Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Planet Stories: Swimming Against the Tide [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

By the 1950s, adventure science fiction was seen as an embarrassment by those who had once written it for the Clayton Astounding and Amazing Stories. Under the banner of John W Campbell's Astounding, the new order in the 1940s was to shed the pulp past and move on to that logical, shining, serious genre known as Science Fiction.

But then there was Planet Stories, that little quarterly magazine published by Malcolm Reiss and Love Romance Publications. Stories set on other worlds where heroic men and women face terrible monsters. It was all too Edmond Hamilton for the snobs. (Oddly Edmond Hamilton and Jack Williamson, the two writers who crafted space opera in the 1920s and '30s never appeared in Planet Stories. Hamilton was writing Superman comics and was pleased to leave Planet Stories to his wife. Jack Williamson was one of the old pros who could satisfy the new rules of SF and was part of that Age of Campbell.)

So was Planet Stories all that bad? Certainly it featured plenty of space opera and sword-and-planet action. Many of the best of Leigh Brackett's stories appeared in Planet Stories, including her classic Eric John Stark tales of Mars. In fact, she was instrumental in carrying on the vision of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars as a world of strange wonders. This in turn gave Ray Bradbury a place to grow his Martian Chronicles with stories like "The Million Year Picnic," "Rocket Summer," and "Mars is Heaven," standard texts in classrooms and libraries as serious literature. Some of Raymond Z Gallun's finest work of the 1950s can be found there too with "The Big Pill" and "Asteroid of Fear." Like all magazines, it was a continuum of good to bad.

Looking at the contents lists of Planet Stories is quite revealing. The names of the authors break up into four categories:
  • old pros 
  • slumming stars 
  • new writers who would go on to better things 
  • the forgotten
Campbell and his crew dominated the 1940s. The markets for older-styled writers were shrinking. Astounding was setting the bar high and some were never going to make it. Writers like John Murray Reynolds, who had written for Weird Tales, wrote the very first story, "The Golden Amazons of Venus." Ray Cummings, Ed Earl Repp, Carl Jacobi, Ross Rocklynne, Fredrick A. Kummer Jr, J Harvey Haggard, E Hoffman Price, Otto Binder, Charles R Tanner, Otis Adelbert Kline, Neil R Jones, and Hugh B Cave were some of the earliest SF writers for Hugo Gernsback in the 1920s and '30s as well as other magazines like Weird Tales. For these writers, Planet Stories was a final stopping place before oblivion (or jobs in the fledgling comic book industry).

The slumming stars were Campbell-worthy writers who needed another market, had a story or two that Campbell would never buy, or simply enjoyed the adventure thing as well as hard SF. These included Clifford D Simak, Fredrick Pohl, Fletcher Pratt, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredrick Brown, Manly Wade Wellman, Malcolm Jameson, and Laurence Manning. Some chose to hide behind pseudonyms; some did not. The usual reason for using a nom-de-plum was having two stories in the same issue. Poul Anderson used AA Craig, not out shame (he published 13 stories in the magazine between 1950 and 1955), but because that issue also featured "Tiger By the Tail" by Poul Anderson.

New writers (who would later become famous) include many big names as we know them today, though back in the late '40s and early '50s they were earning their reputations. These included Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Philip K Dick, John Jakes, Leigh Brackett, Basil Wells, James Blish, Jerome Bixby, Robert Sheckley, Jack Vance, Milton Lesser, and Stanley Mullen. For some of these writers, they were waiting for HL Gold to begin publishing Galaxy, or Anthony Boucher with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. There were soon to be quality magazines that featured un-Campbellian SF.

The editors of Planet Stories balanced their issues with old pros and new up-and-comers, but about half of the names are writers whom I've never heard of, though some have large numbers of stories to their credit. (A few were the editors of the magazine as well.) Mostly they are writers of one or two stories, names that live on only in Planet Stories. These include John Wiggin, WV Athanas, CJ Wedlake, Lloyd Palmer, HF Cente, and on and on. At least ninety of them. They are the forgotten souls who tried their hand at the task, but have since faded from memory. Only one gained a small bit of fame. That was Keith Bennett, who wrote "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears." The story was selected by Leigh Brackett for the Best of Planet Stories, Volume 1. (Sadly there was no Volume 2 and 3 and 4...)

Planet Stories published seventy-one issues, most quarterly, from 1939 to 1955. It never won any awards, but it was fondly remembered by readers. It was a final volley into the second half of the century. The fun story of interplanetary adventure would disappear for a short time, existing in comics and on television, but by 1977, with Star Wars, the top grossing film of the 20th century, the cry for adventure SF would be heard again, loud and clear.

And even to this day, with the turmoil at the Hugos, we see that SF still has two camps: one that wishes to drive SF towards literature and another that simply wants to feel the wonder of the stars over head, a smoking laser in one hand, and a laser sword in the other, as hideous bug-eyed monsters do unspeakable things to sexy young space maidens. (Modern readers demand much less silly versions of this, but the spirit is the same.) Sadly the genre never split into two separate things, with two different names. If it had, say "Speculative Fiction" for the literary types and "Planet Stories" for the rest, how fitting that would have been...

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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