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Three Score and Ten
It was a significant event for me, there in the early autumn of 1949: the debut of a new magazine of fantasy (plus a little science fiction). I was fourteen years old and for the past couple of years I had been devouring all the fantasy and science fiction I could find, though there really wasn't much to find. The paperback revolution had not yet happened, and apart from a few anthologies and some classic reprints like C. S. Lewis's Out of the Silent Planet, nothing of the sort of fiction I wanted was available in cheap editions. A few semi-professional publishers were doing hardcover editions of the best magazine serials of the 1930s and 1940s, books by E. E. Smith and A. E. van Vogt and Robert A. Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp, but at three dollars a pop they were far beyond my adolescent budget. The only source of the stuff for me was the magazines of the day—there were ten of them, just then, and I read them all.
John W. Campbell's monthly Astounding Science Fiction stood alone at the top of the field, as it had for more than a decade. Just about all the work worth reading in science fiction up till then had appeared first in Campbell's magazine. It went in for science-fiction only, no fantasy, everything solidly grounded in science and technology. Then there were Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, pulp-format magazines which once had been aimed at a juvenile audience, but now were working hard to cut in on Astounding's readership. (They filled their pages, mostly, with Campbell's rejects, stories that had almost but not quite made the grade.) Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures were unabashed adventure-story magazines, aimed at teenage boys like me. I read them, of course, guilty pleasures, though I knew that Campbell was publishing better stories. Super Science Stories was a mid-range pulp, newly returned in 1949 after a six-year hiatus caused by wartime paper shortages; it was an okay magazine, I thought, another salvage market for work that had not quite hit the mark at Astounding. September of 1949 saw the birth of Other Worlds Science Stories, published by the former editor of Amazing and Fantastic, and providing pretty much the same commodity they did. Finally there were three all-reprint fantasy magazines, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, Fantastic Novels, and The Avon Fantasy Reader.
There was room for one more, one aimed at sophisticated readers who had a taste for the fantastic but wanted something of a more literary sort than Startling or Amazing were serving up, and something less rigidly constrained by scientific limits than Campbell's austere techno-oriented tastes would permit. And I knew, insatiable reader that I was, that just such a magazine would actually be coming along any day now in the autumn of 1949. I had learned about it from Bloomington News Letter, a predecessor of today's Locus as a trade journal of science fiction, which had announced the advent of The Magazine of Fantasy in its August, 1949 issue.
It promised to be something special. It would be coming from the publishers of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, an elegant publication of upscale crime fiction, and, said the publisher's press release, it "will resemble EQMM in price, format, and editorial policy, attempting to do for the fantasy field what Ellery Queen has done for the detective story: create a fresh, new market of high literary standards, untrapped by formula, open to every kind of work, providing it is well done and well written."
Though The Magazine of Fantasy would be published in New York, as nearly all magazines then were, its editors—Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas—would be based in California: a challenging proposition, in those days before email and fax, when transcontinental telephone calls were expensive items and transcontinental air travel slow and extremely costly. Boucher was a versatile writer who had contributed a number of outstanding stories to Campbell's Astounding and its fantasy companion Unknown Worlds, but also was well known in the field of mystery fiction, and had written radio plays and book reviews for newspapers as well. (His real name was William Anthony Parker White, but he had chosen his grandmother's maiden name, which rhymed with "voucher," for his literary career, and he was far better known as Boucher than as White. His friends called him Tony.) McComas, who disliked his given names of Jesse Francis and was generally known as Mick, had held various jobs in publishing, but had made an indelible mark in science fiction as co-editor, with Raymond J. Healy, of the massive anthology Adventures in Time and Space, a classic collection of the best sf short stories, most of them drawn from the pages of Astounding, that has held its own in print to this day. Boucher and McComas had met and become close friends when both were attending the University of California in Berkeley before the war, and after brief sojourns in Los Angeles, where they got to know such science-fiction luminaries as Robert A. Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, and the very young Ray Bradbury, lived once again in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although my reading interests thus far had inclined more toward science fiction than fantasy, any new magazine in the field was a big thing then, and great was my excitement on that day when I finally spotted the first issue of The Magazine of Fantasy on the newsstand near my high school. I lived in Brooklyn, then. I recall the day as warm and sunny. The magazine virtually jumped from the shelf as I stared at it. Unlike the crude-looking, shaggy-edged pulp magazines that were the norm in the fiction field of that day, it was, like Astounding, compact and tidy, 128 neatly printed pages in what was known as "digest" size, with single columns running across the entire page, as in books but not fiction magazines. It had an unusual photographic cover instead of a painted one, dark and not very much to my adolescent liking, showing a winsome redhead in a white ball gown being menaced by some sort of non-human creature. The entire appearance of the magazine was sophisticated and distinguished, as were, I would soon discover, its contents. Quarterly publication was promised and the first number was dated Fall, 1949. That first issue was, as its title indicated, heavily weighted toward fantasy: a few reprinted ghost stories of the Victorian era, some new material by writers like Stuart Palmer and Philip MacDonald whose work I did not know, and just two stories recognizable to me as science fiction—Theodore Sturgeon's lighthearted "The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast" and a strange little piece by one Winona McClintock called "In the Days of Our Fathers," the sort of experimental literary story that no other magazine of its day would have published.
