Science Fiction Studies

#104 = Volume 35, Part 1 = February 2008

Andrew Milner and Robert Savage

Pulped Dreams: Utopia and American Pulp Science Fiction

The German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch must have strolled past the New York newsstands during his American exile, but the gaudy covers of pulp science fiction seem not to have enticed him. Working “day and night” (Münster 69) on his magnum opus, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope), he no doubt also missed the inaugural World Science Fiction Convention, which opened in Caravan Hall on July 2, 1939, and so the opportunity to hear Frank R. Paul—whose dazzling image of the “City of the Future” graced the back cover of Amazing Stories the following month—deliver a keynote address to two hundred young fans. Amazing was, of course, the oldest American sf magazine, founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1926. Those who heard Paul’s address included both Isaac Asimov, who would soon begin his celebrated Foundation Trilogy (1942-58), and Ray Bradbury.1 Despite Bloch’s enthusiasm for such older popular forms as the colportage novel, the circus, and the fairy-tale, the pulps themselves rate no mention in The Principle of Hope. A meditation by the foremost utopian thinker of the time on a genre that still provided a refuge for utopian thinking thus remains a sadly unimaginable “novum.”2 Yet the decade Bloch devoted to his study, from 1938 to 1947, coincided almost exactly with the so-called “Golden Age” of American pulp sf. This period is generally held to begin in October 1937, when John W. Campbell, Jr. was appointed to the editorship of Astounding Stories, proceeding through the magazine’s 1938 rebranding as Astounding Science-Fiction (ASF) and continuing until its dominance over the market was gradually undermined during the late 1940s and early 1950s by, respectively, rival magazines and the paperback novel.3 Bloch’s world never collided with Gernsback’s or Campbell’s, an omission this essay will attempt to make good.

Utopia and Science Fiction. Bloch’s failure to mention the pulp magazines, let alone accord them a significant place, in a study aiming to be truly encyclopedic, coincides with the more general failure of German émigré intellectuals to come to grips with American popular culture. This failure is repeated time and again in subsequent academic writing on the relationship between utopia and sf.4 Their connection would, of course, occasionally be acknowledged: Raymond Williams’s seminal essay announced “many close and evident connections between science fiction and utopian fiction” (“Utopia” 196); Jean Baudrillard described science fiction as performing the same function for the second order of simulacra as utopia had for the first (121). More explicitly Blochian readings of the genre make the same connection: for Tom Moylan, the contemporary utopian novel could only be written “in the literary space opened up by ... science fiction” (Demand 42); for Darko Suvin, utopia is “the sociopolitical subgenre of science fiction” (61; emphasis in original), a view echoed more recently by Fredric Jameson (see Archaeologies xiv); for Carl Freedman, “science fiction is ... privileged with regard to critique and utopia” (86). But actual pulp sf still tends to slip beneath their neo-Blochian radar, as if its utopianism were too banal to warrant sustained attention. Moylan notes the Gernsbackian moment in passing, only to hurry on to what really concerns him, “the work of the 1960s that broke beyond the adventure narratives and clichéd stereotypes of the 1920s and 1930s” (Demand 42). Suvin deliberately ends his groundbreaking analysis “at the threshold not only of contemporary SF history but also of a methodology that would render it justice” (206; emphasis in original). Freedman dismisses as “ludicrous” the equation of sf with pulp “unless science fiction is construed ... defamatorily” (14) and proceeds to an admittedly embarrassed theorization of the sf canon (86-93). In each case, the emphasis falls either on the European “literary” utopias and dystopias of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries (Verne, Morris, Wells, Zamyatin, and Čapek) or on their much later American counterparts (Russ, Le Guin, Piercy, Delany, and Robinson).5               

Even Jameson, to whom we owe the most recent and wide-ranging of investigations, limits himself to writers able to escape their pulpish origins and attain a modicum of literary respectability. Nonetheless, his comments on the medium do suggest a line of inquiry. A.E. van Vogt’s short stories, Jameson remarks,

emerge from the world of the pulps and of commercial culture.... They cannot be read as Literature ... above all because their strongest effects are ... specific to the genre, and ... enabled only by precisely those sub-literary conventions of the genre which are unassimilable to high culture.... [T]heir conditions of possibility are very precisely pulp conventions. (Archaeologies 316)

At first glance, this judgment seems to echo the familiar Leavisite binary between minority culture and mass civilization. The problem with Jameson’s formulation, however, is not so much its insistence on the generic specificities of pulp sf as its unexamined assumption that similar such conventions do not exist for higher “Literature.” As Williams noted, the earliest senses of this word had connoted, from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, “both an ability to read and a condition of being well-read.” It was only from the eighteenth century, he continued, that we can trace an “attempted and often successful specialization of literature to certain kinds of writing ... understood as well-written books ... of an imaginative or creative kind” (Keywords 151-52; emphases in original). As his former student, Terry Eagleton, would later argue, the problem with this notion of “literary value” is that

There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it. “Value” is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes (11; emphasis in original).

