Remembering Pulp Science Fiction

By James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 20, 2016

I grew up reading science fiction written by writers who grew up with pulp magazines. That generation assembled anthologies in the late 40s and early 50s of their favorite stories from Amazing, Astounding, Thrilling Wonder, Planet Stories, Unknown and other legendary pulps. Reading those anthologies was like listening to the old Blues records in the 1960s that inspired The Rolling Stones. Those anthologies put me one generation from the pulp era when I started reading science fiction in the early 1960s. As a kid, I’d haunt the gloomy backroom stacks of the downtown Miami Public Library searching out musty old collections by Groff Conklin.

I think we all remember how popular culture impacted us between ages twelve and twenty. Did you remember how your pop culture heroes were slightly older? Maybe you even paid attention to their influences, who was one generation older still. In other words, our favorite books and songs were usually created by the folks from the two previous generations. And depending on your age, you might have noticed that you aren’t keeping up with current pop culture. Some folks can stay hip with the generation after themselves, and a smaller number can keep up with one more generation, but eventually we become clueless about what’s new and cool. Most people have a pop culture window of four or five generations depending on their age. Of course I know some people stuck in a two-generation window.

For example, my generation, the Baby Boomers, loved The Beatles, but John, Paul, George and Ringo were not Baby Boomers. They were from the previous generation, and they were inspired by music produced from even an earlier generation. There’s a trailing off affect in both directions of time.

Adventures in Time and SpaceA Treasury of Science Fiction

This chart represents the distribution of SF short stories in several famous anthologies from 1946-1995 that I remember reading.

Year 1920s 1930s 1940s 1950s 1960s 1970s 1980s 1990s
1946 2 13 22          
1948 1 6 23          
1950 3 4 16 7        
1952 2 6 12 22        
1959   1 7 16        
1965   3 12 4 2      
1970   3 10 12 1      
1973     3 29 4      
1974   2 1 7 8 3    
1979 3 8 10 11 14 3    
1980     5 15 11 8    
1981   1 7 16 7 9    
1995     2 5 4 12 15 4

Women of Wonder 1Women of Wonder 2

If you click on the above titles the link will take you to where you can see the actual story titles in the anthology. As you can see, over time, anthologists started forgetting about the 1920s, then the 1930s. I consider the pulp era over by 1949, and that the digest magazines of the 1950s were a horse of a different color. The digest era is slowly dying out today, being replaced by online magazines. If you’re old enough, this is kind of sad.

When I was growing up in the 1960s it wasn’t hard to run across old pulp magazines. You’d see stacks of them in old bookstores, or I’d meet men who are my age now, who collected runs of their favorite science fiction magazines from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. They nostalgically collected Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and Planet Stories that meant so much to them when they were young. Sometimes I’d meet older guys, and they were always guys, who collected All-Story and Argosy from the beginning of the 20th century. And even older still, and these guys were extremely rare, were collectors of dime novels from the 19th century. It’s been decades since I met a dime novel aficionado, or even an old guy who collects Argosy. I still run across guys who collect Astounding or Unknown, but they are fading away like old WWII vets. Out on the net, if you search for them, you can still find fanatical pulp collectors, but I’m afraid their species is becoming extinct. Folks my age, and that does include some rare women, prefer to collect the digests like F&SF, If, Galaxy and Astounding.

Amazing Stories 1940STARTLING-STORIES-42.09

I don’t know how many fans of pulps still exist, but I see reprints of pulps at Project Gutenberg and Internet Archive, and run into guys who collect scans of old pulps as digital files. I used to buy old pulps occasionally, but eventually gave them all away. Every once in a blue moon I like to buy an anthology that resurrects the old stories. Last night I bought The Best of Amazing Stories: The 1940 Anthology. Amazing Stories still exist, in case you didn’t know. And I noticed that facsimile editions of old pulps have started showing up on Amazon for $12.95 or $14.95. (However, you can sometimes find the original issues for less on Ebay.)

