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Astounding Science-Fiction

Entry updated 28 July 2022. Tagged: Publication.


US magazine, pulp-size January 1930-December 1941, letter-size January 1942-April 1943, pulp size May 1943-October 1943, Digest-size November 1943-February 1963. It changed its title to Analog (which see) in 1960. Published by Publisher's Fiscal Corporation (a subsidiary of Clayton Magazines) January 1930-March 1933 and Street & Smith October 1933-January 1961, by which time the magazine had become Analog; edited Harry Bates January 1930-March 1933, F Orlin Tremaine October 1933-November 1937, John W Campbell Jr December 1937-December 1971.

Astounding was brought into being when the Pulp-magazine publisher William Clayton suggested to one of his editors, Harry Bates, the idea of a new monthly magazine of period-adventure stories, largely in order to fill a blank space on the sheet on which all the covers of his pulp magazines were simultaneously printed. Bates counterproposed a magazine to be called Astounding Stories of Super-Science. The idea was accepted, and the first issue appeared in December 1929, the cover dated January 1930. Bates was editor, with assistant editor Desmond W Hall and consulting editor Douglas M Dold. Whilst the few earlier sf magazines, Air Wonder Stories, Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories (see Wonder Stories), were larger than the ordinary pulp magazines and attempted a more austere respectability in response to Hugo Gernsback's proselytizing desire to communicate an interest in science through Scientifiction, Astounding was unashamedly an action-adventure pulp magazine where "science" was present only to add a veneer of plausibility to its outrageous melodramas. The flavour is suggested by the following editorial blurb (for "The Pirate Planet" by Charles W Diffin, February 1931): "From Earth & Sub-Venus Converge a Titanic Offensive of Justice on the Unspeakable Man-Things of Torg." The covers of the Clayton Astounding, all the work of Hans Waldemar Wessolowski (H W Wesso), show, typically, men (or women) menaced by giant insects or – anticipating King Kong (1933) – giant apes. Regular contributors included Ray Cummings, Paul Ernst, S P Meek and Victor Rousseau. One of the most popular authors was Anthony Gilmore (the collaborative pseudonym of Bates and Hall), whose Hawk Carse series epitomized Astounding-style Space Opera.

In February 1931 the title was abbreviated to Astounding Stories; the full title was resumed in January 1933. During late 1932 the magazine became irregular as the Clayton chain encountered financial problems. In March 1933 Clayton went out of business and Astounding ceased publication. Although the vast majority of the stories in its first incarnation (1930-1933) are deservedly forgotten, Astounding was a robust and reasonably successful magazine and, because its rates were so much better than those of its competitors (two cents a word on acceptance instead of half a cent a word on publication or later), it had attracted such authors as Murray Leinster and Jack Williamson who were more attuned to the nature of Gernsbackian sf. Astounding had left an indelible mark, however. It had introduced the "pulp" strain into science fiction and had juvenilized the field into what one critic, R Jere Black, summarized as "hero vs alien", meaning the plots had become formulaic in that they almost all involve a hero rescuing a heroine from a Villain or Monster in an exotic locale. It was here that the seeds of Space Opera were sown, and it reduced Gernsback's ideals of a story that would inspire scientific experimentation and research to its very basic level. It had the effect of the field seeking to pull itself up by its bootstraps, and it is significant that Astounding had not breathed its last, for it would soon set out to remedy the problem that it had created. G W Thomas has compiled a series of anthologies drawn from the Clayton Astounding, each with the running title The Clayton Astounding Stories: Vagabonds of Space (anth 2010), Out of the Dreadful Depths (anth 2010), Planetoids of Peril (anth 2010) and Invasion Earth! (anth 2010).

The magazine's title was bought by Street & Smith, a well-established pulp chain publisher, and after a six-month gap it reappeared in October 1933, restored to a monthly schedule as Astounding Stories. Desmond Hall remained on the editorial staff for a time, but the new editor was F Orlin Tremaine. The first two Tremaine issues were an uneasy balance of sf, occult and straight adventure but, with the December 1933 issue, Astounding became re-established as an sf magazine. In that issue Tremaine announced the formulation of his Thought-Variant policy: each issue of Astounding would carry a story developing an idea which, as he put it, "has been slurred over or passed by in many, many stories". The first such story was "Ancestral Voices" (December 1933) by Nat Schachner.

