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A Brief History of Asimov's SF
| Start of Part II | The 70s and 80s | The 90s and Today |

A Brief History of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
by John O'Neill

A Salute to Asimov's SF and Analog, Part II

Click on any of the covers below for a larger image.

The Nineties


Art by Bob Walters
November of 1990 rung in a change which was to become a welcome new tradition for the magazine -- the first double-sized issue. Introduced originally as a cost-saving measure (double issues counted as two issues for subscribers, which saved on postage), the double issue was a big hit. At $3.95 for a 320-page bonanza, it offered a tremendous value for fans of quality short fiction. It didn't hurt that the issue was one of the best in recent memory, with two big novellas: "A Short, Sharp Shock" by Kim Stanley Robinson (separately published in a hardcover small press edition from Mark V. Ziesing) and the dinosaur-rich cover story "Trembling Earth" by emerging fan favourite Allen Steele. The issue was rounded out with stories from Terry Bisson, Alexander Jablokov, Melanie Tem, Isaac Asimov, Robert Reed, Richard Paul Russo and many others -- all told, a quantity and quality that exceeded most contemporary genre anthologies by a wide margin. The double issues were popular enough that Davis Publications immediately instituted one in April as well -- greatly increasing the amount of fiction published each year.

In terms of sheer runway space, this was probably the heyday of Asimov's. With regular issues now clocking in at 192 pages and double issues at 320, the annual page count totaled 2,752 for all thirteen issues (including mid-December),

Art by A.C. Farley
an all-time high. Compared to the 2,136 pages offered to subscribers a decade earlier, it was a tremendous bargain. This embarrassment of riches wouldn't last, however -- by August of 1991 the page count for the regular monthly issues dropped to 176 (although the doubles maintained their impressive 320 until 1996). Even with this reduction the annual total was still 2,576 pages, well ahead of a decade earlier.

In terms of fiction, times couldn't be better. That year Dozois published one of the most famous SF stories of the decade, Terry Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire" (August 1990), in his first appearance in ASF. An amusing and thought-provoking look at sudden ursine evolution in the woods of New England, the story caused a small sensation. In accepting his Hugo Award the following year, Bisson put the blame for the tale on Dozois -- joking that his editor has liked the first draft, but felt it wasn't really SF. "Have the Bears discover fire," he suggested. Bisson also won the Nebula.


Art by Wayne Barlowe
Asimov's had a virtual lock on major short story awards that year. In addition to "Bears Discover Fire," Joe Haldeman's novella "The Hemingway Hoax" (April 1990) also won both awards, and Mike Resnick's "The Manamouki" (July 1990) won the Hugo for best novelette. "Mr. Boy" (June 1990) by James Patrick Kelly, the story of a boy who literally lives inside his mother, a two-thirds scale model of the Statue of Liberty, was another awards contender, the latest in a hard hitting near-future series dealing with reshaped humanity, immortality therapy, and virtual reality parties that included "Solstice" (June 1985) and "The Prisoner of Chillon" (June 1986). Kelly has become known as "Mr. June" to long time readers for his nearly religious practice of publishing in the June issue Asimov's, something he's done without fail for over a decade.

The 1991 April double issue contained one of the magazine's finest moments, and perhaps my favourite Asimov's tale of all time: "Beggars in Spain" by Nancy Kress. It's the story of Leisha Camden, a made-to-order child who has been genetically tweaked for intelligence, beauty, health... and the ability to live without sleep. It won the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novella, and Kress eventually expanded on the story to create the great modern SF trilogy: Beggars in Spain (Avon Books, 1993), Beggars and Choosers (Tor, 1994), and Beggars Ride (Tor, 1996).


Art by Bob Eggleton
The next big story to really nab my attention was "A Walk in the Sun" (October 1991; 1992 Hugo winner) by Geoffrey A. Landis, in which a lunar disaster strands a young astronaut on the surface of the moon. To survive until help can come, she'll have to attempt the near-impossible. The November double issue had "Forward the Foundation," Asimov's first new Foundation novella in over forty years. The 1992 Nebula winners for best novella and novelette, "Even the Queen" (April 1992) by Connie Willis, and a near-future political tale by Pamela Sargent were equally original. The latter in particular was the kind of audacious piece that perhaps only an SF writer or political cartoonist could truly pull off: with the 1996 presidential election looming, departing President George Bush and former White House Chief of Staff John Sununu orchestrate a Mars expedition to explore the Red Planet, boost the space program... and remove the biggest thorn in the side of the Republican party: Vice President Dan Quayle. "Danny Goes to Mars" appeared in the October 1992 issue. "Griffin's Egg" (May 1992) by Michael Swanwick was another major piece for the year, a big novella of mass destruction and terror on the moon.


