Science Fiction Publishing

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Science Fiction Publishing

Science fiction is a popular literary genre, abutting such fictional fields as techno-thrillers, fantasy, horror, and the "lost world" narratives of the early twentieth century. Less frequently it overlaps spy novels, mysteries, and romantic fiction; it occasionally even surfaces as "serious" literature. With varying degrees of success, science fiction narratives and themes have been translated into movies, television, radio dramas, comics, games, and (in one instance) opera. Science fiction has created or popularized such concepts as spaceflight, extraterrestrials, time travel, atomic war, genetic engineering, and ecological disaster. Science fiction mirrors the apprehensions and anticipations of an age; it is increasingly the product of a society that is concerned about the relationship between its continued existence and its dependence upon technological development and scientific knowledge beyond the comprehension of laymen.

Those seeking a worthy pedigree for science fiction have found its ancestors in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius. All were published in their time as ordinary literature without stigma. Modern science fiction is the natural child of those classics, given birth in the "pulps" of the 1920s and 1930s, neglected and even despised by its legitimate relatives, and occasionally raised to prominence.

Imaginative stories—notably Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of Tarzan and John Carter's adventures on Barsoom—had appeared for decades in magazines like Munsey's All-Story. In the 1920s fashion changed, however, when general interest fiction magazines lost circulation to more narrowly focused publications, and the remaining

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readers demanded fiction with ever more conventional settings. Authors without name recognition were thus pushed toward genre magazines, which paid less well but accepted their stories without qualms. Readers with specialized tastes—for interplanetary sagas, plainly told detective yarns, and G-9 and his Battle Aces—defected as well to the newer magazines, which in turn made the general interest publications even more conservative. Ultimately, even Burroughs, Abraham Merritt, and Ray Cummings were banished to the pulps.

By early 1919, Street and Smith's Thrill Book already specialized in imaginative literature; it lasted for 16 issues. Weird Tales, whose metier was blood-curdling fantasy, fared better, circulating from 1923 to 1953. By general agreement, the first true science fiction magazine was Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories, which began in April 1926. (The publisher's name is commemorated today in the "Hugos," much-coveted awards presented annually at the official World Science Fiction Convention—a fan-dominated event which Gernsback himself helped institute.) Technically, neither Amazing Stories nor the clones later started by Gernsback (Science Wonder Stories, Air Wonder Stories) began as pulp magazines, for they were printed on 8.5″ x 11″ "bedsheet size" paper instead of 7″ x 10″ sheets.

The distinction of being the first science fiction pulp waited upon January 1930 and the Clayton chain's Astounding Stories of Super-Science. From the beginning, Astounding outdid its competitors, paying contributors more (with rates of one to two cents per word) and establishing a steady, secure distribution. In addition, Astounding was better edited. Both Harry Bates (1930-1933)—who wrote the story which became the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still —and F. Orlin Tremaine (1933-1937) were only adequate writers, but excelled as editors who believed in the future of the new genre. Their pursuit of quality and encouragement of new writers secured better authors and better stories for Astounding, which helped the magazine build up a higher circulation and to become profitable more quickly than its rivals. These aspects aided Astounding's return from the grave when the Clayton chain fell into bankruptcy in 1933, and the rapid rebuilding of its circulation after the Street and Smith takeover of the Clayton chain in 1933. As of 1998 the magazine was named Analog Science Fiction and Fact and published by Dell Magazines.

Tremaine's hand-picked successor, John W. Campbell Jr. (1937-1971), proved to be brilliant. A 27-year-old, well-regarded, but second-string author of superscientific romances (that he was also the author of the moody "Don A. Stuart" stories was generally unknown), Campbell quickly mastered the editorial skills of his mentor and moved on to shape the magazine's—and for a while, the field's—philosophy. Gernsback, mesmerized by turn-of-the-century experimental science, had favored stories whose narrative element was often little more than sugar coating around a core of semi-imaginable technological achievements. Campbell, better educated, and an inveterate tinkerer, controversialist, and promoter of science fiction, placed equal emphasis upon the science and the impact of science and technology upon human beings. Campbell was also a stern advocate of plots with logical consistency, many of which he devised himself and cast wholesale at his contributors in an unending series of letters which doubled as mini-lectures on writing style and technique.

