Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Astounding Science Fiction

Visions of tomorrow

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As I’ve mentioned here before, one of my few real regrets about Astounding is that I wasn’t able to devote much room to discussing the artists who played such an important role in the evolution of science fiction. (The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that their collective impact might be even greater than that of any of the writers I discuss, at least when it comes to how the genre influenced and was received by mainstream culture.) Over the last few months, I’ve done my best to address this omission, with a series of posts on such subjects as Campbell’s efforts to improve the artwork, his deliberate destruction of the covers of Unknown, and his surprising affection for the homoerotic paintings of Alejandro Cañedo. And I can reveal now that this was all in preparation for a more ambitious project that has been in the works for a while—a visual essay on the art of Astounding and Unknown that has finally appeared online in the New York Times Book Review, with the highlights scheduled to be published in the print edition this weekend. It took a lot of time and effort to put it together, especially by my editors, and I’m very proud of the result, which honors the visions of such artists as H.W. Wesso, Howard V. Brown, Hubert Rogers, Manuel Rey Isip, Frank Kelly Freas, and many others. It stands on its own, but I’ve come to think of it as an unpublished chapter from my book that deserves to be read alongside its longer companion. As I note in the article, it took years for the stories inside the magazine to catch up to the dreams of its readers, but the artwork was often remarkable from the beginning. And if you want to know what the fans of the golden age really saw when they imagined the future, the answer is right here.

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January 11, 2019 at 7:25 am

The passion of the pulps

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Note: I’m heading out early this morning to speak to a class at McCormick Theological Seminary, followed by a reading tonight at 57th Street Books in Chicago. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on September 12, 2017.

Last year, I happened to read an essay by a distinguished but elderly science fiction writer who did his best to explain the absence of women in the pulp stories of the late thirties and early forties. See if you can spot the flaw in his reasoning:

Prior to public recognition in the United States that babies are not brought by the stork, there was simply no sex in the science fiction magazines. This was not a matter of taste, it was a matter of custom that had the force of law. In most places, non-recognition of the existence of sex was treated as though it was the law, and for all I know, maybe it was indeed local law. In any case, words or actions that could bring a blush to the leathery cheek of the local censor were clearly out.

But if there’s no sex, what do you do with female characters? They can’t have passions and feelings. They can’t participate on equal terms with male characters because that would introduce too many complications where some sort of sex might creep in. The best thing to do was to keep them around in the background, allowing them to scream in terror, to be caught and rescued, and, at the end, to smile prettily at the hero. (It can be done safely then because The End is the universal rescue.)

The man who wrote this, I’m sorry to say, was Isaac Asimov. It appeared in his essay “Women and Science Fiction,” which was published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and later reprinted in the posthumous collection Gold. And it might be the least convincing explanation that the man whom Carl Sagan called “the greatest explainer of the age” ever gave about anything.

Before I dig into the argument itself, I should probably review Asimov’s earlier statements about women in science fiction, which go back half a century. In the late thirties, before he became a published writer, he was a regular contributor to the letters column in Astounding. As I’ve noted here before, he had reason to later regret some of his comments, as when he wrote: “When we want science fiction, we don’t want swooning dames…Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science.” And he wasn’t kidding. In “Women and Science Fiction,” Asimov acknowledged:

No doubt there were a number of tough young men and girl-chasing young men who read science fiction [in those days], but by and large, I suspect it was the stereotypical “skinny intellectual” who wrote letters to the magazines and denounced any intrusion of femininity. I know. I wrote such letters myself. And in the days when I was reading and rating every science fiction story written, I routinely deducted many points for any intrusion of romance, however sanitized it might be.

To be fair, Asimov later outgrew these feelings, and while women rarely figured in his fiction, there were a few notable exceptions. Later in the same essay, he derided the science fiction magazines for showing “no guts whatsoever” in dealing with the absence of women in its pages, in large part because of its heavily masculine audience, and in his memoir In Joy Still Felt, he simply wrote: “I am a feminist.” (His actual track record on the subject has been discussed elsewhere by other writers, notably Cat Rambo, and I talk about his horrendous treatment of women at length in Astounding.)

