Growing Up with Science Fiction in the 1940s

When I was a kid, I bought my first science-fiction magazine at the age of thirteen. All older science-fiction fans remember when they bought their first magazine, and we were all about the same age – twelve, thirteen, maybe fourteen.

In the 1930s and 1940s we were all pretty much alike as well. We wore knickers, sat down to a chicken dinner every Sunday, and spent Saturday afternoons at the movie theater where we saw two features, three or four cartoons, and got a free candy bar – all for a dime.

Nobody had a television set, though every family had a radio. Our parents tuned in to Lux Radio Theater and Fibber McGee and Molly but most of us kids listened to Lights Out! and Inner Sanctum and Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. We made model airplanes out of balsa wood and tissue paper and rubber bands, telephones out of string and two tin cans, and occasionally we tinkered with crystal sets.

Most of us were skinny, wore glasses, were not very adept socially, and were usually sent out to left field – way out – when the Phys Ed class divided us up into baseball teams.

As writer Joanna Russ put it many years later, young science-fiction fans were “… nervous, shy, pleasant boys, sensitive, intelligent, and very awkward with people. They also talk too much.” It was an accurate description (And yes, almost all of us were boys – though with the passage of time girls became welcome).

When we discovered science fiction, we were consumed by it. We haunted the library for books by Verne and Wells and read and re-read the cheap Grossett & Dunlap editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs that we were given for our birthdays or at Christmas.

But the real epiphany came when we discovered the magazines with their fascinating covers of aliens, rocket ships, and distant planets. We read them under the tree in the backyard on sunny days, curled up on the couch on rainy afternoons, and under the covers at night.

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Our neighborhood friends looked at us with contempt (an excellent reason to search for science-fiction pen pals who might live halfway across the continent – or maybe half a dozen blocks away), our parents fretted that we read too much and played too little, and our teachers were indignant that we were obviously addicted to that “trash” when we should be reading the classics.

We loved science fiction, and we wanted other people to love it as much as we did. We were dazzled by the wild ideas and the lurid artwork, we thought it was great literature (in some instances we were right), and we proselytized for it shamelessly. Almost all of us published amateur magazines – “fanzines” – devoted to it, some of us grew up to write our own science-fiction stories and others became editors or publishers of it.

We went to conventions and watched them grow from a few hundred participants to the thousands, from a single convention during a year to an average of one per week.

When actor William Shatner – the beloved “Captain Kirk” of the original “Star Trek” series – stared into the camera on Saturday Night Live and told us to “get a life”, we had to smile even in the face of betrayal. We already had a life.

And to a large extent, it was one to which Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, the Grey Lensman, Michael Valentine Smit, and John Carter of Mars – all heroes of the science-fiction universe – had contributed an enormous amount.

* This has been an excerpt from Frank M. Robinson’s collector’s coffee table book:  Science Fiction of the 20th Century : An Illustrated History. Pick up your copy on Amazon today!

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