Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The mystical vision

with 3 comments

If I have one regret about Astounding, which is generally a book that I’m proud to have written, it’s that it doesn’t talk much about the illustrators who played such an important role in the development of modern science fiction. If I had to justify this omission, I would offer three excuses, none of which is particularly convincing on its own. The first is that it’s impossible to discuss this subject at any length without a lot of pictures, preferably in color. My budget for images—both for obtaining rights and for the physical process of printing—was extremely constrained, and there are plenty of existing books out there that are filled with beautiful reproductions. The second is that this was primarily a story about John W. Campbell and his circle of writers, and there just wasn’t as much narrative material for the artists. (As Frank Kelly Freas once said: “There are fewer tales about [Campbell’s] artists only because there have been fewer artists—it took a certain amount of resiliency in an artist to keep from being worn down to a mere nub on the grinding wheel of the Campbell brilliance.”) And the third is that this was already a big book that had to include biographies of four complex individuals and the people in their lives, a critical look at their work, and a history of science fiction for the period as a whole. I was building up much of this expertise from scratch, and even in the finished product, there are times when the various strands barely manage to hold together. Something had to give along the way, and without a lot of conscious thought, I suspect that I made the call to pass lightly over the artists, just for the sake of keeping this book within reasonable bounds.

Yet it also leaves a real gap in the story, and I’m keenly aware of its absence. If nothing else, the artwork of the classic pulps—particularly their painted covers—played a huge role in attracting readers, including many who went on to become authors themselves. In his memoir In Memory Yet Green, Isaac Asimov recounts how the sight of the magazines in his family’s candy store filled him with longing, and how the illustrations played a significant role in his fateful effort to secure his father’s permission to read them:

I picked up [Science Wonder Stories] and, not without considerable qualms, approached my formidable sire…I spoke rapidly, pointed out the word “science,” showed him the paintings of futuristic machines inside as an indication of how advanced it was, and (I believe) made it plain that if he said “No,” I had every intention of mounting a rebellion.

The italics are mine. From the very beginning, the visual element of science fiction has served as a priceless form of free advertising, both for individual fans and for the culture as a whole. These images shaped our collective notion of the genre as much as the words did, if not more, and it’s a large part of the reason why Amazing Stories, not Astounding, became the primary reference point for the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. You can still browse through those covers with pleasure, and I honestly dare you to do the same with a randomly selected story. And if Amazing still inspires some of our most extravagant dreams, it isn’t because of the words.

You could also argue that the collaboration between artists and writers—which usually took place without the two sides ever interacting—was more responsible for what science fiction became than either half could be on its own. (This is a decent reason, by the way, for seeking out reproductions of the original magazine pages whenever possible. In practice, the stories tend to be anthologized in one place, while the illustrations are collected in another, which presents a fragmented picture of how fans experienced the genre in real time.) In the earliest period, the connection between text and image was extremely close, to the point that many of the illustrations had captions to let you know exactly what moment was being depicted. As Brian Aldiss writes in the lavish book Science Fiction Art:

[Artist Frank R. Paul] appears rather pedestrian in his approach; his objective seems to be merely to translate as literally as possible the words of the writer into pictures, as if he were translating from one language into another. Moreover, in the Gernsback magazines, he was often anchored to the literal text, a line or two of which would be appended under the illustration in an old-fashioned way.

Yet it only takes a second to realize that this is only part of the story. Paul may have been translating words into images, but he was also expanding, elaborating, and improving on his raw material. As Aldiss continues: “[Paul’s] creed, one might suspect, was utilitarian. Yet an almost mystical vision shines forth from his best covers.” And it certainly wasn’t there in most stories.

“Paul made amends for the inadequacies of the writers,” Aldiss concludes, and it’s hard not to agree. In One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration, Anthony Frewin elaborates:

Paul had little or no precedent from which to gain inspiration and it is a fitting tribute to his incredible imagination that his vision and stylization of SF would characterize all similar work for the next forty years. Paul, when illustrating a story, created these monstrous galactic cities, alien landscapes, and mechanical behemoths entirely himself—the descriptions contained in the stories were never ever much more specific than, for example, something like “shimmering towers rising into the clouds from a crystal-like terrain.” He had a bias for the epic conception and many of his best covers depict vast vistas with vanishing point perspective which, nonetheless, still had a painstaking and elaborate attention to the smallest detail that one could equate with the work of John Martin.

And what was especially true of Paul was true of science fiction illustration in general. So much of what we associate with the genre—its scale, its galactic expanses, its sense of wonder—was best expressed in pictures. (It’s even possible that a writer like Asimov could get away with barely sketching in the visual aspects of his stories because he knew that Hubert Rogers would take it from there.) “Many of us began reading SF ‘because of the pictures,’” Aldiss writes, and in the end, its pictures may be its most lasting legacy. Over the next few days, I’ll be taking a closer look at what this means.

Note: I’ll be holding a Reddit AMA today at 12:30pm ET on /r/books to talk about Astounding and the golden age of science fiction. I hope that some of you can make it! 

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. very interesting this kind of story nice to be here


    October 24, 2018 at 9:24 am

  2. Hi

    I have to admit I pick up the pulps for the covers, Paul and Rogers are particular favourites. The Paul’s especially convey the sense of wonder that drew me to SF in the first place. Once the publishers switched to digest size the impact lessened although many of the covers were still beautifully done. This year I picked up some of the bed sheet sized Analogs that Conde Nast produced from 1963-1965. The switch was made so Analog conformed to the plates for their slick style publications, The larger size and better reproduction produced lovely interior black and white illustrations, often in my mind better then the covers. While I had been pretty indifferent to Freas as an artist, once I saw his work in these magazines I was blown away.

    All the best


    October 24, 2018 at 10:16 am

  3. Guy writes: While I had been pretty indifferent to Freas as an artist, once I saw his work in these magazines I was blown away.

    I’m tempted to respond to Alec’s post today emphasizing the significance of Astounding/Analog’s illustrators over the years by saying ‘right on’ and by expanding on a couple of points.

    The first of which is the one you made, Guy, about how _attractive_ Campbell’s magazine was as a physical package during the 1960s, however relatively lackluster the fiction may have been compared to its heyday.

    As you say, the bedsheet-sized format was particularly suitable for the illustrations that Freas and Schoenherr did then. The latter was just hitting his stride and most of the stuff we remember him for — the illustrations for Herbert’s DUNE, prominently — were done then. As for Freas, he’d stepped back from his earlier production rates because he apparently went down to Mexico with his wife to live cheaply and try to become a somewhat more serious artist. So he did less work, which had to be mailed back to the US, but it was some of his best. Freas had serious chops but a tendency to go for the cheese and the cartoonish. During this period he cut out the cheese and some of his covers for Analog are almost perfectly conceptualized and executed. I’m thinking, for instance, of the covers for the August, September, and December 1965 issues (digest-sized, however) of the magazine.

    The second point I wanted to make was that we don’t appreciate today how Astounding’s covers stood out on the newsstands of the 1940s as looking absolutely a thing apart and quite as revolutionary as their story content.

    Look how radically austere, non-pulpish, and abstractly intellectual these ASF covers from 1940 (still Year Zero of the Campbell era) are —

    As compared to 1940’s Planet Stories —

    Or Amazing —

    Mark Pontin

    October 25, 2018 at 2:01 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: