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Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 Review

Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley (Liverpool University Press 1-84631-002-4, cloth, $75.00; 1-84631-003-2, $27.50, tp, 422 pp, June 2007). Cover design by Kelly Wilkinson.

Guess which 1970s magazine Mike Ashley is talking about in the following quote: one that has “a liberal atmosphere in which authors could think creatively about technology’s effects on society…” Of course, it’s Omni.

Omni?

Ashley continues: “without the restrictions or expectations of a genre magazine such as Analog or Asimov’s.” As Ashley reports, Asimov’s editor George Scithers told Omni editor Ben Bova that Asimov’s had already rejected all of the fiction Bova had published in a particular issue of Omni. (For you youngsters, Omni was a high paying, glossy, popular science magazine which also published SF, and achieved a much higher circulation than any genre magazine. And it paid way better than any other magazine could.) Whether Omni actually furthered science fiction is hard to prove, Ashley admits, in spite of (or because of) its financial success and financial backing.

But it’s a useful example to get us into the conflicts of finances, editorial policy, and outside pressures that is publishing. SF historian Mike Ashley reminds us in Gateways to Forever, the third volume of his series covering the history of the SF magazines, that any perceived increase in creative thinking about technology’s effects on society was much more than a mere literary movement. The genre’s evolution was driven by a number of forces: the economics of large, middling, and small presses; the expansion and contraction of the original anthology market; the advent of academic criticism as well as the establishment of the Clarion workshop for upcoming writers; roleplaying games, comics, and Star Wars siphoning off youth interest in speculative fiction; and more. Too much, as Ashley reports, to cover the 1970s to the present as in his originally intended single volume. Previous books in this series on the history of the science fiction magazines are The Time Machines and Transformations, and a fourth volume, The Eternal Chronicles, is planned.

America has much to regret about the 1970s: Nixon, Vietnam, disco, shag carpets, and the pet rock, for a few examples. Ashley quotes Bruce Sterling several times as calling the 1970s “confused, self-involved and stale,” and it’s a decade, as Ashley admits, that SF critics tend to regard as transitional (between the New Wave and cyberpunk). It’s also the decade that saw debut stories from the likes of Octavia E. Butler, Glen Cook, Robert Crais, Eileen Gunn, James Patrick Kelly, Kim Stanley Robinson, John Shirley, and Connie Willis (all Clarion alums). Ashley bravely finds patterns in this chaos, starting with the death and lasting influences of John W. Campbell and relating the histories of the major and minor magazines, editor by editor; then moving beyond the magazines to argue persuasively that Roger Elwood may not have single-handedly collapsed the original anthology market. Ashley seems to delight in data, with numerous charts throughout, including authors’ first appearances in print; Clarion attendances; appendices covering non-English-language magazines, publication summaries of English language SF magazines; circulation figures for the major magazines; directories of publishers, editors, and artists; plus (of course) an index.

Short fiction had become a training ground, with an influx of new writers encouraged by workshops, as well as the new markets created by original anthologies and new magazines like Omni. Stories grew more complicated, often focusing on people and their lives, rather than traditional pulp plots or aesthetics. As the stories got de-simplified, readers were also starting to age (Ashley cites Locus polls with an average reader age of 24 in 1971 to 31 in 1982), a trend that continues today and seems to indicate that the same people keep reading SF (hi, guys!). If there’s anyone out there who hasn’t already read everything, you’ll find this a thoroughly-researched volume in a solid series. Ashley has done a great amount of work, and while the series is ostensibly a history of the SF magazines, it’s really about the entire field.

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