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Love, Money, and the Future of Science Fiction Magazines
by John O'Neill

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

I still have the first science fiction magazine I ever bought. It was an issue of Analog, edited by the ever inventive Ben Bova, with an eye-catching Vincent di Fate cover and part two of a George R. R. Martin serial novel, Dying of the Light. I couldn't make sense of the novel, but that just added to the otherworldliness of the whole experience. It was summer of 1976, I had just turned twelve, and I was hooked.

I've been a fan of short fiction ever since. More than that, I've been an ardent fan of SF magazines ever since. While the difference may be subtle, those of you who collect and treasure these little artifacts as I do will understand. To me, nothing has captured the spirit and essence of the genre as its finest magazines have, and nothing else seems to have done nearly so much to catapult it forward.

I think Gardner Dozois, groundbreaking editor of Asimov's Science Fiction and one of the finest editors the field has seen, puts it more eloquently when he affirms -- as he does in the lengthy annual summations that preface his Year's Best Science Fiction anthologies -- that it's the arena of short fiction where the really cutting edge work is accomplished in science fiction, and where authors experiment and take the kind of risks that you rarely find at longer lengths. More than that, the long-running digest magazines "are the real core of the field, providing what little continuity and cohesive sense of community there is in the genre these days, as well as showcasing emerging new writers." Okay, granted, this is his monthly paycheck he's defending. But he's dead right on the "core of the field" angle.

Why? While there are probably half a dozen compelling reasons, here are the two that I think ring truest: love and money.

In the middle of this century, hardcover SF releases in the United States were almost entirely the domain of small specialty presses such as Arkham House and Gnome Press, where the only investment capital was a deep love of the genre. But ever since Star Wars drove a harpoon through public consciousness in the summer of 1977, science fiction and fantasy have been Big Business. Terry Brooks is sometimes credited with having the field's first bona fide bestseller with The Sword of Shannara, coincidentally also released in the summer of 1977. In the twenty years since, a great many SF authors and titles have followed suit, nimbly climbing bestseller lists around the world -- to the point where it's not unusual to find annual top seller lists for both movies and books dominated by genre releases. It's as if the walls around the SF ghetto crumbled two decades ago, and the bearded denizens within blinked at the bright world outside and whispered to each other, "Hey -- check it out."

Granted, there were popular authors in the field before 1977, and the vast majority of published SF novels are not bestsellers. But every successful genre publishing house in the 1990s has tasted that success in one form or another, and their eyes are on the prize.

In other words, mainstream science fiction and fantasy today, like any other thriving publishing endeavour, is a commercial enterprise. Those who conceive, form, and select a novel -- including the authors, editors, cover artists, publishers and publicists who shape a manuscript into a packaged product and send it out to do battle on the crowded shelves of your local Super Crown -- do so in the hopes of reaching as large an audience as possible.

Yes, there are shining examples of art created by this process. There are authors and editors, publicists and copy boys, who care deeply about this genre, and who are producing work that is startling in its originality and conception. But at heart, the coin of the realm is no longer love, unhealthy obsession, and a cousin who has access to a printing press at cost. It is fame and fortune. Filthy lucre. Money.

By contrast, there are only a handful of people in North America who still read short stories, so the corrupting taint of money has not touched the SF magazines. (Somewhere, Gardner Dozois is shaking his head. But he knows of which I speak). Today's SF magazine is still very much a child of love, invention, and a shoe-string budget. And the polished little gems they present each month are about as far from packaged product as you're likely to find.

In short, those who write for Asimov's and Analog -- and for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Science Fiction Age and Absolute Magnitude -- do so for a variety of reasons, very few of which are related to that time-share condo in the Bahamas. Yes, the magazines pay top rates. And yes, if you want to write short fiction today, your choices are pretty much to write SF or to write to the letters section of a men's magazine (or to write for The New Yorker, but that doesn't count). But in general the return is far better on novels. Those leading the way in the field of short SF today write out of a desire to stretch boundaries, to push, spindle, and mutilate the envelope -- and trust me, it shows. They write out of the pure desire to tell a tale. Out of ambition and drive, the spirit of community, and the joy of the craft. Out of love.

Those who follow the economics of publishing today can't help but cheer and marvel at the magazines' continued survival. Year after year, they defy financial gravity. But in terms of quality of fiction and contribution to the genre, the magazines have never been healthier. They deserve our support -- and at $2.95 (US) for a 144-page issue packed with fiction, reviews, news and artwork, they are the best bargain on the market. You can find subscription and submission info at the Asimov's and Analog websites, both hosted by the SF Site. You won't be sorry you did.

Join us next issue as we take a look at the history of Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, a tale that stretches back nearly seventy years to the first issue of Astounding Stories in 1930 -- and starts a new chapter in June of this year as both magazines re-launch with a new, larger format, a higher profile and 10% more fiction. All for the same low price.

You know where to find us.

Copyright © 1998 by John O'Neill


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