The “literariness” of Literature is thus not a property of a certain type of writing, as Jameson still seems to suppose, but a function of how different kinds of writing are socially processed, both by writers themselves and by readers, publishers, booksellers, literary critics, and so on. Texts defined canonically as Literature are, then, isolated examples of the allegedly exceptional extracted from the wider context in which they were produced, what Franco Moretti terms “normal literature” (15).                

This context, in turn, comprises a whole set of genres, or, to be more precise and to borrow another distinction from Williams, of “modes,” “genres,” and “types,” each with its own distinct formal properties (Culture 148-80, 194-97). But Literature itself is not a genre. Rather, these different modes, genres, and types are only ever retrospectively homogenized into Literature by what Moretti calls the “improper and distorting centrality that contemporary ‘taste’ has won at the expense of historical criticism” (14). In Williams’s conceptualization, sf is neither a mode nor a genre, but rather a type—that is, one of the “radical distributions, redistributions and innovations of interest” that correspond “to the specific and changed social character of an epoch” (Culture 196). “Literary SF”—by which we mean merely that fraction of the whole incorporated into contemporary versions of the Literary canon (Wells, Čapek, Huxley, Orwell, Lem, etc.)6—and pulp sf are different sub-types of this same type, distinguished from one another by their respective technologies of production—the printed novel or playscript on the one hand, the pulp magazine on the other—and by their attendant modes of distribution and reception. It isn’t merely the pulps that require examination in terms of their generic specificities, then, but also the “literary” sf novel—and also, for that matter, the primary epic, the sonnet, the historical novel, the whole of literature in fact.                

To return to our initial concern, why did Bloch fail to recognize the pulps as an outlet for dreams of a better life? Two reasons may be adduced from an interview given in 1974, in which Bloch looked back on his years in America. The first is a matter of simple practicality: he never got around to mastering English (Münster 70). The second and more substantial concedes that the pulps had indeed appealed to utopian longings, but maintains that these were nonetheless trivialized, distorted, and debased by the manner of their articulation. In a telling aside, Bloch insists that his own treatment of “the category of the utopian” had been quite different from the “novelistic, cheerful, entertaining form” of the same category “in science fiction [English in original], which came over from America, hence in the form of purely technological utopias” (Münster 71; emphasis in original).7 The Principle of Hope can thus be read as a self-consciously “political” alternative to the merely “entertaining” expressions of hope in pulp sf, which perpetuated the illusion that the problems of industrial capitalism could be solved by “purely technological” means. From a Blochian perspective, then, the very notion of a generic Golden Age, when set against the historical reality of unprecedented global crisis and calamity that marked the mid-twentieth century, attested to the ideological manipulability of the category of utopia in sf, as distinct from its emancipatory potential when put to more seriously political use.                

Bloch’s position remained a speculative hypothesis, however: he had not read the American sf pulps and cannot have had any full sense of the measure of their utopianism. He thus lies exposed to the reproach Moretti levels at contemporary literary criticism more generally: “our knowledge of literary history closely resembles the maps of Africa of a century and a half ago.... Faced with an unknown continent, one does not ... know beforehand whether it is going to be worth exploring” (15). Everett Bleiler has concluded from his own exhaustive analysis of early US pulp sf that “technological perfectibilism” was indeed more evident than “social messianism” (xiii); but he is also clear that the genre encouraged writing critical of “purely technological” means: the single most common categories of story motif were, in fact “things-go-wrong” and “conflict” (xvii). Andrew Ross has also demonstrated that pulp technophilia was persistently tempered by an advocacy of “critical technocracy,” which echoed the wider preoccupations of the progressive social movements of the 1920s and 1930s (131). Moreover, if fully-fledged utopian programs were relatively rare in early pulp sf, the genre was nonetheless redolent with utopian or quasi-utopian thematics of a kind Bloch would have recognized as articulating a utopian “impulse.”8 Gernsback himself had cited Wells (along with Verne and Poe) as an important inspiration for “scientifiction” and had been influenced by that most influential of American state-socialist utopias, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888).9 What William Gibson would later liken to the “sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda” (9) was often actually more akin to the wholesome heartiness of the Second International. As Eric Leif Davin observes, there was a distinct “tradition of socialist and feminist utopias, which appeared in the pulps—and nowhere else—between 1920 and 1950” (235).10               

The utopian tradition was clearly stronger in the 1920s than the 1930s, but it was still possible for Otfrid von Hanstein, writing for Wonder Stories in 1931, to set a group of scientists to work on “Utopia Island,” secure in the conviction that his “Santa Scientia” was “destined to become the heart and brain of the entire world” (I:1355).11 In 1934, Amazing Stories Quarterly republished a 1929 story by Harl Vincent, which told of how Philip Barton, inventor and friend of the working man, successfully overthrows the corrupt plutocracy ruling America in 2229, restores the Republic, and secures an immediate across-the-board 25% wage increase for all workers. As late as 1939, the heroine of Erwin K. Sloat’s “When Time Stood Still,” Dorothy Dalmetz, could still hold out to readers of Amazing the prospect that

some day, all of the human race will live like this—when men finally begin to master their greed and educate their minds to use intelligently the marvelous advances science has already made, instead of thinking only to put new inventions and discoveries to use as a method of amassing money, or killing all the people you can in the next country. (81)

Sloat’s “Futura” was a desert community protected from government surveillance by its cloak of invisibility, a technological utopia in which all menial labor is performed by robots, leaving its eternally youthful citizens free to satisfy their artistic, intellectual, and erotic desires.                

