After the Hugos is before the next Hugos, so I’m continuing my Non-Fiction Spotlight project, where I interview the authors/editors of SFF-related non-fiction books that come out in 2022 and are eligible for the 2023 Hugo Awards. For more about the Non-Fiction Spotlight project, go here. To check out the spotlights I already posted, go here.
For more recommendations for SFF-related non-fiction, also check out this Facebook group set up by the always excellent Farah Mendlesohn, who is a champion (and author) of SFF-related non-fiction.
Today’s featured book takes us back to the early years of the genre and Hugo Gernsback’s cover contests in Amazing Stories in the late 1920s.
Therefore, I am pleased to welcome to my blog Steve Davidson, editor of the present day Amazing Stories as well as of Cents of Wonder: Science Fiction’s First Award Winners, as well as co-editor and creative director Kermit Woodall and Lloyd Penney, who handled the proofing.
Responses to Cora’s questions were offered by all three individuals involved in creating this book – Steve Davidson, publisher, Kermit Woodall, Creative Director and Lloyd Penney, proofing. Each responded individually and their answers were combined by Steve, so some repetition is unavoidable.
Tell us about your book.
Kermit Woodall (KW) Cents of Wonder is a unique collection of the first science-fiction stories to win an award.
Steve Davidson (SD) It’s an anthology of all of the stories to win, place or receive honorable mention from the very first two writing contests ever held in the field of science fiction.
The stories represent the first attempts by new, previously unpublished authors to understand the requirements of the new genre of “scientifiction” and try their hands at delivering on concepts that had not yet been articulated – creating the suspension of disbelief and rewarding that with a sense of wonder.
As such, we regard it not just as an anthology, but as a tool, useful for SF historians, academics in the field and a no-pressure way to introduce new readers in the field to some of its important developmental history. These are the stories that would inspire following generations of famous SF writers, who would themselves go on to write works that excited, inspired and informed the authors we read today.
Cents of Wonder was also conceived as a fun way to utilize archived material, collected and presented in a way not previously published, that would allow us to exercise our skills, experiment with various concepts and create something “cool”.
KW: Part of my work was to carefully restore the original artwork to accompany the stories. This required more than scans, a great deal of hand-restoration was required and AI tools as well.
Tell us a little about yourself
SD: Well, as many know, I was lured into the trap of science fiction by the television show Fireball XL5 and never looked back. (Well, except for the 35 years I spent as a professional paintball player, during which time I was named Paintball Person of the Year for 1992 and declared a Top 100 Player of All Time in 1999.)
I managed to get involved with fandom in the early 70s, attending some of the first ever Star Trek conventions, ultimately managing the Hugo Awards Banquet at Suncon in 1977.
Along the way I’ve published and contributed to fanzines, worked on various conventions and pontificate on the fannish issues of the day, first with my (now defunct) blog The Crotchety Old Fan and now through editorializing on the Amazing Stories website.
Oh, right. In 2008 I applied for and eventually received the trademark(s) for Amazing Stories, with no intention other than making sure the name remained in fannish hands. (It was fated to become the title for a series of Canadian travel books. Fortunately, that applicant dropped their application, clearing the way for mine.)
I’d theorized that the name could bring in enough licensing fees to support a magazine, a theory that proved true, initially, when we licensed the name to NBC/Universal for Spielberg to use for his reboot of the 1984 series of the same name.
Since then, we have been at loggerheads with NBC over contract breaches. NBC was formally notified of breach and (2nd) termination of the contract a couple of years ago and we are now involved in picking up the pieces.
KW: I’m a writer, artist, and website developer. Both of my parents were artists as well as my sisters. I’ve enjoyed science-fiction starting in my childhood!
Lloyd Penney (LP): I am a long-time science fiction fan, and also long-time professional editor/copyeditor/proofreader, and I was never able to combine the two until about four years ago, when I learned that old friend Ira Nayman had been appointed the editor-in-chief of the newest incarnation of Amazing Stories. I congratulated him, and asked if he needed any help…he said yes, and this new career of mine started.
What prompted you to write/edit this book?
KW: It was Steve’s idea, and once he told me, I was excited about the idea and jumped in fully.
LP: Well, Steve asked…I have enjoyed fannish and SF history, and this book shows off some of what happened at the very beginning.
