Ep28: Pulp Fiction (Amazing Stories of the Sisters of Tomorrow)

If you want to understand how we ended up with anything from Star Wars to Star Trek, Superman to Batman, intergalactic travel to microscopic worlds, profound meditations on the nature of being human to thrilling tales about Martian princesses, you have to look at pulp fiction magazines.

Argosy, Blue Book, Adventure, Black Mask, Horror Stories, Flying Aces…there was a lot of it.

The 1920s and 30s was the age of pulp fiction magazines, the time when genres truly became genres. Science fiction, detective stories, war stories, horror, westerns, fantasy. Everything. All those categories that we use to divide up fiction and film and TV came together in the pulps at this time.

But what I want to do in this episode in particular is to look at some of the commonly held ideas about pulp fiction magazines, and about science fiction more particularly. So here are a few things that we all know:

1: Science fiction was, and continues to be, mostly consumed by men
2: Science fiction is, for the most part, aimed at 12-year-old boys
3: There were very few women writers of science fiction between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the new feminist sf of the 60s and 70s
4: Those few women who did write SF were forced to write under male or androgynous pseudonyms in order to make it in an utterly male-dominated industry

So you can probably guess where I’m going with. Yes, all of these are myths. They’re ideas that are completely, demonstrably false.

This week Professor Lisa Yaszek joins me to discuss the history of the pulp fiction magazines and the many myths around early women’s science fiction.

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Pulp Fiction Magazines - Words To That Effect Ep28


Professor Lisa Yaszek is Professor of Science Fiction Studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech, where she researches and teaches science fiction as a global language crossing centuries, continents, and cultures. She is particularly interested in issues of gender, race, and science and technology in science fiction across media as well as the recovery of lost voices in science fiction history and the discovery of new voices from around the globe.

You can find her full bio on her faculty page here and
SciFi@Tech at Georgia Tech is here

Her Amazon author’s page is here where you can find links to all her publications. The two anthologies mentioned in the show were Sisters of Tomorrow and The Future is Female!


Music in this week’s episode was by Cloud Caste Lake, from their album The Meeting (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Track Titles

Wool Gathering


Check out all their music here

Cloud Castle Lake (Pulp Fiction Magazines WTTE Ep28)
Cloud Castle Lake’s Debut Album Malingerer

There was also music from Forrests, from their fanastic EP Polydrug. You can check out their music here

Track Title

Lake Tape

forrests polydrug ep (words to that effect pulp fiction magazines)
Forrests: Polydrug

Works and Names Mentioned

Hugo Gernsback

Claire Winger Harris

Leslie F Stone

Catherine Lucill (CL) Moore

Andre Norton (Alice Mary Norton)

Frank R Paul

Margaret Brundage

NK Jemasin

Pulpmags.org is a fantastic resource for more on the pulps

Pulp Fiction Magazines (WTTE ep28)

Lots more on women’s writing on the WTTE episode on domestic noir and crime fiction

Science fiction can save the world! Have a listen to the climate change fiction episode here

Or maybe you just want a bit more science fiction? Here’s an episode to keep you happy

If you enjoy the episode and want to find out how to support the show then click here for more information.

