Earlier this week, the space shuttle Discovery made its final launch into space. With 38 missions under its belt and more than a year spent in space, Discovery is indeed the workhorse of the space shuttle fleet, and retirement for that fine steed is well deserved. The launch took place while I was vacationing in December 1939 and it made for a fascinating juxtaposition. There I was, reading stories about adventures through space two decades before the first satellite was launched, and yet those stories were every bit as thrilling and exciting as watching the launch of the real thing, on what most people felt was just another ordinary, run-of-the-mill “flit” into space (to borrow a term from Kimball Kinnison). Knowing that many astronauts and scientists were influenced by science fiction in their youth–perhaps some of the very science fiction stories that appeared these Golden Age issues–well, it’s an added bonus, and goes to show that science fiction’s influence is felt far beyond its typical caricature as a backwater genre of little green men and ray guns.
When I went to Europe in 2007, I blogged regularly about my vacation there. People who read the blog told me that it was almost like they were there on vacation with me. I hope how this vacation in the Golden Age has been for people following along. It is a blast to sit down with these old magazines and read them the way fans of the time read them, eager to open to the first page, quivering through Campbell’s editorial, licking their fingers as they got to the lead story. Not only is it fun, but what an education you get, especially as a developing writer. (I’ll have more to say on that subject in a future post.) Writing up the weekly vacation posts are also a lot of fun because that’s where I get a chance to really think about what I read, make connections with other things I’ve read, and try and give those following along a picture of what its like going through those yellowed pages.
But like every vacation, there are some drawbacks, some minor downsides, if you will.
Perhaps the biggest downside of this vacation is that is sharply limits my other reading. To squeeze a 162 page issue into a week along with my day job, family obligations, fiction writing and blogging means that I don’t have much time for any other reading. I’ve already cut out TV entirely. And still, my time is sharply limited. Several sites recently came out with their recommended reading list for upcoming books–and some of those books are ones that I want to read–but they will have to wait. I’ve fallen behind on my science magazine reading, but that too will have to wait. I’m not complaining, you understand. But I worry that I will fall so far behind that I will have trouble making Hugo and Nebula nominations next year, for instance. I justify it with two rationalizations:
- I’m having so much fun on this vacation
- This is an incredible education in science fiction: writing it, its history, its fandom. Its a once-in-a-lifetime experience
That makes me feel better.
One question that might arise in light of the big news I announced yesterday is: what will happen to the vacation when the new baby arrives in August?
That is hard to say because I’ve never had a toddler and newborn before. However, given my memory of when the Little Man was an infant, I think I might be able to manage and continue these posts. For one thing, I can usually get most of my Astounding reading in on my lunch hour. Occasionally, I won’t finish and some of that reading will have to wait until the evening before I go to bed. In that sense, I think I can still keep up. But I’m preparing for the unexpected. For instance, this week, I’ve tried to crowd my reading earlier into the week so that I’m likely to finish read the December 1939 issue tonight, which means I can start the January 1940 issue a little early and start to build in some lead-time. The posts will still come weekly, but maybe by August, I’ll have a few issues in the bank, so to speak.
For those curious, the week the Sibling-To-Be-Named-Later is due to arrive, I will be about to post Episode 30 for the January 1942 issue of Astounding, which includes stories by Jack Williamson, L. Ron Hubbard, and E. E. “Doc” Smith among others. And I’ve skimmed the contents of the issues between now and then and it only seems to get better.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to Kimball Kinnison so that we can discuss his continuing adventures on Monday.
I got home from work this evening to find that the April and May 1941 issues of Astounding had arrived in the mail. And they are both in very good condition, as you can see:
Of course, it won’t be until June that I get to these issues, but I like to be ahead of things.
I’ve had a number of questions about when various issues of my Vacation in the Golden Age would be covered. The short answer is that I am doing one issue a week. I started with the July 1939 issue and plan on working through the December 1950 issue. That’s 137 issues, which means 137 weeks. That being said, I have added estimated post dates to the issues on the Vacation in the Golden Age index page up to my first gap–which at present is the June 1940 issue. While I would love to be able to do more than one a week, time simply doesn’t permit it. Besides, I’m not really trying to rush this. I’m trying to savor the time I spent with my nose buried in the yellowed pages of these magazines. As I fill in the gaps, I’ll add more dates. Keep in mind that these date could change but I am working hard to stick to a weekly schedule.
I am also working on an index of authors and stories that will link back to the appropriate posts, but it may be a little while before I finish that.
