THE STATE OF THE SF MAGAZINES

Published by Gregory Benford on May 17th, 2015

Some opinions harvested from Locus online and correspondence by

Gregory Benford

 

February 2015

The once powerful sf magazines have declined in circulation over the last 35 years, and seem endangered. The 1980 circulations vs 2014 of the magazines are : Analog (100,000; 25,000), Asimov’s (100,000; 20,000); F&SF (60,000;12,000), with Interzone now having something less than 10,000. Plainly, they’re in trouble. Meanwhile many other venues in small or online sites have increased the story market. But what of quality and content? I asked this of several people, starting by circulating Lois Tilton’s locusmag.com year summary:

Lois Tilton (appearing at locusmag.com):

Looking back over 2014 to pick my favorite stories, I don’t see it as a really good year for short SF. From many directions come charges that the field has fallen into a rut, and the evidence doesn’t strongly dispute it. Subterranean Press discontinued its high-quality magazine and no new periodicals have yet risen to replace it, although Uncanny shows promise. Overall, my assessment of this year’s stories would have to be: lackluster.

Most disappointing were the old-line print periodicals. There was plenty of good-enough fiction published, but few stories that made me sit up in awe and think: “I wish I could have written that.” I found a lot more outstanding pieces of fiction in the electronic periodicals, most notably Tor.com and Clarkesworld. It was also a good year for anthologies, especially for Hard SF of which I see far too little in the periodicals.

This year’s new author of promise is J Y Yang.

PRINT PERIODICALS
F&SF
If the field is in a rut, it’s most visible here. Only a few years ago, I recall selecting more stories for my list from this magazine than just about any other venue. Now, not so many. And it’s noteworthy that most of these came from a guest-edited issue: Paul M Berger’s “Subduction” and Spencer Ellsworth’s “Five Tales of the Aqueduct”. Fortunately, the zine continues to publish Robert Reed, although his contributions here this year were not my favorites, and the ever-entertaining Matthew Hughes. I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”. But this is a decline, overall, from better days.

Asimov’s
At one point, this magazine used to vie with F&SF for the honor of premier source of short fiction in the genre. While the zine is less addicted to the work of the same regular authors, it still isn’t publishing a lot of new, exciting work. It did give us what I consider Robert Reed’s best piece of the year: “The Cryptic Age”. I also liked Derek Künsken’s “Schools of Clay”.

Analog
Here, stasis would seem to be a feature, not a bug, but given this, I found the quality of the fiction on the upgrade, the best being Craig DeLancey’s “Racing the Tide”.

Interzone
This just-as-venerable print magazine definitely showed that it’s open to change, continuing a shift from dark future dystopias to more optimistic works that include actual fantasy. The best here is still SF, however, such as Nina Allen’s sophisticated “Mirielena”. I also liked new author D J Cockburn’s debut piece, “Beside the Dammed River”, with a fresh look at dystopia.

ANTHOLOGIES
I’ve been known to complain in the past that I see too few original anthologies, but 2014 gave me more than I managed to read. The year had a particularly good crop of Hard SF collections, and I’m not going to complain about too much Hard SF.

Hieroglyph

This one was created by a collective headed by Neal Stephenson on a mission to pull SF out of its rut and imbue it with a sense of “techno-optimism”. There’s good stuff here, real science fiction, which is all too rare on today’s publishing scene. Among these stories, I especially like the realistic, probable futures portrayed by Geoffrey A. Landis in “A Hotel in Antarctica” and by Cory Doctorow in “The Man Who Sold the Moon”.

Reach for Infinity
Another good SF anthology from Jonathan Strahan, the theme being human expansion into space. The best stories are “The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald and “Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder.

Fearsome Magics
Another anthology from Strahan, this one fantasy and not quite as successful as the science fiction volume. I best liked “On Skybolt Mountain” by Justina Robson.

Carbide-Tipped Pens is another Hard SF anthology, not as good as its title, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. It has a nice piece by Gregory Benford: “Lady with Fox”.