So what do we do with the statement that I quoted above, which was made with a straight face toward the end of Asimov’s career? It’s factually correct on exactly one level, which is that the pulps had to be mindful of obscenity laws, and any explicit sexual content would place the entire magazine at risk. John W. Campbell—along with his assistant editor Kay Tarrant, whom he used as a scapegoat for writers who complained about being censored—had a reputation for prudery, and in the period in question, even a more adventurous editor wouldn’t have much of a choice. This is all true enough. But to argue that women couldn’t be depicted “on equal terms” with men because sex would inevitably enter the equation, as if the writer had no control over his characters, is so flimsy a justification that it reflects poorly on a writer who needed so badly to think of himself as rational. In its implication that sexual entanglements would naturally follow from the “passions and feelings” of women who work alongside men, it uncomfortably recalls similar arguments about women in the military and the sciences. It isn’t just wrong, but dumb, and it feels for all the world like a living fossil of an opinion that was somehow planted in Asimov’s brain in the thirties and then casually transmitted, fifty years later, to the readers of his magazine. And we don’t need to look far to find counterexamples. In the May 1940 issue of Super Science Stories, for instance, a short story appeared titled “Let There Be Light,” credited to Lyle Monroe. It was basically a Campbellian gadget yarn, and its basic plot—about two inventors who develop a free source of electricity and are targeted by the power companies—recalled a story that Campbell himself had written seven years earlier called “The Battery of Hate.” But one of the inventors was a woman. (The story does end with her male colleague literally dragging her to the courthouse to get married, but I suppose you can’t have everything.)

And even Asimov noticed. On May 4, 1940, he wrote a letter to his friend Frederik Pohl, the editor of Super Science Stories, that began: “I’m going to have to take up a new role today. At least it looks as if I’m under the painful necessity of defending the love interest in a story which is being attacked by other readers on that account.” He continued:

As official anti-love-interest-spouter of science fiction, I should have been the first to howl, but, strangely enough, I liked “Let There Be Light” a lot…There’s no denying that Lyle Monroe gave the story a liberal dash of femininity and I certainly can’t deny that several spots of the story called for raised eyebrows…However, Monroe was not obscene, or anything faintly approaching it. He was witty, I think, and humorous and the—shall we say—daring style of the humor is not too out of place in this good year 1940. Let’s not be prudes, ladies and gentlemen and—don’t look now—Queen Victoria died in 1902.

Asimov concluded: “The name may be a pseudonym for someone—I don’t know—but one thing! It is not a pseudonym for Isaac Asimov, in case someone wants to be funny.” The notion that anyone could think that Asimov could have written it was funny in itself, but in any case, it was a pen name—for Robert A. Heinlein. He had submitted the story to Campbell, who rejected it with a letter that hinted at the real reason why female characters so rarely appeared. There were “passions and feelings” involved, all right, but they didn’t belong to the women. The words are Campbell’s, but the italics are mine:

Your work is good. Even this is good, despite the fact that it’s bouncing. Main reason: the femme is too good. The science fiction readers have shown a consistent distaste for…feminine scenery in science fiction stories. She’s much more nicely handled than the average woman in science fiction, but I’m still afraid of her.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 3

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By now, it might seem obvious that the best way to approach Nostradamus is to see it as a kind of game, as Anthony Boucher describes it in the June 1942 issue of Unknown Worlds: “A fascinating game, to be sure, with a one-in-a-million chance of hitting an astounding bullseye. But still a game, and a game that has to be played according to the rules. And those rules are, above all things else, even above historical knowledge and ingenuity of interpretation, accuracy and impartiality.” Boucher’s work inspired several spirited rebukes in print from L. Sprague de Camp, who granted the rules of the game but disagreed about its harmlessness. In a book review signed “J. Wellington Wells”—and please do keep an eye on that last name—de Camp noted that Nostradamus was “conjured out of his grave” whenever there was a war:

And wonder of wonders, it always transpires that a considerable portion of his several fat volumes of prophetic quatrains refer to the particular war—out of the twenty-odd major conflicts that have occurred since Dr. Nostradamus’s time—or other disturbance now taking place; and moreover that they prophesy inevitable victory for our side—whichever that happens to be. A wonderful man, Nostradamus.

