Author: Amy C. Chambers
The cover art for the Unsettling Scientific Stories project is taken from original cover art created by Arnold Kohn for the August 1947 edition of Amazing Stories (vol.21, iss.8). I proposed it as a suitable image to represent the project as it communicates the awesome power of science. The figure is both frightened and in awe of the power he holds in his hand: the potential of science, and specifically in this cover, the potential that atomic science has in the hands of humanity. Trying to find an image to represent a project that spans more than 100 years is not an easy task. But the idea that science has been looked upon, feared, respected, and misused is one that weaves its way throughout the project. Kohn’s art for Amazing Stories communicated an idea rather than a story. Unsettling Scientific Stories is of course about stories, and some very specific stories (especially once the Newcastle team move into running and analysing SF reading groups!) but it is also about how ideas about science were communicated through text and image.
What about the women? In the search for a suitable image I was, as a researcher of women of STEM in fiction, intending to use an image that reflected the diversity of the project. But women don’t do so well on the covers of pulp fiction magazine and novels, and I have yet to find a cover with a person of colour (c.1920-1950). Women tend to be damsels, test subjects, wearing conical metal space bras (technical term), or totally inappropriate clothing for their science-based activities. So. Many. Bikinis. Women are rarely represented as positive scientific figures but rather as objects to be saved, sliced, or scared of. That wasn’t how I wanted the project to appear. I hope you agree. But it is something I will be exploring as part of my wider project looking at the projected futures of women and minorities in SF, and the representation these people in a broader range of science-based fictions.
SF magazine covers were often the first thing potential readers would see in a crowd of other titles at the newsstand. They were, as John Cheng notes in his book Astounding Wonder, ‘vital in proclaiming a pulp’s public’ as they visualised the magazine’s tone, content, and attitudes to science and technology. The image from Amazing Stories that we are currently using communicates a sense of wonder and fear at the promise of atomic science. In context (on the front of the magazine) the image is accompanied by text and taglines: the cover story Rog Phillip’s ‘So Shall Ye Reap!’ comes with the ominous tagline ‘the ghastly future of man if he uses the Atom for war!’ instantly tingeing the picture with negativity. War, or rather humanity’s proclivity for it, is blamed for progressing science towards technologies of death rather than advances that benefit humankind.
This commercial art was an integral part of the SF pulp magazine of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Pulp publications were designed to be read quickly and then discarded. During their period of production there was a tension over what constituted art – although this is of course an ongoing discussion (that I am not getting into here). This type of popular art was often disparaged and, for the (often) classically trained artists producing it there was little reason to sign or clearly define the work as their own. What is now an important and fascinating element of American popular culture was for many artists at the time a source of embarrassment. But it was an important source of income in depression, wartime, and postwar America that has, for many artists, become their defining artistic output. Pulp art is often recognisable by its tight composition and clear characters ‘over-acting to sell their moment of peril to passersby’. Colours were bright, solid, and often showed brush strokes indicating the speed at which cover art was sometimes produced.
Frank R. Paul is one of the most recognisable and famous pulp SF magazine illustrators. His art appeared in several periodicals including Fantastic Adventures, Wonder Stories, Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. Paul worked closely with Amazing Stories editor Hugo Gernsback who began publishing the magazine in 1926 following the success of his non-fiction magazine Science and Invention (1913-1929), which encouraged scientific curiosity and amateur experimentation, and featured articles about contemporary science, imagined future science, and serialised some scientific fiction (‘scientifiction’). Ray Bradbury once said: ‘Paul’s fantastic covers for Amazing Stories changed my life forever’ – his artwork was often produced for a specific cover story rather than sold as a stock image to a magazine editor. His work reflected the attitude to science that Gernsberg promoted through his publications and the pair worked together across a range of publications from 1914.
Science Fiction magazines capitalised on the fears of the Atomic Age and publishers released reams of stories about anxieties concerning nuclear disasters, radioactive monsters, advancing technology, and aliens. By 1953 there were more than 35 SF magazines in circulation in US that attracted a huge readership. Amazing Stories was the first of the magazines devoted to SF and advocated for the genre to be recognised as a category of literature with its roots in the works of Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, and Edgar Allan Poe. Hugo Gernback, Amazing Stories’ founder, regarded these SF magazines as a form of instructional entertainment that could be used to popularise science. In an era when cinema was heavily regulated and censored in Britain and North America, SF magazines had limited censorship (usually in-house) and could show images and present unsettling scientific stories that were considered inappropriate for the big screen.
The ‘branding’ for the project may change in the future to reflect the developing needs of the project – but for an opening image I hope you agree that it offers an interesting discussion point and a visualisation of the way science fiction magazine, at least, chose to imagine an unsettling scientific future.
I couldn’t resist including some more of the cover art I found whilst putting this post together. Enjoy!
I love the painting of cyborg redhead, it’s beautiful. But the story tagline sort of ruins it… [Tagline: Treachery had red hair and soft curves]
I also love this atomic lady (look at her future phone!) – but again, problematic. [Tagline: An evil matriarchy guides an unwitting world to its doom!]