A Brief History of Fantastic Digest Fiction

The spiritual successor to the pulp era came the digest years. After the pulps died, digest-sized magazines dominated the marketplace; while some continued on the pulp tradition of adventure stories chock full of action and scantily-clad space babes, the most popular and well-regarded of the digests had literary aspirations. And while fantasy and horror continued to have niche market shares, science fiction was the dominant medium: between the Cold War and the “Space Age,” science fiction managed to enter the popular vernacular through its strange tales and eerie predictions.

The 5 .5″ x 7.5″ digest-size magazine is now an anachronism; Reader’s Digest is the last surviving magazine in the format. Even TV Guide switched from digest format in 2005.  Since most of the science fiction magazines of the 1950s used it as their format, the digest is now a flashback to earlier days. And with the “Space Age” boom of the 1950s, dozens of sf magazines popped up, many surviving for a half-dozen issues or less. These were the golden years of sf, when “science fiction” was becoming a household term, and magazines like Galaxy, Analog, and Worlds of If dominated the marketplace.

To recap the end of the pulp era: as new medias emerged, magazines changed. The mass-market paperback saw its debut; cheap, inexpensive, and mass-produced books like Ace Doubles helped the paperback dominate the marketplace. Television saw a massive boom, and films also picked away parts of the market share, starting with Destination Moon in 1950. And comic books drew away the younger audiences of the pulp era. Similarly, the content’s focus changed: the science fiction of the ’30s and ’40s, dominated by swords-and-planets, space opera, was replaced by a growing movement towards hard sf. The emphasis on scientific growth and engineering progress was reflected in the sf of the postwar 1950s, particularly when the “space age” began with the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

Of course, the World War II paper shortage was the first nail in the coffin, causing many magazine companies to cut costs by combining similar magazines, switch to bimonthly or quarterly formats, or even stop producing altogether. And in 1957 the largest magazine distributor, American News Company, stopped operating, which finished off both the pulp era and many of the 1950s magazines. Most of the existing magazines didn’t survive the shifts in format and theme which marks the end of the pulp era, leaving behind just the original staples: Amazing and Astounding. And while these two would soldier on, they would quickly find themselves with plenty of competition.

Amazing Stories/Amazing Science Fiction (1926)

Amazing had been the first magazine strictly devoted to sf, part of the reason it survived the pulp era. Amazing, through the 1930s and ‘40s, had slowly lost its focus on “scientifiction” and acquired stories of all kinds, the only thing uniting them being that they were “amazing:” tales of lost cavemen, shamanistic barbarians, things with dinosaurs, and everything else under the sun, while still retaining its core of science-fiction stories. With the surge in hard sf during the 1950s, Amazing found it necessary to focus simply on sf, though Amazing’s reputation dropped as it included more campy “bug-eyed monster” style stories and less hard sf. It soldiered on, becoming more and more hard sf through the ‘60s and ‘70s, becoming Amazing Science Fiction Stories multiple times in the process. Circulation kept dropping, and the magazine ended up in the hands of gaming giant TSR, in one of their many odd ideas on how to expand; needless to say, TSR’s financial issues didn’t help the magazine. TSR became part of Wizards of the Coast, who then smartly got rid of everything they didn’t need, such as its mall stores and magazine lines, so Amazing changed hands again to Paizo Publishing. Paizo attempted to soldier on, but the magazine’s distribution was still poor, and it ended its life with a brief run in 2004-2005.

Astounding Science Fiction/Analog (1929)

Astounding went through a number of changes, losing its original reputation as a juvenile magazine and becoming a powerhouse in the sf magazine market. With the wartime paper shortages Astounding dropped its pulp format to become a digest magazine. Astounding had one of the highest reputations in the SF newsstand field, and under editor John W Campbell, had amassed a lot of literary clout. Many of the stories were not only well written, but integrated the era’s hard sf style flawlessly, exciting reading which still retained a firm grounding in both literary fiction and science. In 1959, the magazine’s name changed to Analog, retaining its quality reputation, and is the longest-running sf publication today.  Astounding emerged from the 1940s as the king of SF magazines, Astounding/Analog was solid competition for the likes of Fantasy & Science Fiction and Galaxy. Hundreds of famed authors have been featured in its pages, ranging from Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Lester Del Rey, L. Sprague de Camp, Robert Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt, up to Orson Scott Card, Harry Turtledove, Timothy Zahn, Greg Bear, Paul Levinson, and Michael Burstein; L. Ron Hubbard even published his first article on Dianetics in 1950 in Astounding.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (1949)

The Magazine of Fantasy was at the forefront of the post-war science-fiction magazine boom; to encompass the full spectrum of speculative fiction, the “and Science Fiction” part was added on for the second issue. Originally, the editors of F&SF strove to make it a literary journal, eschewing the illustrations and dual-column layout for a single-column with a lot of white space. Over time, this literary approach to fantasy and science-fiction would pay off with a good reputation. Contributions and novelette editions included some of Fritz Leiber’s Ill Met in Lankhmar, Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Stephan King’s Dark Tower, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, numerous Harlan Ellison stories, Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon,” and Thomas M Disch’s story “The Brave Little Toaster,” which became the animated feature film of the same name. The magazine still exists, and you can find it on most newsstands.

Galaxy Science Fiction (1950)

With an emphasis on the more socio/psychological explorations of science-fiction over pulp’s bug aliens and ray guns, Galaxy quickly established a reputation for serious, hard-SF stories of literary quality. Galaxy’s success is also pointed at for the rise in science-fiction magazines during the 1950’s through the 1970’s, when Galaxy was at its peak. Featuring numerous award-winning stories, Galaxy writers included Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, CM Kornbluth, Clifford Simak, Pohl, Ellison, Silverburg, C.J. Cherryh, and others. Rocketry expert Willy Ley as a science consultant during the peak of the space race, when the magazine was at its peak. The decline of the space race, and the dying science fiction magazine industry, lead to the death of Galaxy in 1979.

