Classics of Science Fiction Short Stories|
By James Wallace Harris
Personally, I have always felt that the heart and soul of science fiction is in the SF&F magazines. I consider the novellete and novella the perfect form for science fiction. I grew up reading Analog, Galaxy, F&SF, If and Amazing. Each issue brought several glimpses into the future that I would read quickly at night and then discuss the next day with my friends at school. Novels were great, but they took too long to read. The ratio between far out ideas and words was much too low for me. Stories got down to business fast, showing off a vision or idea, and then wrapping things up quickly.
I'd love to create a Classics of Science Fiction Stories list like the books list, but I will probably never have time. I will use this page to collect information about science fiction short stories. I want to do all I can to help support science fiction magazines.
My plan is to eventually make a list of all the great SF anthologies and create a list of all the annual best of the year series. So intead of collecting data on thousands of stories, I'll make a list of short story collections that if acquired would contain the best all time science fiction short stories. The idea is to specify a reasonably small collection of books that would define the history of the SF&F short story. Here's a taste of what I'm thinking about:
Until then, I'm reprinting an essay I wrote in April, 2000. I plead with anyone who wants to be a science fiction writer, or with anyone who loves SF&F short stories, to please subscribe and support the existing SF&F magazines.
Is This the End of Short Fiction
The other day the May issue of Science Fiction Age showed up in my mailbox with a depressing editorial by Scott Edelman. Scott had the sad duty to inform us readers that this would be the last issue of SF Age. I can no longer count the magazines I've seen come and go. I know it is strange to mourn the death of a magazine, but they can be a source of intimate friendship, if you can consider writers you've never met your friends. Growing older means loss and death. Not only do people die, but institutions pass away, buildings and landmarks disappear, and even art forms pass on.
Science Fiction Age had been getting no new readers for years. The declining readership of SF&F magazines has been much talked about. Where are the readers going? I sense the hey day of the science fiction magazine lies well behind us. Even though I campaign here to revive the vitality of the science fiction magazine, I feel the only people who really care are old dudes, like myself, who enjoy looking backwards. All the young dudes are looking forward, beyond this horizon.
This table was created from "1999 Magazine Summery" in Locus Magazine, February, 2000, page 43. Locus Magazine is the source of SF&F publishing information.
Read the figures and weep. What a fascinating study it would be to see the numbers for SF&F magazines since their start in 1926. Also, to be inferred, is the question: how many readers does it take to support a magazine?
Why don't people want to read short science fiction and fantasy anymore? I subscribe to all of these magazines except Realms of Fantasy, but to be honest, they go mostly unread. I just don't have the time. Even though I don't always read the magazines, I've kept my subscriptions up for decades. One of my dreams is to write a story that one of these magazines will buy. If the SF magazines die off, my dreams die too. I consider my subscriptions a form of charity to provide a training ground for new writers.
When I first started reading the SF magazines in the sixties I read them because they belonged to an exciting subculture. The cutting edge of SF was the magazine fiction. There was a sense of community with editorials and letters to the editor. I also read fanzines and went to conventions. The SF world was a small close knit world where communication existed via the letter and the mimeographed fanzine. That community and tradition existed before I discovered it, so I felt I was joining something with a heritage. Now, I feel like I'm part of a tribe of people who are disappearing because the modern world is dissolving our culture.
Today, young people have many different sources of community with high speed access to individuals and groups all over the world. It is a different time. So maybe the old print media is giving way to the new digital media. And that might be one clue for short fiction publishers wanting to succeed. For short fiction to continue to exist it must appeal to a new digital culture.
Another common theory says science fiction has become too successful. The biggest selling movies are SF. There are many science fiction television shows. Science fiction and fantasy concepts dominate computer, role playing and online games. Cartoons, comics, computer animation and anime are dominated by science fiction and fantasy themes. The list goes on and on. Science fictional ideas and concepts are as common as dirt. In the sixties you were considered some kind nut to read that weird far out scifi crap. Nowadays everyone loves SF&F. My 83 year old mother's favorite TV show is Early Edition.
Before the 20th century science fiction stories appeared in general circulation magazines, newspapers and books. It wasn't considered a separate fiction category. Hugo Gernsback in 1926 changed that by marketing a science fiction magazine called Amazing Stories. Soon, other publishers copied his example, and SF became a marketing segment. At the peak of the pulp era, there were dozens of SF magazines being published simultaneously. In the fifties science fiction spread to the movies and television. By the end of the 20th century it was so common that it was almost invisible. At one time these magazines served a purpose of providing a small group of people science fictional entertainment. Now that science fiction entertainment is so common, the magazines may no longer be needed.
