Science Fiction's Lifeblood
By Cheryl Peugh
The first magazine that contained nothing but
science fiction hit the newsstands in April, 1926. The name of the magazine was
Amazing Stories, and Hugo Gernsback was its editor. Amazing did
not remain solitary for long. Other science fiction magazines, one a
little-known magazine named Astounding Stories, soon shared shelf-space.
and Astounding were part of a breed of
magazines generally referred to as pulps, named for the kind of cheap paper
publishing companies used at the time. Pulps crowded the shelves during the
1920s and 1930s. Romances snuggled next to Detectives, which shouldered next to
Sports, and so on. Since broadcast television did not yet exist, people passed
the time by reading, and what many read was pulp fiction. Not only that,
Western lovers wanted to read Westerns, mystery lovers wanted to read mysteries,
and sports lovers wanted to read about sports. Pulp editors soon learned to
tailor their magazines to genres. Inevitably, this led to magazines dedicated
to science fiction.
The most distinguishing characteristic about
science-fictional pulps was the short story. Magazines in other genres also
contained short stories, but were better known for serials, sometimes carrying
particular characters through many sets of adventures. What set science fiction
apart from these other genres was its speculative nature. Editors, writers, and
readers found that within the realm of science, both real and imagined, existed
endless possibilities for story ideas. During the '30s and '40s, no one
understood that fact better than John W. Campbell, Jr, one of science fiction's
more colorful and famous editors.
When Campbell came in as editor of
Astounding Stories in 1938, he changed the name of the magazine to
Astounding Science Fiction to reflect the new direction he planned for it.
Campbell wanted science fiction short stories
that dealt with science in a more realistic way. He favored stories that
introduced a scientific idea and explored its ramifications. He encouraged
speculation, but speculation grounded in science. "Space opera," where the
science is only tangential to the story, was out, and "hard science fiction,"
where science is the pivotal element in the story, was in. Campbell developed
some of the most well-known and respected authors in the science fiction field
while he edited Astounding.
Science fiction magazines still maintain a
struggling existence against formidable competition in the form of movies,
television, and video games. Other genre magazines have gone the way of the
dodo bird, but several science fiction magazines, both professional and
semi-professional, are still in the market.
So why do science fiction magazines still
exist? One answer is that science fiction thrives on short stories. Science
fiction is particularly suited for short stories, because the idea that is being
presented is more important than the other elements of story. Short story
structure does not allow for much world-building, more than one or two
characters, or more than one main idea. That idea has to be presented
immediately and dealt with in the space of a few paragraphs. Some of the best
science fiction short stories in existence are no more than a few idea-driven
pages that raise thought-provoking questions.
A good example, and probably the shortest, is
Fredric Brown's classic, The Last Man on Earth. The entire text is two
sentences. "The last man on Earth sat alone in his room. There came a knock on
This little short, originally published in
Space on My Hands (Original publication in 1953, recently republished
by Buccaneer Books, Inc. ISBN: 0899683320 ),
is famous and often quoted, both
verbally and in print. The speculation generated by this short explains why
itís still around. These two sentences raise a number of questions in the
readersí minds-- about why heís the last man on Earth, why heís alone, about who
or what is knocking on the door.
Short stories like this, and other classic
shorts, have kept science fiction fresh and able to grab our attention. Within the pages of Astounding Science Fiction,
now known as Analog, and within other existing magazines, science fiction
is alive and well. In these days of twenty-minute-and-under attention spans,
the short story is still quick entertainment, and the science fiction short
story is still the best way to advance new and exciting ideas about the nature
of science, and explore the impact of those ideas on the world around us.
And that's why the short story has been, and
still is, science fiction's lifeblood.