Stargazers Saviours – Science Fiction Rare Books

Reprinted in full from the 2004 Rare Book Review magazine article.

Steven Ericson reveals that the whole universe of science fiction lies in the original pulp magazines

Rare Book Review | Science Fiction

Ever since man first looked up at the stars and tried to explain them, fantastic fiction has existed. In his mind’s eye, he laid the architecture of the heavens and charted the geography of the unknown. Boldly going “where no man has gone before”, he filled the night with the creatures of his imagination, gods, devils, monsters, giants, golems, men of metal, dragons, sorcerers and witches.

He mapped the roads to Hell and charted the routes to islands where marvels were commonplace. This is the stuff of myths and legends.  Undoubtedly, the first collectors of speculative fiction were the primitive storytellers who committed these early flights of fancy to memory.

Meyrink's The Golem, 1928
Meyrink's The Golem, 1928

These tales were then handed down verbally from generation to generation before a few, like The Epic of Gilgamesh, were eventually committed to some form of print. These collectors of tales were the precursors of the bards who, in the dark ages, told of Beowulf’s fight with the monster, Grendel, and later, the minstrels who developed and elaborated the incredible adventures of King Arthur’s knights and their quest for the Holy Grail.

SciFi classic The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
SciFi classic The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

Science fiction, the grandson of myth and legend, was not always called ‘science fiction’. 100 years ago these types of stories were called ‘scientific romances’ and were tinged with adventure, mystery and horror. They appeared in such early pulp fiction magazines as All-Story, Argosy, Thrill Book and Munsey. Edgar Rice Burroughs got his start under the pen name of Normal Bean in the February 1912 issue of All-Story. But these were not yet regular or even common features. They only appeared at the editor’s whim, which was variable. However this was to change as some savvy publishers began to realise that there was a market for genre specific magazines like detective or mystery stories, and once the potential was realised, the ‘reality’ soon followed.

It was originally the publisher Frank A. Munsey who, in a bold move, decided to switch his magazine the Argosy to cheap pulp paper. In this way he could lower the cover price while increasing production. The first such issue was dated December 1896. The move was a success and most, if not all publishers quickly followed suit. The rapid expansion of the pulp magazine industry, fuelled by the affordable new medium, created within the industry an experimental mood.  In 1923, Jacob C. Henneberger and JM Lansinger founded Rural Publications, Inc. and began to publish humour and college life magazines. After a year they decided to further test the market waters by launching Weird Tales, the Unique Magazine.  Although Weird Tales focused on horror and the macabre, did occasionally publish science fiction. Incidentally, it contained the first published work of a young Tennessee Williams (The Vengeance of Nitocris, August 1928).

an example of the 'pulp' paperback
an example of the 'pulp' paperback

It’s success prompted imitation. In 1926, with the April issue, a man named Hugo Gernsback decided the time was ripe and launched Amazing Stories, which is the magazine that started Buck Rogers’ career and is considered a watershed moment in the history of science fiction. The success of Gernsback’s magazine and Weird Tales caused another boom, this time for speculative fiction. There came a flood of new titles: Ghost Stories, Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science, Marvel Tales, Miracle, Comet, Stirring, Planet, Astonishing, Startling, Thrilling Wonder, Captain Future, and more with similar whizz-bang titles.

Isaac Asimov collection of titles
Isaac Asimov collection of titles

While we all have heard of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and HP Lovecraft, many of their contemporaries who were also popular (some even more so) have been forgotten or are long out-of-print and slipping from memory. These authors also helped fill the pages of the pulp explosion: A. Merritt, Edmond Hamilton, Cleve Cartmill, Leigh Brackett, Clark Ashton Smith, John Wyndham, CM Kornbluth, Jack Vance, William Hope Hodgson, Seabury Quinn, James H. Schmitz, Manly Wade Wellman, Christopher Anvil, and many more.

Spread from The Illustrated Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson1994
Spread from The Illustrated Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1994

Many students of mainstream culture have either forgotten, or never heard of these names. But there is a sub-culture of readers and collectors that still lives and breathes them.  It can cost a small fortune for collectors to purchase classic genre authors in First Editions. They were usually published by small presses in small print runs, making them quite scarce. However, you needn’t give up.

Before the 1970s, most science fiction novels made their first appearances in the pages of pulp or digest magazines. These magazines are relatively easy to find, and while a first edition of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth in collectible condition will cost about a $1000, you can collect the pulp magazines in which the stories first appeared for a fraction of the cost. It is the hero magazines which contain un-reprinted or seldom reprinted stories that tend to run the highest cost, like Captain Future, Doc Savage, The Shadow and the like.

Another resource for collectors is the small group of publishers who just won’t let the classic science fiction, fantasy and horror authors go out-of-print. Publishers such as Arkham House, Darkside Press, Hippocampus Press, Fedogan and Bremer, Ash Tree Press, Night Shade Books, Tartarus Press, Wildside Press, Chaosium, House of Stratus, Haffner Press, Side Real Press, Bearmanor Media, Pulpdom, and many others deserving of mention are currently working to keep these authors’ works in print. For most, if not all, this is a labour of love. Unfortunately, they don’t have the resources available to the big publishing houses and so the print runs tend to be small and, at least for hardcover editions, more expensive than the mass-produced products from the bigger publishers. But the products are always worth the price.

Science Fiction genre classics
Science Fiction genre classics

Where to find these items? With the advent of the internet, it has become easier to match the collector to his ‘wants’. No longer do we need to peruse the dusty tomes in web-covered corners of dingy second-hand shops (unless you want too!) hoping for a miraculous find. Just a glance at www.bookavenue.com, www.tomfolio.com, www.bookfinder.com, or any of the other related sites, will show the vast quantities of items available. Previously, in order to find a decent collection of ‘for sale’ pulps, one would have to use mail-order dealers, or travel hundreds of miles to find the by appointment-only dealers, or head to the annual pulp conventions like Pulpcon in Dayton, Ohio, USA. Now, thousands of pulp magazines and the more recent, reprint editions, are available at all times of the day from the comfort of your desk chair. Try a search for a small press or an author at www.google.com and you may be surprised at how easy it is to collect the classics! So sit back, jump online and place an order for a piece of science fiction’s primal ooze. If you’re interested in learning more about the people and history this period try Mike Ashley’s The Time Machines: the Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines, from the beginning to 1950, published by Liverpool University Press. It’s an easily accessible and informative book, written to enjoy as well as inform.

Science Fiction & Fantasy Books in stock