Isaac Asimov on adventure, pulp, and Shakespeare.

Besides sporting imposing sideburns and writing a few books, Isaac Asimov also lent his name to various magazines and products. One of them, mostly unknown compared to the more familiar Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, was Asimov’s Adventure Science Fiction Magazine. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived publication, with only four issues between late 1978 and late 1979.

Nonetheless, Asimov’s Adventure is quite an interesting case because adventure is probably not the word most people would associate with Asimov. Then again, most people wouldn’t associate him with books about Shakespeare or lecherous limericks either. My suspicion is that he enjoyed reading adventure stories, but wasn’t good at writing them or, simply, preferred other genres (in fact, he was most prolific in the non-fiction department.)

Perhaps riding the wave of fantasy and science fiction that both D&D (the first issue has a full-page ad for the game, and the second issue one for Gamma World) and Star Wars had started, the magazine offered science fiction but promising a focus on adventure. These were the stories in the first issue:

Captive of the Centaurianess, by Poul Anderson, with this awesome drawing by Alex Schomburg

Asimov's adventure dragon

Through Time & Space with Ferdinand Feghoot, by Grendel Briarton

Bystander, by Alan Dean Foster

The Test Tube, by Ray Russell

Where Now is Thy Brother, Epimetheus? by Jesse Peel

Fair Exchange? by Isaac Asimov (not a very adventurous story, to be honest.)

Centerspread, by Paul Alexander

-The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! by Harry Harrison

I’m not interested in the stories (although I always enjoy some Stainless Steel Rat) but in the editorials, written by Asimov. They are short editorials, not academic papers, but they are forgotten pieces of an equally forgotten history, so I will transcribe them because I’m sure some readers with an interest in the history of science fiction (or how Asimov saw that history) will find these editorials interesting.

Adventure! by Isaac Asimov

The adventure story has a long and honorable history.

The history couldn’t very well be any longer than it is, since it is hard to believe that the stories upon over the campfires of Stone Age people were anything but adventure stories of marvelous hunts and of the cracking of skulls of enemies.

The earliest myths we gather from the various primitive cultures on Earth tell of the daring adventures of the gods and of the battles among them. Even the God of the Bible may have had such a history. There are traces in the Bible of primitive tales recounting how the creation of an ordered universe followed only after a battle to the death with the forces of chaos.

In Psam 74, we may have an echo of that early cosmic battle: “Thou didst divide the sea by thy strength; thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters. Thou brakest the heads of leviathan in pieces.”

Nor could the history of the adventure story be any more honorable than it is.

The oldest intact works of fiction in Western literature are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and what are they but adventure stories? The former is a rousing war story, the latter a thrilling travel tale.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t say that the Iliad and the Odyssey are just adventure stories. Critics have found a great deal more to them than that. Still, it is the adventure aspect of each that spelled survival and popularity, even today.

The most popular bits in the Iliad have always been the battle scenes —especially the climatic duel between Hector and Achilles, with the audience torn apart because Homer’s genius led him to divide audience sympathies almost equally between the two heroes.

And the most popular bits in the Odyssey are the macabre adventures that Odysseus recounts at the court of the Phaenicians, particularly that episode in the cave of Polyphemus, the man-eating, ogrish Cyclops.

Ever since Homer, adventure tales have fascinated human beings and have therefore endured. The medieval tales of King Arthur—the fantasies of the Arabian Nights— the blood and thunder of Shakespeare.

Blood and thunder? Yes, indeed. Shakespeare may be the standard for all that is lofty in literature—but the fact is he wrote for the popular taste and was criticized for that both in his time and afterward. He had fighting and hacking all over the place. In King Lear, one of the characters has his eyes gouged out right on stage; and in Titus Andronicus, we have rape, mutilation, and cannibalism. Science fiction is no stranger to the adventure story. Verne’s stories were primarily tales of thigh adventure, however careful he might have been to include bits of justifying science lectures.

And, of course, once the science fiction magazines appeared on the scene, adventure reigned supreme for decades. Hugo Gernsback used to argue that science fiction was an educational force; and so it is in my opinion, but only secondarily. What the readers wanted was adventure in the first place and that’s what they got.

