Cover image for Pioneers of wonder : conversations with the founders of science fiction
Pioneers of wonder : conversations with the founders of science fiction
Davin, Eric Leif.
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Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1999.
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405 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : portraits ; 24 cm
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PS374.S35 D36 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Publisher's Weekly Review

Born in 1947, Davin discovered SF through the films and comic books of the 1950s. In 1956, a "best of" anthology led him to read the pioneering SF magazines of the '20s, most of which had died out and were being replaced by SF books and TV. Here, Davin extols at length the "sense of wonder" he believes SF engenders in its readers, defending the genre from those who dismiss it as an adolescent pursuit. Through an assortment of Q&A interviews, he attempts to rekindle his youthful enthusiasm, as well as to capture the memories of a handful of figures from the days of SF yore, several of whom have died since his interviews. But few readers will recognize his subjects: David Lasser edited several of Hugo Gernsback's pulps and wrote the first English-language book on space travel, The Conquest of Space, which inspired then 17-year-old Arthur C. Clarke. Lloyd Arthur Eshbach founded Fantasy Press, one of the better, longer-lived (1946-1955) specialty houses. Sam Moskowitz, who died in 1997, was SF's most prominent fan-cum-historian. Curt Siodmak, a German-born writer and director of B-films, is best known for his 1943 novel, Donovan's Brain. The author's other subjects are even more obscure. Davin's writing and interviewing skills are insufficient to bring his subjects alive, and his excessive praise of these mostly minor figures will limit the appeal of his book to a handful of SF historians. Readers with an interest in this period should turn instead to Paul A. Carter's exemplary 1977 study, The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. Photos not seen by PW. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Age of Wonder Gernsback, David Lasser, and Wonder Stories Hugo Gernsback published the world's first science fiction magazine. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. In doing so he launched an era, a pre-Campbellian Age of Wonder, the knowledge of which seems virtually forgotten.     For three years, starting in April 1926, this immigrant from Luxembourg had the world of magazine science fiction to himself as editor and publisher of Amazing Stories . That first science fiction magazine, however, was only one product of the Experimenter Publishing Company, Gernsback's New York-based publishing empire. Others included Science and Invention, Radio News , the presciently titled Television , and Your Body , an attractive health publication, which competed successfully with Bernarr Macfadden's well-known Physical Culture . Of these, Your Body would prove to be the catalyst for Gernsback's inaugurating Science Wonder Stories , the world's second science fiction magazine, in June 1929.     By early 1929, the Experimenter Publishing Company had mushroomed into a profitable million-dollar enterprise, which apparently greatly disturbed rival publishing czar Macfadden. As has been documented, Amazing Stories alone was selling 100,000 copies per month, with some individual issues soaring to 200,000. The magazine's estimated gross annual income from sales and advertising was $185,000, with a net operating profit of $55,000.     And, in that pre-Depression era, Gernsback and his staff were paid well. Hugo himself got a weekly salary of $1,045 (which he sometimes didn't bother to collect); his brother Sydney Gernsback, the company's treasurer, received $750 a week; and T. O'Conor Sloane, Amazing 's associate editor (who handled the actual editorial chores), was paid $225. Like virtually all other pulp publishers of that time, Gernsback usually paid authors only half a cent per word--and only upon publication. (He continued this practice with all his succeeding magazines.) In the 1920s, when he was flush, this policy created few complaints. Authors eventually did get paid--and, besides, there was nowhere else for his "science fiction" authors to go.     Later, during the Great Depression, the science fiction pulps, and Gernsback in particular, earned a reputation for under- or nonpayment of authors. Horace L. Gold, a veteran of the era, once described payment rates as "microscopic fractions of a cent per word, payable upon lawsuit." Indeed, Gernsback himself came to be seen as the primary culprit responsible for this system, a perhaps undeserved reputation which yet lingers.     