- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
What makes science fiction the literature of choice for so many? Arthur C. Clarke, the novelist and scientist, gave a good answer once, when asked why he chose to write in this genre: “Because,” he said, “no other literature is concerned with reality.”
Clarke didn’t say what sort of reality he had in mind, but there are two that suggest themselves. One of those significant realities of our time is science and technology. Those are the things that have made this century move so fast, in ways that earlier generations could hardly even imagine, and science fiction has played some part in accelerating their progress. In the 1930s there was no television, radio showed little interest in science, even the daily newspapers covered it scantily and not very well; but science-fiction magazines were exploring in every pulpwood issue the latest concepts from genetics and nuclear physics to cosmology. I think it is fair to say that a majority of the world’s leading scientists today were first turned on to their subjects by reading science-fiction stories.
The other reason for a fascination with science fiction is that the central fact of contemporary life is rapid, everaccelerating change, change that alters the rules of all our lives all the time. And science fiction is, in essence, the literature of change. I should know. I was present just shortly after the creation.
There are two things I remember clearly about the winter of 1930–31. The first is snow, heaped high in the streets, with men in dress shoes and three-piece suits shoveling it higher and glad for the work. The other is a magazine called Science Wonder Stories.
A leading science-fiction writer traces the course of sci-fi in America from its beginnings when a few kids met in a drugstore to its present state as a powerful, worldwide literary movement
I don’t know where that magazine came from. Some chance visitor to our home must have left it, but when I found it I was thrilled by the picture on the cover. It was a huge, scaly, green monster from another planet, busily wrecking an American city. I’d never seen anything like it before, and when I began to read the stories I was hooked forever. Martians! Time machines! Cities of the future where everyone had a job and plenty to eat and flew swallow-winged aircraft and saw broadcasts on television and invented miraculous devices of every conceivable sort!
I think it was the contrast between the world in that science-fiction magazine (and the others I hastily made it my business to find in the secondhand stores on Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn) and the grimmer, grimier world outside my windows that made those stories so irresistible. It was the time of the Great Depression.
I was only eleven years old, and although my family had its own troubles in those terrible years, I was spared the worst of the shocks. All the same, there was a night-and-day difference between the real world of 1931 and that bright, blossoming magazine fantasy.
Science fiction is a part of everyone’s life now, not least because so much of it isn’t fiction any longer. But in the early 1930s there weren’t any science-fiction books to speak of being published in the United States—one or two a year, maybe, and most of them either Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars novels—written when he was taking a break from Tarzan—or juveniles of the kind written by Carl Claudy. In England there were a few more, by people like S. Fowler Wright and W. Olaf Stapledon (for some years I wondered if all Englishmen parted their names in the middle). There wasn’t even any science fiction on radio until the children’s show “Buck Rogers” appeared later in the decade. Once in a great while there was a film—Just Imagine from Hollywood, imports like Transatlantic Tunnel and FP1 Doesn‘t Answer and, later on, the wonderful Things to Come. Few of the movies were successful at the box office, and so, of course, there were even fewer of them thereafter.
In America science fiction came in three packages, which were named Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories Super-science, and Wonder Stories. They were pulp magazines, limping along on marginal circulations, ignored by every literary critic—and by almost everyone else in America too. Collectively the three magazines published something under two million words of science fiction a year and paid their writers very little. Half a cent a word was normal, often paid only on publication, sometimes not even then. Astonishingly, there was no scarcity of volunteers to write the stories. It certainly was not for the money; even a successful magazine science-fiction writer could barely count on as much as ten dollars a week.
What made the professional imaginers write science fiction was simply love. Nor were their readers much different. The writers were mostly in their early twenties and mostly male. The readers included a great many of that period’s crop of young or about-to-be scientists; the magazines sold best near college campuses. But overwhelmingly the typical reader was a boy of about fifteen; some of the readers were even under ten.