Anthopology 101: Pocketbooks and Portable Libraries

By Bud Webster

Donald A. Wollheim is best remembered now for founding the first all-sf/fantasy mass-market publishing house, DAW Books, in 1971 after his departure from Ace. This alone would have been important enough to rate him a place in the stfnal history books, but he began his career much, much earlier.

As a fan, he created the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) and in 1938 was one of the founding members of the Futurians, a seminal New York fan group which included Fred Pohl, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Judith Merril, and C. M. Kornbluth. As a writer, he published his first story, "The Man From Ariel," in the January 1934 Wonder Stories, and as an editor, he helmed both Cosmic Stories and Stirring Science Stories in 1941, obtaining most of the stories from his fellow Futurians for little or no payment.

In later years, he would create and edit The Avon Fantasy Reader, The Avon Science Fiction Reader, and The Avon Science Fiction and Fantasy Reader, saddle-bound semi-periodicals that ran both reprint and original stories by H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith. For A. A. Wyn's Ace Books he would develop the Ace Double, publishing early work by Philip K. Dick, Robert Silverberg, Poul Anderson, John Brunner, and R. A. Lafferty.

In 1950, he edited two issues of Out of This World Adventures for Avon, which unsuccessfully tried to combine traditional sf with a four-color comics insert. The first issue (July) is far superior to the last (December), but both were primarily assembled from trunk stories, A. Bertram Chandler's two stories, "Terror of the Mist Maidens" and "Raiders of the Solar Frontier," being notable exceptions their titles notwithstanding.

In the mid-`60s, he "acquired" J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy for Ace Books. Whether this was a publishing coup made possible by an obscure copyright loophole or an act of outright piracy (Ace did eventually settle with JRRT) is, at this remove, moot: it brought Tolkien's work to an entirely new audience and paved the way not only for the legitimate Ballantine issue of the books, but began a fantasy tidal wave that is still crashing against the shores of publishing and has all but washed traditional science fiction away.

But I digress. My purpose in this installment of Anthopology 101 is to examine the first two anthologies Donald Wollheim edited, both part of ongoing series for their respective publishers, and both showing Wollheim's willingness to strike a balance between pre- and post-Gernsbackian sf.

At a remove of some 60 years (I should have written these articles 20 years ago), it's difficult to determine for certain how The Pocket Book of Science Fiction (Pocket Books 214, 1943) and The Portable Novels of Science (Viking Press, 1945) came to be. Were they solicited by their respective series editors? Were they in-house projects for which Wollheim was chosen from a pool of outside editors? Did Wollheim himself pitch the ideas to the publishers? (It's entirely possible, of course, that someone with an extensive file of period fanzines might be able to nail down these questions, but my resources in this area are limited.)

Best guess is the last. Wollheim was certainly in a position to hear about any new projects from major publishers. Both Pocket and Viking were doing successful ongoing anthology series. Viking's Portable Library series included both single-author collections (Hemingway, Poe, Shakespeare), as well as genre books (mysteries, supernatural, poetry), and Pocket's series included a similar variety of authors and subjects.

In his autobiographical The Futurians, Damon Knight indicates that Wollheim took advantage of the fact that both publishers might be open to adding a science fiction title to their series and leapt in to pitch the books. Pocket's editor, Philip Van Doren Stern, was an avid fan of fantastic literature and author of "The Greatest Gift," filmed as It's a Wonderful Life. In addition, Stern had edited his own anthology, The Moonlight Traveler, for Doubleday that same year, featuring stories by Poe, Forster, Wells, Saki and a host of other pre-Gernsbackian writers. So he had a good, working knowledge of the field, perhaps even extending into the pulp arena.

DAW's credentials were no less impressive, even at that early date, and he was a natural choice for the gig; it's doubtful if either Viking or Pocket had anyone in-house as qualified.

And he was, undeniably, eminently qualified for the job. He'd been reading sf in all its various forms since childhood (in 1943 he was only 29 years old), he read widely both in and out of the field, and he was acquainted not only with any number of well-respected sf writers, but with the entire editorial and publishing process. I have no doubt that the contents of both books were pretty firmly in the front of his mind before he was given the green light.

In the introduction of The Portable Novels of Science, DAW says:

For in all the myriads of critical books that students of letters have published...there is only one slim book, prior to this Viking Portable, that dealt directly and exclusively with this field. That was my Pocket Book of Science-Fiction, which appeared in 1943, and dealt only with the short story. This present volume is therefore the first comprehensive selection of the science-fiction story in its most powerful sphere, the novel.

Strong words, if a bit misleading. Esenwein's Adventures to Come was published in 1937, Phil Stong's The Other Worlds came out in 1941, and A. G. Birch's The Moon Terror and Other Stories was published in 1927. But we can easily let that pass: the Esenwein, as I've stated here before, had absolutely no effect on the field, and both the Stong and Birch drew heavily, if not exclusively, from Weird Tales. Wollheim's contribution to the Pocket line was both the first mass-market paperback anthology of science fiction and the first anthology to proclaim itself as such, loudly and proudly. For this he gets his props.

This brings me to an important point, the purpose for which these two books (and their respective series) were intended.

Their titles tell us everything we need to know. Both books were intended to be leisure reading, something to be stuck in the coat pocket in the morning and read on the train into the city, or in the doctor's office, or at lunch. They were priced to sell (25¢ for the paperbacks $2 for the hardcovers), and both series were meant not only to entertain but to enlighten, hence the wide variety of inspirational poetry and bible-readings present in both cases. They were aimed not at the intelligentsia or the 400 alone, but at the common man as well. They were books for everyone, even - if not especially - those who might not be avid book buyers.

