TT: In An Astounding Galaxy

JANE: Alan, I know in your formative years as a reader of SF/F, you read a lot of SF/F novels and short story collections, but did you read any of the SF magazines?

Magic Box

ALAN: Yes and no. In my younger days I got my SF books from the library and from the occasional paperback that I bought with my saved up pocket money. I was vaguely aware that SF magazines existed, but I’d never actually seen one. None of the shops I haunted sold them.

JANE: But you said “Yes” as well as “No.”  How could you say “Yes” if none of the shops you haunted sold them?  I sense a deep mystery here.

ALAN: Ah. Thereby hangs a tale… The major book and magazine distributor in the UK was (and probably still is) W. H. Smiths. They have a branch in pretty much every town and city. So the only things on sale are the things they choose to sell. And they didn’t choose to sell American magazines.

JANE: Perhaps it was too expensive to import them?  After all, unlike books, magazines were considered low priced items.

ALAN: Probably so. And there might have been legal difficulties as well.

Anyway, one day I was browsing around a table of second hand books on a market stall. There was a cardboard box on the table, and it seemed to be full of rubbish – things with torn covers and broken spines and some that seemed to have suffered extensive water damage. I  dug around in the junk and found something called Galaxy. I flipped through the pages and found, to my great excitement, that it had nothing but science fiction stories in it. And it only cost tuppence (two pennies, for those unfamiliar with the English currency of the era). Even I could afford tuppence. My pocket money was a whole shilling a week!

JANE: Remind me about English currency. How much is a shilling?

ALAN: A shilling is twelve pennies, so if I used up my whole shilling I could have bought six magazines.

JANE: I don’t think I’ll ever come to grips with English money…

ALAN: Fortunately for your peace of mind, they don’t use it any more. These days everything is nicely decimal.

At the time I had no idea how the magazines had ended up in the box, but later in life I learned that American magazines which had been returned unsold to the publisher were supposed to be sent off to be pulped, (they were pulp magazines after all!), but sometimes they never arrived at the pulping mills. Instead the magazines ended up as ballast on merchant ships sailing from America for exotic destinations like Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Magazines that survived the journey without getting too waterlogged ended up in boxes on market stalls up and down the country, where they sold for derisorily low prices.

And so in my early teens, I discovered the joy of American SF magazines. Astounding/Analog  and Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction and Worlds of If … The list goes on.

JANE: Ah!  Mystery solved.  I’ll admit, despite being American, and despite there being many more SF magazines on the newsstand than there are today, I never really got into them.  My pocket money was very short, so I read what the library had.  My school library didn’t have SF/F magazines and, if our public library did, I never saw them.

It seems to me that at least some of your reading should have crossed the time period where the magazines were particularly influential.  What did you think of them?

ALAN: It was at one and the same time a fantastic and frustrating experience. Fantastic because I got to read a lot of wonderful stories, and frustrating because the magazines ran very long stories as serials and I almost never got all the installments. There was absolutely no rhyme nor reason to what turned up in the box on the table of my local market stall. Everything in it was a completely random selection from the hold of a merchant ship.

Eventually, of course, the serials were published as novels, and over the years I think I finally managed to catch up with them all. But I still remember the cliff-hanging frustration of those missing episodes.

JANE: Oh…  I can sympathize with your frustration… but for a sort of funny reason.  When I was young, I used to read articles and stories on my mother’s magazines.  Many of them ended with “con’t.”  I was young enough that I thought this was a contraction for “could not,” and thought they hadn’t had room to finish the piece in that magazine and I’d need to wait for the next issue – I’d already encountered serialized fiction by then, so it made sense.

You can imagine my relief when, purely by accident, I came across the rest of an article in the same issue and realized the “con’t” was a contraction for “continued,” not “could not.”

ALAN: At least you got some sense of completion when you found the rest of the article, which is more than I often managed to achieve.

Nevertheless, despite the frustration, I continued to haunt the box on the market stall and I soon owned quite a selection of (sometimes rather battered) SF magazines. It became clear to me that the different magazines had what I suppose I ought to call their own house style. If you’d handed me the stories in isolation, I think I could have made a very informed guess as to which of the magazines had originally published it. Perhaps we could delve into that can of worms next time?

JANE: A can of bookworms?  Perfect!

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4 Responses to “TT: In An Astounding Galaxy”

  1. James Mendur Says:

    When I started, I would usually read short stories either in themed anthologies or in a collection of short stories by a single author (which I found out last year is not, technically, an “anthology;” it’s a “collection”). I did try reading the magazines for a few years but the cost-to-pleasure ratio wasn’t great – my tastes were just too different from that of the editors acquiring the stories, what Alan called the “house style.”

    Now, I’m back to stories either in a themed anthology or a collection by a single author or, more frequently, encountered one at a time on the internet in various places for free, like a drug dealer’s “the first one is on the house.” Sometimes, I buy more stories by the same author. Mostly, I don’t. And I’m sure I miss a lot of good stuff.

    I used to try to read the Hugo nominees or the Nebula nominees but even those are matters of taste and mine aren’t in sync with the bulk of what gets nominated. Still, I keep trying new stories (and old stories I haven’t read before). You never know which one will get you that new “high” you’ve been seeking.

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    Being, in this connection at least, on the right – or, rather, correct – side of the pond, I was aware of the pulps from a very early date. And deliberately ignored them, since at the age of 9 or 10 I had no interest whatsoever in Bimbos in Space. Still don’t, really, although I have matured to the point where I can not only appreciate the subject matter of those covers but recognise that they really had little to do with the contents.

    It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I finally made the connection between the titles of some of the really, really good anthologies on the library shelf and those magazines: IIRC it was Prologue to Analog and/or Analog 1 that clued me in to where the best stories were hiding. And in the process of hoovering up back issues as fast as my allowance would let me, discovered that actually Campbell, Baen and Boucher, at least, no longer put a Bimbo on their covers unless she was a crucial element in the lead story.

  3. Scot Noel Says:

    I was first introduced to Analog Science Fiction in High School by a cute girl who said “I think you’ll like this.” Today, i realize I can’t remember her name, but that Analog, Asimov’s, and Galaxy became a big part of my life in those years.

    Now, did anyone else have this experience – because I was shy, awkward, and geekish, those magazines made me feel like I was a part of a community. I remember sending in hopelessly bad stories for the slush pile, with occasional personal responses from the editors – which felt amazing. No, it wasn’t a sale, but it was a general sense of “hey, you’re a part of this community of future thinking people, and you gave it a good try.” That little bit of inclusion was very important to my psyche then, because I was growing up in a family, community, school system that kind of dissed science and progress.

    Now, this was in the 1960’s, but remember one of my teachers explaining how robots and intelligent computers would never really be possible, because the number of circuits necessary would mean a machine almost as big as the planet. My immediate response was “So, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, that means its an engineering problem.”

    Anyway, stories are important, yes, but does anyone think a magazine can also foster a sense of community, hope, and possibilities?

  4. futurespastsite Says:

    In my hometown newsstand where I began moving from comic books to paperbacks, I ran across an issue of Avon Fantasy Reader and one of If. I bought them, but was still too young to appreciate them. A few years later, I bought a copy of Imagination and read it from cover to cover. Then came Astounding (it would still be Astounding for almost another decade) and I was hooked.

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