The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

In the second of historian Jess Nevins' series on science fiction pulps, he takes us through the Golden Age of science fiction, from the late 1930s through the "last efflorescence of the pulps" in the mid-1950s.

The 1937-1941 period was the high point of the science fiction pulps. There were nine science fiction pulps published in 1937, and 26 in 1941, the apex for the genre. 1941 was the high point for the pulps as a whole, with more pulps being published in that year than at any time before or since, and it was the high point for the content of the science fiction pulps.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

This was largely due to John W. Campbell taking over as the editor of Astounding in 1937, beginning what is often called "the Golden Age of Science Fiction." Campbell was editor of Astounding until 1960, and of Analog, Astounding's successor, from 1960 to 1971. His personality and eccentric beliefs alienated writers and made Astounding a third-rate magazine after the mid-fifties, but for the first ten years of his editorship he was the most influential figure in the history of science fiction. He insisted on clear prose and reasonable characterization, he disallowed what he called "mysticism," and he demanded that his writers take a far more rigorous approach to both a story's technology and how its characters behaved. The result was a set of stories which have aged less and remain more readable than the stories of any other science fiction pulp of this era. Among Campbell's discoveries were Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, and A.E. Van Vogt.

The boom in science fiction was somewhat delayed. There were no new science fiction pulps in 1937, and in 1938 only two appeared: Captain Hazzard (1 issue, 1938), a mediocre hero pulp about a telepathy-wielding copy of Doc Savage, and Marvel Science Stories (15 issues, four title changes, 1938-1941, 1950-1952), whose usually trite material was occasionally leavened by stories of sex and cruelty unusually erotic for the science fiction pulps. This down period in science fiction pulps is peculiar; during these years the other major genres (with the exception of the spicy pulps) either held steady or grew.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

The boom begins

In 1939 nine new science fiction pulps appeared, and the boom had begun. Only a handful of the new pulps were in any way significant. Like every other pulp genre, most of what appeared in the science fiction pulps was undistinguished in every way. Some science fiction pulps, like Comet (5 issues, 1940-1941) ran nothing of worth whatsoever. In others, like Fantastic Novels (5 issues, 1940-1941), the only notable material was the reprints from earlier pulps. Only six of the pulps which appeared in 1939, 1940, and 1941 are worth singling out.

Astonishing Stories (16 issues, 1940-1943), the companion pulp to Super Science Stories (see below), had an unusually high number of stories by writers who would later become famous in other venues. Astonishing ran works–some lesser-known, and some merely lesser–by Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, Alfred Bester, Manly Wade Wellman, and E.E. Doc Smith, among others.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

Captain Future (17 issues, 1940-1944), while bearing the same subpar writing as most other hero pulps, is notable as the most aggressively science fictional of the science fiction hero pulps. The pulp is set in the future, the titular hero's assistants are a sentient robot and a brain-in-a-jar, and the plots are pure space opera.

Fantastic Adventures (129 issues, 1939-1953) came into its own much later in life, after 1950, when Howard Browne became editor. In the early years, much of its content was trash, but it did also publish stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Nelson Bond, Robert Bloch, and Manly Wade Wellman.


The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

The Octopus (1 issue, 1939) and The Scorpion (1 issue, 1939) The Scorpion was the sequel to The Octopus in all but name–are wonderfully excessive in their Mad Scientist Tries To Conquer The World stories, with the added bonus of a "hideously malformed," tentacled protagonist.

Planet Stories (71 issues, 1939-1955) is in many ways the quintessential science fiction pulp. The issues were hodgepodges of planetary romances, space operas, and offbeat stories that might not have found a place anywhere else. Stories with titles like "Asteroid of the Damned" and "Queen of the Blue World" appeared alongside Carl Jacobi's "Grannie Annie" stories (about a septuagenarian writer of science fiction novels in the future) and Fredric Brown's "Mitkey" stories (about a mouse sent into space and altered by a race of mouse-like aliens). Quality was uneven, of course, but at its best Planet Stories could be both entertaining and literate.