This new Magazine of Fantasy posed one big problem for me. Its price was thirty-five cents—ten cents more than any other magazine in the field, other than the new Other Worlds. And that extra dime was a lot of money for fourteen-year-old me. My parents gave me a few dollars a week as an allowance, and those few dollars went a long way in an era when a hot dog cost a dime, a hamburger at the White Castle was twelve cents, and a movie was a quarter. Still, I had to pay for all those things plus the expenses of the very occasional dates I had begun to have with girls, and, then, there was the cost of Astounding and Amazing and all those other indispensable sf magazines to factor in. Coming up with an extra thirty-five cents for this new magazine, one whose editorial policy did not seem entirely to be in synch with my own tastes, was going to be a stretch.
Reader, I bought it anyway. And read it and loved it.
Of course I thought the Sturgeon was wonderful. The McClintock was baffling but fascinating. The classic ghost stories were beautiful things. The newly published fantasies by Palmer and MacDonald were clever and original. The design of the magazine made it far more attractive than any of the other science-fiction magazines, Astounding included. There was, in fact, nothing else like it.
What I did not know at the time, not having the benefit of inside gossip in the publishing field, was what a difficult genesis the magazine had had, or how precarious its existence was just then, back there in the autumn of 1949. That there would be a second issue was not at all certain, let alone that the magazine would survive so long that I, as an octogenarian now, would be writing this piece for its seventieth anniversary issue.
An invaluable anthology published in 1982 by Mick McComas's widow Annette provides the troubled history of its genesis. Boucher and McComas had had the idea for a sophisticated, literary magazine running stories of fantasy, the supernatural, and horror, as early as 1945, and had suggested it to their friend Fred Dannay, one half of the team that wrote and edited as "Ellery Queen." Dannay was quite taken with the idea and set up a meeting for them in New York in January, 1946 with Lawrence Spivak, the publisher of the group of magazines that included EQMM. Spivak showed some interest and asked them to compile—on a purely speculative basis—a tentative table of contents.
The intrepid editors proceeded to contact a group of their writer friends, most of them based in Southern California—Raymond Chandler, Guy Endore, H. F. Heard, and others—about doing new fiction for the magazine. And they drew on their extensive knowledge of the existing fantasy literature to assemble a list of potential reprints by such writers as M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, John Dickson Carr, and Fitz-James O'Brien. In the summer of 1946 Spivak offered them a contract naming them as editors for what was then going to be called Fantasy and Horror—A Magazine of Weird and Fantastic Stories. 1946, though, turned out to be an economically troublesome year, not auspicious for starting an unconventional new magazine, and the contract had to be extended into the following year. In September of 1947 Boucher and McComas finally got a go-ahead from Joseph Ferman, Spivak's managing editor, with publication scheduled by the end of the year. Payment was made, at the then very handsome rate of two cents a word, to the authors of six of the stories chosen for the first issue, and work proceeded on acquiring further material.
Ah, but then—then—November, 1947 brought what Joe Ferman called a "temporary" postponement while the Ellery Queen magazine experimented with charging a premium price of thirty-five cents per issue, which weak magazine sales (including those of a new and somewhat similar reprint magazine called The Avon Fantasy Reader) and inroads from the fledgling paperback industry seemed to make advisable if they hoped to turn a profit. The "temporary" hiatus continued all through 1948, while Boucher and McComas's mood oscillated between hope and despair. The little community of professional fantasy writers assumed the ambitious fantasy project was dead. I, of course, as a brand new teenage reader, knew nothing of what was going on.