The different emphasis did not make humanists of Campbell and his evolving school of authors—A. E. Van Vogt, Theodore Sturgeon, George O. Smith, C. L. Moore, Henry Kuttner, Robert Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, Isaac Asimov, etc. Pulp fiction was fast moving, easily comprehensible, and generally devoid of moral ambiguity; its readers were not disposed to look below the textual surface for deconstructive ironies, and if they had been, they would generally have been disappointed. At a penny a word, writers took no pains to be subtle; they seldom found time to do second drafts.

Fortunately, readers were easily satisfied. Rather than avant-garde literary values, readers of science fiction sought the affirmation of moral or ideological views: that justice was obtainable in a corrupt society in the detective magazines, that courage and gentlemanly virtues coexisted in adventure tales. Science fiction magazines promised an expanding technological and technocratic future and provided ever more grandiose descriptions of action and scenery. Whether the readers sought "transcendence" or a "sense of wonder," this fiction had little to do with the private epiphanies that climaxed much "literary" fiction.

Moreover, pulp fiction was ephemeral. Some pulp authors cracked the book market for detective stories, but most writers' work perished as the yellowing, brittle pages of the magazines crumbled away. A handful of specialist reprint publishers—among them Gnome Books, Shasta, Fantasy Press, Prime Press, and Arkham House—appeared to publish imaginative fiction, but their print runs were small and their material limited. No one expected pulp science fiction to last through the ages, and no one expected to make a living writing it. As the 1930s and 1940s wore on, readers and writers of science fiction were increasingly isolated from the literary values that came to prominence with modernism.

Defenders of science fiction's merits are prone to point at certain masterpieces of the genre, works so carefully told not a comma seems misplaced, so heartbreakingly beautiful that it seems their readers must break into tears. Included among these masterpieces are MoreThan Human by Theodore Sturgeon, Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, The Year of the Quiet Sun by Wilson Tucker, Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, and The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Advocates also list the utilitarianism offered by science fiction as a predictor of inventions used in the modern world—from Verne's Nautilus to Heinlein's waldoes—and the impact of those inventions on modern lives. At the end of 1945, Campbell was predicting in his magazine that men would reach the moon by 1950, and that Astounding would be on sale there in 1955. Robert Heinlein's projections, in a 1947 letter to the Saturday Evening Post, were only slightly paler, with a moon landing in 1952 and a permanent base there in 1962. But science fiction writers were not alone in contemplating how technology impacted modern lives, as Collier's and Walt Disney would demonstrate in the next decade. And science fiction writers had foretold atomic energy, which had become a reality with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Despite the reality of atomic energy and the promise of space flight, however, there was no great increase in science fiction's prestige in the immediate wake of the war. Much of the internal esprit de corps of Campbell's school had evaporated. The genre was aging; its practitioners were retiring or moving on to other fields. By the early 1950s new authors had come to prominence; this later generation was often better trained in the sciences than their predecessors, more attuned to good prose, more sophisticated politically and more reflective. By and large they labored in similar obscurity. Only Arthur C. Clarke would achieve a real reputation among the general public, and that not until 1969, although 1980s film goers might recognize the names of Philip Dick and Frank Herbert.

A few things were different, however. Blessed with a good agent, Robert Heinlein had found it possible in the late 1940s to sell short fiction to the Saturday Evening Post, becoming the first pulp science fiction writer to break that market. Later on, Ray Bradbury also made it to the slicks, but for most science fiction authors such high-paying sales remained aspirations rather than reality until Playboy proved a receptive audience. Heinlein broke more new ground in 1947, when Scribners published his original Rocket Ship Galileo, a novel specifically aimed at teenagers. Throughout the 1950s, he, Andre Norton, Fred Pohl, Jack Williamson, Lester del Rey, Isaac Asimov, and others would write for the juvenile market. Sales were not great, since the hardbound editions usually wound up in public libraries and few were reprinted before the 1960s (Norton proved the exception), but the books were well read, allowing Heinlein to spread his pro-space flight "propaganda" and Asimov to describe the wonders of science to a new crop of readers.

