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Who Really Shaped American Science Fiction?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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Treating science fiction, critics have taught us to understand that the field shrugged itself out of the swamp of its pulp origins in two great evolutionary metamorphoses, each associated with a uniquely visionary magazine editor: Hugo Gernsback and John W. Campbell Jr. Paul Carter, to cite one critic among many, makes a case that Hugo Gernsback's magazines were the first to suggest that

science fiction was not only legitimate extrapolation… [but] might even become a positive incentive to discovery, inspiring some engineer or inventor to develop in the laboratory an idea he had first read about in one of the stories. (5)

Another, critic and author Isaac Asimov, argues that science fiction's fabled

Golden Age began in 1938, when John Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories and remolded it, and the whole field, into something closer to his heart's desire. During the Golden Age, he and the magazine he edited so dominated science fiction that to read Astounding was to know the field entire. (Before the Golden Age, xii)

Critics arrive at such understandings not only by surveying the field but also — perhaps more importantly — by studying, accepting, modifying, or even occasionally rejecting the work of other critics. This indirect and many-voiced conversation is usually seen as a self-correcting process, an informal yet public peer review. Such interested scrutiny has driven science fiction (SF) criticism to evolve from the letters to the editor and editorials and mimeographed essays of the past to the nuanced literary history of today, just as, this literary history states, those firm-minded editors helped SF literature evolve from the primordial fictions of Edgar Rice Burroughs into the sophisticated constructs of William S. Burroughs.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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