Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

Pulp historian Jess Nevins, author of Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana, takes you deep into the weird history of the scifi pulps, 1900-1950. Get ready for amazing science and astounding adventure! This is the first in a series on the pulps.

The pulps are enjoying a resurgence. DC Comics recently brought back several pulp heroes, including Doc Savage and the Avenger, in their "First Wave" comics. Marvel Comics is publishing Incognito, Ed Brubaker's pulp-inspired miniseries. Movies based on pulp characters, including Doc Savage, are set to debut in the next few years. The word "pulp" as an adjective to describe adventure fiction without pretension has been in vogue since Quentin Tarantino used it in Pulp Fiction.

But most people have not read many stories from the actual pulps, and most people have only a vague idea of what the pulps actually were. The following is intended as a brief primer on the pulps and a guide to what they are and what they aren't.

During the pulp era (roughly 1900 to 1950) fiction magazines were either printed cheaply on wood pulp paper or more expensively on higher quality paper often chemically coated to create a glossy sheen. Those magazines published on better quality paper became known as the "slicks" while those published on the cheaper wood pulp paper became known as the "pulps." Slicks varied in size, though most were roughly 8.5" wide by 10.75" tall, while the great majority of pulps were smaller.

The divide between the slicks and the pulps was more substantial than just size and paper quality. Slicks usually had a considerable amount of advertising and colored art, while the pulps had less advertising, for cheaper products, and only black and white art. More importantly, the slicks cost more and aspired to a better quality of prose and a generally higher level of professionalism, while the pulps were cheap and aspired only to entertain.

Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

Pulp genres and exotic adventure
A common misperception is that there was a genre of "pulp fiction." There wasn't. The pulps were the medium, not the genre. As a term of aesthetic and literary judgment "pulp" applies not to a genre, but to the approach of the pulp writers and magazines: an emphasis on adventure; the privileging of plot over characterization; the use of dialogue and narration as means for delivering information rather than displaying authorial style; the regular use and exploitation of the exotic, whether racial, sexual, socioeconomic, or geographic; simple emotions strongly expressed; and good always triumphing over evil.

The genres used in the pulps were those of traditional popular fiction: action/adventure, detective, science fiction, romance, and so on. The majority of pulps specialized in a specific genre. But the apparently overt emphasis on genre in the specialist pulp magazines was often gainsaid by the content of the stories. Each issue of a specialty pulp was filled with stories within that specialty, but there was a considerable amorphousness in the amount of other-genre material each specialist pulp allowed in its issues. This was especially true with science fiction, which sneaked into everything from sports pulps to railway pulps to the pages of Underworld Romance.

The pulps have long suffered from the perception that they were full of bad writing. Unfortunately, this perception is correct. Although many of the writers were skilled professionals, the low pay rate of the pulps–anywhere from a half cent to 1.25 cents per word–meant that a full-time writer had to write quickly rather than well if he or she wanted to keep him or herself above the poverty line. Moreover, the demand for stories–there were a thousand pulps, a number of which published weekly and biweekly rather than monthly–was so great that the pulps published a large number of stories by amateurs and by writers who wrote only a handful of stories, and most of these writers produced hasty, and therefore inferior, work.

Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

Were pulps racist?
One common perception of the pulps which is not true is that they were exceptionally racist. Certainly, the pulps were racist. Numerous pulp stories featured overtly stereotyped characters, from anti-Asian Yellow Perils to subhuman black or native savages, and many other stories described worlds in which people with non-white skin didn't exist. The science fiction pulps were particularly bad in this regard, exceeded only by the romance pulps, which were the most egregious offenders. Racism is widespread in the pulps.

But it is not true that the pulps were exceptionally racist. Racism was common in the rest of American popular culture during the pulp era. The pulps were only marginally more racist than the slicks, or genre novels, or movies and radio, all of which commonly portrayed people of color in racist and bigoted ways.