Imagination Stories of Science and Fantasy (1950)

Part of the 1950 science-fiction magazine boom, Imagination lasted until the end of 1958. A sharp contrast to Galaxy, Imagination had a reputation for low-quality stories in the vein of Planet Stories: adventure fiction in the guise of science-fiction. Editor William Hamling asserted that “science fiction was never meant to be an educational tour de force,” adding to this reputation; several of the stable writers used pseudonyms and considered it a “widely unread” magazine. While few of the stories received any recognition, the magazine featured stories by Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, and John Wyndham, amongst others. By 1958, the magazine was deemed unfit for the current market, and publishers closed the magazine to invest in another magazine, Rogue. While Rogue was primarily an attempt to compete with Playboy, it is notable for its array of fiction and science-fiction stories, with writers Alfred Bester and Robert Bloch handling various departments.

Authentic Science Fiction (1951-57)

Authentic was notable as one of the longer running British sf magazines, bringing sf to a British audience, though it published few noteworthy stories. Its first twenty-five issues each contained a single full-length novel and various departments, branching out to include serials, and then a combination of long and short fiction. In 1953, it began reprinting stories already published in the US by authors such as Asimov, but stopped the practice, only to begin again in early 1957. While the magazine never gained a quality reputation—many of its early covers were terrible—it was a lengthy mainstay in the ’50s British sf scene.

Fantastic (1952)

Another child of the 1950’s science fiction boom, Fantastic was an attempt at a sophisticated-looking science-fiction digest; it worked, as the magazine was an instant success. However, its reputation didn’t last, and after four years had fallen into a rut of reliable mediocrity from the editor purchasing most of the magazine’s stories from four writers: Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison, Randall Garrett and Milton Lesser (Lesser being a pseudonym for Stephan Marlowe); despite the big names, the stories were purchased unread at set lengths of words-per-month. An editorial switch helped the magazine in 1959, but it would eventually be sold (along with Amazing) by Ziff-Davis in 1965. While it gained a reputation of quality, it ended life as a magazine devoted to fantasy-fiction. In 1980, it was merged with Amazing due to poor sales.

If/Worlds of If (1952)

If began life as a small but popular sf magazine, only to become the experimental little brother to Galaxy with the 1957 collapse of American News Company. Editor Frederik Pohl made its experimental side a selling point in the 1960’s by claiming he’d publish a new writer in every issue. The magazine is sometimes referred to as Worlds of If because of a weird layout choice which left the “Worlds Of” in the same text box and above the title “If;” eventually, the magazine would just re-title itself If to circumvent confusion. While never considered a first-tier magazine, it did garner a solid reputation and feature some noteworthy pieces, including Heinlein’s novel “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” By 1974, times were tough, magazines were in a slump, and Worlds of If was merged with Galaxy after the December ’74 issue.

Fantastic Universe Science Fiction (1953)

Arriving in the middle of the sci-fi boom late, Fantastic Universe attempted to out-distance its competition through a higher price and higher page count—196 whopping pages in digest form. It attempted literary stylings, eschewing illustrations for its stories for example, and while it never reached the top tier it did carry a dedicated fanbase. The magazine was a decent success of good quality, featuring Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, H. Beam Piper, John Brunner, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Howard stories rewritten by L. Sprague de Camp. The magazine stayed relatively strong until it was sold in late 1959; the magazine’s size and binding was changed dramatically. Needless to say, the last issue wasn’t soon in coming, and the magazine ended in 1960.

1950s and 1960s Grab Bag

Science Fantasy (1950-67) was one of the earlier British digest magazines focusing on science fiction and fantasy, featuring stories by Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard, John Brunner, and Terry Pratchett. It lasted over 80 issues, changing names to Impulse in 1967; its new name (and numbering system) confused readers and was bad for sales.  Space Science Fiction (1952-53) was an attempt by Lester del Rey to start a sf publication; while del Rey brought in the names (and the quality), conflicts with his publishers lead to the magazine’s early demise. In a similar but different way, editor Hugo Gernsback (of Amazing and Wonder Stories fame) started Science-Fiction Plus (1952-53). The bedsheet-format magazine had high quality standards and huge glossy pages the size of Life, and pulled in a variety of top-bill names including many from the early days of sf. However, the magazine kept an archaic feel from its earlier writers lacking knowledge of recent sf, producing dated stories. With an emphasis on pulpy action, Imaginative Tales (1954-58) was a sister of Imagination, focusing on fantasy rather than science fiction; it changed focus to science fiction shortly after the launch of Sputnik, but not even that could save the magazine.

Super Science Fiction (1956-59) began by attracting names like Asimov, Robert Bloch, Ellison, and Donald Westlake, before devolving into a pulp-esque monster stories. Living twice as a companion to F&SF, Venture Science Fiction (1957-58, 1969-70) emphasized complete, exciting stories, leading to more action-packed stories than its companion featured. Worlds of Tomorrow (1963-67) was another sf magazine published by Galaxy Publishing edited by Pohl; it continued Pohl’s trend for popular, quality stories, but was rolled into If to cut costs. Somewhat long-lived at 42 issues, Thrilling Science Fiction (1966-1975) consisted entirely of reprints, from Amazing and Fantastic, an oddity given its contemporaries’ focus on brand new stories.


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