on science fiction magazines

I wasn't sure what to write about this week — the obvious thing is the Amazon vs. Macmillan slapfight (short version: Macmillan says "we want to change the terms on which we sell you e-books, Amazon" — to a system that makes Amazon more money per e-book sold, ironically — Amazon says "fuck you, Macmillan" and pulls all Macmillan's books off their site for a week, hilarity ensues.) Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for you my readers), it's been talked to death elsewhere by people who know a hell of a lot more than I do (and are also a lot funnier than I am). Being, y'know, writers and all. My informed opinion as a reader and a member of the book-buying public is that it was a pretty dick move on Amazon's part. I don't know why they wanted to drag us readers into their pricing dispute, but they did, and now I'm annoyed at them.

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But that's not what I actually want to talk about. What I actually want to talk about is… science fiction magazines. A friend of mine asked me a couple days ago, "If I were to want to subscribe to a magazine of science fiction, what are my good options?" and I realized I had enough to say that there was a blog post in it. Here's what I told him:

the boring stuff, or, a little bit of history (repeating)

The Big Three SF magazines are The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (usually abbreviated as F&SF), currently edited by Gordon Van Gelder; Asimov's Science Fiction, ed. Sheila Williams; and Analog Science Fiction and Fact, ed. Stanley Schmidt (Wikipedia articles: Analog, F&SF, Asimov's). Analog is the longest continually-running SF magazine, founded in 1930 as the pulp magazine Astounding Stories, and made famous by editor John W. Campbell, Jr. from 1937 on. F&SF is next-oldest, founded in 1949, followed by Asimov's, founded in 1977, with noted science fiction author Isaac Asimov acting as editorial director. Analog and Asimov's are both currently published by Dell Magazines and share the same production staff. F&SF is published by Spilogale, Inc., founded by editor Gordon Van Gelder. (Many other SF magazines have come and gone over the past century, and even the big three have changed names, formats, and publication schedules the way you and I change clothes. SF is a notoriously hard market to stay afloat in.) SF magazines were the heart and soul of science fiction for a very long time, and all three still accept submissions from the general public, so a lot of new science fiction writers still get their start there.

All of the Big Three publish some number of short stories (under 7,000 words), novelettes, and novellas (7,000-20,000 words) every one to two months, and some number of non-fiction columns and book reviews. Asimov's also publishes poetry. Analog publishes science fact — articles about developments in science aimed at the science fiction-reading audience — and will often serialize 40-80,000 word novels, publishing part each issue. They're available on some newsstands for $5-10 an issue (I buy mine from Pandemonium in Central Square), and also for subscription for $3-6 an issue (Amazon: F&SF, Analog, Asimov's; B&N: Analog, Asimov's). Being magazines about the future, they're all also available a bit more cheaply — though with more or less DRM — as ebooks individually and as a subscription from Fictionwise (F&SF, Analog, Asimov's), on the Kindle, etc. It's worth noting, as I mentioned in my review of the Kindle DX that the newsstand and paper subscriptions run about a month ahead of the electronic subscriptions — ie. I have the March Asimov's now, but it won't be available electronically until March 1 — which is part of why I'm still on paper.

why do you read an SF magazine

I read SF magazines because they're fun. I like short stories, and I like discovering new authors, and being exposed to new ideas (see also: compulsive neophilia), and so on. There's a sense among some in SF fandom that all of the magazines are written for and read by aspiring SF short story writers — I'm not at all convinced that's true. I have some small aspirations that way, but I don't really consciously read magazines with a sense of "scoping out the market". I read them because I enjoy their stories. I stick an issue in my bag and read it when I'm on the T — most of the stories are short enough that I can read them in a few rides and simple enough that I can pick up the thread of one fast enough to enjoy it a bit before I have to get off. As a rule I don't generally read the novellas unless the first page or two grab me, because they're more complex and take too many rides, so I have to finish them not-on-the-T, which takes free time I don't always have. I seem to go through the output of one magazine about at the rate the issues come out, though sometimes I'll read through a whole issue on a plane or something, and also occasionally I'll pack an anthology, some other short story collection, or, say, ebook versions of this year's Hugo nominees on my cell phone to read on the T instead.

