Science fiction’s rich tradition in the short story realm is something that can’t be argued. Over the years, countless well-known, best-selling sci-fi authors have gotten their start with publications in pulp magazines like Amazing Stories. First published in March-April 1926, Amazing Stories was the first magazine dedicated fully to science fiction—making it a pioneer for magazines like Analog (1930) and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (1949).
Over the years, Amazing Stories has had its ups and downs, but it has kept finding new life. Today, the magazine is helmed by publisher Steve Davidson, whose love for classic and modern sci-fi is clearly evident. Steve recently joined Recursor to chat about what’s happening these days at Amazing Stories.
RECURSOR: Can you give us a brief history of Amazing Stories?
STEVE DAVIDSON: Sure! Amazing Stories was created by Hugo Gernsback (for whom the Hugo Award is named). Hugo had always been fascinated by tales of future technologies, and he believed that popularizing engagement with science and technology would lead to a better world.
Gernsback identified the genre (he called it “scientifiction”) and gave it a definition—“a charming romance interwoven with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” The magazine’s letter column also gave birth to science fiction fandom. Amazing Stories went on to inspire many of the storied names in this genre—Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and C.L. Moore among them.
How did you become involved with Amazing Stories?
I was first introduced to Amazing Stories during the late 1960s, early ‘70s in a used book shop. It was the Ted White era of editorship, and I quickly became enamored of it; Ted’s tastes and my own were apparently pretty sympatico, because I never read a story I didn’t like. I submitted stories numerous times (always rejected), but the magazine did publish a couple of my letters and name-checked me in an editorial on the subject of Gernsback’s history with the magazine.
Many, many years later, I was managing an R&D firm’s IP portfolio and would check up on the magazine name’s status. It had been sold in the ‘60s to Ultimate Publishing, and by them to TSR, the Dungeon and Dragons publishers; it then transferred to Hasbro, Inc. One day, I discovered that Hasbro had dropped the registration. My wife and I consulted and applied for the mark, receiving it some three years after the initial application.
I wanted to bring the magazine back out—it’s a foundational publication in the field. I acquired several backers, who then withdrew owing to the economic downturn in 2008, leaving me to find a way to bootstrap a version of my initial plans. This is largely where we are at the present.
What makes the sci-f genre, and the magazine itself, important to you?
I’ve been a sci-fi fan since the mid-1960s, starting with Fireball XL-5, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Spaceand Star Trek. I also read Scholastic Books’ SF offerings like The Runaway Robot and Revolt on Alpha C in grade school (I quickly graduated to “real books”, reading LOTR in 4th grade, Heinlein and more).
In the 1970s-80s, I attended conventions up and down the East Coast, ran the Hugo Awards banquet at the 1977 Worldcon, and published fanzines.
Amazing Stories magazine is important to me for personal reasons—it’s the first SF magazine I was exposed to—but also because of its history and impact on the genre.
What has been the coolest moment you’ve experienced as publisher of Amazing Stories?
Holding a copy of our very first issue in my hands and introducing it to fellow fans at the 2018 Worldcon in San Jose.
What role does Amazing Stories have in promoting and supporting the genre?
I think it’s a foundational thing: Science fiction isn’t the same unless Amazing Stories is around. We have our feet firmly planted in three aspects of the genre: its past (the genre evolves via conversation with itself; we stand on the shoulders of giants), its present and its future.
For the past, our licensing partner FuturesPastEditions Books publishes a series of annual anthologies, classic novels and facsimile editions of older issues of the magazine. For the present, we have the website, dealing in all aspects of contemporary science fiction. And for the future, we have the magazine, which we hope is publishing appealing, positively oriented stories about where we can go in that future.
We stand for supporting fandom as a necessary component of the field’s give and take, and we stand against the negative aspects of the commercialization of both the field and its fandom.
What would you say is the future of science fiction? Why?
I’d love to see it continue as a viable genre, a distinct thing, because for me, it is a very special environment—one in which the assumption is that the future can always be improved and that people are capable of making those improvements, and should want to. However, I’m watching the dilution of that community.
There are good parts of that—greater inclusion, wider representation (something SF fandom always advocated, even if it was ignorant of what that really meant). But there are negative parts as well. Publishing has been taken over by those who think slapping labels on things and only supporting proven sellers is the way to create “art.” There’s also an increasing balkanization of fandom into this media fandom, that media fandom, the other media fandom. There’s the emphasis on commercial gate show conventions, and a lack of interest in the history of the field.
I see sci-fi going the same way that any other special interest initially embraced by those on society’s fringes and now recognized for its commercial value goes—into meaningless, cookie-cutter expressions of the art form.
During her acceptance of a National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2014, one of the greatest practitioners of this artform, Ursula Le Guin, had this to say (to a roomful of publishers and marketers):
“Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship… Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
What do you see in current sci-fi that really exemplifies the genre
I think the thing that best exemplifies SF in the current era is the expansion of the voices that are being heard from: people of color, Latinx, Asian, gay, transgender, women. Science fiction is about exploring new terrain, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than to start with a background that most readers are unfamiliar with.
SF started as literature. All of its expressions rely on the written word to come into being, yet I feel the literature itself has largely been relegated to second-class citizen status. And unless and until the influences Ursula mentioned are curtailed, I believe the field as it was will eventually become nothing but another commodity hawked by Amazon.
Obviously, 2020 has been hard on SFF conventions, including AmazingCon. How did it go for you? Will there be an AmazingCon 2021?
AmazingCon 2020 was held online. We had over 200 attendees, and everyone says they had a good time. We’re working on the next one, but I recently made the decision to hold off on confirming the date.
Steve Davidson is the publisher of Amazing Stories. A fan since the 1960s, Steve helped run conventions on the East Coast, including a stint as Hugo Awards Banquet Manager for the 1977 Worldcon, SunCon. He also received a grant from his university to publish his fanzine Contact: SF and dabbled in game design in the 1980s. In 1983 Steve “gafiated” (got away from it all) to participate in the new sport of Paintball, becoming a Top 100 Player of All Time, 1992’s Paintball Man of the Year and the League Representative for the sport’s first international competition league, the NPPL. He’s written three books on the sport and contributed to nearly every magazine in that field. Steve is currently widowed, makes his home in New Hampshire (from which he is planning to move shortly) and still loves science fiction.