Anthopology 101: Eureka!

By Bud Webster

Ah, 1949. The end of a decade, the beginning of NATO. We find out that our erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, has tested The Bomb. Chairman Mao makes it clear what color China is, while South Africa makes it even more clear what you can expect of them if you're less than Free, White and Twenty-One. The Korean War is in the offing, "Tailgunner" Joe McCarthy is in his ascendancy, and Alger Hiss is out of luck. We'd had most of a year to digest what the Kinseys told us was going on behind our own closed doors. But the really important event of the year is the birth of a new fantasy magazine titled, oddly enough, The Magazine of Fantasy (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from the second issue on).

F&SF has gone through seven editors in 55 years of existence, including writers (Anthony Boucher, Avram Davidson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch), literary agents (Robert P. Mills), and its own publishers (Joseph and Edward Ferman). The founding editors were Boucher and J. Francis McComas, and it was they who set the standard all the others had to meet. From the beginning it was a magazine oriented more towards the literary fantastic than the usual pulp yarns, and it's managed to retain a strikingly original voice no matter who helmed it.

McComas was a writer, too, but is far better known as the co-editor of what is perhaps the single most important reprint anthology ever published: Adventures In Time and Space, done in collaboration with Raymond Healy and published by Random House in 1946. Enough has been written about this massive and vital volume (Lord knows I've babbled on about it plenty) that I don't think I need to comment here, except to say that if you don't own this book, your sf bookshelf is incomplete indeed. Rather later, he was the editor of Special Wonder, the Boucher memorial anthology, about which more later, perhaps.

F&SF has managed to produce 26 Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction volumes, the first 17 of them as an annual series; to my knowledge, no other sf magazine to date has equaled this run. In addition, nine other anthologies outside that series were produced, right up to this year's Fourth Planet from the Sun: Tales of Mars from Fantasy & Science Fiction, assembled by current editor Gordon van Gelder.

For our purposes here, though, we're going to consider what is perhaps the oddest of these, edited by McComas's widow, Annette Peltz McComas, titled The Eureka Years (Bantam 1982).

And an odd little paperback it is, too. Of all the magazine-specific anthologies out there, it is unique in that along with reprinting some of the best stories to appear in the magazine from 1949 to 1954, when McComas left, it also reprints correspondence between the editors and authors of those stories.

But that's not all! Included, at no extra cost, are an introduction by Theodore Sturgeon, a preface by Annette McComas, autobiographies by Boucher and Mick McComas, a short history of the magazine by Ms McComas, poetry by Boucher and Randall Garrett, articles by Boucher and McComas, a recommended reading list, and a handful of other, less definable pieces. How much would you pay now?

Well, in 1982, you'd have paid $3.50, or exactly a penny a page. And it would have been well worth it, too. Look at the contents (I've listed only the stories):

"The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast" - Theodore Sturgeon
"The Exiles" ["The Mad Wizards of Mars"] - Ray Bradbury
"Minister Without Portfolio" - Mildred Clingerman
"Elephas Frumenti" [Gavagan's Bar] - L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt
"Come On, Wagon!" - Zenna Henderson
"Of Time and Third Avenue" - Alfred Bester
"Dress of White Silk" - Richard Matheson
"Epitaph Near Moonport" - Sherwood Springer
"The Boy Next Door" - Chad Oliver
"Not with a Bang" - Damon Knight
"O Ugly Bird!" [John] - Manly Wade Wellman
"Skiametric Morphology and Behaviorism of Ganymedeus Sapiens" - Kenneth R. Deardorf
"Letters to the Editor" - Ron Goulart
"The Foundation of Science Fiction Success" - Isaac Asimov
"The Other Inauguration" - Anthony Boucher
"When Half-Gods Go" - Poul Anderson
"The Little Movement" - Philip K. Dick
"The Naming of Names" - Herman W. Mudgett
"The Last of the Spode" - Evelyn E. Smith
"Flies" - Isaac Asimov
"Listen" - Gordon R. Dickson
"The Devil and Simon Flagg" - Arthur Porges
"Limerick" - Herman Mudgett
"Brave New Word" - J. Francis McComas
"Mousetrap" - Andre Norton
"Cat" - Reginald Bretnor

(Note: the poems by "Herman Mudgett" are, in fact, Boucher using a penname.)

Even without the extra material, this is a terrific read. Smith's nasty little tale of the end of the world, Asimov's homage to Dante, Porges's contribution to the Deals With the Devil trope (one of the best!), the first of Wellman's John the Balladeer stories....There's not a stinker in the lot.

But add in all that other stuff, the letters, the details, the sheer history of one of the most important periodicals in the field, and you're holding one of the best and most fascinating books that science fiction has ever produced.

Now, it's true that a lot of the stories have been reprinted over and over. The Sturgeon and Bester have both been anthologized a half dozen times or more, but Dick's "The Little Movement" had never been anthologized in the US since its first publication in F&SF some thirty years before, and the Anderson had never been reprinted before.

