Worlds of Tomorrow
The Amazing Universe of Science Fiction Art
By Forrest J. Ackerman with Brad Linaweaver
Portland: Collectors Press, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 188805493X Price: $39.95
The Golden Age of Science Fiction spanned the middle of the twentieth century, roughly 1920–1970, give or take a decade and a few heated arguments among fans. The groundwork was laid in the science romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and the genre came of age in magazines and anthologies with hyperbolic titles like Amazing Stories, Super Science and Fantastic Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Uncanny Tales. To lure the reader of “scientifiction,” usually young and male, publishers adorned their rags with eye-catching artwork, combining outlandish images with garish colors and suggestions of overheated narratives. I remember rooting through old copies of these magazines as a kid, finding them in old bookstores and in the back of garages and basements.
Worlds of Tomorrow is a lavish cornucopia of these imaginative and colorful creations. Ackerman and Linaweaver have collected and assembled covers from pulp magazines and paperback books, starting in the late 1920s and finishing in the early 1960s, just as the world was catching up with the old scientifiction dreams of the space race and computer technology. Many of the titles come from the prolific Hugo Gernsback, the publisher who promulgated the most famous golden age periodicals and whose name graces one of sci-fi literature’s most prestigious awards (the Hugo). Other covers are more obscure and exotic: B- thru Z-grade titles from vanished American and European publishers. Many authors will be familiar to collectors (Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov) while others (Volsted Gridban?) are as unknown as the strange worlds they portray.
The book is divided into chapters organized around four major visual themes depicted in sci-fi cover art: the world of tomorrow, spaceships, robots, and aliens. Ackerman and Linaweaver celebrate the overlooked accomplishments of genre artists such as Frank R. Paul, Robert Schulz, Leo Morey, and Elliott Dold, who imagined and rendered the first popular images of rocket ships, space planes, robots, and alien life forms. Linaweaver points out the difference between the sleek single-stage rockets (usually atomic powered) that graced these covers and the multiple-stage rockets eventually used by NASA. “There is no reason that something like the 1950s super-atomic rocket ship couldn’t exist,” Linaweaver speculates. “All that is required is repealing all environmental laws, scrapping all test ban treaties…and busting the budget!”
The covers reflected narratives and values inherited from pulp adventures and serials by Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. Rider Haggard and their manly colonialism. Aliens were often BEM (bug-eyed monsters), little more than untamed savages who needed to be vanquished by the fair-haired hero and his buxom heroine. But many artists pushed the envelope, realizing images of interstellar harmony, even romance between humans and aliens. Their cover illustrations highlighted the complexities and hypocrisies in technological advancement—is mankind ready for these new wonders?—sometimes with subtlety unexpected for the genre.
Worlds of Tomorrow is a beautifully designed and assembled book. The reproductions vividly capture the original cover colors. Kudos to Collectors Press for the quality of printing and good graphic design that enhances reading: typically two or three covers spaciously arranged on each page. After a few readings, contemporary book covers seem tame by comparison. Perhaps they’re reigned in by marketing algorithms that pigeonhole these early sci-fi images as primitive and infantile. This is a gross misrepresentation. The covers often incorporate elements of the artistic movements of their day, such as Expressionism and Surrealism, and many prefigure Pop Art in the late twentieth century.
Author Forrest Ackerman is affectionately known among sci-fi collectors and aficionados as “Mr. Science Fiction.” That moniker isn’t as hyperbolic as the magazine titles in his collection. A lifelong resident of Los Angeles, Ackerman has been collecting science fiction movie and literary memorabilia for over seventy years, at one point amassing 300,000 artifacts that he displayed in his house. He allegedly coined the term “sci-fi” around 1958.
This book is as much a celebration of Ackerman’s influence on writers and generations of fans as of the covers themselves. Therein is the book’s Achilles’s heel. The accompanying text is more celebratory than explanatory. Ackerman and Linaweaver are citizens of the golden age, and their enthusiasm is as unbridled and upbeat as the visions they’ve assembled. They are good boosters, and Ackerman’s name should be more widely known outside genre circles than it is, but the writing frequently turns tongue-in-cheek and veers into exhortations that could have come from a 1950s horror movie. I expected more insight and revelation. In Worlds of Tomorrow, the text, written by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, is a bystander–the eye feasts on the fantastic candy around it.
The future predicted in the golden age didn’t materialize the way its authors and artists anticipated. We have weapons of mass destruction, cell phones, space planes (the space shuttle), and computers, but we didn’t get flying cars or jet packs (darn). Undelivered prophecies aside, golden age sci-fi had an incalculable influence on movies, art and architecture, science, and technology. Many of its fans became the scientists, technologists, and dreamers who continue to pioneer new wonders in the twenty-first century. A serious re-appraisal of science fiction artwork is due, and I hope Worlds of Tomorrow inspires this effort, as well as the dreams of future writers and achievers. Maybe we’ll get those flying cars someday.