The content of Super Science Stories (16 issues, 1940-1943) is generally unremarkable, but the pulp did serve as an early market for material by members of the New York science fiction writers group the Futurians, whose members included Asimov, James Blish, C.M. Kornbluth, Robert Lowndes, Frederik Pohl, and Donald A. Wollheim.

World War II and the Post-War Boom

As might be expected, the United States' entrance into World War II had a deleterious effect on the science fiction pulps, as it did on the pulps in general, and the 1942-1945 period is one of contraction and cancellation. Wartime publishing restrictions on the use of paper affected every pulp publisher, and while the drop in numbers of science fiction pulps was more severe than what other genres suffered, they also lost titles.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

Only three major science fiction pulps were canceled during the war years: Astonishing Stories and The Spider ended in 1943 and Captain Future ended in 1944. Fans of science fiction could still get their pulp fix at regular intervals during the war. The following science pulps regularly appeared throughout the war years: Amazing Stories (bimonthly in 1943, 1944, and 1945); Amazing Stories Quarterly (quarterly 1941-1945); Astounding Stories (monthly 1941-1945); Doc Savage (monthly 1941-1945); Fantastic Adventures (bimonthly 1943-1944, quarterly 1944-1945); Planet Stories (quarterly 1941-1945); The Shadow (biweekly 1941-1943, monthly 1943-1945); Startling Stories (bimonthly 1941-1943, quarterly 1943-1945); and Thrilling Wonder Stories (bimonthly 1941-1943, quarterly 1943-1945); and Weird Tales, which was still regularly publishing science fiction stories (bimonthly 1941-1945).

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

Only two new science fiction pulps appeared during World War II. Stirring Science Stories (4 issues, 1941-1942) was a would-be companion to Cosmic Stories, a three-issue failure from 1941. Like Cosmic Stories, Stirring is best-known for the stories from various Futurians, although it published equal numbers of science fiction and fantasy, and its best stories were Clark Ashton Smith's fantasies.

The Shadow Annual (3 issues, 1942, 1943, 1947) reprinted the "best" stories from The Shadow which had appeared the previous years. A significant proportion of these stories was fantastic, though of course badly written.

The 1946-1949 period was the time when the death of the science fiction pulp become apparent as a phenomenon of the near-future rather than the distant future.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

As a medium, the pulps rebounded quickly from the war, and most genres held steady during these years. Science fiction's recovery was slower than most of the genres. No new science fiction pulps appeared in 1945 or 1946. In 1947, Fantasy Book (8 issues, 1947-1950) appeared, but it was an amateurish production of bad quality during this time period. In 1948, Fantastic Novels (20 issues, 3 issues) appeared. It was a new edition of the 1940 pulps but only contained reprints. And in 1949 Captain Zero and Super Science Stories appeared. Captain Zero (3 issues, 1949) was the last of the hero pulps, featuring a protagonist who turned invisible at night, but its stories were primarily detective with an overlay of the fantastic, rather than primarily fantastic as Doc Savage' s and The Spider's had been. Super Science Stories (15 issues, 1949-1951) was a new version of the Super Science Stories published from 1940-1943 and featured entertaining and occasionally excellent material.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

The situation in the mainstay science fiction pulps was somewhat better. Amazing Stories was in the hands of editor Raymond Palmer, who had begun stressing adventure over science from when he took over, in 1938 but who in 1945 began regularly publishing gibberish by Richard Shaver, which increased the pulp's circulation at the cost of making the venerable pulp a laughingstock among professional science fiction writers. Astounding was the undisputed leader among science fiction pulps and was at its height under John W. Campbell. Fantastic Adventures remained of decent quality, and Planet Stories continued to regularly publish good work.

The biggest change among the pulps was in Startling Stories, which changed editors in late 1945. New editor Sam Merwin, Jr. changed the magazine's slant from juvenile material to more adult fare, and by 1949 Startling was regularly challenging Astounding and was publishing stories from the top writers in the field.

