Coincidental with my beginning this series on Amazing’s first full year, Steve Davidson (our intrepid owner/editor) introduced his theory that Hugo Gernsback, not John W. Campbell Jr., is the real giant who stands astride our field like the Colossus of Rhodes (https://amazingstories.com/2015/02/the-real-evolutionary-history-of-science-fiction/). While I agree with the major part of his theorem, I’m not quite sure about his assertion that “any competent editor” could have taken JWC’s place as “the” editor of SF; it seems to me that any other editor would have taken us to an entirely different place altogether. Campbell shaped SF, as the editor of Astounding (later Analog) in a particular way, which was—at least in my opinion—different from any shape a different editor might have given it. However, there is no doubt that, given what Steve has gleaned from his readings as well as my own readings of Gernsback’s editorials in the first year of Amazing Stories, that Gernsback is the true Father of Modern Science Fiction. (But some children do grow up in unforeseen and astonishing ways, eh, Daddy Hugo?) Figure 1 is excerpted from the colour cover of Gernsback’s novel, by the way.
Beginning with Issue 4 of Volume 1, Gernsback lists more editors than previously. Wilbur C. Whitehead and C. A. Brandt are both listed as “literary editors.” Not having the reference works that Steve Davidson has at hand (The Gernsback Days by Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes as well as Gary Westfahl’s The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction and Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction, also by Westfahl), I have no idea why all of a sudden Hugo needed all the “literary” help, but I’m guessing it may be because of the sheer volume of submissions he was beginning to receive; these two gentlemen were probably his “first readers.”
Also, every copy I’ve been able to find is missing the contents page, so I’ve no idea whether this is the issue where he begins indicating new stories on that page; however, Volume 1 Number 5 does so with an asterisk. I’ll try to do this with Number 4.
Contents of Volume 1 Number 4, July 1926
- “Station X” by G. McLeod Winsor (part 1 of 3) ©1919
• “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H. G. Wells ©1898
• “The Scientific Adventures of Mr. Fosdick—The Feline Light and Power Company is Organized” by Jacque Morgan ©1912
• “The Moon Metal” by Garrett P. Serviss ©1900
* “The Eggs From Lake Tanganyika” by Curt Siodmak
• “The Magnetic Storm” by Hugo Gernsback
• “The Sphinx” by Edgar Allan Poe
The cover (Figure 2) illustrates the Curt Siodmak story; we now know that a fly would probably not grow that large without either violating the square-cube law or suffocating due to the simplicity of its lungs. But it’s still “scientific” given the knowledge of the times—in fact, as we can tell from reading many of these stories, new or reprint, strict adherence to science would get in the way of a good story. In his editorial, Gernsback says that “A few letters have come to the Editor’s desk from some readers who wish to know what prompts us to so frequently preface our stories in our introductory remarks with the statement that this or that scientific plot is not impossible, but quite probable. These readers seem to have the idea that we try to impress our friends with the fact that whatever is printed in Amazing Stories is not necessarily pure fiction, but could or can be fact. That impression is quite correct. We DO wish to do so, and have tried to do so ever since we started Amazing Stories. As a matter of fact, our editorial policy is built upon this structure and will be so continued indefinitely.”
G. Peyton Wertenbaker (remember Mr. Green?), author of “The Man from the Atom,” says this about literature vs. science in stories. “The danger that may lie before Amazing Stories is that of becoming too scientific and not sufficiently literary. It is yet too early to be sure, but not too early for a warning to be issue amicably and frankly.” Gernsback then goes on to say that “the ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be seventy-five per cent (sic) literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science.” (n.b.: in those days, “percent” was two words, like “to-day.”) So there’s your first SF editorial policy, and I wonder what modern SF/F editors might say about that? (Especially in the “New Wave” of the ‘60s and ‘70s—people like Brian—Barefoot in the Head—Aldiss, eh?)
But this is not the time to discuss writings that will happen forty years or later from now. Let’s look at what’s in front of us. By the way, those of you who follow SF film will recognize the name of Curt Siodmak, whose first published short story I think this is: Siodmak is perhaps best known for his novel and screenplay for Donovan’s Brain, but cognoscenti will recognize the screenwriter for the Lon Chaney, Jr. vehicle The Wolf Man. He wrote the poem (which readers of Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland will remember) recited by Maria Ouspenskaya: “Even a man who is pure in heart and who says his prayers at night/May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the Autumn moon is bright.” (The last line was changed in several films to “and the moon is full and bright.”) He was responsible for writing The Invisible Man Returns, The Ape, The Wolf Man, Invisible Agent, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, I Walked With a Zombie, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Hauser’s Memory (the sequel to Donovan’s Brain) and many more; his last genre screenplay was Curucu, Beast of the Amazon in 1956, though his last non-genre screenplay was in 1966. Not a bad run!
“Station X,” for all that Gernsback called it “the greatest radio story… ever written,” is about par for SF of the ‘20s; a radio operator at an isolated station in the Indian Ocean receives messages from Venus, although not by the radio alone. It appears that these are mental messages carried through the ether like radio waves, and McRae, the operator, is uniquely capable of receiving the messages. Part One ends with McRae being suspected of madness. The Wells story will probably be familiar to those who read H.G.; I question the scientific basis for that story myself, and I may not be alone—it sounds like pure wish-fulfillment. All in all, these mostly reprinted stories are about par for the course, not really outstanding.
Contents of Volume 1 Number 5, August 1926
- “A Columbus of Space” (Serial in 3 Parts) by Garrett P. Serviss
• “Empire of the Ants” by H. G. Wells
• “The Scientific Adventures of Mr. Fosdick (The International Electro-Galvanic Undertaking Corp.)” by Jacque Morgan
* “The Talking Brain” by M. H. Hasta
* “High Tension” by Albert B. Stuart, M.D.