Their affectionate battle culminated in a nonsense limerick that de Camp published in the December 1942 version of Esquire, claiming that if it was still in print after four hundred years, it would have been proven just as true as any of Nostradamus’s prophecies. Boucher responded in Astounding with the short story “Pelagic Spark,” an early piece of fanfic in which de Camp’s great-grandson uses the “prophecy” to inspire a rebellion in the far future against the sinister Hitler XVI.

This is all just good fun, but not everyone sees it as a game, and Nostradamus—like other forms of vaguely apocalyptic prophecy—tends to return at exactly the point when such impulses become the most dangerous. This was the core of de Camp’s objection, and Boucher himself issued a similar warning:

At this point there enters a sinister economic factor. Books will be published only when there is popular demand for them. The ideal attempt to interpret the as yet unfulfilled quatrains of Nostradamus would be made in an ivory tower when all the world was at peace. But books on Nostradamus sell only in times of terrible crisis, when the public wants no quiet and reasoned analysis, but an impassioned assurance that We are going to lick the blazes out of Them because look, it says so right here. And in times of terrible crisis, rules are apt to get lost.

Boucher observes that one of the best books on the subject, Charles A. Ward’s Oracles of Nostradamus, was reissued with a dust jacket emblazoned with such questions as “Will America Enter the War?” and “Will the British Fleet Be Destroyed?” You still see this sort of thing today, and it isn’t just the books that benefit. In 1981, the producer David L. Wolper released a documentary on the prophecies of Nostradamus, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, that saw subsequent spikes in interest during the Gulf War—a revised version for television was hosted by Charlton Heston—and after the September 11 attacks, when there was a run on the cassette at Blockbuster. And the attention that it periodically inspires reflects the same emotional factors that led to psychohistory, as the host of the original version said to the audience: “Do we really want to know about the future? Maybe so—if we can change it.”

The speaker, of course, was Orson Welles. I had always known that The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was narrated by Welles, but it wasn’t until I watched it recently that I realized that he hosted it onscreen as well, in one of my favorite incarnations of any human being—bearded, gigantic, cigar in hand, vaguely contemptuous of his surroundings and collaborators, but still willing to infuse the proceedings with something of the velvet and gold braid. Keith Phipps of The A.V. Club once described the documentary as “a brain-damaged sequel” to Welles’s lovely F for Fake, which is very generous. The entire project is manifestly ridiculous and exploitative, with uncut footage from the Zapruder film mingling with a xenophobic fantasy of a war of the West against Islam. Yet there are also moments that are oddly transporting, as when Welles turns to the camera and says:

Before continuing, let me warn you now that the predictions of the future are not at all comforting. I might also add that these predictions of the past, these warnings of the future are not the opinions of the producers of the film. They’re certainly not my opinions. They’re interpretations of the quatrains as made by scores of independent scholars of Nostradamus’ work.

In the sly reading of “my opinions,” you can still hear a trace of Harry Lime, or even of Gregory Arkadin, who invited his guests to drink to the story of the scorpion and the frog. And the entire movie is full of strange echoes of Welles’s career. Footage is repurposed from Waterloo, in which he played Louis XVIII, and it glances at the fall of the Shah of Iran, whose brother-in-law funded Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, which was impounded by the revolutionary government that Nostradamus allegedly foresaw.