By July 1939, however, time was clearly running out for utopia: although there is no hint of dissatisfaction within Futura itself, Dorothy’s confidence is increasingly belied by the story’s narrative logic, which shows the community to be a mirage rather than an oasis, a vision far too good to be true. Kent Rider, from the Federal Intelligence Bureau, attempts to persuade Dorothy’s father and Futura’s founder, Dr. Dalmetz, to divulge his plans for a perfect defensive weapon. The scientist promises to share his invention if and when war breaks out, but Kent, tricked into thinking war has already begun and convinced Dalmetz will break his word, tries to steal the technology for Washington. When Rider discovers he has been used, he bitterly regrets the decision to leave Futura, resigns his post, and promptly suffers a nervous breakdown. He escapes from the asylum and eventually rejoins Dalmetz and Dorothy. But the happy ending of a paradise regained—Kent and Dorothy are in love—is fatally compromised by its proximity to his resignation and lapse into madness. All three represent escapes from a real world heading inexorably towards the war foreseen by Kent’s superiors. Utopia, once an incentive to action within history, here provides a refuge from historical time for those too weak to cope with its demands. A more accurate title might have been “If Only Time Stood Still,” not least because the reader is left in little doubt that it will not.                

The problem is not so much with technology, from which pulp sf continued to expect wonders, as with the notion that any well-ordered, carefree existence could be truly compatible with the deeper wellsprings of human nature. The perennial conservative reproach that utopias might be good for humankind in the abstract, but not for flesh-and-blood human beings, is given an ingenious twist in Eando Binder’s “Adam Link Faces a Revolt,” published in the May 1941 issue of Amazing Stories. Possibly inspired by the ending to Čapek’s R.U.R., Binder’s robot Adam determines to build a “practical Utopia” of “science and machines,” where robots and humans will live together harmoniously, much to the dismay of his Eve, who prophesies that the project will end in disaster (70-71; emphasis in original). After a promising start, the humans grow restless and clamor for independence; civil war breaks out; and their would-be benefactor is forced to conclude that his Eve was right. However well-intentioned the designs of this new Adam, the old Adam will out. Surveying the wreckage, he reflects that “Utopia is a dream toward which men must work—but never achieve. Perhaps it is best so—as a shining, glorious goal that guides like a light and never goes out” (93). At the story’s end, the status quo ante is restored more securely than ever. Campbell’s Astounding drew the logical conclusion and effectively outlawed utopia from its pages.

The New York Futures Index. As the utopian impulse slowly receded from pulp sf during the 1930s and 1940s, there was, nonetheless, at least one very obvious counter-tendency, that represented by the New York “Futurians.” Had Bloch wandered into Caravan Hall in 1939 and met Asimov, he might have been introduced to this coterie of “brilliant teenagers ... from broken homes and ... insecure childhoods” (I, Asimov 61), united by their violent opposition to fascism (In Memory 211).12 Elsewhere, such credentials might have predisposed them to recruitment into some revolutionary cadre. But the New York Futurians had opted for sf, which they nonetheless sought to redefine as agitprop for the anti-fascist cause. This is in itself significant, for it suggests that the “fantasy bribe”—in Jameson’s words (“Reification” 144)—offered by the pulps could work both ways: as an ideological narcotic, as Bloch would fear, or as a way to mobilize latent utopian energies for political struggle. The outcome was by no means predetermined.                

Bloch’s lifelong weakness for the romance of antinomian youth suggests he might have been comfortable in “the Futurian Embassy,” the New York apartment building that served this “bizarre menagerie of bohemianized science fiction fans” as a meeting- and doss-house (Moskowitz 246). The name is instructive, for the Futurians seem to have seen themselves as delegates of the very future they sketched in their stories and conversations. While many sf writers have set out to extrapolate from current trends—the title of Robert Heinlein’s 1940 dystopia, “If This Goes On ...,” is paradigmatic—the Futurians aspired to represent it, in the fullest sense: to depict it in their fiction, to act on its behalf, and—perhaps most importantly for our concerns—to bring it to unmediated presence in the here and now. For Niklas Luhmann, the multiplication of systemic complexity in the form of a “present future” is precisely what distinguishes the utopian imagination from the safety valve provided by “future presents,” where the contradictions that threaten to engulf a given system are neutralized, and their resolution postponed, through planning mechanisms. “In the former case,” Luhmann observes, “one orients oneself toward positive or negative utopias; in the latter, the orientation is instead technological” (515-16). With this distinction in mind, we can identify a productive tension between the Futurians’ Technocratic politics,13 deeply indebted to the social-engineering programs and solidaristic ethos of New Deal America (and, for some, Stalinist Russia) and their more properly utopian consciousness of the “nonsynchronous synchronicity,” to borrow Bloch’s concept, of the not-yet in the now14—“our little island of the future right here in the present,” as Sloat’s Dorothy rather sweetly puts it (81). The Futurian “moment” would end only with the suppression of the present future of utopia by the future present of planning: as Ross reminds us, the Technocrats explicitly rejected utopianism (118-19, 121).                

