Welcome to the inaugural post of Jamie Todd Rubin‘s new column, The Wayward Time Traveler, in which he explores the science fiction of yesteryear. – Editor

I have a theory that the Brass Tacks letter column that John Campbell provided early in his tenure as editor of Astounding Science Fiction helped to improve the quality of science fiction and make it what it is today. Campbell encouraged discussion and dialog between fans, authors and artists. Science fiction fans were then (and are still today) passionate people with strong opinions. I think those opinions expressed in the letter columns helped shape science fiction as much as the stories that appeared in the magazine.

These letters have been on my mind quite a bit lately. I am making my way through each of the issues of Astounding from July 1939 through December 1950–what I call my vacation in the Golden Age and while many of the stories are great fun, the letter columns are fascinating. I haven’t had time to talk about them in any detail elsewhere, but considering their importance in shaping our genre, they deserve further discussion.

It is not hard to draw a line from those old letter columns to the various discussion boards and blog comment threads that we have today. And anyone who follows today’s discussion boards and genre blogs knows that, from time-to-time, tempers flare up to the point of ignition and we have what we call a flame war. Flame wars are nothing new, however. And you can see the roots of those wars right there in those early letters in Astounding.

A typical letter from a 1939 issue of Astounding starts by praising the magazine. It goes on to give a relative rating of the magazine (“it wasn’t as good as last month”; “the quality of the magazine keeps going up”), and then provides a detailed ranking of all of the stories and art work. Opinions of the art work surprised me because they were more passionate than opinions of the stories. But it occurred to me that in 1939, no one had television programs to compare with what they read in the pages. Artists images were all readers knew of spaceships and Martian landscapes.

To get a full flavor of this, you’ll have to allow me to quote from some of these letters:

As far as I can figure out there is no reason for “Melody and Moons” and “Coils of Time” [in the May 1939 issue]. The first is just trash and doesn’t do justice to either Private Kelton or Kent Casey. “Coils of Time” was a mess and had no business in as fine a magazine as Astounding.

In speaking of artists, one young fan (for whom a major award in the genre is now named) flamed the following:

I have often vociferously asserted Schneeman is tops and Binder and Wesso stink. Especially Binder. So help me I could go on for pages and pages about how completely and utterly devoid of any useful quality his stuff is. I infinitely prefer no illustrations at all to illustrations by Binder.

Another assessment in the August 1939 issue from a fan:

Now I cannot refrain from giving hell to some of your writers. I would like to take W. van Lorne and put him in my vibration machine for a week… after that I doubt whether he will continue to write lousy vibrational junk.

There is plenty of praise in these letters as well, but it seems to me that the pans are often more powerful than the praise, and it is in this respect that I think these old school flame wars helped shape science fiction. Here was a genre in which the fans were encouraged to participate. It so happened that the nature of the stories appealed to an argumentative bunch and I can’t imagine an artist or author coming away from the letter column feeling unscathed. It seems to me that authors and artists may have outwardly derided the feedback, but inwardly–the good ones at least–embraced it and used it as a means of improving their stories and artwork. Fans were relentless, but at the same time, they were also fair. When an artist or writer improved, a fan was opt to notice:

Kent Casey undoubtedly improves more and more. Private Kelton is becoming one of science fiction’s star performers.

If we incorporate fantasy into the over-arching genre, then I have to ask: what other genres encourages this interaction between fan and artist? What other genre has built in an evolutionary mechanism for improving the quality of the stories it produces. Isaac Asimov wrote that when he broke into the field, it was relatively easy to do so, but if he were trying to break into the field in, say, the 1980s, it would have been impossible. There were too many good writers. The collective improvement in quality over that 50-year span was thanks in large part to science fiction fans keeping the writers and artists honest. And it is a tradition that we carry on today. It is why science fiction is taught in school and taken much more seriously as a literature than it was in its infancy. (Some readers might dispute this: flame war in the comments, please.)

So I’d like to offer a big hearty thank you to those fans of yesteryear who were not afraid to hold back their public opinion (every letter printed the name and address of its author). Because of your efforts and your old-school flame wars, fans of today still have the opportunity to read the genre that they love.

And to carry on the tradition themselves.

Filed under: The Wayward Time-Traveler

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