Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The unknown future

with 3 comments

During the writing of Astounding, I often found myself wondering how much control an editor can really have. John W. Campbell is routinely described as the most powerful and influential figure in the history of science fiction, and there’s no doubt that the genre would look entirely different if he were somehow lifted out of the picture. Yet while I never met Campbell, I’ve spoken with quite a few other magazine editors, and my sense is that it can be hard to think about reshaping the field when you’re mostly just concerned with getting out the current issue—or even with your very survival. The financial picture for science fiction magazines may have darkened over the last few decades, but it’s always been a challenge, and it can be difficult to focus on the short term while also keeping your larger objectives in mind. Campbell did it about as well as anyone ever did, but he was limited by the resources at his disposal, and he benefited from a few massive strokes of luck. I don’t think he would have had nearly the same impact if Heinlein hadn’t happened to show up within the first year and a half of his editorship, and you could say much the same of the fortuitous appearance of the artist Hubert Rogers. (By November 1940, Campbell could write: “Rogers has a unique record among science fiction artists: every time he does a cover, the author of the story involved writes him fan mail, and asks me for the cover original.”) In the end, it wasn’t the “astronomical” covers that improved the look of the magazine, but the arrival and development of unexpected talent. And much as Heinlein’s arrival on the scene was something that Campbell never could have anticipated, the advent of Rogers did more to heighten the visual element of Astounding than anything that the editor consciously set out to accomplish.

Campbell, typically, continued to think in terms of actively managing his magazines, and the pictorial results were the most dramatic, not in Astounding, but in Unknown, the legendary fantasy title that he launched in 1939. (His other great effort to tailor a magazine to his personal specifications involved the nonfiction Air Trails, which is a subject for another post.) Unlike Astounding, Unknown was a project that Campbell could develop from scratch, and he didn’t have to deal with precedents established by earlier editors. The resulting stories were palpably different from most of the other fantasy fiction of the time. (Algis Budrys, who calls Campbell “the great rationalizer of supposition,” memorably writes that the magazine was “more interested in the thermodynamics and contract law of a deal with the devil than with just what a ‘soul’ might actually be.”) But this also extended to the visual side. Campbell told his friend Robert Swisher that all elements, including page size, were discussed “carefully and without prejudice” with his publisher, and for the first year and a half, Unknown featured some of the most striking art that the genre had ever seen, with beautiful covers by H.W. Scott, Manuel Rey Isip, Modest Stein, Graves Gladney, and Edd Carter. But the editor remained dissatisfied, and on February 29, 1940, he informed Swisher of a startling decision:

We’re gonna pull a trick on Unknown presently. Probably the July issue will have no picture on the cover—just type. We have hopes of chiseling it outta the general pulp group, and having a few new readers mistake it for a different type. It isn’t straight pulp, and as such runs into difficulties because the adult type readers who might like it don’t examine the pulp racks, while the pulp-type reader in general wouldn’t get much out of it.

The italics are mine. Campbell had tried to appeal to “the adult type readers” by running more refined covers on Astounding, and with Unknown, his solution was to essentially eliminate the cover entirely. Writing to readers of the June 1940 issue to explain the change, the editor did his best to spin it as a reflection of the magazine’s special qualities:

Unknown simply is not an ordinary magazine. It does not, generally speaking, appeal to the usual audience of the standard-type magazine. We have decided on this experimental issue, because of this, in an effort to determine what other types of newsstand buyers might be attracted by a somewhat different approach.

In the next paragraph, Campbell ventured a curious argument: “To the nonreader of fantasy, to one who does not understand the attitude and philosophy of Unknown, the covers may appear simply monstrous rather than the semicaricatures they are. They are not, and have not been intended as, illustrations, but as expressive of a general theme.” Frankly, I doubt that many readers saw the covers as anything but straight illustrations, and in the following sentence, the editor made an assertion that seems even less plausible: “To those who know and enjoy Unknown, the cover, like any other wrapper, is comparatively unimportant.”

In a separate note, Campbell asked for feedback on the change, but he also made his own feelings clear: “We’re going to ask your newsdealer to display [Unknown] with magazines of general class—not with the newsprints. And we’re asking you—do you like the more dignified cover? Isn’t it much more fitting for a magazine containing such stories?” A few months later, in the October 1940 issue, a number of responses were published in the letters column. The reaction was mostly favorable—although Campbell may well have selected letters that supported his own views—but reasonable objections were also raised. One reader wrote: “How can you hope to win new readers by a different cover if the inside illustrations are as monstrous, if not more so, than have any previous covers ever been? If you are trying to be more dignified in your illustrations, be consistent throughout the magazine.” On a more practical level, another fan mentioned one possible shortcoming of the new approach: “The July issue was practically invisible among the other publications, and I had to hunt somewhat before I located it.” But it was too late. Unknown may have been the greatest pulp magazine of all time, but along the way, it rejected the entire raison d’être of the pulp magazine cover itself. And while I can’t speak for the readers of the time, I can say that it saddens me personally. Whenever I’m browsing through a box of old pulps, I feel a pang of disappointment when I come across one of the later Unknown covers, and I can only imagine what someone like Cartier might have done with Heinlein’s The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag, or even Hubbard’s Fear. Unknown ran for another three years with its plain cover, which is about the same amount of time that it took for Astounding to reach its visual peak. It might have evolved into something equally wonderful, but we’ll never know—because Campbell decided that he had to kill the cover in order to save it.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2018 at 8:58 am

3 Responses

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  1. very interesting book of story

    nicholasonline13

    October 26, 2018 at 9:57 am

  2. Hi Alec

    Thanks for this, I assumed this was simple economy. There covers themselves are so unappealing, I love the cover for Sinister Barrier in issue one. It is interesting to be able to read Campbell’s thought processes regarding them. Congratulations, your book seems be be getting good press. I thought the review in Nature was quite an accomplishment.

    Guy

    Guy

    October 27, 2018 at 9:20 am

  3. It would be interesting to know how the circulation figures changed, if at all, with the new cover design.

    Paul Fraser

    January 13, 2019 at 10:40 am


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