Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Reader Speaks

In June last year (see my Digital Library post), I publicised the Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories covers by Frank R. Paul, available to view via the University of Leeds' Digital Library.

In that post, I mentioned that Paul's distinctive style became closely associated with these and other Hugo Gernsback publications. Now more than six months later I wanted to follow up with another Paul-related interest story by going beyond the covers of the magazines and into the obsessive, paranoid, and often downright strange territory of readers' letters. Most of these early pulps had a section devoted to readers' letters and the SF magazines were no different. 'The Reader Speaks' was a forum for fans to show their appreciation, or consternation, at the stories featured in each issue. But it was a letter from a Morris Miller of Brooklyn, NY, in an edition of Wonder Stories from January 1934 that drew my attention, primarily for its subject matter:- the artwork of Frank R. Paul. In his letter, Miller writes:

The attractive cover of the November issue depicts most remarkably the superb ability of its creator, Frank Paul, whose work, by the way is becoming less fantastic and more convincing, as well as within the bounds of reason. But I hate to have to see him draw an insensible picture like the one which appeared on the May 1933 cover. I hope the editors try their best to avoid such absurd means of arousing wonder in those not acquainted with our mag. I guess that is about all it can do. I also note the much improved lifelikeness in the faces of characters drawn by Mr Paul.

This is not the only topic covered in the letter, of course; there's a summary of the reader's favourite stories, a request for a science news section and speculation about the existence of canals on Mars:- 'perhaps they are not canals but some other super-structures which may account for everything...' However, the editors make it their first priority to address the comments relating to the cover artwork, responding with:

You seem to like our covers, like the majority of our readers, but there are a few who claim that they are too ‘gaudy’ or ‘loud’. We do not deny the fact, but we do say that it is necessary in order to have a newsstand sale. These covers are very attractive and draw the eye of passers-by, who may be persuaded to buy the magazine because of this fact, and thereby we acquire many new science-fiction fans who would not now be acquainted with the magazine if it weren’t for this. If we took a vote, we’d probably find that a large percentage of our readers were introduced to science-fiction by the cover of Wonder Stories.

Here, a debt is acknowledged to Paul's covers for drawing the eye and exciting interest in a potential 1930s SF reader. It's easy to imagine how these distinctive images would stand out on a crowded newsstand but perhaps this would be small comfort to a reader like Miller. The oddest thing is that a comparison of the 'attractive' November issue and the 'insensible' May issue reveal (to my eye) few discernible differences, although I could be missing something. For a man that can make sense out of canals on Mars, maybe a robot with tentacles is not too much of an imaginative stretch. But a flying man? That's evidently a bridge too far...

Insensible May issue
Attractive November issue

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Soviet Dystopia: We

This year sees the ninetieth anniversary of the first publication in English of Evgenii Zamiatin’s seminal dystopian novel, We (Russian Mы/My). Pre-dating, and possibly influencing, the two major depictions of all-powerful state control in twentieth-century English literature, George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is undoubtedly the least well-known of the three. In part this stems from its troubled publishing history; written in 1920-21, We was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988, though its reputation in the west has continued to grow with the years.

First Edition, 1924
Various copies, including some from University of Leeds Library

With the Bolsheviks having only just secured power, Soviet authorities took a predictably dim view of Zamiatin’s prescient portrayal of totalitarian rule, set in the ‘OneState’ of the twenty-sixth century and narrated by citizen D-503. Its absolute ruler is the Benefactor; every aspect of life is timetabled, from work schedules to ‘Personal Hours’, and the buildings are constructed almost entirely of glass, to allow for constant state surveillance. Given the emphasis on the collective in the imagined OneState, and also its themes of conformity and psychological confinement, We can be read as a reflection of Zamiatin’s fears for the future after the Russian Revolution of 1917. This seems to have been the interpretation of the literary censors, who immediately banned it, the first book to suffer this fate in the Soviet Union; the novel was finally published in the USA, by E. P. Dutton in New York in 1924. In fact, Zamiatin (a naval engineer by profession) also took inspiration from a period spent working in the ship-yards of Tyneside, where he supervised the construction of ice-breakers. We reflects the contemporary trend toward the mechanisation of labour and ‘scientific management’, notably the time-and-motion studies of efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, that the author first observed in the UK. Clarence Brown, translator of a later English edition, comments that:

“characters behave as nearly as possible as if they themselves were fail-safe pieces of hardware.”

After the banning of We, and with cultural life suffering from the same authoritarian clampdown as the rest of Soviet society, Zamiatin, possibly fearing the purges which were to come, wrote directly to Stalin, asking to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union and pursue his artistic freedom elsewhere. Remarkably, his plea succeeded, and in 1931, he left the country. Though his exile was to Paris, rather than Siberia like so many of his literary colleagues and peers, he barely wrote again and died, by all accounts disillusioned and impoverished, in 1937.