Monday, June 17, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 23: March 25, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1948 newspaper column, “From the Top of the Hill.” I posted the majority of this entry back in 2010 with the following introduction:

“John D MacDonald's first effort in the world of science fiction is generally dated to February 1948 with the publication of his short story ‘Cosmetics’ in Astounding Science Fiction. And although this 4,000-word tale had been preceded by two other stories that contained aspects of unreality -- they were more fantasy than s-f -- ‘Cosmetics’ was his first such entry in a science fiction pulp magazine. It marked the beginning of a relatively brief torrent of such works that produced ten stories in 1948, sixteen in 1949 and fourteen in 1950 before dwindling off to a mere handful. He then penned two early s-f novels before giving up on the genre almost entirely.

“MacDonald was living in Clinton, New York when he wrote ‘Cosmetics,’ and during that same period he authored a weekly newspaper column in the local newspaper. The following ... comes from the March 25, 1948 edition of The Courier, a month after ‘Cosmetics’ appeared and two months before his second s-f story -- ‘The Mechanical Answer’ -- was published. Reading between the lines, one can detect JDM's interest in a new market for his work, now that he had actually been published in an s-f magazine, and now that the field was -- as he termed it -- turning away from the ‘world of wooden men and steel space ships’ and toward more ‘believable’ stories with ‘oddly prophetic situations.’”

Fantasy, Unlimited:

Frequently these days we come face to face with the staggering platitude that this is indeed an odd world and an odd time to be in it.

While little men in laboratories are concerning themselves with the chore of exploding our planet with all the thoroughness of a dynamite stick jammed through a decayed apple, certain segments of our population are avidly collecting science fiction which makes such a catastrophe as impressive as the blast from a cap pistol on the Fourth of July.

The intense interest in science fiction has grown as quickly and as impressively as a certain odd-looking cloud over Hiroshima. (Accent on the second syllable, please.)

For many years science fiction was published without attracting much attention. Wells, A. Huxley and Verne fathered the breed. In the pulp magazines, the science fiction story became nothing but a Western with space ships instead of horses, heat pistols instead of 44's and far galaxies instead of the red-rocked mesa.

This world of wooden men and steel space ships rightly deserved the obscurity it achieved.

But now and again a story would be published in which the writer managed to make his characters human. The more gifted writers, gifted both scientifically and artistically began to put believable people into oddly prophetic situations.

In fact, one imaginative character during the peak secrecy of the Manhattan Project published a story wherein somebody fiddled around with uranium and made a bomb. If he had gotten two cents a word for every word he said to the FBI after that story was published, he would be a wealthy man.

A city went up in smoke, with a flash as bright as the sun. Science fiction suddenly became yesterday's news flash. A few hundred thousand fans were acquired.

The Saturday Review of Literature for February 28th, this year, carries a long editorial by Harrison Smith on this current phenomena in the publishing world.

The new fans of science fiction have dug through the files of old copies of various pulp magazines, and have found therein stories for their collections.

The Saturday Evening Post has published five science fiction stories within the past year by Robert Heinlein and Gerald Kersh.

Good publishing houses have come out with anthologies of merit. We strongly recommend, for the curious, one called Adventures in Time and Space published last year by Random House, edited by Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas.

In addition five new publishing houses have recently been born, with the object of handling only science fiction and fantasy: Arkham House, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, Hadley Publishing Company and Fantasy Publishing Company.

And they all sell every copy of every book!

Circulation of pulp magazines in the science fiction field has grown. Sam Merwin, Jr. edits two pulps for Standard Magazines, Inc. and John W. Campbell, Jr., edits one for Street and Smith. (For the citizen who picks his magazines off the news stand arid cares what thinkle peep, the titles are the kiss of death: Astounding, Thrilling Wonder, Startling.) There are others in the field, but these three are the toppers.

But In addition to this crescendo of Interest, there is one very special manifestation which could only exist in the science fiction field.

The readers, the fans themselves, have banded together in groups and they publish their own magazines—called fanzines. They are usually mimeographed and they contain criticism, offers to buy and sell science fiction and some fiction. There are nearly forty of these 'fanzines' being published. There are additional ones in England. Letters to the editors of the pulp magazines come from all over the world.

No other aspect of American letters Is expanding as rapidly as science fiction.

So, we say, this is a strange, strange world. We are in the atomic age. If we get sharp enough with the atom, we may arrange to make this planet uninhabitable. Maybe that fear is deep in the hearts of all of us.

Maybe science fiction is like the comforting words of a wise parent:

"Don't worry, little man. When you bust up this planet, I'll buy you a new one. A nice new green one. Two hundred light years away."

* * *

What Do You Call Robins?

Every March all the newspapers in the land dig down in their closets and bring out a word that is only used in March. It would be absolutely pointless to use it during any other month of the year.

Thand word is HARBINGER.

Robins are HARBINGERS of Spring. So are spring training trips for baseball players. So are income tax forms.

This year, all aspects have been HARBINGING as usual.

Nothing ever HARBINGS winter or fall or summer.

After March is over and everything has HARBUNGED, the word goes back in the closet, tied with cotton string, until once more March comes around and it can be dusted off again.

* * *

See you next week.

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