Pulp Pioneers: Amazing Stories Magazine

by Connor Eddles (1,039 words)

Pulp Pioneers: Amazing Stories Magazine
March 10, 2020 Connor Eddles

There are many claims a magazine can make to their audience. Some have the widest circulation in their home country; others have a stable of upcoming writers who consistently produce amazing work. But one magazine set out to publish exclusively science fiction stories, and so began a long tradition in genre publishing. 

Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926, has had a long, and some would say colourful, history. It has aged, faded, and mutated; changing formats, contents, and ethics through the years. Some of those years with scandal, others of ambition, and indeed some of ridicule. It is the primogenitor of pulp sci-fi and also its almanac; a sort of litmus test as to the state of the genre. It demonstrated that genre fiction was a viable way to be successful as a pulp magazine, and spawned a battery of other publications to take their piece of the market. 

In the early 20th century, science fiction was rapidly establishing itself as a popular genre in the public eye. The works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells at the tail end of the 19th century had kickstarted the idea of science applied to fanciful pursuits, mainly those of exploration and adventure. And so, in the vein of  pulp magazines like Weird Tales or The Boy’s Own Paper, Amazing Stories began with a focus on subjects such as the frontier of space or the surface of distant worlds. Hugo Gernsback, the founder, saw interest in articles about real scientific achievements as an opportunity to push a business model based on both educating and entertaining the magazine’s audience. 

For all this upswing in sci-fi awareness, new stories were not the primary focus of Amazing Stories. During the early days it mainly featured reprints of classic stories from the previous decades of sci-fi. This may have been a poor strategy, as by 1929 the magazine was filing for bankruptcy and seeking new owners. It was sold to Bernarr Macfadden and his imprint Teck Publications

The 1930s offered mixed blessings to both the genre and the magazine itself. The Great Depression cut into profits, and print runs shrank drastically. At the same time, public demand for pulp magazines, and their outlandish stories of escapism and heroism, rose higher than ever before. But competition was fierce and readers had little spare cash for entertainment, only maintaining one or two subscriptions at a time. Despite being the forerunner, Amazing Stories struggled to compete with Weird Tales and other contemporaries.

One of Amazing Stories’ greatest controversies came in the form of a short story by Richard Shaver, a long-time reader, titled ‘I remember Lemuria’. Published in 1945, it told the saga of prehistoric civilisations in a typical sword-and-sorcery manner, save for one crucial detail: Amazing Stories presented it as a piece of partial historical truth. This claim quickly attracted ridicule towards the magazine, to the point at which it was decided that further ‘Shaver material’ was to be sharply limited. Shaver himself was absolutely convinced that there was an ancient, sinister civilisation that continued to exert influence over modern culture without people realising it. 

With such a varied and turbulent history it becomes unhelpful to regard Amazing Stories as a single publication. From a business point of view, it seems to have been a nightmare; even post-depression, the magazine struggled to turn a profit, and its fundamental structure seemed to change with every new owner and editor. It’s likely that the only thing that kept the magazine from bankruptcy completely was the growing interest in science fiction among the public. After a failed attempt to launch a series of tie-in novels in the mid 50s, the magazine was extended in 1958 to serialise full novels, such as Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven, published in the March 1971 volume. 

It’s interesting to note that the volume also contains an advert for “unlocking extra-sensory perception” and an interview with the Deputy Guardian for the US Church of Scientology. It was far from the only pulp sci-fi magazine that flirted with pseudoscience in that period, but Amazing Stories seemed to maintain a PT Barnum-esque method of presenting viewpoints and stories as fact when they weren’t. The resulting ridicule, however, seemed to only enhance the magazine’s popularity. It’s arguably this hybrid of award-winning fiction and controversial non-fiction pieces that has given Amazing Stories such a firm following, nearly a century after its inception. 

Controversy within Amazing Stories seems to go beyond fiction being passed off as reality; the short story ‘A Girl Like You’, by Ted White, covers an America in which apartheid has been implemented and a sort of civil breakdown has occurred. The story portrays a group of black guerillas slaughtering a white family and their ‘menials’. The politics and language used in the story itself strike a modern reader as astonishingly racist, even considering that it was published nearly 50 years ago. 

In 1980 Amazing Stories merged with Fantastic, its fantasy counterpart, in an effort to combat falling sales. Looking at the issue for September 1981, things seem to be as polished as one could hope for: an Ian Miller front cover, a story by Roger Zelazny in top billing, and the sort of classic early 80s layout that you’d find in the best issues of White Dwarf. The magazine even managed to snag a short story by a certain George R. R. Martin, ‘Unsound Variations’. 

Yet the big names and extensive reworks failed to keep the magazine from being sold again in 1982 to Tactical Studies Rules Incorporated, of Dungeons & Dragons fame; before their fateful buyout by Wizards Of The Coast, who then passed it over to Paizo. The latest available sales data is from 1994, when Amazing Stories sold 7,851 copies in total. All of these transfers saw the releases becoming more and more limited, ending up with a digital-only run that lasted from 2005 to 2006. Then came the magazine’s longest hiatus, which only ended in 2012 when the magazine re-launched in a digital-only format. 

Amazing Stories is a magazine with a formidable, and turbulent, history — but nothing has yet succeeded in killing it off. What does its future hold? 2026 isn’t far off, and sci-fi has never been more popular.