Science Fiction Studies

#89 = Volume 30, Part 1 = March 2004

Gary Westfahl

Three Decades That Shook the World, Observed Through Two Distorting Lenses and Under One Microscope

Mike Ashley. The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950: The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine, Volume 1.Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000. 300 pp. £32.00 hc; £12.95 pbk.

E. Hoffmann Price. Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others (Memories of the Pulp Fiction Era). Ed. Peter Ruber. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 2002. 423 pp. $34.95 hc.

Leon Stover. Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002. 190 pp. $45.00 hc.

For purposes of argument, say that the era of the science fiction pulp magazines lasted from 1926 to 1955. One starts the story in 1926 with the appearance of the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, and concludes in 1955 when Thrilling Wonder Stories, one descendant of the Gernsback magazines, came to an end, as did other magazines such as Startling Stories and Planet Stories. Others might prefer to begin in 1923, with the appearance of Weird Tales and the “Scientific Fiction” issue of Gernsback’s Science and Invention, and end in 1952 because, according to veteran pulpster E. Hoffmann Price, that was when the pulp magazines died. Either way, one would be discussing about three decades, a relatively brief span of literary history.

One should not need to argue at length that this was an important period, indeed the most important period, in the history of science fiction. This was the time when the name and concept of “science fiction” were promulgated and embraced, the time when large numbers of dedicated readers forged an international science fiction community, the time when all the standard tropes of science fiction were firmly established and explored, and the time when any number of key authors and commentators—including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John W. Campbell, Jr., Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak, and Theodore Sturgeon—emerged and launched their careers. In all the science fiction of the last half-century, the influence of the pulp tradition is, to any knowledgeable reader, not merely palpable but overwhelming. It would seem an era that science fiction scholars would be eager to study in depth.

Paradoxically, however, this is also the era of science fiction history most likely to be forgotten. Of necessity, time is a brutal editor, since each generation bequeaths to posterity far too much literature to cherish and preserve, and each subsequent generation’s new contributions leave less and less room for noteworthy predecessors. Scholars, anthologists, literary historians, and publishers must choose only the very best writers, perhaps leaving some room for lesser writers who are most attuned to their own sensibilities. Today, all of English literature before Chaucer, and between Chaucer and the English Renaissance, is virtually unknown, even to most graduate students in English literature. During my lifetime, though it is something that people do not wish to talk about, almost the entirety of eighteenth-century English literature is being erased from the canon. Of course, such omissions will generate distortions and simplifications in surveys of the literature—such as the moment when one must explain how John Milton, unmediated by other writers and influences, led naturally and immediately to the Romantic poets—but prominent critics earn their living, now and in the future, by artfully and plausibly sewing together those scattered and disparate pieces of literature deemed worth saving into satisfying and cohesive literary histories.

In the case of science fiction, the process of excluding the pulp magazines from the history of science fiction can already be observed in a number of critical studies, some of them well respected, for reasons that demand little discussion. Stories from the pulps cannot qualify for preservation on the basis of their literary quality, which is uneven at best, and given our contemporary commitment to diversity, the literature of the pulps appears to be discomfitingly and overwhelmingly white, male, North American, heterosexual, and middle class. It is not surprising, then, that the pages of SFS consistently suggest that both today’s and tomorrow’s scholars are almost unanimously disinclined to specialize in this field of study, signalling that it will attract less and less attention in the future. A few pulpsters on the fringes of science fiction, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and H.P. Lovecraft, may be remembered, along with writers like Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein who primarily made their marks with novels written after the pulp era; one further assumes and hopes that the magazines themselves, despite their fragility, will be preserved indefinitely by some combination of dedicated private and institutional collectors, microfilm and microfiche, and digitalization. But they will likely be completely overlooked by later scholars, who will connect the dots from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells to Ursula K. Le Guin and William Gibson by means of authors utterly divorced from the pulp tradition, such as Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis, or by means of an imaginative leap that would exclude even these writers. It might seem a falsification of history to those who were witness to the twentieth century, but the need to be ruthlessly selective in remembering literature will demand, here and elsewhere, precisely this sort of falsification.

Still, just as a few lonely scholars still believe that John Lydgate and John Skelton deserve and reward detailed examination, there may always be a few lonely scholars who will recognize what a fascinating and resonant body of literature the science fiction pulps offered their readers and will seek to explore its many mysteries in depth. In delving into a field largely neglected by mainstream scholars now and in the future, however, they will necessarily find secondary resources to be of variable quality, as the three books under consideration here will demonstrate.

