Future Tense

A cover of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. (Creative Commons)

A cover of Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. (Creative Commons)

John Cheng. Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 392 pp. $45.

Physics professor Robert Goddard unexpectedly found himself a celebrity in 1919 when he published an article proposing a new way of lifting meteorological instruments to the uppermost layers of Earth’s atmosphere. Goddard believed that discovering the origins of the aurora borealis or detecting the full range of radiation emitted by the sun required a means of surpassing the 20-mile maximum altitude of existing balloons. These research questions ultimately received less attention than Goddard’s solution: rockets. Goddard also suggested that these rockets might one day be capable of reaching the moon. The press latched on to this last point, declaring Goddard a “modern Jules Verne” and transforming his scientific article into front-page news. The resulting flurry of correspondence from prospective lunar explorers led Goddard to issue a public statement:  “I have asked for no volunteers,” he wrote, and added, “There is, at this moment, no rocket ship contemplated for the moon.”

In Astounding Wonder John Cheng uses Goddard’s experiences to demonstrate the intensity of America’s enthusiasm for science and to argue that scientific investigations became inextricably linked with notions of modernity throughout the interwar period. Electrification, mass production, and the proliferation of new communication technologies transformed people’s homes and public spaces, prompting speculation as to what marvels the future might hold. Engagement with the implications of scientific progress spurred the emergence of a new literary genre—science fiction—and a new community of readers eager to imagine science on their own terms.

Although earlier authors like Verne and H. G. Wells had incorporated scientific details into their novels, Cheng dates the invention of science fiction to 1926, when wireless-radio enthusiast Hugo Gernsback created Amazing Stories, the first magazine devoted to “scientifiction.” Three years later he broke that term apart into “science fiction.” Amazing Stories shared many characteristics with other 1920s “pulp” magazines—named for the low-quality paper on which they were printed—such as serialized content and brightly illustrated covers. Over time the letters section of Amazing Stories and the other science-fiction pulps it inspired would swell as readers discussed the literary and scientific merits of their favorite stories.

Cheng draws from these letters to explore how science fiction’s audiences reconciled Gernsback’s progressive views with the possible negative consequences of science on their daily lives. Discussions about romantic subplots, for example, shed light on the extent to which industrialization threatened traditional gender roles, leading readers to embrace stories where male heroes reasserted their worth by rescuing women who embodied the values of domestic stability. Similarly, concerns over the rise of corporate research laboratories and the decline of independent inventors inspired stories of evil villains overseeing vast, invisible empires. The fact that many of these villains were Asian reflected prevailing racial tensions and debates over the status of immigrants in the American body politic.

In addition to submitting comments to their favorite magazines, science-fiction readers also pursued their interests in other social settings. Fan clubs sprang up across the United States, with many publishing their own periodicals featuring stories, poems, and artwork. Gernsback attempted to exert control over the growing science-fiction community by founding a group called the Science Fiction League under the aegis of one of his magazines, but by the mid-1930s the fans had outgrown his control. New groups, such as the Committee for the Political Advancement of Science Fiction, encouraged broader participation in liberal and socialist political organizations. 

Other groups sought to expand their public presence by conducting scientific research. Fittingly, their most successful forays were in the same field that Goddard had pioneered years before: rocketry. Groups like the American Interplanetary Society initially consisted of amateurs and science-fiction fans. Over time their membership criteria changed to emphasize more rigorous professional training, and their research programs garnered respect from the broader scientific community.

World War II marked the end of the pulp era of science fiction. Not only did paper rationing lead to the collapse of all but a few science-fiction magazines, but Gernsback’s notion of progress had difficulty accommodating the harsh realities of blitzkrieg, genocide, and the atomic bomb. Science fiction, as a genre, proved more resilient, and the ideals of the interwar period would inspire future scientists and a new generation of writers, including Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein.

Those expecting detailed biographical discussions of these figures, or any other science-fiction authors, may be disappointed since Cheng has consciously avoided overemphasizing any individual. Instead, he succeeds in doing something far more difficult: reconstructing the social dynamics of a loosely bound community of readers to show how fiction reshaped public attitudes toward science and how those attitudes, in turn, shaped fiction.

Benjamin Gross is the Cain Postdoctoral Fellow at CHF’s Beckman Center.