Although the thought-variant policy can be seen as a publicity gimmick rather than as a coherent intellectual design for the magazine, during 1934 Tremaine and Hall together raised Astounding to an indisputably pre-eminent position in its small field. The magazine's payment rates were only half what they had been, but they were still twice as much as their competitors' and were paid promptly. Astounding solicited material from leading authors: in 1934 it featured Donald Wandrei's "Colossus" (January), Williamson's "Born of the Sun" (March) and The Legion of Space (April-September; rev 1947), Leinster's "Sidewise in Time" (June), E E "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Valeron (August 1934-February 1935; 1949), C L Moore's "The Bright Illusion" (October), John W Campbell Jr's first Don A Stuart story, "Twilight" (November), Raymond Z Gallun's "Old Faithful" (December) and Campbell's The Mightiest Machine (December 1934-April 1935; 1947). Furthermore, Charles Fort's nonfiction Lo! (1931) was serialized (April-November) and Astounding's covers featured some startling work by Howard V Brown. Also during 1934 the magazine's wordage increased twice, first by adding more pages, then by reducing the size of type. Astounding continued to dominate the field in the following years. Superscience epics in the Campbell style were largely phased out as the moodier stories of "Stuart" became popular. Stanley G Weinbaum was a regular contributor during 1935 (the year of his death); H P Lovecraft's fiction appeared in 1936.

Tremaine's intention (announced in January 1935) to publish Astounding twice a month did not materialize, but the magazine prospered and in February 1936 made the important symbolic step of adopting trimmed edges to its pages, which at a stroke made its appearance far smarter than those of its ragged competitors. Other artists who began to appear in Astounding included Elliott Dold and Charles Schneeman. Campbell and Willy Ley contributed articles; L Sprague de Camp and Eric Frank Russell had their first stories published. At the same time, Astounding's competitors were ailing: both Amazing and Wonder Stories switched from monthly to bimonthly in 1935; Wonder Stories was sold in the following year (becoming Thrilling Wonder Stories), and Amazing suffered the same fate in 1938. When Tremaine became editorial director at Street and Smith late in 1937 with John W Campbell Jr appointed as his successor, he handed over a healthy and successful concern. Campbell took up the editorial role on 5 October 1937, just in time to wrap up the December issue, but the first over which he had direct control was for January 1938.

For his first 18 months as editor Campbell did not develop the magazine significantly, although in 1938 he published the first sf stories of Lester del Rey and L Ron Hubbard and reintroduced Clifford D Simak. In March 1938 he altered the title to Astounding Science-Fiction and continued to tinker with its appearance, using a centred dot 1942-1946: Astounding Science·Fiction. His intention was to phase out the word "Astounding", which he disliked, and to retitle the magazine Science Fiction; however, the appearance in 1939 of a magazine with that title (which later became Science Fiction Stories) prevented him from doing so. He toyed briefly with Thought-Variant adaptations: "Mutant" issues (which would show significant changes in the direction of Astounding's evolution – and that of sf generally) and "Nova" stories (which would be "unusual in manner of presentation rather than basic theme"). Such gimmicks were soon forgotten. March 1939 saw the launch of Astounding's successful fantasy companion, Unknown, on which Campbell had been working since the previous November and which had diluted his attention.

The beginning of Campbell's particular Golden Age of SF can be pinpointed as the summer of 1939. The July Astounding – later reproduced as Astounding Science Fiction, July, 1939 (anth 1981) edited by Campbell and Martin H Greenberg – contained A E van Vogt's first sf story, "Black Destroyer", and Isaac Asimov's "Trends" (not his first story, but the first he had managed to sell to Campbell); the August issue had Robert A Heinlein's debut, "Life-Line"; in the September issue Theodore Sturgeon's first sf story, "Ether Breather", appeared. During the same period Hubert Rogers became established as Astounding's major cover artist.

The authors that Campbell published have frequently attested to his dynamic editorial personality. Certainly he fed them ideas, but it was the coincidental appearance of a number of prolific and imaginative writers which gave Astounding its remarkable domination of the genre-sf field during the World War Two years – when, to begin with, a boom in sf-magazine publishing meant there was more competition than ever before. The key figure in 1940 and 1941 was Heinlein. His stories alone would have made the magazine notable, as a partial listing will indicate. In 1940 there were "Requiem" (January), "If This Goes On –" (February-March), "The Roads Must Roll" (June), "Coventry" (July) and "Blowups Happen" (September); in 1941 Sixth Column (January-March as by Anson MacDonald; 1949 as Heinlein; vt The Day After Tomorrow 1951), "– And He Built A Crooked House" (February), "Logic of Empire" (March), "Universe" (May), "Solution Unsatisfactory" (May), Methuselah's Children (July-September; 1958), "By His Bootstraps" (October), "Common Sense" (October). At the same time there were a number of stories by van Vogt, notably Slan (September-December 1940; 1946; rev 1951), and by Asimov, including "Nightfall" (September 1941) and the early Robot series. Although Campbell lost Heinlein to war work in 1942, he gained Anthony Boucher, Fritz Leiber and "Lewis Padgett" (Henry Kuttner and C L Moore), and continued innovative work by Murray Leinster, Jack Williamson and the ever-reliable Eric Frank Russell.

In January 1942 the magazine switched to letter size – which gave more wordage while saving paper – but it reverted to pulp size in 1943 for a few months before becoming the first digest-size sf magazine, in November 1943, as paper shortages (which killed off Unknown) became more acute. William Timmins replaced Rogers as Astounding's regular cover artist.

