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Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America by John Cheng (review)

J. P. Telotte

Technology and Culture, Volume 54, Number 2, April 2013, pp. 417-419 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/tech.2013.0073

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what did they produce? And what was their influence? And throughout my reading, I also could not keep from wondering what marvels might have come from this study if McLaren had invited some of the feminist science and technology scholars into his discussions. His wonderfully told history would probably have benefited from these scholars frequent dealings with the relations and inter- and intra-actions between humans and technology.
Maria Bjrkman is a historian of science and medicine at Uppsala University, Sweden. Her Ph.D. deals with the history of Swedish eugenics.

Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America. By John Cheng. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. vi+392. $45.

I was initially led to expect something different from John Chengs Astounding Wonder, for the introduction suggested that the book would offer a chronicle of attitudes toward science and technology in the interwar era, that is, from the 1920s to approximately 1941. This subject has been taken up many times in recent years, notably by commentators such as Cecelia Tichi, Miles Orvell, and Gary Westfahlunfortunately, none of their work is cited hereand always to interesting ends. For this subject, what Cheng describes as the significance and evolving circumstances for what might be called popular science in the early Twentieth Century (p. 3) has become a crucial touchstone for explaining how interwar attitudes along with World War IIhelped shape our modern technological world. But Chengs effort surprised by moving such discussions in a new direction, one that is well worth the effort. As the first chapter clarifies, his real interest lies in linking the development of interwar popular science to that of science fiction, particularly as it took shape in the world of the pulp magazines, such as Amazing Stories, Astounding Stories, and Wonder Stories (originally Science Wonder Stories ), from whose names Cheng draws his own title. Chengs focus ultimately is on the ways in which scientific thinking and the imaginationparticularly what might be termed the literary imaginationwere intertwined in this formative period. As he suggests, imagining science and imagining it passionately were part and parcel of both cultures (p. 6), that of science and its trained practitioners on the one hand and that of the writers and readers of the new literature of science fiction on the other. Drawing on the examples of early rocket experimenter Robert Goddard and the members of the ambitiously named American Interplanetary Society, he notes that science in early-twentieth-century America was





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never really an individual activity; rather, it was presented in newspapers and the pulp magazines as a kind of inclusive enterprise (p. 255). Thus, each new breakthrough seemed to catch the publics attention, to open up popular discussion and debate, and even to bring out volunteers eager to participate, as in the case of those who, responding to news stories about rockets possibly being able to reach the moon, volunteered to take the potentially one-way trip. His larger point is that science was part of a social and progressive sensibility (p. 4), a sensibility that was mirrored in and furthered by both the writing and the reading of science fiction in this era. While a number of histories of science fiction have made similar connections, Chengs documentation of the extent to which readers of science fiction tended to see themselves as potential scientists or even scientists in factrepresents a valuable contribution to our understanding of the place of the pulp magazines in interwar popular culture and in the cultural history of science. For while others have mined the pulp archives to determine what types of stories were written, published, and appreciated in this period, which prominent authors first found their way through the venues of Amazing, Astounding, Wonder, and their less successful brethren, and how much these journals editors helped set the trajectory for a developing science fiction literature, much less attention has been paid to the readership itself. Here Cheng, in great detail, mines the letters to the editors of the journals, the open letters forums, and even individual correspondence, demonstrating how these various communications led to exchanges within and through the backyard of their pulps, and for many, to activities beyond them (p. 215), such as the formation of science clubs, collaboration on rocket projects, the creation of a separate fan fiction and fan-published journals, and eventually to the first fan conventions, or Cons, as they are familiarly known today. It is this fan engagement that gradually becomes the real focus of Astounding Wonderas well as its real strength, allowing it to become an important piece of cultural anthropology, as it gives a very human face to emerging scientific culture. Despite that accomplishment, Astounding Wonder does have its flaws and irritations. As suggested above, Cheng privileges his primary materialsi.e., the letters and columns that he so effectively mineswhile overlooking many key histories of science fiction, many of which have similarly sought to fix their subject in a broad cultural context. While there are a few references to science fiction comic strips, there is no real discussion of the films they inspiredthe Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, for exampleor of a similarly developing science fiction cinema of this period. And the book is simply in need of a good editing to remove the many repetitions and long-winded discussions; while a satisfying read, it could be much better. However, these should not be taken as strong objections to the book. It is a significant work that can be recommended for anyone interested in that




crucial dual development of the early twentieth century: a scientific and technological consciousness and the science fiction imagination.
J. P. Telotte is professor of Film and Media Studies and former chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Coeditor of the journal Post Script, he has published numerous books on science fiction film and television, among them Replications: A Robotic History of the Science Fiction Film (1995), A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age (1999), Science Fiction Film (2001), and The Essential Science Fiction Television Reader (2008).

Into the Cosmos: Space Exploration and Soviet Culture. Edited by James T. Andrews and Asif A. Siddiqi. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011. $27.95.

Before Neil Armstrongs historic moonwalk in July of 1969, the Soviet Union dominated the exploration of space, to the chagrin of Americans and the delight of Soviet citizens. Between 1957 and 1963, the Soviets launched the first satellite into orbit and the first satellite with a live passenger (a dog named Laika). It boasted the first human spaceflight and sent the first woman into space. Into the Cosmos is a cultural history of the first generation of Soviet space exploration that reveals that space program to have been a crucial cultural touchstone for Soviet citizens throughout the 1950s and 1960s. This edited volume provides examples of how the first generation of Soviet space exploration affected cosmonauts, ordinary citizens, and everyday life in the former Soviet Union. Because the Soviet space program was run by the military, much of it was secretive and details about spacecraft, plans for future launches, rocket designers, and even the location of the launch site in rural Kazakhstan were classified information. Rockets that could propel humans into outer space could also carry bombs across oceans and continents, and while this early chapter of the U.S.-Soviet space race was couched in terms of friendly competition, it had potentially bellicose ulterior motives. Many documents about the space program remain classified and the contributors to this volume have relied primarily on published sources including memoirs, Russian-language newspapers, scientific volumes, and other journals. Only James Andrewss chapter on Konstantin Tsiolkovskii, a rocket scientist and space enthusiast from the early twentieth century, contains a significant number of original archival materials. The first section of the book gives an overview of the topic. Alexei Kojevnikov describes the Soviet space program in the broader cultural context of the 1950s and 1960s and James Andrews traces the longer history of Russian and early Soviet fascination with space travel. The second section