How Cosmos came to be

(This page is WIP.  I’m currently searching the university archives where the papers of the various Cosmos authors are housed for additional material to add richness.  If any visitors to this site can provide further input or guidance, it would be appreciated.)

From the material in his columns and other writings, it seems clear that Raymond A. Palmer, then the Literary Editor of Science Fiction Digest, was the primary driving force behind Cosmos.  This is also documented in a number of histories of the period.  However, then-Editorial Director Conrad Ruppert suggests that the origin of the project was more of a collaborative effort among the editors From “Tales of the Time Travelers,” John L. Coker, III, editor, Days of Wonder Publishers, 2009:

After the first year with Science Fiction Digest, I became editor, and some time later the title changed to Fantasy Magazine.  It was during this time that we came up with the idea of doing a story about characters from different parts of the solar system and bringing them together at a central point.  It was to be called Cosmos.  Ray Palmer undertook the project and changed the original outline.  He has a person from a nearby star come to the solar system in order to fight the invasion that was coming from his system.

Palmer was a peculiar man.  His story is perhaps best told in Fred Nadis’s fascinating (and overdue) biography, “The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey” (Penguin Books, 2013).  Palmer’s wikipedia page provides a terse portrait of this complex persona.

After an intensive search of collectors’ hordes and library archives, it appeared that Palmer’s original plot outline hadn’t survived. Fortunately, science fiction fans tend to preserve everything. In the course of research for another project, leading historian Alistair Durie mentioned that he had exactly this document. With his kind permission, it’s shown in full here.
Fred Nadis was also able to locate some of the correspondence between Palmer and Lloyd Eshbach regarding the writing of Eshbach’s chapter of the novel (pg 18 – 19):

While literary editor at Science Fiction Digest, Palmer arranged one of the unique stunts of early science fiction, the novel Cosmos, which consisted of seventeen chapters assigned to different authors, printed as a serial.  Palmer loosely set up the plots of the chapters and adjusted them as new sections were turned in, giving authors plenty of room for invention.  The authors included some prominent pulpsters and SF writers…

Palmer was having a blast.  He was dashing off letters to create Cosmos while also working as a sheet metal installer, writing his own pulp stories, sending out books from his lending library, and corresponding with at least twenty authors and other fans.  In the spring of 1934, on Science Fiction Digest letterhead, Palmer wrote to weird tales author Lloyd Eshbach with his assignment for one of the concluding chapters of Cosmos, “The Horde of Elo Hava.”  Palmer tapped out his instructions, “As for your part, you are to rescue the Neptune fleet, or ship, from the trap they have fallen into.  You are out in space on the way to the battle-front as your part opens.  You have just received a message from the commander of the earth ship saying that you are to proceed no further along your course, as it is also a death trap.  (The lunarian, who has taken control on Luna, and is impersonating Dos-Tev, has sent these false courses.)”  Palmer noted other difficulties that would plague the rescue and asked Eshbach to await word from another contributor to find out what “trap” the other space crew had fallen into.  After succeeding in the rescue, “together you search space via radio for your brother and sister ships of the solar system, and meet nothing but dead silence!  That ends your part.”  He concluded his instructions with, “And now, go to it, and the sooner you finish, the better.  Miller will be at it in a hurry too, so you won’t have long to wait.”

Palmer soon got a response from Eshbach, along with the new chapter, and a note declaring, “It’s finished – and I’m not one bit sorry!  Between Flagg’s jelly characters and my desire to write something a bit out of the ordinary, I had one sweet time.”  Eshbach encouraged Palmer to adjust the chapter as necessary to fit in with the rest of the narrative and went on to praise the chapter written by Abraham Merritt, “The Last Poet and the Robots.”  Establishing himself as a fellow fan, Eshbach then complained about the latest issues of Amazing Stories and their reliance on reprints of Verna and Poe rather than fresh material…

(Full copies of the referenced correspondence between Palmer and Eshbach can be seen here.)

More insight into the origin of Cosmos is captured in “The Gernsback Days” by Mike Ashley and Robert A.W. Lowndes (Wildside Press, 2004) (pg 216):

Although Science Fiction Digest carried fiction, that was not its main feature.  Palmer, however, sought to remedy that by instigating a novelty in the form of a round-robin story to be published as a supplement.  The story had the overall title of Cosmos and ran for seventeen chapters, from July 1933 to January 1935.  Palmer provided the outline, which was rather old-hat space opera, and then reached agreement with sixteen other authors to write the series.  The authors joined in for the fun of it, interested to see how their chapters fitted in with that preceding, and what problems they could set for others to solve.  Since Palmer had set out the framework, the authors worked in advance on their sections before seeing the earlier chapters.  Francis Flagg, for instance, had already plotted his chapter before he saw the opening chapter from Ralph Milne Farley.  He put his thoughts in a letter to Ackerman:

A swell beginning, I think, tho on general principles I dislike emperors and princes as the heroes of stories.  You will note I never use them in that sense… However, Farley has done a good opening chapter; it will test the rest of us to live up to it.  Mine isn’t even written yet, tho plotted out somewhat.  But I’ve two months to do it in.  I’m looking forward to seeing Keller’s chapter.  He CAN write and should give us something original.  Farley’s will be a hard chapter to best for science, tho.