Although first Amazing Stories and then Wonder Stories tried, unsuccessfully, to maintain a certain loftiness, making use of footnotes, science quizzes, and so on, they didn’t stay on top of the heap. In 1930 there appeared Astounding Stories, which was unabashedly adventure-oriented, and which quickly took over the leadership of the field.

In 1937, John Campbell became editor of Astounding Stories, changed its name to Astounding Science Fiction, and moved it away from adventure; but by that time Wonder Stories had become Thrilling Wonder Stories and had moved toward adventure.

In 1939, there came a science fiction magazine boom, and new magazines of all kinds suddenly made their appearance on the newsstand. In December 1939, Planet Stories appeared. it was, in some ways, the best of the adventure science fiction magazine of its time.

But if there are science fiction magazine booms, there are also science fiction magazine busts; and—all too often—the higher the boom, the deeper the bust. A particularly intense boom came in the early 1950s; and in the particularly intense bust that followed, both Thrilling Wonder Stories and Planet Stories discontinued publication in 1955.

With that, somehow, adventure science fiction dwindled. The magazines that survived the vicissitudes of the time, such as Analog, F&SF, and Galaxy did no concentrate on adventure primarily. Nor does the new, but already clearly successful, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.

Why is this?

For one thing, the science fiction readership has changed. Back int he 1920s and 1930s, science fiction readers were almost universally under eighteen and the magazine were geared to them.

Many youngsters dropped out of science fiction as they grew older, but not all did; and the median age of the readership has risen speedily. Increasingly after World Ward II, the growing percentage of older readers influence the field so that science fiction had to mature as well.

Secondly, not only were there more older readers but there were fewer younger ones, as first comic magazines and then television came along to compete for the allegiance of the young.

And as an accident of history, false definitions have been made. ‘Adventure’ has come to mean ‘pulp’ and both have come to mean ‘bad writing.’

The early magazines between the two World Wars were called ‘pulp’ because of the paper they used. Those pulp magazines needed many stories and paid low rates so they couldn’ be too choosy in what they accepted. Writers had to write many stories to meet the demand and make a living.

Hurried writing is usually lurid and clumsy, and those were the characteristics that left their mark on pulp fiction. Perhaps 90 percent of pulp writing was like that; but then, as Ted Sturgeon said, 90 percent of everything is bad.

But that still leaves 10 percent that is good, and well-written adventure can be very effective indeed.

Then, too, ‘adventure’ has come to mean ‘kids,’ because the early magazines were youngster-oriented. Surely, though, it doesn’t make much thought to see that well-written adventure stories can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.

It is with that thought in mind that Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine is being brought out.

We want to fill the void left by the demise of magazines such as Planet Stories. We want to meet the needs of at least some of the vast number who discovered Star Wars in the movies, who enjoyed it, and who are ready to look for something of the same sort, or better, in print.

Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine is dedicated to adventure or it wouldn’t bear the name it does, but not to adventure at any cost. As far as we can, it is our intention to supply well-written adventure science fiction by authors who are not ignorant of science. Our stories will have action, but not at the expense of science or of writing skill.

Can we do it?

It would be foolish to guarantee success. These are precarious times for magazines generally, and the tight-rope is difficult to walk.

We must hope that our distribution is sufficiently efficient, that we can find the writers who will supply the material we need, and that we discover that our estimate of readership is reasonably accurate.

What we know we have are a reliable publisher, an experienced staff, and a great deal of determination.

So we’ll start with this first issue and see if we can’t use it to convince enough of you that ‘adventure’ and ‘good’ can be adjectives that are not at war with each other, that ‘adventure’ and ‘intelligent’ are adjectives that can be applied to the same story, that ‘adventure’ and ‘let’shave-more’ can reinforce each other and lead to success.

Next editorial

6 thoughts on “Isaac Asimov on adventure, pulp, and Shakespeare.

  1. Pingback: “Asimov’s adventure” editorials II – The Frisky Pagan

  2. Pingback: Asimov’s Adventure editorials III: on mythology, sword & sorcery, and economists. – The Frisky Pagan

  3. Pingback: Asimov’s Adventure editorials IV: Hollywood, movies, and pew-pew sci-fi. – The Frisky Pagan

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