Revisit Vintage Issues of Astounding Stories, the 1930s Magazine that Gave Rise to Science Fiction as We Know It

Having been putting out issues for 92 years now, Analog Science Fiction and Fact stands as the longest continuously published magazine of its genre. It also lays claim to having developed or at least popularized that genre in the form we know it today. When it originally launched in December of 1929, it did so under the much more whiz-bang title of Astounding Stories of Super-Science. But only three years later, after a change of ownership and the installation as editor of F. Orlin Tremaine, did the magazine begin publishing work by writers remembered today as the defining minds of science fiction.

Under Tremaine’s editorship, Astounding Stories pulled itself above its pulp-fiction origins with stories like Jack Williamson’s “Legion of Space” and John W. Campbell’s “Twilight.” The latter inspired the striking illustration above by artist Elliott Dold. “Dold’s work was deeply influenced by Art Deco, which lends its geometric forms to the city of machines in ‘Twilight,'” writes the New York Times‘ Alec Nevala-Lee, which “inaugurated the modern era of science fiction.”

In the case of a golden-age science-fiction magazine like Astounding Stories, Nevala-Lee argues“its most immediate impact came through its illustrations,” which “may turn out to be the genre’s most lasting contribution to our collective vision of the future.”

None of the imagery printed inside Astounding Stories was as striking as its covers, full-color productions on which “artists could let their imaginations run wild.” Sometimes they adhered closely to the visual descriptions in a story’s text — perhaps too closely, in the case the June 1936’s issue with H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time” — and sometimes they departed from and even competed with the magazine’s actual content. But after Campbell took over as editor in 1937, that content became even stronger: featured writers included Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Isaac Asimov.

Now, here in the once science-fictional-sounding twenty-first century, you can not only behold the covers but read the pages of hundreds of issues of Astounding Stories from the thirties, forties, and fifties online. The earliest volumes are available to download at the University of Pennsylvania’s web site, by way of Project Gutenberg, and there are even more of them free to read at the Internet Archive. Though it may not always have faithfully reflected the material within, Astounding Stories‘ cover imagery did represent the publication as a whole. It could be thought-provoking and haunting, but it also delivered no small amount of cheap thrills — and the golden age of science fiction still shows us how thin a line really separates the two.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Stanley Kubrick & Arthur C. Clarke Spent Years Debating How to Depict the Aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey; Carl Sagan Provided the Answer: Don’t Depict Them at All

The statute of limitations has surely expired for Contact, the 1997 Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Carl Sagan’s eponymous novel. The film suggests early on that Earth has been receiving communications from outer space, but for most of its two and a half hours keeps its audience in suspense as to the nature of the extraterrestrials sending them. When Jodie Foster’s astronomer protagonist finally gets some one-on-one time with an alien, it takes the form of her own long-dead father, who inspired her choice of career. This ending quickly became fodder for South Park jokes, but time seems to have vindicated it; any look back at the CGI aliens in other movies of the mid-nineteen-nineties confirms that the right choice was made.

Contact was not a straightforward book-to-film adaptation. Rather, Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan intended the project as a film first, and even wrote a detailed script treatment before publishing the story as a novel. About three decades earlier, 2001: A Space Odyssey had emerged out of a similarly unconventional process. Rather than adapting an existing book, as he’d done before with Lolita and Dr. Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke decided to work together on the ideas that would shape both a film directed by the former and a novel written by the latter. The collaboration had its difficulties, not least when it came time to bring their vision of mankind’s future to a satisfying close.

Enter Sagan, already on his way to becoming a well-known thinker about the universe and man’s place within it. “My friend Arthur C. Clarke had a problem,” he remembers in his book The Cosmic Connection. “He was writing a major motion picture with Stanley Kubrick” (then called Journey Beyond the Stars) on which “a small crisis in the story development had arisen.” In the film a spacecraft’s crew “was to make contact with extraterrestrials. Yes, but how to portray the extraterrestrials?” Kubrick had ideas about going the traditional route, creating aliens “not profoundly different from human beings” and thus portrayable by humans in suits, much like the apes at the monolith

Sagan opposed this, as “the number of individually unlikely events in the evolutionary history of Man was so great that nothing like us is ever likely to evolve again anywhere else in the universe. I suggested that any explicit representation of an advanced extraterrestrial being was bound to have at least an element of falseness about it, and that the best solution would be to suggest, rather than explicitly to display, the extraterrestrials.” Kubrick ultimately did choose that artistic path, resulting in such haunting, alien-free scenes as the ending wherein David Bowman encounters his aged self in an eighteenth-century bedroom. Whether or not that was quite what he had in mind, Sagan did credit Kubrick’s 2001 with “expanding the average person’s awareness of the cosmic perspective” — which was more than he could say a decade later about Star Wars.

