MY PERSONAL TIME MACHINE: AMAZING STORIES’ FIRST YEAR (part 1)

Figure 1 - Hugo Gernsback 1963 (Life magazine)

Figure 1 – Hugo Gernsback 1963 (Life magazine)

I assume that, since you’re here at Amazing’s website, you already know that Amazing—in its print incarnation—was the very first dedicated SF magazine ever published (as far as I know). Our founder, Hugo Gernsback (Figure 1), published a special “Scientifiction” issue of Science and Invention, the successor to his Electrical Experimenter, the magazine he started to showcase the burgeoning science of electricity/electronics, but that only served to whet the appetites of his readers, who clamoured for more. Although Gernsback continued to publish either a scientifiction story or scientifiction-like article in almost every issue of Science and Invention, in 1926 he decided to give the readers what they wanted: their own all-scientifiction magazine. This one! (They didn’t call it “that Buck Rogers stuff” for a few more years, as Philip Nowlan’s seminal Buck Rogers story [“Armageddon 2419 A.D.”] had yet to appear in these hallowed pages). Figure 1 shows Hugo sporting the latest VR fashion for 1963, a head-mounted TV. He really seems to be enjoying it, doesn’t he? (No, this is not a doctored or Photoshopped image; Life magazine actually took this photo back then.) Love those rabbit ears!

Frank R. Paul had done a bunch of cover art for Gernsback already, so it was a natural that he would be chosen to do the covers for the new Amazing Stories; when the first issue came out in April 1926, the cover illustrated (Figure 2) some people ice-skating on Gallia (the name given to the comet and the lands—mostly around Algeria, including Gibraltar and a good portion of the Mediterranean sea—which had come away from Earth when it was grazed by said comet—by Hector Servadac and the survivors) with Saturn in the background in the lead story—Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet (or Hector Servadac), a story that was less well known in 1926 than it is today… or maybe it’s been somewhat forgotten by now. According to Gernsback’s editorial, the magazine had purchased the English-language rights to all of Verne’s fiction; this was merely the first one they had published.

Figure 2 - Amazing Stories Vol 1 No 1 April 1926

Figure 2 – Amazing Stories Vol 1 No 1 April 1926

The contents of Volume 1 Number 1 were as follows:

•“Off on a Comet—or Hector Servadac” by Jules Verne (©1911) part 1 of 2
•“The New Accelerator” by H. G. Wells (© 1901)
•“The Man From the Atom” by G. Peyton Wertenbaker (©1923)
•“The Thing From—Outside” by George Allen England (©1923)
•“The Man Who Saved the Earth” by Austin Hall
     •“The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” by Edgar Allan Poe (©1895)

(Oddly enough, Poe’s middle name was misspelled on the cover!) Of the six stories in this issue, only one seems to be an original. The Man Who Saved the Earth, by Austin Hall, is the only one I couldn’t find an earlier copyright date for. Austin Hall is probably best known for his co-authorship with Homer Eon Flint of The Blind Spot, probably because of the Ace Books publication in 1964, though its original 1950 hardcover reprint by Prime Press is cited by Damon Knight in his seminal critical work In Search of Wonder. (According to Wikipedia, Chapter 35 of the book contains this: “Tell me,” commanded Chick. “What is this Day of which you speak!” This is the first known usage of what has become a popular meme: “What is this X of which you speak?”) But I digress.

If you haven’t read the Verne work, you might find it interesting; I read it as a teenager, and liked it, though I confess it’s not up to today’s stylistic standards. Indeed, none of the 1920s fiction really holds up well stylistically. In those days, SF’s main purpose was the exploration and dissemination of ideas—and story was secondary… the “literary” (i.e., stylistic) side was a very distant third, I’m afraid. Still, I find myself compulsively reading SF/F from the ‘30s to the ‘60s (inclusive) because of the sheer power of the ideas and the youthful enthusiasm of the writing. If you want to read all of the stories in this issue, they are available at the following link (because they’re all public domain now): http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Amazing_Stories/Volume_01/Number_01/Off_on_a_Comet%E2%80%94or_Hector_Servadac ; if you press the right/left arrows near the top of the page above the story, you can follow right to the end of the magazine.