so which one(s) do you read

Analog I personally can't stand — I subscribed for a year in high school, and it's very much SF in the "engineering/science porn" sense, stories where the scientific or science fictional aspect is the point and the characters are secondary, which I don't hugely care for. For a while I thought F&SF was the best SF magazine available, but it seems to feature stories written for (and generally by) old straight white men, so I got bored with it after six months or so. It's fine in moderation, but reading what feel like the same stories month after month gets old. Asimov's is the only one I read regularly any more — more women writers, writers of color, and not-straight writers and characters (though by no means all), which is to say, more writers writing stories I find interesting. Generally speaking, Asimov's seems to run more stories that make me catch my breath or think or that stick with me for a while. Its stories also seem much more likely to be nominated for Hugo awards over the past five years or so (followed by F&SF, followed distantly by Analog), which are nominated by the membership of that year's Worldcon, which suggests that the bulk of people in SF fandom who read SF short-story magazines read Asimov's. Asimov's also seems to run more writers I've heard of outside the pages of the magazine — Elizabeth Bear, Charlie Stross, Mary Robinette Kowal — though of course when F&SF or Analog runs a Joe Haldeman or Geoffry Landiss story, I'll pick it up and read at least that one.

the stories themselves

It's hardly a representative sample, but here are some of what I think are the better stories that have run in Asimov's recently, with links to full or partial versions online where I could find them:

  • "Shoggoths in Bloom", by Elizabeth Bear (full), published in the March 2008 Asimov's, which won the Hugo for Best Novelette in 2009.
  • Pelago (preview), by Judith Berman, a novella published in the February 2009 Asimov's. One of the very few novellas in Asimov's I found interesting enough to read, and it utterly captivated me.
  • "Sleepless in the House of Ye", from the July 2009 issue, which also blew me away with its alienness. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Amy Thomson's The Color of Distance.
  • "Shoes-to-Run", also in the July 2009 issue, and "As Women Fight", from the December 2009 issue, both by Sarah Genge and both dealing with gender issues.
  • "SinBad the Sand Sailor", from the July 2009 issue, for a very different take on gender issues, and also a neo-pulp style story, just to give a sense of the gamut the magazine runs.
  • "Bridesicle", by Will McIntosh, from the January 2009 issue, on a potential unintended consequence of cryogenics.
  • "Conditional Love", by Felicity Shoulders, on unintended consequences of human genetic engineering, and "Marya and the Pirate", by Geoffry Landiss (preview), which is a fun widescreen space opera story, both in the January 2010 issue.
  • "Helping them Take the Old Man Down", by William Preston (preview) in the latest issue (March 2010), is a brilliant superhero deconstruction.

Looking back over the year's stories, I find myself remembering a lot of the stories from Asimov's I don't mention here as "well, this one had an interesting premise but fell down in execution" and so on, though there are some which I remember as "I completely skipped this one" or "I completely hated this one". Everything the magazine publishes isn't to my liking, but I find the hit rate a lot higher than the other magazines. Certainly some of the stories make me uncomfortable, sometimes in useful ways and other times not. ("Bridesicle" above is a prime example of the former.)

what else is there

In addition to the Big Three, there are also a number of smaller magazines and online things, some of which are free — Strange Horizons (the granddaddy of online SF magazines), Jim Baen's Universe (online), Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show (online), Electric Velocipede (offline), Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (offline), Abyss and Apex (online), Apex Magazine (both?), Realms of Fantasy (offline)… The list is pretty long, and getting longer. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet is the only one I read regularly. There's also the New York Review of Science Fiction, which is the literary criticism magazine of science fiction (yes, really), though there's also a lot of litcrit, book reviews, and original short fiction online at Tor.com, a SF community site run by one of the major genre publishers.

If you're looking for short fiction with more of a continuing storyline, there's Shadow Unit, which is a free online serial fiction project structured sort of like a television show, except with short stories (and apparently soonnow a novel???). It's a police procedural-meets-the-X-files with excellent characters and brilliant writing, it's awesome (though I'm not caught up on season 2 yet), and it's inspired me to check out the other work of the people involved. And then there are webcomics, which are predominantly SFnal. At some point science fiction conquered the world, and it's taking SF fans a little while to notice and adjust to that fact. 🙂

So there's a lot of material available, and that's some of what I enjoy. Happy reading!