Sunday, February 1, 2009

Amazing Stories

Amazing Stories was an American science fiction magazine launched in April 1926 by Hugo Gernsback's Experimenter Publishing. It was the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. Before Amazing, science fiction stories had made regular appearances in other magazines, including some published by Gernsback, but Amazing helped define and launch a new genre of pulp fiction.

Amazing Stories was influential simply by being the first of its kind. In the words of science fiction writer and critic Damon Knight, the magazine was "a snag in the stream of history, from which a V-shape spread out in dozens and then in hundreds of altered lives." Many early fans of the field began to communicate with each other through the letter column, and to publish fanzines — amateur fan publications that helped establish connections among fans across the country. Many of these fans in turn became successful writers; and the existence of an organized science fiction fandom, and of writers such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov, who came to writing directly from fandom, can be dated to the creation of Amazing Stories.

After the first few years, when there was little or no competition, Amazing Stories never again led the field in the eyes of critics or fans. Despite its long history, the magazine rarely contributed much to science fiction beyond the initial creation of the genre, though Gernsback himself is commemorated in the name "Hugo", the World Science Fiction Society's annually presented Science Fiction Achievement Awards. Gernsback has also been called the "Father of Science Fiction" for his role in creating Amazing Stories.

I'm only interested in AS through the end of 1933. Which is when the Radium Age ends.

# 1926: Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1927: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1928: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1929: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1930: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1931: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1932: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug; Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec
# 1933: Jan; Feb; Mar; Apr; May; Jun; Jul; Aug/Sep; Oct; Nov; Dec


By the end of the 19th century, stories centered on scientific inventions, and stories set in the future, were appearing regularly in popular fiction magazines. The market for short stories lent itself to tales of invention in the tradition of Jules Verne. Magazines such as Munsey's Magazine and The Argosy, launched in 1889 and 1896 respectively, carried a few science fiction stories each year. Some upmarket "slick" magazines such as McClure's, which paid well and were aimed at a more literary audience, also carried scientific stories, but by the early years of the 20th century, science fiction (though it was not yet called that) was appearing more often in the pulp magazines than in the slicks.

In 1908, Hugo Gernsback published the first issue of Modern Electrics, a magazine aimed at the scientific hobbyist. It was an immediate success, and Gernsback began to include articles on imaginative uses of science, such as "Wireless on Saturn" (December 1908). In April 1911, Gernsback began the serialization of his science fiction novel, Ralph 124C 41+, but in 1913 he sold his interest in the magazine to his partner and launched a new magazine, Electrical Experimenter, which soon began to publish scientific fiction. In 1920 Gernsback retitled the magazine Science and Invention, and through the early 1920s he published much scientific fiction in its pages, along with non-fiction scientific articles.

Gernsback had started another magazine called Practical Electrics in 1921. In 1924, he changed its name to The Experimenter, and sent a letter to 25,000 people to gauge interest in the possibility of a magazine devoted to scientific fiction; in his words, "the response was such that the idea was given up for two years." However, in 1926 he decided to go ahead, and ceased publication of The Experimenter to make room in his publishing schedule for a new magazine. The editor of The Experimenter, T. O'Conor Sloane, became the editor of Amazing Stories. The first issue appeared on 10 March 1926, with a cover date of April 1926.

Gernsback's editorial in the first issue asserted that "Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading — they are also always instructive". He had always believed that "scientifiction," as he called these stories, had educational power, but he now understood that the fiction had to entertain as well as to instruct. His continued belief in the instructional value of science fiction was not in keeping with the general attitude of the public towards pulp magazines, which was that they were "trash."

The first issue of Amazing contained only reprints, beginning with a serialization of Off on a Comet, by Jules Verne. In keeping with Gernsback's new approach, this was one of Verne's least scientifically plausible novels. Also included were H. G. Wells's "The New Accelerator," and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar"; Gernsback put the names of all three authors on the cover. He also reprinted three more recent stories. Two came from his own magazine, Science and Invention; these were "The Man from the Atom" by G. Peyton Wertenbacker and "The Thing from—'Outside'" by George Allan England. The third was Austin Hall's "The Man Who Saved the Earth", which had appeared in All-Story Weekly.

