It was a time of great hope and great imagination, a time when anything could happen, a time of boundless dreams and limitless adventure. It was 1930s America, the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
Of course, the 1930s in America was also a time of great want, desperation, and privation. But perhaps it was the very real crisis of the Great Depression that made the science fiction genre so appealing to so many people. If one could posit a future utopian society, then maybe there was hope on the horizon for a better tomorrow, hope that millions of people nationwide held close to their hearts.
Although science fiction had really been "born" in the latter part of the nineteenth century through the immortal works of such brilliant writers as Jules Verne and, later, Herbert George (H. G.) Wells, the genre really reached its peak in the pulp magazines of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. For one thin dime, readers could be transported to the far future or to the edge of the galaxy, and could encounter strange new beings and situations that were far removed from their everyday reality.
In the pages of such classic periodicals as Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Fantastic Adventures, Wonder Stories, and Argosy, pulp writers called 'fictioneers', spun fantastic tales of adventure on other worlds and in other times. Whether or not you've read any of their stories, you're no doubt familiar with at least some of the names that first saw print in those cheaply-published dime novels: names like Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, E. E. "Doc" Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Jack Williamson, and L. Ron Hubbard, to name just a few.
Buck Rogers got his start in the pulps (in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories), as did Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars, who took his first bow in the pages of Argosy's February 1912 issue. Edmund Hamilton rocketed us into the deepest reaches of outer space with Captain Future, while Doc Savage built and utilized gadgets decades ahead of his time, including the first telephone answering machine, night vision goggles, and a car with automatic transmission, as much the province of science fiction in their day as time travel is to us. Although the form was often labeled trash by literary sophisticates, it was always widely read: an anecdote related in Jim Sterankos History of Comics, Volume I tells the tale of a Connecticut school teacher who complained that 90% of the students were confirmed pulpaholics. Trash or not, the pulps were king of the newsstands for several decades.
Pulps were popular from the 1930s through the 50s, holding their own even after the introduction of their chief rival, comic books, in the early 1930s. By the mid-1950s, however, pulp publication came to an end, no longer able to compete with the new technology called television. Fortunately, however, many of the best stories from the Golden Age of Science Fiction have been kept alive through hardcover and paperback collections throughout the years, thrilling new generations of fans.
For those of us who love pulp fiction (the stories, not the movie), we're lucky to be living in the midst of a pulp renaissance. There's more reprinted pulp material available today than ever before, from a myriad of publishers.