Reviews

Printing science fiction novels may have a been a new idea for the publishing world in the late 1940s, but small presses were not and neither was the practice of reviewing hardback fiction from them. Mysteries had their slot; apart from other fiction, true, but included in regular columns with more or less prestigious and knowledgeable reviewers covering them. Science fiction looked like the new genre to break out and be deserving of mainstream attention. It didn’t happen overnight, of course.

The exemplar of this appears simultaneously with the very first Gnome Press volume, The Carnelian Cube, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, with Pratt having high mainstream regard as an author of nonfiction. The New York Times Book Review apparently felt it had to pay attention to the book, but where and how? The solution the editors came up was an obvious and clumsy compromise. They slotted it in their mystery review column, Criminals at Large. Why couldn’t the book be reviewed on its own? From today’s perspective we recognize that genre columns are a cage, erected so that the books do not contaminate their betters. Yet the Times had the same dilemma as libraries and bookstores. Consumers of genre prefer, often demand, that their favorite reading be separated out for their convenience and so they can spot new entries without having to comb through the entire collection. Those voices tend to be louder and more persistent than the advocates for equality. I separate mysteries and science fiction from other fiction in my home collection and I suspect you do so as well. Realistically, I have to applaud the Times for its inclusion rather than damn them for their segregation.

Anyway, that was December 1948. By 1950 sufficient science fiction reached the market – some three dozen novels a year! – that they started a semi-regular, more or less monthly science fiction review column. It appeared under a cacophony of names, probably adjusted to the space provided but sometimes seeming like they just plain forgot what it was called from month to month. I haven’t checked all of them but I did find Realm of the Spacemen; In the Realm of the Spacemen; Cosmic Adventures in the Realm of the Spacemen, In the Spaceman’s Realm; Spaceman’s Realm; and Spacemen’s Realm. The equation of SF and spaceships goes way back, and this filler illustration from a early column emphasizes that.

New York Times review illustrationA variety of names appeared under the reviews, and some issues had reviews from more than one person. Regular reviewers included Basil Davenport, anthologist and historian of the field; Villiers Gerson, reviewer and essayist who joined the staff of Amazing Stories; J. Frances McComas, writer, anthologist and co-founder and co-editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; and Fletcher Pratt himself. Gnome’s one children’s title, Mel Oliver and Space Rovers on Mars, was given to Ellen Lewis Buell, their children’s books editor. Fans might not like the results – reviews were usually kind but The Carnelian Cube wasn’t the only one to be slammed, but they couldn’t complain the books weren’t being taken seriously.

The column ran from 1950 to 1957 and then simply stops. It would be another decade before the Times resumed regular reviews of SF novels. Many people said then and later that the field was in deep decline by the end of the 1950s. The best books retained their power but a flood of ill-paying paperbacks cheapened the reputation of the field with a deluge of drek. The degeneration of science fiction movies into sci-fi Z-grade horror might contribute to guilt by association. My guess is that it’s not a coincidence that it took the rise of a generation of new and terrific authors in the 60s to demand attention once again.

I’ve managed to find reviews of 25 Gnome Press titles. You’ll see excerpts from them just above the bibliographic information on each page.

About a dozen other reviews come from August Derleth, who had a regular sf&f review column, “Minority Report,” in the Madison Capitol Times and syndicated elsewhere. I’ve found a random few elsewhere in newspaper databases.

The science fiction magazines themselves regularly reviewed Gnome Press titles, of course. Hunting those down is hit and miss. However, I’ve recently found access to a complete run of Galaxy Science Fiction for the 1950s. Almost every Gnome title can be found in their Galaxy Five Star Shelf column. Groff Conklin wrote the column from the beginning through the October 1955 issue. Floyd C. Gale took it over with the November 1955 issue and would have it through the rest of Gnome’s existence. Conklin had the conveniently quotable habit of using his last line as a summary of his opinion. Gale wasn’t quite as consistent in this, but usually has an nicely extractable finish.

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