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.
This chart represents the distribution of SF short stories in several famous anthologies from 1946-1995 that I remember reading.
- 1946 – Adventures in Time and Space ed. Healy & McComas
- 1948 – A Treasury of Science Fiction ed. Groff Conklin
- 1950 – The Big Book of Science Fiction ed. Groff Conklin
- 1952 – Omnibus of Science Fiction ed. Groff Conklin
- 1959 – A Treasury of Great Science Fiction v1, A Treasury of Great Science Fiction v2 ed. Anthony Boucher
- 1965 – Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction ed. Sam Moskowitz
- 1970 – The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One ed. Robert Silverberg
- 1973 – The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus ed. Brian Aldiss
- 1974 – Modern Science Fiction ed. Norman Spinrad
- 1979 – The Road to Science Fiction 2, The Road to Science Fiction 3 ed. James E. Gunn
- 1980 – The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction ed. Silverberg/Greenberg
- 1981 – Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Treasury ed. Asimov/Greenberg/Orlander
- 1995 – Women of Wonder 1, Women of Wonder 2 ed. Pamela Sargent
If you click on the above titles the link will take you to ISFDB.org 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.
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.