• “Station X” (2nd Instalment) by G. McLeod Winsor
With the August issue, Gernsback begins running more new stories than in the previous four issues. The new stories are the cover story, “The Talking Brain,” by M. H. Hasta, and “High Tension” by Albert B. Stuart, M.D. The former story is interesting to me for one reason: it is distinctly possible that—without realizing it—Curt Siodmak used this story as a basis for his well-known work, Donovan’s Brain, in which a disembodied head is kept alive in a tray, communicating with the scientist who saves the brain via telepathy. Eventually, the brain in Donovan’s Brain is destroyed after it takes over the scientist’s own mind. In this story, the brain goes mad and is destroyed by the scientist. Quite the coincidence, eh? “High Tension” is an odd little “mad scientist” thing too; the scientist in question is destroyed by his own hubris. Because we didn’t know a lot about electricity (but we were learning!) at the time, this story passed as scientific. Today it would be seen to be pure bunkum. (Thought I’d throw in an archaic word to see if you’re really paying attention.)
“Station X” continues, with aggressive Martians thrown into the mix; “Empire of the Ants” is a pretty well-known Wells story. “A Columbus of Space,” reprinted from the 1909 original, is kind of a model for those early space-exploration stories, like E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space and many others, though some of the writing and science are weak by today’s standards; through the use of atomic energy, the heroes of the tale go to explore the planet Venus. The Jules Verne reprint is a long-winded semi-humourous piece that didn’t strike me as terribly funny.
Contents of Vol 1 No 6 – September 1926
• “In the Abyss,” by H. G. Wells
• “A Columbus of Space” (Second Part) by Garrett P. Serviss
• “The Purchase of the North Pole” (Serial in 2 parts) by Jules Verne
• “Station X” (Conclusion) by G. McLeod Winsor
• “The Moon Hoax” (“non-fiction” article) by Richard Adams Locke
With number 6, Amazing Stories reverted to old habits: there’s not a single new story in the entire issue; there is, however, an article on “the Moon Hoax,” by the reporter Richard Adams Locke, which was originally published in 1835, thus making the entire magazine (save the cover, editorial and b/w illustrations) basically a reprint! (The “Moon Hoax” was all about a fictional 24’ telescope used by the astronomer John Herschel at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa to capture images of life on the Moon. Although rife with scientific errors (purposely, according to Gernsback), the hoax was swallowed hook, line and sinker by a public eager for new scientific marvels. (One of the errors was the casting of a 24’ [288-inch] mirror, impossible at the time; Gernsback, in his introduction, marvels that the upcoming—in 1927—Mount Wilson Observatory will have a 300-inch reflector!) How time can make a mockery of one age’s “scientific fact,” eh? What beliefs of our time will be ridiculous in another hundred years? Interesting to me is that the illustration for this story is not by Paul, but by someone whose signature appears to be F.S. Hgnd… it’s hard to make out. It might have been original to the newspaper, but I doubt it.
I won’t tell the conclusion of “Station X,” because of my long-standing rule against spoilers; I will, however, tell you that the story involves an actual, physical invasion of Earth by Martians… but nothing like H.G. Wells’s well-known Martian invasion. The Wells story printed here is about a strange species of intelligent underwater life in an unnamed oceanic trench, explored via bathyscape; the invention of a “clockwork return” mechanism, as well as the use of a bathyscape, predate the actual exploration of those deeps as far as I know.
The first part of the Jules Verne story made me laugh so hard I had difficulty finishing it; surely today’s audience would not sit still for such blatant sexism! In it, one character (and I have no idea whether Verne subscribed to the ideas of his characters) says that women are physically unable to become great mathematicians or physicists: “And so, Mr. Maston, you consider that a woman can do nothing for the advance of the mathematical or experimental sciences?”
“To my extreme regret, Mrs. Scorbitt,” said J.T. Maston, “I am obliged to say so. That there have been many remarkable female mathematicians, especially in Russia, I willingly admit; but with her cerebral conformation it is not in a woman to become an Archimedes or a Newton.”
The story then goes on to tell of the U.S. Government selling the then-unexplored Polar regions (regions which most governments today will acknowledge belong to Canada, Russia, and so on) to a private syndicate composed of very rich men who propose to change the Earth’s axial tilt and thereby not only mediate the climatic changes we undergo yearly, but also to make those previously uninhabitable regions into new lands for settlement and agricultural production and so on. A fascinating idea, to be concluded next issue.
This issue also is the first one to feature the WRNY broadcast logo on the cover (look at the top of Figure 4); a logo that was to appear until Gernsback ended his long-running radio broadcast years later. It appears that the station is no longer operating at the current time, however. Also, there is a clip-out coupon in the issue for readers to tell of their favourite and least favourite stories (Figure 5). Although Gernsback had promised what we would now call a “lettercol,” there is no sign of it yet. This issue also featured, as the last item, a poem by someone named “Beta,” called “A ‘PSALM’ of Light” that utilized the names of many well-known scientists/mathematicians while calling into question Einstein’s view on the curvature of space, I think. Like some other poetry, the meaning is a bit opaque.
By the way, for those of you who might be interested in comparing the original covers I found with my Paint Shop Pro’d versions, I’ve created a Pinterest board which shows both the originals and these versions at exactly the same sizes, though the different issues may have different-sized covers—it all depends on what I find for a starting point. https://www.pinterest.com/stevefah/amazing-stories-cover-edits-part-two/
Please comment on this week’s column if you can. If I’ve given you any new information, or perhaps clashed with one of your own views, I’d like to hear about it. (My editor would also like to know that people are reading my column!) My opinion is, as always, my own, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of Amazing Stories or its owners, editors, publishers or other bloggers. See you next week!