Astounding's leadership of the field continued through the 1940s. A famous non-fact squib much reprinted outside sf circles was "Meihem in ce Klasrum" (September 1946) by W K Lessing writing as Dolton Edwards, a genial Satire on English spelling reform. Most of its regular authors had popular series to reinforce their appeal: Asimov's Robot and Foundation stories; van Vogt's Weapon Shops tales and his two Null-A novels; George O Smith's Venus Equilateral stories; Jack Williamson's Seetee stories (as by Will Stewart); "Padgett's" Gallegher stories; Clifford Simak's City stories; and E E Smith's epic Lensman series, the last two novels of which marked the last throes of the superscience epic in Astounding. The only serious challenge to Astounding's superiority came from Sam Merwin Jr's vastly improved Startling Stories, which by 1948 was publishing much good material. However, Startling Stories was a particularly garish-looking pulp while Astounding became more sober and serious in appearance as the decade went on; the covers featuring Chesley Bonestell's astronomical art contributed to this effect. The word "Astounding" was reduced to a small-size italic script, often coloured so as to be virtually invisible. At a casual glance it looked as if Campbell had achieved his ambition of retitling the magazine.

But, with the appearance of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1949 and Galaxy Science Fiction in 1950, Astounding's leadership was successfully challenged. It continued on an even, respectable keel, but the exciting new authors of the 1950s, by and large, made their mark elsewhere. The May 1950 issue of Astounding featured Hubbard's first article on Dianetics, which launched the Pseudoscience that would later become Scientology. This was symptomatic of Campbell's growing wish to see the ideas of sf made real, a wish that led him into a fruitless championing of backyard inventors' space drives and Psionic machines. His editorials – idiosyncratic, deliberately needling, dogmatic, sometimes uncomfortably elitist and near-racist – absorbed much of the energy which had previously gone into the feeding of ideas to his authors. Many of the notions propounded in the editorials were duly reworked into fiction by a stable of unexceptional regular authors such as Randall Garrett and Raymond F Jones. Astounding's new contributors included Poul Anderson, James Blish, Hal Clement, Gordon R Dickson, Robert Silverberg amongst others, and its new artists included, notably, Ed Emshwiller (Emsh), Frank Kelly Freas and H R van Dongen. It had settled into respectable middle age. Still popular with sf fans, it won Hugo awards in 1953, 1955, 1956 and 1957.

By the end of the 1950s, when science fiction should have been celebrating the dawn of the Space Age the field sank into the doldrums. Campbell decided that Astounding needed a name more relevant to the Space Age and decided on Analog, suggesting that advances in science fact were "analogous" to what was being explored in science fiction. The title change was phased in from February to October 1960. This was just a year ahead of the end of Street and Smith and the sale of Analog to Condé Nast. Both events signalled a change and Analog is thus explored in a separate entry.

John W Campbell Jr edited a number of anthologies drawn from Astounding and Analog (see his entry for further details). Many other anthologies have drawn extensively on the magazine; indeed, of the 35 stories contained in the first major sf anthology, Adventures in Time and Space (1946) edited by Raymond J Healy and J Francis McComas, all but three were from Astounding. The Astounding-Analog Reader 1 (anth 1972) and The Astounding-Analog Reader 2 (anth 1973), both edited by Harry Harrison and Brian W Aldiss, provide an informative chronological survey of Astounding's history. Harry Harrison also compiled an original anthology tribute to John W Campbell and the Astounding era in Astounding: The John W. Campbell Memorial Anthology (anth 1973). The flavour of Astounding's first two decades is nostalgically, if uncritically, captured in Alva Rogers's A Requiem for Astounding (1964). A useful index to the magazine's first fifty years is The Complete Index to Astounding/Analog (1981) by Mike Ashley.

The UK edition, published by Atlas, appeared August 1939-August 1963. The contents were severely truncated during the 1940s, and the magazine did not appear regularly, adopting a variable bimonthly schedule. It became monthly from February 1952; from November 1953, when it changed from pulp to digest, it was practically a full reprint (four months behind in cover date) of the US edition, although some stories and departments were omitted. [MJE/PN/MA]

see also: Exploring Tomorrow.


  • Harry Bates, January 1930 to March 1933
  • F Orlin Tremaine, October 1933 to November 1937
  • John W Campbell Jr, December 1937 to December 1971 (continuing with Analog)

Awards for fiction

  • August-November 1954: Mark Clifton and Frank Riley, They'd Rather Be Right (edited version 1957; vt The Forever Machine 1958; text restored under original title 1981) – novel Hugo
  • January 1955: Walter M Miller Jr, "The Darfsteller" – novelette Hugo
  • May 1955: Eric Frank Russell, "Allamagoosa" – short story Hugo
  • March 1956: Murray Leinster, "Exploration Team" – novelette Hugo
  • February-April 1956: Robert A Heinlein, Double Star (1956) – novel Hugo
  • October 1958: Clifford D Simak, "The Big Front Yard" – novelette Hugo

further reading


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