Wonder Stories and Astounding
September 1929 issue of Science Wonder Stories
; cover by Frank R. Paul.
In early 1929 Gernsback went bankrupt, and his magazines were sold to Bergan A. Mackinnon; both Amazing Stories and Amazing Stories Quarterly continued publication under their new ownership, and Sloane remained as editor. Within two months Gernsback had launched two new magazines, Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories. Gernsback still believed in the educational value of science fiction, and contrasted his goals for Air Wonder Stories with the fiction appearing in aviation pulps such as
Sky Birds and Flying Aces, which were "purely 'Wild-West'-world war adventure-sky busting" stories, in his words. He planned to fill Air Wonder with "flying stories of the future, strictly along scientific-mechanical-technical lines, full of adventure, exploration and achievement". Both Air Wonder and Science Wonder were edited by David Lasser, who had no prior experience as an editor and who knew little about sf, but whose degree from MIT had convinced Gernsback to take him on. Lasser printed work by some popular authors, including Fletcher Pratt, Stanton Coblentz, and David H. Keller, and two of the winners of the contests Gernsback frequently ran subsequently became well known in the field: Raymond Palmer, later the editor of Amazing Stories, and John Wyndham, best known for his 1951 novel The Day of the Triffids. The readership of the two magazines overlapped strongly, most readers being science-fiction fans rather than aviation fans. With these two titles established, Gernsback added Science Wonder Quarterly in October 1929, also edited by Lasser. At the same time Gernsback sent a letter to some of the writers he had already bought stories from, asking for "detective or criminal mystery stories with a good scientific background", and in January 1930 he launched Scientific Detective Monthly, edited by his deputy, Hector Grey, as a new cross-genre title, giving him four magazines in all.
January 1930 also saw the first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science, which would go on to become the most influential magazine in the field within a decade. The publisher was William Clayton, a successful publisher of pulp titles. In 1928 Harold Hersey, who by then was working for Clayton, had suggested a new science-fiction magazine to add to the line-up; Clayton was unconvinced, but changed his mind the following year. Astounding's editor, Harry Bates, was uninterested in the educational goals that motivated Gernsback. Bates filled Astounding with adventure stories with minimal scientific content: the stories are generally considered to have been poor quality, and Ashley considers Bates to have been "destroying the ideals of science fiction" with formulaic plots. Gernsback's magazines were infamous for low rates and very slow payment, and Astounding's high rates and quick payment attracted some well-known pulp writers such as Murray Leinster and Jack Williamson. (Asimov later said that in the early industry payment was "not on publication but (the saying went) on lawsuit".) Astounding was also better value for money than its competitors, with both the lowest price and, along with Amazing, the most pages. By mid-1930, Gernsback began to consolidate his magazines, merging Air Wonder with Science Wonder Stories. The combined magazine was titled Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly was similarly retitled Wonder Stories Quarterly. At the same time Scientific Detective Monthly was retitled Amazing Detective Tales. Dropping "Science" and "Scientific" from the titles may have been intended to avoid giving readers the impression that these were actually scientific periodicals. Amazing Detective Tales, at least, was not helped by the title change, and after the October issue Gernsback sold the magazine to Wallace Bamber, who published five more issues the following year, though there was no longer any sf or fantasy content.
First issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science
, dated January 1930. Cover art by Wesso
Meanwhile, Ghost Stories, the Macfadden title launched in 1926, was suffering declining sales. Hersey, who by 1930 had gone into business as an independent publisher, acquired the title from Macfadden, and started another magazine, Miracle Science and Fantasy Stories, the following year, with
Elliott Dold as editor. Neither venture was a success. Miracle ceased publication after only two issues when Dold fell ill, though sales were poor in any case, and Hersey was unable to revive Ghost Stories' fortunes; it was cancelled at the start of 1932. 1931 also saw Amazing Stories change hands once again; this time it was acquired by Macfadden, whose deep pockets helped insulate Amazing from the effects of the Depression. Sloane continued as editor.
Weird Tales was by now well established, but in 1931 Clayton finally gave it some direct competition with Strange Tales, which was also edited by Bates. Like its competitor, Strange Tales frequently published science fiction as well as fantasy; as with Astounding it paid better rates than the competition, and as a result attracted some good writers, including Jack Williamson, whose "Wolves of Darkness", about an invasion by beings from another dimension, is one of its better-remembered stories. Strange Tales did not last long: by late 1932, Clayton was in financial difficulties, and Astounding switched to a bimonthly schedule. Already bimonthly, Strange Tales also reduced its publication frequency. The bulk of Clayton's debts were owed to his printer, which Clayton tried to acquire to prevent it buying out his publishing house, but this proved a disastrous move. He lacked funds to complete the transaction, and was forced to declare bankruptcy. The January 1933 issue of both magazines was intended to be the last, but enough stories remained in inventory to produce one more issue of Astounding, which appeared in March 1933. Street & Smith acquired Astounding and Strange Tales from the sale of Clayton's assets, and relaunched Astounding in October that year. Strange Tales did not reappear; Street & Smith decided to run the stories in Strange Tales' inventory in Astounding instead.
At Wonder Stories, David Lasser remained as editor during the early 1930s, though Wonder Stories Quarterly had to be cut for budget reasons at the start of 1933. Lasser corresponded with his authors to help improve both their level of scientific literacy, and the quality of their writing; Asimov has described Wonder Stories as a "forcing ground", where young writers learned their trade. Lasser was willing to print material that lay outside the usual pulp conventions, such as Eric Temple Bell's The Time Stream and
Festus Pragnell's The Green Man of Graypec. Sf critic John Clute gives Lasser credit for making Wonder Stories the best science-fiction magazine of his day, and critics Peter Nicholls and Brian Stableford consider it to be the best of Gernsback's forays into the genre. Despite his success, Lasser was let go in mid-1933, perhaps because he was very well-paid, since there is some evidence of a financial crisis in Gernsback's affairs at the time. Lasser was spending more time working on labor rights, and Gernsback may also have felt he was neglecting his editorial duties. Gernsback replaced Lasser with a 17-year-old sf fan, Charles Hornig, at less than a third of Lasser's salary.