By Dale D. Dalenberg, M.D.
February 9, 2015
It is hard to believe these days, considering its popularity in the movies and pervasiveness on bestseller lists, but science fiction has only been around for less than 100 years. Much has been written about the origins of science fiction. I grew up on such analyses, reading Sam Moskowitz and Brian Aldiss, among others. I eagerly read Lucien of Samosata, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Mary Shelley (and I cheerfully defended Aldiss’s view that Frankenstein was the first true science fiction novel.) But everyone in the science fiction world knows that “modern” science fiction didn’t begin until sf got magazine publications of its own, and that all started with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories in 1926.
But Gernsback held onto Amazing for only a few years before he lost it to a bankruptcy, and during those years he had labelled what he was publishing with the clunky term “scientifiction.” Emerging quickly from the bankruptcy of his publishing company, probably with the use of illegally purloined mailing lists from the old company, Gernsback launched and started to seek subscribers for a pair of new magazines, this time with the newly minted term “science-fiction” to describe the contents. The magazines were Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories, which merged after 11 and 12 issues respectively, to become Wonder Stories. Featured here is the Dalenberg Library copy of the 3rd issue of Air Wonder Stories, dated September, 1929. The stories are uniformly awful, but with the Gernsback “Wonder” publications, science-fiction was off the ground (so-to-speak) and was destined to get much, much better over the years. I love this magazine, not because it is any fun to read, but because it bears the historical ambience of being a science-fiction publication that was put together when the term “science-fiction” was only a few weeks or months old.
Hugo Gernsback believed that science-fiction would be a vehicle for science education. This issue of Air Wonder Stories is full of Gernsback’s attempts to make it a worthy vehicle for such a purpose. Gernsback lists an advisory panel of aeronautical experts who supposedly were to “pass upon the scientific principles of all stories.” There is an editorial by Gernsback on “The Airplane of the Future.” There is an aviation forum, “Aviation News of the Month,” and a quiz to test the readers’ aviation knowledge. But what Gernsback got from his fiction authors (and this is true of all his publications) was pretty much standard pulp magazine adventure stuff with enough aviation or science thrown in to qualify for publication in one of the new science fiction magazines. Frankly, I doubt that there was ever a story in any Gernsback magazine that ever actually taught anybody anything about science or aviation.
The lead story in Air Wonder No. 3 is a run-of-the-mill Yellow Peril story with aviation trappings by Harl Vincent, the typical model of a writer who was already writing for pulps and added some scientific trappings to get into the new magazines. In fact, the story is titled “The Yellow Air-Peril,” and that is what it is: a typical Yellow Peril story with air stuff thrown in, enough to qualify it for Air Wonder Stories. If anybody recalls Yellow Peril stories these days, they usually think of Dr. Fu Manchu. But such stories were popular between the World Wars, and they even lived on into the 1950’s and early 1960’s (after the Japanese atrocities of World War II helped cement the image that Asians could be really, really evil.) “The Yellow Air-Peril” has a Buddhist conspiracy bent on world domination. It seems like Buddhism would not be your usual inspiration for an insidious, Oriental world domination plot, considering that Buddhists are usually imagined as peaceful and meditative. But Harl Vincent’s story has it that the Buddhists are really riled up about almost being wiped out in India shortly after they got started and then almost being wiped out again in China in the 9th Century. Vincent (1893-1968) showed up periodically in science fiction pulps and digests until the Second World War. Peter Nicholls’ indispensable Science Fiction Encyclopedia (1979) describes Vincent’s writings as “vigorous but crude.” I’ll second that. There is heroic sacrifice, the destruction of a secret installation, an aerial dogfight, and a marriage proposal under fire all packed into this story, but none of it is actually exciting, given prose as flat as a pancake.
The cover depicts a story by one “Bob” Olsen (about whom I know nothing) titled “Flight in 1999.” The colorful Frank R. Paul covers for Gernsback’s publications are always more visually arresting than the stories they are based upon, and this is no exception. There is a tethered floating platform hovering above a city, and people in flying suits flitting about it, and a passenger ship somewhat akin to a dirigible coming in for a landing. We learn in the story that the people’s suits, the platform, and the ship remain aloft thanks to a material called “gravanul.” Whereupon it is worthwhile to mention that the greatest stylistic flaw of most Gernsback-era science fiction stories is the need to stop the story to explain the science (or pseudo-science in most cases). In this particular story, the “gravanul” is explained by a father to his inquisitive child. The explanation given is that the suits create energy fields that neutralize the attractive force of gravity. I had a friend once whose dad always explained when he inquired about something, “It’s a chemical reaction, Son.” The explanations in Gernsback-era science fiction stories are about like my friend’s dad’s explanations. There is an answer, and it usually interferes with the action and flow of the story, but you really don’t end up having a meaningful answer, much less learning any actual science.