All that being said, let's look at the contents of The Pocket Book of Science-Fiction:

Donald A. Wollheim Introduction
Steven Vincent Benet By the Waters of Babylon
Ambrose Bierce Moxon's Master
John Collier Green Thoughts
H. G. Wells In the Abyss
T. S. Stribling The Green Splotches
Wallace G. West The Last Man
Stanley G. Weinbaum A Martian Odyssey
Don A. Stuart Twilight
Theodore Sturgeon Micrcosmic God
Robert Heinlein And He Built a Crooked House

Of the ten stories above, three the Wells, the Bierce, and the Stribling predate Gernsbackian magazine sf. Of the rest, the Benet and the Collier are from outside the genre proper, although they certainly belong to the wider body of fantastic literature.

So, why did Wollheim include these five? I can think of several possible reasons: to make the book more "respectable," thus ensuring sales to a wider, non-pulpish readership; to expose the genre readers to stories of which they would otherwise be ignorant; or to enhance his own image by choosing a table of contents designed not only to entertain, but also make him look considerably more cosmopolitan than he would if he chose only pulp yarns. Most likely the truth includes some of all of the above, with an emphasis on the first, although I'm willing to give DAW the benefit of the doubt and presume that the third reason was the least of them.

Those first five stories are almost certainly unfamiliar to comtemporary readers, which is a shame. They may lack "modern sensibilities", and are certainly written in voices your average reader now would find dated, but they bear reading and re-reading. The Bierce, in particular, I'd put up there with the best, and the Benet has always been a personal favorite. Old-fashioned they may be, but they're finely-crafted bricks in the foundation nonetheless. Without a doubt, Stern was aware of them from his own reading, and their inclusion here not only firmly establishes their stfnal value, but add significantly to the book's classiness.

Even now, 60 years after it originally appeared on the spinner racks, this is a perfectly enjoyable anthology. True, most of the stories have since been reprinted again and again, but there's a good reason for that: they're terrific stories, as much fun to read now as they were then. Space considerations prevent me from examining all of the stories here, but even leaving aside the non-pulp entries, how can you go wrong with the Heinlein, Sturgeon and Weinbaum stories, no matter how many times they've been anthologized?

Needless to say (and with the exception of Wells' "In the Abyss"), all of these stories were reprinted for the first time in this book.. Oh, yeah, and in case you didn't already know: Don A. Stuart is a pseudonym for John W. Campbell, and "Twilight" is perhaps the finest story he ever wrote. Better than I have tried to describe it, and I won't even attempt to, but it was a remarkable story when it appeared in 1934 and remains an affecting, evocative story. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey" is rightfully a classic, reprinted over and over and every bit as readable today as when it first appeared. The Heinlein is a mathmatically playful yarn that is usually relegated to lists of his Lesser Works, but it.s fun, and why does it need to be more than that? I never cared overmuch for West, but I hasten to point out that this is more a commentary on me than on him, and if "The Last Man" isn't to my taste, that doesn't mean it's an inferior story. The Sturgeon was very likely the first of his I ever read, certainly the first I remember putting his name to, and is a cornerstone of his long and productive career.

On to the contents of the Viking book:

Donald A. Wollheim Introduction
H. G. Wells The First Men in the Moon
John Taine Before the Dawn
H. P. Lovecraft The Shadow Out of time
Olaf Stapledon Odd John

Now, how's that for a line-up of "novels of science?" Could Wollheim have picked four more disparate titles, or four more different writers? One might wish for Verne in place of, say, the Taine (the pseudonym of mathematician Eric Temple Bell, by the way), but let's face it, Verne was heavily reprinted at the time and Taine wasn't. And the Taine is a pretty good yarn, if you like dinosaurs, which is all the justification Wollheim needed.

(I have to wonder what might have gone on in the minds of readers inexperienced with genre fiction when going from Wells to Taine to Lovecraft to Stapledon; I suspect that more than a few of those minds might, in the parlance of my youth, have been blown.)

All four of these novels had, of course, seen print in book form prior to the Viking issue, but both the Lovecraft and the Taine were done by small publishers (Arkham House and Williams Wilkins, respectively) and were thus less likely to have been known by Viking's target readership.

Consider this, too: Taine/Bell was a mathematician, Wells an intellectual heavy-weight who considered himself as much a social activist as an author of scientific romances, and Stapledon was a doctor of philosphy. How in the world did Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a near-recluse with no formal education above the high-school level, earn a place with these other three?

Well, although he was no scientist by comparison with Asimov or Clarke, Lovecraft was intensely interested in science from an early age and at 16 was writing an astronomy column for the Providence, Rhode Island newspaper. Much of his work, including The Shadow Out of Time, reflects this interest, for all that he's best known now as a writer of eldritch, squid-like horrors. I certainly don't think that the other three authors suffer by his presence. The story was originally published in the June, 1936 issue of F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding, and is one of three undeniably stfnal stories Lovecraft wrote, the others being At the Mountains of Madness (also in Astounding, earlier that same year) and "The Colour Out of Space" (Amazing, 1927).

When Donald Wollheim died in 1990, he left behind one of the largest and most complete collections of fantastic literature ever amassed by a single individual. It crossed practically all boundaries of time and geography and represented an enormous degree of knowledge of, and respect for, science fiction and fantasy as literature. The Pocketbook of Science Fiction and Portable Novels of Science reflect this knowledge and respect. DAW looms large in the history of the field, and deservedly so. And I suspect that not a few of the original readers of these two important anthologies subsequently went on to sample other, more pulpish, examples of the genre, and found themselves perfectly at home.