Donald A. Wollheim recalled that when he sold his first story, "The Man from Ariel," to Gernsback's Wonder Stories in 1934, he was owed $10--which never came. Wollheim wrote several other Wonder Stories authors and discovered that they, too, had not been paid. He combined with them to hire a lawyer and sue for payment. Gernsback settled out of court with the group for $75, of which the lawyer got $10. In 1935, Wollheim submitted a second story, "The Space Lens," to Wonder Stories under the pseudonym of Millard Verne Gordon. It was accepted and published, but never paid for.     Jack Williamson had similar problems. In early 1932, Williamson received $50 as partial payment for "The Moon Era," which appeared in the February 1932 issue of Wonder Stories . It took two years and the threat of a lawsuit to obtain the rest. For his part, Gernsback claimed financial distress resulting from the Depression. In reply to Williamson's importuning letters, Gernsback begged for patience. On January 21, 1933, for instance, he wrote Williamson that a "serious disaster" had befallen him when the Eastern Distributing Corporation, which distributed his magazines, went bankrupt, causing him to lose "a vast sum of money" and "raising the deuce with our finances."     Yet it does appear that when Gernsback had money, those connected with his organization also had money--even his authors. At the time his Experimenter Publishing Company went into suspiciously forced bankruptcy in 1929, legal documents revealed that payment was outstanding for only four stories, all of them recently acquired.     That bankruptcy itself makes an interesting story. According to Gernsback, Macfadden had offered to purchase his flourishing publications on three occasions, but he had spurned all the offers. In retaliation, claimed Gernsback, Macfadden conspired to force him into bankruptcy and acquired his company through third parties. On February 20, 1929, three creditors, none of whom were owed more than $2,100, simultaneously sued Gernsback for payment. According to New York business law at the time, such simultaneous action could automatically force bankruptcy proceedings to be initiated. Eventually, Gernsback's publishing empire and his radio station were sold; his creditors, he said, received $1.08 for every dollar they were owed. The April 1929 Amazing Stories was the last issue published under Gernsback's aegis.     He quickly struck back by founding the Stellar Publishing Corporation and solicited orders for a new magazine, probably from Amazing 's list of subscribers, although Gernsback denied this source during the bankruptcy proceedings. Over eight thousand orders flooded in and, within a month, Gernsback's second publishing fiefdom was born. In June 1929, he produced the world's second science fiction magazine, Science Wonder Stories . It had a "bedsheet" format (8.5" x 11"), ninety-six pages, and sold for a quarter, more expensive than most smaller-sized pulp magazines at that time. The first issue initiated a serial, "The Reign of the Ray" by Fletcher Pratt and Irwin Lester (the latter simply a pseudonym for the popular Fletcher Pratt). In that first issue's editorial, Gernsback coined the term "science fiction" to describe the contents.     In July 1929, he began the world's third science fiction magazine, Air Wonder Stories ; and in October--the same month the stock market crashed--there appeared the first issue of Science Wonder Quarterly (which, with its summer 1930 issue became Wonder Stories Quarterly ).     Gernsback had always agreed with Emerson that "men love to wonder, and that is the seed of our science." Indeed, it was through wonder, Gernsback felt, that his readers would be led to science. His policy had always emphasized the didactic aspects of science fiction. His first editorial in the old Amazing had declared, "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 very palatable form." Science Wonder Stories was to be no different. All stories, trumpeted Gernsback, would be judged by an editorial board composed of "an array of authorities and educators."     He took with him into his new venture many loyal retainers, including his brother Sydney (who remained treasurer), Irving Mannheimer (who became secretary), and Frank R. Paul, "The Father of Science Fiction Illustration," an Austrian artist who had painted all of Amazing 's covers and who would paint all but three covers for Science Wonder Stories and Wonder Stories as well." But for managing editor, Gernsback selected a newcomer to his team. At Amazing , it had been his habit to set policies, write the editorials, and generally have the last word, but at the same time, to leave most of the day-to-day work of running the magazine to his associate editor, seventy-seven-year-old T. O'Conor Sloane. This now became the task of twenty-seven-year-old David Lasser.     Lasser was born in Baltimore on March 20, 1902, the son of Louis and Lena Lasser, Russian Jewish immigrants. To support his wife and five children, his father operated a tailor shop. At the age of fourteen, after only half a year of attendance, Lasser dropped out of high school to work as a bank messenger. "We were a very poor family," he told me, "and I thought I ought to help out." When America entered World War I, one of his brothers was drafted and another, serving in the National Guard, was activated for overseas duty. David wanted to get in as well, so he lied about his age and enlisted in February 1918. He was shipped to France, gassed during the Argonne offensive a few months before the Armistice, and hospitalized for about five months. In February 1919, Sergeant David Lasser was discharged--and was still only sixteen years old!     