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[The Wayward Time-Traveler] Survival of the Fittest: Science Fiction Magazines

What a curious species, the science fiction magazine. If you consider that first issue of Amazing Stories, published in April 1926, as the birth of the modern science fiction magazine, then the science fiction magazine has survived in one form or another for nearly 86 years. This despite constant proclamations that science fiction is dying. Why has the science fiction magazine survived as long as it has? 

This is not to say a magazine cannot be killed. We have seen countless magazines die, some after only a single issue. But they are inevitably replaced by another magazine, one that is perhaps more durable than its predecessor, one that lasts somewhat longer. And when that one dies, still another comes along to take its place. There is an almost evolutionary battle taking place that has made the science fiction magazine, despite its seeming precariousness, a fit venue for the literature. One might die, but it will be replaced, and never has the species died out entirely.

I think that there are several important reasons for this.

  1. Short stories. If genes form the building blocks of life, then short stories are the genes of science fiction magazines. Short stories in the earliest science fiction magazines were simply forms of entertainment, an alternative to the radio in a world where television and even comic books did not yet exist. Over time, however, the short science fiction story became as much an art form as an entertainment. Its transformation from its earliest days in Amazing Stories, into the Campbell Golden Age and peaking, perhaps temporarily, in the 1950s Galaxy and F&SF is a rather remarkable one, especially when you compare some of those novelettes of the 1950s (say, Kornbluth’s “The Marching Morons”) to those of the 1920s or early 1930s. The underlying genetics were (and are) constantly evolving. Even as early as 1942, the letters appearing in Astounding complained about E. E. “Doc” Smith’s latest serial “Second Stage Lensmen” as being too out-dated, not well grounded, with realistic characters and situations. The ongoing dialog between science fiction fans and science fiction writers (neither a mutually exclusive category) fed this rapid evolution.
  2. Community. I mentioned the letters in Astounding. Community was, and still is, a big part of the science fiction magazine. Many magazines contained letter columns. They were, perhaps, more useful in pre-Internet days, as a way of sharing thoughts and ideas about the stories in the magazines. They helped to keep the authors and editors honest. Fans would let you know when they liked and didn’t like a story. And the feedback prompted change, consciously or otherwise. Today many of those letter columns have been traded in for online forums, but the underlying concept is the same.
  3. Editors. Editors certainly have an impact on the survival of magazines. I look in fascination at the longevity with which some editors have maintained the reigns in the science fiction magazines. Campbell edited Astounding for 33 years until his death in 1971. The current editor of Analog, Dr. Stanley Schmidt, has nearly reached that milestone. Gardner Dozois edited Asimov’s for many years and Sheila Williams has been with that magazine in one capacity or another since 1982. Editors act as gatekeepers and the stories they publish are heavily influenced by their preferences for what makes a good science fiction story. But even here, things evolve. While Campbell was indeed editor of Astounding for 33 years, it was only the remarkable decade of the 1940s where he and Astounding dominated science fiction. Beginning in 1950, Horace L. Gold, editor of Galaxy started publishing a different kind of science fiction story, somewhat in reaction to what Campbell was publishing, and Campbell was left behind. But science fiction stories evolved. And improved.
  4. Adaptability. For whatever reason, science fiction magazines seem to be extremely adaptable to change. Sometimes that change is in physical size. Other times it is form. For more than a decade now, many science fiction magazines have provided electronic versions of their magazine. A number of highly respected magazines today, like Lightspeed and Clarkesworld are entirely electronic. There was a period of transition times when it seemed that electronic magazines did not last very long (which, of course, led some people to proclaim the death-knell of science fiction), but we seem to have broken through that transition and found some stability once again. And that is because science fiction magazines and their writers, editors, and fans are all willing to be adaptable to change.

But it is the stories that drives the magazines. It is the stories that win the audiences. For more than 85 years science fiction magazines have provided one of the few commercial outlets for short fiction, and in doing so, they’ve taken the art form from a simple entertainment to a level of respectability as an art that I think was never really even imagined in the days of Hugo Gernsback. Today there are many excellent science fiction magazines producing a seemingly endless stream of outstanding short fiction. And so when I see the occasional proclamation that science fiction is dying–or that the science fiction magazines are dying–I smile inwardly and think about the long history of the magazine and how rugged and tough it is. All of the evidence I see over the course of 85 years and right down to today tells me something different. Science fiction magazines might be evolving. One may drop off here and another pop up there. But dying? I don’t think so. It’s survival of the fittest out there and the science fiction magazines, improbably as it may seem, are among those fittest.

And thank goodness for that. There’s nothing quite like cracking open the latest issue of a science fiction magazine and skimming the table of contents to see what’s in store this month. The magazines have evolved and adapted so well that I am almost never disappointed by what I find.

About Jamie Todd Rubin (31 Articles)
Jamie Todd Rubin is a science fiction writer and blogger. His fiction has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex Magazine, and most recently through 40K Books. He writes the Wayward Time Traveler column for SF Signal and vacations frequently in the Golden Age of science fiction.
Contact: Website

4 Comments on [The Wayward Time-Traveler] Survival of the Fittest: Science Fiction Magazines

  1. Nice article. The magazine itself may be evolving faster than the stories it contains in the current era. We live in interesting times.

  2. I think Jonathan has a point I want to extend and build on here.

    Over the last 80 years, the form and function of the magazines and the stories themselves have evolved at unequal rates, with bursts of boom, busts, creativity and growth not always in synchronization, but often in reflection with each other. I can almost see it and describe it fully(I think John Stevens could).

    Nowadays, as Jonathan says, the form of magazines is changing faster than the form and function of the stories within. But the one will eventually drive the other…

  3. Jonathan and Paul, I agree that magazines and stories evolve at different rates at different times. I think it is more difficult to see that evolution close-up, when you are in the midst of it, then well afterward, which is why it’s easier to look back to, say the 1950s and see how stories there were different from those in the 1940s. (Or perhaps, even more dramatically, how the 1960s differed from the 1950s.)

    And as Paul points out, one does drive the other. We’ve seen that recently, I think with Greg Bear’s Mongoliad, which could not have been done twenty years ago. It is entirely dependent on web-based capabilities.

  4. The Mongoliad is an excellent example. Also, things like Shadow Unit, or Iron Skies, or even things like Escape Pod.

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