In fact, pulps were often racially progressive. Many pulp stories were racist, but the pulps had people of color and female protagonists far more often than did the slicks, genre novels, and movies and radio programs. These characters were active in primarily-white environments and were portrayed as capable, efficient, and in as progressive and non-stereotypical a fashion as the author could manage. Moreover, most of these characters were portrayed as cowboys or detectives or big-game hunters first, and black or Chinese or Jamaican second or third. The characters were defined by their profession rather than their ethnicity, just as white characters were.

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19th century origins
Historically, American pulps arose out of 19th century periodical publishing. (I'll cover non-American pulps in a future column). In the 19th century serial fiction went from being primarily something which appeared in newspapers, as feuilletons (serial novels) during the early part of the century, to appearing as discrete publications, first as "novelettes" in the 1840s and then as dime novels in the 1860s.

Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

Toward the end of the century, changes in the education of the masses and the technology of printing gave rise to a commercial demand for affordable, regularly-published popular fiction. So in 1896, when Frank A. Munsey (1854-1925) decided that his magazine Argosy, an expensive story paper (the 19th century predecessor to the slicks), was a financial failure, he decided to revamp it rather than cancel it. Munsey dropped the non-fiction articles and photographs from Argosy, switched from glossy paper to wood pulp, and in October, 1896 Argosy became the first pulp.

Argosy was an immediate success but no other publisher imitated Munsey and produced inexpensive, all-fiction magazines until 1904, when Street & Smith made its slick Popular Magazine into a pulp. Munsey responded by creating The All-Story Magazine in 1905, and that May, Chicago's Story Press Corporation published Monthly Story Magazine, beginning the pulp magazine industry.

The pulp magazine industry in full swing
The pulps began as general interest fiction magazines, with a typical issue containing stories from many genres, from costumed aviator adventure to schoolmarm romance, but within a few years the pulps began to specialize. The pulps relied on newsstand sales for most of their profit, and exploiting niche markets became the more profitable choice for pulp publishers rather than trying to master the increasingly competitive market of general fiction magazines. Specialist pulps quickly followed the debut of the real pulps: railway (beginning in 1906), general adventure (1910), "spicy" (pornographic) (1912), romance (1913), mystery & detective (1915), westerns (1919), sports (1923), science fiction (1926), air adventure (1927), underworld (1930), hero pulps (1931), and weird menace/horror (1933).

The first official science fiction pulp was Amazing Stories, which began in 1926, but science fiction had been appearing in various pulps long before that. The first pulp issues of Argosy had stories with varying amounts of fantastic material in them, and by 1902 science fiction was regularly appearing in Argosy. Munsey's All-Story Magazine, while not specializing in science fiction, ran dozens of science fiction stories between 1905 and 1911. Science fiction regularly appeared in Modern Electrics and Electrical Experimenter during the 1910s and in Science and Invention in the early 1920s. The Thrill Book (16 issues, 1919) was intended by publisher Street & Smith to be a specialist pulp for fantastic fiction, but its content quickly became adventure-with-some-elements-of-the-fantastic, and it was deemed a failure and cancelled after eight months. But several of its stories were at least partially science fiction. And, of course, Weird Tales, which debuted in 1923, included science fiction among its fantasy and occult material.

Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

Science fiction and the pulps
It wasn't until 1926 when Amazing Stories debuted, that a purely science fictional pulp appeared. Amazing Stories was dedicated to science fiction in the way that Western Story Magazine was dedicated to the westerns. Amazing Stories has pride of place among the science fiction pulps: It lasted 284 issues and 26 years and was an inspiration to other publishers and writers. Plus, it was a near-immediate success, with a circulation of nearly 100,000 after just a few months.

For its first three years Amazing Stories was run by Hugo Gernsback, one of the most influential figures in the history of science fiction. During Amazing's heyday it published A. Merritt (The Moon Pool), E.E. "Doc" Smith (The Skylark of Space), Jack Williamson, Philip Francis Nowlan's "Armageddon–2419 AD" (the story in which Buck Rogers debuted), Manly Wade Wellman, Eando Binder, and Nelson Bond, among others. Amazing was instrumental in helping to create science fiction fandom, not least through the introduction of the letter column. Amazing deserves the credit it is given for its influence on the history of science fiction.

