There are millions of people who already read SF novels, and who watch SF based film and television. Even more people also read SF flavoured comics, play SF inspired computer games, listen to music and look at art that could have stepped from the pages of an SF story. Whatever it is SF gives people: challenging ideas, original thinking, mythic storytelling, entertainment or sheer untold weirdness, people want it and they want it in their millions. This is an untapped audience which exists as part of the mainstream in our society and wants more material to consume.
SF magazines could be selling more issues, to more people. SF short stories are anideal way to give people contained bursts of the most intense and original SF. It is fiction that fits in the small gaps of time that permeate modern living and provide a complete experience. Films and novels are lifestyle products. They are cultural events which demand the attention of their audience. Why do SF magazines not demand the same attention?
I do not think that there are any SF magazines at the moment interested in that sort of attention. Is it because at present SF magazines are deliberately niche publications? Maybe. It keeps the costs down and the expectations low. When success happens it is good, and when lack of sales force the magazine to close then no one is too disappointed.
To actually get people reading SF magazines beyond the present small circulation there need to be new magazines which adopt different tactics. These new SF magazines must demand the readers attention, just as films, books and other SF in the mainstream demand attention. But how?
An successful SF magazine must be a container for radical and entertaining ideas. Ideas able to inspire and enthuse thousands of people, just as the genres original magazines inspired thousands of people their day. Stories that could provoke controversy and discussion on important questions our society faces, and the futures we face.
Tomorrow’s SF magazines must make the short story a prestigious and financially attractive form for talented writers to write for. The stories must not appear to be the work of amateurs. They must not be written as second rate alternatives to making a TV show or film. They must be written in the full belief that short fiction can tell unique stories in unique ways that no other medium can manage, or not written at all.
Tomorrow’s SF magazines also need to be beautifully designed and efficiently distributed. At the moment SF magazines are at best a couple of years behind contemporary magazine design. They all look dated. This is not helping them attract new readers, and it is not helping people read the stories inside. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should be winning important design awards. Tomorrow’s SF magazines should also be on the leading edge of digital distribution so they are readable by anyone around the globe.
And holding together the best ideas, the best writing and the best design, the SF magazine of tomorrow must have a strong identity. Each magazine requires it’s own unique high concept. SF magazines can not continue to face the question: What is an SF magazine? With the answer, a magazine with SF in it. Each new SF magazine must have as strong and relevant concept today as the original SF magazines had in their day.
I think that having popular and widely read SF magazines is important. To me the health of all genre fiction depends on it. Short SF is often seen as the crucible of new ideas in genre fiction, and I think that it can be. However it can only serve this purpose if these stories are being disseminated to a wide audience. Without successful SF magazines the pace of progress in genre fiction slows, and we risk becoming irrelevant and fixated on old ideas and forms; losing readers in a vicious cycle of boredom and nostalgia. To survive in tomorrow’s markets, SF magazines must grow into the imaginations of new readers who will help enrich all genre fiction with new stories to tell and new worlds to imagine.
This article was first published August 18th 2010 on Damien G. Walter’s blog. It gathred a lot of comments. Today I am reposting the essay because I read the first issue of Arc. This magazine forfulls some, if not most, of the critera I set forth. As Arc has sound backing from the people at New Scientist behind it I hope that this magazine will survive beyond the difficult early editions.