If I collected old digest magazines, I’d be tempted by the Cele Goldsmith and Ted White runs of Amazing and Fantastic from the 1960s or early 1970s, or F&SF and Galaxy from the 1950s. However, it’s a pain to deal with old magazines because they are all decaying. Pulps existed before acid free paper, so they’re quickly disintegrating. I also assumed they’d disappear as the generation of collectors before me died off. So I’m surprised that people still love pulp SF. There’s now four generations between the current new generation and the pulp generations. You’d think they’d be forgotten by now.

But is all this interest in old SF pulps from people my age, or are newer generations searching them out? I recently came across The Time Traveler’s Almanac, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. The VanderMeers appear to be early Generation X, and their anthology had a few pre-1950 stories in it. One of my favorites is “Vintage Season” by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, but it’s one of the most anthologized stories of all SF stories from the pulp era. I guess a few pulp fiction stories will become classics.

Interest is short stories seems to be declining but it’s hard to tell. Every year Gardner Dozois reports on the decline of subscriptions to the printed digest magazines. I don’t know how many people are reading web magazines. Studying ISFDB shows there were over 400 anthologies in 2014, when The Time Traveler’s Almanac came out.

When I first discovered science fiction, the short story was the heart of the genre. That seemed to be a legacy of the pulps and the digests. For 50 plus years I get all the major best-of-the-year anthologies and it seems that people still love short stories, even though I know damn few people who read them. Most of the genre fans I know love to read novels, especially novels that come in long series. And some of my friends are obsessed by giant books that go on forever, like The Wheel of Time series.

Tonight I read “The Voyage That Lasted 600 Years” by Don Wilcox, which Wikipedia claims is the first story about a generation space ship, coming out a year before Heinlein’s “Universe.” It’s a quaint tale, that’s not very well told, but was probably very exciting back in 1940, and obviously, it presented ideas that inspired later authors of generation ship stories. I should be reading new stories, which are more sophisticated in their storytelling, and have better science, but sometimes it’s fun to read the old tales from the early days of science fiction.

What’s been fun lately is to find even older stories. I recently reread “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster, from 1909. It anticipates the Internet Age rather creepily, and might have inspired Asimov’s The Naked Sun. When I was a kid, I thought the science fiction I read represented new ideas. Now that I’m old, jumping back in time, I’m finding those ideas were old when I thought they were new. I’m currently haunted by the notion that ideas we think of as science fiction has always been around, maybe even before recorded history, and a small percentage of the population always had a sense of wonder.


13 thoughts on “Remembering Pulp Science Fiction”

  1. JIm,

    I grew up with Grof Conklin. He really introduced me to SF with his great anthologies. I still remember the Dewey Decimal Number of his series: 808.83. I still have a few of his anthologies, rather battered and time-worn now, but there are great tales in them.

    More comments later.

  2. Quite a collection of big collections. We grew up on a lot of the same stuff — going to the library often seemed like a buried treasure hunt or archeological expedition, unearthing treasures from before my lifetime.

    Being well into my “old crank” period now, I am sometimes irritated that those kids on the lawn think they invented so many things (like women writers, for example, or equality in general), especially since they are prone to a fierce neo-prudery about all sorts of social conventions. They often seem terribly conservative to me, while thinking of themselves as radicals.

    Maybe we were no different. Still, I’m amused when a youngster is shocked by a 1930’s pre-code movie. You’d think that unprecedented access to old media would engender more historical perspective, but the opposite often seems to be the case. Regardless, I’m excited that the old SF trope of data crystals seems to be turning real:
    I’ve always felt it was a tragedy that libraries periodically cull their collections. Maybe one of these days nothing will be permanently lost. I hope someone is scanning all those rotting pulps.

    1. PJ, I did see that story about the data crystals that could last longer than the Sun. Now that’s science fictional!!!

      It’s been disturbing me for years when I order a used book from ABEBooks that it’s often an ex-library book. I want libraries to be repositories of knowledge and history, and not just centers for free current books. I shop at my library’s used bookstore, and constantly see great books they’ve removed from their collection, which I think should be saved forever. Well, they go from their library to mine. I just got a beautiful copy of The Science Fiction Century edited by David Hartwell. Of course it got pulled because no one checked it out, which makes me wonder if younger folks just don’t want to read older SF short stories.