E. Hoffmann Price’s Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others (Memories of the Pulp Fiction Era) may be one of the last books to emerge about the pulp magazine era written by someone who regularly wrote for those pulps. Price completed this compilation of biographical sketches of his noteworthy colleagues in the late 1970s, but he could not find a publisher. Now, years after his death, Arkham House has finally published the book, accompanied by a Price bibliography and some additional articles by or about Price.

Book of the Dead must be judged in the context of what it sets out to be. Price repeatedly reminds his readers that he is providing memories, not the fruits of extensive research, and he acknowledges that there are important aspects of his subjects’ careers that he never asked about or has forgotten, though he sometimes consults old letters for bits of data. Editor Peter Ruber, declaring that “his words should stand as they are” (xxii), has further declined to add information, to correct Price’s mistakes, or even to do much with his grammar and spelling, making any list of errata beside the point. It merits attention, then, not as a scholarly study of the pulp era, but as eyewitness testimony to it.

The book will interest science fiction scholars primarily because of its chapters about significant fantasy and science fiction writers, especially August Derleth, Edmond Hamilton, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, and H.P. Lovecraft, though a few may be drawn to accounts of less esteemed figures such as Otis Adelbert Kline, Seabury Quinn, Clark Ashton Smith, and Farnsworth Wright. It is nonetheless valuable to read all nineteen chapters of the book, including chapters devoted to obscure authors and even one about a rugdealer, because Price’s discussions in their entirety cumulatively provide an illuminating portrait of the life of a typical pulp magazine writer. To me, at least, it does not seem an attractive picture. Writers mostly spent their time churning out prose for sale, unless economic hardship drove them temporarily to day jobs, and they barely eked out a living during either the good or the bad times. Occasionally, they would go on extended vacations, getting in their cars and driving across the country to visit other writers they admired and with whom they corresponded. As their wives, in another room, bonded in their mysterious feminine ways, these writers would sit and talk and drink and drink for hours on end, each coming to recognize that the other person was a really fine fellow—a conclusion easy enough to reach when one sees a person for only a few days once every ten years while under the influence of alcohol. With a newfound or redoubled admiration for the visited writer’s intelligence, knowledge, and sterling character, the other writer leaves for the next stage of his journey, vowing to stay in contact but invariably driven by life’s exigencies to drift out of touch until it is time for another vacation. Far from glamorous or exciting, this sort of life strikes me as monotonous, even pathetic; one gains a new admiration for the ways in which these writers, working in isolation and enjoying no prestige in their everyday lives, nonetheless forged strong communities and produced fiction that was so memorably extravagant, expansive, and even optimistic.

The peculiar tragedy of Price’s life is that he had a knack for making poor decisions. Early in his career, he was profoundly affected by a letter from a reader complaining that the portrayal of Oriental life in one story was an inaccurate mishmash of several different Eastern cultures; Price concluded that the most important characteristic of a successful pulp writer was an expert knowledge of the things he was writing about—an attitude that, by its nature, marginalizes science fiction and fantasy. This resulted in some unusual aesthetic judgments; for example, Price thought that Howard’s Conan stories were silly and inconsequential, and he lamented his untimely death because it prevented Howard from completing what he viewed as Howard’s gradual transition to specializing in the sort of writing he was best suited for, westerns. The notion that Conan and his imaginary Hyborian Age might possess a mythical power that could enchant later generations of readers was utterly foreign to Price; the stories were historically inaccurate and hence a waste of both Howard’s and the reader’s time. This belief also explains why Price, after early ventures into the fantastic for Weird Tales, elected to focus more on the realistic varieties of pulp fiction, such as detective fiction, westerns, and Oriental adventures. His perspective on the pulp magazine era will thus seem askew to science fiction scholars, because he is familiar with virtually all the genre pulps except the science fiction magazines that such scholars examine. Devoting himself to forms of pulp fiction that now attract even less attention than their fantastic cousins transformed Price into a relatively unknown writer; and when the pulp market collapsed in the 1950s, Price made another poor decision, to take a day job instead of breaking into the paperback market—although, much later, he wrote a few, largely unnoticed, science fiction and fantasy novels.

