Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The new mutation

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Almost from the beginning, science fiction has had mixed feelings about the face that it presents to the world. The artwork that adorned the pulp magazines was the best form of advertising that it would ever have, and there were times when the covers seemed even more important than the contents, which could come across as an afterthought. (According to legend, Astounding itself owed its existence to a whim of the publisher William Clayton, who noticed one day that the huge sheet of paper on which the covers for his thirteen titles were printed—in four rows by four columns—had three blank spaces. Since the cover was the most expensive part, he could publish three more magazines at minimal cost, which was how the editor Harry Bates got the chance to pitch Astounding Stories of Super-Science. But this also tells you something about how the financial resources of the pulps were allocated.) To distinguish themselves from their competitors on the newsstands, these magazines naturally had to evolve bold colors and striking images, which is a big part of their appeal today. As long as they were content to be little more than disposable entertainment, that was perfectly fine, but after science fiction began to make claims for itself that were unlike those of other genre, the discrepancy between the packaging and the aspirations expressed on the inside began to seem like a problem. And this was a particular source of irritation for John W. Campbell, who came into the magazine with ambitions that strained against the confines of the medium, or at least the way in which it had always been marketed to its readers.

At first, Campbell even dreamed of replacing the name Astounding itself with the more refined Science Fiction, but he was frustrated by the debut of another pulp with that title the following year. He was busy trying to get better stories from his writers, but his first order of business was to improve the artwork, as he wrote to his friend Robert Swisher on October 24, 1937, just a few weeks after starting his new job:

Evolution proceeds by mutation—sudden small, but important changes developed through generations and tested before a new change is made. Ditto Astounding. The change in this case is going to be the cover: for some months, I’m going to try to run a series of covers that will be genuine artwork, first-class work with none of the lurid color idea that the mags have been using…I have vague, fond hopes that outsiders will be sufficiently interested in the cover to buy the magazine.

The use of the word “outsiders” was especially revealing. Campbell was looking to attract mainstream readers beyond his existing audience of fans, and he knew that the art—both inside and outside the magazine— had to make his case long before the stories ever could. As he wrote the following week to Swisher: “For the man who leafs through that curious and new-to-him magazine, Astounding Stories, nice, clean-cut illustrations in careful reproduction mean a lot. He can’t get the quality of the stories till he’s bought the thing once—the pictures have to sell it to him.”

In the meantime, though, Campbell had to sell his proposed changes to his current readers, for whom the artwork had always been a positive attraction. Writing in an unsigned editorial in the February 1938 issue, which bore a refined painting of the surface of Mercury, he laid out his reasoning in terms that he hoped would appeal to fans:

That cover is the first of a series—a new mutant field opened to science fiction. It illustrates Raymond Z. Gallun’s story “Mercutian Adventure,” but more than that; it is an accurate astronomical color-plate. You noticed there was no text, no printed matter on the picture itself? There will be none on the astronomical plates to follow. Each will be, as is this, an accurate a representation of some other-world scene as modern astronomical knowledge and the complex psychology and physics of human vision make possible.

Campbell emphasized the hard work that had gone into the painting: “Howard Brown and I worked over this cover, I trying to get the astronomy accurate; Brown, helping in the more difficult work of interpretation of fact to human understanding.” He noted that the cover actually depicted the sun as larger than it would appear from Mercury in real life, which reflected the fact that human vision tended to perceive astronomical objects as greater than their true size. And he concluded: “Our astronomical color plate covers will be as accurate an impression as astronomical science and knowledge of human reaction can make them.”

I don’t know what Campbell and Brown actually discussed, but my hunch is that the conversation was slightly more pragmatic than what the editor described here. The real issue, I suspect, was that a depiction of the sun in its true proportions wouldn’t have been striking enough to catch the eye of a casual browser at a candy store. But Campbell’s rationalization—which combines an appeal to accuracy with the need to reflect “human understanding”—is noteworthy in itself. For years, he would struggle to reconcile his hopes for the genre with the realities of the pulps, which resulted in some of the most fascinating aspects of the golden age of science fiction. (I could write an entire post, and maybe I will, about the cover typography alone. Campbell repeatedly tinkered with the magazine’s logo, including one version that I love so much that I quietly appropriated it for my own book, but it wasn’t until after World War II that he was able to alter it so that the word Astounding appeared in barely legible script over the bold Science Fiction, allowing him to effectively pull off the title change that he had wanted since the late thirties.) Over the following three years, the “astronomical” covers would continue to appear at irregular intervals, alternating with traditional pulp paintings, many of which were undeniably crude. Yet the more conventional artwork was improving as well. Charles Schneeman’s cover for “The Merman” in the December 1938 issue, which coincided with a gorgeous new logo, was an undeniable step forward, and the process culminated two months later with the debut of Hubert Rogers. Tomorrow, I’ll consider how the covers continued to evolve, and how the ultimate result was far more wonderful than even Campbell could have anticipated.

Written by nevalalee

October 25, 2018 at 9:00 am

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