As implied by the price and page count, this is a large-format (10.25" x 13.25") volume with admirable production values, nicely calculated to grace any SF fan's coffee-table. It's dominated by Frank M. Robinson's selection of well over 400 magazine covers, book jackets, cinema posters and other SF images, most at generous size and virtually all in full colour. The very few exceptions are from black-and-white originals, like a photograph of H.G. Wells meeting Orson Welles in 1940. Movie publicity photos and stills are entirely avoided, with less familiar poster images being preferred.
In Robinson's unashamedly personal view of the century's SF, the magazines hold centre stage. For a long while, indeed, it seems that his title should have been Science Fiction Magazines of the 20th Century.
Tell me the old, old story,
Of skiffy things above,
Of Gernsback in his glory,
Of Campbell's push and shove ...
The introduction evokes that good old nostalgia for earlier SF fandom and the heyday of the pulps. Chapter 1 peers into prehistory, fast-forwarding from Godwin's 17th-century The Man in the Moone past the usual suspects (de Bergerac, Mary Shelley, Poe, Verne, Wells ...) to the early 20th century when generalist outlets like Argosy published what magazine SF there was.
Robinson's retelling is breezy, engaging, occasionally a trifle slapdash. The italics are all his in: "Wells wrote the first time travel story, the first story dealing with invisibility, and the first story to deal with an alien invasion." Considering such not yet forgotten time-travel precursors as Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, it seems wiser to say that Wells gave the themes their first significant treatments as pure science fiction. But this is the commentary of a lover rather than a critic of SF, who remains genial and tactful whether discussing the Shaver Mystery, Dianetics, the Futurians and their feuds, or even the New Wave.
Chapter 2 takes us through the glory days of Hugo Gernsback and Amazing. Of the many splendidly garish covers reproduced in this volume, fully 32 are from Amazing and 31 of these appear in the present section. Despite the rich vein of 1920s and 1930s nostalgia to be mined here, the chapter's final pages continue the story up to 1998, with Amazing in the hands of games publishers Wizards of the Coast and running Babylon 5 novel excerpts – approved by Robinson as the right marketing decision for the time. Alas, it was announced in 2000 that Amazing's Summer issue that year would be the last.
Onward, or rather backwards, to start again in 1929. Chapter 3 tackles Wonder Stories and its various allotropes like Science Wonder Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. Chapter 4 regales us with the history of Astounding Stories and its Campbellian transformation to Analog, again accelerating through time in the final pages to Stanley Schmidt's current editorship and a life-size reproduction of one 1999 cover (as opposed to a dozen from the 1930s – Robinson rightly emphasizes older, rarer material).
So it goes. Chapter 5 covers lesser lights: Weird Tales, Planet Stories, Startling, Fantastic Adventures and more, while Unknown is tersely dismissed without a cover reproduction since "it published fantasy not science fiction." Chapter 6 is built around major digest titles of the 1950s and after: The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Galaxy, Asimov's. This is complemented by Chapter 7's review of the same period's minor contenders in the digest format, such as If (which some might prefer to call major), Fantastic and Worlds of Tomorrow. Several pages are devoted to a hyperbolic guest appearance by Harlan Ellison, describing the rat-race horrors of working for a 1950s digest editor.
Chapter 8 yokes together two magazine subcategories by subtle alliteration: "The Big and the British", with the large format of New Worlds at its most Moorcockianly controversial providing a transatlantic link. Other magazines mentioned here include Cosmos, Galileo, Tomorrow SF, Aboriginal SF, and SF Age; there are some kindly paragraphs about our very own Interzone.
Now we arrive at Chapter 9, on page 164 of 256 ... and, rather like that tiny blip which is human history when compared to the dinosaurs' long aeons, other sf media such as books finally get a look-in. In fact the three final chapters respectively tackle SF's entire presence in paperbacks, in hardbacks (including small presses), and in cinema (including TV). Naturally these sections are more breathless and selective than anything that went before. An afterword concludes, agreeably enough, that despite gloomy exaggerations and predictions SF is not dead.
The format of Robinson's presentation is slightly less appropriate in the book chapters, where it would have been useful – especially for hardbacks – to add publishers' names to the captions and so pin down the edition. Sometimes this information is visible (it says Doubleday right there on the front of The Martian Chronicles), but more often not; yet the publication date invariably gets a whole line of caption to itself, and, for example, the bare "1972" for Dying Inside could so easily have read "Scribner's, 1972".
Some other minor carping is possible. The 2pp index is frustratingly skimpy thanks to a policy of not indexing mere book titles. Thus Amazing is meticulously indexed even when mentioned as a brief aside in the caption for an Astounding cover, while The Left Hand of Darkness is indexed neither when it appears in the main text nor when its cover art is reproduced and its title heads the caption. Also, whether or not we actually believe Arthur C. Clarke on this one, it's naughty of Robinson to state that HAL in 2001 is a deliberately joky one-letter shift from IBM without acknowledging Clarke's decades of loud, repeated denials that this was ever intended.
But the heart of Science Fiction of the 20th Century lies in its sumptuously reproduced pictures, which are a joy to look upon. Colourful and often unfamiliar SF images abound, excusably including artwork for Robinson's own The Power (book and movie) and The Dark Beyond the Stars – not to mention his gaudily spray-painted 1942 cover for Wilson Tucker's fanzine Le Zombie. All these, like the author's name, are modestly omitted from that index.
Mighty SF collections have been rifled for material, as indicated in extensive acknowledgements. Kelly Freas's witty picture of a space-pirate swarming through the airlock with a slide rule clenched between his teeth has been frequently mentioned, less often reproduced: here it is. The swarms of ancient magazine covers seem better and clearer than ever, almost supernaturally free of creases and stains. Such is the visual perfectionism that the reason for one hand-penned cover defacement is carefully explained (the crossed-out author wasn't actually in that issue of Astounding), while the cod-pulp artwork for Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music comes captioned with a reassurance that the "creases" really are, no kidding, a trompe l'oeil part of the picture.
All these treats for the eye will stand repeated browsing, even if the paper is of such intimidatingly high quality that one feels one should wear gloves. Fans who can afford the book won't want to part with it until the Fireman of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (see page 116) pries it from their cold, dead fingers.