance on him.  Robert Silverberg, in a 1986 collection of stories from the magazine, remembered the first issue he read, as a high school freshman, in 1948.  Eight years later, in 1956, a story he wrote was published in the magazine.

Other science fiction magazines came along, such as Astounding Stories in 1930, which is still being published as Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and later titles such as Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  The continued publication of these titles demonstrates that a market exists, and has for some time.  But in 1926 starting such a publication involved significant risk.  Literary fiction and sentimental fiction appeared in mainstream publications.  Adults did not readily admit to reading genre fiction, such as detective stories and science fiction.  Asimov’s father carried Amazing Stories in the magazine rack of his candy store but forbade young Isaac from reading it.  Isaac cleverly portrayed it as a science publication to get a reprieve.

Science fiction is now a part of mainstream culture, both popular and upper class.  The orchestra in Philadelphia performs the music from the Star Wars and other science fiction film franchises.  In 1926, though, the genre was less than respectable.  Not many people would find it in the course of their daily reading.  By publishing the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Hugo Gernsback created a place where people who liked science fiction could find the stories they wanted to read.  It created a common space and allowed readers, both old and young, to congregate.  By publishing and quoting from readers’ letters Gernsback showed that a fan community existed.  Without this publication there may not have been the others that followed.  Young Robert Silverberg and Isaac Asimov might never have read, and later written, science fiction.

Representation matters, and with that first issue, Amazing Stories represented science fiction in a way that allowed people to pick it up on a newsstand or subscribe so that it regularly arrived in the home.  Before that people might stumble across it in other publications, which ran such stories on an irregular basis if at all.  By creating a literary home for likeminded readers the magazine provided the first step in creating a steady readership and the fandom culture which exists today.

Bibliography

Asimov, Isaac, and Greenberg, Martin Harry (eds). Amazing Stories : 60 Years of the Best Science Fiction Lake Geneva, WI: TSR, 1985.

Greenberg, Martin Harry. Amazing Stories : Visions of Other Worlds Lake Geneva, Wis: TSR, 1986.

Gunn, James. “The Gatekeepers.” Science Fiction Studies 10 (1 [29]) (1983): 15–23.

Matze, Brian S.  ‘The Weaker (?) Sex’: Women and the Space Opera in Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories.” Foundation. 46, no. 126 (January 1, 2017): 6–20.

Westfahl, Gary. 1992. “‘The Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe Type of Story’: Hugo Gernsback’s History of Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies 19 (3 [58]) (1992): 340–53.

Westfahl, Gary. 1999. “The Popular Tradition of Science Fiction Criticism, 1926-1980.” Science Fiction Studies 26 (2 [78]) (1999): 187–212.

About juliemstill

Julie Still has a B.A. in History and an M.A. in Library Science from the University of Missouri, and an M.A. in History from the University of Richmond.  She is currently enrolled in Penn State Harrisburg's doctoral program in American Studies. Librarian by trade, writer by choice, once (and future?) Girl Scout leader and community participant, she reads history (all kinds), science fiction / fantasy (ranges from Scalzi to McKillip), mysteries (varied), and more.
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