A letter column, titled "Discussions", soon appeared, and became a regular feature with the January 1927 issue. Many science fiction readers were isolated in small communities, knowing nobody else who liked the same fiction. Gernsback's habit of publishing the full address of all his correspondents meant that the letter column allowed fans to correspond with each other directly. Science fiction fandom traces its beginnings to the letter column in Amazing and its competitors, and one historian of the field, author Lester del Rey, has commented that the introduction of this letter column "may have been one of the most important events in the history of science fiction."


For the first year, Amazing contained primarily reprinted material. It was proving difficult to attract new, high-quality material, and Gernsback's slowness at paying his authors did not help. Writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, and Murray Leinster all avoided Amazing because Gernsback took so long to pay for the stories he printed. The slow payments were probably known to many of the other active pulp writers, which would have further limited the volume of submissions. New writers did appear, but the quality of their stories was often weak.

Gernsback discovered that the audience he had attracted was less interested in scientific invention stories than in fantastical adventures. A. Merritt's The Moon Pool, which began serialization in May 1927, was an early success; there was little or no scientific basis to the story, but it was very popular with Amazing's readers. The covers, all of which were painted by Paul, were garish and juvenile, leading some readers to complain. Raymond Palmer, later to become an editor of the magazine, wrote that a friend of his was forced to stop buying Amazing "by reason of his parents' dislike of the cover illustrations". Gernsback experimented with a more sober cover for the September 1928 issue, but it sold poorly, and so the lurid covers continued. The combination of poor quality fiction with garish artwork has led some critics to comment that Gernsback created a "ghetto" for science fiction, though it has also been argued that the creation of a specialized market allowed science fiction to develop and mature as a genre.

Among the regular writers for Amazing by the end of the 1920s were several who were influential and popular at the time, such as David H. Keller and Stanton Coblentz, and some who would continue to be successful for much longer, most notably Edward E. Smith and Jack Williamson. Smith's The Skylark of Space, which had been written between 1915 and 1920, was a seminal space opera which found no ready market when Argosy stopped printing science fiction. When Smith saw a copy of the April 1927 issue of Amazing, he submitted it to Sloane, and it appeared in the August–October 1928 issues. It was such a success that Sloane requested a sequel before the second installment had been published. It was also in the August 1928 issue that "Armageddon – 2419 AD", by Philip Francis Nowlan, appeared; this was the first appearance of Buck Rogers in print.


Amazing was an immediate success and soon reached a very respectable circulation of 100,000. Gernsback saw there was an enthusiastic readership for "scientifiction" (the term "science fiction" had not yet been coined), and in 1927 he issued Amazing Stories Annual. The annual sold out, and in January 1928, Gernsback launched a quarterly magazine, Amazing Stories Quarterly, as a regular companion to Amazing.

Gernsback was slow to pay his authors and creditors; the extent of his investments limited his liquidity. On 20 February 1929 his printer and paper supplier opened bankruptcy proceedings against him. It has been suggested that Bernarr Macfadden, another magazine publisher, maneuvered to force the bankruptcy because Gernsback would not sell his titles to Macfadden, but this is unproven. Experimenter Publishing was declared bankrupt in days; Amazing survived with its existing staff, but Hugo and his brother, Sidney, were forced out as directors. Arthur H. Lynch took over as editor-in-chief, though Sloane continued to have effective control of the magazine's contents. The receivers, Irving Trust, soon sold the magazine to B.A. Mackinnon, and in August 1931, Amazing was acquired by Teck Publications, a subsidiary of Bernarr Macfadden's Macfadden Publishing. Macfadden's deep pockets helped insulate Amazing from the financial strain caused by the Great Depression. The schedule of Amazing Stories Quarterly began to slip, but Amazing did not miss an issue in the early 1930s. However, it became unprofitable to publish over the next few years. Circulation dropped to little more than 25,000 in 1934, and in October 1935 it switched to a bimonthly schedule.


Writers whose first story was published in the magazine include Howard Fast, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Thomas M. Disch. Overall, though, Amazing itself was rarely an influential magazine within the genre. Some critics have commented that by "ghettoizing" science fiction, Gernsback in fact did harm to its literary growth, but this viewpoint has been countered by the argument that science fiction needed an independent market in which to develop if it were to reach its potential.

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