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This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series History of Science Fiction

When looking at science fiction in the first half of the 20th century you have to consider the pulp magazines. Many popular works of science fiction were serialized in magazines before they were published as novels.

The existence of magazines that specialized in science fiction allowed fans of the genre to connect and fandom to emerge for the first time. The comparative cheapness of the pulps also allowed the popularity of sci-fi to flourish.

The Birth of Pulps

It’s not certain which was the first pulp magazine, but many people point to The Argosy which was first published in the 1880s and in 1894 moved to the 7″ x 10″ pulp format

The heyday of the pulp magazines was between 1920 and 1940 when there were literally hundreds of titles available. However in the 1930s radio and movies began to seriously compete with the pulps and sales sagged. In 1943 Argosy changed from “pulp fiction” to “men’s adventure”. By the late 40s readers had moved from the pulps to buying cheap paperback books and by the late 1950s pulps were gone, essentially replaced by a smaller number of digest style magazines.

Pulp Science Fiction


The most famous pulp science fiction magazine is Astounding Stories which was first published in 1930. Astounding is actually still published today (under the name Analog Science Fact & Fiction and with a digest format). It is perhaps particularly important to the genre because in transitioning from the pulp format to digest, it also began the move towards more literate stories. Under the editorship of John W. Campbell, Jr. the likes of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, Robert Heinlein’s Future History and Frank Herbert’s Dune first appeared.

The majority pulp science fiction was essentially adventure stories transplanted to alien planets. A lot of it was poorly or hastily written copying from previous successes. The classic image of pulp science fition has to be a scantilly clad blonde being menaced by some form of alien creature.

However amongst the lurid tales, a number of writers began their careers. Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, A. E. Van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon all made their debuts in the pulp magazines. A number of enduring characters including Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and John Carter also began their lives in the pulps.

Other significant science fiction pulp magazines include:

Weird Tales which was first published in 1923 and ran until 1954 for some 279 issues. Some of Weird Tales writers include H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashoton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Edmond Hamilton and Seabury Quinn. With a circulation that never topped 50,000 in a time when the biggest magazines exceeded one million, Weird Tales always struggled financially and was another magazine which paid its writers late. In the 1940s under the editorship of Doroth McIlwraith, Weird Tales had something of a resurgence with new writers that included Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber and Theodore Sturgeon.

Weird Tales was revived in 1988 and has continued publication in one form or another since then.

Wonder Stories was created in 1930 by combining two of Hugo Gernsback’s magazines Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories. It ran for 66 issues between 1930 and 1936. After it was sold to another company the name was changed to Thrilling Wonder Stories and it ran for a further 112 issues until 1955. Authors published in Wonder Stories include: Arthur C. Clarke, L. Sprague de Camp Robert A. Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, Theodore Sturgeon, A. E. Van Vogt, and Stanley G. Weinbaum.

Planet Stories lasted for 71 issues between 1939 and 1955. The stories were primarily swashbuckling adventure with a science fiction background and as was common with many pulps the magazine covers featured scantily clad women. Authors published in Planet Stories include: Poul Anderson; Leigh Brackett; Ray Bradbury; Alfred Coppel and Philip K. Dick (Beyond Lies the Wub).

Super Science Stories only lasted for 16 issues in its first run between 1940 and 1943. It was briefly revived in 1949 and lasted another 15 issues before ceasing publication in 1951. That first run was edited by one Frederick Pohl (then aged 21). Isaac Asimov’s I Robot first appeared in Super Science Stories in 1940. Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein and Lyle Monroe also had stories published in this magazine.

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Eoghann Irving is amongst other things the creator and Editor of Solar Flare. He has a life long interest in all forms of science fiction and fantasy and a pressing need to share this interest with anyone who will listen. Find out more at his personal website eoghann.com..

Series Navigation«The History of Science Fiction: Hugo Gernsback»
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2 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. Good balanced post! Yes there was some crap published in the pulps, not nearly as much as many people assume, but, as you note, there were many great authors published in those same magazines. One of the first pulp magazines I bought (at a yard sale, I’m not nearly that old yet!) was an issue of Planet Stories with Ray Bradbury’s “Mars is Heaven” in it. It changed my opinion of the pulps and of the reviewers who had dismissed them out of hand.

    Dave Tacketts last blog post..Well Told Tales, Knights, and More

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