Related content:

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Stanley Kubrick Explains the Mysterious Ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a Newly Unearthed Interview

Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking & Arthur C. Clarke Discuss God, the Universe, and Everything Else

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Carl Sagan Tells Johnny Carson What’s Wrong with Star Wars: “They’re All White” & There’s a “Large Amount of Human Chauvinism in It” (1978)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

In 1968, Stanley Kubrick Makes Predictions for 2001: Humanity Will Conquer Old Age, Watch 3D TV & Learn German in 20 Minutes


Image by Moody Man, via Flickr Commons

1968. Revolution was in the air and the future seemed bright. That year, Stanley Kubrick released his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey – a big-budget, experimental rumination on the evolution of mankind. The film was a huge box office hit when it came out; its mind-bending metaphysics resonated with the culture’s newfound interest in chemically altered states and in spirituality.

In the September issue from that year, Playboy magazine published a lengthy interview with Kubrick. Even at a time when public figures were supposed to sound like intellectuals (boy, times have changed), Kubrick comes across as insanely well read. During the course of the interview, he quotes from the likes of media critic Marshall McLuhan, Winston Churchill, and 19th Century poet Matthew Arnold along with a handful of prominent academics.

Kubrick is characteristically cagey about offering any explanations of his enigmatic movie but he does readily expound on philosophical questions about God, the meaning of life (or lack thereof) and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But perhaps the most interesting part of the 17-page interview is his vision of what 2001 might look like. It’s fascinating to see what he got right, what might be right a bit further into the future, and what’s completely wrong. Check them out below:

“Within ten years, in fact, I believe that freezing of the dead will be a major industry in the United States and throughout the world; I would recommend it as a field of investment for imaginative speculators.”

“Perhaps the greatest breakthrough we may have made by 2001 is the possibility that man may be able to eliminate old age.”

“I’m sure we’ll have sophisticated 3-D holographic television and films, and it’s possible that completely new forms of entertainment and education will be devised.”

“You might have a machine that taps the brain and ushers you into a vivid dream experience in which you are the protagonist in a romance or an adventure. On a more serious level, a similar machine could directly program you with knowledge: in this way, you might, for example, easily be able to learn fluent German in 20 minutes.”

“I believe by 2001 we will have devised chemicals with no adverse physical, mental or genetic results that can give wings to the mind and enlarge perception beyond its present evolutionary capacities…there should be fascinating drugs available by 2001; what use we make of them will be the crucial question.”

“The so-called sexual revolution, mid-wifed by the pill, will be extended. Through drugs, or perhaps via the sharpening or even mechanical amplification of latent ESP functions, it may be possible for each partner to simultaneously experience the sensations of the other; or we may eventually emerge into polymorphous sexual beings, with male and female components blurring, merging and interchanging. The potentialities for exploring new areas of sexual experience are virtually boundless.”

“Looking into the distant future, I suppose it’s not inconceivable that a semisentient robot-computer subculture could evolve that might one day decide it no longer needed man.”

For such a famously pessimistic filmmaker, Kubrick’s vision of the future is remarkably groovy – lots of sex, drugs and holographic television. He wasn’t, of course, the only one out there who thought about the future. You can see more bold predictions below:

Isaac Asimov Predicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today — in 2014

Arthur C. Clarke Predicts the Future in 1964 … And Kind of Nails It

Walter Cronkite Imagines the Home of the 21st Century … Back in 1967

The Internet Imagined in 1969

Marshall McLuhan Announces That The World is a Global Village

Note: Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in November 2014.

Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.

The First Work of Science Fiction: Read Lucian’s 2nd-Century Space Travelogue A True Story

Late in life, Kingsley Amis declared that he would henceforth read only novels opening with the sentence “A shot rang out.” On one level, this would have sounded bizarre coming from one of Britain’s most prominent men of letters. But on another it aligned with his long-demonstrated appreciation of genre fiction, including not just stories of crime but also of high technology and space exploration. His lifelong interest in the latter inspired the Christian Gauss Lectures he delivered at Princeton in 1958, published soon thereafter as New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction, a book that sees him trace the history of the genre well back beyond his own boyhood — about eighteen centuries beyond it.

“Histories of science fiction, as opposed to ‘imaginative literature,’ usually begin, not with Plato or The Birds of Aristophanes or the Odyssey, but with a work of the late Greek prose romancer Lucian of Samosata,” Amis writes. He refers to what scholars now know as A True Story (Ἀληθῆ διηγήματα), a novella-length fiction of the second century that has everything from space travel to interplanetary war to technology so advanced — as no less a sci-fi luminary than Arthur C. Clarke would put it much later — as to be indistinguishable from magic. At its core a work of fantastical satire, A True Story “deliberately piles extravagance upon extravagance for comic effect” in a rather un-science-fiction-like manner.

