Amazing Stories | contents and reception

Contents and reception

Gernsback era

Gernsback's editorial in the first issue asserted that "Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are also always instructive".[61] 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.[62] 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".[63]

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 Wertenbaker 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.[64]

In the June 1926 issue Gernsback announced a competition to write a short story to suit a cover drawn by illustrator Frank R. Paul, with a first prize of $250. The competition drew over 360 entries, seven of which were eventually printed in Amazing. The winner was Cyril G. Wates, who sold three more stories to Gernsback in the late 1920s. Two other entrants went on to become successful writers: one was Clare Winger Harris, whose story, " The Fate of the Poseidonia", took third place in the competition, and was published in the June 1927 issue as by "Mrs. F.C. Harris". The other notable entrant was A. Hyatt Verrill, with The Voice from the Inner World, which appeared in July 1927.[13][52]

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,[13][52] 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".[65][notes 2]

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.[67]

September 1928 issue. This sober design sold poorly and Gernsback returned to lurid action covers.

Frederik Pohl later said that Gernsback's magazine published "the kind of stories Gernsback himself used to write: a sort of animated catalogue of gadgets".[68] 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.[67] 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".[69] Gernsback experimented with a more sober cover for the September 1928 issue, but it sold poorly, and so the lurid covers continued.[67] The combination of poor quality fiction with garish artwork has led some critics to comment that Gernsback created a "ghetto" for science fiction,[70] though it has also been argued that the creation of a specialized market allowed science fiction to develop and mature as a genre.[71]

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, written between 1915 and 1920, was a seminal space opera that found no ready market when Argosy stopped printing science fiction.[72] 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.[73] It was such a success that Sloane requested a sequel before the second installment had been published.[74] 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.[75]

Sloane, Palmer, Browne and Fairman

Sloane took over full control of the content of Amazing when Gernsback left in 1929.[76] He was infamous for his slow response to manuscripts, and when Astounding Stories was launched in January 1930, with better rates and faster editorial response, some of Sloane's writers quickly defected.[77] Little of quality appeared in Amazing during Sloane's tenure,[78] though "The Lost Machine", an early story by John Wyndham, appeared in April 1932, under Wyndham's real name of John Beynon Harris. John W. Campbell and Howard Fast sold their first stories to Sloane; Campbell's "When the Atoms Failed" appeared in the January 1930 issue, and Fast's "Wrath of the Purple" was printed in the October 1932 issue.[79][80]

Raymond Palmer, who took over in 1938 after production of the magazine was moved to Chicago, was less interested in the educational possibilities of science fiction than Sloane had been. He wanted the magazine to provide escapist entertainment, and had no interest in scientific accuracy. His terse instruction—"Gimme Bang-Bang"—to one pulp writer sums up his approach. Palmer disposed of almost all of Sloane's accumulated inventory, instead acquiring stories from local Chicago writers he knew through his connections with science fiction fandom.[81][82][83] He also added features such as a "Correspondence Corner" and a "Collectors' Corner" to appeal to fans, and introduced a "Meet the Authors" feature, though on at least one occasion the featured author was a pseudonym, and the biographical details were invented. An illustrated back cover was tried, and soon became standard.[81][84] In 1939 Palmer acquired Isaac Asimov's first sale, "Marooned off Vesta".[85]

In the 1940s, several writers established themselves as a stable of reliable contributors to Amazing. These included David Wright O'Brien and William P. McGivern, both of whom wrote an immense amount for Ziff-Davis, much of it under house names such as Alexander Blade. John Russell Fearn became a prolific contributor, using the pseudonyms "Thornton Ayre" and "Polton Cross".[86] Palmer also encouraged long-time science fiction writers to return, publishing pulp authors such as Ed Earl Repp and Eando Binder. This policy did not always meet with approval from Amazing's readers, who, despite a clear preference for action and adventure stories, could not stomach the work of some of the early pulp writers such as Harry Bates.[87]

June 1947 issue of Amazing Stories, featuring the Shaver Mystery

The first Shaver Mystery story, "I Remember Lemuria", by Richard S. Shaver, appeared in the March 1945 issue. Shaver claimed that all the world's accidents and disasters were caused by an ancient race of deros (short for "detrimental robots") who lived in underground cities. This explanation for the world's ills, coming towards the end of World War II, struck a chord with Amazing's readership. Palmer received over 2,500 letters, instead of the usual 40 or 50, and proceeded to print a Shaver story in every issue. The June 1947 issue was given over entirely to the Shaver Mystery.[88] From March 1948 the Shaver Mystery was dropped as a regular feature of the magazine, at Ziff's insistence. Palmer left the following year, and Browne, his successor, "was determined to make sure that the lunatics were no longer in charge of the asylum", in the words of science fiction historian Mike Ashley.[89]

