Brave New Stories: History of Science Fiction – Part 3


Here in part three we move forward to the first half of the Twentieth century.

Spicy Weird Thrilling Tales: The Coming of the Pulps

Amazing Stories - Barsoom

From the very late Victorian era to the start of WWII speculative fiction thrived in the pulp magazines. With hyperbolic titles, lurid covers, and inexpensive price, the pulps were extremely popular. Genres included adventure, detective, mystery, fantasy, supernatural/horror, romance, war, westerns, and of course, science fiction.

Edgar Rice Burroughs dominated the pulps during the start of the century. Aside from Tarzan he wrote the science fantasy series, Barsoom (set on Mars, 1912-1941), Pellucidar (a hollow Earth and lost world series, 1914-1941), Caspak (lost world, 1918), and Venus series (1932-1946).

In 1926 Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories the first English language magazine devoted exclusively to science fiction or scientifiction as he called it. Amazing Stories mixed scientific realism tales with stories more fantastic. Other scifi magazines soon followed: Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, and Wonder Stories being notable.

It was an exuberant time, but it would be the 1930s that would be considered a golden era. The letters to the editor sections were afire with discussion by what would be called the Futurians, scifi fans, many of whom would go on to be giants in the genre. Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Frederik Pohl, James Blish, and Judith Merril. Over at Astounding Science Fiction magazine, edited by John Campbell, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and A. E. van Vogt started their careers. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding Science Fiction marked the start of a golden age of science fiction.

Published outside the pulps during the first half of the century were Brave New World, Aldous Huxley and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell. Considered some of the greatest novels of the 20th century, not just of the genre. They looked at the future, both seemingly ideal and dystopic. Commentaries on society and ideology.

Writing in the Nuclear Age

Planet Stories-May 1953

Society’s views of scifi changed after WWII. The public saw the appearance of V2 rockets, jet fighters, radar, and the epitome of science, the atom bomb. What started with Astounding Stories continued in a variety of mediums. Magazines continued, paperback novels, movies and the newly burgeoning technology television, all saw an upswing in science fiction.

Science fiction movies flourished in the 1950s. While there had been scifi films before, from the first science fiction film Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and the extravagant Metropolis (1927), the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, and a handful of others it was the 50’s that saw the greatest commercial success for scifi movies. Destination Moon, Them!, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet, The Thing from Another World, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to name a few.

In 1953 The Quatermass Experiment from Britain, was the first significant science fiction show. In the United States, science fiction programs like Captain Video, Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers aired.

On the magazine rack Astounding Stories waned but others grew in popularity. The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, If magazine, a resurrected Amazing Stories, and most notably, Galaxy.

Science fiction was mostly ignored by the book publishing industry, focusing only on reprinting Wells and Verne, or possibly some collections from the magazines. Small independent publishing houses sold novels in the back of the magazines. That changed. These independent publishers proved that there was a demand for scifi. As well, large circulation prestigious magazines, like Playboy, Collier’s, and Esquire, all published speculative fiction. Big mainstream publishers took note. Doubleday, Simon & Schuster, Scribner’s, Putnam, and others entered the science fiction market.

The golden age of the late 40’s gave birth to scifi’s legitimacy. Is success in the 50’s also saw a great upheaval and collapse of the industry. By the end of the decade the magazine market dwindled, many of the big name writers like Asimov, moved to mainstream publishers, while other writes left the magazine market completely.

Literature in general with the publication of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and the growth of the Beat Generation changed. So did science fiction. William S. Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch which most wouldn’t consider scifi but it is. A postmodernist reworking of science fiction, but science fiction no less. The genre had moved out of its infancy.

Be here next week for our final installment in the history of science fiction. Check out some of our science fiction titles: Crystal Fighters and Code Name: Ursa Minor.

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