  3. I’m the opposite. I read mainly science fiction short stories; seldom novels.
    My first love in short fiction is anthologies, and particularly anthologies that reprint stories from the second half of the 20th century. I feel increasingly alienated from contemporary SF with its posthuman themes (excuse me, but I happen to be a human) and brain-crunching cyber-jargon.
    So I’ve become one of those old bores who just can’t keep up, I guess.
    There are other reasons why I’m fixated on the old stuff. For starters, I missed the pulps when they were around. I was born in 1954, but I never really read any SF until I was in my twenties. When I initially discovered anthologies (Volume One of the SF Hall of Fame in particular), I was entranced by those old stories. So, even today, I keep trawling through the old stuff to try to recapture the thrill of the Golden Age.
    My tastes have moved only slightly forward—from the Golden Age to the three decades after 1950. That’s when Galaxy and F&SF took the leading edge away from Astounding; that’s the Goldilocks period for me.
    I do read new fiction, but I’ve made it a personal tradition to cuddle up with at least one classic story every weekend, usually a previously unread one.
    You do get old, and you do reach a point where keeping up is futile. I bought some of the new music of each successive generation for decades—but one day, you realise that even Franz Ferdinand is old hat. And that’s when it’s time, finally, to give up.
    I’m very interested a one of the current projects of the VanderMeers, by the way: The Big Book of Science Fiction. That looks right up my alley.

    1. My two all-time favorite SF anthologies are Adventures in Time and Space edited by Healy & McComas, and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame edited by Robert Silverberg. Volumes 2A&B are an amazing collection of classic novellas and novelettes.

      1. I’ve been meaning to re-read the SF Hall of Fame, Volumes One, Two A and Two B. I would peg the first volume as my all time favorite. It’s not that the fiction is better than anything else—an untold number of later anthologies have a higher standard of writing—but it’s still my pick for the best ever SF anthology, because it does what it sets out to do so perfectly. Second and third favorites would be The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction and The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction.

        I have read the Healy and McComas volume, but the stories just aren’t as well chosen as the Hal of Fame ones. Besides, it came out in 1946, so you have to make allowances. If you must have the Golden Age, Terry Carr’s Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age gives you a slightly more modern editorial pick from the same period as Healy and McComas; it’s more satisfying to a latter-day reader.

        1. Adventures in Time and Space is just a sentimental favorite. Probably the earliest anthology I discovered, but that’s so long ago my memory is too blurry to be sure. Yeah, the modern super-anthologies do a better job at total perspective. I’m not sure if I’ve seen the Terry Carr anthology you mentioned, I’ll have to track it down.

  4. Hi James

    I found this post of real interest. I have always loved short stories, maybe more than novels, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame vols were some of the first I remember reading. I have always collected anthologies, I remember asking a used bookseller why he had so few, this must have been 30 years ago, and he said they did not sell but they were gold to me. After reading Bud Webster’s essays on the various editors and series of SF anthologies a few years ago I began to collect them whenever possible. I now have some lovely hardcover Conklin’s that I really treasure. I also buy the Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell Year’s Best SF so I can read some of the newer writers. This is good because many of the new novels are huge so my investment of time is less if I don’t like a new author. A lot of writers seem to write a short story then expand it to a novel, Hawksbill Station by Silverberg and Blood Music by Bear spring to mind. But I often prefer the original short story. I have put together a small collection of pulps, in part because they as such a big part of SF history and I love the cover art. I buy very few now mainly because of space constraints, but I am in line for a friend’s collection of some later Galaxy and Analog magazines and I will squeeze them in if he every decides to downsize.

    Happy Reading

  5. “Worlds of If” (aka “If”) was another digest magazine that published a lot of good 50’s and 60’s SF. The content was similar to what you would find in “Galaxy” during that same era.

    1. Funny you mention that. The complete run of If (I think it’s 166 issues) has just been made available on the Pulp Magazine Archive. I’m not sure if this is totally legal, because many of the authors are still protected by copyright.

  6. Oh man, what I wouldn’t have given to have access to all this stuff when I was a teenager! I read plenty of SF short stories, but mostly in anthologies from the library — couldn’t often afford to buy magazines or paperbacks, even when they were findable in a town without any bookstores.

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