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Vintage Treasures: A Sense of Wonder by John Wyndham, Jack Williamson and Murray Leinster

Sunday, September 13th, 2020 | Posted by John ONeill

A Sense of Wonder-small A Sense of Wonder-back-small

A Sense of Wonder (New English Library, 1974). Cover by Bruce Pennington

A Sense of Wonder was originally published in hardcover in the UK by Sidgwick & Jackson in 1967, and reprinted in the US as The Moon Era (which we covered as part of our survey of Sixty Years of Lunar Anthologies back in December.) It’s a short little anthology (175 pages) of early 30s SF by three of the biggest names of the pulp era, assembled and edited by pulp SF afficionado Sam Moskowitz. It contains three novellas:

“Exiles on Asperus” by John Wyndham (Wonder Stories Quarterly, Winter 1933)
“The Mole Pirate” by Murray Leinster (Astounding Stories, November 1934)
“The Moon Era” by Jack Williamson (Wonder Stories, February 1932)

This slender volume was popular enough to enjoy a total of eight editions between 1967-87, mostly paperback reprints from New English Library, who seemed to insist on a new cover every time (see below for a few interesting examples). I covered the last, the 1987 reprint, back in 2017.

The reason I’m showcasing this book again isn’t its enduring popularity, or the notoriety of its three authors. It’s the exquisite Bruce Pennington cover on the 1974 edition (above), which I only recently managed to find. Bruce is one of my favorite SF artists, and he was gracious enough to provide covers for two of the last two print editions of Black Gate, and these days I kinda haunt the virtual shops on the lookout for (mostly British) paperbacks with his colorful and distinctive artwork. His cover for A Sense of Wonder is typical of his work in this period — a mysterious craft looms over a desolate alien landscape, while a small flock of birds introduce a strange sense of normalcy to the eerie tableau. The result is eye catching, and warmly reminiscent of classic science fiction, with its love of superscience, exploration, and the unfathomable mysteries of outer space.

[Click the images for outer-space-sized versions.]

Wonder Stories Quarterly Winter 1933-small Astounding Stories November 1934-small Wonder Stories February 1932-small

Original pulp appearance of all three stories. Covers by Frank R. Paul, Howard V. Brown, and Paul again

Setting aside the gorgeous cover, is the book itself worth a second look?

It’s been out of print since 1987, and there is no digital edition, I think part of that is down to the editor. Moskowitz’s anthologies were popular in the mid-20th Century, but he doesn’t have the reputation he used to. He was a little too uncritical, and a little too much in love with pulp prose.

But he knew his stuff, and he certainly knew his readers. He picked these three stories not for any particular lunar theme (despite the “Moon Era” tag of the US edition), but rather because for him they all exemplified a seminal SF virtue: Sense of Wonder.

The-Moon-Era-medium A Sense of Wonder 1974-small A Sense of Wonder 1982-small

The Moon Era (Curtis Books, 1969, cover uncredited), A Sense of Wonder (NEL 1974 and 1982, covers by Hardy and Peter Elson)

Here’s the first paragraph of Moskowitz’s introduction, which effectively communicates both his love for early science fiction, and his contempt for modern (meaning, presumably, 1960s New Wave) SF, which in his opinion had had lost touch with the magic that fired his young imagination.

There is one thing that all off the three short novels in this book have in common. That identifying quality may best be termed ‘a sense of wonder.’ They impart to the reader an emotional breathlessness as well as intellectual stimulation, A major failing of too much recent science fiction is that it conveys no such literary ‘magic.’ It seeks to make the most profound and thrilling mysteries commonplace. It substitutes the shrug for the gasp. Before the term science fiction was coined, the label ‘scientific romance’ was popular. Too often modern science fiction has dispensed with the romance.

Just to be clear, he doesn’t mean “romance” the way you think he does.

Here’s the complete intro (click for a readable version).

A Sense of Wonder Moskowitz intro-small A Sense of Wonder Moskowitz intro page 2 -3-small

Sam Moskowitz’s introduction for A Sense of Wonder

Despite the lengthy reprint history of this book, it only had one US paperback edition (The Moon Era, in 1969). But copies of the UK editions aren’t hard to find. I bought the one above on eBay this summer for $7 plus shipping.

A Sense of Wonder was published by New English Library in December 1974. It is 175 pages, priced at £0.60. The beautiful cover is by Bruce Pennington.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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