He then discovered that the government had a college scholarship fund for disabled veterans, which not only paid tuition fees, but also provided a modest living stipend. Despite never having finished high school, he talked his way into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1920, and graduated in 1924.     For the next five years, Lasser worked at a series of what he called "dead-end jobs." First he was an engineer in Newark, then an insurance agent, and in 1927 he became a technical writer for the New York Edison Company. In 1929, he was fired by New York Edison for protesting the dismissal of several employees in an economy move. It was then that he applied to Gernsback for the managing editor's position and was hired.     During his first year with Stellar Publishing, Lasser juggled the editorial donkey work of both Air and Science Wonder Stories before they were combined into one magazine titled simply Wonder Stories in June 1930. He also edited the quarterlies and the last three issues of Amazing Detective Tales (August to October 1930) to be published by Gernsback. The latter, begun in January 1930 as Scientific Detective Monthly , attracted neither science fiction nor detective readers, and Lasser was unable to save it from financial failure. It was sold and shortly thereafter died.     On April 4, 1930, meantime, Lasser gathered a group of his New York-area writers together at the apartment of G. Edward Pendray and his wife and formed the American Interplanetary Society to educate the public about the feasibility and desirability of space travel. T. O'Conor Sloane had always laughed at the idea of space exploration, and in a 1929 editorial even declared that space travel could never be achieved. Lasser, on the other hand, was a true believer, and saw his affiliation with Wonder Stories as a springboard for spending the faith. The writers elected Lasser as president, Fletcher Pratt as librarian, Laurence Manning as treasurer, and Wonder Stories associate editor Charles P. Mason as secretary. G. Edward Pendray, then a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune and one of Lasser's writers under the nom de plume "Gawain Edwards," was elected vice-president of the society. From 1932 to 1936 Pendray was an editor at the Milk Research Council, which let him use his own office for the society's business. After he left the council he became a top consultant at Westinghouse Corp., where he coined the term "time capsule" for the container that Westinghouse buried at the 1939 New York World's Fair.     Pendray became the second president of the American Interplanetary Society when Lasser resigned in April 1932, at the society's third annual meeting. Because of his activities in and on behalf of the organization, Pendray would go on to become "the most widely-known and read American authority on rocketry and space flight, other than [Robert] Goddard." After Pendray's elevation, Nat Schachner, an attorney, another cofounder, and another of Lasser's stable of writers, then filled the vacant position of vice-president. Schachner next followed Pendray into the president's chair, with Laurence Manning filling the vacant vice-presidency. Manning, in his turn, next became the society's president, on April 6, 1934. At that same meeting, the society would change its name to the American Rocket Society.     In the June 1930 Wonder Stories , the Interplanetary Society announced its existence and goals, and encouraged the formation of chapters throughout the country. Soon, even people such as Jack Williamson in faraway New Mexico, R.F. Starzl in Le Mars, Iowa, and Robert A. Heinlein, an ensign on the USS Lexington then in the South Pacific, were joining. That same month the society published the first issue of its mimeographed Bulletin of the American Interplanetary Society . Edited by Lasser, it became the offset-printed Astronautics in May 1932, with Lasser remaining as editor until at least April 1933. That first issue reported that Charles P. Mason had been charged with the task of making a survey of the "entire field of information relating to interplanetary travel," and it published Fletcher Pratt's paper "The Universal Background of Interplanetary Travel," which he had read at the society's meeting on May 2. Future issues would publish similar articles, as well as reports from German Willy Ley about the progress of German-rocket-society experiments by Wernher von Braun and others with actual rocket flight. Willy Ley had been put in touch with the American group by member R.F. Starzl, who'd sent Ley the first issue of Science Wonder Stories (Fall 1929), thus converting him instantly to science fiction. It was his contacts with the British and American rocket societies which would later make it possible for Ley to escape Nazi Germany and emigrate to America before the war. Ley would later become a prolific contributor of science articles to the science fiction magazines of the 1950s.     