Rise of the Digests

A much bigger change for the pulps took place outside the pulps entirely. The minutiae of magazine publishing during the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s are of little interest to non-specialists, and for the purposes of these columns the differences between "bedsheets" (8.5" x 11.75") and "standard" pulps (7" x 10" or 6.75" x 9.75) and "small" pulps (6.5" x 9") are unimportant. They were all pulps, despite their varying sizes. (Again, "pulp" is about magazine size and paper quality and story content and amount of advertising).

The shift from the pulps to the digest (roughly 5.25" x 7.5") is important because the digests would ultimately become the next stage in the history of science fiction magazines–the digests were the Cro Magnons to the pulps' Neanderthals.

The digest was hardly new in the 1946-1949 period. It had been introduced to the mass market with Readers' Digest, which began in 1922, and the first science fiction pulp to switch to digest size was Astounding, in 1943. But in 1949 The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction debuted, in digest format, and it was aimed from the beginning at the adult market which had until then been the province of Astounding and more recently Startling. F&SF was a near-immediate success and substantially ate into Astounding's market share.

Decline of the Science Fiction Pulps

1950-1953 was the last efflorescence of the pulps. The number of pulps published hit a five-year-high in 1950–162 titles were published that year–and then began a slow decline, so that, although new pulps appeared in every genre over the next three years, especially in romance and westerns, the pulps were obviously dying. This death was a gradual rather than sudden thing, however: in 1955 there were 48 pulps published, and as late as 1960 there were still 11 pulps being published. As with the dime novels, the transition between forms took place over the course of several years rather than abruptly.

The Golden Age of Science Fiction: A Pulp Primer, Pt. 2

During the 1950-1953 period thirteen new science fiction pulps were published: Fantastic Story Quarterly (23 issues, 1950-1954), containing mostly reprints; three incarnations of Future (Future combined with Science Fiction Stories (10 issues, 1950-1951), Future Science Fiction (17 issues, 1952-1954), and Science Fiction Stories (2 issues, 1953-1954)), always pedestrian whatever its name; Marvel Science Stories (3 issues, 1950-1951) and its sequel Marvel Science Fiction (3 issues, 1951-1952), run-of-the-mill; Out of This World Adventures (2 issues, 1950), featuring poor or bad stories by good authors; Two Complete Science-Adventure Books (11 issues, 1950-1954), a lesser companion to Planet Stories; Wonder Story Annual (4 issues, 1950-1953), all reprints; Ten Story Fantasy (1 issue, 1951), remembered only for publishing Arthur C. Clarke's "Sentinel of Eternity," the source of 2001: A Space Odyssey; Dynamic Science Fiction (6 issues, 1952-1954), mediocre; Fantastic Science Fiction (2 issues, 1952), horrible; Space Stories (5 issues, 1952-1953), thoroughly average; and Tops in Science Fiction (2 issues, 1953), reprints from Planet Stories.

This would seem, despite the poor quality of the content, to indicate a medium in good health. However, all of these new pulps were canceled by 1954. Amazing made the switch to digest form in 1953, as did Weird Tales. Fantastic Adventures was canceled in 1953. Galaxy Science Fiction, another digest, appeared in 1950 and immediately became close competition for Astounding and F&SF, which diluted Astounding's market share further and, because Galaxy emphasized adult, literate material, put further pressure on those pulps which specialized in the juvenile and low-quality.

Most importantly, in 1950 Fawcett Publications introduced Gold Medal Books, the first line of original paperback novels to the mass market. Before Gold Medal Books, paperbacks had been reprints of hardcover originals, but the Fawcett began turning out paperback originals under the Gold Medal imprint, and this more than anything else killed the pulps, as the content of the paperbacks was usually much better than what was in the pulps. SF paperbacks began as reprints of pulp stories but by the mid-1950s were usually originals, and the emphasis on publication shifted from magazines to books.

Next time I will discuss the science fiction pulps of Europe.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. You can find out more on his blog.