Non-technocratic utopian consciousness was most clearly enunciated in a slogan coined by Johnny Michel, the chief Futurian ideologue: “Awake! The future is upon us!” (qtd. in Moskowitz 168). For the Futurians, the struggle for a better future went hand in hand with the challenge to find better ways of imagining it, since a future that could not be imagined could scarcely be worth fighting for. This is not to suggest that the Futurians were avant-gardists, in the manner of their Italian or Russian near-namesakes, daringly experimenting with new forms and techniques in order to break with the existing order.15 Quite the contrary, they were firmly ensconced in the pulp milieu, which they set out to reform from within. In addition to fighting fascism, they were bent on opposing the kind of technophilic utopianism they associated with the sleekly synthetic, dizzyingly turreted megalopolises in Gernsback-era visions of the future. The world-city of Trantor, in Asimov’s Foundation series, is the rotten heart of a decadent, byzantine civilization, while the vastly overpopulated Earth of Pohl and Kornbluth’s 1952 “Gravy Planet,” ruled by an oligarchy of advertising agencies, marks a dystopian end-point to centuries of unrestrained commercial development. As Ross rightly observes, this “injection of social consciousness into the fandom world had an enduring effect at a time when the pulp stories were beginning to address the future of authoritarian social orders” (116).               

“Gravy Planet”—later republished in novel form as The Space Merchants16—might plausibly be read as an allegory of the tactics used by the Futurians to subvert pulp sf narrative conventions. Its nightmare vision of consumer capitalism gone awry is countered by the utopianism of the “connies” (estranged relatives of the Commies), an underground resistance group determined to restore Earth to its former glory. Mitch Courtenay’s willfully misleading advertising campaign to attract settlers to Venus exploits the same fantasy bribes as the pulps themselves. As he explains: “there is no doubt that linking a sales message to one of the great prime motivations of the human spirit does more than sell goods; it strengthens the motivation, helps it come to the surface, provides it with focus” (II:121). Moreover, the conny strategy of ideological demystification proves no match for Courtenay’s advertisements. Only when he finally uses his own expertise in mass deception to retouch their stodgy prose do conny ideas win support; only when they make “Fowler Schocken’s Venus Project” their own, infiltrating the settlement mission in order to hijack it, is their victory assured (III:147). The self-reflexive lesson is clear: to refuse the science-fictional fantasy bribe, in favor of an essentially terrestrial “realism,” as the socialist orthodoxy of the time prescribed (see Gorky), is to surrender the field to the enemy. Socialists too should dream of Venus.                

Several Futurians argued the point in explicit polemic. In 1937, Donald Wollheim delivered a speech, written by Michel, denouncing “the Gernsback Delusion,” and unsuccessfully moved

that this, the Third Eastern Science Fiction Convention, shall place itself on record as opposing all forces leading to barbarism, the advancement of pseudo-sciences and militaristic ideologies, and shall further resolve that science-fiction should by nature stand for all forces working for a more unified world, a more Utopian existence, the application of science to human happiness, and a saner outlook on life. (qtd. in Moskowitz 119)

In 1938, he and like-minded friends formed a Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction, composed the “Science Fiction Internationale” (Moskowitz 149), and drafted a manifesto with “a lot of V.I. Lenin in it, and a lot of H.G. Wells,” according to Pohl’s memoirs (68). In 1939, Pohl proposed a Futurian Federation of the World, thus anticipating Wells’s own similar (and only slightly less ineffectual) wartime gestures (Knight 15-16). The same year witnessed what sf fanlore still knows as the “Great Exclusion Act,” when a half-dozen of the more querulous and left-leaning Futurians, including Pohl, Wollheim, and Michel, were banned from the World Science Fiction Convention. They responded by holding a counter-convention at the Brooklyn headquarters of the Young Communist League, much to the dismay of one of its executive members, who suspected them of Trotskyist sympathies (see del Rey 146; Pohl 96, 99). Although cross-factional bickering and adolescent one-upmanship were largely to blame for this affair, it nonetheless brought into the open a fundamental split between two different versions of utopianism, corresponding to a general sectarian fault-line in 1930s radical politics: that of the Convention organizers (and of the “World of Tomorrow” New York World’s Fair, with which it had been timed to coincide) and that of the renegade Futurians.17 To borrow from Walter Benjamin, the Convention majority technologized politics; the Futurians responded by politicizing technology.18               