Meetings of the society were held in the American Museum of Natural History, made possible through the intercession of society member Dr. Clyde Fisher, who served on the museum's staff. They met with immediate success. One of the society's biggest events was held on the night of January 27, 1931, when over twenty-five hundred people gathered to hear an address by Robert Esnault-Pelterie, a French "astronaut," on the "unborn science of cosmic flight called astronautics," a word invented in 1927 by the Belgian proto-science-fiction novelist J. J. Rosny, aine (the elder), a pseudonym of Joseph-Henri-Honore Boex. In addition, the society presented two free screenings of The Girl in the Moon , a film by German rocket scientist Dr. Hermann Oberth. A police captain and ten patrolmen augmented the museum's own guards (thirty-two additional ones hired for the event) to insure that the crowd did not destroy the museum in a much-feared "riot." The museum had already experienced an unruly crowd when Albert Einstein spoke there in 1929. The large audience which turned out at that time did considerable damage in what came to be called "the Einstein riot." The museum feared that the visit of this French "astronaut" might be a repeat. "Riot Guard Joins 2,500 at Film Flight to Moon," screamed the headline in the New York Herald-Tribune the next day. "Police Stand By in Museum Lest Rocket Trip Thrill Revive Einstein Episode." The paper then went on to report that "Captain Mead and ten policemen, reinforced by the private garrison of the American Museum of Natural History, guarded the museum against a possible repetition of the `Einstein riot' of 1929 last night when a free motion picture and a free lecture on the subject of rocket flight to the moon were presented by the American Interplanetary Society. There was no riot, but it was necessary to put on the show twice to satisfy the lovers of free science who turned out to the number of 2,500." Indeed, the room's capacity was a thousand, so the second thousand-plus stood in line outside for two hours waiting for the second showing.     Lasser and his colleagues were "astounded" by the turnout. They'd expected a small crowd and planned to have only one screening of the film. "It demonstrated," Lasser told me, "that in spite of the Great Depression (or perhaps because of it), there was that intense interest in travelling into space." Given the usual scorn to which space travel was then subjected, this episode seems hard to believe; but the massive turnout and the previous "Einstein riot" suggest that there may indeed have been a huge population hungry for such ideas in the 1930s.     At a meeting of the society on April 3, 1931, Lasser called for "an international interplanetary commission to act as a central agency for all information on the development of rocket vehicles and to build the first ship for extraterrestrial navigation." But, "before that dream can be realized," he explained, "there must be a long period of experimentation. First, the scientists must achieve construction of a meteorological rocket ... then develop rocket planes for transoceanic service and gradually work out a type that will be capable of a trip far out into interplanetary space." At the meeting of October 22, 1931, Lasser prophesied "war by rocket." The rocket, he predicted, "will serve as a terrible engine of destruction in future conflicts." Future war "would change from battles of armies to duels between long-distance engines of destruction."     Yet, despite the society's efforts at realistic projection and seeming popular success, it also met with ridicule and resistance. Raymond Z. Gallun, an author and another true believer, recalls that "in those early days, the whole subject of space travel, to most persons, was about as reasonable and productive as making mud pies." Even as late as 1949, Dr. Isaac Asimov offered his resignation to the dean of the Boston University School of Medicine--to spare that worthy institution the shame of association with a writer of space stories--when he learned that his publishers had listed his university affiliation on the back cover of his first novel, Pebble in the Sky . (The dean refused it.)     To further their proselytizing work, Lasser felt a book was needed to explain in accessible language the realistic potential of the rocket as a vehicle for space exploration. He had already published several articles about space travel in such magazines as Scientific American, Nature , and Gernsback's Everyday Science and Mechanics , as well as the New York Herald-Tribune . Using these as a basis, in 1931 he wrote The Conquest of Space , the first book in the English language on astronautics. No publisher would touch the manuscript, so Lasser, Pendray, and Schachner pooled their resources to come up with $12,000, enough to self-publish and distribute perhaps 500 copies. The great bulk of this money seems to have come from Schachner, and the publishing headquarters of the press the writers set up was at his law office.     