Doris V. Sutherland, Amazing Histories, April 1926: The Dawn of Scientifiction
Editor, Hugo Gernsback
Off on a Comet (Part 1 of 2) • serial by Jules Verne ♥♥
The New Accelerator • reprint short story by H. G. Wells ♥♥
The Man from the Atom • reprint short story by G. Peyton Wertenbaker
The Thing From—”Outside” • reprint short story by George Allan England
The Man Who Saved the Earth • reprint novelette by Austin Hall ♥
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar • reprint short story by Edgar Allan Poe ♥♥
Off on a Comet • cover by Frank R. Paul
Interior artwork • Frank R. Paul, F. S. Hynd, uncredited
A New Sort of Magazine • editorial by Hugo Gernsback
The ninetieth anniversary of the first SF magazine Amazing Stories and the beginning of genre SF passed largely unnoticed in the middle of March. I include myself in this as on the eleventh I looked up the copyright date of the first issue of the magazine and found it was the same day.1 So herewith a belated review, and commemoration, of that first issue (probably to be joined by many others elsewhere next month).
Hugo Gernsback, the editor and publisher of Amazing Stories, had been active in publishing for quite a few years previous to the launch of this title with a number of science and electrical magazines. He had published quite a lot of SF in these, including some of his own, and had produced a ‘Scientific Fiction’ issue of Science and Invention in 1923. The new magazine was a large format (8½ inches by 11) pulp publication and ran to 96 pages.2 The cover was by Frank R. Paul, the father of science fiction art, who would do all the magazine’s covers for the first three years and most of its interior illustrations. It illustrates a scene from Jules Verne’s novel, which was serialised in two parts.
Gernsback’s first editorial is interesting in a number of ways. First he defines what kind of fiction the magazine will publish:
By “scientifiction” I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision. p.3
He also has a brief stab at the history of scientifiction so far:
Edgar Allan Poe may well be called the father of “scientifiction.” It was he who really originated the romance, cleverly weaving into and around the story, a scientific thread. Jules Verne, with his amazing romances, also cleverly interwoven with a scientific thread, came next. A little later came H. G. Wells, whose scientifiction stories, like those of his fore runners, have become famous and immortal. p.3
Finally, and amongst other matters, he lists two of the qualities of scientifiction as being education and prophesy:
Not only do these amazing tales make tremendously interesting reading—they are also always instructive. They supply knowledge that we might not otherwise obtain—and they supply it in a very palatable form. For the best of these modern writers of scientifiction have the knack of imparting knowledge, and even inspiration, without once making us aware that we are being taught.
And not only that! Poe, Verne, Wells, Bellamy, and many others have proved themselves real prophets. Prophesies made in many of their most amazing stories are being realized—and have been realized. Take the fantastic submarine of Jules Verne’s most famous story, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” for instance. He predicted the present day submarine almost down to the last bolt! p.3
As well as the editorial, Gernsback (presumably) provides the introductions to the stories, which are more forthright than normal. Of Jules Verne’s serial he says:
In order that he may escort us through the depths of immeasurable space, to show us what astronomy really knows of conditions there and upon the other planets, Verne asks us to accept a situation which is in a sense self-contradictory. The earth and a comet are brought twice into collision without mankind in general, or even our astronomers, becoming conscious of the fact. Moreover several people from widely scattered places are carried off by the comet and returned uninjured. Yet further, the comet snatches and carries away with it for the convenience of its travelers, both air and water. Little, useful tracts of earth are picked up and, as it were, turned over and clapped down right side up again upon the comet’s surface. Even ships pass uninjured through this remarkable somersault. These events all belong to the realm of fairyland. p.4-5
Don’t hold back.
In introducing the George Allan England story he tells the reader:
This story should be read quite carefully, and it is necessary to use one’s imagination in reading it. p.67
So that is us told as well.
There are one or two other notes throughout the magazine requesting letters, comment, etc.
As Gernback says, you have to take the Earth-comet collision and subsequent tour through the solar system with a pinch of salt in Jules Verne’s serial Off on a Comet (a translation of Hector Servadac, voyages et aventures à travers le monde solaire, 1877) but it doesn’t spoil the enjoyment of the work, which I found considerably more readable than I had been expecting. After the cometary collision, much of the remaining narrative is from the viewpoint of a Captain Servadac and his man, Ben Zoof, who had been stationed with the French Army in Algeria. A lot of the first part is taken up with the exploration of the cometary surface and this sometimes drags a little. That said, what is interesting is their coming to terms with the reduced gravity and atmospheric pressure, the changes in the position of the sun, length of day and temperature, the changes in the night sky, and so on. At times Verne can be quite witty:
Ben Zoof crouched down in an angle of the shore, threw his arms over his eyes, and very soon slept the sleep of the ignorant, which is often sounder than the sleep of the just. p.12
“Well, sir, here you are, Governor General of Algeria!” exclaimed Ben Zoof, as they reached the gourbi.
“With not a soul to govern,” gloomily rejoined the captain.
“How so? Do you not reckon me?”
“Pshaw! Ben Zoof, what are you?”
“What am I? Why, I am the population.” p.14
The [British] colonel curled his lip, insinuating only too plainly that to him it was by no means surprising that a French colony should be wanting in the element of stability. p.30
Em, perhaps these are more amusing when reading the story…
Midway through the first part, Servadac boards a ship that is owned by a Russian Count, and then there is another bout of trailing around on the cometary surface, albeit this time by sea. Latterly, with the temperature plummeting as they get further and further from the sun, they set up home in the tunnels of a volcano where light and heat allow survival.
The one major reservation I have about this work is the introduction of the character Isaac Hakkabut as a target for some quite unpleasant anti-semitism:
Small and skinny, with eyes bright and cunning, a hooked nose, a short yellow beard, unkempt hair, huge feet, and long bony hands, he presented all the typical characteristics of the German Jew, the heartless, wily usurer, the hardened miser and skinflint. As iron is attracted by the magnet, so was this Shylock attracted by the sight of gold, nor would he have hesitated to draw the life-blood of his creditors, if by such means he could secure his claims. p.41
“Ha! ha!” laughed Ben Zoof, aloud; “it will be fine sport to watch the old Jew’s face, when he is made to comprehend that he is flying away millions and millions of leagues from all his debtors.” p.43
Unsurprising, perhaps, in a novel produced a decade and a half before the Dreyfus Affair.3
The New Accelerator by H. G. Wells (The Strand Magazine, December 1901) is probably the story in this issue that most of us would point to as being proper SF. It is a story about the development of an acceleration drug that lets the user experience time at a vastly increased speed. The narrator and the inventor try it out in the local town:
There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. A girl and a man smiled at one another, a leering smile that threatened to last for evermore; a woman in a floppy capelline rested her arm on the rail and stared at Gibberne’s house with the unwinking stare of eternity; a man stroked his mustache like a figure of wax, and another stretched a tiresome stiff hand with extended fingers towards his loosened hat. We stared at them, we laughed at them, we made faces at them, and then a sort of disgust of them came upon us, and we turned away and walked around in front of the cyclist towards the Leas. p.60
This is quite good as far as it goes but it doesn’t really develop much beyond its invention, description, conclusion structure. It has a very half-hearted stab at extrapolation when they discuss selling the product by stating ‘criminals may use it for nefarious ends but that’s not our problem’. Not until it happens to you, gents.
The Man from the Atom by G. Peyton Wertenbaker (Science and Invention, August 1923) is a story that is more down to the standard of what I had been expecting from this issue. It tells of an inventor who makes a machine that will double an object’s size and keep on doing this ad infinitum. This provides a couple of cracking quotes illustrating the dynamic between the scientist-inventor and his test subject:
He had a willing subject to try out his inventions, for he reasoned quite naturally that should he himself perform the experiments, the world would be in danger of losing a mentality it might eventually have need of. p.62
I was too astounded to speak at first. But finally, “Tell me about it,” I gasped. “This is certainly the most fantastic invention you have made yet! How does it work?”