Browne had acquired some good-quality material in the process of planning the launch of a new slick version of Amazing, and when the plan was abandoned this material appeared in the continuing pulp version. This included "Operation RSVP" by H. Beam Piper, and "Satisfaction Guaranteed" by Isaac Asimov. Despite the cancellation of the planned change to a slick format, news had reached the writing community of Amazing's new approach, and Browne began to receive much better material than Palmer had been able to publish. The existing stable of Amazing writers, such as Rog Phillips and Chester S. Geier, were replaced by writers such as Fritz Leiber, Fredric Brown, and Clifford D. Simak. Browne also discovered several writers who went on to success in the field, publishing first stories by Walter M. Miller, Mack Reynolds, John Jakes, Milton Lesser and Charles Beaumont, all within the space of nine months in late 1950 and early 1951.[90] Browne was disappointed by the cancellation of the planned slick version, however, and to some extent reverted to Palmer's policy of publishing sensational fiction. In 1952, for example, he serialized the anonymous Master of the Universe, which purported to be a history of the future from 1975 to 2575.[7]

With the change to digest size in 1953, Browne once again attempted to use higher-quality fiction. The first digest issue, dated April–May 1953, included stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, and Murray Leinster. Further well-regarded stories appeared over the course of 1953, including Arthur C. Clarke's "Encounter in the Dawn", and Henry Kuttner's "Or Else".[62] Subsequent budget cuts meant that Browne was unable to sustain this level.[64] As in the 1940s, Amazing gained a stable of writers who appeared frequently, though this time the quality of the writers was rather higher—it included Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, and Randall Garrett—and the regular writers were not appearing only in Ziff-Davis magazines. This remained the situation after Browne's departure in 1956 and through Paul Fairman's tenure.[38]

Cele Goldsmith

Cele Goldsmith's tenure as editor began with the opportunity to showcase two very well-established writers: E.E. Smith and Isaac Asimov. Smith's The Galaxy Primes began serialization in March 1959. Asimov's first published story, "Marooned off Vesta", had appeared in the March 1939 issue of Amazing, and Goldsmith reprinted it in March 1959 along with a sequel and Asimov's comments on the story. She soon began to publish some of the better new writers. Cordwainer Smith's "Golden the Ship Was—Oh! Oh! Oh!" appeared in April; and by the middle of the following year she had managed to attract stories from Robert Sheckley, Alan E. Nourse, Fritz Leiber, Gordon R. Dickson, Robert Bloch, and James Blish. The changes she made were enough to bring Robert Heinlein back as a subscriber; Heinlein read a copy of the June 1961 issue, which, he said, "... caused me to think I had been missing something."[91]

March 1961 issue, featuring James Blish's "A Dusk of Idols"

In September 1960 Amazing began to carry Sam Moskowitz's series of author profiles, which had begun in Fantastic, the sister magazine. The following month the cover and logo were redesigned. In April 1961, the 35th anniversary of the first issue, Goldsmith ran several reprints, including stories by Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs.[38] Goldsmith had little previous experience with science fiction, and bought what she liked, rather than trying to conform to a notion of what science fiction should be. The result was the debut of more significant writers in her magazines than anywhere else at that time. She published the first stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony and Thomas M. Disch, among many others. Award-winning stories published during Goldsmith's editorship include Zelazny's "He Who Shapes", a story about the use of dream therapy to cure phobias. It was serialized in the January and February 1965 issues, and won a Nebula Award, an annual award voted on by science fiction writers. Goldsmith often wrote long, helpful letters to her authors: Zelazny commented in a letter to her that "Most of anything I have learned was stimulated by those first sales, and then I learned, and possibly even learned more, from some of the later rejections". Disch and Le Guin have also acknowledged the influence Goldsmith had on their early careers.[92]

The cover art for Amazing had been largely supplied by Ed Valigursky during the late fifties, but during the early sixties a much wider variety of artists appeared, including Alex Schomburg, Leo Summers and Ed Emshwiller. Frank Paul, who had painted all the covers for the first few years of Amazing, contributed a wraparound cover for the April 1961 35th anniversary issue; this was his last cover art for a science fiction magazine.[38]

Goldsmith's open-minded approach meant that Amazing and Fantastic published some writers who did not fit into the other magazines. Philip K. Dick's sales to magazines had dropped, but his work began to appear in Amazing, and Goldsmith also regularly published David R. Bunch's stories of Moderan, a world whose inhabitants were part human and part metal. Bunch, whose stories were "bewildering, exotic word pictures" according to Mike Ashley, had been unable to sell regularly elsewhere.[38]

Reprint era and Ted White

Annual circulation from 1960 to 1993

When Sol Cohen bought both Amazing and Fantastic in early 1965, he decided to maximize profits by filling the magazines almost entirely with reprints. Cohen had acquired second serial rights from Ziff-Davis to all stories that had been printed in both magazines, and also in the companion magazines such as Fantastic Adventures. Joseph Wrzos, the new editor, persuaded Cohen that at least one new story should appear in each issue; there was sufficient inventory left over from Goldsmith's tenure for this to be done without acquiring new material. Readers initially approved of the policy, since it made available some well-loved stories from earlier decades that had not been reprinted elsewhere.[93] Both of Wrzos's successors, Harry Harrison and Barry Malzberg, were unable to persuade Cohen to use more new fiction.[94]

