Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The New and the Grey

"Oh, neat," the Chapters cashier said when I handed over the lastest issues of Asimov's and Analog. "I didn't even know we had these."

If you're looking for the genre short story magazines, things like Analog or Fantasy & Science Fiction or Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, it's a real crapshoot as to where or whether you'll find them. In the Robson Square Chapters, which is my usual haunt now, they're kept on a top-floor magazine rack practically as far from the escalator as it's possible to be. In the Metrotown Chapters, they're hidden behind digests and literary magazines near the outside entrance, and it's possible to spend ages searching for them even if you already know exactly where they're supposed to be. The Barnes & Noble in downtown Seattle doesn't seem to carry F&SF at all. These story magazines are, to be blunt, difficult commodities to get hold of depending on where you are.

Recently I was reading the October 1995 Asimov's, a last-minute rescue from a Portland used bookstore (cover story: "The Death of Captain Future" by Allen Steele). Robert Silverberg's column for that issue, "The Audience Grows Older," struck me. In it, he raises concerns over an F&SF survey indicating that only seven percent of its readers were below the age of 25, and fifty-five percent were older than 35, and that while many readers remain loyal they're not being replaced.

The greying of science fiction is a concern that's been batted around for decades now, and there is some truth to it - at the World Science Fiction Convention in 2009, one of the things that stuck with me was the age distribution; there were a lot of folks there of my parents' generation. For this year's Worldcon, as of the end of last month they'd sold fifty-six Young Adult (that is, under 21), one hundred and twenty-five Child, and seventeen Kid-In-Tow memberships next to more than three thousand attending memberships. Anecdotal data, sure, but anecdotes can add up.

It's easy to understand why this is happening. Back in the original boom era of science fiction, when a lot of those now-aging readers first got into the genre, there was a wealth of magazines to read through; although Asimov's didn't get its start until 1977, magazines like Analog, Amazing, If, Galaxy, and so on had already set down roots. What was also the case before the late 1970s was that there was only limited competition for science fiction from any other media - then, of course, Star Wars came out and the world began to change. It changed, and new readers who would have gone to the magazines in a different era, now didn't.

As someone who was one of those potential new readers in 1995, I think I can shed at least a flickering light on this. My introduction to science fiction was through Star Trek, not a newsstand magazine - Star Trek V is the first movie I can remember seeing in a theatre. At home, we had all of the original Star Trek episodes on VHS and a bookshelf of Star Trek tie-in novels. When it comes down to it, though, the main reason I wasn't following the threads of science fiction, devouring the magazines and so on was that I didn't know they existed.

There's just so much on the shelves...

It wasn't until I was almost out of my teenage years that I stumbled across them. As far as I can remember, my first encounter with a science fiction magazine came at some point after January 2001, when I found and read that month's issue of Asimov's - a fact I only remember because Allen Steele's "Stealing Alabama" was the lead story, and because the opening chapters of Coyote were inexplicably familiar when I read it last year (and that only because both times, I thought Alabama was a really strange choice for Earth's first starship). I don't know if I ever owned it; I certainly don't have it any more. It wasn't until I reached university that I found these things for sale, in the student bookstore - but then, because I was a broke-ass student, I bought them only occasionally; I'd missed the window for them to sink their jaws into me. It wasn't until 2007 that I really started in on them, and that because I'd resolved to start writing short stories and needed to get more experience with how they worked.

I certainly find it as cause for regret today. I can't help but wonder what sort of person I might have been, what sort of ideas I might have grappled with, what sort of writing challenges I might have tackled if . The solution to the problem of the aging audience is exposure - introduction of these magazines to people who would be interested in them, but who are wholly unaware of them. The modern ebook revolution can, I think, change that. There are plenty of magazines out there that publish electronically, like Andromeda Spaceways or Lightspeed.

The audience is there; the audience has always been there. The people in the audience just need to know that they can be an audience.

1 comment:

  1. Now in my mid 60's, I've been reading the pulps for decades. My first SF book was a gift to me when I was about 10 yrs old, Destination Luna by Patrick Moore. Then I read through the local library collection of SF in my early teens. After that, all the new stories I read were from the pulps.

    Over the years I've sold many boxes of them to 2nd hand stores, garage sales, etc. The best experience is when someone finds them at my garage sale and gets excited and buys them all (really cheap too). The magazines are not easy to sell. I've posted used copies on Kajiji and had no responses.

    They disappeared from local variety stores a decade or two ago but in the last few months I've been seeing them back on the shelves again. The stores rely on the distributor to stock them and if they do sell the store receives new issues. For myself, now living on a very low income, I can't afford to buy the magazines any more but I still make use of the library to keep reading SF.

    I keep track of what I've read here