Welles later expressed contempt for the whole affair, allegedly telling Merv Griffin that you could get equally useful prophecies by reading at random out of the phone book. Yet it’s worth remembering, as the critic David Thomson notes, that Welles turned all of his talk show interlocutors into versions of the reporter from Citizen Kane, or even into the Hal to his Falstaff, and it’s never clear where the game ended. His presence infuses The Man Who Saw Tomorrow with an unearned loveliness, despite the its many awful aspects, such as the presence of the “psychic” Jeane Dixon. (Dixon’s fame rested on her alleged prediction of the Kennedy assassination, based on a statement—made in Parade magazine in 1960—that the winner of the upcoming presidential election would be “assassinated or die in office though not necessarily in his first term.” Oddly enough, no one seems to remember an equally impressive prediction by the astrologer Joseph F. Goodavage, who wrote in Analog in September 1962: “It is coincidental that each American president in office at the time of these conjunctions [of Jupiter and Saturn in an earth sign] either died or was assassinated before leaving the presidency…John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960 at the time of a Jupiter and Saturn conjunction in Capricorn.”) And it’s hard for me to watch this movie without falling into reveries about Welles, who was like John W. Campbell in so many other ways. Welles may have been the most intriguing cultural figure of the twentieth century, but he never seemed to know what would come next, and his later career was one long improvisation. It might not be too much to hear a certain wistfulness when he speaks of the man who could see tomorrow, much as Campbell’s fascination with psychohistory stood in stark contrast to the confusion of the second half of his life. When The Man Who Saw Tomorrow was released, Welles had finished editing about forty minutes of his unfinished masterpiece The Other Side of the Wind, and for decades after his death, it seemed that it would never be seen. Instead, it’s available today on Netflix. And I don’t think that anybody could have seen that coming.

The Men Who Saw Tomorrow, Part 1

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If there’s a single theme that runs throughout my book Astounding, it’s the two sides of the editor John W. Campbell. These days, Campbell tends to be associated with highly technical “hard” science fiction with an emphasis on physics and engineering, but he had an equally dominant mystical side, and from the beginning, you often see the same basic impulses deployed in both directions. (After the memory of his career had faded, much of this history was quietly revised, as Algis Burdrys notes in Benchmarks Revisited: “The strong mystical bent displayed among even the coarsest cigar-chewing technists is conveniently overlooked, and Campbell’s subsequent preoccupation with psionics is seen as an inexplicable deviation from a life of hitherto unswerving straight devotion to what we all agree is reasonability.”) As an undergraduate at M.I.T. and Duke, Campbell was drawn successively to Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, and Joseph Rhine, the psychologist best known for his statistical studies of telepathy. Both professors fed into his fascination with a possible science of the mind, but along strikingly different lines, and he later pursued both dianetics, which he originally saw as a kind of practical cybernetics, and explorations of psychic powers. Much the same holds true of his other great obsession—the problem of foreseeing the future. As I discuss today in an essay in the New York Times, its most famous manifestation was the notion of psychohistory, the fictional science of prediction in Asimov’s Foundation series. But at a time of global uncertainty, it wasn’t the method of forecasting that counted, but the accuracy of the results, and even as Campbell was collaborating with Asimov, his interest in prophecy was taking him to even stranger places.

The vehicle for the editor’s more mystical explorations was Unknown, the landmark fantasy pulp that briefly channeled these inclinations away from the pages of Astounding. (In my book, I argue that the simultaneous existence of these two titles purified science fiction at a crucial moment, and that the entire genre might have evolved in altogether different ways if Campbell had been forced to express all sides of his personality in a single magazine.) As I noted here the other day, in an attempt to attract a wider audience, Campbell removed the cover paintings from Unknown, hoping to make it look like a more mainstream publication. The first issue with the revised design was dated July 1940, and in his editor’s note, Campbell explicitly addressed the “new discoverers” who were reading the magazine for the first time. He grandly asserted that fantasy represented “a completely untrammeled literary medium,” and as an illustration of the kinds of subjects that he intended to explore in his stories, he offered a revealing example:

Until somebody satisfactorily explains away the unquestionable masses of evidence showing that people do have visions of things yet to come, or of things occurring at far-distant points—until someone explains how Nostradamus, the prophet, predicted things centuries before they happened with such minute detail (as to names of people not to be born for half a dozen generations or so!) that no vague “Oh, vague generalities—things are always happening that can be twisted to fit!” can possibly explain them away—until the time those are docketed and labeled and nearly filed—they belong to The Unknown.