SD: (That’s right, blame me. You guys ever see a bus you didn’t like? :))
When you are a publisher, you have several major expenses associated with a product and one of them is usually “content”.
Because most other associated expenses can’t be significantly reduced, we needed to find a good way to utilize low-cost and no-cost content. In the case of fiction, that means looking to works that are in the public domain (utilization of which will not piss of its fans).
But we also wanted to utilize PD materials in significant ways that contribute to the field’s knowledge; we’re not happy in just grabbing ahold of a bunch of short SF pieces from Project Gutenberg and filing off the serial numbers. We wanted to collect, organize and comment on specific aspects of the field.
When we realized that Gernsback had conducted two writing contests and that the entrants that were published had never been collected together in one place, we knew we had hit pay dirt.
Why should SFF fans in general and Hugo voters in particular read this book?
SD: Well, the first answer is, of course, that Hugo Voters should be familiar with whatever they choose to vote for – we’re not conducting popularity contests here.
I think that Fans would want to read this book for several reasons. First, all of the stories were written between 1926 and 1929, by (with two exceptions) previously unpublished authors. Anyone just getting started with writing in the field can probably gain a big boost to their resolve (to get published) by reading these contest entries that DID get published.
They’ll also gain a better understanding, I think, of where this field has come from.
And any reader who manages to relax their sensibilities and criticisms long enough to achieve a sense of wonder while reading these stories will be rewarded when they realize that there was a time in our history when each and every one of these tales was not just possible, but plausible.
LP: The history of science fiction and fandom explains to us all why we read what we read, why we do what we do. It is a way to preserve that fabulous past in a modern book, to teach future generations that love this genre. It adds extra dimensions to this love, and the Worldcon gatherings that are of fable and legend.
KW: Historically, it’s priceless. It’s also quite entertaining to see some of the first SFF short stories from nearly 100 years ago.
Do you have any cool facts or tidbits that you unearthed during your research, but that did not make it into the final book?
KW: You’d be better off asking Steve, I’m afraid. I learned everything from him.
SD: Not so much something we didn’t include as anyone who knows me will tell you I tend to over-explain and prefer to transmit ALL of the detail rather than mere summary, but rather an expansion of some things not covered in great detail.
First – every single author’s blurb was accompanied by their street address, something that no one would presume to do these days.
This was done so that readers and other authors could contact them – yes, they were deliberately doxxed by their publisher. This is a small clue into how much things have changed since 1926.
The same information accompanied letters to the editor and is credited with being one of the main contributing factors to the creation of science fiction fandom.
Another elaboration is that Clare Winger Harris is known as the first female author to appear in print under her own name (even though her spelling of it is not the common one).
What is touched on briefly in the book is the fact that Gernsback applauded her efforts and explained in his intro to readers that it was unusual for women to be involved in the scientific and engineering fields, because (not in so many words) enculturation steered them away from such things. For 1927, recognizing this was pretty “woke”.
But there’s more as well. In the letter column in later issues, she plays a fairly prominent role in commenting on and critiquing other authors, and gets mansplained along the way (which ultimately makes the ‘splainer look foolish).
There’s at least one book to be found in the letter columns of the early SF magazines.
SFF-related non-fiction is somewhat sidelined by the big genre awards, since the Nebulas have no non-fiction category and the Best Related Work Hugo category has become something of a grab bag of anything that doesn’t fit elsewhere. So why do you think SFF-related non-fiction is important?
Right now I think the primary reason is because we are rapidly losing interest in and respect for anything and everything that preceded some arbitrary “modern era” date – throwing the baby out with the bathwater, largely (IMO) owing to a broad-spectrum indiscriminate rejection of anything carrying the “taint” of baby-boomerism. (Which many of my era are perceiving as increasingly rampant ageism.)
The human species has one and only one real tool for examining its near term future and that is through the lens of actual experience. This is usually referred to as “history”. Cue Santayana’s quote about repetition.
But also because SF Fandom IS a discrete culture. Fiction from that culture are its artifacts, while non-fiction is its lore and mythology. When a culture loses connection to its lore, it ceases to be a discrete culture.
I do believe that Science Fiction Fandom and its culture is a unique happenstance in history, with values and tenets that are well-worth preserving and passing on to newer generations, who should do what every prior generation of fans has done: keep the good stuff and ignore the rest. But lets be careful about what we ignore.
