Introduction to SFF – 2 – Pulp

Early Asimov vol 1
The Early Asimov, Vol. 1

I learned a lot about pulp magazines from the early Asimov. To be precise, from The Early Asimov. I’d encountered a few samples of pulp a little earlier, through the mysterious Ms X, as detailed in a previous post, and they were magical. But it was Asimov who put it all in context. I got Volume 1 of his collection from a friend, who stole it from a little shop off Vienna’s Kaertner Strasse. I still feel guilty about it, though I didn’t know until later, and it didn’t stop me from picking up (buying) Volumes 2 and 3.

For those who haven’t read it, The Early Asimov is a three-volume collection of Asimov’s first, mostly unsuccessful stories.  But much more important, each story was followed by little bits of autobiography, explaining what he’d been doing and thinking, and what sparked the stories. A lot of it was about John Campbell, the editor of Astounding, and the man Asimov wanted most to impress.

All these little snippets were fascinating to me. They didn’t make me want to write (I didn’t think seriously about writing for years), but it sure did make me want to read. Sometimes, the more you learn about an author, the less you like them. With Asimov, it was the other way around. He was fun, his life was interesting, he was a biochemist (as I later was), and the stories themselves were fun. It was a good deal all around.

A lot of what I learned about Asimov centered around John Campbell.  As Ricky L. Brown pointed out, Asimov’s first published story was right here in Amazing. But the man he really wanted to impress was John Campbell.  It seems a little strange now. Campbell wasn’t a great writer – his Arcot, Morey, & Wade series is weak, for example (though he was also first published in Amazing). And he insisted that the humans always win. They could go through trauma and trouble, but by golly they’d get their way in the end, or the writer could just go back and rewrite. Asimov often did. But what Campbell did have was the ability to inspire. And he required realistic (if extrapolated) science, at least at first.

Regardless of what Campbell was really like, Asimov’s snippets helped make science fiction exciting, and helped make the pulps seem like a place where things happened, where creation occurred not just in one person’s head, but in the interchange of ideas.

I later also read The Early Del Rey, and Lester Del Rey’s description of the Golden Age and of Campbell was significantly different from Asimov’s. For one thing, he wasn’t as focused on Campbell, though his first sale was to Astounding. What they did seem to have in common was an astounding ability to sell most of what they wrote. Sure, they lived in an era with less competition than we see now, but many of those early stories hold up today.

Frederick Pohl’s ongoing blog describes some of the same material, from yet another perspective – that of fan, writer, and editor. Check it out sometime.

Have you read other author’s stories about writing SFF in the Golden Age? What struck you most? What editor sticks in your mind?

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