A Galaxy of Stars

A Galaxy of Stars

galaxy-june-51By the time you read this, you will already have seen the announcement of RosettaBooks’ The Galaxy Project, or so I assume.

Rosetta is preparing to release e-versions of many of the best stories published in Galaxy in its heyday, which is a terrific idea, but is taking it a step further by launching a contest to find a novella or novelette which will, in the words of RosettaBooks CEO Arthur Klebanoff, “carry forth its tradition of outstanding science fiction writing with a new generation of authors.”

So, I hear you ask, what? Whatever might he mean by “tradition?”

Worry not, I live to educate. No, stop edging towards the door and looking at your watch, I know better.

In 1950, two things happened in fairly close proximity: John W. Campbell published a controversial article in the May issue of Astounding, and the first issue of Galaxy Science Fiction appeared on the newsstands in October. These two events were important in their own rights (for vastly different reasons), but there was a synchronicity – one might almost say a serendipity – at play that could be seen to have made a major change in the SF publishing scene at the time.

astounding-dianeticsThere were rumblings in the field in those days, and I’m not talking about cattle producing methane. Astounding was still the top market, but only just. 1949 had seen the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (well, just The Magazine of Fantasy at the beginning), which began a quiet subversion of Astounding‘s dominance that was compounded by the more brash Galaxy.

John Campbell was a shrewd editor, a working writer himself who knew the process and could communicate well with his contributors. As king of the stfnal hill, he felt it necessary to explore, to examine, to stretch his intellect to the limit in order to remain conversant with not only established science, but its frontiers and fringes as well. He did this with an eagerness that would eventually alienate (heh) many of his stable.

One of the final straws was that controversial – and ultimately divisive – article that ran, with his hearty endorsement, in the May issue of that pivotal year. It was L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics: The Evolution of a Science,” and its appearance was the cause of a great deal of head-scratching by readers and writers alike, much of it quite negative.

(Campbell would go on to make matters worse by embracing further crackpottery such as the Dean drive and psionics, but this was the Astounding family’s first real clue that they might actually be better off somewhere else quick, before any of it rubbed off on them.)

fsf1A bit of history here, and get that glassy-eyed expression off your face, youngster. Back in the day, Campbell’s Astounding (ASF from here on) was da bomb. If you could sell to ASF, especially on a regular basis, you were in like a K’zin. It was the top market, the one almost all of the pulpsters aspired to.

All the best sf writers submitted to him (in both senses of the word), and were willing to conform to his personal guidelines if it meant a sale. This led to a lot of good writers writing a lot of good stories, but it also led to a good deal of writerly dental gnashing, and a certain degree of unrest.

In-breeding isn’t terribly good for any organism, publishing markets included. After a while, no matter how much latitude an editor might give his authors, it’s still one editor at one magazine, and that editor’s style is eventually going to go stale.

If you add an assistant with decidedly puritanical tastes to the mix, you’re going to end up antagonizing those authors by forcing them to skirt around things like, y’know, life and stuff.

Kay Tarrant was Campbell’s assistant editor. She was notorious for her wanton and immodest censorship, and many writers set out to trick her (puritanical as she was, she was still basically naïve), most notably George O. Smith who, in his 1947 story “Rat Race” referred to a tomcat as a “ball-bearing mousetrap.” She didn’t get it, by the way.

The upshot was that after a decade or more of this kind of wholesale pablumization of their ideas and characters, writers were more than ready to transfer their auctorial affections to editors who were willing to let them explore things like, y’know, life and stuff.

galaxy_1964Horace Leonard Gold liked life and stuff, and he encouraged his writers to do what was best for the story, not what he imagined some proverbial stern-faced Aunt Mehitabel would permit. The result was that most Cold-War of circumstances: defection.

Amongst others, Heinlein, Bester, Sturgeon, Asimov(!), and Simak all sent Gold stories that they had either held back from Campbell or simply not written, perhaps considering them unsalable. Gold encouraged his authors to write about the “soft sciences,” and pushed them to take a satirical perspective on aspects of American culture that ASF had largely ignored: television, advertising, psychiatry, and the like. This they did happily.

It didn’t kill Campbell and ASF, of course, but it did have the effect of reducing a benevolent monarchy to the triumvirate of ASF, F&SF and Galaxy, and neither Campbell nor his magazine ever really recovered.

Gold had his own quirks, I hasten to add. Because of his experiences in WWII, he contracted a fierce case of agoraphobia. Asimov wrote of a conference in Gold’s apartment in which Gold excused himself, then called Asimov on the telephone from another room and continued their conversation. He also had a nasty habit of rewriting and re-titling stories without bothering to consult the authors, but at least he didn’t have a Kay Tarrant hanging about.

Galaxy quickly became an important magazine, attracting both readers and writers in large numbers. It developed a reputation for humor, wit and satire that few others had even approached and which even fewer have achieved in the decades following.

This is, I hope, the aesthetic that RosettaBooks will adhere to in their contest.  With heavyweights like Robert Silveberg, Barry Malzberg and David Drake as judges, I anticipate one hell of a book, and I look forward to the results of The Galaxy Project.


One of the less rewarding aspects of being any kind of historian or journalist is doing what you think and hope is ample research and ending up wrong anyhow, inadvertently perpetuating legend and myth as truth.

Well, let me elaborate on that: in the long run, being corrected is, in point of fact, quite rewarding as long as the correction is legitimate and authoritative.  It’s a pain in the ass to cop to, don’t get me wrong, but however uncomfortable it may be to be straightened, what matters is not whether I look like a schmuck but whether the record has been rectified.

That to say this, if you will indulge me.  In the above post I propagate the fable, much beloved and disseminated in both fandom and prodom for decades, that Ms Kay Tarrant was a puritanical and self-righteous censor who held sway over John Campbell’s Astounding/Analog for decades.  I was rapidly (if quite gently) taken to task for this error in both fact and judgment by several friends who are reliable sources of information about the field of sf/fantasy, two of whom were Robert Silverberg and Mike Ashley.  Mike’s researches have been tons more far-reaching than mine, and Silverberg was there, hoss, which is more than I ever was.  I admire them both, and am grateful for their willingness to correct and not chide.

That I found what I thought was adequate confirmation for this bit of un-history is beside the point – a good journalist must always find at least two solid confirmations before stating something as fact, else he or she must preface his or her remarks with the caveat “It is said that…” before going on, clearly marking the statement as unverified. 

I didn’t do that, to my embarrassment and discredit.  I did find what I considered an authoritative account, but instead of finding further confirmation from primary sources (what few are left) I went the easy way and relied on what I had heard and read over and over again for many years as corroboration.  My bad; I knew better and because what I originally wrote made a better story, I went with it and further slandered the memory of a woman I’d never met, and who, by all accounts, I probably would have enjoyed hanging out with.  My apologies to the late Ms Tarrant, and with luck this statement (as well as those of my afore-mentioned fellow historians) will go some distance towards eliminating an unfortunate misrepresentation of her true personality.

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It does indeed seem like an interesting project. Of course, when I was reading Galaxy (and If), mostly during Frederik Pohl’s inestimable editorship, they were two of my very favourite magazines, and my eyes devoured the many great stories to be found in their pages. I miss them both.

Sarah Avery

That does sound like a delightful project.

This post sent me off to google the Dean drive. Hm. Maybe someone will do something as interesting with that as James Enge has done with phlogiston in the Morlock books. Every time Morlock starts manipulating objects’ phlogiston levels, I know something awesome is about to happen.

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