The history of science fiction is a history of firsts. Samuel Madden wrote one of the earliest stories with a speculative fiction element in 1733, while Mary Shelley wrote what is commonly considered the first SF novel in 1818.
But one first that shaped the way we see Science Fiction today more than anything else is something we don’t normally give much credit to: the pulps.
Amazing Stories was launched in 1926, and has the distinction of being the first magazine dedicated exclusively to science fiction. It has had a tumultuous life ever since, going through at least four incarnations, a number of editors with different visions, different format sizes, bankruptcy, and the occasional cancellation. Yet it still survives today, over ninety years later.
Before 1926, the world of science fiction was a largely European affair. Authors like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells were well known, but America did not really have a homegrown science fiction culture to draw upon. Even those stories that did exist tended to owe their existence to their predecessors (see issue #203: Edison’s Conquest of Mars).
Hugo Gernsback changed that. While other American magazines had published SF stories (including some of his own radio magazines), he was the first to dedicate an entire magazine to the genre.
What really made a difference was the pulp format itself. Cheaply produced paper lead to cheap-to-produce magazines, and that opened up a huge potential market. This gave hopeful authors far more exposure than they ever could have in other venues, but it took a while to get the word out there. In fact, the first three issues of Amazing Stories consisted of reprints from existing authors (such as Wells, Verne, and Edger Allen Poe).
One of the more interesting elements of Gernsback’s tenure with Amazing Stories was his belief that SF could be educational as well as entertaining. Unfortunately, his audience tended to resonate more with the wild adventurous side of SF, the so-called “Man of Action” that came to define American SF and distinguish it from its European cousins. It didn’t help that the science tended to be inaccurate or pseudoscience.
This magazine had a huge impact on Science Fiction as a whole. When you consider the exposure previously unknown and first-time authors received, the impact its iconic artwork on how we perceived SF, even the fonts had an impact on what we think SF looks like. Then there was the letters column, where readers could not only share and discuss the topics they loved, they could include their addresses so they could contact one another privately.
All this taken together, you start to see some very modern parallels popping up. Looking back, it almost feels like a Steampunk version of the internet. Amazing Stories essentially created modern SF fandom.
Since then it has shifted and changed many, many times. It went to a smaller digest size format in the 1950s as the pulps were dying out. In the 60s it started reprinting older SF stories but wouldn’t pay the authors their reprint rights, and became respected again in the 70s, winning the Hugo Award several times (named after, you guessed it, Hugo Gernsback). Authors who got their start in Amazing include Issac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin, while just about every great at the time had their stories published by them at some point.
While you could say the magazine has died many times over the decades it’s more accurate to say it has been reborn many times. Their most recent incarnation is as a quarterly magazine, which started with the Fall 2018 issue, featuring contributions by Robert Silverberg, Shirley Meier, Allen Steele, Julie Czerneda, and many others. Harlan Ellison was also going to take part (since he and Amazing go way back, just like with Robert Silverberg), but sadly he passed away earlier in the year.
The premier issue keeps Amazing’s pulp-style look, with a modern looking logo and artwork that pays homage to its retro roots. Keeping up with the times, it’s available in both print and electronic format. Stories range from multi-part novellas trying to recapture a pulpy vibe with titles like Captain Future In Love (don’t let the name fool you), to very short stories that add quirk and humor to the mix like Harry’s Toaster, about a little robot that doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea how to make toast.
Aside from the wide range of short stories, there are also some New Yorker style comics (and some strangely disturbing comics as well), an article from their science columnist, entertainment reviews from their film and TV columnist, and an editorial by Ira Nayman, the magazine’s current Editor in Chief.
If you really want to get a sense of the history and impact of Amazing Stories, there are far better sources than me available. In fact, the very first article, from Robert Silverberg, will catch you up nicely. It made me relive those early days with nostalgia (even though I wasn’t even born yet), as well as some amusing behind-the-scenes looks at how the magazine worked under different head editors.
Magazines like Amazing have value that go far beyond finding a quick depot of short stories to read. They are centers of community, much like KODT is, and I strongly suggest that fans of SF give this one a look.
I assure you the fact that I’m being published in Issue #2 is a complete coincidence and totally beside the point. If anyone suggests otherwise, it’s phasers at dawn!
Seriously, check them out: https://amazingstories.com