The book was favorably received, with sometime SF writer Waldemar Kaempffert, also the science editor of the New York Times , commenting that "the book cannot but capture the imagination of a reader interested in science. After the capture he will find that he has unconsciously absorbed many principles of elementary physics and thus considerably added to his stock of useful knowledge."     Meanwhile, society members were conducting a series of rocket experiments which paralleled those of the Germans. On May 14, 1933, they finally succeeded in launching a rocket. It rose for 250 feet before its oxygen tank exploded. It was considered a great success. At the same Time, Laurence Manning, a nurseryman and head of the society's Committee on Biological Research, had been leading America's first experiments in subjecting living subjects to the increased pressure rocket thrust would exert. In 1931--unknown to them at the time, but predating Wernher von Braun's similar experiments in Germany by a year--the society subjected white mice to 80 g of pressure in a centrifuge. These experiments served to pull in more technically minded members, while the ongoing public relations work increased overall membership. By 1932, according to the society's journal, the American Interplanetary Society boasted members in twenty-one states and nine foreign countries, including England, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union. Because of Lasser's book, the society's ancillary rocket experiments, and its public educational work, historian Frank H. Winter has observed that "more than any other nation, America traces its astronautical roots to a science fiction fatherhood."     In 1932, a British edition of Lasser's book, perhaps five thousand copies, was published by London's Hurst & Blackett, a firm which specialized in romance, mystery, and adventure novels. The royalties from this edition probably saved Schachner, financial backer of the American edition, from a major loss. In any case, it was this edition which captured the imagination of seventeen-year-old Arthur C. Clarke, transforming him forever into a fervent champion of "hardcore" science fiction. "Although there was already considerable German and Russian literature on the subject," he remembers, The Conquest of Space was the very first book in the English language to discuss the possibility of flight to the Moon and planets and to describe the experiments and dreams (mostly the latter) of the early rocket pioneers. Only a few hundred copies of the British edition were sold, but chance brought one of these to a bookstore a few yards from my birthplace ... and so I learned, for the first time, that space travel was not merely fiction. One day it could really happen .     Lasser was also aware of and concerned about other developments around him in Depression-era New York. The massive unemployment he saw everywhere moved him to join the Socialist Party. He voted for the Socialist presidential candidate, Norman Thomas, in both 1932 and 1936, before finally leaving the party in 1938.     In 1932 and 1933, Lasser also flirted briefly with the Technocracy movement, which preached that engineers and scientists were the only people who could pull the country out of the Depression. He edited the only two issues that were produced of its journal, Technocracy Review , both published by his boss, Hugo Gernsback, who was perhaps also briefly smitten with Technocracy. Gernsback, for example, wrote an editorial in the March 1933 Wonder Stories on the "Wonders of Technocracy," though he hedged at the end by declaring, "Whether this will work out or whether Technocracy is only a theoretical idea, only the future can tell." He also published a series of articles on the movement in his associated magazine, Everyday Science and Mechanics . Lasser meanwhile published in Wonder a three-part series of Technocracy-oriented stories, "The Revolt of the Technocrat," written by Nat Schachner. Sam Moskowitz says these were commissioned by Lasser and perhaps based on ideas furnished by him. This flirtation with Technocracy did not continue in the pages of Wonder after Lasser left.     Also while editor of Wonder Stories and president of the Interplanetary Society, Lasser formed another organization, the Lower West Side Unemployed League, and began leading it in demonstrations for jobs. It was this activity that led to Lasser's leaving Gernsback; the last issue of Wonder Stories that he edited was the one for October 1933. Throwing himself full-time into organizing the unemployed, Lasser became head of the Workers' Alliance of America, a nationwide agitational organization which became the major representative of the unemployed and of WPA workers during the Great Depression. As such, he played a significant role in our labor history.     