This may explain why the majority were willing to admit Asimov into the World Convention, for if his social-democratic politics were clearly closer to Pohl than to Campbell, his fiction would nonetheless soon happily entrust the future of humankind to positronic robots. Asimov’s World Co-ordinator, the robot Stephen Byerley, speaks for his creator when he assures Susan Calvin that, under robot administration, “the question of ownership of the means of production” becomes “obsolescent” (“Evitable” 51). It may also explain why Asimov alone of the leading Futurians was extensively published in Astounding.19 Asimov’s technological utopianism found classic expression in the Foundation Trilogy, published initially in serial form by Campbell, later as three discrete novels, later still as a single-volume trilogy. The first volume in novel form added an introductory section to the four stories originally published in Astounding, which has the effect of formally eliminating contingency from the future, by subordinating it to the science of “psychohistory,” the “branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli” (Foundation Trilogy 14; emphasis in original). Thus quantified and purified of the element of guesswork, which had hitherto limited its heuristic value, social science yields verifiable data, which illuminates not only the present state of society—or, in this case, the cosmos—but also its future development. The result is a predictive capacity far in excess of Spengler and Toynbee, on whose morphologies of history it was modeled. So confident of its accuracy is the discipline’s chief exponent, Hari Seldon, that he transmits prerecorded messages from beyond the grave at regular intervals to reassure a dumbfounded posterity that the future is still in accord with his calculations. Marx’s scientific socialism, yet another model for psychohistory, seems merely amateurish by comparison (see Elkins).                

The consequences are paradoxical. The so-called “Seldon Crises” are seldom, if ever, critical, since those who attempt to alter or derail the Seldon Plan invariably find themselves caught up in a larger plan lying beyond their (and our) comprehension. A magician whose tricks are prepared well in advance, Seldon always has another rabbit to pull out of his hat. Thus the Mule, the warlord who uses his mutant powers to seize control of the Foundation, discovers that Seldon, having foreseen the unforeseeable, has concealed a Second Foundation at the other end of the galaxy, from which the First was intended merely to distract attention (“Mule” II:69). Conversely, although predicated on the statistical irrelevance of individual agency, the Plan itself is the work of an individual agent, a god-scientist whose unparalleled insight into the dynamics of socioeconomic relations has endowed him with unparalleled power to change them. Asimov thus reverts to the Baconian equation of scientia and potestas, which lay at the origin of the technological utopia: the ship conveying Seldon’s encyclopedists to their home on the periphery of the galaxy sails in the wake of that heading for New Atlantis; and the goal of Seldon’s Foundation is much the same as Salomon’s, “the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible” (Bacon 480).                

But if Asimov’s utopianism expanded Empire to encompass even the future, which earlier writers had exempted from human control, the story’s narrative logic raises doubts as to the desirability of Seldon’s goals. Perhaps the most important change made by Asimov when he revised the stories for book publication was the insertion of excerpts from the 116th edition of the Encyclopedia Galactica, published in 1020 of the Foundational Era, as epigraphs to the different sections of the narrative. That the Encyclopedia exists informs the reader, from the outset, that Seldon has succeeded in his goal of reducing “the state of anarchy to a single millennium” (Foundation Trilogy 28). Moreover, it represents the sum of human knowledge as a vast wheel, the correlate of which is a cyclical conception of history. Seldon’s plan had presupposed that each revolution of the wheel was predestined to return to its starting point, a notion corroborated at the end of the trilogy, when we finally learn that Trantor, the capital of the old Empire, and Terminus, the capital of the Second Empire, are one and the same, that the terminus a quo is identical to the terminus ad quem (“And Now” III:152). But this circularity is subverted by the linearity of the narrative, which grants the protagonists a semblance of freedom, generating suspense only by leaving the reader ignorant of what will happen next. From a Seldon’s-eye perspective, the entire series could be told as a single excerpt from the Encyclopedia, since everything it contains has been decided in advance. What we read, however, is a rattling good yarn, which adopts by turn the blinkered perspectives of its main characters. The discrepancy between original and revised versions thus marks an internal disjunction between the narrative’s “official” content, which has no place for the self-flattering delusions of heroic subjectivity, and its more conventional structure, which operates on the assumption that individuals can and sometimes do make meaningful differences. Unlike Seldon, the Mule believes in the future, if only so as to tyrannize it; and Asimov, like all true poets, was of the Mule’s party without knowing it.

