Defining Traits of 1920s Science Fiction

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My month-by-month retrospective of Amazing Stories is very near the end of founder Hugo Gernsback’s term as editor, and after that I’ll be mere months away from the end of the 1920s. This got me thinking about the period of science fiction I’ve been covering: an intriguing transitional period between the nineteenth-century authors who did so much to establish the genre, and the Campbell-dominated “golden age” that followed. Here are a few defining traits of 1920s magazine science fiction that I’ve picked up on…

Alien worlds aren’t always in space: As with subsequent decades, science fiction of this period often involved encounters with new life and new civilisations. Looking back, though, a remarkably low proportion of those civilisations are to be found on other planets. Authors frequently placed their alien societies under the Earth’s surface, or under the sea, or in another dimension, or right under our noses at microscopic size, with the distinctions often being superficial (the people living in Atlantis or beyond the infra-red could just as easily have been living on Mars). Only later would other planets become the default home for an alien society.

H. G. Wells is king: This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; after all, if you were to list the most influential SF authors from before 1930, Wells would be somewhere around the top of the list. But even so, it’s striking how many of the Amazing authors were playing in a field built by Wells. Alien invasions, time travel, anti-gravity space flight, human experiments – the themes of Wells’ novels are so prevalent in Amazing that the stories’ characters are known to cite him by name. The magazine’s writers generally lack Wells’ philosophical considerations, though, and often replace the more cerebral aspects of his stories with romance and two-fisted adventure.

The future is now: While the authors sometimes set their stories in the future, the majority used contemporary settings, even if their plots involved concepts that would more logically be found in the far future (interplanetary travel, for one). The general assumption appears to have been that a lone genius would be sufficient to bridge the gap between the 1920s and the space age.

Framing devices: Related to the previous observation, a large number of the authors were clearly under the impression that it was necessary for a framing device – typically involving an everyday person happening across a document of the main character’s adventure – was necessary to segue us from mundane reality to the world of science fiction. This is a venerable old literary trick, of course, but one that soon wore out its welcome in Amazing. Devices of this sort ended up either repetitive (so many of the stories opened with the report of a scientist going missing that it becomes a joke) or just convoluted. A good example of the latter is L. Tayler Hansen’s “What the Sodium Lines Revealed”, about a man who ends the narrative stranded on a moon of Jupiter. The entire story is presented, rather implausibly, as having been broadcast to Earth by the protagonist using Morse code – and the author seems to have found this detail important enough to provide the story’s title.

Radio is topical: Amazing Stories grew out of Hugo Gernsback’s publications relating to radio and amateur electronics, and many of its readers would have been radio enthusiasts. Many of the stories used radio as an analogy to explain concepts ranging from teleportation to invisibility.

Science fiction and horror are rivals… or are they? Readers in the letters column would often compare Amazing favourably to magazines of horror and ghost stories – which, in practice, meant Weird Tales and perhaps one or both of its shorter-lived contemporaries Ghost Stories (1926-1931) and Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928). A recurring complaint about Amazing was that its covers were too lurid to do it justice, and made it more like Weird Tales than was respectable. But was Amazing’s brand of science fiction really that far off from the horror of Weird Tales? Many of the magazine’s stories were decidedly morbid, with authors drawing upon the likes of Mary Shelley and H. G. Wells to paint gruesome images of science gone wrong. Notably, the one Gernsback-era Amazing story that truly stood the test of time is “The Color Out of Space” by H. P. Lovecraft – an author more closely associated with Weird Tales.

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