(Pulp Fiction Magazines Episode) Support the show on Patreon

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Full Episode Transcript

I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
In 1904 an engineer from Luxembourg arrived in the U.S, hoping to market some of his new inventions. He took out a number of patents and developed a keen interest in radio. He then launched a magazine, Modern Electronics, in 1908.
This magazine was the first of his many subsequent publications – and one of these would change the face of popular culture and fiction forever.
The man in question is Hugo Gernsback and the magazine he published, in April 1926, was Amazing Stories.
In the introduction to the opening issue he declared his publication a new sort of magazine, for an entirely new, modern audience. The fiction in Amazing Stories was to be, as Gernsback famously put it “the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision”
At the time this new fiction didn’t quite have a name. Gernsback called it “scientifiction” – which didn’t catch on. A few years later, however, he popularised a name which very much did catch on: science fiction.
Now science fiction (which I will frequently just call sf from here on in) had existed for a long time before 1926 (quite how long is something that’s hotly contested) but Amazing Stories was the first ever magazine devoted entirely to the genre. Gernsback as editor and publisher, would have a profound influence on how sf developed. He is a controversial figure – notorious for underpaying or simply not paying writers who contributed to his magazines, he’s a figure who moved science fiction in a direction that many authors, critics, and fans were deeply unhappy with. But for better or worse, Gernsback, often cited as one of the “Fathers of Science Fiction”, is a central figure in any history of the genre. The Hugo Awards – one of science fiction’s highest honours – are named after Gernsback.
And With the success of Amazing Stories Gernsback soon established numerous other similar magazines, and other publishers, noting their success, quickly followed.
Amazing Stories / Amazing Stories Annual / Amazing Stories Quarterly
/ Wonder Stories / Science Wonder Stories / Air Wonder Stories /
/ Science Wonder Quarterly / Scientific Detective Monthly / Thrilling Wonder Stories
This was the age of pulp fiction – the time when genres truly became genres. Not just science fiction but detective stories, war stories, horror, westerns, fantasy. Everything. All those categories that we use to divide up fiction and film and tv came together in the pulps at this time.
We call it the pulp era because again the mags that were printed at that time there wasn’t a lot of money in genre fiction so a lot of ppl were printing on the cheapest paper they could find an d that was really pulpy paper – paper where you can see the wood grain, that had been barely pulped – you could see the wood grain – this is where the name came from
This is Professor Lisa Yaszek
I’m Lisa Yaszek, I’m a prof of sf studies in school of lit, media and comm in Georgia tech – interested in sf as global language that allows us to talk to each other about our experiences and hopes and fears about science and technology and allows us to do that across centuries and continents and cultures
So the pulps were very much the place where science fiction really came together as a popular genre:
I think some of the big names that ppl would probably know would be ppl like Isaac Asimov. Arthur C Clarke Robert Heinlein, the great fathers of sf who really helped shape modern sf as we know it today, who really brought the values and techniques that we still associated with sf
But, of course, there were a no of great mother of sf as well. Even there, there are some Judith Merrill maybe even Carol M Schwartz – a lot of the ppl who helped build modern feminist, modern women’s sf. Got their start in that early magazine community

So, if you want to understand how we ended up with anything from Star Wars to Star Trek, Superman to Batman, intergalactic travel to microscopic worlds, profound meditations on the nature of being human to thrilling tales about Martian princesses
You have to look at pulp fiction.
Argosy, Blue Book, Adventure, Black Mask, Horror Stories, Flying Aces
And there was a lot of it…
Marvel Tales, Oriental Stories, Planet Stories, Spicy Detective, Love Story Magazine, Western Story Magazine, Weird Tales,
But what I want to do in this episode in particular is to look at some of the commonly held ideas about pulp fiction, and about science fiction more generally. So here are a few things that we all know:
1: Science fiction was, and continues to be, mostly consumed by men
2: Science fiction is, for the most part, aimed at 12-year-old boys
3: There were very few women writers of science fiction between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the new feminist sf of the 60s and 70s
4: Those few women who did write SF were forced to write under male or androgynous pseudonyms in order to make it in an utterly male-dominated industry

So, you can probably guess where I’m going with. Yes, all of these are myths. They’re ideas that are completely, demonstrably false.
So, let’s start with the readers. Who, exactly, was buying and reading all of these sf pulp magazines?
There’s a joke in the sf community that the golden age of sf is 12, that all sf is written for 12-year-olds and especially 12 year old boys. An assumption that gets carried over to mainstream culture
Certainly true that there were sf mags aimed at young ppl and young boys but there were a no that were aimed at families, at general readers – we know that Hugo Gernsback was interested in getting everyone to read – men and women, boys and girls, scientifically inclined ppl, literary inclined ppl, he saw it as the lit of the future
There were a no of editors, many of whom worked with Gernsback, who were involved in progressive social causes and sf was a great way to share ideas about what differen
t future might look like, different kinds of populations.
By the 1940s and 1950s when the mags started doing reader polls they were maybe surprised to learn that actually the readership was considerably older and that about 40% of all readers were women
When I was doing this research I even found that there was one of the later pulp mags, cos the pulps really continued, magazine sf continued thru the 50s and we still have it today, mags began to change their size in the 40s and 50s – went from a larger format like science journals to a digest size – at least one, I think it was Galaxy, did it based on reader’s polls, wanted women to be able to fit them in women’s handbags – I appreciate that!

So people of all ages, male and female, were reading science fiction – slipping it into their bags to take it out when they got a chance.
The writers of early sf were, like the readers, far more varied than is often imagined. Which is how Professor Yaszek first came to publish not one, but two, anthologies gathering together the lost, or often side-lined female voices in science fiction. Sisters of Tomorrow and The Future is Female are two great collections – both readily available online and I’ll put links to them on the WTTE website.
We always all talk about how the genre was founded by a woman, with Mary Shelley with Frankenstein in 1818 and we all recognise and often celebrate the rise of feminist sf in the 60s and 70s – still have a lot of the architects of that sf with us today – we appreciate the legacy the accomplishments of LeGuin or somebody like NK Jemisin – just became first person of any gender or race to win three Hugo awards in a row for novel
When we tell our histories there tends to be this almost 150 year gap between these authors a
nd so I was really interested in thinking about this,
We have a marvellous collection in library- I went thru the anthologies and was surprised to see how many women were in them – women who were admired but also who cause controversy
And I thought how did we lose all of this out of history?
Sisters of Tomorrow – focuses on 1st one or two generations who built sf as a genre – how women contributed in all areas – obviously when we think of sf we think of film or writing but women were editors, science journalists, editors, artists