Writing in the 1970s, of course, Price was well aware that he had become obscure while other pulpsters of his era were revered and cherished—but he had a theory to account for that. In his eyes, all the authors who wrote for Weird Tales merit consideration as a band of brothers; some had certain skills that others lacked, but each one was important in his own way, each one contributed something of value to the success of the magazine and to pulp fiction in general, and each one merits about the same amount of attention. After their deaths, however, a few writers were lucky enough to attract the attention of energetic and capable promoters, who succeeded in elevating their favorites to the status of revered cult objects (Howard, Lovecraft, and Smith being his examples); other writers with similar talents were unlucky enough to attract no such followers, or to attract followers who were not energetic and capable promoters, and so they are forgotten. As Price would have it, then, Lovecraft became famous only because Derleth and a few cohorts were determined to make him famous and ingenious enough to accomplish their goal; Kline is unknown only because the major figure championing his cause turned out to be irksome and incompetent.

The selection process that Price rails against, of course, is precisely the process I have already described as inevitable and essential; it may be arbitrary or capricious at times, but in the long run, one hopes, the writers who most deserve to be read will endure, while less deserving writers fade away, regardless of how well or how poorly they are promoted. Personally, I do not think that Lovecraft and Howard were bad choices, or that Kline would have been an equally good choice. (The ironies here are that Price’s book has now been published by the company originally created to promote Lovecraft’s writings, and that the book will principally attract buyers who are interested in precisely those writers—Lovecraft and Howard—that Price most regards as unjustly and overly celebrated.)

Overall, Price emerges as a pretty good fellow to spend some time with—intelligent, quirky, frank, and self-effacing—and his detailed impressions and observations of writers for the pulps significantly add to our knowledge and more than compensate for the text’s general raggedness and occasional grouchiness. Despite its idiosyncracies, it should become a regular stopping point for those increasingly rare scholars who are seeking a better understanding of his era.

Leon Stover might have written a book very much like Price’s, a rambling, anecdotal account of his many years of teaching and writing about science fiction, with special emphasis on his encounters with major writers such as Brian W. Aldiss, Harry Harrison, and Heinlein. Such a book might have been appreciated for the scattered tidbits of information it provided, and its weaknesses, like the weaknesses in Price’s book, might have been overlooked on similar grounds.

Unfortunately, what Stover has actually written is a volume entitled Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein, advertised by its publisher as “a critical examination of the literary trajectory of science fiction from the science fiction romances of H.G. Wells to the era of Robert Heinlein”; and presented as such, it must be judged by different, and higher, standards.

In a nutshell, Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein is an awful book. It is an embarrassment to its author, Leon Stover, to its publisher, McFarland & Company, Inc., and to the entire community of science fiction scholars, since some benighted readers might stumble upon this book and take it as representative of the quality of those scholars’ work. Its egregious shortcomings almost defy categorization, but I will make the effort, proceeding in increasing order of importance.

Stover is an inept prose stylist; he lacks a basic ability to choose the right words and place them in an acceptable order. As one example, consider his summary of Harrison’s West of Eden (1984): “Its counter-factual is the absence of a falling asteroid that, at the end of the Cretaceous period, by raising a dust cloud shutting off sunlight from plant life dinosaurs fed on, ended them” (163). Such a sentence, if encountered in an essay for a freshman composition class, would unfailingly be marked “awkward” and covered in red ink.

Stover is incapable of coherently organizing his material. For each of his slender book’s ten chapters, he announces a topic—“American Dominance,” “The British Tradition,” “Verne and Wells,” “John Campbell,” and “Robert Heinlein” in Part I, called “Science Fiction”; and “Ascent of the Saints,” “Rebelling Robots,” “Benevolent Catastrophe,” “Cavemen and Dinosaurs,” and “Utopia and Dystopia” in Part II, called “Themes”—and then he begins free-associating about that topic. If he finds himself drifting too far off the subject, he lurches back on track with little if any transition. On those rare occasions when some sort of overall pattern can be discerned, it is dysfunctional; in “Verne and Wells,” for example, he discusses a work by Verne, then a work by Wells, then one by Verne, then one by Wells, and so on, all texts seemingly chosen at random.

