Transformations : The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines
From 1950 to 1970
(The History of the Science-Fiction Magazine Vol. II)
Liverpool: University Press, 2005. 410 pages.
ISBN: 0-85323-769-7 cased
Reviewed by Claude Chastagner
Université Paul-Valéry,Montpellier 3
Mike Ashley is a freak, a monster, an alien! He has written more than seventy books and over 500 articles devoted to the history of science-fiction and fantasy, do we learn from the back cover of his latest opus. Clearly, the book under review is but a tiny fragment of his amazing output, a mere sample of his incredible knowledge on the issue, all the more so as the book I was sent is but the second volume of a three-volume set devoted to science-fiction magazines. The title and subtitle of the book are clear: it is a story, or more precisely a history of the various publications (exclusive of books) which published science-fiction stories in the United States and in Great Britain during the 1950s and 60s.
The opus is copious, over 400 pages, and it includes and index, a select but rich bibliography, both of primary and secondary texts, as well as extremely precious annexes: a directory of magazine cover artists, with indication of when and where their work appeared (all the more surprising then – and disappointing – that the book does not contain a single illustration); a directory of magazine editors and publishers, their exact positions in the various publishing houses, and the names of the magazines they were in charge of, with the dates of publication and the number of issues, and of course the complete list of all the magazines published during the period, with the names of their publishers and editors, number of issues and dates of publication. Not to forget a twenty-page long survey of SF magazines published throughout the world in other languages than English, in Mexico, France, Germany, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Japan.
Clearly, this is a learned and well written book made for the specialist, and the fanatic. It describes with minutia, from a chronological perspective, the fate of the various magazines published in the USA and in Britain (often as a reflection of what was happening in America), some for a very brief period only, among which Amazing, Astounding, Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, New Worlds, or Science-Fantasy. The focus is mostly on writers and publishers: who, what, where, and when. Mike Ashley’s book also covers related issues such as the financial implications of SF publication, the rivalry between the publishers and editors, the impact this had on their writers, and the way individual authors were sometimes pushed in specific directions by the most influential editors.
The first chapter is devoted to what M. Ashley calls the launchpad, the immediate after-war years and the early 1950s, highlighting the emergence of new masters in a new wave of publications. It then moves to the consequence of the proliferation of pocketbooks which nearly saturated and suffocated the market for pulps before in 1952 began what he identifies as a real science-fiction boom, including the beginning of academic criticism. But this golden age was short and by the mid fifties, television and comics had practically killed pulps. The third chapter is an account of the situation in Great Britain during the same years. The fourth chapter covers the intermediary years of the period, which saw the emergence, despite editorial chaos, of new talents, including a few ladies, along “adaptive ancients”. The fifth and sixth chapters describe how the field slowly transformed and recovered before the commercial and stylistic revival of the late sixties; by then, “science-fiction had transformed, mutated and reinvented itself” [viii]. At the outset of the seventies, in the months after the landing on the moon and the subsequent, though paradoxical, lack of interest in (and funding for) space programs, many believed “that there was nothing left for science-fiction” . Yet, “things were sparkling” [ibid.] In the wake of the new respectability garnered through academic interest (from courses and serious academic journals to full-blown essays on the subject), new waves of readers and writers emerged, shifting into cyberpunk, while “good old-fashioned hard-sf started to make a comeback” , developments that Mike Ashley covers with Volume 3 of his history of science-fiction magazines.
The reader can occasionally be given a short summary of the short-stories published in the magazines, but factual ones, with no attempt at thematic, stylistic, or literary criticism. Mike Ashley takes care to recede in the background, and to let history unfold, with only an occasional word of comment on the quality of the publications, authors, or specific stories. What Ashley does beautifully however, is tell the tale of the struggle between the different types of publication (glossies, pulps, and paperbacks), the sometimes fatal impact of comics, films and television (from Star Trek to 2001: A Space Odyssey) on magazines (though most films and TV series were themselves a consequence of the popularity of SF magazines), the development of new tastes such as fantasy and space opera, the heritage of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. M. Ashley also explores the strong contrasts between American and British science-fiction, the latter being as a rule more theoretical than practical in its approach, focusing on ideas rather than action, and written in a more relaxed, easy-going style.
There is a central questioning though that runs through the book: has the proliferation of SF magazines ultimately harmed the field of science-fiction? Had science-fiction been allowed to develop as part of mainstream fiction rather than be published in specialised magazines, would it have acquired a better reputation, and a more mainstream following than the one it enjoys today? Would it still be considered as a sub-genre? However, unfortunately, there are too few interviews of professionals, or academic opinions to help determine the outcome of the debate. What the lay reader discovers, though, is to what extent the most famous names of contemporary SF, most often encountered only in book form (since, as Mike Ashley reminds the readers, by 1970, the paperback book was dominating the magazine), made their apprenticeship as short story writers for these publications: Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, John Wyndham, J.G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Norman Spinrad (and but a handful of women, among whom Ursula K. Le Guin).
As a non-specialist, I wish I had been introduced more to the social or cultural history of science-fiction magazines, about which very little is said, apart from a few lines on the impact of McCarthyism, the progress of science, or the influence of the counter-culture as embodied by William Burroughs, something Jean-Paul Gabilliet has beautifully achieved with his history of American comics, Des comics et des hommes (Éditions du Temps, 2005). But this is clearly not M. Ashley’s focus, which inevitably tends to limit the readership of his history to a limited class of cognoscenti. Nevertheless, this category of readers, though probably already aware of Mike Ashley’s work, will take great delight in the profusion of details, the wealth of precise information or anecdotes, and the passion that inspires this Story of Science Fiction Magazines.
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