History of science fiction magazines

History of science fiction magazines

Major American science fiction magazines include Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The most influential and longest running British science fiction magazine was New Worlds, although newer British SF magazines include Interzone (magazine) and Polluto. Many science fiction magazines have been published in languages other than English, but none has gained worldwide recognition or influence in the world of anglophone science fiction.

There is a growing trend toward important work being published first on the Internet, both for reasons of economics and access. A web-only publication can cost as little as one-tenth of the cost of publishing a print magazine, and as a result, some believe the e-zines are more innovative and take greater risks with material. Moreover, the magazine is internationally accessible, and distribution is not an issue though obscurity may be. Magazines like Strange Horizons, Ideomancer, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Jim Baen’s Universe, and the Australian magazine Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine are examples of successful Internet magazines. (Andromeda provides copies electronically or on paper.) Web-based magazines tend to favor shorter stories and articles that are easily read on a screen, and many of them pay little or nothing to the authors, thus limiting their universe of contributors. However, the following web-based magazines are listed as “paying markets” by the SFWA, which means that they pay the “professional” rate of 5c/word or more: Strange Horizons, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Jim Baen’s Universe, Clarkesworld Magazine and ChiZine.

The World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) awarded a Hugo Award each year to the best science fiction magazine, until that award was changed to one for Best Editor in the early 1970s; the Best Semi-Professional Magazine award can go to either a news-oriented magazine or a small press fiction magazine.

From 1926 until the early 1950s, American science fiction magazines were the main sources of written science fiction. Today, there are relatively few paper-based science fiction magazines, and most printed science fiction appears first in book form. Science fiction magazines began in the United States, but there were several major British magazines and science fiction magazines that have been published around the world, for example in France and Argentina.

The first science fiction magazines

First issue of Amazing Stories (April 1926) with art by Frank R. Paul.

The first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, was published in a format known as bedsheet, roughly the size of Life but with a square spine. Later, most magazines changed to the pulp magazine format, roughly the size of comic books or National Geographic but again with a square spine. Now, most magazines are published in digest format, roughly the size of Reader’s Digest, although a few are in the standard roughly 8.5″ x 11″ size, and often have stapled spines, rather than glued square spines. Science fiction magazines in this format often feature non-fiction media coverage in addition to the fiction. Knowledge of these formats is an asset when locating magazines in libraries and collections where magazines are usually shelved according to size.

The premiere issue of Amazing Stories (April 1926), edited and published by Hugo Gernsback, displayed a cover by Frank R. Paul illustrating Off on a Comet by Jules Verne. After many minor changes in title and major changes in format, policy and publisher, Amazing Stories ended January 2005 after 607 issues.

Except for the last issue of Stirring Science Stories, the last true bedsheet size sf (and fantasy) magazine was Fantastic Adventures, in 1939, but it quickly changed to the pulp size, and it was later absorbed by its digest-sized stablemate Fantastic in 1953. Before that consolidation, it ran 128 issues.

Much fiction published in these bedsheet magazines, except for classic reprints by writers such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe, is only of antiquarian interest. Some of it was written by teenage science fiction fans, who were paid little or nothing for their efforts. Jack Williamson for example, was 19 when he sold his first story to Amazing Stories. His writing improved greatly over time, and until his death in 2006, he was still a publishing writer at age 98. Some of the stories in the early issues were by scientists or doctors who knew little or nothing about writing fiction, but who tried their best, for example, Dr. David H. Keller. Probably the two best original sf stories ever published in a bedsheet science fiction magazine were “A Martian Odyssey” by Stanley G. Weinbaum and “The Gostak and the Doshes” by Dr. Miles Breuer, who influenced Jack Williamson. “The Gostak and the Doshes” is one of the few stories from that era still widely read today. Other stories of interest from the bedsheet magazines include the first Buck Rogers story. Armageddon 2419 A.D, by Philip Francis Nowlan and The Skylark of Space by E. E. Smith and Mrs. Lee Hawkins Garby, both in Amazing Stories in 1928.

There have been a few unsuccessful attempts to revive the bedsheet size using better quality paper, notably Science-Fiction Plus edited by Hugo Gernsback (195253, eight issues). Astounding on two occasions briefly attempted to revive the bedsheet size, with 16 bedsheet issues in 19421943 and 25 bedsheet issues (as Analog, including the first publication of Frank Herbert’s Dune) in 19631965. The fantasy magazine Unknown, also edited by John W. Campbell, changed its name to Unknown Worlds and published ten bedsheet-size issues before returning to pulp size for its final four issues. Amazing Stories published 36 bedsheet size issues in 19911999, and its last three issues were bedsheet size, 20042005.

The pulp era

Startling Stories (November 1948). Cover art by Earle Bergey.