Stover devotes excessive attention to a few favorite topics while shamefully neglecting other topics of equal or greater significance. Based on a reading of this book, one might conclude that the three most important authors in the history of science fiction are Wells, Heinlein, and Harrison—who also happen to be the three authors that Stover has focused on in his research. To be sure, any scholar writing a history of science fiction might display biases at times, but even the most passionate fans of these three authors would concede that there are other writers from their eras—such as Asimov, Clarke, Lewis, or Stapledon—who require an equal amount of attention. In Stover’s book, however, they are given only a few brief references. In the course of his meandering prose, Stover at times brings matters to a dead halt to discuss at extreme length something he happens to know a great deal about—providing, for example, a four-page, scene-by-scene plot summary of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), or an extended discussion of an unfinished animated version of Aldiss’s “Who Can Replace a Man?” (1965) that Stover worked on—before returning to cursory overviews.

Stover offers extraordinarily questionable claims about science fiction, and he states those opinions as undebatable facts. These are separable issues. Many arguments that reverberate throughout this text, I would maintain, are dubious, even absurd. I cannot believe that any informed observer would survey the history of science fiction film and conclude that the three films that most deserve critical attention are Things to Come (1936), The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s atrocious 1969 Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (!). I do not believe there is a shred of persuasive textual evidence that Wells conceived of When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) as his “sequel” to The War of the Worlds (1898), featuring a future world that has learned lessons in governance from the Martian invaders. Simply because some science fiction novels now reach the best-seller list without being identified on their covers as science fiction, and simply because films like The Matrix (1999) and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) are not identified as “science fiction films” in their advertising, I do not believe it defensible to conclude that science fiction is a “dead” genre, completely absorbed into other forms of popular entertainment—particularly in light of the huge sections of bookstores explicitly devoted to science fiction books, the huge sections of VHS and DVD rental stores explicitly devoted to science fiction films, and the ongoing existence of a large community of readers, writers, and scholars dedicated to the genre. I would hardly be alone in rejecting such claims out of hand, and in being highly skeptical about the critical acumen of a scholar presenting such claims.

Nevertheless, a man is entitled to speak his mind, to place his viewpoints in the marketplace of ideas, even if they run counter to a general consensus; but the proper forums for blunt presentations of heterodox opinions are journal articles or books aimed specifically at scholars. In books for general readers, like this one, scholars must be careful to present not only their own views, but the view of an entire community of scholars that they perforce represent. I do not believe that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is fruitfully regarded as the first science fiction novel, but when I epitomized Shelley’s career for a reference book, I noted the consensus opinion that it is the first science fiction novel. I was obliged to. In a book entitled Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein, Stover should have felt similarly obliged to balance his idiosyncratic opinions with language that conveyed the other, more typical opinions: “true, many science fiction film scholars would also point to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Star Wars (1977), and Blade Runner (1982) as genuine masterpieces”; “true, this characterization of When the Sleeper Wakes has not yet been embraced by most Wells scholars”; “true, many people continue to believe that science fiction as a genre is alive and well.” Stover refuses to do this. Perhaps he is unaware of the innumerable other critics who have covered this territory, or he simply does not wish to acknowledge the existence of other scholars. This is related to another deficiency in the text, the unattractive authorial persona that Stover projects—boastful, arrogant, antisocial, and crotchety.

The worst feature, however, of Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein is that Stover, despite apparently impeccable credentials, actually seems to know very little about science fiction (beyond those few areas where he has focused his attention), and he cannot be trusted to pay full attention to the few resources at his command. As a result he has produced a text that is riddled with errors, virtually one on every page.

Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating, my complete list of errors in Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein currently includes 125 items, this in a book with 190 pages, and whenever I reexamine one of its pages I often spot another one. Granted, many errors might be characterized as minor matters of inattentiveness. Names of authors are often misspelled—“Frederic Brown” for Fredric Brown, “Philip Nowlen” for Philip Francis Nowlan, “Frederick Pohl” for Frederik Pohl, “R.D. Sheriff” for playwright R.C. Sherriff—though one might expect a science fiction critic to be especially careful about such matters. Dates are regularly incorrect, such as when Stover gives the name of Nowlan’s 1928 story “Armageddon 2419 A.D.” as “Armageddon 2149 A.D.” or cites Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen” as first published in 1970, not 1940. Some errors might result from misused spell-checking programs, such as stating the birth name of Heinlein’s Lazarus Long as “Woodward Wilson Smith” instead of Woodrow Wilson Smith. But frankly, scores of significant errors can only be attributed to Leon Stover’s ignorance.

