While growing up in the 1960’s I loved a certain kind of story. I did not know the terms “science fiction” or “genre” but I knew what I liked. I believe readers before the label “science fiction” was used in the 1930s felt the same way. I’m not sure when the general public began referring to science fiction stories as “science fiction” or book publishers began to market to its fans.
When Amazing Stories first appeared in April 1926 editor Hugo Gernsback and his readers already knew the kinds of stories they wanted – they just didn’t have a universal identifier to define them. Gernsback had been using “scientifiction” since 1916 but luckily that ugly word didn’t stick. The term “science fiction” had been occasionally used before then, but only accidentally. Sometime between ads using the phrase “science fiction” in Air Wonder Stories in the late 1920s and March 1938 when Astounding Stories became Astounding Science-Fiction did the label began to stick – at least with hardcore fans. I don’t know if the world at large realized there was a new genre. Stories using science fiction themes have been around for thousands of years. Hell, Noah’s Ark is about a generation ship and a post-apocalyptic world.
Also, I’m not sure if all the credit should go to the pulp magazines for creating our genre. Newspapers ran Buck Rogers and Flash Gordan comic strips, and those stories then moved to radio and movie serials. Comic books back then were full of science fictional plots. The play R.U.R. gave us the word robots premiered in 1920, and Metropolis the silent film about robots came out in 1927. The novels Brave New World and When Worlds Collide appeared in 1932 and 1933.
Why hadn’t book publishers spotted this trend and aimed at that market sooner?
Had any anthology editor before the 1920’s collected science fiction stories for the unnamed science fiction fans of the 19th-century or early 20th-century? General interest magazines, newspapers, dime novels, and pulp magazines had been publishing science fiction long before Amazing Stories. Had anyone tried to categorize or name these kinds of stories before Gernsback? Anthologies are seldom reprinted, so they are rare and hard to track down. I have found a few 19th-century anthologies that focused on weird, horror, and fantasy, but then ghost stories were a staple in that century.
Edgar Allan Poe helped develop the short story as a unique art form and wrote fiction that would eventually be classified as mystery, horror, detective, and science fiction. Poe had many imitators. When did readers decide they preferred stories about life on other planets, travels in space, artificial life, mechanical beings, time travel, invaders from other worlds, flying machines, etc?
There is a concise history of the science fiction anthology at The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. It suggests Adventures To Come (1937) edited by J. Berg Esenwein is the first science fiction anthology. It’s also the first SF original anthology, publishing stories written for that volume. But they were forgettable stories by unknown writers and that had no impact on the genre. The cover of Adventures To Come was obviously inspired by the 1929 Buck Rogers newspaper comic strip and the original Buck Rogers story from a 1928 issue of Amazing Stories. We forget that daily comic strips were probably more popular than the pulp magazines. And Adventures to Come obviously looks like a children’s book. It may have been the first SF anthology aimed at young proto-SF fans, but it is so rare and so seldom remembered that I can’t think of it as important to the genre either. But it does show that publishers were seeing a new market.
Next up is The Other Worlds (1941) edited by Phil Stong. I just got a copy of that one, and it collects stories from Weird Tales, Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories beside Esquire and Westminister Magazine. It features fiction by Lester del Rey, Ralph Milne Farley, Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Harry Bates, Henry Kuttner, and Otto Binder. Authors remembered today as being science fiction writers. There are twenty-four writers in all, many of which I don’t know, probably because they came out of the horror genre.
I’ve only had time to read Stong’s introductions so far, but he shows a disdain for much of pre-1941 science fiction. For instance, Stong knocks War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells and favors “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” as being more sensible. Stong uses the term “scientifiction” which was already a decade out of date and sneers at E. E. “Doc” Smith, the most popular SF writer at the time. The book’s introduction begins with two “true” stories of psychic premonition. I doubt Stong was a science fiction fan because none of the stories he collected has come down to us as classics. I’m guessing he liked borderline science fiction/weird tales that supported his metaphysical/philosophical interests. I think Stong realized there was a science fiction genre, but he didn’t like how it was shaping up. He picked stories he considered good from the genre but dismissed the rest as juvenile or crude. The Other Worlds didn’t hit the mark for me.