When Ted White took over, it was on condition that the reprints be phased out. This took some time: for a while both Amazing and Fantastic continued to include one reprint every issue; with the May 1972 issue the transformation was complete, and all stories were new. As well as eliminating the reprints, White reintroduced features such as a letter column and "The Clubhouse," a fanzine review and fannish news column. He continued the book review column, and a series of science articles by Gregory Benford and David Book. White also redesigned the look of the magazine, making it, in sf historian Mike Ashley's words, "far more modern and sophisticated".[95]

White was willing to print a variety of fiction, mixing traditional stories with more experimental material that was influenced by the British New Wave or by 1960s psychedelia. In 1971 he serialized Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, about a man whose dreams can modify reality. One writer influenced by this was James Tiptree, Jr., who later wrote that "after first plowing into the first pulpy pages of the 1971 Amazing in which Lathe came out, my toe-nails began to curl under and my spine hair stood up."[96] White's willingness to experiment led to Amazing running more stories with sexual content than other magazines. One such story, White's own "Growing Up Fast in the City", was criticized as pornographic by some of Amazing's readers. Other stories, such as Rich Brown's "Two of a Kind", about the violent rape of a black woman and the subsequent death of her rapists, also led to controversy. White printed more conventional fiction as well, much of it high quality. The magazine was nominated for the Hugo award (a readers' award, named for Hugo Gernsback) for best editor three times during his tenure (1970, 1971 and 1972), finishing third each time.[97]

White's ability to attract new writers suffered because of the low rates he paid: one cent per word, as compared to three or five cents per word at the leading competitive magazines. To compensate, White cultivated new writers whose experimental work was not selling elsewhere. He made a deal in 1971 with Gordon Eklund, who was hesitating to become a full-time writer because of the financial risks. White agreed to buy anything Eklund wrote, on condition that Eklund himself believed it was a good story. The result was that much of Eklund's fiction appeared in Amazing and Fantastic over the next few years.[98]

Amazing's reputation had been for formulaic science fiction almost since it began, but White was able to take the magazine to a higher standard than any other editor except Cele Goldsmith,[99] and gave Amazing a respected position in the field.[100] His successors were not able to maintain the same level of quality.[99]

After Ted White

When Elinor Mavor took over, in early 1979, she had no experience with science fiction magazines, and was unaware of the history of bad feeling within the science fiction community about the poor payments for reprinted stories. She was given an extremely limited budget to work with, and had few stories on hand to work with initially, and as a result her first issues contained several reprints. Mavor experimented in her first year with some new ideas, such as starting a story on the back cover in order to hook readers into buying the magazine to finish the story. She also began a serial story in graphic format that used reader input to continue its plot. It was not a success and "thankfully", according to Mike Ashley, the experiment was terminated after only three episodes.[50]

Over time Mavor was to some extent able to reverse the negative perceptions of Amazing among established authors, but she was initially forced to work primarily with newer writers. Early discoveries of hers include Michael P. Kube-McDowell, John E. Stith and Richard Paul Russo. In a notice published in her first issue, she asked readers for help in assembling news, reviews and fan information, and soon added columns that covered these areas. In 1981 Robert Silverberg began a series of opinion columns. The artwork was of high quality, including work by Stephen Fabian, and later by David Mattingly.[50]

After the merger with Fantastic, Mavor continued to draw well-known writers to the magazine, including Orson Scott Card, George R. R. Martin, and Roger Zelazny. Brad Linaweaver's Moon of Ice, which appeared in March 1982, was nominated for a Nebula award; Martin's Unsound Variations, which had appeared the issue before, was nominated for both a Nebula and a Hugo award.[50]

Historian James Gunn's assessment of Amazing in the 1980s is that Mavor, Scithers and Price, who between them edited Amazing for a decade, were unable to sustain the standards established by Ted White in the 1970s.[99] Brian Stableford, by contrast, comments that both Scithers and Price made efforts to publish good material, and that the packaging, from 1991 onwards, was perhaps the best presented of any science fiction magazine.[18]

With the Wizards of the Coast relaunch in 1998 the contents, under editor Kim Mohan, became more media-focused. The initial plan was to have two or three stories per issue based on films, TV, and games.[54][101] The 600th issue, in early 2000, included a Harlan Ellison story, as well as a story from the 100th issue, the 200th issue, and so on, up to the 500th issue. Pamela Sargent also contributed a story.[102] The Paizo publishing relaunch, in 2004, was even more focused on media content than the Wizards of the Coast version had been, with much more movie and comics-related material than science fiction. Several well-known authors appeared in the first issue, including Harlan Ellison, Bruce Sterling, and Gene Wolfe. Paizo also ran a blog for the magazine.[103][104] The fiction received positive reviews,[105] but Paizo soon put the magazine on temporary hold, and canceled it permanently the following year.[56] The title remained in limbo until Steve Davidson's online version appeared in 2012.[59]

Influence on the field

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".[106] 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.[106] 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,[107] though Gernsback himself is commemorated in the name Hugo, which is the almost universally used term for the World Science Fiction Society's annually presented Science Fiction Achievement Awards.[108][109] Gernsback has also been called the "Father of Science Fiction" for his role in creating Amazing Stories.[110]

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