Another point of interest is that “The Man From the Atom,” by G. (Green) Peyton Wertenbaker, was written when he was only 15, and published in Science and Invention in 1923. (On a side note, who names their kid “Green,” anyway? Are there people out there named “Fuschia,” or “Plaid,” or “Day-Glo”? The mind boggles.) A sequel—or possibly just Part 2—was published in the very next issue of Amazing Stories; Volume 1 number 2, May 1926. (By the way—and excuse me if you’re already au courant—you do know that when I put a link in my column in blue, it’s a clickable link to more content, right? Just checking; wouldn’t want you to miss out.)

Anyway, the thing here is that 90% of the first issue (approximately) was reprints; and there’s a further issue here: given what we know about comets and astrophysics, is it really—and was it, even then?—plausible that a comet could graze the Earth and carry off a big chunk of it without killing all and sundry? Probably not… so is it (and was it, even then?) really “scientifiction”? From Wikipedia: “A primary issue… is the question of whether Verne’s works count as science fiction to begin with. Verne himself argued repeatedly in interviews that his novels were not meant to be read as scientific, saying “I do not in any way pose as a scientist” and “I have invented nothing.” His own goal was rather to “depict the earth [and] at the same time to realize a very high ideal of beauty of style.” Interesting, no?

The Frank R. Paul cover featured an attention-getting yellow background; maybe a bit more exciting for viewers than a plain black “space” cover would have been; the interior black-and-whites (reproduced in the Wikisource which is linked above) show that he was quite a good b/w artist—line art only—in the style of the times which is very different from today’s line art indeed.

Figure 3 - Amazing Stories Vol. 1 No. 2

Figure 3 – Amazing Stories Vol. 1 No. 2

Volume 1 Number 2 was about the same, with perhaps a bit more Verne than number one. Contents were as follows:

• “A Trip to the Center of the Earth” by Jules Verne (©1911)
• “Mesmeric Revelation” by Edgar Allan Poe
• “The Crystal Egg” by H. G. Wells (©1897)
• “The Infinite Vision” by Charles C. Winn
• “The Man From the Atom” (sequel) by G. Peyton Wertenbaker
• “Off on a Comet” (conclusion) by Jules Verne (©1911) 2/2

Interestingly enough, Wikipedia claims that the Verne translations available then—and probably even the ones I read as a young person—were nothing like what Verne actually wrote, with the translators changing the names of characters, adding and subtracting text wholesale and so on. Maybe it would be a good thing (I’ll put it on my growing “To Do” list) to find and read some of these works in the original French. Assuming I can still read enough French to do so. Anyway, this issue contains not one, but two partial Verne novellas, one reprint by Wells and one by Poe. The Charles C. Winn story, like the Wertenbaker, was originally published by Gernsback in Science and Invention (1924). So unless it’s not really a sequel, the only original story in this issue is “The Man From the Atom”; unfortunately, I can’t find the 1923 Science and Invention to check it out. The Paul cover for this issue—according to Gernsback’s interior blurb on the Table of Contents—is a supposed view of Mars by the story’s protagonist, Mr. Cave, through the Crystal Egg. In the coming years, Paul would have ample opportunity to interpret many alien beings from the authors’ prose—and to do an excellent job of it, in my opinion; he was as fluent in painting alien ecologies as he was in painting alien machines and cities. The overwhelming background colour here is blue.

Figure 4 - Amazing Stores Vol 1 No 3

Figure 4 – Amazing Stores Vol 1 No 3

Figure 4 shows that Paul (probably prompted by the editor and/or art editor—if any) returned to a solid-colour background; this one is fire-engine red, highlighting a scene from the Verne novella, here titled “A Trip to…” rather than the more familiar “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” Gernsback says of the cover “Here we see our intrepid explorers almost perish at the agency of one of the great sea monsters roaming the great Inner Sea.”