Matters took an upward turn in February, 1949. Ferman sent word that Spivak was willing to try an experimental one-shot issue of Fantasy and Horror, and—significantly—added, "Do you feel that we would be diluting the spirit and quality of the magazine too much if a science-fiction story was used in each issue?" (Science fiction, long a very minor area of publishing, had taken a strong upturn in popularity in the postwar years as a result of such technological breakthroughs as the development of atomic energy and the arrival of commercial television broadcasting.) Ferman also asked whether "we might add a story with a little more sex in it—or possibly a story with more sex in the title than in the story?" (Popular fiction magazines, except for a few short-lived spicy pulps of the Thirties, had always confined themselves to the sort of asexual material deemed suitable for virginal young men.)
Boucher replied a few days later that "we're very warm toward the idea of regularly including at least one science-fiction story," though not, he added, "the routine gadget-story type of [science fiction] or the Interplanetary Horse Opera." As for sex in the magazine, Boucher and McComas, though very much men of the world themselves, weren't so sure. "We're afraid that deliberately *trying* to get sex in would be a very bad idea.… The result is apt to be either purely unprintable or in questionable taste. We're all for sex where it is a natural and well-integrated part of a fantasy story; we'd like to feel that our editorial standards in that respect could be far more liberal than those of say, Street & Smith. [The publishers of the notoriously chaste Astounding.] But we're doubtful about going out hunting for it."
Ferman's next suggestion, in May, had to do with the name of the magazine. He disliked using words like "horror" or "terror" in the title and wanted it simply called The Magazine of Fantasy, with which Boucher and McComas swiftly concurred. All was now set, and in August, 1949, a press release announcing the imminent first issue went forth, the one I saw in Bloomington News Letter that set my youthful heart pounding with anticipation.
And so it happened, seventy years ago this month, and great was my rejoicing. Even greater, no doubt, was the rejoicing out in California when word came from Joe Ferman in November, 1949, that the first issue, intended originally purely as a trial, had sold well enough to justify going ahead with a second one. There would be a slight title change, Ferman said: Number Two would be called The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, from which its future nickname of "F&SF" would be derived, and the subtitle that on the first issue had read, "An anthology of the best fantasy stories, new and old" would be altered to read, "A selection of the best stories of fantasy and science fiction, new and old." There were, of course, no objections from Boucher and McComas. The second issue, still listed as a quarterly, bore the date of Winter-Spring, 1950, and instead of a drab photographic cover it had a lively painted one by George Salter, Mercury Press's art director, whose clever jackets had been an ornament of many a recent hardcover book, including the already famous Healy-McComas anthology, Adventures in Time and Space. (Salter was also responsible for the monogram "F", with an elfin face peering out of the loop of the F, that the magazine still uses as a space-filler, seventy years later. Change does not come quickly to F&SF.) The second issue, like the first, was primarily weighted toward fantasy (including a new story by Ray Bradbury), but this one contained three stories that were unmistakably science-fiction and a couple more that existed on the misty border between fantasy and s-f—thus defining the policy that the magazine has observed in all these succeeding decades.
The first two issues sold well—not as well as its progenitors had hoped, perhaps, but well enough to justify approval for preparation of a third and a fourth issue, and then, in May, 1950, came Ferman's letter to the two editors telling them that the magazine could now be considered permanent and would switch to six-times-a-year publication as of the fifth issue in the fall of 1950. Even that proved too conservative; and from the August, 1952 issue onward, F&SF would appear every month. It was, by then, firmly established as one of the Big Three science-fiction magazines, along with Campbell's venerable Astounding and the aggressive 1950 newcomer, Horace Gold's Galaxy. F&SF would remain a monthly magazine until 2009, when the pressures of the modern publishing world made it more appropriate to revert to bimonthly publication—with each issue now being 256 pages, the size they'd used for decades for their double issues.
Though the modern magazine is recognizably the literary descendant of the one I so eagerly acquired that autumn day in 1949, there have, of course, been editorial changes along the way. Mick McComas's health forced him to step down to a subsidiary role in 1954, and Tony Boucher, who had been doing too many things at a time for too many years, editor and writer and critic and teacher and translator (from the Spanish of Jorge Luis Borges and the French of Georges Simenon) and much else, relinquished the editorial reins four years later, turning the magazine over to Robert P. Mills, the managing editor, who had been associated with it from the beginning. When Mills gave up the job in 1962, his replacement for the next two years was the writer Avram Davidson, after whom Joe Ferman, who by now had purchased the magazine from Lawrence Spivak, served briefly in a dual editor-publisher capacity before turning the job of editor over to his son, Edward L. Ferman. He ran things for the next quarter of a century. The younger Ferman gave way eventually to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who was followed by Gordon Van Gelder, first as editor of the magazine and then as editor-publisher after he bought the title from Ed Ferman. In time Van Gelder chose to give up the editorial tasks and the editor now is C. C. Finlay.