Campbell’s Astounding: Utopian Anti-Utopianism. Asimov thus surreptitiously closed ranks with the majority tendency at Campbell’s Astounding, which had by and large already assimilated Orwell’s fear that the denizens of any future Wellsian world-state would be, not so much Men Like Gods, as “little fat men” (Orwell 169). Their heroes were typically in revolt against the supposedly bovine contentments of utopia, in the interests of life, liberty, and the pursuit of a happiness instantly rendered meaningless by its possession. Immune to the routine charms of Bellamy’s state socialism, yet equally disinclined to sink into Morris’s epoch of rest, they sought, rather, to preserve and extend that frontier zone of free enterprise we now know by the name of America. Perhaps the most striking feature of Astounding is how little overt utopianism it retained. In part, this can be explained by its authors’ reluctance to indulge in the kind of information overload that so often bedevils utopian narratives. But there is more at issue here. Unlike their more explicitly radical predecessors and rivals, Campbell’s writers tended to shy away from fully-fledged visions of the perfect society, for reasons that were as much ideological as narratological. As John Huntington observes, the “technician manager,” whose exploits were celebrated in Astounding, was a “superior everyman whose virtues derive from his harmonious adjustment to the needs of science and technology” (69), rather than a visionary seeking to adjust science and technology to human needs. Norman L. Knight made one last, half-hearted attempt to resolve the “Crisis in Utopia” in the July 1940 issue, but after Pearl Harbor, and even more so after Hiroshima, it proved insurmountable. Dr. Dalmetz’s 1939 warning to Kent Rider, that a miracle weapon would unleash terrible destruction in the wrong hands, unwittingly prefigured the dialectic of nuclear deterrence and annihilation that came to exercise the imaginations of sf writers after 1945 (see Brians). A spate of dystopias ensued, predicated on a Third World War beside which the first two paled in comparison.                

Theodore Sturgeon’s “Memorial,” published in Astounding in April 1946, depicts a pacifist scientist’s plan to create an atomic crater as a kind of permanent war memorial, to dissuade men from ever again resorting to such violence to settle their differences. The explosion is reported in the press as an enemy attack, however, thus sparking a chain of mutual retaliations, which ends only with the final extinction of humankind.20 Even when hardy specimens survived, as in Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses,” published the following year, their prospects remained bleak. Here, a massive military offensive leaves every American either dead or dying from radiation poisoning, the latter urged to refrain from counter-attack for the sake of the species. Emerging from the fallout of similar attacks, hordes of mutants roamed the pages of Astounding. Typically, they were represented either as a threat to the gene pool, as in Poul Anderson and F.N. Waldrop’s “Tomorrow’s Children” (March 1947), or as a force for evolutionary progress, as in Chan Davis’s “The Aristocrat” (October 1949). In Jack Williamson’s 1947 story “The Equalizer,” the atomic bomb spelt an end to human freedom, not because of its immediately destructive potential, but because it effectively repealed the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to bear arms. Nothing and no one, he foresees, will be able to stand up to the tyranny of a central government with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at its disposal: “Democracy was murdered, on a desert in New Mexico, in 1945” (16). The dystopian turn common to these and similar stories is nicely summarized in A. Bertram Chandler’s “New Wings” (1948) by one of his Martians, a descendent of refugees from nuclear holocaust on Earth: “We’ve got a great future behind us!” (73). The notion that utopia intimated the shape of things to come, practically uncontested from Mercier to Wells, had been revoked at a stroke by weapons that consigned hope itself to a pre-apocalyptic dreamtime (see Koselleck 84-99).

Martin Schäfer exaggerates, nonetheless, when he writes that “utopia scarcely exists” in postwar Astounding (157). This view holds only if utopia is equated with a static, statist model into which totalitarianisms of the left or the right project their fantasies of social control. Classical utopias of this kind were indeed rejected almost unanimously, for their stifling uniformity, decadence, or both. Deprived of external stimulus, Chan Corbett had postulated in his 1936 “Ecce Homo,” homo sapiens would (d)evolve into “a round, membranous sac” with “no arms or legs or other vestigial organs,” and drift into a state of terminal boredom (56-66). Entropy, not villainy, posed the graver threat to the public good, as the future histories Heinlein and Asimov produced for Astounding in the early 1940s all too powerfully demonstrate. There is, however, another subterranean strand of utopianism in its pages, which fuelled the overtly anti-utopian animus of its better known authors. Ross draws attention to this when he remarks that the “standard imperialistic components of pulp sf,” as evinced paradigmatically in Astounding, “might also be seen as utopian versions of the desire to escape the new Taylorist tyranny of organized and quantified time and space that had come to preside over the contemporary workplace” (127). This utopian anti-utopianism finds extreme, albeit characteristic, expression in Lewis Padgett’s 1947 tale “Tomorrow and Tomorrow.”21               

The story is set in a twenty-first century administered by the Global Peace Commission, the chief function of which is to guard and monitor “Uranium Pile One,” lodged in a subterranean ziggurat on a Pacific island. In many respects, the GPC is indistinguishable from an ideal Wellsian world-state. It has succeeded in overcoming the national rivalries that plagued the twentieth century; it guarantees its citizens decent living conditions and basic human rights, except that of pursuing independent research; it has established an order “based on reason, not instinct”; and, most importantly, it has achieved its primary objective, to prevent a Third World War, or rather to abort it in its very early stages (I:16). Nonetheless, there is an underground resistance movement dedicated to its overthrow. According to these freedom fighters, the GPC has erected an artificial dam to stay the flood of progress, history, and evolution. The equilibrium thus established is repeatedly cast in pathological terms, as “insane” (I:31), the result of “propagandized psychic implantation” (I:13), a symptom of “retarded adolescence” (II:157). The world may well be safe, but “so is a patient in a cataleptic stupor” (I:30). The only way to rouse the patient, the rebels decide, is through shock therapy: “‘The Third World War,’ she told him flatly. ‘It should have happened, a hundred years ago. But, since it didn’t, we intend to make it happen now’” (II:172).    