It was Campbell’s first mention in print of Nostradamus, the sixteenth-century French prophet, but it wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Campbell alluded in another editorial to the Moberly-Jourdain incident, in which two women claimed to have traveled over a century back in time on a visit to the Palace of Versailles. The editor continued: “If it happens one way—how about the other? How about someone slipping from the past to the future? It is known—and don’t condemn till you’ve read a fair analysis of the old man’s works—that Nostradamus, the famous French prophet, did not guess at what might happen; he recorded what did happen—before it happened. His accuracy of prophecy runs considerably better, actually, than the United States government crop forecasts, in percentage, and the latter are certainly used as a basis for business.” Campbell then drew a revealing connection between Nostradamus and the war in Europe:

Incidentally, to avoid disappointment, Nostradamus did not go into much detail about this period. He was writing several hundred years ago, for people of that time—and principally for Parisians. He predicted in some detail the French Revolution, predicted several destructions of Paris—which have come off on schedule, to date—and did not predict destruction of Paris for 1940. He did, however, for 1999—by a “rain of fire from the East.” Presumably he didn’t have any adequate terms for airplane bombs, so that may mean thermite incendiaries. But the present period, too many centuries from his own times, would be of minor interest to him, and details are sketchy. The prophecy goes up to about the thirty-fifth century.

And the timing was highly significant. Earlier that year, Campbell had published the nonfiction piece “The Science of Whithering” by L. Sprague de Camp in Astounding, shortly after German troops marched into Paris. De Camp’s article, which discussed the work of such cyclical historians as Spengler and Toynbee, represented the academic or scientific approach the problem of forecasting, and it would soon find its fictional expression in such stories as Jack Williamson’s “Breakdown” and Asimov’s “Foundation.” As usual, however, Campbell was playing both sides, and he was about to pursue a parallel train of thought in Unknown that has largely been forgotten. Instead of attempting to explain Nostradamus in rational terms, Campbell ventured a theory that was even more fantastic than the idea of clairvoyance:

Occasionally a man—vanishes…And somehow, he falls into another time. Sometimes future—sometimes past. And sometimes he comes back, sometimes he doesn’t. If he does come back, there’d be a tendency, and a smart one, to shut up; it’s mighty hard to prove. Of course, if he’s a scholarly gentlemen, he might spend his unintentional sojourn in the future reading histories of his beloved native land. Then, of course, he ought to be pretty accurate at predicting revolutions and destruction of cities. Even be able to name inconsequential details, as Nostradamus did.

To some extent, this might have been just a game that he was playing for his readers—but not completely. Campbell’s interest in Nostradamus was very real, and just as he had used Williamson and Asimov to explore psychohistory, he deployed another immensely talented surrogate to look into the problem of prophecy. His name was Anthony Boucher. I’ll be exploring this in greater detail tomorrow.

Note: Please join me today at 12:00pm ET for a Twitter AMA to celebrate the release of the fantastic new horror anthology Terror at the Crossroads, which includes my short story “Cryptids.”

The beauty of the world

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In the fall of 1953, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wasn’t impressed, saying that the results could have been “duplicated in any major insane asylum” and that modern art was the expression of a “violent neurosis.” But the trip wasn’t entirely wasted. As he wrote in a letter to his father, Campbell and his wife Peg were able to spend the day in the company of a good friend:

We went with Alejandro Cañedo, a fine-arts partner friend of mine. We’d just been up to his apartment to see his incredibly lovely land-sea-sky-scapes. He does beach scenes that look as though they might have been painted 3,000,000,000 years ago in the pre-Cambrian period, where raw rock meets long, curling waves, under a vast, spacious sky. He can actually paint a cloud so it looks like a cloud, instead of a bit of white cotton fluff. The pictures are magnificently spacious, and patient and calm. They have eternity and timelessness and action built in them all at once.

Campbell continued: “I was very glad [Cañedo] was along when we went to the museum. He is an artist, and an artist who can, and does, paint beauty. He’s a gentleman, a philosopher, and he’s lived in a number of parts of the world. Mexican by birth, served in the Mexican state department, and studied in Paris and Rome.” And Campbell drew a strong contrast between Cañedo’s “incredibly lovely” canvases and the excesses of abstract act, which was full of nothing but “hate and anger and confusion and frustration.”