“Leaving aside the question whether there was enough science around in the second century to make science fiction feasible,” Amis writes, “I will merely remark that the sprightliness and sophistication of the True History” — as he knew the work — “make it read like a joke at the expense of nearly all early-modern science fiction, that written between, say, 1910 and 1940,” which he himself would have grown up reading.

In the video by at the top of the post, filmmaker Gregory Austin McConnell summarizes Lucian’s entire travelogue, not neglecting to mention the river of wine, the tree-shaped women, the cities on the moon, the army of the sun, the battlefield-spinning space spiders, the dogs who ride on winged acorns, the floating sentient lamps, and the 187 and ½ mile-long whale.

This clearly isn’t what we’d now call “hard” science fiction. So how, exactly, to label it? Such arguments erupt over every major work of genre fiction, even from antiquity. A True Story contains elements of what would become comedy sci-fi, military sci-fi, and even the fantasy-and-sci-fi-hybridizing “space opera” most popularly exemplified by Star Wars and its many sequels. Categorization quibbles aside, what matters about any work in the broader tradition of “speculative fiction” is whether it fires up the reader’s imagination, and Lucian’s work has done it for not just ancients but moderns like the 19th-century artists William Strang and Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations from 1894 editions of A True Story appear above. Now that “science fiction rules the cinematic landscape,” as McConnell puts it, who will adapt it for us postmoderns?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Dune Encyclopedia: The Controversial, Definitive Guide to the World of Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi Masterpiece (1984)

When David Lynch’s Hollywood version of Dune opened in theaters in 1984, Universal Studios distributed a printed a glossary to keep its audiences from getting confused. They got confused anyway, in part because of the film’s having been hollowed out in editing, and in part because the sheer elaborateness of Frank Herbert’s alternate reality poses potentially insurmountable challenges to faithful adaptation. Even many of the original Dune novels’ readers needed more help than a couple pages of definitions could offer. Luckily for them, the same year that saw the release of Lynch’s Dune also saw the publication of The Dune Encyclopedia, authorized by Herbert himself.

“Here is a rich background (and foreground) for the Dune Chronicles, including scholarly bypaths and amusing sidelights,” Herbert writes in the book’s introduction. “Some of the contributions are sure to arouse controversy, based as they are on questionable sources.” He couldn’t have known how right he was. Today The Dune Encyclopedia stands as what Inverse’s Ryan Britt calls “the most controversial Dune book ever”; long out of print, it may well also be the most expensive, with a current Amazon price of $1,300 in hardcover and $833 in paperback. (You can also find it online, at the Internet Archive.)

Still, The Dune Encyclopedia has its appreciators, not least the director of the latest (and most successful) cinematic attempt to realize Herbert’s vision. As Brit tells it, “an anonymous (though previously reliable) source stated that Denis Villeneuve is a big fan of The Dune Encyclopedia. But when he tried to plant references to the book in the new film, his ‘hand was slapped by the estate.'” The reason seems to involve the Encyclopedia‘s conflicts with the novels: not those written by Herbert himself but, according to the Dune Wiki, “the later two prequel trilogies and sequel duology written after Frank Herbert’s death by Brian Herbert (Frank Herbert’s son) and Kevin J. Anderson, which they state complete the original series.”

Though co-signed by the The Dune Encyclopedia‘s main author, literary scholar Willis E. McNelly, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson’s letter declaring the work’s de-canonization omits the fact “that the Encyclopedia is and always was a fallible in-universe document that openly misrepresents known history and adds historical embellishments.” It is, in other words, a book about Dune as well as a part of Dune. Not every book in our reality offers a perfectly true account of history, of course, and the same holds for the reality Frank Herbert created. This form implies the continuing possibility of expanding Dune‘s literary universe by writing the books that exist within it, not just encyclopedias and scripture but, say epic sci-fi novels as well. What fan, after all, wouldn’t want to read the Dune of Dune?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

The Matrix Regurgitated — Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast #113

In light of the release of The Matrix Resurrections, we talk through the franchise as a whole. What made the first one remarkable, and does that a bar that any sequel can reach? We talk through the choices that fed into the new film, why people don’t seem to care about their matrix families, the endless fight scenes, and more. Who will choose the blue pill?

This very special holiday episode of Pretty Much Pop reunites the full season one panel: Mark Linsenmayer, Brian Hirt and Erica Spyres, and features the podcasting debut of Mark’s son Abe Linsenmayer.

