(*Before Campbell)

Astounding Stories, December 1933

Astounding Stories, December 1933

The title of Astounding Stories was kept in its new, Street & Smith incarnation, the inaugural issue came out, and the new editor was named F. Orlin Tremaine.

Tremaine was not, of course, well-versed in science fiction. He was a Street & Smith veteran whom the management thought could do a creditable job of running a magazine in almost any field, even one unfamiliar to him. Tremaine thought so too, or at least thought that he could learn everything he needed to know about what sf readers wanted in a magazine from what the readers themselves had to say.

The primary source Tremaine had available for his instruction was fandom itself, now bigger and more active than ever before. All over the country, fans were organizing themselves into clubs, and almost every club began publishing its own fan mag (the coinage “fanzine” had not yet been invented). And what was in the fan mags? Almost always, there were critical discussions of almost every sf story published in any magazine. Tremaine studied these and kept in touch with some of their editors, thus greatly flattering those fan editors as he learned.

And Tremaine had one other resource for learning what fans wanted. That was — well — me.

You see, I had formed the habit of dropping by the offices of all the pro mags now and then to drop off manuscripts submitted for them. A few of them were written by me, others by fan friends and would-be writers, for whom I functioned as a literary agent, but that title didn’t begin to mean anything until some of us began to sell, quite a lot later on. At first Tremaine would send a (very) junior assistant out to the reception room to take the current collection from my hands, or, a little later, to return them as rejects, But then, once or twice, Tremaine himself began to come out and to chat with me for a few moments. And then — wonderful day! — he actually took me to lunch. I was then about sixteen. It was the most grown-up thing that had ever happened to me, and, oh!, how jealous all my fannish friends were when I told them about it

I don’t know if Tremaine had other secret agents at work in fandom to supply him with intelligence. I do know that he made good use of what he learned. He tumbled quickly to the fact that fans liked to believe that sf was in some way important and that you didn’t have to specify where in any story the importance lay. He used that wisdom to create a whole line of what he called “thought-variant” stories. He never said what thoughts they were meant to vary, nor was I ever able to deduce what unifying principle of thought-varying they were good for. No matter. The title sounded good and portentous, which I’m sure was what Tremaine was aiming at.

Tremaine’s Astounding was actually a better magazine than any of its competitors, at least (arguably) until Wonder mutated into Thrilling Wonder. What it didn’t do was produce a new group of major writers: L. Sprague de Camp and who else? In fact, the only other science-fiction writer I think of as a Tremaine discovery was called Warner Van Lorne, a name generally supposed to be a pseudonym hiding the identity of the real author, who perhaps was F. Orlin Tremaine himself. (Tremaine denied it.)

But then Tremaine returned to supervisory duties. Street & Smith cast about for a replacement to edit Astounding. They settled on an MIT dropout in his twenties. He had no editorial experience, but had written a few quite good stories of his own. His name was John W. Campbell, Jr., and he turned out to be the greatest editor sf has ever had.


(Continue this fascinating story when I get around to writing it.)

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  1. Jim Meadows says:

    My late father’s science fiction collection included a run of Astounding back to his adolescence — but only one issue was from the Tremaine period. It was a battered, coverless issue, which I’ve recently determined to be from 1935. I was reading my dad’s old magazines a lot during my own adolescence, and that 1935 Astounding fascinated me.

    There were two stories that remain in my memory. One was “The Blue Infinity”, “a novel in which the earth moves”, an example of the gracelessly written, yet fast-moving galaxy-busting science fiction that I think entertained a lot of Astounding readers. Reading it in the 1970s, I thought it was a hoot.

    On the other hand, I was quite impressed with another story just as fecklessly ambitious, but which actually seemed more credible to me. While I cannot remember the pseudo-science that it used, I do remember that the story ended with everything on earth (perhaps beyond) slowly softening into some sort of molecular mush. I believe in this case, the earth was NOT saved in the nick of time. I loved this story.

  2. Johnny Pez says:

    Sam Moskowitz got Tremaine’s brother to admit that he wrote most of the “Warner Van Lorne” stories. BTW, you can find one at Project Gutenberg – “Wanted – 7 Fearless Engineers” from the February 1939 Amazing, at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/26941.

    Jim, your issue was the September 1935 issue. The stories you mention are “The Blue Infinity” by John Russell Fearn, and “Earth Minus” by Donald Wandrei.