Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Harry Bates

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

Turning every page

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Analog Science Fiction and Fact

In a note at the end of The Passage of Power, the biographer Robert A. Caro describes an important source of information about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he concludes: “While no one (including me) has counted the number of pages…the number may be in the area of forty thousand. I don’t know how many of these pages I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot of them.” And you can feel his sense of quiet satisfaction as he says this. The four volumes that have been published of The Years of Lyndon Johnson are all great reads, but for my money, some of the best drama unfolds in the endnotes, which provide a kind of stealth parallel memoir by Caro as he plows his way through a mountain of available material. In the case of someone like Johnson, the problem isn’t a lack of data, but its overwhelming abundance: his presidential library alone contains something like forty-four million documents. Dealing with this kind of overload, which represents more than one author could read in multiple lifetimes, forces a writer to develop strategies for managing the sheer volume of possible research. You start with a list of subjects that you know will be relevant and drill down from there, following up on other leads as they emerge; you find that certain witnesses are more valuable than others, and you make a point of reading whatever they have to say; or you engage in a sort of longitudinal survey, revisiting the same ideas over time. The result, when you’re done, is both systematic and scattershot, and that’s how it should be. But eventually, you come back to what Caro’s old managing editor Alan Hathaway said to him at Newsday: “Turn every goddamn page.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve been doing what I can to follow that advice, attacking the research for my upcoming book on two fronts. The first consists simply of going through every issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Unknown, and Analog published in editor John W. Campbell’s lifetime. So far, I’ve worked my way through about fifteen years of these magazines, from the beginning of the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with another quarter of a century to go. Obviously, I can’t stop to read, or even skim, every story, and I usually end up focusing on the editorials, the filler items, and the responses to the letters to the editor—in short, anything that Campbell himself wrote. (As for the stories themselves, I can only echo Caro by saying that I don’t know how many I’ve read, but I’ve read a lot.) Sometimes an advertisement or a piece of art will catch my eye: you could write an entire book about the International Correspondence Schools ads that opened nearly every issue, or the cigarette ads that appeared on every back cover. And the mere act of turning the pages reveals patterns that might otherwise be invisible. It gives you an overview, like a time-lapse video, of the magazine’s evolution, and I’ve found my ideas about certain topics changing perceptibly. I’ve begun to recognize how the epochal changes in the history of science fiction were really the result of many incremental shifts, and how the seeds of the golden age were planted in the work of Campbell’s predecessors, Harry Bates and F. Orlin Tremaine. This approach doesn’t allow for much in the way of granular analysis, of which I plan to do more than my share elsewhere, but the perspective that it provides has structured my thinking in profound ways.

Microfilm reader

My other source of raw data is Campbell’s correspondence. His surviving letters, which often preserve both sides of the exchange, amount to about thirty thousand pages, and this doesn’t even include hundreds of additional documents in repositories like the Heinlein Archives. The late Perry Chapdelaine published a selection of it in three huge volumes, which are invaluable, but barely scratch the surface. As I’ve known for a long time, the real treasure trove lies in the form of the seven microfilm reels in which Chapdelaine copied the entire collection, only three copies of which appear to have ever been made. (The original letters are archived at San Diego State University, but it would be difficult for me to spend the weeks or months there required to go through it properly.) Almost since this project began, I’ve been trying to get my hands on the microfilm, and last week—after a series of setbacks and snafus, including the revelation that one complete set seems to have disappeared—I managed to cobble together the whole thing with reels from the Library of Congress and Texas A&M University, along with a huge assist from the public library in Oak Park. As a result, I’ve been spending most of my recent afternoons at the library’s microfilm reader. Frankly, I hadn’t been aware of the advances in microfilm viewing technology, and I imagined myself sitting in a basement carrel like Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs. In fact, the library’s setup is wonderful: it allows me to scroll quickly through the images, adjust the focus and contrast, and even take screen shots for later reference. Despite the relative convenience, though, it still presents big challenges. Many of the letters, which are photographs of carbon copies, are impossible to read, and they’re preserved in a seemingly arbitrary order. My best guess is that it will take me something like fifteen hours just to visually inspect every letter in a single reel, much less figure out what is and isn’t important.

Yet it’s already paying off. As I’ve learned through my encounters with every page of Astounding, there’s a big difference between confronting primary sources without any intermediation and reading the same material after it has been edited and curated. It’s like looking at a life as it unfolds, almost day by day, with all the messiness you’d expect, and you develop odd intuitions: when I’m scrolling rapidly through the microfilm, I can recognize certain writers at a glance, based on the kind of typewriter they used, and I can quickly sort the letters into different categories. Most of it is routine correspondence, but there are hidden gems as well. On April 17, 1962, for instance, a young reporter from the Champaign-Urbana News Gazette sent Campbell a query letter about a story he hoped to submit on PLATO, a computer-assisted educational system developed by the University of Illinois. He wrote: “It seems to me that PLATO is a nightmarish mechanical personification of the stiffened, calcified mind of Orthodox Science.” Campbell replied: “This sounds interesting. Let’s see it!” No other letters from the exchange survive, and I wouldn’t even bother mentioning it here if the reporter in question weren’t Roger Ebert. At the time, he was nineteen years old—or Isaac Asimov’s age when he sold his first short story—and five years away from becoming a film critic. It’s hard not to wonder what might have happened if Campbell, whom Ebert once called “my hero,” had taken him under his wing, and although I doubt it will even end up in the book, the discovery of this unexpected encounter between two of the most important men in my life is the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. And I never would have found it if I hadn’t turned every page.

The fourteenth magazine

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The first issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science

William Clayton was the successful publisher of a large group of pulp-paper action-adventure magazines. At the time there were, I think, thirteen. They made a diverse family. Among them were magazines devoted to western, detective, air, war, love, and adventure stories—at least one magazine of just about every popular type. Routinely each month, the editors of these and other magazines bought eye-catching pictures for the covers of their next issues, the engraver made plates for them, and the printer furnished final proofs of them, all thirteen assembled rectangularly on a single large sheet of paper…

Now, there were blank places on this sheet. The proofs occupied places in four rows of four columns each, only thirteen of the sixteen places being filled. This meant that month after month three of the sixteen places would stare empty at Clayton, in effect reproving him for not having three more magazines so that they need not be empty. I venture upon certainty when I say that Clayton on looking at this sheet would often have these particular money-lustful thoughts: “If I had sixteen magazines I’d get the three additional covers cheap…The paper for the covers, now going wasted, would be free…There would be very little added charge for press time…” The empty places would continually have urged him to have one to three more magazines…

I saw that Clayton was not to be stopped from having another magazine…Next morning I pumped myself full of combativeness and charged into Clayton’s office. It was all as easy as pie…There’d be an action-adventure Astounding Stories of Super-Science! I was to get right to work on it.

Harry Bates

Written by nevalalee

August 30, 2015 at 7:29 am

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