The full line-up of writers in Cosmos was awesome… They were all top names in the pulps, but to be able to bring together both Merritt and Smith in one serial was a bonanza for all fans.  Cosmos is far from great science fiction, and has to be read in the manner in which it was written.  Most of the chapters can stand on their own and Merritt’s in particular, “The Last Poet and the Robots” (April 1934), which was voted the most popular, is a gem of a story.  It is some measure of the affinity that existed between science-fiction devotees that writers were willing to spend time and contribute stories free of charge to the fan press while, at the same time, they were instigating legal proceedings against Huge Gernsback for recovery of unpaid fees for stories.  It is the clear distinction between work done for fun and that for profit.

It’s telling that these authors describe Cosmos as a “stunt” and a “novelty.”  I can’t argue that the resulting novel suffers from severe flaws, and that Palmer was undoubtedly interested in the self-promotion that the project would generate – but the enthusiasm he portrayed at the onset leads me to believe that he aspired to create a great piece of fiction as well.

Harry Warner shared a particularly revealing anecdote regarding Palmer in his book, “All Our Yesterdays” (Advent:Publishers, Inc., 1969), which I think shows his focus and ambition (pg 76 – 77):

When Ziff-Davis bought Amazing Stories in 1938, the new owners immediately fired T. O’Conor Sloane, tottery with age, as editor.  Ralph Milne Farley [author of Chapter One of Cosmos] visited the Davis half of the ownership, saw that he didn’t know much about the magazine he now owned, and suggested Palmer as the proper person for the editorship.  Davis asked Palmer to write a letter outlining his qualifications.  Instead, at Farley’s suggestion, Palmer applied in person at the editorial offices in Chicago.  An unidentified timekeeper chronicled the day’s events like this: Palmer arrived at 10:22 a.m., began to go through the pile of manuscripts on hand at 10:41 a.m., received complete charge of the magazine at 5:11 p.m., and got home at 9 p.m., having gone without food and drink for 27 hours.  “Here at last,” Palmer said.  “I had it in my power to do to my old hobby what I had always had the driving desire to do to it.  I had in my hands the power to change, to destroy, to create, to re-make, at my own discretion.”  He accepted only one of more than a hundred manuscripts left over from the Sloane regime, solicited another type of story from writers known to him, and arranged for a photographic cover because the new issue was due in two weeks and prozine artists were mostly in New York…  Circulation figures were not officially published in those years, but Palmer claimed that Amazing was selling only 27,000 copies when he got hold of it, that his first issue sold 45,000 copies, that 75,000 copies were sold of the following issue, and that the figure eventually reached a peak of 185,000.

The vital connection between Cosmos and Palmer’s later career were manifest in Farley’s recommendation for Rap’s first professional job in publishing, and in his ability to quickly gather quality material from the leading writers of the day.  Cosmos the novel was already becoming obscure, as indicated by the following note also from “All Our Yesterdays” (pg 59):

…yet the receipts at the first worldcon [World Science Fiction Convention] auction in 1939 totaled only $75; included in this figure were the winning bids for such things as the original manuscripts of a Weinbaum novel, a Howard story, and “Cosmos,” the pro chain story; unpublished Wesso and Paul cover art; early issues of Time Traveler and Science Fiction Digest; and an inundation of less heady material.

But the relationships established through the creation of Cosmos continued to shape the science fiction genre for years and decades that followed.  Through his connection to Julius Schwartz, Palmer’s name achieved immortality in a different way: he became a superhero.  In “Tales of the Time Travelers,” in Schwartz’s autobiographical essay “Strange Schwartz Stories from DC Comics,” he describes his resurrection of The Flash and his key interventions in the Superman franchise during the 1950s.  He also adds:

Incidentally, one little side note, another character that I brought back was The Atom.  The original Atom from the golden age was just a small-sized guy with a terrific punch, no super powers.  When I did The Atom, I worked out a story where a human being could shrink himself in size to any size he wants.  His normal small size would be six inches.  Super heroes ought to have civilian identities and costumed identities.  I thought about my friend Raymond Palmer, who had worked on Science Fiction Digest and was the editor of Amazing Stories.  He had had an accident when he was a youngster, and something happened to his back.  He never grew more than four feel six inches tall.  So I called Ray and asked if he’d mind if I call The Atom “Ray Palmer?”  That’s how he got his name.  By the way, the column that Ray Palmer wrote for Science Fiction Digest in the early-1930s was called “Spilling the Atoms.”


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