Art by Hisaki Yasuda
In the July 1992 issue, in a small box under a short editorial by Isaac entitled "Coming Home," the editors announced the death of Isaac Asimov. He died of heart and kidney failure on April 6, 1992. He was 72. While the magazine would continue without him, he would be immediately -- and profoundly -- missed.

In October of 1992 both Asimov's and Analog were sold to Bantam Doubleday Dell, publishers of a number of puzzle magazines. The change did little to slow down the momentum of either magazine, however, and other than a logo and name change -- to its current title, Asimov's Science Fiction -- in the big November tribute to Isaac issue, there were no noticeable editorial changes. In July of '92 regular Lucius Shepard reappeared with "Barnacle Bill the Spacer" (1993 Hugo award), a dark and violent tale of an advanced future where a faster-than-light vessel prepares to depart from Solitare Space Station, out beyond Mars... but where it's still fashionable to cruelly taunt a retarded young station inhabitant known as Barnacle Bill. And "Death on the Nile" (March 1993; 1994 Hugo for short story) by the multi-talented Connie Willis is a faithful recreation of Agatha Christie's mystery masterpiece... set in a time and place she could never have imagined. The next issue had Asimov's final Foundation novella, "The Consort."


Art by Chris Moore
The mid-90s continued with top-notch work from the magazine's regulars, as well as a few new faces. Joe Haldeman checked in with "None So Blind" in the November 1994 issue, and won a Hugo for his efforts. R. Garcia Y Robertson's cover story for the mid-December issue of that year was "Werewolves of Luna," which he later described as having "no justification except to be a rip-roaring science fiction tale, with rocket ships, aliens, space werewolves, and virtual vampires." It was all that and more. "Da Vinci Rising" by Jack Dann (May 95) was another award winner, claiming the 1996 Nebula for best novella. And "Think Like a Dinosaur" by James Patrick Kelly (quietly slipping between the covers of the June issue once again) was a well-thought-out look at an interstellar transport beam, with intelligent dinosaurs and a number of big surprises. It was the 1996 Hugo winner for novelette.


Art by Todd Lockwood
But it was "The Death of Captain Future" by Allen Steele that really surprised me that year. Steele, known mostly for his hard science tales, pulled this fascinating character study out of his hat for the October 1995 issue. Set in the same future history as many of his previous tales for the magazine (and related to his later novella "The Weight"), "Captain Future" was nonetheless a solid dose of old-fashioned Space Opera, with pirates, blasters... and a loving look at long-vanished pulp hero, still worshipped by a social misfit in an unsympathetic and decidedly unromantic 21st century that has turned out nothing at all like the one Captain Future resided in... or has it? Steele won his first major genre award with a Hugo for best novella.

Overall, 1996 wasn't a good year for Asimov's, or for SF magazines in general. Despite a circulation that had been steadily declining for years, the magazine managed to confound skeptics by surviving for yet another year -- but it was at the cost of fairly dramatic cuts. In March the magazine page count dropped from 176 to 160, and the big April double issue was discontinued. Just as bad, the November double issue became the Oct/Nov issue and dropped to 288 pages -- combining two months into a single double issue. Worst of all, the mid-December issue was eliminated altogether, bringing the total number of "issues" cut to three. All told, the annual page count dropped from 2,576 pages to 2,048, wiping out the gains the magazine had make in the last 15 years and bringing it roughly back to the level it had been in 1980.


Art by Paul Youll
Still, at $2.95 an issue the magazine continued to be a tremendous bargain, and the top-quality work kept coming. "Blood of the Dragon" by George R.R. Martin (July 96) was an extract from his forthcoming fantasy epic A Game of Thrones (Bantam Spectra, 1996), but that mattered not to readers -- they awarded the stand-alone piece the 1997 Hugo for best novella. And while the double issues were no longer the bonus bonanza they once were, they certainly packed no less of a punch. The October/November double issue, the first to combine two months together, was one of the finest single issues in the history of the magazine. The cover story was the bizarre and unique "The City of God" by friends and collaborators Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick, marking one of Dozois' all too rare appearances in the magazine. The issue also contained the novelettes "The Flowers of Aulit Prison" by Nancy Kress and "Bicycle Repairman" by cyberpunk trumpeter Bruce Sterling -- the former a 1997 Nebula winner, and the latter claiming a Hugo the same year. The issue also contained top-notch work by Gene Wolfe and Ian R. MacLeod, among many others.