But as good as the stories are and believe me, they're good for the historian the interest is in the supplemental material, which makes up at least half the book. The letter exchanges show how good editors can aid willing writers to sharpen their craft, and how established writers who may still need a nudge in the right direction on a specific story can accept same with grace and good humor.

For example, the late Poul Anderson said this in his response to the editors' comments on "When Half-Gods Go," dated 16 March 1953:

"I should like here to express a very real appreciation of your policy of letting the author do his own re-writing. No other s-f editor does this, damn their eyes, and writers shed bitter tears at seeing their carefully constructed prose ripped to shreds...even if nobody ever seems to notice the difference."

This is almost certainly a dig aimed towards H. L. Gold at Galaxy, who was notorious for rewriting and retitling stories he bought, regardless of the author's wishes or experience. That those authors were frequently able to restore the original text when the stories were eventually published in book form is irrelevant, considering the importance of a story's initial impact in its first appearance.

Ray Bradbury, also, took their comments seriously:

"Although you mention my bad characterization of Bierce, Hawthorne, et cetera, you never mentioned whether the story as a whole titillated you. If you would like the story rewritten to patch up the holes, you know darn well I would enjoy correcting my own errors...This is, of course, only if you really like the idea. Do you?"

They did, indeed, and "The Exiles" appeared, patched and corrected, in the Winter 1950 issue.

It occurs to me at this late date, more than a half-century after F&SF first sprang full-blown from the twin foreheads of Boucher and McComas, that new writers today could benefit from the simple knowledge that the Lions in the field of sf and fantasy were willing to accept suggestions from capable and respected editors, and that their work was improved as a result. It's far too easy at the beginning of a career to fervently believe that once you've typed "The End" at the bottom of the last page the whole thing is set in stone, and must not be altered.

It is also beneficial to know that there are, in fact, editors out there who are more interested in helping their authors hone their craft to a finer edge than they are in simply filling out a table of contents; such editors are a treasure beyond value.

I want to point out, too, that here we have two able, strong-willed editors with clear opinions about what constitutes a good yarn and how best to organize said yarns into a cohesive whole, and there is nothing in the correspondence (nor anywhere else that I know of) to indicate that there was any enmity or disagreement between them. They were both fiercely committed to making F&SF the best they could, and to say they were successful is damning with faint praise. All this, mind you, on a budget that allowed them to pay only two cents a word for years.

In some cases, the authors in question were themselves brand-new at it, and gleeful at the prospect of appearing professionally for (nearly) the first time. Richard Matheson, whose stunning debut, "Born of Man and Woman," appeared in the second issue, said this about it:

"I hope it won't shock you to learn that it is the first story I ever sold in my life. I have written for years, of course. I can only suggest that my lack of success, until now, has been due to a very limited effort at marketing my work."

That would certainly change in the next few years, especially after he discovered his affinity for TV and film scripts.

Both Andre Norton and Philip K. Dick hit F&SF early in their careers. Here PKD writes more about his writing in general than he does of the story in question:

"Writing is a major event for me, and I am beginning to find ways of arranging my life around it, rather than squeezing in a few hours after work or on Sunday. Oddly, most of my writing tends to be fantasy of a religious, drifting nature, ill-suited for worldly things or large publications. All I can say to defend it is that people who read it are disturbed, and go off brooding, very puzzled and unhappy."

That he understood this about his writing from the very beginning says much about the man; he could very well have been talking about his 1985 novel, Radio Free Albemuth. Of course, cynics among us would speculate that "disturbed, brooding, puzzled and unhappy" are natural responses to Dick's prose and not a measure of his depth and complexity, but such cynicism is unbecoming to the serious student of sf history, so we will pay it no credence. Or not much, anyway.

It's hard, now, to think of Andre Norton as a "fresh new talent," but Boucher and McComas were completely accurate in describing her that way in their introductory note to her story, "The Mousetrap," in the June 1954 issue. Norton had already published several historical novels beginning 20 years earlier, as well as her first sf novel, Star Man's Son, in 1952. She had also published two stories - as by Andrew North - in William Crawford's semi-pro Fantasy Book in 1947, but she found that the short form wasn't really her forte:

"Short-stories are not natural writing for me and I have to work them over and over seem to think only in book length plots."

While that may have been true at the time, a quick glance at her output since 1954 shows more than four dozen short stories published in various magazines, collections and anthologies.

She goes on to explain why she decided to write as someone other than Alice Norton:

"As to 'Andre' just a properly ambiguous either sex name to be worn by a female who makes a living writing male adventure stories it can be a problem with readers unless one works behind such a smokescreen especially when one writes for teen age boys. I am very used to being 'Mr. Norton' and have stunned radio program directors when acting as guest-interviewee by appearing in skirts."

So, at the last, what are we to make of this mini-history? Over the years, F&SF has maintained a reputation as being a class act, a prestigious market in which to appear. Any number of authors over the years have spoken of their satisfaction in having finally nailed this particular credit. Its place in the field is as close to unique as may be, and The Eureka Years is an excellent place to begin an appreciation of its early days, at least until a more in-depth and encompassing history is written. Hunt this one down and add it to your library, you'll never regret it.