In many ways, this vacation in the Golden Age is the closest I’m likely to come to time travel. I recall back in my senior year in college at the University of California, Riverside, taking a wonderful class on the history of film with a professor named Carlos Cortes. One of the things that he emphasized as we spent hours watching old films was that you could learn much about the society of the time by the films they made. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me sooner, but it resonated with me at that moment and ever since. And indeed, going through these yellowed issues of Astounding, I often try to put myself into the mindset of a youngster reading these issues as they hit the newsstand. But it is difficult to do. Consider this issue, in which the first significant mention of the war in Europe is made. Campbell writes, in the IN TIMES TO COME section:
The last two days have been incredibly hectic with virtually no time for me to just stop and take a breath. However, at lunch today, I managed to wrangle 25 minutes and in that time, I picked up my November 1939 issue of Astounding and continued reading the second installment of E. E. “Doc” Smith’s “Gray Lensman”. I’m not going to discuss the story here; you’ll have to wait for my post on Monday to read about it. But what I will say is this:
For the first time since I stated this vacation in the Golden Age, the world and all of its stresses really faded into the background. During that brief 25 minute my office melted away, my concerns about meeting and projects and various deadlines disappeared. It was me, and Smith and Kimball Kinnison racing on his adventures trying to find and defeat Boskone. It was an honest to goodness vacation from the stresses of the day and I came out of the other side of that 25 minutes feeling genuinely refreshed and ready to tackle the rest of the day.
It made me decide that, tonight at least, I’m not going to try to squeeze in any writing. I’m giving myself the night off. I’m not interested in watching any television. The Little Man is in bed and Kelly will be going up shortly. Instead, once the nightly chores are complete, I’m taking that issue of Astounding and sitting down with a tall, cold glass of chocolate milk and I’m finishing up the second part of “Gray Lensman”. Heck, I may even continue right on into Heinlein’s “Misfits”. The rest of the world can just wait.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
It occurs to me as I start this fourth episode on my vacation in the Golden Age that I haven’t spoken much about my method, which over the course of the first three episodes, has fallen into a kind of pleasant routine. It’s pretty simple: one issue a week, and each day, I try to get in 25 pages, often at lunchtime and just before turning in for the night. I read from cover to cover and I try very hard not to skip around. I jot down some notes along the way, nothing lengthy or sophisticated, just points that I think will be interesting to mention, or passages that seem particularly quotable. And then Sunday afternoon, when my little boy is down for his nap, I settle down to write the episode. I mention all of this because a particularly busy schedule this week cast most of that aside. I’d only finished about half of the October issue by the weekend, and I crammed in the other half yesterday and today.
The cover of the October issue is a gorgeous Rogers job that at first glance almost looks like something that might have been done by computer–if it wasn’t 1939. Kimball Kinnison in his gray uniform appears sharply in front of his spacecraft, a kind of stoic/heroic look on his face. Gladney’s cover on the July ’39 issue was impressive in its abstraction, but for sheer technique, this Rogers cover is better.
Today, the Little Man and I headed up to a Wonder Books in Frederick, MD where I purchased a complete set of the 1947 Astounding Science Fiction from their collectibles case. This is the year that, according to Barry N. Malzberg, Astounding is at the top of its game with Campbell publishing some of the finest stories of the Golden Age. I am currently 86 weeks away from the January 1947 issue, however I could not pass up a complete set, in pretty good condition, and at a terrific price.
Also, I’m going to cheat slightly. Barry has insisted that I read T. L. Sherred’s”E For Effort” in the May 1947 issue at once. So I’m going to take an hour or so right now, sit in my office chair and with a bottle of Sam Adams, read Sherred’s story.
And just as I was finishing up this post, the mailman stopped by to deliver the January 1941 issue with Part 1 of Anson MacDonald’s (Robert Heinlein) serial, “Sixth Column”.
Over the last few days, I managed to acquire the January, February and March 1941 issues of Astounding Science Fiction. And they are all in nearly mint condition. The March 1941 issue arrived in the mail today and I expect the January and February issues to arrive over the next several days. This now gives me the first 21 consecutive issues of Golden Age Astounding and carries me through Episode 21 of my Vacation in the Golden Age before I reach my first gap.
For those doing the math, at my current rate of an issue a week, I’ll get to Episode 21 (March 1941) on June 12, 2011, which just happens to be our little boy’s birthday. It also gives me plenty of time to acquire more issues between now and then.
Dear Mr. Campbell,
I am a relatively new reader of your incarnation of Astounding Science Fiction and I thought I should take a minute to tell you how much I have been enjoying what I’ve found in the magazines so far. I say your “incarnation” of Astounding, because, you see I am time traveler from the future and where I come from, the magazine has a slightly different name, but is still regarded as one of the finest magazines in the field. (I don’t want to give away the future and tell you what the name is, but I will say that if you ever decide to change the name of the magazine, be sure to change it to something that maintains what has become the standard abbreviation, ASF).