Anthologies of science fiction stories also appeared after the war. Sales were good enough to encourage Simon and Schuster to bring out A. E. Van Vogt's The World of A in 1948. In 1950, Doubleday published Max Ehrlich's The Big Eye, Asimov's Pebble in the Sky, and Heinlein's Waldo and Magic, Inc. At last, major publishers were willing to print science fiction between hard covers. Soon thereafter Ace Books and other soft cover publishers were reprinting those editions and original material themselves. For science fiction writers who could break into this market, it was suddenly possible to tell a science fiction story for more than one or two cents a word; it was even possible to tell a story which would pay royalties for years afterward. One could actually make a living as a full time writer.

But not everyone, for the book market was not large enough for all the magazine writers, and the publishers preferred novels to stories. As late as 1959, even Heinlein's story collections The Menace from Earth and The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag were first printed in hardback by small press publisher Gnome Books, reaching a mass audience only later through paperback. Through the late 1950s, in terms of volume science fiction continued to be a magazine phenomenon. The magazines were smaller than before, the paper of better quality, and the story telling more sophisticated, but circulation figures were small, ranging from 20,000 to no more than 100,000 at Astounding (whereas Playboy had sales of 2 million by at the end of decade, the Saturday Evening Post over 5 million). To make up for this, there were many magazines, twenty to thirty at a time, often no longer lived than mayflies, but all—if briefly—markets for aspiring writers.

The boom in American science fiction magazines peaked in 1953, with 174 issues of 36 magazines. Thereafter the number of magazines fell off first slowly, then abruptly in 1958 when the American News Service folded. Twenty science fiction magazines ceased publication in 1958; sales of those which remained were cut in half. The survivors learned to rely on subscribers rather than newsstand sales. This brought stability, but at a cost; the magazines became increasingly set in molds. Late 1950s issues of Astounding and F&SF sometimes seemed parodies of themselves in happier times, and of course, without impulse buyers, total circulation figures did not increase. Like other publications, the science fiction magazines also faced competition from television and the increasing volume of paperback books. These juggernauts were not to be defeated; a handful of magazines limp on today with stable (and small) lists of subscribers, but they are peripheral to the film and book markets; most self-professed science fiction "fans" do not read them.

A full account of science fiction in the 1950s would be incomplete without mention of the movies and television, from Them! (1954) to Twilight Zone (1959-1965). It is enough to note that Hollywood's version of science fiction was a separate art form, with strengths and weaknesses of its own, and that until the 1970s, the influence ran one way: the movies used some themes of genre science fiction, but had virtually no effect on magazine fiction and novels. A similar story could be told of the comics, except that Superman and Flash Gordon stayed closer to their literary roots.

What noticeably did not happen to science fiction in the late 1950s and 1960s was any improvement in its respectability and sales figures with the advent of the Space Age—a mystery perhaps best explained by the notion that the general public does not want firsthand acquaintanceship with technology and is thoroughly suspicious of science's offerings. Certainly the general repute of scientists deteriorated as the 1960s wore on (as did that of most authority figures). Even that triumphant symbol of science fiction perspicaciousness—the first manned flight to the Moon in July 1969—failed to satisfy; as many Americans (49 percent according to one poll) disapproved of the Apollo program as those who favored it, and space exploration has languished ever since.

Instead, in extraordinary numbers, readers of science fiction (and many authors) turned to the field of heroic fantasy, as exempli-fied by J. R. R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Conan tales of Robert E. Howard. The same authors often write both science fiction and fantasy, the same readers buy both genres (more or less, although fantasy is reputed to appeal more to women than does science fiction), and the same publishers print both, so distinguishing between them may be wasted effort. Fantasy's allure continues to increase, and its sales may now rival or even surpass those of traditional science fiction. The material generally runs low on literary merit (with some honorable exceptions, including C. J. Cherryh, Glen Cook, Joel Rosenberg) but brims over with action, villainy, and schmaltz; admirers of Dunsany and Cabell would be disappointed by the generally solemn mood. In tone and style, this material is redolent of the pulps, without the 1930s touch of class consciousness—American fantasy readers turn up their noses at proletarian protagonists but adore heroic lords, ladies, and royalty.

