Frank M. Robinson,
Science Fiction of the 20th Century:
An Illustrated History

(Collectors Press, 1999)

Science Fiction of the 20th Century: An Illustrated History is the sort of book that usually gets described as a coffeetable volume: huge, full of pictures, something for your guests to read while you fetch the drinks. But Frank Robinson's History is only a coffeetable book in the sense of being as large as a coffee table. While it is full of lush gorgeous artwork, it's also full of text -- well researched, entertaining, historical text. It can't possibly be read in one setting, and you will want read it. I made the mistake of letting a guest thumb through this book while I went to get the drinks, and wound up having to loan it out for two weeks. And this was with a person who didn't even like science fiction.

It took me some time to loan this one out to people who enjoy science fiction, because I wanted to finish it first. Robinson has not written a terribly light history here. This isn't just a collection of fan factoids; the life of the science fiction is industry is well laid out in chapters sorted more by category than era. The chapter titles the themselves are part of the narrative, as when chapter 2 ("Isn't it Amazing?") is answered by chapter 3 ("No, it's Wonderful!") in reference to the different pulps put out by a single publisher. The story of the storytellers is dramatic enough on its own, as writers and publishers feud, rise to prominence, get forgotten, make alliances and manage to spread their tales through the wildly fluctuating popularity of science fiction. Chronicled here is the rise of Asimov, the birth and death of the pulps and the rise of the paperback, the conquering might of television and movies, and more astoundingly bad business decisions by a wider range of publishers, editors and even fans than sane people should be able to make. The nonchronological arrangement of the chapters sometimes makes the story hard to follow, but it's a minor difficulty. The division of science fiction history by medium comes to seem natural, especially as magazines, books and movies begin to run through the same timeline. Of course, that's assuming you're not distracted by the pretty pictures.

Running alongside Robinson's text is an amazing collection of artwork, covers from magazines that were mostly bought to be thrown away, old paperbacks too cheap for most people to have kept, and even a few pieces that barely made it to the public. The illustrations are almost all magazine and book covers, with a chapter worth of movie posters for good measure. They are, thankfully, all reproduced in a large enough format to be enjoyed. The very beginning of the story magazines are represented by the subtle hues and decidedly old fashioned font treatment of Argosy and Blue Book. The lush, illustrative covers of the pulps of Edgar Rice Burroughs' era are well represented, showcasing artist never schooled to paint an alien giving it a sometimes brilliant try. Pop art puts in an appearance; a 1968 cover from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction shows tastes in art shifting while the magazine holds on to its clumsy 1950s-era title display. There are gorgeous "mood" covers like that of Bug Jack Barron and photorealistic illustrations from Michael Whelan's work for the Pern series. Thee are some genuine rarities, like Hannes Bok's black-and-white cover for Stirring Science Stories, mostly destroyed by clumsy distributors before it touched the stands, and the Analog cover by Kelly Freas showing a man's face in the shadows formed by type.

Title font treatment is as much a part of the art here as the illustrations; the comet style type of Amazing Stories puts in a clearly different time than the bold, clinical look of Analog. For many movie posters, such as the famous THEM!, the title nearly is the illustration. Some of these visions of the future are hilarious in retrospect, like the astronaut in mittens and nearly all of the illustrations of Burroughs' Mars stories. Some must have been ludicrous even at the time of their creation -- the metal bikini-wearing babes can't have represented any honest vision of the future. But every picture here is both impressive artistically and a good representative of some aspect of science fiction history, effectively supporting Robinson's storyline.

Looking through these brightly colored artifacts of the distant and not-too-distant past was a strangely emotional experience for someone who wasn't even born when the first Star Wars movie came out. There's no way I can really feel nostalgia for the lovely tantalizing magazines and pulps advertised by their covers; but I am nostalgic, and awfully envious, too. I want to be able to go into my local bookstore and pick up the latest pulp, full of grab-bag quality science fiction and topped with highly variable cover art. I'm furious with all the old-timers who had this stuff easily accessible and threw it away because, after all, it was easily accessible. I want rich painted covers and experimental artwork, ostentatiously loud titles blaring out from the shelves, instead of the soulless and increasingly common digitally-altered photographs popping up on the covers of publications that ought to know better.

Happily for me, Frank Robinson does something very rare for those chronicling the history of entertainment: he promises that the heyday isn't over. The magazines may be all but gone, but their successor paperbacks show no signs of vanishing. And entire chapters are devoted to the decidedly current mediums of film and television, and Robinson actually treats them as worthy mediums. His closing argument that science fiction has lost its niche market by virtue of having permeated the culture is a heartening one, and hard to argue with in the face of his evidence. Appropriately for a book on science fiction, Robinson leaves us looking forward to the future.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 13 July 2002

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