Friday, January 2, 2015

Saucers, Doughnuts, and Lost Continents

The history of Astounding Stories, which began publication in 1930, was briefly described in the last post.  The magazine underwent several changes over the years, but under the capable editorship of John W. Campbell it became very influential during the “Golden Age” of science fiction.  (It is now Analog Science Fiction and Fact, a periodical that is still going strong today.) 

Weird Tales arrived earlier on the scene, the original magazine running from 1923-1954.  There have been several attempts over the years to revive this foundational publication, and an online version currently exists.  Several of the authors discussed in The R’lyeh Tribune were published in that magazine during the 1920s and 1930s. 

Finally there was Amazing Stories founded by the multi-talented Hugo Gernsback, first published in the spring of 1926.  Gernsback envisioned a magazine devoted to “scientifiction”, one that endeavored to promote the appreciation of science and technology through “amazing” and innovative works of fiction.  Along with Astounding Stories, the magazine was an important contributor to the emerging field of science fiction in the late 1930s through the early 1950s.  As with Weird Tales, numerous attempts were made to revive the magazine in recent decades including an online version that appeared in 2012.

Collectively these three pulp magazines and a few others were critical in establishing the genres of weird fiction and science fiction in the early twentieth century.  Weird Tales, Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories shared a number of authors from time to time, and there was some overlap in subject matter.  However, all three helped establish the careers of such well known fantasy writers as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith, (primarily in Weird Tales), as well as a younger generation of writers who would later become successful science fiction authors:  Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Edmond Hamilton and many others.

In the late 1930s there was controversy among fans and professional science fiction writers related to editorial changes at Amazing Stories.  In 1938 the magazine began to drift a considerable distance away from Gernsback’s ideals after Ziff-Davis acquired the magazine and put Raymond A. Palmer in charge of it.  Palmer was able to increase readership, acquiring more subscribers at one point than Astounding Stories, but at considerable cost to the integrity and renown of the magazine.

Palmer is the subject of an affectionate, ‘warts and all’ biography by Fred Nadis, The Man From Mars, Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey (2013).  The author’s intent is to rehabilitate the much maligned editor’s reputation, as well as show his contribution to a number of subgenres and to popular culture in general, circa the 1940s and 1950s.  At this time the heyday of the pulps was beginning to fade, and economics forced some authors and publishers to consider other avenues for their work.

One of these avenues certainly led to a proliferation of half-baked theories about paranormal phenomena, substantiated by crank science and reams of “evidence”.  Palmer often consulted with various representatives of the “lunatic fringe” and championed their causes.  Part visionary, part carnival huckster, Palmer was effective at developing symbiotic relationships with his gullible readership, as well as with numerous crackpot contributors.  He alternately offered support for their delusional ideas or gentle criticism when they went too far out of bounds—which, given their obsessions, occurred often.

Perhaps most notoriously, Palmer co-authored and published Robert Shaver’s I Remember Lemuria, the first of several pulp stories inaugurating the Shaver Mystery, (a.k.a. the Shaver Hoax).  Nadis provides a lot of interesting detail in his book about the formation of this bizarre revelation and the interesting relationship the two men had. 

Briefly, the Shaver Mystery posits the existence of a malevolent subterranean society of “dero” responsible for disasters and general mischief.  This is not a new idea:  H. P. Lovecraft was influenced by similar notions as reflected in the settings he created for At the Mountains of Madness (1936), The Lurking Fear (1923), The Horror at Red Hook (1927), and other stories.
Shaver’s ideas also incorporated elements of then contemporary occultism, spiritualism, Theosophy, and theories about “Hollow Earth” and governmental conspiracies.  Paranoid in tone, the Shaver Mystery included not a little of its creator’s struggles with mental illness.  As with fad diets, so much of this material appears to be displaced religiosity.  Indeed, it seems that a number of science fiction writers of the time, (Robert Shaver, L. Ron Hubbard, and Philip K. Dick among others), later were inspired to establish new quasi-religions based on bizarre personal revelations.

Science fiction purists were critical of Palmer for supporting and enabling occultism, irrationality, and subjectivity in Amazing Stories, which he did for approximately a decade before founding several other similar publications.  Historically his involvement in the field has been largely ignored in favor of the editorial leadership of Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell and their successors, whose ideals he seemed to have betrayed.  Yet he was able to make Amazing Stories profitable, and clearly was in tune with the Zeitgeist of mid-twentieth century America.
Nadis argues convincingly that the field has forgotten Palmer’s critical role in the development of flying saucer mythology (“ufology”).  For example, he seems to have contributed the notion that saucers originated in Earth’s upper atmosphere, and were operated by “ultra-terrestrials”—paranormal but Earth based beings—not aliens from space. 

Palmer helped develop and substantiate the “Hollow Earth” theory, that Earth is essentially doughnut shaped, with entrances at the poles to unknown worlds and civilizations.  This theory had enthusiastic followers as late as the mid-1960s, and seemed consistent with a then popular theory of a vortex or whirlpool process accounting for how planets and solar systems formed.  Conceivably, our own solar system consisted of large and small doughnuts orbiting the sun, meandering through the black coffee of outer space.  

Sadly, none of these ideas receive the attention and enthusiasm today that they did not deserve when first proposed.  Nadis also credits Palmer with creation of the paranormal subgenre of science fiction, also known as “Psi-Fi”, which is still enjoyed by many today.

The Man From Mars, Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey is an interesting and entertaining profile of one resourceful magazine editor.  It is also a fascinating history of one of the directions pulp fiction took after the 1940s.  Nadis connects the science fiction field of that time with later cultural phenomena: the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, the Cold War, and various movements emerging in the early sixties to address civil rights, the environment, and the war in Vietnam.  No surprise—the ideas promulgated by Ray Palmer and his associates are also continuous with the later emergence of New Age beliefs in the 1960s and 1970s.

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