But his role in science fiction history is just as significant. Coming after the founding of Amazing Stories and before the Campbellian "Golden Age," Lasser and the Wonder Stories interregnum tend to be overlooked and neglected by both fans and science fiction historians. Yet in many ways, this middle "Age of Wonder" was extremely formative/or the still-evolving genre, as Lasser sought to bring a certain maturity to the literature.     For those first years of the Depression, Wonder Stories was the dominant magazine in its field, well ahead of Amazing and Astounding (which was launched in January 1930). Under Lasser's editorship, the Wonder Stories family of magazines published the first stories of John Beynon Harris (later known as "John Wyndham"), Clifford D. Simak, Raymond Z. Gallun, Frank K. Kelly, P. Schuyler Miller, Leslie F. Stone, Raymond A. Palmer, Laurence Manning, Nat Schachner, and "Gawain Edwards." Other well-known authors who appeared in the magazine regularly were Edmond Hamilton, Manly Wade Wellman, Clark Ashton Smith, Jack Williamson, Fletcher Pratt, mathematician Eric Temple Bell (who wrote under the name of "John Taine"), Stanton Coblentz, and David H. Keller.     One indication of the magazine's popularity among readers during the Lasser years came when Raymond Palmer (later editor of Amazing ), as chairman of the Jules Verne Prize committee, awarded the first such prize (a precursor of the fan-voted "Hugo") to Edmond Hamilton's "The Island of Unreason," from the May 1933 Wonder Stories , as the best story of 1933. Hamilton's story beat out such worthy competition as C.L. Moore's "Shambleau," Laurence Manning's "The Man Who Awoke," Donald Wandrei's "A Race Through Time," and David H. Keller's "Unto Us a Child Is Born."     Another such indicator was the more-than-normal frenzy of fan correspondence in the magazine's letters department. Particularly vocal fans who communicated regularly included Bob Tucker, Forrest J. Ackerman, Raymond Palmer, and Donald Wollheim. Because these letters included the addresses, the writers were able to contact each other readily; this, along with the constant and various promotions, encouraged fan activity to energetically blossom.     A typical promotion was the contest announced in the February 1930 issue of Air Wonder Stories , which offered a hundred dollars in gold to the reader who came up with the best slogan to typify the magazine's contents. British fan John Beynon Harris ("John Wyndham") won with the alliterative phrase "Future Flying Fiction."     Another such contest, with a top award of $500, was featured in the spring 1930 Science Wonder Quarterly , which asked fans to answer the question "What I Have Done to Spread Science Fiction." Third place here went to New York fan Allen Glasser for founding a fan club called the Scienceers and publishing its newsletter, The Planet --the world's second science fiction fanzine. Second place was taken by an Indiana printer named Conrad H. Ruppert, who suggested a week of nationally coordinated fan activities to be called "Science Fiction Week." This was an idea that Gernsback particularly liked and so, in the May Science Wonder Stories , he suggested that March 31-April 7, 1930, be set aside for such a week. But first place in the contest went to Chicago fan Raymond Palmer for starting the Science Correspondence Club.     Under the stimulation of these promotions and contests, fan clubs and fan magazines proliferated. Ruppert, for instance, shortly began to publish the nonfiction fanzine Science Fiction Digest (the first magazine with "science fiction" in its title), which by 1933 was the foremost fan magazine, thanks to Ruppert's printing press. The shape of "First Fandom" began to emerge.     Wonder Stories also exercised a decided influence on the evolution of science fiction as a genre during these years. Before Astounding appeared in 1930, Lasser, through the various magazines he edited, was responsible for well over half of all the science fiction being published. Even after Astounding 's appearance and the merging of the two Wonder titles, Lasser was still choosing a substantial fraction of it. Indeed, given the anemic performance of Amazing under the octogenarian Sloane, who didn't believe in science fiction, and the pathetic performance of Astounding during its first few years, Lasser was the dominant force in shaping the direction of the field.     He was working in unknown terrain. The genre had just been invented; as such, there was no depth of talent to the field, which is why Gernsback had been initially forced to rely upon reprints of such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells. Mainstream writers with literary skills disdained the new genre, especially since one could only find it in the pulp magazines, rags which had the reputation for publishing only "lurid stuff for semi-literates on cheap pulpwood paper." Thus, the writers who rallied to the genre were new, untried novices; indeed, they were, in many cases, just enthusiastic teenagers. Their writing talents were in many cases rudimentary at best. But these were the writers that Lasser had to work with. In doing so, he helped shape that first generation of science fiction writers, creating a pool of talent where none had previously existed. Magazines such as Wonder Stories , said Isaac Asimov, became "a forcing ground in which many youngsters sharpened their talents, when otherwise they would never have entered writing at all, or would have written something other than s.f."     