Yesterday’s Tomorrows

By Martin Lock

I have been posting commentaries on old science fiction magazines from my collection, along with cover scans, to our Science Fiction Discussion Group on Facebook, and the Science Fiction message board on the Yuku.com network, for a while, and John suggested that the idea might make a column for Surprising - so here I am, ready to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when science fiction magazines roamed the newsstands of America and beyond.  Some were pulps, big, thick magazines on "pulp" paper, often with untrimmed edges, where on the covers earnest men in spacesuits used their rayguns to fire at lascivious aliens intent on making the acquaintance of nubile young ladies in fashionable swimsuits - and later, the digest-size format was more popular, and the covers became more diverse.

Every column needs a theme, and since this is my first column here, let us take beginnings as our subject.  And where better to start (this is a rhetorical question) than the mysterious, legendary magazines of fantasy, Unknown?

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“Street & Smith present herewith a new magazine, dedicated to a new type of entertainment.  UNKNOWN is both our title and our only classification; the material we plan to present is to be like none that has ever, anywhere, been presented consistently before.

“No terms, then, have been evolved to describe this magazine; as it has never before existed.  We will deal with the Unknown, but in a manner uniquely and completely different from the stories you have seen in the past.

“One rule only we apply as limitation to an author’s imagination; that the resultant story must be pure entertainment.  Whether it be the chuckle over Trouble with Water or the thrill of uncertain discomfort evoked by Sinister Barrier, somewhere the story must stimulate imagination and enjoyment.

“There will be further strange, disquieting blendings of fact and imagination such as Sinister Barrier to leave you uncertain of your certainty that it is pure fiction.  Perhaps you’re wrong, you know.  The facts Russell states are facts.  A man may well strike truth in what is meant as fiction–

“But each month we will bring either a full novel-length story, complete, or two thirty-thousand-word short novels, plus some forty thousand words of short stories and novelettes.

“And each month we shall bring you a magazine wherein the authors are bound by but one rule – pure entertainment.  Beyond that – read and determine by our offering this month, the quality and the material we cannot otherwise or better define.”

That was the statement, signed “The Editor”, that ran opposite the contents page of this first issue of Unknown, cover-dated March 1939, a magazine that became a legend in its own brief lifetime, created and edited by John W. Campbell Jr.   A similar notice on the following page gave details of what to expect in the second issue, such as “The Ultimate Adventure” by L. Ron Hubbard.  Some say that the Eric Frank Russell novel when submitted to Campbell just wouldn’t fit in Astounding Science Fiction, and thus became the catalyst for the creation of a new kind of fantasy fiction magazine – but that is probably not true.  It fills the first 86 of the 160 neatly-trimmed pages here, with illustrations by Edd Cartier, and the suitably sinister cover by H.W. Scott.  ”Fifty Thousand Words that will make you unsure of your certainties – unsure that Man rules Earth!  A full-length novel based on weird and discomforting facts.  The greatest imaginative novel in two decades!”

There were six short stories, by a nice wide spectrum of authors.  ”Who Wants Power?” was the first of five stories Mona Farnsworth had published in Unknown in 1939 and 1940, her only genre sales.  ”Dark Vision” was by Frank Belknap Long, who had been a young member of H.P. Lovecraft’s circle and a Weird Tales contributor, as well as going on to write quite a lot of sf.  ”Trouble With Water”, which tended later to be featured in anthologies like Modern Classics of Fantasy and The Fantasy Hall of Fame, was by H.L. Gold, later the editor of Galaxy and its own short-lived fantasy fiction companion, Beyond.  ”Where Angels Fear–” was by Manly Wade Wellman, another Weird Tales contributor and sf author.  ”Closed Doors” was by A.B.L. Macfadyen, Jr, his or her sixth genre sale after five Astounding appearances.  And “Death Sentence” was by the reliable Robert Moore Williams, his tenth sale of, well, quite a few.

It was an auspicious debut, the equivalent of a classy new fantasy tv channel starting up today, but there were storm clouds gathering over Europe, and the Pacific, which led to paper shortages, and a decision to give Astounding priority.  Twenty-two monthly issues were followed by seventeen bimonthly ones; the final issue of Unknown Worlds was dated October 1943.

Of course, a magazine like that can never truly die.  With fewer pages and a less regular schedule, the British reprint edition ran on into 1949, and in the USA the previous year had seen From Unknown Worlds, an anthology in the pulp format of stories from the magazine, by authors including Lester del Rey, Henry Kuttner, Robert Bloch, L. Sprague de Camp, and Theodore Sturgeon, not to mention a couple of people better known as editors - H.L. Gold (his story from that first issue) and Anthony Boucher.