So, is there a noticeable difference between science fiction written by men and women at this time? Well, the answer is yes, and no. But before I explain what I mean by that, I want to take a very quick break.
This podcast is a part of the Headstuff Podcast Network, a collective of great Irish podcasts, and I just wanted to play you a short trailer for one of our other shows:


So, back to the science fiction authors then? In some respects, male and female authors of sf were writing about exactly the same things. This was a time when the common tropes and plotlines of sf were being developed – plots that, to be honest, haven’t really changed at all in almost a century. And everyone writing science fiction was concerned with similar ideas.
In 1931, the author Claire Winger Harris listed the 16 Possible Science Fiction Plots. How many Hollywood blockbusters can you name in the last few years alone with these plots:

  1. Interplanetary space travel.
  2. Adventures on other worlds.
  3. Adventures in other dimensions.
  4. Adventures in the micro- or macro cosmos.
  5. Gigantic insects.
  6. Gigantic man- eating plants.
  7. Time travel, past or future.
  8. Monstrous forms of unfamiliar life.
  9. The creation of super machines.
  10. The creation of synthetic life.
  11. Mental telepathy and mental aberration.
  12. Invisibility.
  13. Ray and vibration stories.
  14. Unexplored portions of the globe: submarine, subterranean, etc.
  15. Super intelligence.
  16. Natural cataclysms: extra-terrestrial or confined to the earth.

So, that’s basically all of science fiction. Certainly any of the major sf blockbusters of recent years fit in there: Guardians of the Galaxy, Inception, Arrival, Ex Machina, Mad Max Fury Road, Interstellar
It’s amazing how many of the plots we see today
There’s a couple that are not as relevant anymore – We don’t see as many about rays and vibration – not as popular – it’s time to bring it back, don’t you? It’s been a while

Hmm, maybe no man eating plants these days?
Well actually, no, did you see annihilation – he does gigantic man-eating plants

So, no, they’re all there.
So, if there weren’t necessarily any huge differences in the plotlines that various sf writers chose to use, there was, often, a difference in focus and approach between male and female writers of science fiction:
Women were doing more – drawing attention to places men weren’t thinking about as much – the home an personal and private spaces. Often very good at inviting us to think about how science would change not just the larger landscape of life but our everyday lives as well.
A lot of early stories where women are freed of the 16hours of chopping wood and carrying water – all of sudden women can go and make art and do politics and lead us into the future
Sometimes theyre very broad and utopian, sometimes used for great effect
Story by Leslie F Stone called into the void – two astronauts – male and female- on way tp mars but go to another galaxy – have months to kill – they spend time having smoking competitions, seeing who could do the dishes the best – feels very human
That’s what women really were able to do – by bringing in these domestic and intimate moments they brought some kind of human depth and really nuanced characterization in early sf

Claire Winger Harris is another important name from this time. It was her list of 16 plotlines we’ve just been discussing. She has a great 1928 story, The Miracle of the Lily, about pesticides and environmental problems, and issues of co-operation between species and planets. A story that’s both very relevant today and was really innovative at the time.
And Harris is a useful example in countering another of the myths I outlined at the beginning: that women who did write sf in this period did so under pseudonyms.
Harris was a pioneer in this respect –one of the first women to be published in a science fiction magazine under her own name.
She published her first story in Weird Tales, in 1926, A Runaway World. Then in 1929 I think she won a contest that Hugo Gernsback held in AS. She took 3rd place, supposed to get $500 – pretty nice prize for that time period – I’d take that now
It made her career – when G published story – intro is now very famous – it says “huh, who would have thought that a women would have written sf”
He seems very surprised by it, ppl often talk about that moment as the moment sf community first figured out women were interested in sf. My sense is that that was a little bit of Showmanship on G’s part. He had hired women as science writers for his radio magazines so I don’t think he was too surprised when he found a woman interested in science
Great way to sell as new genre – so important that even housewives want to write it – seems like great marketing to me now