If you subscribe to some of the literary theories put forth by Gary Westfahl, which can be found fully expressed in his book The Mechanics of Wonder The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction (which I do), you’ll understand completely why non-fiction is so important: in order to have a discrete genre, you need to define its boundaries – this qualifies, that does not – and those boundaries are defined through critique and analysis. Someone says X is a work of Science Fiction, someone else disagrees. In writing out their arguments, we uncover additional nuance in those definitions.
Put another way – non-fiction in this field is a mirror we hold up to ourselves in order to figure out how we’re doing and where we ought to be going. Without it, we are rudderless and dissolute.
LP: It shows us why we do what we do, and illustrates what many fans call timebinding, the collection and display of history of SF.
KW: Many people treat SFF as merely popular fiction and fail to realize there is a rich history in our genre as well. When I was young I read Damon Knight’s THE FUTURIANS about some of the first fan groups. I recently read Alec Nevala-Lee’s group biography ASTOUNDING. It’s compelling stuff.
Are there any other great SFF-related non-fiction works or indeed anything else (books, stories, essays, writers, magazines, films, TV shows, etc…) you’d like to recommend?
KW: (See my previous answer!)
LP: Many of the important works are collectibles in the truest form, but if it were possible to reprint them, I would recommend All Our Yesterdays and A Wealth of Fable, both by Harry Warner, Jr., The Way the Future Was by Fred Pohl, The Eight Stage of Fandom by Robert Bloch, Asimov on Science Fiction by Isaac Asimov…so many more books to consider.
SD: Yes, starting with the Westfahl book (and others of his) previously mentioned.
There seem to be two basic “theories” regarding the genre; one, espoused by Aldiss in his Billion Year Spree essays, which states that SF is merely a continuation of the myth-making that began with writing down the spoken word epic poem of Gilgamesh. The other recognizes that myth and allegory and fable existed previously and may have shared some fantastical elements with a genre we call Science Fiction, but that SF is its own particular, specifically defined and unique thing, with a set of special rules and a body of exemplars, all based on a definition first put forth inside the pages of Amazing Stories magazine in 1926.
It’s sort of like how we use the measure of “horse power” to describe the strength of an engine. We use the analogy, but everyone recognizes full well that really cool, complicated and advanced engineering and technologies are built into that engine.
I would encourage anyone with the slightest interest to read Trillion Year Spree, the Fan History books mentioned, the Westfahl, the many, many excellent histories by Mike Ashley concerning the magazines and those books mentioned by my colleagues. Its all great stuff.
Where can people buy your book?
ALL: It’s available, or soon to be available, through all major eBook stores and in print from Amazon.com
Where can people find you?
Kermit is also a web developer at https://woodalldesign.net/
LP: Mostly on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lloyd.penney.1
SD: On Facebook, on the website and in Florida at the Amazing Stories HQ and the Amazing Stories TV Channel Twitter also.
We’ll also be launching a kickstarter for a new themed issue of the magazine very soon now, with some great authors contributing! Please keep an eye out!
Thank you, Steve, Kermit and Lloyd, for stopping by and answering my questions. Do check out Cents of Wonder: Science Fiction’s First Award Winners for a fascinating look into the early years of our genre.
For The First Time Anywhere!
Pulled straight from the pages of the leading magazines of their age, 14 stories by the people whose imagination, creativity, and scientific acumen helped define the genre that would become known as Science Fiction.
Between 1926 and 1930 Hugo Gernsback hosted the science fiction field’s inaugural writing contests, first in Amazing Stories, and then again in Science Wonder Stories, the genre’s first two magazines devoted entirely to the publication of scientifiction tales.
These are the authors whose tales of wonder and speculation inspired the writers you’re more familiar with, writers such as Asimov, Bradbury, Le Guin, Heinlein, Brackett, Moore, and others.
Before there was science fiction, before there were Fans, before conventions, before comics, before cosplay, these fourteen pioneers stepped off into the unknown of imagination and helped entire generations learn to willingly suspend their disbelief, engage their sense of wonder, and take off for the stars! And they won awards for it!
Are you publishing a work of SFF-related longform non-fiction in 2022 and want it featured? Contact me or leave a comment.