Other essayists put forth the idea that people are not reading as much as they used to. However, I've seen many articles disputing this idea by pointing out bookstores are bigger and more successful than ever, as are SF&F book sections within the stores. The sheer number of new novels and reprint novels do stay quite high from year to year. Yet, the Spring 2000 issue of The Bulletin of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in the "The Resnick/Malzberg Dialogues" on page 6, Malzberg states "... most first novels sell somewhat under 10,000 copies in mass market paperback ..." In other words, even paperbacks are having trouble finding a big SF readership.
So in the case of longer fiction, readership may be spreading thin across the publication of too many novels. Locus Magazine reports that 1,959 SF&F books were published in 1999, up from 1,784 in 1989. Evidently there are a lot of SF&F readers out there, and maybe that audience just prefers books over magazines for fiction reading. Or, there might be a parallel with book publishing. Maybe there are too many SF&F magazines for the market.
Imagine that there is a steady state percentage of people who like to read science fiction. Some readers like books, others like magazines, and some even like both. Maybe Realms of Fantasy took readership from Fantasy and Science Fiction? Maybe Science Fiction Age took readership from Asimov's which in turn had taken readership from Analog. I tend to doubt this, but there might be a bit of truth to this idea. If next year's report in Locus shows an increase in sales for Analog or Asimov's it might be some proof.
That brings up another theory. There might be more SF read now than ever before, but readers are concentrating on certain authors or types of SF&F. So instead of reading a SF magazine with several authors and types of stories, readers prefer to stick with a Stephen King book or a David Brin book, or a Star Wars novel or a Star Trek novel. In other words, people like the tried and true, and don't like magazine fiction because they don't know the writers or what kind of stories they will get. This theory fits in well with the Los Angelization of the world, where everyone wants to eat at Wendy's or Pizza Hut and shop at the Gap or Foot Locker.
Science fiction readership depends on an influx of children taking up the habit of reading. Many have theorized that the shrinkage of readership is due to kids no longer getting into SF&F. Kids obviously love fantasy and science fiction movies and TV shows, they just don't take up reading the genre. This could be true, but hard to prove. I do know many people my age who've tried to get their kids to read their favorite SF&F books and failed. But is that new? I didn't follow in my parents' footsteps either. My dad likes westerns and my mom likes mysteries.
Since the numbers are dwindling, there is a good chance that the SF&F magazines are living on borrowed time, that the people who still buy and subscribe to these magazines are an older group who acquired a pulp fiction reading habit and have maintained it. These people are getting older and dying. So without getting new younger readers to take up the habit, the readership will naturally shrink.
Format might play a role in how reading appeals to the young. Recently Stephen King made quite a pile of money by selling one novella online as an ebook. Another clue for SF&F short fiction publishers. If you want to target the young, it might be advisable to publish online. The music industry has heard the sound of MP3 and it is changing its tune. Even I thought I might read more if I bought a Rocket eBook Reader and tried reading with its larger fonts. Maybe SF is more appealing on a futuristic gadget. Or maybe computers have so intruded in our lives and consumed our time, that unless something appears on a computer screen, it won't get noticed. Young people do like to read because they like the Internet, and it is essentially a written medium.
The last theory believes that the magazines are failing because the stories are not entertaining. I have a friend who is an old timer like myself who grew up with the SF magazines and still subscribes to them. She tries to read each issue, but for the most part, thinks the stories are bad, poorly written, not entertaining, or deals with subject matter that is unappealing. She wants entertainment, writing with a lot of vivid description, and positive moods. If you look at the stats, Analog is by far the most successful of the magazines, and the most old fashion.
I really hate this theory. I guess I'm not the typical reader, because I am entertained by the current stories. But my tastes may be related to nostalgia, or the fact that I like to analyze how a story was constructed. If I was 35 years younger and a teenager, would I read SF, or would I watch it? Would I read stories, or would I play interactive science fictional games over the web? Would I spend time in my La-Z-Boy with a book in my face, or would I be channel surfing? To be honest, I'd probably be like most kids and not be a reader.
Aboriginal SF, Amazing and Marion Zimmer Bradly's Fantasy Magazine have also official died. And I can't connect to Aurealis. Many online SF magazines have closed shop. SFSite.com section on reviewing short fiction is dead too. The downward spiral of readers for short story magazines continue.
Some Surviving SF&F Magazines
SF&F Short Story Reviews