And Claire Winger Harris was not alone.
One of the myths that we carry about history of sf – either that women weren’t writing SF between Shelley and Le Guin or if they were they had to published as men to survive male dominated field
I was surprised when I went to archives – most women published under feminine names – they often used pseudonyms or they would use multiple names but men did the same thing – this was just a strategy by genre writers and still used today – ask any sf writer and they’ll tell you – sf doesn’t pay as much money so you end up doing a lot of writing and you don’t want to flood the market with too much product so you will see ppl using pseudonyms
The majority – easily 90% of women I looked at – were publishing under female names. The places where they use male names it tends to be prompted outside sf community. Famous eg is Catherine Lucille Name who went by CL Moore and Andre Norton . Alice Mary Norton
Changed names for other reasons – Moore was working at bank and she knew she would lose her day job if they found it out she had a second paying job – so she kept it secret
Norton had gone into the publishing industry writing young boys adventure stories and as that kind of writer she had been encouraged to change her name – by the time she got to the sf community everyone knew she was a woman but she has established enough cache under how other name

So there are a huge number of forgotten voices of the pulp fiction era. Many of them are forgotten because, well, their work was instantly forgettable. The pulps were churned out and quality could very a lot. But so many of the great sf writers, male and female, got their start and honed their skills in this early period of the genre.
And the pulps have a clear and important legacy today.
Firstly, there’s that sense of hope and optimism, the feeling you get in early sf that science and technology can truly be used to improve society, that humanity can work together towards a better future. Something we really need in today facing, together, a deeply uncertain future of climate change.
For a long time that’s what sf was about and after WWII when we became more sceptical about the benevolence of science and tech we started drifting towards more dystopian story telling but I think we are started to see that return to that utopian thrust that we see in early pulp mags

Not about a naïve gee whiz let’s just build the right tech and stop global warming kinds of optimism but that optimism that we can work together to build better futures even if it’s a long and slow and complicated process
Another legacy of the pulps is the artwork. It’s so distinctive (and I’ll put some pulp covers and links on the website for you to have a look at some of the amazing artwork).
Frank R Paul and Margaret Brundage – some people make fun of it – it can tend towards cheesiness – gigantic aliens holding naked women or gigantic women holding little men but it can be marvellous showing landscapes and spacescapes
Yeah it can be pretty ridiculous sometimes but if you think of comic books and graphic novels, of album cover art or the costumes and scenography in so much science fiction film and tv, you realise how much of an influence this artwork has actually had.
And then, finally, there’s you (well, maybe – I’m assuming if you’re listening to this episode you’re a fan of science fiction, whether that’s film or fiction or comics or anything else).
And a huge legacy of the pulps is in the fans – in the creation of the sf community, a community that’s like no other really.
Issue 1 of AS Gernsback said we’re starting a new kind of sf, and issue 2 he said were going to have fans groups – you’re going to be involved, you’re going to comment of the stories, were going to have clubs were going to explore the genre – fans took that really seriously
Frankly I think G was looking for a cheerleading squad himself
Fans loved that idea of being part of the genre
And we see that in the case of massive fan conventions, fans ability to get tv shows back on the air, meet with each other and do amazing kinds of work with the genre and beyond the genre.

So, 93 years after the publication of Amazing Stories the science fiction tales – by men and women – published in small, disposable, ragged-edged magazines – on paper so cheap you could see the woodgrain – have had quite the legacy. They truly are an essential part of the global language that is science fiction.

That’s it for another week of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening. At the end of that introduction to the first issue of Amazing Stories Hugo Gernsback wrote:
How good this magazine will be in the future is up to you. Read Amazing Stories—get your friends to read it and then write us what you think of it. We will welcome constructive criticism
And, well, I feel exactly the same. Tell your friends about this podcast, get in touch with ideas and feedback. Help me make this show even better.
WTTE on facebook and Instagram, you can email me, or I’m on Twitter @cedreid. And there’s the website, wttepodcast.com – home of links, pictures, full transcripts, all previous episodes and more.

And, of course, another way you could help would be by making a small contribution on the Patreon crowd-funding page. I have another generous new Patron this week – thank you Emma, I really, truly appreciate it!
If you want to add your name to my growing list of wonderful people, magnanimous patrons of the arts, then head to Patreon.com/wtte or click the link on the WTTE website

Special thanks this week to my wonderful guest Prof Lisa Yaszek. There’s more information about Prof Yaszek on website as well as links to both her anthologies of women’s sf – Sisters of Tomorrow and The Future is Female. I would highly recommend both. All the authors mentioned in the show today are in these two anthologies.

Music this week was by the fantastic Cloud Castle Lake. Their debut album Malingerer is great, I highly recommend you check it out. There are links on the WTTE site to their music too.

And that’s about everything for this week. We are coming up on WTTE episode #30 pretty soon. I’m planning something a little different for the big 3-0 – detail tbc.
See you in two weeks.

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