Gregory Benford to those below:

I wondered if you agree with Lois Tilton’s assessment of the 2014 year in Locus online: that the print mags aren’t getting the more interesting stories now. You presumably read them all: do you agree?

Gardner Dozois

To some extent, I do agree. Asimov’s, F&SF, and Interzone were on the weak side this year. That may just be the way things happened to fall out this year, though. Your best bet for finding good stories this year were the SF anthologies, particularly REACH FOR INFINITY and HIEROGLYPH.

Gordon Van Gelder

I just saw you asking Gardner about Lois Tilton’s year-end assessment and it really drove home something I’ve noticed for a while: the younger writers nowadays really don’t write science fiction any more. That’s why better SF stories are showing up in anthologies—newbies aren’t competing with the more accomplished writers. (On a side note, I think it’s also striking that the only two stories Gardner is reprinting from F&SF this year are not by American writers.)

Jonathan Strahan:

I think there’s some truth to Lois’s assessment, though I have come to a slightly different conclusion.  I think the magazines are losing out to editors who are actively inviting writers to be involved in projects (which are proliferating), meaning those writers often don’t’ send stories to general markets.  Anthologies seem to be an important place right now.  Tor.com is an exception to this, but mostly because it is such a lucrative market.  They also have some very energetic editors looking for work. I think the magazines, especially the online magazines, have a different problem: they don’t have very distinct personalities and that impacts on building readership.  You always know what to expect from Analog, and I always felt like I knew what to expect from Asimov’s under Gardner’s editorship or F&SF under Gordon or Ed’s.  I don’t get a distinct personality with Lightspeed or Clarkesworld et al yet, despite their qualities, and I think that’s an issue.

Gregory Benford:

Jonathan, that’s a major aspect, probably best visible mostly to you anthology editors. I hadn’t even thought of that. But…why should it be that “newbies aren’t competing with the more accomplished writers.”? Maybe the threshold of science knowledge is too high now?

Gordon Van Gelder:

I wish I had an opportunity to sit and chat with you about this, Greg—there are too many facets to it for an online conversation. But among the things I’m seeing are:

(1) A lot of younger writers and readers don’t actually distinguish between science fiction and fantasy.

(2) Many of the up-and-coming younger writers don’t see any advantage to writing science fiction. Fantasy wins more awards, sells better, and has more markets. (David Truesdale reprinted a 1975 interview —http://www.tangentonline.com/interviews-columnsmenu-166/1221-classic-donald-a-wollheim-interview–with Don Wollheim where he said, “I’ve just found this great new novel in the slushpile. It reads like fantasy, but don’t worry—it’s science fiction.” Can you imagine any editor saying something like that now? [Wollheim was speaking of Tanith Lee’s first novel.])

(3) The ones who do write science fiction seem to be interested mostly in computer-related stuff—Artificial Intelligence, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t see enough on other themes.

Incidentally, I ran this piece by Stephen Mazur, who has been my first reader for a few years, He said he sees three kinds of science fiction in the slushpile:

1) Computer-based SF stories about AI, programming, etc.

2) Sci-fi stories about zipping around space via wormholes

3) Lite SF that uses the trappings of the genre, such as time-travel.

Of course, he sees the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but it’s still of interest.  I remember when Adam-and-Eve stories were filling the slushpile; nowadays, they’re rare.

Gregory Benford:

The above and several other editors have told me an interesting fact: Despite about 2000 members of SFWA, the magazines (except ANALOG) seem to get far more fantasy than sf, and very little hard sf. All the magazines have faced declining circulations for decades and some seem barely hanging on. Yet sf/fantasy publishes the majority of all professional (ie, paying) short stories in English. (There are a few mystery story markets too.) Mainstream markets are tiny. (I estimate, from much browsing and fact-chasing.) In this sense the success of the sf/fantasy magazines, online and print, looms as a troubling aspect for all literature, not merely one genre.

As well, as Jon says: “those writers perhaps never send stories to general markets” – indeed, is true of me. The few stories I write in a year usually go on commission to anthologies.