In retrospect Amazing Stories is influential because it was the first, not because of any particular content it had. For its first six months, only six of thirty-eight stories were original (the rest were reprints). Throughout Gernsback's reign nearly all of the original material was mediocre; only two stories, Jack Williamson's "The Metal Men" and H.P. Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space," can be considered good. Gernsback, whose reputation among professional writers was quite low – Barry Malzberg has written eloquently of Gernsback's "venality and corruption, his sleaziness and his utter disregard for the financial rights of authors" – had trouble attracting better writers, in large part because Weird Tales and Argosy were both paying better. And Amazing's influence was hardly immediate. No other science-fiction-only pulps appeared in 1926 or 1927. In 1928, Gernsback brought out Amazing Stories Quarterly, which lasted a respectable six years and 22 issues but which had generally low quality material. Gernsback's only new competition was American Pioneer Tales (which had Western, frontier, and science fiction stories, and which only lasted one issue) and Pioneer Tales (which is what American Pioneer Tales became and which lasted only six issues, ending in July, 1928).

In 1929 Gernsback was forced to declare bankruptcy and lost control of Amazing Stories and Amazing Stories Quarterly. He immediately regrouped and formed a new publishing company. In short order he brought Science Wonder Stories (12 issues, 1929-1930), Air Wonder Stories (11 issues, 1929-1930), and Science Wonder Quarterly (3 issues, 1929-1930). However, none of these magazines were remarkable in any way. Science Wonder Stories became a failed attempt at recapturing Amazing's success, Air Wonder Stories' aviation- and then interplanetary-themed science fiction was usually of low grade, and Science Wonder Quarterly was an inferior spin-off of Science Wonder Stories. The only memorable aspect of these pulps was the appearance of the phrase "science fiction" in Science Wonder Stories; "science fiction" had appeared in Amazing in 1927, but it was Gernsback's use of the phrase in Science Wonder Stories that popularized the phrase.

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Amazing vs. Astounding
The field was to change considerably during the 1930-1932 period. 1930 began with the debut of Astounding Stories, which would eventually become the greatest of the science fiction pulps. Astounding (as a pulp, 385 issues, 1930-1963) was of particular importance in 1930 because it was a science fiction pulp entirely independent of Hugo Gernsback. Astounding was backed by the Clayton Magazine publishers, which meant it was free of the financing and distribution problems of American Pioneer Tales and Pioneer Tales. Purely by virtue of its ongoing existence, it provided a reasonable alternative to Gernsback. However, from 1930-1933 Astounding was a poor imitation of Amazing, with formulaic and thoroughly mediocre content-Astounding's glory days were years in the future.

1930 was also the year that Hugo Gernsback would try yet again to recreate the success of Amazing. Gernsback merged Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories into, simply, Wonder Stories. Thanks to Gernsback's hands-off management techniques, Wonder Stories (66 issues, 1930-1936) was able to run somewhat unusual (for the pulps) material as well as translations of French and German science fiction, and while none of the stories are worth pursuing for a modern reader, at the time Wonder Stories provided a destination for stories that were too different and unusual for the formulaic content of Amazing or Astounding. However, thanks to Gernsback, Wonder Stories' reputation among top-level writers was no better than Amazing's had been, and the best writers sent their stories elsewhere.

Gernsback also retitled Science Wonder Quarterly as Wonder Stories Quarterly (11 issues, 1930-1933) and ran it as a Wonder Stories clone, complete with foreign translations. Like Wonder Stories, Wonder Stories Quarterly ran translations and mediocre American pulp, but it could not survive the economic realities of the Depression.

In 1931 pulp publisher Harold Hersey tried to enter the science fiction pulp field with Miracle, Science and Fantasy Stories (2 issues, 1931). Miracle was a multi-genre pulp created in overt imitation of Astounding, but it featured mediocre stories and was one of many short-lived low-quality experiments from Hersey.

Where did science fiction come from? A primer on the pulps.

