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Authentic: The Story of a British Science-Fiction Pulp Magazine

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By the early 1950s, the American pulp science-fiction magazine had entered a stage where the more juvenile titles were dying off, with their covers of busty heroines grappled by lizard-men while a square-jawed all-American cowboy in a spacesuit takes aim had begun to end, perhaps a legacy of the atomic bomb bringing in a new age of respect, born of fear, for science. The more highbrow entries, such as Astounding Science Fiction, were aiming for the same market as the traditionally more respectable, but rarer, science fiction novels. Great Britain by contrast had no such problems with printing science fiction novels, but had next to no tradition of genre magazine publications.

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This changed in the immediate post-war period with New Worlds hitting the newsstands in 1946, a title which would survive, in one way or another, for 224 issues until calling it a day as recently as October 2014. This generated enough interest for other publishers to consider science fiction magazines, and one, Hamilton & Co., hired Gordon Lansborough as editor (he used the pseudonym L G Holmes for his work on the magazine) for a fortnightly series of novels initially appearing under the banner of Authentic Science Fiction Series, issue 1 of which appeared on New Year’s Day 1951.

As from issue 8, Lansborough brought in a research chemist named H J Campbell to strengthen the scientific angle of what had morphed into Authentic Science Fiction Monthly. In those days, to have a genuine scientist on board a literary venture was as a boon; the British astronomer Patrick Moore penned several space adventures at the time (one of which, the 1956 World of Mists, is reviewed in issue 69, more of which later), and in the mid-1960s the TV show Doctor Who often featured the work of Dr Kit Pedler, a medical scientist who co-created the famous Cybermen monsters.

The scientific ability Campbell brought to Authentic was desperately needed, for its early run of issues featured short novels of a very low standard, usually written by staff writers under pseudonyms. With titles like Mushroom Men from Mars, Old Growler - Spaceship No. 223 and Reconnoitre Krellig II, Authentic failed to make an impact on the discerning fantasy palates of Britain. The title of Campbell’s first featured novel, World in a Test Tube, pointed the way to a more adult approach as Authentic (now under the title Science Fiction Monthly - the way pulp magazines changed titles and publishing schedules can seem bewildering to the modern reader, but reflects the contemporary market's fluidity) turned from fortnightly to monthly.

Authentic, and many other pulps of the time, were not magazines in the sense we understand it now. Aside from the last eight of its 85 issue run, Authentic was a pocket-book affair, rather like a thin paperback book. The budget for a title like Authentic had no allowance for the expensive glossy paper we associate with the magazines of today – these ‘magazines’ are known as pulps for good reason, as the paper's quality often matched the quality of the stories which appeared within the slender covers.

And the budget caused problems for the editors during Authentic’s run for other reasons.

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Campbell took over from Lansborough from issue 13, with E C Tubb, who would go on to write over 140 science fiction novels, taking the reins in issue 66. All three ran into the same problem; Hamilton & Co kept such a tight hold of the finances that Authentic could never attract the highest quality of writers. Pseudonyms became a method to disguise the limited number of writers available to the likes of Tubb, who ended up writing some issues almost single-handedly. Of the stories submitted, many of their authors would not comply with the standard word counts and objected to have their work edited, or ‘altered’, as they saw it.     

By the end of Authentic’s run in October 1957, the magazine had developed considerably from the feeble juvenilia of early 1951. Under Campbell’s editorship, scientific essays, editorials, book reviews and more short stories appeared. Campbell later reproduced American stories by big names such as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and A E Van Vogt. Issue 31 contained arguably Authentic’s best ‘home-grown’ British story, ‘The Rose’ by Charles L Harness, a thoughtful novella meditating a balance between science and art. E C Tubb phased out the real-life science for more science-fiction, but continued the editorials.

By the end, Authentic had attained a very competent standard of quality, with some issues even reaching American newsstands, but fell victim to the cut-throat economics of publishing. Hamilton first diverted its efforts away from Authentic, into the ultimately successful Panther Books range, and then its money, into buying the British rights to the best-selling Evan Hunter (the writer now known as Ed McBain) novel The Blackboard Jungle (1954). The last issue of Authentic Science Fiction appeared in October 1957, and as is so often the case, readers were given no sign of this being the end for their magazine. Had it continued, Authentic might have become as respected as New Worlds or Astounding Science Fiction (later Analog), but nonetheless, it played its part in making British news-store science-fiction respectable, just as Campbell and Tubb had always hoped.

A Typical Edition of Authentic Science Fiction

Issue 69, published in May 1956, with a fine cover by art editor J E Mortimer, is a good example of ‘The Magazine of Tomorrow’, as Authentic now styled itself. E C Tubb’s editorial is a bizarre discourse hypothesizing that the age of the Bible’s leading geriatric, Methuselah, of 969, was by no means uncommon for his time and the human lifespan has declined since the Flood. Tubb believes a vegetarian diet would see a turnaround (“The answer could be as simple as that”), although we should not discount the effects of radio waves in aging human tissue.

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The feature novel, taking up just 45 of the 160 pages, is Number Thirteen by Douglas West (actually E C Tubb), a tale lunar travel's unionization and an astronaut whose son wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Kenneth Bulmer, a writer even more prolific than Tubb, provided the issue’s 30 page novelette, ‘Quarry’, a fantasy of duelling royals on Mars.  

Five short stories rounded out the fiction for the issue, with E C Tubb returning for ‘The Spice of Danger’ (under the name Alan Innes). The most notable name is that of John Brunner, who appears here with an early short story entitled ‘Mowgli’; his 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar went on to win both the 1969 Hugo award and British Science Fiction award for best novel.  

The rest of the issue is non-fiction. H J Campbell contributes an article to his former employer, ‘Old and Decayed,’ an essay on the effects on both society and the individual of old age (“one-fifth of the population by 1980 will be old-age pensioners. Something must be done to prepare for such a time.”); Campbell writes that his is in part a response to an article in a 1955 edition of Biology Review, written by none other than Dr Alex Comfort, future author of The Joy of Sex (1972).

‘The Way to the Planets’ by A E Roy BSc, PhD, FRAS, FBIS, details the problems facing man’s first expedition to Mars caused by the potentially inaccurate measurements made from the limited technology of the time (“a rocket may be as much as 80,000 miles in error when it arrives at the planet Mars.”) Reading the article, one feels although Mr Roy would be delighted at the advances we have made in measuring interplanetary distances, he’d be disappointed we hadn’t reached the red planet yet and learned if astronauts “might find a reception committee waiting for them!”  

There are also (very brief) book reviews, and letter from various points of the empire, including one from H W Evans of Swansea, Wales, who calls for every surviving Authentic reader to meet up in London in the year 2000 for a chat about the century’s science-fiction.

Finishing with the chance to buy The New Handbook on Hanging from Panther Books, issue 69 of Authentic Science Fiction would have been the most interesting two shillings an honest Brit spent on that particular day in 1956. It’s a shame that, rather like the Empire, such varied and earnest material has long since vanished from the high street.  

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