For example, any scholar familiar with science fiction magazines would immediately know that Stanley G. Weinbaum’s story “A Martian Odyssey” was first published in Gernsback’s Wonder Stories in 1934; she would simply know this, as a matter of course, just as she would know that Amazing Stories began in 1926 and that Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” first appeared in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1944. Certain key dates simply become inscribed in one’s memory banks. Stover, however, in his survey of the covers of science fiction magazines (which often appears to constitute the extent of his research) happened to notice “A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum” on the cover of the November 1939 issue of Startling Stories (it was reprinted there) and incredibly concluded that it had first been published there. (Actually, he refers to its first appearance in the November 1937 issue of Startling Stories, a typical error in dates, though a caption gets the date right.)

Stover repeatedly refers to Robert Silverberg’s anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume I (1970), which includes an introduction by Silverberg explaining how the stories were voted on and listing the top fifteen vote-getters in order; the anthology itself then presents the stories in chronological order, starting with the oldest (“A Martian Odyssey,” 1934) and concluding with the most recent (“A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” 1962). Stover, as if he had never bothered to read the introduction, persistently assumes that the order of the stories’ appearance is the order of the voting; so the first story, “A Martian Odyssey,” is incorrectly said to have finished first in the voting (51), the second story “Twilight” is incorrectly said to have finished second in the voting (98), and so on.

As another example of authorial cluelessness, consider his peculiar discussion of author G. Peyton Wertenbaker, persistently referred to as “C. Peyton Wertenbaker.” Stover came across a passage from the Wertenbaker letter that appeared in the July 1926 issue of Amazing Stories (surely in a secondary source, for reasons that will become apparent) and was so impressed by its contents that he employed it as an introductory epigraph. In the text, he begins by referring to Wertenbaker as “the fannish letter writer in [Amazing Stories’s] first year ... [who] did indeed go on to become one of [Gernsback’s] writers” (16). This is not true; at the time the letter appeared, Wertenbaker had already written and published three stories in Gernsback’s magazines. Stover then asserts that Wertenbaker “had not the faintest glimmer of what Verne and Wells intended .... For him engineering fiction, gadgetry, and innovative products were the essence” (16). This is baseless slander. In part of his letter that Stover ignores (and surely never read), Wertenbaker writes that “The danger that may lie before AMAZING STORIES is that of becoming too scientific and not sufficiently literary,” going on intelligently to point to Wells as “a model ... who has instinctively recognized, in his stories, the correct proportions of fiction, fact, and science.”1 Stover later concludes that “C. Peyton Wertenbaker, in my epigraph, must have had The Time Machine (1895) in mind when he defined SF as appealing to a sense of wonder regarding ‘things vast, cataclysmic, and unfathomably strange’” (33), though there is nothing in his letter, despite the mention of Wells, to suggest any special focus on that novel. As evidence for his unfounded supposition, Stover can only note that The Time Machine “was, after all, reprinted in Amazing’s first year, to which his fan letter is a response” (33); but The Time Machine actually appeared in the magazine’s second year—its July 1927 issue—a year after Wertenbaker’s letter appeared. Stover offers more ill-informed criticisms of Wertenbaker’s purported limitations—“Wertenbaker missed this when he exalted the vast catastrophe envisaged in The Time Machine” (34) and “Wertenbaker sees in The Time Machine only the strange and cataclysmic end-of-the-world drama it displays” (35)—essentially criticizing him, on the basis of no evidence, for failing to properly interpret a story that he did not even mention. Finally, Stover concedes that Wertenbaker “may also have been thinking of ‘The Man from the Atom,’ the cover story of the special scientifiction issue of Science and Invention” (33)—without displaying any awareness that Wertenbaker was in fact the author of “The Man from the Atom,” even though Gernsback precedes the letter he is obsessing about with the comment that “G. Peyton Wertenbaker, author of ‘The Man from the Atom,’ says this on the same subject....” It is further apparent that Stover has never read “The Man from the Atom,” which he incorrectly summarizes as “the original The Incredible Shrinking Man ... who shrinks down from the macro-universe only to find its atomic substructure a duplicate—planets, stars, galaxies, and all and so on down the line—until he reemerges in his own world only to repeat the circuit forever” (33). Actually, Wertenbaker’s story involves a man who expands exponentially to emerge in a macro-universe, of which our universe is only an atom, and in the story’s sequel, he shrinks back down into a duplicate of our universe to resume his previous life, bringing his adventures to a final conclusion. Stover has been caught in the act of rambling on about an author, a letter, and a story about which he knows virtually nothing.

