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Astounding Wonder

Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America

By John Cheng

Publication Year: 2012

When physicist Robert Goddard, whose career was inspired by H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, published "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," the response was electric. Newspaper headlines across the country announced, "Modern Jules Verne Invents Rocket to Reach Moon," while people from around the world, including two World War I pilots, volunteered as pioneers in space exploration. Though premature (Goddard's rocket, alas, was only imagined), the episode demonstrated not only science's general popularity but also its intersection with interwar popular and commercial culture. In that intersection, the stories that inspired Goddard and others became a recognizable genre: science fiction. Astounding Wonder explores science fiction's emergence in the era's "pulps," colorful magazines that shouted from the newsstands, attracting an extraordinarily loyal and active audience.

Pulps invited readers not only to read science fiction but also to participate init, joining writers and editors in celebrating a collective wonder for and investment in the potential of science. But in conjuring fantastic machines, travel across time and space, unexplored worlds, and alien foes, science fiction offered more than rousing adventure and romance. It also assuaged contemporary concerns about nation, gender, race, authority, ability, and progress—about the place of ordinary individuals within modern science and society—in the process freeing readers to debate scientific theories and implications separate from such concerns.

Readers similarly sought to establish their worth and place outside the pulps. Organizing clubs and conventions and producing their own magazines, some expanded science fiction's community and created a fan subculture separate from the professional pulp industry. Others formed societies to launch and experiment with rockets. From debating relativity and the use of slang in the future to printing purple fanzines and calculating the speed of spaceships, fans' enthusiastic industry revealed the tensions between popular science and modern science. Even as it inspired readers' imagination and activities, science fiction's participatory ethos sparked debates about amateurs and professionals that divided the worlds of science fiction in the 1930s and after.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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p. vii

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Introduction: “The Hope of Today and the Reality of Tomorrow”: Popular Science, Popular Culture, and Science Fiction

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pp. 1-12

Writing a never-completed autobiography in 1927, the physicist and rocket scientist Robert Goddard recalled a pivotal sequence of events earlier in his life. In January 1898 he encountered science fiction stories for the first time when the...

Part I: Circulation

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1. “Magazines for Morons”: Pulp Magazines and the Emergence of Science Fiction

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pp. 17-50

Hugo Gernsback invented both science fiction and the science fiction magazine, but not at the same time. Although the two words “science” and “fiction” had probably been used in combination before, it was Gernsback’s use of the phrase that established its popular and sustained presence in public...

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2. Conversations from the “Backyard”: Reading and Imagining Community

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pp. 51-78

“What chance of happiness will the young people of today stand if they have no mental armor but such notions against a world where life is more highly complex and more utterly unpredictable than ever?” asked Miss Anita P. Forbes of Hartford, Connecticut, speaking about the threat of pulp magazines...

Part II. Reading

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pp. 79-210

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3. Discovering the Freedom of Facts: Fact, Fiction, and the Authority of Science

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pp. 83-110

Amazing Stories to me occupies a unique position among the almost countless number of periodicals which flood the newsstand monthly,” wrote Howard S. Gable, 3950 Walnut Street, Kansas City, Missouri, to Amazing’s editor in 1929. “It is one of the few fiction magazines which I read...

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4. Involving Adventure, Reassuring Romance: Engendering Science Fiction’s Domestic Tranquillity

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pp. 111-146

In a second honorable-mention winning entry for a 1929 Science Wonder essay contest, Edward E. Smith, Ph.D., addressed the question “What Science Fiction Means to Me.” Not yet the well-known writer and originator of intergalactic space operas, Smith repeated the sentiment other readers expressed...

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5. Human Martians and Asian Aliens: The Racial Nature of Wondrous Worlds

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pp. 147-178

In 1931 a young reader of science fiction, Howard Lowe of 606 West 137th Street, New York City, wrote a letter of admiration and comment to the editor of Amazing. “Your wonderful and amazing magazine has filled every dull moment for about a year and a half,” he exclaimed; “it was first introduced to...

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6. The Progress of Time: Einstein, History, and the Dimensions of Time Travel

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pp. 179-210

Writing to the editor of Amazing Stories in 1927, Sterling Bunch of Fort Worth, Texas, commented on several stories he had read, some of which he liked and others he disliked. “I much prefer stories like ‘The Visitation,’ in which the whole theme is optimistic, and the destiny of the human race is...

Part III. Practice

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7. “Fandom Is Just a Goddamn Hobby”: The Industry of Fans and Professionals

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pp. 215-250

“I am a member of the Science Fiction Association,” Eric C. Hopkins of 2c Stirling Road, London, wrote to Amazing Stories in 1938, “and am writing in response to your request for the results of letters published in your Discussions columns.” Acknowledging...

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8. “We Want to Play with Spaceships”: Popular Rocket Science in Action

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pp. 251-300

In the summer of 1931 Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories of Super Science, and Wonder Stories each published letters to the editor from the American Interplanetary Society (AIS). Writing on its behalf, Secretary Nathan Schachner declared its goals and purpose. “To your readers,” he said, “we...

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Epilogue: Beyond the “Gernsback Continuum”: Science Fiction’s Community and Social Networks

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pp. 301-313

The war changed almost everything—again. The Great War, as it had been known in the 1920s, became the first of two world wars, recasting the historical sensibility of the years between them. The prestige of science remained colossal if not enhanced by World...


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p. 315


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pp. 317-374


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pp. 375-387

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pp. 389-392

This book took a long time to write and I have many people to thank for their assistance and support. My research led me to a various public and private collections and introduced me to their respective caretakers. The curators and archivists at...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206678
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243833

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2012

OCLC Number: 793012728
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Astounding Wonder

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Subject Headings

  • Science fiction -- Periodicals -- History.
  • Literature and science -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Science fiction, American -- History and criticism.
  • Science in popular culture -- United States.
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