Review: Futures Past A Visual History of Science Fiction: 1928 Space Opera (Vol. 3)

I have really been enjoying the “renaissance” of Fan History activities that has been taking place for the past couple of years.  It is, I expect, an unexpected benefit of the “graying of Fandom”;  Fans want to set the record straight before there are no more first hand resources.  Indeed, we fairly recently lost our last “First Fandom” member – Robert A. Madle (this tribute on File 770 will clue you in), a man who was very deeply involved in early Fannish happenings, particularly in the Philadelphia and Baltimore regions.  (I knew Bob and, in fact, he was the “huckster” that I obtained my Vol. 1, No. 1 issue of Amazing Stories from – he turned me on to pulp collecting and spent a lot of time explaining Fandom to me as well).

We’ve had histories of Fandom – well-worn sources that have provided the background and foundation of keeping the record straight for decades – Moskowitz’s The Immortal Storm (and others);  Harry Warner’s volumes, First Fandom, the organization, and, in the computer era, Fancyclopedia, and its Fan History Project and a host of other online resources.

However, it is really only in recent years that data has been made more accessible, with the gathering of Fanzines, photographs, videos and film,  audio recordings and more into more comprehensive online resources.  That accessibility, plus various technologies like self-publishing programs, has led to some  interesting publications that are directly addressing the history of SF Fandom side-by-side with the history of the genre.

I’ve written before about First Fandom Experience’s The Visual History of Science Fiction Fandom and their lush, profusely illustrated books, wherein a VERY deep dive is taken into Fan history (and should not be missed).

But there’s another publication that takes a slightly broader view by integrating both developments in Fan History and the Science Fiction genre’s literary and artistic history.

Futures Past A Visual History of Science Fiction.


These are really not “competing publications”.  They’re complimentary in many ways and anyone interested in the history of this genre really needs to be looking at both sides of the same coin:  the literature is its Fandom and Fandom is the literature.

Volume 3 of A Visual History of Science Fiction is kind of similar to other pictorial histories of the genre (many of which I have, such as Aldiss’ Science Fiction Art; James Gunn’s Alternate Worlds, David Kyle’s A Pictorial History of Science Fiction; Franz Rottensteiner’s The Science Fiction Book; Lester Del Rey’s Science Fiction Art)

but it breaks with that tradition by really diving deep into an individual year.

In this case, 1928.  A year that in many ways is really the very first year of the genre.  Weird Tales was still chugging along, the general readership pulps were publishing a fairly decent amount of “weird” content, SF film was even getting started with Alraune.

It was also the year in which Space Opera solidified its place among science fiction’s many sub-genres.

You all may recognize this “most collectible” issue of Amazing Stories. It features not only the introduction of Buck Rogers (who would spawn one of the first science fiction mass merchandising efforts – and inspire the creation of Flash Gordon and other “Sci Fi Heroes”), but also publishes the first tale by E.E. “Doc” Smith – The Skylark of Space.

Of course, genre historians will know that this was not the first “space opera”.  Ray Cummings, Edmond Hamilton and a handful of others preceded it, and works by Jack Williamson are contemporary – facts well covered in this volume.

The book  is lavishly illustrated, as one would expect.  One of the appealing aspects here is that many of those images are ones that haven’t been published everywhere someone mentions science fiction, space opera and genre history.

The book starts off, fittingly, with a tribute to Robert A. Madle, last of the Fans belonging to First Fandom.

It then follows with a detailed month-by-month chronology of 1928, including first story and first novel publications.

It then segues into a profile of Frank R. Paul, without whom it is arguable that science fiction art would not be what it is today had it not been for his contributions;  at the beginning of 1928, Paul had already graced us with 21 full color, and fully-realized, science fiction visions.

This section includes full pages of the “Super World” comics he drew, as well as covers for Gernsback’s annual Forecast publication.

Following that, we arrive at the central subject – Space Opera.

Jim Emerson here offers us a chronological bibliography of earlier works that are or led to Space Opera, dating from as far back as 1802 and carrying us straight through to almost the present, capped off with a listing of films that fit the genre.

The chronology is profusely illustrated, making it a joy to thumb through.

This is followed by three deep dives into practitioners of the Art of Space Opera – Doc Smith, Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton, all, again, fully illustrated.  The profile of Smith also includes a section on the Skylark Award.  Hamilton’s offers up Captain Future (and of course much more), while Williamson’s profile includes full pages of his Beyond Mars comic, an interview with Jack, among much, much more.

An introduction and history of Buck Rogers follows that section including histories of his creators, a section on the marketing phenomena.

Everything SF 1928 wraps up with bibliographies of the magazines and SF published elsewhere.

I acquired a lot of those earlier “illustrated histories” because, at the time, there was little to be had in the way of either written history or images of older conventions, legendary fans.  There was no internet, no digital libraries or galleries.  All wisdom was contained in Fanzines and all Fannish history was contained in illustrated coffee table books.

I’m glad this has changed and I’m glad that publications like this one are taking the time and care to compile it all in a comprehensible, well researched and (YAY!) profusely illustrated manner.

Space Opera 1928 is far more than a “coffee table” book.  It’s a welcome addition to our historical archives, and an enjoyable read to boot!

All of the current volumes in Jim Emerson’s Futures Past A Visual History of Science Fiction are currently available on his website, in multiple editions.


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