Several times, in fact, Stover betrays that he has never read the stories he is pontificating about. In lengthy analyses of Gernsback’s Ralph 124C 41+ (fixup 1925), for example, he says that its hero Ralph is depicted as the inventor of television (173)—he is not—that the words “dormiphone” and “radar” appear in the novel (18-19)—they do not—and that Gernsback’s opponent is a masterful inventor like himself (17)—actually, neither of Gernsback’s opponents (there are two of them) is a scientist. In discussing Campbell’s “Twilight” (1934), he says that “It is 8 million years in the future and man is extinct” (98); but frail, decadent humans are still alive in “Twilight”—only the story’s sequel, “Night” (1935), goes farther into the future to find humanity extinct. Describing the time traveler of L. Sprague de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall (1949), Stover says, “He vainly attempts to help the Romans apply modern technology to hold off the falling darkness of the coming of the barbarians, but fails. No infrastructure exists to produce even the simplest inventions of his own time” (165). Actually, de Camp’s hero does manage to both establish such an infrastructure and to duplicate many of his era’s inventions, so that he succeeds in preventing the fall of the Roman Empire, as conveyed by the novel’s resonant closing lines: “History had, without question, been changed. Darkness would not fall.”2 Summarizing Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1953), one of the most famous stories of its era, Stover says, “An expedition from Earth lands a heavy vehicle on the surface of a realistic Jupiter” (108); yet any science fiction scholar should know that the novel actually takes place on the imaginary, pancake-shaped world of Mesklin. Stover claims that H. Beam Piper’s 1957 story “Omnilingual” describes a vanished Martian civilization that had “no saving Lowellian canals” (102); yet the story describes an evocative visual representation of Martian history that includes “The Canal Builders—men with machines recognizable as steam-shovels and derricks, digging and quarrying and driving across the empty plains with aquaducts .” 3

Now, even well-read scholars may sometimes find themselves talking about books they have not read; perhaps, at times, I have even done so myself. But a wise scholar in this position at least seeks out and relies on trustworthy references to ensure that all comments about the story are accurate. Stover might have located, for example, accurate summaries of Ralph 124C 41+, “The Man from the Atom,” and “Twilight” in Everett F. Bleiler’s Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years (1998); yet he is either unaware of such resources or disinclined to consult them. After all, his perfunctory appendices and bibliography cite only three critical works, two of them inaccurately described: John Clute and Peter Nicholls’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993), Aldiss’s Billion Year Spree (1973, incorrectly called a revision of a nonexistent Million Year Spree—presumably reflecting a garbled recollection that Billion Year Spree was revised as Trillion Year Spree in 1986), and James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds (1975, incorrectly citing Gunn as its editor, not its author).

Stover’s refusal to draw upon the work of other scholars leads him to make still more errors. Discussing the original version of Heinlein’s Future History chart published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction, he says that the novel Methuselah’s Children, to be published later in 1941, was “Not yet indicated on the chart” (116). Actually, it was, under its working title of “While the Evil Days Come Not,” a fact Stover could have garnered from other books about Heinlein such as Alexei Panshin’s Heinlein in Dimension (1968). Historian Albert I. Berger, in an article published in the September 1984 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact and incorporated into his book The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology (1993), has explained, based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, that it was actually agents from the Army’s Counter-Intelligence Corps, not the FBI, who visited Campbell’s office after “Deadline” was published in 1944; yet Stover in 2002 is still repeating the old, inaccurate story about Campbell’s encounter with “the FBI” (101).

While innumerable basic mistakes in a book written by a respected scholar and published by a scholarly press might inspire only scornful ridicule, the phenomenon also raises disturbing questions. One might be driven beyond righteous indignation to feel sorry for Stover’s inability or unwillingness to check facts. Considering the process that brought this book into print might also prove disquieting; usually, books from scholarly presses are first read and approved by peer reviewers with solid credentials as experienced scholars in the field. Did this, in fact, occur? And if it did, how could such errors have escaped them?

