Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America

Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America

Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America

Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America


When physicist Robert Goddard, whose career was inspired by H. G. Wells's War of the Worlds, published "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes," the response was electric. Newspaper headlines across the country announced, "Modern Jules Verne Invents Rocket to Reach Moon," while people from around the world, including two World War I pilots, volunteered as pioneers in space exploration. Though premature (Goddard's rocket, alas, was only imagined), the episode demonstrated not only science's general popularity but also its intersection with interwar popular and commercial culture. In that intersection, the stories that inspired Goddard and others became a recognizable genre: science fiction. Astounding Wonder explores science fiction's emergence in the era's "pulps," colorful magazines that shouted from the newsstands, attracting an extraordinarily loyal and active audience.

Pulps invited readers not only to read science fiction but also to participate in it, joining writers and editors in celebrating a collective wonder for and investment in the potential of science. But in conjuring fantastic machines, travel across time and space, unexplored worlds, and alien foes, science fiction offered more than rousing adventure and romance. It also assuaged contemporary concerns about nation, gender, race, authority, ability, and progress--about the place of ordinary individuals within modern science and society--in the process freeing readers to debate scientific theories and implications separate from such concerns.

Readers similarly sought to establish their worth and place outside the pulps. Organizing clubs and conventions and producing their own magazines, some expanded science fiction's community and created a fan subculture separate from the professional pulp industry. Others formed societies to launch and experiment with rockets. From debating relativity and the use of slang in the future to printing purple fanzines and calculating the speed of spaceships, fans' enthusiastic industry revealed the tensions between popular science and modern science. Even as it inspired readers' imagination and activities, science fiction's participatory ethos sparked debates about amateurs and professionals that divided the worlds of science fiction in the 1930s and after.


Writing a never-completed autobiography in 1927, the physicist and rocket scientist Robert Goddard recalled a pivotal sequence of events earlier in his life. In January 1898 he encountered science fiction stories for the first time when the Boston Post ran serialized adaptations, first of H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and then of Garrett P. Serviss’s Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Both stories “gripped my imagination tremendously,” he remembered; “Wells’s true psychology made the thing very vivid, and possible ways and means of accomplishing the physical marvels set forth kept me busy thinking.” Later in the fall of 1899 he discovered his life’s true calling. “I climbed a tall cherry tree at the back of the barn,” he wrote, recounting the seasonal setting. “It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England.” He recalled, “I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars and how it would look on a small scale, if sent from the meadow at my feet. I was a different boy when I descended the tree, for existence at last seemed very purposive.” Goddard also remembered recognizing the utility of scientific principles. “I started making wooden models [that] gave negative results, and I began to think there might be something after all to Newton’s laws,” he wrote. “[His] third law was accordingly tested and was verified conclusively. If a way to navigate space were to be discovered—or invented,” he realized, “it would be the result of a knowledge of physics and mathematics.”

For Goddard, the events connected fiction and science and gave them direction: possibility’s purpose was its eventual realization. “Just as in the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant safely to pronounce . . .

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