Regarding the stories then appearing in the SF pulps, Arthur C. Clarke recalls, "Of course the literary standards were usually abysmal--but the stories brimmed with ideas and amply evoked that sense of wonder that is, or should be, one of the goals of the best science fiction." Lasser, though, wasn't satisfied with merely evoking a "Sense of Wonder." He wanted to improve low literary standards and, just as importantly, inject an element of scientific realism into the wild and fantastic fiction then common. He wrote to Jack Williamson, stating: Our policy is aimed more at the realistic than at the fantastic in science fiction. We find that our readers have wearied a little of unbelievable monsters, unbelievable situations and feats of the imagination that never could become reality. We want imagination used, but we want the author to back it up with a convincing background, so that the reader will find that these things could be true. We are placing as much emphasis on plot as we are on science ideas, and we feel that if you take even scientific ideas that have been worked out a number of times and have an original plot, that is, an original set of characters and an original set of experiences that you carry them through, that good stories can be written.     Brian Aldiss has complained that "Gernsback was utterly without any literary understanding," and that all he wanted in stories he published was a diagram. This may have been because English was not Gernsback's mother tongue, and Sloane just didn't care. The result was often leaden prose disguising a science lecture. But Lasser, like Aldiss, was concerned about the lack of literacy and a willingness to accept diagrammatically proficient but pseudoscientific gibberish. Nor was he content merely to state his policy. He also attempted to shape and mold the field by working closely with authors, suggesting ideas, commenting on drafts, and even colaborating, as he did with David H. Keller on "The Time Projector" ( Wonder Stories , July 1931), a tale of a computer-generated prediction of World War II. This editorial stance was apparently at variance with the previous ones of Gernsback and Sloane, who simply either accepted or rejected submitted stories. In fact, it may well mark the very first editorial intervention in the creative process in the field, something for which Campbell later became famous.     Illustrative of this approach is Lasser's correspondence with Jack Williamson concerning his novelette, "Red Slag of Mars" ( Wonder Stories Quarterly , spring 1932). The plot originated from an "Interplanetary Plot Contest" the magazine had sponsored; readers were awarded prizes for the best plots, which were then to be worked into publishable stories by the magazine's stable of writers. Lasser sent one of the winning plots, contributed by Lawrence Schwartzman, to Williamson to see if he would be interested in wrestling it into shape. Lasser wrote: Admittedly this plot is very amateurish and would have to be revised considerably to make a worthwhile story. So long as you maintain some relationship with the original plot, you have perfect freedom to write your story as you please. What appealed to me in this plot was the idea of the lost race of Martians, and I think you could very well construct your story about that, even neglecting your other characters of the plot. You might, for instance, have the cloud that our author speaks of sweep over the solar system. When the cloud has passed on, the entire Martian race with which we had been in communication has vanished. The story could be the working out of the mystery of the lost race.     Williamson worked up a synopsis and sent it to Lasser, who replied, I believe if the story is well written, it will be acceptable. I would caution you, however, to be sure to make the incident connected with the Martians convincing and plausible. For example, you speak of the earth-men deciphering the Martian inscriptions. Now, you must be sure and make it convincing how they did it; for they have absolutely no method of approach to a written language of another world. Similarly, in recounting the professor's contacting the Martians, you must be very careful to make that convincing too; for, here again, you have the impact of two races who have absolutely nothing in common.     