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.


Pulp Fiction

Long ago, before Quentin Tarantino’s great film, before I was born in 1951, before television, there was pulp fiction.  It was called pulp fiction because of the grade of paper the stories were printed on was called pulp, and a whole entertainment industry was built around selling magazines with short stories and serialized novels wrapped in crude color reproductions of what is now called pulp art.

15-1 1-1

When I was young I often met older science fiction fans that collected these magazines, but surely, most of the kids of the generation before me, who grew up loving to read pulp fiction, must be very old, if still living, and the pulp fiction generation surely must be dying out.  Yet, over at Fantasy & Science Fiction they are running an article, “The New Nostalgia: The Classic Pulp Story Revival” by Dave Truesdale that chronicles how several small press publishers are keeping the pulp fiction tradition alive with quality hardbound reprints.  This article is well worth reading on many levels because it renews memories of a few old authors and their best stories and informs about the sub-culture of the small press publishing.

Pulp fiction has also been kept alive by the legacy of comic books and their impact on the movies with all the classic super heroes being reinvented every year, and reoccurring pulp action films like the Indiana Jones series or the remake of King Kong.  Comics are the direct descendants of pulp magazines that featured cruder art and stories for the younger readers on the same pulp paper.  Pulp fiction was never literary but a few fine writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler came out of the tradition.  Most of the prose was purple and all action, and aimed at the poorly educated, often featuring very politically incorrect attitudes about race, gender, ethnic groups, and foreigners.  Society and the well bred looked down on the lowly pulp fiction fan.

Evidently, old pulp fiction is finding new younger readers through the popularity of action movies, reprints and inherited nostalgia.  When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s much of the best pulp fiction, including mysteries, westerns, science fiction, adventure, spy, thrillers and other genres were reprinted as cheap paperbacks for 25 and 35 cents, but now the buy-in price are $40 deluxe volumes.

There was always a tremendous vitality to pulp fiction, which explained why titles included words like astounding, thrilling, amazing, wonder, adventure, fantastic, and that wink-wink keyword, spicy.  Science fiction really is a child of pulp fiction, and I think many readers hated the change that the New Wave brought to the genre during the 1960s, where emerging writers tried to force science fiction out of the gutter and into the classroom where the revolutionaries wanted it to wear literary robes.  Today science fiction is often represented in the minds of the public at large by Star Trek and Star Wars, but those stories owe a lot to two pulp fiction superstars:  E. E. “Doc” Smith and Edward Hamilton.

If you want to sample classic science fiction pulp stories, and not spend too much money, I recommend tracking down copies of two anthologies:  Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov and Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.   These books collect some of the best SF short stories from 1931-1945.  You can find both at, but watch out, both fat original hardback anthologies were often reprinted as multi-volume paperback books, and it would be worth your while to use the advance search and specify hardback editions, thus saving you on total costs and postage.  These two books will give you a great education about the foundation of science fiction.

The URLs linked to these titles also give you table of contents for the stories which if you are really hoarding your gasoline dollars might find on the web for free.   Now, as you read the stories, consider these issues:

One, are they still fun to read?  Are they as fun as reading Harry Potter or any of your other current favorite writers?  Second, do the ideas seem stupid, in the light of modern knowledge?  Third, do you notice why I call them politically incorrect?  Fourth, can you tell the difference between pulp fiction writing and modern MFA writing (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), or even modern genre writing (Charlie Stross and John Scalzi)?  Fifth, are these stories worth preserving?  Sixth, are they worth your reading time over reading newer stories?

All fiction from 1900-1950 is thinning out fast in our collective memories, and few stories from that era get reprinted.  I’m not just talking about pulp fiction.  If you can, find a copy of Best American Short Stories from before 1950 and some original pulp magazines.  Most of the contents from either will never have seen print since the original publications.  The small presses that are reprinting classic pulp fiction stories, are really just rescuing one story in a thousand, maybe one in ten thousand.

Looking at the periods 1800-1850 and 1850-1900, only the rarest of stories are still read by modern readers.  Baby boomers can remember the famous books they read from 1950-2000, but how many of the following generations know about those best selling titles?  My guess is the pulp fiction nostalgia is for the boomers who can remember reading pulp fiction from its first generation of reprints.  I would imagine, out of all the genres only a handful of novels will become classics, like The Maltese Falcon, Tarzan of the Apes, Conan the Barbarian, and Riders of the Purple Sage.  But how many kids under 16 discover these tales?

I occasionally enjoy reading an old pulp story and appreciate these small press publishers bringing back old favorites by Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, Robert E. Howard and Jack Williamson that I first discovered in used editions of Ace Doubles.  I think my identity is partly based on pulp fiction, and I feel I help keep these old friends alive by continuing to read them.  I know all of my generation and the stories we loved will soon pass on and be forgotten, but it’s pleasant to think a few of the stories will survive and future generations will enjoy them and wonder about their fans.


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