David Truesdale:

All this gets us back to the $64 question of why readers aren’t reading or buying SF (hard or otherwise) like they used to, in favor of fantasy. And here I make a distinction between short fiction in the magazines and SF in novel form. The sort of SF which is very popular these days is media tie-in SF. There’s still a huge buying audience for Star Trek and Star Wars (and other franchises) catering to those who’ve seen the movies and loved them, but who aren’t finding what they know they like in the magazines. Kris Rusch wrote a piece for Asimov’s a number of years ago outlining this fact (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0612/thoughtexperiments.shtml ). Agree or not, sales figures are hard to deny.

This decline in popularity of “hard” SF has been coming for a long time, and while it’s been an incremental shift away from SF to Fantasy in the past, it may have reached the boiling point with the state of the current magazines–print and electronic. Sheila Finch warned the field of this with her essay “Doctor, Will the Patient Survive?” ( http://www.tangentonline.com/articles-columnsmenu-284/2422-qdoctor-will-the-patient-surviveq-by-sheila-finch ) which appeared in Nebula Awards 30, 1996. She saw less and less real SF in the short fiction she was reading and more attempts at fiction that tried to be “literary.” A quote from her essay:
“Gary Wolfe once referred to this trend as “creeping mainstreamism”: a trend that produces stories that embrace all the aspects of literary fiction, style, character development, and so on, but lose the element of speculativeness that marks science fiction. What we’re all too likely to find in the magazines these days (with Analog a notable exception) is the story that might just as well have appeared in The New Yorker or any of the literary journals. What’s happened here?”

Others believe part of the problem stems from a generation of college students arriving to sf out of the soft sciences and humanities rather than the math or sciences departments. Thus, their attempts to write sf reflect this non-science background in their fiction. Exacerbating the problem is that many of the current crop of editors–print or online–are coming out of the same colleges and universities with the same background in the softer disciplines as the writers submitting to them. If the editors truly had an understanding of the history of the SF field–how and why it came to be, its struggles as a new form of literature distinct from the quotidian emphasis the “mainstream” has always made its living promoting as the only true form of Literature–then perhaps at least some of these younger or newer editors could guide their writers in a direction more compatible with sf rather than Fantasy or thinly disguised (as Finch notes) mainstream stories.

All of these elements are now coalescing into what alarms many of us today, but has been seething beneath the surface for decades. In slow increments these various processes have now bubbled to the surface. I fear even armchair science SF, much less Hard SF in the short form, is the boiling frog in the pot.

Gregory Benford: Now, to conclude with a savvy editor:

David Hartwell:

The mainstream no longer distinguishes between fantasy and science
fiction, it never really did, and the media certainly do not. And
everyone in the field used to take it for granted that it was easier to
write a good publishable fantasy than a good publishable SF story, which
requires some bit of scientific knowledge. It was a commonplace in
discussion. Always, of course, with the reminder that it is very hard to
write a truly first rate short story of any kind, and no year contains a
lot of those, of the thousands being published.

So younger writers saturated with media in the last two decades, and not
in fact nearly as well read in SF as the fans of old, say in effect “same
difference” and shout down anyone who disagrees. I know younger editors
who are not really clear on genre distinctions and don’t think it matters.
This battle is being not lost but drowned in noise. And the mainstream
still thinks it’s all the same and all crap. With exceptions that prove
the rule. The only thing to do if one likes hard SF is to praise it and
publish it, and read it, and criticize editors who don’t publish enough of
it as ignorant or slackers.

The bottom line is that there are literally thousands of published but
less than truly excellent fantasy and SF writers now, never mind the
self-published, and that are desperate not to be judged in comparison with others, especially older and established writers. We all know that is scary. So they deny the existence of any rules, any boundaries, so they cannot be judged. My only answer is, judge them anyway.

 

END



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2 Responses

  1. […] the Hugos were established in a period when SF was mostly short fiction. The market for short fiction is arguably abysmal – doesn’t pay well, is mostly written by writers for writers, and has a strong slant […]

    • Gregory Benford says:

      I ADMIRE the sprawl of short fiction markets–but yes, it’s hard to keep track of now. Much good stuff! — wish there were an anthologist like David Hartwell to make better sense of it all.