I’ve been researching how science fiction evolved through studying the history of science fiction anthologies. As I studied I began to wonder when did the mundane world realized science fiction was a thing. Yesterday some nice folks on the internet suggested I try Google’s Ngram viewer. Here’s the chart it developed:

NGram Science Fiction

This fits my research on anthologies. The Ngram viewer looks at terms used in books and magazines, but I don’t know if it indexed pulp magazines. In my essay about the first anthologies to collect science fiction I covered The Pocket Book of Science Fiction edited by Donald Wollheim, which came out in 1943, and reported that the first hardback books to anthologize science fiction came out in 1946. That matches the above chart perfectly.

Even more useful is the list of books and magazines Google provided that cited phrase science fiction. From it, I found the May 21, 1951 issue of Life Magazine, which featured an article on science fiction. 1951 was the year I was born. I grew up with science fiction. Life Magazine was a news magazine, so I have to assume the subculture of science fiction was news.

What a great service Google Books is for researchers. This is exactly what I wanted. Life Magazine was telling the mundane world about the strange world of science fiction and its fans. The reporter Winthrop Sargeant did an excellent job, covering the genre’s history, the magazines, the movies, even going into the feuds and our embarrassing spinoffs like the Shaver Mystery and Dianetics.

I’m going to try and reprint the article here. It is copyrighted, but I have no idea how to get permission to reprint it, and besides, it’s 67 years old and already freely available through Google. You can read it at the Google Book site, with your own level of magnification but you’ll need to page back to the beginning of the article.

James Wallace Harris (9/21/18)


































6 thoughts on “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction

  1. Coincidentally, May 1951 was the month James Gunn completed his master’s thesis, the first ever on contemporary sf.

    So things were percolating in 1951. I’ll also add that both the article and Gunn’s thesis emphasize the genres extrapolative and utilitarian values.


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