In retrospect, the science fiction of the 1960s looks very like what one might expect of science fiction published during that era. By 1950s standards, it was rebellious. Authors as diverse as Robert Heinlein and Philip Jose Farmer chose sex as their subject matter (Farmer was more successful); others touched upon drugs (Frank Herbert) and mysticism (Philip K. Dick). English authors toyed with surrealism and the multiple-viewpoint characterization of John Dos Passos; these fifty-year-old literary techniques became renowned as a "New Wave." Stylistic experimentation coincided frequently with opposition to the Vietnam War and embrace of "alternative life styles." In the 1970s, Vietnam's fall made political argument pointless; authors perceived that the New Wave was on the ebb, wrote their "unprintable" stories for Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions series of anthologies, and moved on to cyperpunk and fast paced militaristic sagas.

Meanwhile, the great American public moved on to horror fiction. Horror, one might think, is an offshoot of fantasy, and might be expected to have the same sort of readership and perhaps the same authors. This has not been the case. To generalize, science fiction fans read fantasy and vice versa and the same authors may write in both genres. Science fiction and fantasy readers, however, are not automatically fans of horror. In any event, they form only a small portion of the readership for horror; most horror readers are uninterested in science fiction and fantasy, and most horror writers are not linked to science fiction. This seems rather strange, since science fiction and fantasy elements are often prominent in horror works (consider Stephen King's The Tommyknockers), but the visceral appeal of the three genres is evidently quite different.

In the 1980s war novels, in the form of near-future "techno-thrillers" by Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, Steven Coontz, and others made a return to publishing prominence. As with horror, despite the apparent overlap with science fiction, high tech military fiction is a separate market. It has proven impenetrable to science fiction authors, even to those who specialize in military science fiction.

During this period, movie science fiction has passed through several phases, from low-budget "B" movies in the 1950s to studio-breaking spectaculars in the 1970s. In this last period, movies did influence the literary science fiction market: part of making these big-budget films profitable involved extramural marketing of all kinds and the book publishers cooperated to the hilt, with novelizations of the scripts, cocktail table volumes showing off The Art of Star Wars, and the like. These in turn have created an audience for novels set in Star Wars settings, semi-facetious non-fiction such as The Physics of Star Trek, autobiographies by some principal actors, and even series of novels by those actors (or with those actors' names on the covers). These spinoffs continued to be profitable into the 1990s, producing a slew of science fiction "readers" who seemed familiar with the literature primarily through movies and television. This is good news for publishers; whether the market for science fiction outside the Star Wars-Star Trek "Universes" has increased is another issue.

For all its claims to prescience, science fiction since World War II has been more shaped by popular culture than shaping. The atomic wars and mutants of the 1950s are obvious tokens of the Cold War and ambivalence about atomic energy. The mismanaged battles and angst-torn protagonists depicted in the military science fiction of the 1970s (most memorably, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War) were parables of the Viet Nam experience, and the comic book heroics of soldiers in 1980s stories reflected the revival of American morale during the Reagan era. Sagas of pollution, overpopulation, and genetic engineering gone awry also draw more from day-to-day experience and commonplace observation than from esoteric scientific knowledge. Even the omnipresent computer and internet have developed largely without anticipation by science fiction writers; technology evolves today at a faster pace than science fiction authors can accommodate in their stories.

Conservatism has tended to be the norm in recent science fiction's treatment of lifestyles. Despite some claims, science fiction has never been a good medium for presenting feminist ideas, it has not advanced gay rights, and until the 1980s it had problems with multiculturalism. In the 1990s, gay and lesbian characters could be used, but they tended to be in the background; non-Western protagonists were equally unusual. A woman's viewpoint is sometimes used--ironically, male authors seem to do this with more skill. (Deserving of note is C. J. Cherryh's approach of using as protagonist a low-status, insecure male who in the climax must prove himself worthy of a domineering, high-status female love interest.) A similar lack of nerve is present in 1990s-vintage science fiction's treatment of political and economic topics, a rather surprising development given the political consciousness of most authors and the large number of stories dealing with socioeconomic trends in the 1950s and 1960s.

At the end of the 1990s, genre science fiction seemed to be reaching exhaustion. Some magazines continued, notably Analog, Isaac Asimov's, and F&SF. In technique and literary quality, their material was not much different from the 1940s or 1950s vintages; the "Can Do!" spirit was much rarer.