The contents of Number 3 are as follows:

•“A Trip to the Center of the Earth” (Serial, 2nd Part) by Jules Verne (©1911)
•“The Coming of the Ice” by G. Peyton Wertenbaker
     •“The Scientific Adventures of Mr. Fosdick
—Mr. Fosdick Invents the ’Seidlitzmobile’” by Jacque Morgan
•“The Star” by H. G. Wells (©1897)
•“Whispering Ether” by Charles S. Wolfe
•“The Runaway Skyscraper” by Murray Leinster
•“An Experiment in Gyro-Hats” by Ellis Parker Butler
•“The Malignant Entity” by Otis Adelbert Kline
•“Doctor Hackensaw’s Secrets—Some Minor Inventions” by Clement Fezandié

So in the third issue we have a few more reprints, including one by Murray Leinster (real name Will F. Jenkins) from Argosy; but also a surprising number of new stories by such writers as Otis Adelbert Kline, Jacque Morgan and Clement Fezandié. Gernsback said, in his editorial, that he received an astonishing number of letters from “scientifiction readers” asking him to reprint stories he’d never heard of and couldn’t track down; he also said that he had over 600 reprints in his inventory. Because he’d been publishing SF stories—again, called “scientifiction—in Electrical Experimenter and Science and Invention, he was probably receiving submissions over the transom, as many of these would have been unsuitable for other non-SF markets of the day. The Morgan story (and he’d also sold a number of “Fosdick” stories to Gernsback’s other magazines, as had Fezandié) was a humorous one; because a popular laxative of the day was called “Seidlitz powders,” which basically worked by creating gases in the stomach (thus aiding or speeding the expulsion of matter from the colon), Fosdick came up with the idea of running an automobile with the gases. Frank R. Paul proved that he could also do a funny illustration, by the way. Seidlitz powders are no longer sold, as they proved to be dangerous when used in the wrong way by the  wrong people. The Fezandié story was not a story so much as the exposition of several ideas for creating electrical gadgets put in a semi-fictional framework. The idea of an electric typewriter is, however, awfully close to the actuality of the IBM Selectric in some ways.

Otis Adelbert Kline’s story is reminiscent of a number of “mad scientist creates life” stories I’ve read over the years; perhaps this is the seminal one. Kline, as you may or may not know, is best known for what might have been—at least according to Donald A. Wollheim, who admitted “I made it up!”—the supposed feud between him and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The two authors both wrote stories set on Mars and Venus; from reading Kline’s work many years ago, I came to the conclusion that he was a Burroughs-manqué. He later quit writing to become a literary agent, most famously for Robert E. Howard’s estate.

Gernsback’s managing editor was T. O’Conor Sloane (Ph.D.), who was to take over the editorial duties on Amazing Stories in 1929 and remain there for a number of years; I had not known (until I did my due diligence for this column) that he had also been at some point the editor of Scientific American! He would be the author in years to come of several non-fiction science tomes, and at least one patented invention; he is also credited by Wikipedia with assisting Gernsback in coming up with the term “scientifiction.” Oddly enough, in an editorial for Amazing, he claimed that man would never attain actual spaceflight. (Another fun, but unrelated fact: in this issue there is a small ad for Gernsback’s famous novel, Ralph 124C 41+, which you could have obtained from the Experimenter Publishing Company for a mere $2.15! The rest of the adverts in this issue are more standard “Earn Big Money in Radio” and the like types.)

Figure 5 - Ralph 124C41+ ad

Figure 5 – Ralph 124C41+ ad

Next week I intend to cover the next three issues of Amazing Stories’ first full year, complete with cover illustrations; I put a fair amount of time into making sure you can see these covers (albeit in tiny format) as freshly as newsstand buyers saw them in the appropriate months.

Like a flower (or maybe some kind of weed) I flourish when nourished—and my nourishment is your comments. So if you can, please comment on this week’s column. If you haven’t already registered—it’s free, and just takes a moment—go ahead and register and then comment here. Or, you could comment on my Facebook page, or in the several Facebook groups where I publish a link to this column. Whether I agree with your comments or not, they’re all welcome, so don’t feel you have to agree with me to post a comment. Also, 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, I hope!

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