I write this letter from more than 70 years in the future, having gotten halfway through the October 1939 issue. It is the forth issue which I have read painstakingly closely from cover-to-cover. I started with the July 1939 issue, which in my time is regarded as a milestone issue of Astounding. While my favorite story in that issue was C. L. Moore’s “Greater Than Gods”, I would suggest you keep a close eye on that Asimov fellow. His letters can be a little bit heated, but I think he’s going places. In the August 1939 issue, Lester Del Rey’s story, “The Luck of Ignatz” was a marvelously entertaining piece, as was that clever tale by Mr. Heinlein. He’s another one to keep an eye on. I was especially fond of Willy Ley’s article on “Space War” which I think made some points which are as important and relevant here in 2011 as they are back in your time. I’m afraid that I didn’t think the September 1939 issue was up to the standard of the previous two issues, but that’s not to say there wasn’t some good stuff in it. In particular, I enjoyed Mr. Gallun’s yarn, “Masson’s Secret”. How I wish I could tell you how and when the moon landings actually unfold, but that is against regulation. Needless to say when it finally does happen, you’ll find that the reality is just as good as the fiction. R. S. Richardson’s article on astronomers was absolutely charming, by the way. I hope you have more of him.
Many of the correspondents in the letter columns complain about the art work. I am no art critic, but I can say that I generally enjoy the covers more than the interiors, and that Rogers and Gladney are outstanding in my book. I’m not going to ask you for smooth page edges, but I would like to humbly suggest moving the letter columns to either the beginning or the end of each issue. The middle seems like an awkward place at best. And keep the letter columns going! They are fabulous to read, and whether or not you realize this, Mr. Campbell, they are of vital importance to science-fiction fandom.
I realize that some of your revenue comes from advertising in the magazine, but surely you, Mr. Campbell, with your background, must have some hint at the dangers of smoking. I imagine there’s no way to eliminate these ads from your pages, but the fact of the matter is that they look antiquated and strange from seventy years in the future. But you live and learn, I suppose.
To sum up, Mr. Campbell, I awaken each day eager to thumb through the next story in the issue that I happen to be reading. Being a time-traveler, I don’t have to wait a month for the next issue to come out. I simply dial my time machine to the appropriate date and presto!–I have the issue in hand. These issues provide me with not only a greater appreciation for the short fiction form (I am, I must admit, a very minor science fiction writer where I come from), but they provide a wonderful respite from the busy world around me. They are a calm point in my otherwise hectic day and when I am stuck in the doldrums of a menial task, I look longingly at the yellowing issue sitting on a table not far from me, wishing that my nose could be between those pages.
So thank you, Mr. Campbell, for producing such a fine magazine. And thank you for what you will do for science fiction. I can’t tell you what that is at the moment, but I can say that your name will be remembered honorably by generations of science fiction fans and writers to come.
Jamie Todd Rubin
Falls Church, VA
The Golden Age of science fiction lasted nearly 11 years. That’s roughly 130 issues of Astounding. And while many of those issue are classics, there have to be at least a few that are, if not flops, certainly below par. I think that the September 1939 issue is one of those sub-par issues. My favorite parts of the issues was the science article and the letters column. Most of the stories in this issue were mediocre, although a few rose above the rest. But this is just the beginning of the Golden Age. The writers who will become giants in the field have yet to mature and reach their potential, and despite the fact that there are mediocre issues here and there, it is still a lot of fun to follow along, watch those authors evolve and blossom, and watch the Golden Age come into full bloom.
I think there is at least one physical difference between my vacation in the Golden Age and what people who lived through it experienced: the smell of an ancient pulp magazine. I always imagined that when Isaac Asimov was reading the latest issue of Astounding, it had that same aromatic fragrance as the issue that I hold in my hand, but on closer consideration that simply can’t be right. For instance, I can pick up the April 2011 issue of Analog, rifle through the pages just below my nose and there is a scent, but it is the scent of fresh, clean, young paper. But when I crack open the August 1939 issue, more than 70 years of collected odors seem to melt off the pages. There is a certain staleness to that smell, sure, but anyone who has been in a used book store knows what I am talking about. Some people hate it, but to me it might as well be ambrosia There is also a sweetness to the smell and I have no idea where that comes from, perhaps the result of seven decades of oxygen burning away at the pages. Whatever it is, when I finally put the magazine down after reading it for longer than ten minutes, the scent lingers on my fingers and it is delightful.