Mention of H.L. Gold takes us on rather neatly to another first issue:

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Astounding Science Fiction had been using the digest format since November 1943, but I think this was when the format really started to take over from the pulps - the first issue of Galaxy Magazine, from October 1950.  The front cover, by David Stone ("Illustrating the Hunting Asteroid Scene of Time Quarry") seems a bit under-stated - but check out the back cover, which caused a bit of a furor at the time:

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H. L. Gold's editorial was headlined "For Adults Only," and ended "GALAXY Science Fiction is an idea and a goal. Your ideas can help us achieve that goal." The contest mentioned on the cover is explained in the 3-page Contest Article by Willy Ley, "Flying Saucers: Friend, Foe or Fantasy?" Your theory on the subject, explained in 200 words or less, could win you one of forty prizes, including all expenses paid three-day trips to three top rank laboratories.  "Somebody, somewhere, may be hoarding an explanation that explains all. Possibly the ingenious and extremely desirable prizes will lure out that explanation," Ley concluded. "What is your theory?"

Galaxy pulled out all the stops with the line-up for this first issue, naturally.  "Time Quarry" by Clifford D. Simak led things off, the first of three parts of the serial. "One life should be enough to give for humanity... but humanity wanted Asher Sutton to keep making the sacrifice indefinitely!"  In book form, the title "Time and Again" is the one to watch for.  "The Stars are the Styx" by Theodore Sturgeon and "Contagion" by Katherine MacLean are the novelettes, while on the short story front we have "Third From The Sun" by Richard Matheson, "Later Than You Think" by Fritz Leiber, "The Last Martian" by Fredric Brown, and "Darwinian Pool Room" by Isaac Asimov.  The six tales would form the basis of a pretty classy anthology, I think.

Groff Conklin had four pages for "Galaxy's Five-Star Shelf," reviewing Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril, The Rat Race by Jay Franklin, Seven Science Fiction Novels of H. G. Wells, and three anthologies, edited by August Derleth, Donald A. Wollheim, and Groff himself; the last of those he commends for its bargain-basement price, and ends by reporting that "all were selected to be read by a mature person without insulting his taste or intelligence."  Which sums up the new magazine rather nicely, even if the printer did print this first issue's spine the wrong way round...something that was rectified in time for the second issue.

For almost three decades, Galaxy was a leading sf magazine, and a fine counter-balance to Campbell's Astounding/Analog.  1978 was its last relatively full year, with seven issues, ending in with nominally bimonthly schedule; 1979 had three issues, and a July 1980 edition brought matters to a close - until nine issues appeared in 1994-95.

Digest magazines tended to have better paper than the old pulps, so they have lasted better.  The smaller page size presumably cut printing costs enough to compensate for that upgrade, and, generally, a digest magazine was easier to carry around and read on your lunch break or while commuting.  So, some titles made the change - Marvel Science Stories did so with their May 1951 issue:

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It might only run for 128 digest-size pages, but this issue of Marvel Science Stories, the last before it changed its name to Marvel Science Fiction, and the first one not in the pulp format, crammed in so much stuff it needed two pages for its table of contents.  Norman Saunders painted the cover, one of nine he did in the genre at around this time, following on from four a decade earlier; he also did some interior artwork in the early fifties.  As a pulp, Marvel Science Stories, edited always by Robert O. Erisman, had begun in 1938 - it took a teensy break from 1941 to 1950, with the final issue cover-dated May 1952, making a total of just fifteen issues.

Talking of interior artwork, this issue certainly is rather special; given the link with the Timely/Atlas/Marvel line of comics, it isn’t surprising to find Carl "Human Torch" Burgos here, illustrating “Golden Girl” by Jack Vance, and also doing small portraits for the “Dianetics Question” controversy.  Harry Harrison, later to become a well-known sf author, and at that time a comics artist, illustrated “Polyoid” by Bryce Walton, “Captain Wyxtpthll’s Flying Saucer” by Arthur C. Clarke, and “Circle” by Milton Lesser, while Vincent Napoli illustrated “Second Advent” by Mack Reynolds, and “The Thing” by Richard Matheson.  Lee J. Ames provided the art for the 36-page featured novel, “The Ones” by Betsy Curtis – and Frank R. Paul was the artist for “Hallock’s Madness”, the novelette by William Tenn.  Paul kept busy illustrating until 1953, before slowing down for his final decade – not bad for someone whose sf illustrating career had begun in 1919.  It's interesting to see the artists given credit on the contents page in bold type.