Despite Lasser's attempts to nurture his writers and improve the scientific and literary quality of their work, Wonder Stories began to flounder financially as the Depression ground on. Air Wonder Stories had always attracted fewer readers than its sister magazine and had been merged with it after eleven issues. In November 1930, Wonder Stories contracted to the smaller dimensions of a pulp magazine, but returned to the larger bedsheet size twelve issues later. In 1932, it dropped its price from a quarter to 15 cents, below even Astounding 's 20-cent price. However, this only exacerbated the magazine's cash flow problem without significantly increasing circulation. Wonder Stories Quarterly was discontinued after its January 1933 number; a 50-cent cover price was just too steep for the kids of the Depression, and halving the price came too late to save it. Perhaps the only consolation was that there was less competition, as that March saw the demise of Astounding due to the same financial pressures.     In the wake of the Eastern Distributing Company bankruptcy --a "misfortune," Gernsback wrote Williamson, "which left us holding the bag"-- Wonder Stories missed two issues in the middle of 1933. With the November 1933 number it regained its monthly status, but only by dropping again to pulp size (this time permanently); by financially reorganizing Stellar Publishing as Continental Publications, Inc., in December; and by firing Lasser after the October issue, a move he interpreted as at least in part dictated by economy.     To replace Lasser, Gernsback brought in seventeen-year-old Charles Derwin Hornig--the first and perhaps most unexpected of the fan-to-editor transformations later common in science fiction. Hornig was a New Jersey fan who had launched a fanzine called The Fantasy Fan in September of that year. He sent a copy to the editor of every professional SF magazine, and one reached Gernsback just as he was firing Lasser. So, two months after starting his own fanzine, Hornig found himself a professional editor.     Hornig immediately announced a "new story" policy. Coincidentally, Astounding appeared back on the stands that October under a new publisher, Street and Smith, also with a new "thought variant" story policy. Both policies were intended to bury the old stereotypes of pulp science fiction forever. In the meantime, Wonder 's promotion of fan activities became even more energetic, and would soon result in the formation of the Science Fiction League, the first (and last) fan club "empire."     Nevertheless, the finances of the magazine continued to decline. Authors went unpaid (except upon lawsuit) throughout 1934 and 1935. In November 1935, Wonder Stories went bimonthly. In April 1936, Gernsback wrote an editorial denouncing the criminal acts of distributors who were robbing the magazine of revenue by selling coverless copies and returning the covers for credit on "unsold" copies. That summer, Hugo Gernsback abandoned the science fiction field and sold the magazine to Standard Magazines, which renamed it Thrilling Wonder Stories with the August issue and installed Leo Margulies from its own stable of editors as the new editor. Under this masthead, it survived for another two decades and even attained comfortable profitability for a while after World War II during the great SF boom, before ceasing publication with its Winter 1955 issue.     But the glow of that first Age of Wonder was never recaptured. For those in First Fandom, who were present before what Asimov called "the Coming of Campbell" in 1937 (which ushered in the "Golden Age"), nothing replaced those early years of magic.     Captivated by the garish primary colors of a Frank Paul cover, the nine-year-old Asimov picked up his first science fiction magazine in August 1929; it was the third number of Science Wonder Stories . The first serial he "slavered joyously over" was Edmond Hamilton's "Cities in the Air," in Air Wonder Stories (November-December 1929). The first short story to lodge itself firmly in his memory was Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved" ( Wonder Stories , April 1931). "Those stories were dear to me because they aroused my enthusiasm, gave me the joy of life at a time and in a place and under conditions when not terribly many joys existed," recalled Asimov. "They helped shape me and even educate me, and I am filled with gratitude to those stories and to the men who wrote them."     Raymond Z. Gallun was also first snared by a Frank Paul cover, the one on the fourth number of Amazing Stories (July 1926). It illustrated Curt Siodmak's story "The Eggs from Lake Tanganyika." Gallun bought it, devoured the stories, and was enthralled. "That early stuff of the 1930s, though perhaps crude, conveyed a certain consistent feeling," he later said. In those days there were so many things that, though speculated about as future developments, were still generally considered impossible. So, to read of and imagine doing what can't be done, seeing what never has been seen, touching the perhaps eternally too distant and strange, had an inevitable enchantment. Therein, I think, we reach the central keynote of the science fiction of then.... the word for it is wonder . Copyright (c) 1999 Eric Leif Davin. All rights reserved.