1997 was a relatively quiet year, from a change perspective. Dell magazines, including Asimov's and Analog, officially came under new ownership again, this time under Penny Press. The parade of excellent fiction continued, including "Second Skin" (April 1997) by Paul J. McAuley, a tale of intrigue under the icy surface of Neptune's moon; "Itsy Bitsy Spider" from Mr. If-it's-June-it-must-be-James-Patrick-Kelly; Allen Steele's novella of time travellers on a desperate secret mission to find an alien craft in a most unexpected place, "...Where Angels Fear to Tread" (October/November 1997); Walter John Williams' story of love, sorrow, and clones, "Lethe" (September '97); and newcomer Bill Johnson's story of a thoughtful alien visitor in a most alien place: Summit, South Dakota, "We Will Drink a Fish Together..." (May 1997). All told, no less than eight stories from the '97 issues of Asimov's have been nominated for Hugo Awards this year.

Onwards to the Web


Art by Gary L. Freeman
In June of 1997, the SF Site published Wayne MacLaurin's feature review of Einstein's Bridge (Avon Books, 1997), a terrific hard science novel by physicist John Cramer, a frequent contributor to Analog. We struck up a correspondence as a result, and when I finally got around to inquiring about the status of a website for the magazine, John was fairly blunt. "I asked Stan Schmidt about that at the LA Worldcon," he replied, "and he said that he was interested, but it was a matter of shaking loose the resources from the new owners, Penny Press... I suspect that if (a) you offered to host the site and (b) they had some in-house expertise or could find some that Penny Press would support, Stan would love to do it."

Stanley Schmidt, longtime editor of Analog, did in fact turn out to be interested. We didn't need to get hit over the head. Several back-room meetings later, the SF Site had a written proposal in front of Penny Press. When they issued a green light, SF Site's resident HTML wizard Rodger Turner retreated into Fortress Turner in the frozen lands of Ottawa, Canada. When he emerged it was with two finely crafted site prototypes, which were tweaked by the folks at both magazines and eventually kicked out into the world at their present locations: www.asimovs.com and www.analogsf.com. The SF Site is tremendously proud to be host to the two most prestigious SF magazines on the market. Drop by either site for story excerpts from upcoming issues, book reviews, subscription info, online interviews and chats with the writers -- professionally hosted by our sister site, Cybling -- as well as the complete text for the Hugo-nominated stories mentioned above.

Today


Art by Jim Burns
In 1998 came another big format change for the magazine, this one -- thankfully -- much more positive. In June both Asimov's and Analog relaunched with a new larger format: an inch taller and a quarter-inch wider, a size much easier to pick out in the crowded magazine shelves of your local bookshop. The page count dropped by another signature (16 pages), but with the additional real estate inside the fiction content actually increased by roughly 10%. The price remained $2.95 (US; $3.75 Canadian) for a 144-page issue packed with fiction, reviews, news and artwork -- still one of the best bargains on the market.

All told, stories in Asimov's Science Fiction magazine have won 29 Hugos and 23 Nebulas in the past 20 years, an unprecedented run. The editors of the magazine have received 12 Hugos for Best Professional Editor (including Dozois' nine), and it was voted Best Magazine of 1996 by the readers of Locus. Without a doubt, Asimov's is the most reliable source for accomplished science fiction the genre has to offer. At the SF Site we continue to celebrate the magazines -- this month, as always, we have Contributing Editor Dave Truesdale's short fiction column, as well as a feature review of the June 1998 issue of Asimov's by Alex von Thorn -- an issue filled with terrific work by Paul J. McAuley, Ian McDonald, Stephen Dedman, and -- of course -- James Patrick Kelly.


Art by Bob Eggleton
If any of this has made you the least bit curious, you're invited to check out the Asimov's website, where you can find subscription info and even subscribe online through a secure server. Six issues of the print magazine are only $13.97 in the U.S.; $17.97 in Canada and elsewhere.

That won't help you get your hands on any of the exciting back issues I mentioned above, though -- but there's a way to do that cheaply too, thanks to the folks at Penny Press. They're having a back issues sale, offering five of the most popular back issues of the magazine for just $8.95 plus $3 shipping ($7 shipping outside the U.S.). While it isn't possible to get specific back issues, every one is a gem. (For back issues, write or send a cheque to: Penny Marketing, Dept. SM-100, 6 Prowitt Street, Norwalk, CT 06855-1220, or use the coupon in the magazine.)

That about wraps it up for our look back at Asimov's Science Fiction. Join us in August as we turn our attention to the history of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, a tale that stretches back nearly 70 years to the first issue of Astounding Stories in 1930 -- and includes some of the most famous names and stories in the history of SF.

You know where to find us.


A Brief History of Asimov's SF
| Start of Part II | The 70s and 80s | The 90s and Today |

Copyright © 1998 by John O'Neill


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