However, The Other Worlds fits my theory that there were science fiction fans before the term science fiction was widely used. There were readers, even literary readers, who loved weird stories that one day would be called science fiction. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia reports there were several anthologies from the 1800’s that collected fantasy and weird fiction. Did any of them have true science fiction in them? This matches my own research. SF Encylopedia claims Popular Romances (1812) edited by Henry William Weber could be the first SF anthology, but it’s really an omnibus rather than an anthology, reprinting several famous novels about fantastic voyages (including Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe).
I want to believe there was at least one anthology published between 1800 and 1900 that included at least three stories we’d anthologize today as classics of the genre. Of course, this might be my Holy Grail that I shall never find. I’ve been using ISFDB.org with several anthologies published in recent decades that identify 19th-century science fiction hoping to spot an anthology from the 1800’s. Unfortunately, the Internet Science Fiction Database gets murky with data from that century.
I believe there were readers in the 1800’s that were drawn to themes we’ve come to attribute to science fiction. We know the novels of Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and H. G. Wells were popular. We know many other science fiction novels came out in that century. We know many shorter works of science fiction appeared in newspapers and magazines. That leads me to assume that fans existed, and they might have written letters to friends, letters to editors, essays, diary entries, or newspaper articles about their fondness for such stories. It’s hard to believe some editor didn’t capitalize on that interest.
For now, I consider The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction (1943) edited by Donald Wollheim the first anthology to collect stories that modern readers still read and think of as classics of science fiction. Five of his ten stories are still admired today:
- “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) by Stephen Vincent Benet
- “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) by Stanley G. Weinbaum
- “Twilight” (1934) by John W. Campbell
- “Microcosmic God” (1941) by Theodore Sturgeon
- “–And He Built a Crooked House” (1941) by Robert A. Heinlein
The last four were included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One (1970) edited by Robert Silverberg, which many still consider the best anthology of science fiction. Donald Wollheim was a super-fan in the 1930’s, began editing SF magazines in 1941, became a major editor for Ace Books in the 1950’s and eventually formed his own publishing company DAW Books. He was a major influence on the genre.
The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction was the first mass-market paperback of science fiction stories. It used the term science fiction in the title. It was sent overseas to the troops in WWII. I can’t help but believe that’s how the term science fiction really began to spread to readers outside of the pulp magazines.
In 1946 two hardback anthologies appeared: Adventures in Time and Space edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas and the Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Groff Conklin. Conklin even removed the hyphen in “science fiction.” McComas would co-found The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1949. Conklin would go on to edit many science fiction anthologies in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s that introduced classic short SF from the pulp era to Baby Boomers.
By the 1950’s science fiction should have been a well-known genre and term, but I’m not sure. There was an explosion of magazines, comics, television shows, and movies devoted to the genre. So it’s odd, as a kid in 1962 that I didn’t know the term science fiction. I was only ten, and I had been loving science fiction movies and television shows since 1955. I’m sure I heard the phrase frequently, but it didn’t stick with me. And it just didn’t occur to me that it defined a type of story at the library. I’d go up and down the school library shelves looking for books that were science fiction.
I wonder when other people my age realized there was a genre called science fiction? I wish my parents were still alive so I could ask them when they first remember hearing the term. I wished I had asked them in 1964 if they knew the phrase science fiction and could they describe it. They were born in 1916 and 1920 and grew up with science fiction in the 1930’s. Had they encountered it?
It wasn’t until 1964 when I was allowed into the adult area of the Homestead Air Force Base Library where they had a science fiction section. That’s when I realized there was a book category for the stories I loved. In 1965 I discovered Conklin’s anthologies at the public library and learned there were magazines devoted to science fiction, and had been for almost 40 years. Then I found Sam Moskowitz’s histories of science fiction and realized stories with science fictional themes were very old, they just weren’t called science fiction.
It wasn’t until 2018 that I became fascinated with the history of science fiction anthologies. It boggles my mind that there was a time when people didn’t know science fiction existed even though it did. I eventually want to write about that, but my next essay will be about anthologies that collected short fiction from the 1800’s. It seems every new editor that works that century finds more science fiction to reprint. I want to find the first science fiction fans. The first popular film I can think of that has a character who loves science fiction is Back to the Future from 1985. I’m sure I’m wrong that George McFly is the first SF fan depicted in the movies. I keep hoping I’ll see one mentioned in an old MGM film from the 1930’s or 1940’s. But what I’d really love is to find an SF fan from the 1860’s who wrote about his favorite stories in a diary.
James Wallace Harris (9/19/18)