Through a clairvoyant mutant, the rebels establish contact with a parallel world, Omega, which has entered the purgatory of nuclear war and emerged from it stronger and more dynamic than ever. Where the ban on scientific research in Alpha ensures that thousands continue to die of preventable diseases, the enormous research investment stimulated by the Third World War on Omega has yielded impressive medical advances, including a cure for cancer. Indeed, cancer becomes the story’s primary metaphor for the differences between the two systems, a kind of hypertrophic marker colonizing all other pathic tropes: Joseph Breden, one of the nuclear physicists in charge of the Pile, is persuaded to help the rebels by the news that his pregnant wife is suffering from leukemia; and the Uranium Pile he agrees to sabotage is likened to “a tumor that could have been benignant, but had instead grown into a malignant sarcoma in a hundred years. Like the two tumors within the body of Margaret Breden—the benignant one in her womb, and the latent, malignant cancer filtering through her blood” (II:175). The eschatological subtext warns that unless something is done, technology that might otherwise have triggered the birth pangs of a new world will bring about the death throes of the old. Even the impending orgy of destruction with which the story ends cannot shake the rebels’ conviction that the only responsible way to deal with scientists is to leave them to their own (nuclear) devices. Politics, rightly understood, is the art of letting second nature have its way, regardless of the havoc it may subsequently wreak.                

“Tomorrow and Tomorrow” espouses a technological utopianism more sinister than anything Bloch could have envisaged. If the Gernsbackian technological utopia found an image of order in the futuristic city, its Campbellian counterpart found an image of freedom in the mushroom cloud. Where the former typically advocated the utopian program, still present in Padgett’s story as Alpha, the latter typically opposed to it the utopian impulse, here exemplified by Omega. “You can say that the status quo can be Utopia,” the rebel leader argues,

but that ignores the fact that men grow.... The Freak has described to us what he sees in this future world—if that’s what it is. And—it’s closer to Utopia than our world. We’ve called it Omega, for definitive purposes. Though it’s a beginning rather than an end.... (I:31-32)

Alpha is a dead-end rather than a beginning, a cosmic backwater which has left its male population unfit for the ongoing struggle for survival. The Omegans themselves insist: “We haven’t a Utopia. We don’t want one.... We’re not perfect by any means. But we’re a lot better off than you are” (II:157). The problem is precisely that Alpha is perfect: perfectly organized, perfectly controlled, perfectly sterile. The story thus displays the first article of an unwritten Astounding creed: that anti-utopianism, the militant repudiation of instituted happiness, is more faithful to the idea of utopia than utopia itself.

Conclusion. Towards the end of his survey of social utopias, Bloch deplores the “undernourishment of revolutionary imagination” that transformed socialism from utopia to science, “such that the pillar of fire in utopias, the thing which was powerfully leading the way, could also be liquidated along with the cloud” (Principle 622). But the utopian flame extinguished in the Moscow show trials—which he notoriously condoned—still flickered in pulp sf, where it led in one of two very different directions. For the Futurians, it pointed toward an extraterrestrial promised land, where old utopian visions of heaven on earth would be both inverted and realized: as Damon Knight recalled, Wollheim and Asimov seemed to “truly believe that humanity has a mighty mission to colonize the planets of other stars” (209). For Campbell and Astounding, by contrast, the utopian flame became an all-consuming inferno, which nonetheless held out the hope of redemption through fire. As Albert Berger comments, Astounding’s social theorizing was “deterministic, linear..., elitist, conflict-ridden, and—ultimately—apocalyptic” (30). The first straddled social democracy and Stalinism; the second veered between far-right and far-left libertarianisms, and both claimed adequacy to the grim realities of the time. Adorno famously described the avant garde and mass culture to Benjamin as the “torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up” (130). So too, the Futurians on the one hand and Campbell’s Astounding on the other were the torn halves of a utopian imagination, to which, however, they did not add up.