Some articles we considered included:

This episode includes bonus discussion you can access by supporting the podcast at or by choosing a paid subscription through Apple Podcasts. This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Rare Book Featuring the Concept Art for Jodorowsky’s Dune Goes Up for Auction (1975)

Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune has made a decently promising start to what looks set to shape up into an epic series of films. But however many installments it finally comprises, it’s unlikely to run anywhere near as long as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version — had Jodorowsky actually made his version, that is. Previously featured here on Open Culture, that project promised to unite the talents of not just the creator of the Dune universe and the director of The Holy Mountain, but those of Mœbius, H.R. Giger, Salvador Dalí, Pink Floyd, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger. Even David Lynch’s Dune, for all its large-scale weirdness, would surely play like My Dinner with Andre by comparison.

Alas, none of us will ever get to see Jodorowsky’s Dune, now one of the most storied of all unmade films. But one of us — one of the deep-pocketed among us, at least — now has a chance to own the book. Not Herbert’s novel: the book assembled circa 1985 as a pitching aid, meant to show studios the extensive pre-production work Jodorowsky, producer Michel Seydoux, and their collaborators had done.

“Filled with the script, storyboards, concept art, and more, the book is basically as close as anyone can get to seeing Jodorowsky’s version of Dune,” writes io9’s Germain Lussier.But, of course, the director and his team only created a handful of copies and this was decades ago. This isn’t a book you can just get on Amazon.”

But you can get it at Christie’s, on whose auction block it’s expected to go for between €25,000 and €35,000 (around USD $30,000-40,000). Reckoning that only ten to twenty copies were ever printed, the house’s listing describes the book as “an extraordinary artifact” from “a doomed project which inspired legions of film-makers and moviegoers alike.” Despite all of Hollywood ultimately passing on this enormously ambitious adaptation, “all of this was not in vain.” Jodorowsky himself claims that, though unrealized, his Dune set a precedent for “a larger-than-life science fiction movie, outside of the scientific rigor of 2001: A Space Odyssey.” Its influence, according to Christie’s, is present in 1970s films like Star Wars and Alien. Would it be too much to sense a trace of the Jodorowskyan in Villeneuve’s Dune as well?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future on The David Letterman Show (1980)

In 1980, Newsweek published a cantankerous and sadly on-the-nose diagnosis of the United States’ “cult of ignorance” — written by one Isaac Asimov, “professor of biochemistry at Boston University School of Medicine” and “author of 212 books, most of them on various scientific subjects for the general public.” Given this intimidating biography, and the fact that Asimov believed that “hardly anyone can read” in the U.S., we might expect the science fiction legend wanted nothing to do with television. We would be wrong.

Asimov seemed to love TV. In 1987, for example, the four-time Hugo winner wrote a humorously critical takedown of ALF for TV Guide. And he was a consummate TV entertainer, making his first major TV appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1968, appearing four times on The Mike Douglas Show in the next few years, and giving his final television interviews to Dick Cavett in a two-part series in 1989. The same year he wrote about America’s cult of ignorance, he appeared on The David Letterman show to crack wise with the biggest wiseass on TV. Asimov held his own and then some.

“Asimov, sixty in this video, proves himself a natural comedian,” writes the Melville House blog; “Letterman, thirty-three, can barely keep up.” Surely Asimov’s banter had nothing to do with The David Letterman Show’s cancellation three days later. (Letterman was back on the air for eleven seasons two years later.) Their interview ranges widely from pop culture (Asimov confesses his appreciation for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) to “the future of medicine, space exploration, hope for mankind, and much more,” Vic Sage writes at Pop Culture Retrorama.

Asimov’s dry delivery — honed during his English-and-Yiddish-speaking Brooklyn childhood — is delightful. But the writer, teacher, and scientist hasn’t only come on TV to crack jokes, promote a book, and flaunt his muttonchops. He wants to educate his fellow Americans about the state of the future. (His Newsweek bio was outdated. As Letterman says, his appearance marked the publication of his 221st book.) Like Hari Seldon, the hero of his 1951 novel Foundation, Asimov felt confident in his ability to predict the course of human progress (or regress, as the case may be).

He also felt confident answering questions about what to do with outer space, and where to “put more men,” as Letterman says. His recommendation to build “factories” may strike us as a banal forerunner of Jeff Bezos’ even more banal plans for office parks in space. Asimov boasts of the vision he had of “pocket computers” in 1950 — hardly a reality in 1980. Dave complains about how complicated computers are, and Asimov accurately predicts that as technology catches up, they will get simpler to use. “But these are little things,” he says. “I never tried to predict. I just tried to write stories to pay my way through college.” He must have paid it several times over, and he seemed to get more right than he got wrong. See more of Asimov’s predictions in the links below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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