So, one (36-page) "feature novel," a "thrilling novelette," six short stories, the Dianetics special feature (L. Ron's piece is entitled "Homo Superior, Here We Come"), three pages of "amazing science adventures" scientific facts, a page or so of "Under the Lens" readers' letters, a science quiz, "Star-Gazing Into the Future" on the inside back cover about the observatory on Palomar Mountain in California (top scientist, Edwin P. Hubble)... and there's even an editorial.  "Here is our answer - in action - to the hundreds of requests we have received from our readers, to go small size, to get the best authors in the field, to get higher quality illustrations and covers, to become, in fact, the leading science-fiction magazine.  You'll find the stories in the new MARVEL mature and varied, but always interesting.  Our writers have only these instructions: 'Make it mature, make it alive, but above all - make it a good story.'"

Fine sentiments, I think we can agree.  But mention of Frank R. Paul, creator of so many fantastic sf pulp covers in the first decades of our magazines, suggests that we ought to feature an example of his work - so here we go

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“The editors of DYNAMIC SCIENCE STORIES felt that it was only fitting that the acknowledged greatest of science-fiction artists should do its inaugural cover; Frank R. Paul pictures a dramatic scene from Stanton Coblentz’ novel ‘The Lord of Tranerica’.”

And so this companion sf pulp to Marvel Science Stories began – unfortunately, it only lasted for two issues, and is no relation to the later Dynamic Science Fiction.  Its companion fared rather better, as we have just mentioned.

Still, this is a rather fine Paul cover; inside, as well as Coblentz and Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (who may not have been too happy to be mis-spelled on the cover), Robert Moore Williams provided a second novelette, and Nelson S. Bond and Hubert Mavity were on duty for short stories.

 Our friendly editor suggested that five magazines were the ideal length for a column, so let us move on to our last investigation for this time.  Not the first issue of the magazine in question, but number three is close enough - and it's a great cover to finish on, yes?

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This was the third issue of Fantastic, dated November-December 1952, and probably just about the speediest-selling sf magazine of the decade – as, although it’s not mentioned on the cover, it leads off with a 46-page science fiction story, “The Veiled Woman”, by Mickey Spillane.  Of course, things weren’t actually that straightforward; Ziff-Davis had managed to buy a short fantasy story by Spillane, “The Woman With Green Skin”, which gave away its shock ending in the title, and editor Howard Browne used this as an excuse to write his own Spillane-style story. 

 The original story may not have been any good, but Browne managed to get permission to make any editorial changes he deemed necessary.  He then threw the manuscript in the waste basket.  "I went home on Friday night, and Sunday morning I came in with a 15,000 word Mickey Spillane story, 'The Veiled Woman.' I think I killed fourteen people in it. And at the end he shot the woman in the belly for killing his wife. You got your 25 cents' worth! The magazine hit the stands on a Tuesday, and on that Thursday, we started getting telephone calls and telegrams from the distributors - 'We want more, send us more!'"  Spillane himself wasn't amused, but Browne managed to talk his way out of any legal trouble, author to author.

As well as E.M. Forster and Edgar Allan Poe reprints, this issue also included stories by Richard Matheson, Chad Oliver, Dean Evans, Cornell Woolrich, Ivar Jorgensen (Paul W. Fairman, on this occasion), Ralph Robin, and John Jakes, so people who snapped up the magazine for the lead story got plenty more for their money.  The cover, by Barye W. Phillips, is actually a wrap-around one, with the back half showing demons streaming in through the window, and the unfortunate man who tried to resist them… but we already know our heroine is in big trouble, right?  At the bottom of the back cover it says "Profusely illustrated in color by leading artists," which is a slight exaggeration, but some of the black & white illustrations do have a single extra colour as a background wash.  The artists involved did include Ed "Emsh" Emshwiller, Leo Summers, and Virgil Finlay, though some of the tales were illustrated by lesser-known people.

This was the first bimonthly issue of Fantastic, after quarterly Summer and Fall issues.  Unlike Amazing, which made a direct transition from pulp to digest, Fantastic was not a direct continuation of the pulp Fantastic Adventures, which continued on its monthly schedule until a final March 1953 issue.  The inside front cover here has brief essays from three of the authors this time, though in the circumstances we can't be sure that Mickey Spillane actually wrote his. "Contrary to what most people expect, from my books, I've never shot a woman in the stomach nor beat up a man with my bare fists.  I like people, especially children - I have two.  I like animals - I have 10 cats and dogs.  I like guns - I have 10 - although I've never used them on anything more deadly than a target.  My philosophy?  A simple one: If a guy wants to read, I'll entertain him."  Richard Matheson, meanwhile, starts by telling us that he sold his first story to his mother - for eight cents.  Sounds like a bargain...

And on that note, we reach the end of this first column.  I hope that, as readers here, most of the names of authors that have been mentioned do mean something to you.  Hopefully, although more sf appears every month, the books and stories by people like Clifford D. Simak, Chad Oliver, Mack Reynolds, Jack Vance, Isaac Asimov, Eric Frank Russell, and Theodore Sturgeon do live on - and the old pulps and digests are where they got their start, and flourished.

CONTENTS