Some may feel that I am carrying on at excessive length about the issue of factual accuracy in Science Fiction from Wells to Heinlein—isn’t a man allowed to make some mistakes?—yet the abundance and severity of the errors here, more than any other problem, render this book an appalling failure. As Robert McHenry notes in an article in the November 15, 2002 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, if a scholar does not get her facts straight, she is simply not credible at all; nothing she says can be trusted. That is why I am singularly unimpressed by what might be regarded as the most significant revelation in Stover’s book: the claim that, in a 1950 conversation with psychologist and author Robert Lindner, he personally confirmed that Paul A. Linebarger, better known by his pseudonym Cordwainer Smith, was in fact “Kirk Allen,” the patient with a science-fictional fantasy world described in Lindner’s The Jet-Propelled Couch (145). Ordinarily, if a senior scholar reported that he had received key information about a major author in a personal conversation, it would be universally accepted as factual and incorporated into all subsequent discussions of the author. Even ignoring what Alan C. Elms reports in “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch: Cordwainer Smith and Kirk Allen”4—that Stover had been far less sure of his memories of the conversation in comments prior to this book’s publication—it is impossible to accept the truth of a claim put forth in a book riddled with so many other demonstrably false claims. The true identity of Kirk Allen, then, remains very much an open question.

Leon Stover works hard, and he has published several books that might appear to be valuable resources to the uninitiated; unfortunately, future scholars will be obliged to ignore the fruits of his labors because of their many questionable judgments and obvious errors. All one can say, really, is that the whole situation is a darn shame.

It is with a sense of relief and gratitude that one turns to Mike Ashley’s The Time Machines: The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the Beginning to 1950: The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine, Volume 1. To summarize its virtues, one might concisely state that Ashley is the anti-Stover. His prose style, if unspectacular, is consistently effective and readable, and his writing appealingly projects youthful energy and a strong desire to find every fact available and tell every story that needs to be told. He organizes his material with great care, and whenever readers might expect some discussion of a topic he has chosen to deal with later, Ashley provides an explanatory comment. His coverage of the pulp magazines from 1926 to 1950 is comprehensive and balanced; his critical judgments are solid and commonsensical; and he is careful to distinguish his own opinions from those of certain scholars or the science fiction community as a whole. Most refreshingly, Ashley is visibly an expert on these science fiction magazines, having examined every page of every single one of them, and he is meticulously dedicated to getting all of his facts straight, so that errors in the text are rare and trivial, such as referring to Heinlein’s novella “Lost Legion” (republished in 1941 as “Lost Legacy”) as a “novel” (160) and once misspelling Kline’s middle name as “Adlebert” (260).

Beginning with this volume, Ashley is revising and expanding the lengthy introductions that graced his four anthologies in the 1970s, collectively entitled The History of the Science Fiction Magazines, with volumes covering the eras 1926-1935, 1936-1945, 1946-1955, and 1956-1964. Now shorn of the stories and significantly longer, the project is slated to extend into two additional volumes. Despite its umbrella title, Ashley’s trilogy is actually something rather different than a “history” in the normal sense of the term, but it is extremely valuable nonetheless. After all, the “history” of the pulp magazine era is familiar; first, in the 1920s, there were Amazing Stories and the other Gernsback magazines; then, after an interregnum hastily surveyed, with perhaps brief mentions of T. O’Conor Sloane and F. Orlon Tremaine, one gets to the Golden Age of John W. Campbell, Jr. and Astounding Science-Fiction; then, after a possible reference to Ray Palmer’s Amazing Stories, Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas’s The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and H.L. Gold’s Galaxy take center stage in the 1950s, to be followed by Michael Moorcock’s New Worlds in the 1960s. Such is the way that the history of the science fiction magazines has been sorted out, with major figures identified and interrelated while minor figures are marginalized, all part of the process of shaping and narrativizing data from the past that is invariably involved in crafting a history. Ashley’s book, in contrast, might be better described with an older term as a chronicle of the science fiction magazines, devoted to comprehensively describing every relevant event in the period, with less attention to the task of artful historicizing. Ashley provides, in other words, precisely the sort of complete portrait of the pulp magazine era that later generations will unfortunately have no patience for, as they are driven to focus on, at best, a few scattered highlights from the era.

In carrying out his agenda, Ashley brings to light some information involving the science fiction magazines that others have overlooked. While Bleiler’s Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years remains the best source of information on the stories published in the magazines (at least those from 1926 to 1936), Ashley is attentive to everything published in the pages of those magazines—editorials, readers’ letters, reviews, and articles—and he has also sought out behind-the-scenes information about how the magazines were produced. He refers, for example, to correspondence he uncovered in researching his extensive study of the Gernsback era, The Gernsback Days, which is still inching toward publication. Other than missing a few volumes published recently, such as Eric Leif Davin’s Pioneers of Wonder (1999), his text reflects a solid awareness of all secondary materials regarding this era that are worth consulting; Leon Stover’s name never appears.

