Many of us were first exposed to science fiction while watching television or going to the movies. This exposure probably encouraged quite a few of you to explore science fiction in its more sophisticated and literary varieties. In some ways, these two divides have been prevalent for many decades.
On the one hand, there is “hard” science fiction, consisting of very well-written and engaging literary fantasies, many of which explore complex social themes. From H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to Frank Herbert’s Dune (and beyond), SF authors have used the genre to tell allegorical stories, with strong implications for how we view the present. Meanwhile, the science was clearly discernible from the fantasy. On the other hand, there has always existed a “softer” type of science fiction, meant mostly to entertain the “masses.” From Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon radio dramas to Star Wars (and beyond), these forms of SF offer eye candy, entertainment, and pure moments of thrill, wonder, and awe. Often, science is unnecessary for these tales, which puts them closer to the genre of fantasy.
Arguably some of the best science fiction, like Star Trek, occupied a middle-ground between these extremes. Indeed, in much of the existing literature on Star Trek, many of the actors make claims like: “Everything else was kid’s stuff. Star Trek was the first sophisticated science fiction on television.” These celebrities and other writers often look past the pure camp of a Shatner fight to celebrate “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield.” They also overlook ground-breaking shows like The Twilight Zone or Tom Corbett: Space Cadet.
I’ve never read a history of Trek that acknowledges the Galaxy years, when the majority of young men (and some women) got their SF fix primarily from magazines. This era has been called the “Golden Age” of SF, when over 20 varieties of niche magazines competed for an American (and European) audience, during the 1950s and 1960s. There were certainly many predecessors to Galaxy, such as the variety of Hugo Gernsback publications, like Amazing Stories, Science Wonder Stories, and Air Wonder Stories. Galaxy also had much competition with Astounding Science Fiction (later known as Analog), as well as The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Yet, Galaxy Science Fiction was the most successful, achieving a circulation of over 100,000 during its second year (1951) of production. It is also interesting that this magazine occupied a middle-ground between the “hard” and the “soft.” While many of its covers catered to “eye candy” for juvenile boys and young men, its stories catered to the harder side of SF. Just take a look at the list of SF authors who published in Galaxy: Heinlein, Sturgeon, Bradbury, Asimov, Dick, and many, many other serious intellectuals. Under the direction of H. L. Gold, Galaxy sought to distinguish itself from other magazines by offering sophisticated and intelligent SF that addressed relevant social issues of the past, present, and future.
Additionally, nearly every issue of Galaxy contained a non-fiction article by Willy Ley, who was a notable expert on science, natural history, space travel, and rocket technology. Many people no longer remember his name, but, during the 1950s and 1960s, he was one of the most famous scientific experts in the United States. With each issue of Galaxy, he taught readers about the wonders of nature and the technological future of human spaceflight to the great beyond.
Due to changing leadership and Ley’s death in 1969, Galaxy began a long spiral downhill during the 1970s. There was a short revival that soon collapsed. Today, our media landscape is less kind to anything resembling a science fiction magazine, especially with the impending death of print media.
But, it’s still nice to think back to an earlier time, when teenagers read these pulps, perhaps in bed with a flashlight, on the school bus, or in between stuffy college lectures. Their cover art was far more vivid than anything on television. And, their contents were far more risque, thoughtful, and downright challenging to the status quo that occupied the “vast wasteland” of TV.
Personally, I think Star Trek owes its own success to this lost generation a mass SF pulps and their readers. Perhaps as you brainstorm your next Foundry mission, you might consider how it could also occupy this cherished middle-ground between the “hard” and the “soft.”
Thanks for reading.