Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tall Girls Represent!

If you browse through the science fiction bookshelf at Project Gutenberg, you can find a number of complete issues of Astounding Stories of Super-Science from its first year of publication.  I've spent some time browsing through the stories from those collections, but until I saw this post at Marooned, I hadn't realized that I was missing something awesome: the letters to the editor*.

Readers provided feedback about the stories, discussed the fictional science and technology, and provided suggestions as to how the pulp magazine's format could be improved (14-year-old Forrest J Ackerman thought it should be larger). It's interesting to see that the same discussions have been going on for generations.

But what really made me smile were the letters from the girls.  Even eighty years ago science fiction wasn't just for boys.

In the May 1930 issue, Ruth Miller of Cleveland wrote:
Saw your new magazine at the newsstand and bought it at once. I like the following stories in this issue: "The Beetle Horde," "Phantoms of Reality," "The Stolen Mind." I did not care much for the others, and least of all for "Tanks."

I believe that readers, like myself, who are interested in scientific fantasies, prefer stories of interplanetary travels and fourth dimensional stories, and variations of these themes. Such as various space-ships and vibration machines for visiting other planets and traveling backward and forward in time. Stories of lost continents and of strange races of people living in unknown places on our own Earth are interesting also.

A magazine of this kind has unlimited possibilities for stories of the aforementioned types, and I believe that readers who buy magazines of these subjects expect to find therein really Astounding Stories.
Hard to argue with that.

Sue O'Bara's letter in the September 1930 issue was give the headline "From the Other Sex":
You'll be surprised to hear from a girl, as I notice only boys wrote to praise your new magazine. I tried reading some of the Science Fiction magazines my brother buys every month but I'd start reading a story only to leave it unfinished. But your magazine is different. When I picked it up to read it I thought I'd soon throw it down and read something else, but the moment I started to read one of the stories of your new magazine I read it to the finish. I never read such vivid and exciting stories. Even my brother who loves all kinds of Science Fiction magazines couldn't stop praising your new magazine. He said Astounding Stories beats them all.
[. . .]
Will recommend your new magazine to all my friends.
I wonder if Sue convinced her friends to become Astounding readers?

The next month, in a letter published in the October 1930 issue, Josephine Frankhouser of Philadelphia shared her interest in both science and science fiction:

I am only a young girl sixteen years of age but am greatly interested in science. I have no master mind by any means, but have worked out many a difficult problem in school for my science prof. Your magazine is a wiz. I haven't missed an instalment since it started. Give us more stories like "Monsters of Moyen," and "The Beetle Horde."
The Beetle Horde - a story about giant beetles trying to take over the world - seems to have been quite popular.  It sounds like the precursor to SyFy's "big critters gone bad" movies.

But it's 18-year-old Gertrude Hemken of Chicago who really won my heart with her letter in the March 1931 issue. She's responding to a previous letter by a Mr. Johnston, who complains that the science in the stories is so bad that only "a young child or a moron" could "read and enjoy such futile nonsense". Gertrude takes him to task:
And if Mr. Johnston of Newark believes us who like [Astounding Stories] to be morons, why let's be morons! for when ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise. I'd like to inform this highly intelligent person that our mag is dealing with pure Science Fiction, and why should any author go into detail describing how cities are made to float and why invisible cloaks are invisible? Why, if every paragraph were broken off to let us know how this or that is possible, I'm sure we'd all be yawning and nodding over the magazine, and finally discard it entirely in search of something more to our liking!
Why waste your time, Mr. Johnston, telling us you don't like A. S.? Just don't purchase it, if it isn't to your liking. We're satisfied with what we have.
What if the stories are like fairy tales? Isn't all fiction more or less of a fairy tale? I want Mr. Johnston to get this point: what we want is fiction, pure Science Fiction and not instructions. We read A. S. as a pleasure. We do not have to be scientists just because we are interested in science!
Learning how to determine latitude by using a sextant is Senta Osoling, student at Polytechnic High School, Los Angeles, Calif. Navigation classes are part of the school's program for training its students for specific contributions to the war effort (LOC
A great response to a cranky-pants like Mr. Johnston.  I may complain about the science (or lack thereof) in SF stories, but I nevertheless am entertained - I wouldn't bother to read or watch otherwise.

After detailing the stories she's enjoyed, Gertrude makes plea for some female characters who aren't sweet little things:
Another word to ye Authors: Please do not always have the girls in your stories such sweet little bundles of humanity. Aren't there any tall girls in your imaginations? Please give us tall girls a break once in a while. It makes me feel better. Thanks.
Amen to that!

I wonder if the Ruths and Sues and Gertrudes who were science fiction fans 80 years ago continued reading the pulps into adulthood, or if they gave them up along with the other trappings of their youth. I like to imagine that they continued to enjoy a space fantasy story now and then, and eventually passed on the love of science fiction to their daughters or nieces or students.

* I also like the ads. Where else could you find answers to burning questions like "Why is Listerine to be found in the offices of a majority of American business men? Why do they use it at the noon hour? Why do they sometimes halt important meetings, to gargle with it?", while ordering "French Love Drops" and "Learning to Play Hawaiian Guitar Like the Hawaiians!"

 (Post at Marooned via SF Signal)


  1. What a nice, pleasant reading. Thank you for this posting.

  2. Thanks for the mention!


  3. Some went on to be science fiction writers. I don't know if they wrote Letters to the Editor, but I know that C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, among others, started out as sf fans.


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