You can find it scattered throughout older science fiction stories: characters would visit libraries filled with “book-films.” They had “players” in which the films could be viewed. In many of those imagined futures paper books still existed. But it seemed that among many writers, the transmigration of form from paper to electronic was a natural, inevitable course to take. They didn’t use the term e-book, of course. But the notion was there. The desire was there. It was just a matter of time.
And here we are today at the dawn of what I think will ultimately be looked upon as a new Golden Age of science fiction. I’m not sure that it is possible to acknowledge a Golden Age as it happens, but I think that fans and writers looking back from twenty years hence will agree that we are in the midst of important, groundbreaking times in the genre. And I think they will point to the e-book revolution as a big reason for this new Golden Age. What was once science fiction is now giving new life to the short form.
The original Golden Age was made up of just a handful of magazines of any importance. There was Astounding, of course. There were smaller magazines like Planet Stories, Astonishing Stories, Super Science Stories. There was Amazing Stories. And later, there was The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. There were some important stories published in the smaller magazines, but the vast majority of famous stories came out of, what was then, the Big Three: Astounding, F&SF, and Galaxy.
Today, however, the magazines of importance number far more than three. A few days ago, I received, either via Kindle subscription, iBooks, or PDF, the following magazines: (1) Analog (12/11), Asimov’s (12/11), Clarkesworld (10/11), Lightspeed (10/11). I also subscribe to F&SF, which is bimonthly (thus explaining why I didn’t receive it at the beginning of this month), InterGalactic Medicine Show (another bi-monthly) and Apex Magazine. Each of these magazines is important in this Golden Age. Analog provides us with stories that connect us back with our roots. Asimov’s often sets the tone for the important literary themes of the day, while maintaining a connection to the past history that makes science fiction special. F&SF helps expand what we mean by “science fiction and fantasy.” Clarkesworld and Lightspeed help to introduce a new generation of writers to a new generation of readers, while at the same time collecting some of the biggest names of the genre in a new form–the electronic magazine. And there are magazines beyond these: Fantasy, Redstone Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Electric Velocepede, Realms of Fantasy, TOR.com, to say nothing of Canadian and overseas magazines, and most certainly others that I am missing.
The key is that most of these magazines are now available in electronic form. Some, like Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF are still available in print form as well. But the fact that they are nearly all available electronically is key to this new Golden Age. According to the numbers put forth by Gardner Dozois in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Eighth Annual Collection, Asimov’s overall circulation was up 26.1% in 2010, “a substantial part of that due to digital copies sold for e-readers through devices such as they Kindle.” Analog also saw a rise in circulation. As Dozois suggests, “perhaps electronic subscriptions will be the saving of the print SF magazines after all…”
When the science fiction boom of the 1950s collapsed, it did so in large part because of problems with distribution of the magazines. With magazines being published in electronic form, the problems of distribution change. (I don’t say they go away, but they are a different set of problems.) The middleman in distribution is either eliminated (issues are sent in various electronic forms directly from the publisher to the reader) or a semi-automated middleman is used, as when subscriptions are available through Amazon. It is difficult for me to imagine the same kind of collapse in this model. Moreover, magazines seem to be figuring out the market. Clarkesworld has just celebrated 5 years. Strange Horizons has been around more than a decade. Lightspeed is well into a second successful year. Daily Science Fiction is into its second year of publishing a story every weekday. These markets attract not only newcomers, but big names as well. And the outlets of short science fiction are growing and sustaining and I am cautiously optimistic that this will continue.
And everyone benefits. There is more good short science fiction available each month than I can possibly manage to read. This is a windfall for fans of the genre. And it is a boon for writers, too, as these markets need stories to fill their issues.
Best of all, there are some terrific stories being produced today that fill the entire spectrum of the science fiction and fantasy genre. Looking over the embarras de richesse filling my e-reader each month, I feel confident that we are indeed living in a Golden Age of science fiction, one originally imagined by science fiction itself.
And I think it is going to get ever better.