The Hero Pulps
One other pulp of importance to science fiction appeared in the 1930-1932 era: The Shadow. The Shadow (325 issues, 1931-1949) was not a science fiction pulp and is usually classified as a "hero pulp." Only one in five stories in The Shadow had significant science fictional content in it. (The more fantastic material, including the Shadow's ability to cloud men's minds, appeared on the Shadow radio show rather than in the pulp). But The Shadow is important in the history of science fiction pulps because it provided the template for later hero pulps which were primarily science fictional. The Shadow was the first hero pulp and was a direct inspiration for those which followed it.

Hero pulps were the story of the 1933-1936 period. During those four years ten new science fiction pulps debuted. One, Thrilling Wonder Stories, was a standard science fiction pulp. The rest were hero pulps with significant science fiction content.

Thrilling Wonder Stories (111 stories, 1936-1955) was created when Hugo Gernsback sold Wonder Stories, which was on the verge of cancellation, to Standard Magazines, one of the major pulps publishers. Standard revamped Wonder Stories, retitling it to Thrilling Wonder Stories to fit Standard's other "Thrilling" pulps (Thrilling Adventures, Thrilling Detective, Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Ranch Stories, Thrilling Sports, and Thrilling Western) and turning it into an Astounding clone aimed at younger readers. Thrilling Wonder Stories placed an emphasis on action and adventure and a de-emphasis on hard science. Thrilling Wonder Stories gave the genre the image of women wearing metal brassieres (thanks to the covers of artist Earle Bergey) and gave the world the phrase "bug-eyed monsters" (from a description of one of Bergey's cover monsters), but the pulp's fiction was mediocre and in many ways archetypally pulp–enjoyable for what it was, but of no intrinsic value and instantly forgettable.

While the focus of these hero pulps was on the heroes' exploits, the content of the stories was science fiction, especially in the mid-30s. It is certainly arguable whether or not something like The Shadow is science fictional; but most pulps of that period were clearly SF.

The four major hero pulps of these years were Doc Savage, The Spider, G-8, and Operator #5. Doc Savage (181 issues, 1933-1949) featured the archetypal pulp hero and one of the models for Superman, and if the stories were uniformly awful, the fans of Doc didn't care. The Spider (118 issues, 1933-1943), while less popular than Doc Savage, had better stories (read today, they have a peculiar intensity and even insanity) and had a greater influence. Its hero did much to propagate the Killer Vigilante character type, and its stories helped solidify the image of the city as a place of horror and death (most issues had a death of toll of hundreds if not thousands, and New York City is routinely ravaged by the Spider's enemies). G-8 (110 issues, 1933-1944) was the greatest of all the aviator pulps and had the titular WW1 flying ace regularly fight everything from werewolves to zombies to mad scientists to gorilla-men to fire-breathing dragon-planes. And Operator #5 (48 issues, 1934-1939) was cumulatively the greatest epic of the pulps, as the protagonist, Operator #5 of the U.S. Secret Service, fought against a series of invasions of the United States, most of which succeeded in conquering at least part of the U.S. before Operator #5 could defeat them.

Other hero pulps were short-lived. Flash Gordon Strange Adventure Magazine (1 issue, 1936) was one of Harold Hersey's profoundest failures, far worse on every level than Miracle, Science, and Fantasy Stories. The Secret 6 (4 issues, 1934-1935), was about four wanted men who fight a range of bizarre and supernatural enemies in a series of unremarkable stories. Dusty Ayres and His Battle Birds (12 issues, 1934-1935), a future war story in which the United States was invaded, is of higher-than-normal quality and, unusually for the pulps, was planned from the start as a limited series. Terence X. O'Leary's War Birds (3 issues, 1935), a revamping of a WW1 air adventure pulp, was an imitation of Dusty Ayres and is notable for its gore and its hallucinogenic confusion of story (for example, the lead character and his sidekick are killed and then brought back to life). The best of these lesser science fiction hero pulps was The Mysterious Wu Fang (7 issues, 1935-1936), a gloriously over-the-top supervillain pulp about the a Yellow Peril mad scientist and his attempts to the conquer the world.

In my next post, I'll pick up in 1937 and cover what is usually called The Golden Age of science fiction.

Jess Nevins is a librarian, pulp fiction historian, and comic book annotator. You can find out more on his blog.