Astonishing Stories

Astonishing Stories was an American pulp science fiction magazine, published by Popular Publications between 1940 and 1943. It was founded under Popular's "Fictioneers" imprint, which paid lower rates than Popular's other magazines. The magazine's first editor was Frederik Pohl, who also edited a companion publication, Super Science Stories. After nine issues Pohl was replaced by Alden H. Norton, who subsequently rehired Pohl as an assistant. The budget for Astonishing was very low, which made it difficult to acquire good fiction, but through his membership in the Futurians, a group of young science fiction fans and aspiring writers, Pohl was able to find material to fill the early issues. The magazine was successful, and Pohl was able to increase his pay rates slightly within a year. He managed to obtain stories by writers who subsequently became very well known, such as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. After Pohl entered the army in early 1943, wartime paper shortages led Popular to cease publication of Astonishing. The final issue was dated April of that year.

The magazine was never regarded as one of the leading titles of the genre, but despite the low budget it published some well-received material. Science fiction critic Peter Nicholls comments that "its stories were surprisingly good considering how little was paid for them",[1] and this view has been echoed by other historians of the field.

Publication history

Although science fiction had been published before the 1920s, it did not begin to coalesce into a separately marketed genre until the appearance in 1926 of Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine published by Hugo Gernsback. By the end of the 1930s the field was booming,[2] and several new sf magazines were launched in 1939.[3] Frederik Pohl, a young science fiction reader, was looking for a job that year. He visited Robert Erisman, who was the editor of two pulps, Marvel Science Stories and Dynamic Science Stories, to ask for a job as an assistant.[4] Erisman turned him down, but suggested that Pohl contact Rogers Terrill at Popular Publications, a leading pulp publisher. Erisman had heard that Popular was starting a new line of magazines, and thought that they might be interested in adding a science fiction title.[5] On October 25, 1939, Pohl visited Terrill and persuaded him to give the idea a try, and left Terrill's office having been hired, at the age of nineteen, to edit two new magazines,[6] on a salary of ten dollars per week.[7][notes 1] One was Super Science Stories; the other was at one point intended to be titled Incredible Stories, but ultimately appeared as Astonishing Stories.[6][9]

Popular was uncertain of the sales potential for the two new titles and decided to publish them under its Fictioneers imprint, which was used for lower-paying magazines.[6][10] Astonishing's first issue was dated February 1940; it was bimonthly, alternating monthly with Super Science Stories.[4] Pohl's budget for an issue was $405: in Pohl's memoirs he recalls Harry Steeger, one of the company owners, breaking down the budget for him: "Two hundred seventy-five dollars for stories. A hundred dollars for black and white art. Thirty dollars for a cover."[11] Pohl could only offer half a cent per word for fiction, well below the rates offered by the leading magazines.[6][12][notes 2] At ten cents, the magazine was cheaper than any of the other sf magazines of the day,[1] and it sold well, despite Pohl's limited resources.[4] It was certainly assisted by Popular's wide and effective distribution network, and the publisher soon increased Pohl's budget, to pay bonuses for popular stories.[4][notes 3] Pohl later commented that he was uncertain whether the additional funds really helped to bring in higher quality submissions, although at the time he assured Steeger it would improve the magazine.[15] Some of the additional money went to long-time writer Ray Cummings, who was sufficiently well known that the young Pohl felt unable to reject his stories, even though he disliked his work. Cummings came to see Pohl in person to submit his work, and refused to sell for less than one cent a word; since the first visit came on a day when Pohl had some extra money available, Pohl was never able to bring himself to tell Cummings that he could not really afford to pay that rate. Pohl comments in his memoirs that "for months he would turn up regularly as clockwork and sell me a new story; I hated them all, and bought them all."[16]

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
1940 1/1 1/2 1/3 1/4 2/1 2/2
1941 2/3 2/4 3/1 3/2
1942 3/3 3/4 4/1 4/2
1943 4/3 4/4
Issues of Astonishing Stories, showing volume/issue number. The colors
identify the editors for each issue: Frederik Pohl until September 1941,
and Alden H. Norton for the remaining issues.

Pohl stretched his budget by reducing the space he needed to fill with fiction. For example, a long letter column took up several pages but required no payment; similarly, running advertisements for Popular's other magazines did not use up the fiction budget. Some authors sent inaccurate word counts with the stories they submitted, and Popular saved money by paying them on the basis of whichever word count was less—the author's or one done by Popular's staff. The result was a saving of forty to fifty dollars per issue. More money was saved by reusing snipped elements of black and white illustrations to fill space, as multiple uses of the same artwork did not require additional payments to the artist.[17]

Towards the end of 1940 Popular doubled Pohl's salary to twenty dollars per week.[7][notes 4] In June 1941 Pohl went to see Steeger to ask for a further raise; he was planning to resign and work as a free-lance writer if he did not get more pay. Steeger, in Pohl's words, "had complaints of his own", and was not receptive; by the end of the meeting Pohl had lost his job as editor. Pohl later commented "I have never been sure whether I quit or got fired."[19][notes 5] Instead of replacing Pohl, Popular assigned editor-in-chief Alden H. Norton to add the magazines to his responsibilities. The arrangement lasted for seven months, after which Norton asked Pohl to return as his assistant.[4] Norton offered Pohl a higher salary as an associate editor than he had received as the editor, and Pohl quickly accepted.[21]

Pohl was not eligible to be drafted for military service as he was married, but by the end of 1942 his marriage was over and he decided to enlist. As voluntary enlistment was suspended he was unable to immediately join the army, but eventually was inducted on April 1, 1943.[22] Paper was difficult to obtain because of the war, and Popular decided to close the magazine down; the final issue, dated April 1943, was assembled with the assistance of Ejler Jakobsson.[23][24][notes 6]

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