In book publishing, after a slump in the early 1980s, the flow of both hardbacks and paperbacks continued unabated. Science fiction works tended to be profitable in a small way; they were seldom bestsellers, but since modern technology made print runs of under 5000 copies practical, that had not mattered. With the consolidation of the publishing industry in the 1990s, presumably to be paid for by concentration on best-sellers, and the ever-increasing importance of bookselling chains and "superstores," the situation may change. If so, desktop publishing has already given rise to a new generation of small press operators; methods of distribution need to be improved but science fiction novels and anthologies will likely continue to find a home.

A related trend is the almost universal rejection of over-thetransom manuscripts by major American publishers. It has become very difficult for unagented writers to break into the commercial science fiction field, and difficult even for established authors with mediocre sales to find their manuscripts considered, regardless of merit; this has harmed the careers of European authors who had relied on American sales for the bulk of their income, and probably made science fiction a more insular and parochial field in the 1990s than it was in the 1960s. The book market has effectively adopted the star system; a relative handful of authors can hope to achieve success through being well known and well publicized, while others linger in the shadows. A number of Old Guard authors have died in the last two decades, most notably Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, and Theodore Sturgeon. Authors of the later period—Poul Anderson, Hal Clement, Arthur Clarke, Gordon Dickson, Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance—have reached their 60s or 70s and are declining in productivity. None of their possible successors seems likely to reach the heights attained by Heinlein or Clarke.

Science fiction is ceasing to be a medium in which ordinary authors can make a living simply by writing. Publicity is a necessity for the modern author—frequent convention attendance, a web page, negotiated advertising figures in book contracts, etc.—and ceaseless self-marketing. We need anticipate no shortage of authors who will undergo such rigors; the question an outsider must ponder is whether such a career is as rewarding as the "school teacher's" existence L. Sprague de Camp once saw as characteristic of science fiction writers.

Increasingly, the fiction itself, as it attempts to fit itself to the realities of the modern world, seems tired. The excitement of space travel and the expectation that technology may bring wonders to the world are no longer part of the science fiction writers repertoire. Governments are unlikely to underwrite exploration or innovation, modern writers know, and thus books like Michael Flynn's Fire Ship and Poul Anderson's Harvest of Stars show space flight as the product of gifted, obsessed entrepreneurs stamped from the mold of Ayn Rand's tycoons. Great inventions are now devised by misfits rather than heroic leaders; their impact on the world is often inadvertent, and more often than not, gruesome. In recent science fiction, planetary pioneers are met by bureaucrats and pummelled by paperwork; we learn that it will be hard to colonize new worlds, it will be expensive, it will be tedious, and about as adventurous as sidewalk superintending. In direct contrast to earlier science fiction, which proposed that the future was full of exciting possibility, much recent writing offers the thrilling prospect that the future will be glum and unrewarding. Undoubtedly, this approach brings science fiction closer to "serious literature." But it is not one likely to increase readers or to inspire them with a sense of wonder.

—Mike Shupp

Further Reading:

Chapdelaine, Perry A., Sr., Tony Chapdelaine, and George Hay, editors. The John W. Campbell Letters. Vol. 1. Franklin, Tennessee, AC Projects, 1985.

Davenport, Basil, editor. The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism. Chicago, Advent, 1959.

De Camp, L. Sprague, and Catherine C. de Camp. Science Fiction Handbook, Revised. Philadelphia, Owlswick Press, 1975.

Delaney, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction. New York, Berkeley Publishing, 1977.

Heinlein, Robert. Grumbles from the Grave. New York, Del Rey Books, 1989.

Knight, Damon. In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction. Chicago, Advent, 1956, 1967.

Malzberg, Barry N. The Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1982.

Panshin, Alexi, and Cory Panshin. The World Beyond the Hill: Science Fiction and the Quest for Transcendence. Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989.

Platt, Charles. Dream Makers: The Uncommon People Who Write Science Fiction. New York, Berkley Books, 1980.

Pohl, Frederick. The Way the Future Was: A Memoir. New York, DelRey Books, 1978.

Rogers, Alva. A Requiem for Astounding. Chicago, Advent, 1964.

Spinrad, Norman. Science Fiction in the Real World. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1990.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. 2 vols. Jefferson, North Carolina, McFarland and Company, 1982, 1986.

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Science Fiction Publishing