Acknowledgements. We are grateful to Carlo Salzani, Richard Overell, and the staff of the Monash University Rare Books Library for their assistance in the preparation of this article. We also wish to acknowledge the Australian Research Council for its funding of the Discovery Project, “Demanding the Impossible: Utopianism in Philosophy, Literature, and Science Fiction,” to which this is a contribution. All translations in the text, unless otherwise noted, are our own.
                1. Paul’s image is reproduced in Aldiss (12). The first installment of Asimov’s story was published in the May 1942 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.
                2. Darko Suvin borrowed this term from Bloch to define the generic specificities of sf. It refers to “a totalizing phenomenon or relationship deviating from the author’s and implied reader’s norm of reality” (Suvin 64).
                3. There had always been competing pulps, such as Amazing Stories itself; Wonder Stories, which ran from 1930 to 1936, and its successor Thrilling Wonder Stories, which continued until 1955; and Startling Stories, which ran from 1939 to 1955. But Campbell’s Astounding remained central, at least until the advent of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy Science Fiction a year later.
                4. An important and, for want of an English translation, neglected exception is Schäfer. His study sets out to make amends for Bloch’s omission, though it differs from Bloch in sharing the massive suspicion toward popular culture characteristic of Frankfurt School critical theory.
                5. This emphasis is evident also in Moylan’s later Scraps of the Untainted Sky (2000).
                6. All of these authors are included, for example, in the longer version of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon (553-55, 558).
7. The Principle of Hope ignores the German tradition of the Staatsroman—the politically-utopian novel or, literally, the (ideal) state novel—which has been analyzed as a direct precursor to science fiction (see Schwonke). Nor does Bloch seem to have been aware of the more recent German sf writers published by Gernsback in English translation, whom Linda Jordan studied. One of these was Otfrid von Hanstein (see below).
                8. On the distinction between utopian impulse and program, see Jameson, Archaeologies (2-3, 4). Jameson and others (e.g., Fitting 42) attribute a more formal status to the distinction between “Program” and “Impulse” than we can find in Bloch. Nonetheless, it is clear from the overall structure of the argument that Bloch is indeed as interested in utopian impulses as in utopian texts.
                9. See Clute and Nicholls (311). “A story or serial part by Wells appeared in each of the first twenty-nine issues of the magazine,” notes Bleiler (546).
                10. Like Bleiler, Davin acknowledges the decline of utopianism in American literature, American sf, and American society in the years immediately after the First World War. His point, however, is that socialist and feminist utopianism persisted in the sf pulps as a sole contrary instance. This, in turn, forms part of a larger argument about popular culture as a “contested terrain.” We might note here that David Lasser, who managed the Wonder magazines for Gernsback, was simultaneously active in labor and socialist politics: he was a member of the Socialist Party and founding president of the Workers Alliance of America, the unemployed workers union. Dismissing him from Wonder in 1933, Gernsback is reputed to have explained that: “Since you are so interested in the unemployed, you can now join them” (Bleiler 242). Nonetheless, Lasser’s immediate successor as managing editor, Charles D. Hornig, was also active in the Socialist Party (Davin 136).
11. Wonder Stories credits von Hanstein as the author of “Utopia Island” and Francis Currier as the translator (from the German). Bleiler (170) suggests that it might actually be a translation of a novel previously published in German, possibly the 1927 Ein Flug um die Welt und die Insel der Seltsamen Dingen. But the magazine makes no mention of any German-language original publication and, as Bleiler notes, Linda Jordan refuted this as the source. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we have chosen to treat this as an original publication.
                12. What follows is largely dependent on memoirs and informal histories by people involved in or influenced by the 1939 rift in sf fandom. These are necessarily partisan, of course, but they nonetheless provide an important insight into what Futurianism meant to the Futurians.
                13. Ross records how in 1940 several Futurians participated in a Technocracy Study Course, citing Robert “Doc” Lowndes’s recollection that: “We were Stalinists disguised as Technocrats. We went into it for the purposes of a cover. We became very subdued and wound up as progressive liberals” (116).
                14. Bloch is mainly concerned here with the experience of the past in the “Now” of Nazism, but the concept can point forwards as well as back. The Plaices use “non-contemporaneous” in their translation, but Mark Ritter had earlier opted for “nonsynchronous” in his 1977 translation of a part of this chapter. This usage, “non-synchronous synchronicity,” has been widely adopted in secondary commentary and seems closer to the original German (Ungleichzeitigkeit des Gleichzeitigen).
                15. The Futurians borrowed their name from the magazine of the Northern English Leeds Science Fiction League, rather than from the continental European avant-garde (Clute and Nicholls 456-57).
                16. There are minor stylistic differences between magazine and novel versions: for example, the magazine’s “connies” become the novel’s “consies.” The major structural change is that the novel ends at chapter 19, with the arrival of Courtenay on Venus. The magazine version had extended the plot, through three further chapters and ten more pages, to the human settlement on Venus and the discovery of bacteria-like forms of life, able to help the humans change the environment to their advantage, so that Venus might itself become a self-sustaining economy.
                17. The World’s Fair, writes Krishan Kumar, “aspired to promote the idea that technology was on the point of realizing utopia” (386); see also Ross 128-32.
                18. “This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art” (Benjamin 244).
                19. The other Futurians tended to publish in the following, more minor venues: Future Fiction, which ran from 1939 to 1943; Astonishing Stories, which ran from 1940 to 1943 and was edited by Pohl during 1940-41; Super Science Stories, published from 1940 to 1943 and also edited by Pohl during 1940-41; Stirring Science Stories, edited by Wollheim, who produced four issues during 1941 and 1942; and Cosmic Stories, which managed three issues during 1941, again with Wollheim as editor. For a general discussion of these magazines, see Ashley 149, 159-62.
                20. A similar scenario of nuclear holocaust is developed in Chan Davis’s “The Nightmare,” published in the same magazine the following month.
                21. Lewis Padgett was a pseudonym for the husband and wife team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore.

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