Astounding Stories began in January 1930. After several changes in name and format (Astounding Science Fiction, Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Analog) it is still published today (though it ceased to be pulp format in 1943). Its most important editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., is credited with turning science fiction away from adventure stories on alien planets and toward well-written, scientifically literate stories with better characterization than in previous pulp science fiction. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy and Robert A. Heinlein’s Future History in the 1940s, Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity in the 1950s, and Frank Herbert’s Dune in the 1960s, and many other science fiction classics all first appeared under Campbell’s editorship.

By 1955, the pulp era was over, and some pulp magazines changed to digest size. Printed adventure stories with colorful heroes were relegated to the comic books. This same period saw the end of radio adventure drama (in the United States). Later attempts to revive both pulp fiction and radio adventure have met with very limited success, but both enjoy a nostalgic following who collect the old magazines and radio programs. Many characters, most notably The Shadow, were popular both in pulp magazines and on radio.

Most pulp science fiction consisted of adventure stories transplanted, without much thought, to alien planets. Much was so badly written that even today science fiction still carries a slight whiff of its pulp heritage. The familiar image of pulp science fiction is a beautiful, scantily-clad, large-breasted woman being carried off by a bug-eyed monster, but there were many classic stories first published in pulp magazines. In 1939, a groundbreaking year, all of the following writers sold their first professional sf story to the pulps: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, A. E. van Vogt and Theodore Sturgeon. These were among the most important sf writers of the pulp era, and all are still read today.

Digest-sized magazines

After the pulp era, digest-sized magazines dominated the newsstand. The first sf magazine to change to digest size was Astounding, in 1943. Other major digests, which published more literary science fiction, were The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction and If. Under the editorship of Cele Goldsmith, Amazing and Fantastic changed from pulp style adventure stories to literary science fiction. Goldsmith published the first professionally-published stories by Roger Zelazny (not counting student fiction in Literary Cavalcade), Keith Laumer, Thomas M. Disch, Sonya Dorman and Ursula K. Le Guin. There was also no shortage of digests that continued the pulp tradition of hastily written adventure stories set on other planets. Other Worlds and Imaginative Tales had no literary pretensions. The major pulp writers, such as Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, continued to write for the digests, and a new generation of writers, such as Algis Budrys and Walter M. Miller, Jr., sold their most famous stories to the digests. A Canticle for Leibowitz in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Most digest magazines began in the 1950s, in the years between the film Destination Moon, the first major science fiction film in a decade, and the launching of Sputnik, which sparked a new interest in space travel as a real possibility. Most survived only a few issues. By 1960, in the United States, there were only six sf digests, in 1970 there were seven, in 1980 there were five, in 1990 only four and in 2000 only three.

British science fiction magazines

The first British sf magazine was Tales of Wonder, pulp size, 19371942, 16 issues, (unless you count Scoops, a tabloid boys’ paper that published 20 weekly issues in 1934). It was followed by two magazines, both named Fantasy, one pulp size publishing three issues in 19381939, the other digest size, publishing three issues in 19461947. The most important British sf magazine, New Worlds, published three pulp size issues in 19461947, before changing to digest size. With these exceptions, the pulp phenomenon, like the comic book, was largely a US format. By 2007, the only surviving major British science fiction magazine is Interzone, published in “magazine” format, although small press titles such as PostScripts and Polluto are available.

The decline of the science fiction magazine

During recent decades, the circulation of all digest science fiction magazines has steadily decreased. New formats were attempted, most notably the slick-paper stapled magazine format, the paperback format and the webzine. Some of the best science fiction appeared in webzines beginning in the early 21st century. The most important webzine at the beginning of the 21st century was SciFiction, edited by Ellen Datlow, on http://www.SciFi.com, but the management of SciFi.com cancelled it in early 2006, so now Strange Horizons has taken over as the premier science fiction webzine. There are also various semi-professional magazines that struggle along on sales of a few thousand copies but often publish important fiction.

The rise of the science fiction magazine

As the circulation of the traditional US sf magazines has declined, new magazines have sprung up online from international small-press publishers. In the past ten years, Science Fiction World, China’s longest-running science fiction magazine, has doubled its circulation to 320,000, and launched a sister magazine . Currently the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America lists 17 sf periodicals that pay enough to be considered professional markets. Locus, in its annual recommended reading list of short fiction, selects stories from 27 magazines worldwide, though well over a third of the more than 100 stories listed first appeared in anthologies, and of the magazine stories, more than half first appeared in either Asimov’s Science Fiction or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.[citation needed]

Best of the year anthologies

Beginning in 1949, each year there have been one or more best science fiction of the year anthologies, collecting stories from the science fiction magazines. A series of paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, went back to the early years of science fiction and published best of the year anthologies for the years 1939 to 1963. Damon Knight edited an anthology of the best magazine sf from the 1930s.


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