Rather than beginning the story in 1926, as in his original anthologies, Ashley now offers an introductory chapter, “Before the Creation,” describing various magazines that included science fiction before Amazing Stories appeared. The inevitable chapter about Gernsback, “An Amazing Experiment,” also includes a lengthy account of the man principally responsible for editing Gernsback’s Wonder Stories in the early 1930s, David Lasser, who made a determined but little-noticed effort to improve the quality of the stories he published, with visible if transitory results, because he soon quarreled with Gernsback and left Wonder Stories in the less capable hands of seventeen-year-old Charles D. Hornig. The third chapter, “Toward the Golden Age,” discusses various magazines of the late 1930s, with a special emphasis on developments in Britain. The fourth chapter, “The Golden Age,” focuses mainly on Campbell’s Astounding, though other wartime magazines like Planet Stories are also discussed. A final chapter, “Unleashing the Atom,” provides information about the postwar magazines; it is especially noteworthy because of its uniquely thorough and even-handed account of the “Shaver mystery” promoted in Palmer’s Amazing during the 1940s. Throughout his study, Ashley also provides information about other neglected areas such as the relationship between science fiction magazines and comic books and the amateur magazines published by fans, while an appendix discusses some foreign-language science fiction magazines in various countries. Other appendices offer useful lists of every single science fiction magazine published in the era, an alphabetical list of brief biographies of important editors and publishers, an alphabetical list of cover artists and all of the magazines they worked for, and a concise but helpful bibliography of valuable secondary resources.

If there are any substantive criticisms to be directed at The Time Machines—and there is something about the genre of scholarly reviews that somehow inclines reviewers in that direction—they would focus on potential minor adjustments that might have led to minor improvements. First, not knowing the full extent of Ashley’s research, one cannot confidently state that Ashley has improperly divided his material into three volumes, but considered in isolation, the range of the first volume seems poorly chosen; 1950, more than the end of an era, was arguably the beginning of a new era, the Indian Summer of science fiction magazines that roughly lasted until the late 1950s. The book, as a result, seems to conclude awkwardly, as Ashley goes ahead and talks about some magazines that began around 1950 and did not last long, while postponing discussion of less transitory magazines that began at the same time for his second volume. Even if it resulted in a shorter first volume and a lengthier second volume, one might have suggested ending the first part in 1945 or 1946, which to me would be a more natural time to pause.

Further, Ashley’s strengths, as already suggested, lie in the enthusiastic pursuit, careful compilation, and methodical presentation of information; when he moves into the area of offering broader conclusions and generalizations about what he is discussing, he appears less sure of himself and more reliant on other scholars. He ventures most conspicuously into the area of “the vision thing” in a brief “Epilogue” that, one suspects, he was prodded to write by his publisher or a peer reviewer desiring the sort of sweeping conclusion better suited to a true “history.” There, he unpersuasively seeks to divide the development of science fiction from 1926 to 1945 into seven distinct “phases,” in particular displaying what I would regard as excessive enthusiasm for the argument in Alexei and Cory Panshin’s The World Beyond the Hill (1989) that there occurred around 1945 a “transcendental” era of science fiction. More broadly, Ashley is well enough informed to recognize that science fiction did not progress through these seven “phases” in anything resembling neatly demarcated stages, and that there is considerable overlap between his phases, so that many stories from that era could be defensibly categorized as representative of two or three different phases. Overall, the “Epilogue” might have been wisely omitted, inasmuch as it seems to weaken the book more than strengthening it.

But these are quibble. Publication of this wonderful volume and its successors represents a milestone event in science fiction scholarship, and any future scholars who are idiosyncratically determined to study the magazine era will surely be advised to begin their investigations by reading Ashley’s books. If the science fiction magazines are remembered, Ashley’s book will surely be remembered as well.

1. G. Peyton Wertenbaker, cited in Hugo Gernsback, “Fiction Versus Facts,” Amazing Stories 1 (July 1926): 291. A later quotation from the letter is from the same source and page.
2. L. Sprague de Camp, Lest Darkness Fall.1949 (New York: Pyramid, 1969), 174.
3. H. Beam Piper, “Omnilingual,” in Mars, We Love You, eds. Jane Hipolito and Willis E. McNelly (New York: Pyramid, 1973), 231.
4. See Alan C. Elms, “Behind the Jet-Propelled Couch: Cordwainer Smith and Kirk Allen,” The New York Review of Science Fiction 13 (May 2002): 1, 4-7.

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