“I am afraid,” suggested Professor Martyn, “that you could not understand all the technical details. It is horribly complicated. And besides, I am anxious to try it out.” p.63
The professor starts the machine and eventually the test subject grows so big (even though he is now in space and away from the atmosphere supposedly providing the matter for this continuous redoubling) he pops out of the ‘electron’ that is his ‘universe’ into the sea of another planet. On the way back down he finds that time has also slowed down for him so even if he finds his way back it will be millions of years in the future and everything and everybody he knew will be gone.
It is easy to make fun of the poor writing in this one as well as the ‘world in an atom’ trope, but here is a writer using really big ideas and in the odd passage it almost catches you:
Turning my head away all at once, I observed in some surprise that some of the stars were growing larger, coming nearer and nearer. For a time I watched their swift approach, but they gradually seemed to be getting smaller rather than larger. I looked again at my own system. To my amazement, it had moved what seemed about a yard from its former position, and was much smaller. The planets I saw no longer, but there were faint streaks of light in circles about the sun, and I understood that these were the tracks of the worlds that now moved about their parent too swiftly to be followed with the eye. p.65
The Thing From—”Outside” by George Allan England (Science and Invention, April 1923) is probably worse than the previous story but for different reasons. A party of five are menaced in the woods by an alien presence that leaves circular marks that are very cold in various objects, including dead people. There then follows a random narrative that involves the party trying to get away from this threat. Strange things happen and some of them die. Eventually, a couple of them escape. This all reads like a Weird Tales reject.
Austin Hall’s novelette, The Man Who Saved the Earth (All-Story Weekly, December 13th, 1919), initially reminded me of Ray Bradbury with its rural setting and semi-omniscient (demiscient?) voice:
At the curb he stopped. With such a sun it was impossible to long forget his plaything. He drew it carefully out of his pocket, lay down a paper and began distancing his glass for the focus. He did not notice the man beside him. Why should he? The round dot, the brownish smoke, the red spark and the flash of flame! He stamped upon it. A moment out of boyhood; an experimental miracle as old as the age of glass, and just as delightful. The boy had spoiled the name of a great Governor of a great State; but the paper was still saleable. He had had his moment. Mark that moment. p.76
Unfortunately, this tale of an ‘opalescence’ that takes a chunk out of a couple of places in the States and then carves a twelve mile canal across the country before starting to suck up the world’s oceans is spoilt by a huge amount of padding (and occasional authorial telegraphing doesn’t help either). As an example of padding, there are convenient gaps between first and second catastrophes and the canal scene for lots of filler, e.g. we get a couple of pages about a cowpoke gathering his cattle for a salt lick before they and a mountain disappear. This scene is actually quite interesting to a city slicker like me but completely irrelevant to the story. That said, the prose isn’t bad and the ending is kind of neat too (the opalescence was controlled by those dastardly water-starved Martians).
The last story is The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar by Edgar Allan Poe (The Broadway Journal, December 20th, 1845). This is ultimately a grisly story of a man who is mesmerised just before the point of death and is kept in a mesmeric state for several months. The ending is more supernatural than scientific and this wouldn’t have been out of place in Weird Tales.
An interesting read but probably an issue that should be dipped into rather than read straight through.
Happy 90th birthday Amazing Stories, happy 90th birthday genre SF!
- Catalog of Copyright Entries, 1926 Periodicals January-December 1926 New Series Vol 21 Part1, p.3. According to Mike Ashley’s The Time Machines, p.48, the publication date was the 10th.
- “The paper was of such heavy stock that its 96 pages were as thick as the 192-page standard pulps.” Mike Ashley’s The Time Machines, p.49.
- Wikipedia article on The Dreyfus Affair.