And the artist whom Campbell described in another letter as “considerable of a philosopher” was a fascinating figure in his own right. He was born Alejandro de Cañedo in Mexico City in 1902, which made him nearly a decade older than Campbell, and he became known for his exquisitely rendered male figure studies, which he later exhibited under the name Alexander Cañedo. For the December 1946 issue of Astounding, he provided a cover painting for Eric Frank Russell’s “Metamorphosite,” but he might never have made any impression on the magazine’s fans—or its editor—if it hadn’t been for a happy accident. As Campbell told readers the following August:

Item the first is Astounding’s cover for September. It’s different. It’s unique. And it’s more than good. It came about in the following way; Alejandro Cañedo, who did our last cover, was in, and invited me to come up to his studio where he had some paintings he was about to ship to a showing. I did. And he had some strikingly beautiful and wholly unique artwork. I had never seen anything like it—and immediately demanded why he hadn’t done one like that for Astounding.

Campbell concluded: “It seems that Cañedo doing what he likes, and Cañedo doing what he thinks someone else wants, are quite, quite different. I think you’ll want a lot more of the type he’s done. And I can’t describe it.” The cover of the September issue featured the painting reproduced above, and over the next few years, Campbell published several more “symbolic” covers credited to “Alejandro,” which were striking images that didn’t illustrate any specific story.

As even a casual glance reveals, they were also blatantly homoerotic. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of biographical information on Cañedo, but his work appears in the permanent collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and his article on Wikipedia includes the unsourced statement that he painted works of gay erotica for private collectors that couldn’t be displayed in public. And it’s very hard to look at these covers now and see them as anything but erotic reveries. (Even at the time, Cañedo’s cover for the July 1954 issue, titled “Inappropriate,” apparently made some fans uncomfortable, although few seem to have seen anything strange about this cover from several years earlier.) Campbell doesn’t appear to have noticed anything out of the ordinary, and his unabashed admiration for Cañedo’s work stands in remarkable contrast to the sentiments that he expressed elsewhere. Just one year after Cañedo’s first “symbolic” cover, he published an article in which Dr. Joseph Winter, who later became a member of the original dianetics team, expressed the hope that endocrinology would lead to a world with “no homosexuality.” Campbell later claimed that dianetics had been used for successful “cures” of gay men, and he stated both in private and in the pages of the magazine that homosexuality was a sign of cultural decline. And he didn’t think that he had any trouble identifying such individuals, writing in an unbelievably horrifying passage in a letter to Isaac Asimov in 1958:

And Ike, my friend, consider the case of a fairy, a queer. They can, normally, be spotted about as far off as you can spot a mulatto. I’ll admit a coal-black Negro can be spotted a bit further than a fairy can, but the normal mulatto can’t. Sure, I know a lot of queers don’t look that way—but they’re simply “passing.”

But I’m frankly more interested in what in the world Cañedo thought of Campbell. Even in the rare glimpses that we find in Campbell’s letters, it’s possible to discern glints of an ironic humor. (In a another letter to his father, the editor quoted Cañedo’s philosophy of life: “Sometimes I have not had a nickel in the bank, and sometimes I’ve had plenty, but I have been rich all the time, because I have had the friends I want to talk to, the work I want to do, and the things I want to learn about.” The same letter includes another anecdote that makes me wonder: “By the way, Alex had his apartment redecorated, and had a painter repaint the walls. Alex was out while the painter was on the job; when Alex came back that evening he made a horrifying discovery. God knows how that could be, but the painter was red-green colorblind! Instead of painting the walls the pale tan Alex wanted, he’d done them in a sort of baby pink!” God knows how indeed.) And it’s worth juxtaposing Campbell’s unqualified admiration for Cañedo’s nudes, which he saw as an answer to the lunacy of modern art, with his editorial of December 1958:

In England, there is a strong movement to remove homosexuality from the list of crimes. After all, we mustn’t impose our opinions on others, must we? Yes…and homosexuality was accepted in Greece, just before its fall. And in Rome, in the latter days. And in Hitlerite Germany. After all, now, you can’t prove, logically, that the homosexual doesn’t have as much right to his opinion as you do to yours, can you?

But perhaps we should just be glad that Campbell was obtuse enough to publish these remarkable covers. As he wrote to his father of modern artists: “They don’t want to see the truth, and reject seeing the beauty of the world. That an individual can make such a mistake is perfectly understandable.”

Written by nevalalee

October 29, 2018 at 9:00 am

The unknown future

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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

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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