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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.

In part one of this tribute series, "Love, Money, and the Future of Science Fiction Magazines," I talked a little bit about the importance of the two magazines, Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact -- and the critical importance of short fiction in general -- to the survival and prosperity of the genre. In part three, coming up in our August issue, we'll have a lengthy look at the rich and fascinating history of Astounding Stories/Analog, the oldest SF magazine and the true elder statesman of the field. In this installment we turn our attention to its younger sibling, Asimov's Science Fiction, the enfant terrible which has become the most prestigious publication the genre has to offer.

The summer I discovered science fiction I haunted the nearest corner store in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada, snagging every publication even remotely related to the genre I could find. There was Analog, of course, and the venerable Galaxy -- but there was also the second issue of a brand new magazine, graced with a cover photo of a distinguished gentleman with long white sideburns, and the rather cumbersome title of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine.

IASFM was the brainchild of Joel Davis, President and Publisher of Davis Publications, Inc., and was edited by the multi-talented George H. Scithers. (Also listed on the masthead for the first few issues was an Associate Editor named Gardner Dozois... but more about him later.) Davis Publications also published the digest magazines Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and even at the age of twelve I could detect a pattern here. Davis wanted to add an SF title to his growing stable of publications, and rather than create a brand from scratch -- as OMNI did a few years later with a very expensive ad campaign -- he stuck with what he knew best, which was to find a name strongly associated with the field and build a magazine around it. It was a decent enough approach for a public which, to a large extent, still considered science fiction and fantasy greasy kid's stuff.

Timeline for Asimov's SF
  • Spring 1977 - first quarterly issue, titled Isaac
    Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine
    ; edited by
    George H. Scithers; page count: 192
  • Jan-Feb 1978 - becomes bimonthly
  • Jan 1979 - becomes monthly
  • Dec 1979 - page count drops to 176
  • Sept 1980 - Davis Publications acquires Analog
    magazine from Conde Nast Publications
  • Jan 1981 - switches to four-week schedule, with 13
  • Apr 1981 - new font and title layout
  • Mar 1982 - Kathleen Moloney becomes editor
  • Mid-Dec 1982 - first mid-December issue
  • Jan 1983 - Shawna McCarthy becomes editor
  • Oct 1984 - font and layout of title changed
  • Mid-Dec 1984 - Jumps to 192 pages
  • Jan 1986 - Gardner Dozois becomes editor
  • Nov 1990 - launches double-sized issues in April
    and November
  • Aug 1991 - cuts back to 176 pages
  • Feb 1992 - changes to thinner cover paper stock
  • Oct 1992 - sold to Bantam Doubleday Dell
  • Nov 1992 - title changed to Asimov's Science
    ; tribute to Isaac edition
  • Mar 1996 - drops to 160 pages
  • Apr 1996 - discontinues April double issue
  • Oct/Nov 1996 - 2 months combine into double issue
  • Dec 1996 - mid-December issue discontinued
  • Jun 1998 - introduced new larger format: an inch
    taller and a quarter-inch wider; page count: 144
For a complete listing of contents by issue drop by the
Internet Speculative Fiction Database page for
Asimov's SF, right here at the SF Site.

There was no question that Davis selected the right cultural icon for the job. Not only was Asimov an instantly recognizable name for science fiction readers, he was also a respected author in a wide variety of other fields, commanding shelf space everywhere from history to limericks to bible study -- confounding librarians and filing systems the world over. Asimov was a workaholic

Art by Frank Kelly Freas
renaissance man who left behind over four hundred books by the time of his death in 1992. During the fifteen years he was Editorial Director of the magazine he blessed it with a regular editorial, personal replies in the letters column, and a fine assortment of his own fiction.

Not that these accomplishments mattered much to me in 1977. At that time the most cherished books piled near my bed were The Foundation Trilogy, The Hugo Winners, Vol. I & II, and a huge, sprawling treasure-trove of a book, Before the Golden Age, which reprinted pulse-pounding space epics from the first great era of science fiction magazines, 1931-1938. And the name on the spine on all three was Isaac Asimov (as author in the first case, and editor in the latter two). You kind of took Asimov for granted in the 70s, like oxygen... and nothing could have been more logical than a magazine with his face on the cover. He was so ubiquitous that I probably would have been more surprised not to find a magazine with his name on it.

Art by George Barr
I remember a great many of the stories and novels I read in the summer of 1977, but nothing influenced me quite as much as that single magazine. It had an air of newness around it, an exciting aura of fresh possibility that was infectious. And while the stories and artwork kindled my imagination, what really fired me up was the three-page editorial by Isaac. It amounted to a cattle call for submissions, outlining the kind of fiction and direction the magazine sought, and ended with the simple instructions, "So get to work, please." I took it as a personal invitation.

I lugged my father's typewriter down two sets of stairs to the kitchen table and pecked out a three page masterwork entitled "Vital Factor." A tense modern drama of a small group of driven scientists who stumble on a way to convert "tremendous amounts of power" into iron using an "experamental [sic] scope," it was clearly ahead of its time. I even added a little extra dramatic flair by throwing in a humongous explosion in the last paragraph which smoked all the scientists and four nearby skyscrapers. It was a stompin' debut, and no mistake.

Art by Karl Kofoed
Following the instructions in the editorial, I mailed my hand-corrected manuscript off with sufficient return postage and a return envelope, and waited patiently. Alas, the diligent George Scithers -- no doubt cursing Isaac under his breath as he sifted through a crushing load of submissions -- couldn't see his way clear to overlook a few minor grammatical imperfections, spelling innovations, and plot holes. Less than a month after I set my manuscript free, I received the following reply:

Sorry, this won't do.
You've got to brush up on typing, spelling, and style in general.
By the way, Canadian stamps are useless to us. Use an international reply coupon. And a bigger envelope.

-- George Scithers
And that just about did it for me. Any magazine that rejected a masterpiece like "Vital Factor" clearly had unsurpassed standards. I've been a loyal follower ever since.

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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