The astonishing thing about these seventy years of editorial changes is the way the magazine has maintained its continuity of policy and tone over all that time. Classic reprint stories vanished long ago, and the proportion of science fiction to fantasy is somewhat greater than it was at the beginning, but the look and feel and general affect of F&SF is distinctly that of the magazine Tony Boucher and Mick McComas launched seventy years ago, single columns and all, though I hasten to say that it has sustained that continuity of tone without in any way becoming a fossilized version of its original self: New contributors have come in along the way, bringing fresh new viewpoints, and the magazine remains very much of its times while still following the path its founders devised for it. It continues to retain an enthusiastic and devoted readership. And nearly all of the many editors along the way have been rewarded over the years with the Hugo award for their efforts, sometimes several times each—Boucher, Mills, Rusch, Edward Ferman, Van Gelder, an extraordinary achievement.
It is not my intention to provide here a history of all those seventy years that have gone by since, as a goggle-eyed schoolboy, I pulled that first issue down from the stands. Suffice it to say that F&SF has brought us a host of major work, a whole library of it, Daniel Keyes's "Flowers for Algernon" and Roger Zelazny's "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz and four novels by Robert A. Heinlein and brilliant short stories by Alfred Bester and Poul Anderson and Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon and—and—well, I force myself to stop, because the list is endless.
One of the writers who came in along the way was that same boy who once hesitated over the lofty thirty-five-cent cost of the first issue. I was already, there in my sophomore year of high school, dreaming of a career as a science-fiction writer, though I was, of course, a very long distance then from the sort of skill and sophistication that F&SF's writers had. That did not stop me from sending stories to Boucher and McComas by the time I was sixteen or so. The first ones came back with little printed slips that said, "Thanks very much for letting us read the enclosed. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite suit our present needs." It was a sentiment with which I could hardly argue, but I kept on trying, and the printed rejection slips gave way to personal notes from Boucher or McComas, and by 1955, a mere six years after I had purchased issue number one, Mick McComas, in his capacity now as advisory editor, told my agent—for I had already sold a few stories, and had an agent now—that "Bob Silverberg's getting better, we think. 'Force of Mortality' is really good (& moving) in spots.…" But not quite good enough. I sensed that I was at the threshold, though.
I met Boucher at the World Science Fiction Convention in New York in the summer of 1956. He was warm and friendly and told me how eager he was to publish a story of mine. I was twenty-one years old and had just won my first Hugo, and Boucher enjoyed encouraging prodigies, having been one himself, once. (His first story had appeared in Weird Tales in 1927, when he was sixteen.) I had already noticed that: The teenage Evan H. Appleman had had a one-page story in the June, 1951 F&SF, which turned out to be his one and only published piece, and nineteen-year-old Ron Goulart had launched a career that continues to this day with a brief item in a 1952 issue. And here I was in my twenties already! Time was passing. (But Richard Matheson had been all of twenty-three when he startled the readership with his instantly famous first published story, "Born of Man and Woman," in the Summer, 1950 issue.)
However, Boucher was not going to relax his editorial standards just for the sake of letting one more kid join the team, or for any other reason. Correspondence reprinted in Annette McComas's The Eureka Years reveals that Boucher and McComas had rejected a story by no less a writer than Robert A. Heinlein that they felt was sub-par, and had put Ray Bradbury through several rewrites before buying "The Exiles" for issue number two. Soon after the New York convention I sent Boucher a new piece, which he turned down on December 5, 1956, saying it embodied an excellent idea but did not come off as a story. He didn't want me to rewrite it, but he hoped I would submit something else soon, which I did, expressing the hope in my covering letter that it would finally break the ice. And on January 14, 1957, he sent me this:
An ice-breaker it is. Very nice story, 'Warm Man.' You'll get a contract from Bob Mills shortly…. Hope this'll prove to be the 1st of many.
And it was. It ran in the May, 1957 issue—he put my name on the cover, even—and in the decades that followed I was a frequent contributor to F&SF: short stories, some novellas, a couple of serialized novels—through one editorial regime after another, on into the era of Gordon Van Gelder.
Only seven and a half years had passed between the time the barely adolescent Bob Silverberg had stared in delight at the first issue of what was then The Magazine of Fantasy and the day when newly adult Robert Silverberg had seen his name on the cover of the May, 1957 number. And now ten times seven years have gone by since I discovered that long-awaited first issue that autumn day in Brooklyn. F&SF is still here, and I am happy to say that so am I, and the thrill of seeing each new number appear has not yet worn off. Will I see another anniversary issue a decade hence? I cherish the hope.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide