The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
A TRIBUTE TO F&SF
This article on how The 50th anniverary of the Magazine of Fantasty and Science Fiction first appeared in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Winter 1999, issue #145, under the title "Urbanity, Charm, Wit and Excellence: The Legacy of Mick and Tony."
“Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes. Walter M. Miller’s “A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Shirley Jackson’s “One Ordinary Day, with Peanuts.” “And Now the News,” by Theodore Sturgeon. “Fondly Fahrenheit,” by Alfred Bester, and “Ararat,” by Zenna Henderson, and “Born of Man and Woman,” by Richard Matheson. Wise, witty, satiric, pointed, literate, contemporary in tone, historic in sweep, these are some of the most chillingly memorable stories in our genre. They have one other common factor. Each and every one originally appeared in the pages of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Where else? F&SF expanded the field the way inflation expanded the universe, creating space within for both the fantasists of the 19th century and the heirs to Gernsback, for the wild-eyed youngsters touched by the mainstream, the parodists with their mocking eyes, the sad- but clear-eyed humanists who had no other place to go, no home base that understood and nurtured and encouraged them. No other one home ever gave shelter to a wider swath of our whole genre universe, science fiction and fantasy and horror and all the shadings within, than F&SF, now celebrating its 50th Anniversary.
But this year could so easily have been the 53rd anniversary, or even the 56th. Our beloved and noted F&SF didn’t start out with those initials or even with SF in mind at all. It evolved, and faltered, and took a step in the wrong direction before finally finding its way. This tale too is a story, with a contributing cast of outsized and improbable characters.
Today’s view of sf and the sf magazines in the 1940s is colored by nostalgia and selective vision. We remember Cleve Cartmill’s visit from the FBI and not the post-Hiroshima stories that beat the atomic bomb theme into the ground. We forget that Unknown Worlds was a casualty of wartime paper shortages and that 1946 dawned with only a handful of pulps and one single digest-sized magazine, Astounding (the only one on a monthly schedule to boot), left to carry the banner of science fiction into the future that the magazines had so confidently predicted in the optimistic 30s.
Postwar America belonged to the young and victorious, and – much like today – ferment and change dominated every conversation, old ways of thought were being heaved merrily into history’s dustbin, money was there to be spent and to be made, and the time felt right for ambitious entrepreneurs to take the plunge.
Also not unlike today, two such go-getters were up in the San Francisco area. Jesse Francis McComas was Northern California sales manager for Simon & Schuster and had just co-edited the monumental anthology Adventures in Time and Space with Raymond J. Healy. The writer, critic, and reviewer William A. P. White, A.P. to his friends, was better known by his mystery and science fiction pseudonyms, Anthony Boucher and H. H. Holmes. Mick knew sf and publishing; Tony, a force of nature, knew everything.
But the idea for a new magazine was Mick’s, first conceived as early as 1943 but waiting for the war’s end for fruition. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, then as now, was the leading mystery mag, a literate outpost for the best in both new stories and reprinted classics. After enlisting Tony in the cause, Mick approached Fred Dannay, the editorial half of the Ellery Queen team, about starting an Ellery Queen’s Fantasy Magazine. Dannay liked the concept if not the specifics and suggested that the pair write directly to his publisher, Lawrence Spivak. (Spivak ironically kept his money-losing but prestigious flagship publication, The American Mercury, afloat by using the profits from EQMM and a series of digest-sized paperback mysteries. No doubt he saw an incursion into sf as fulfilling the same function.)
A letter, dated March 11, 1946, proposed a magazine, as-yet-unnamed, containing “short stories of the fantasy, supernatural, or ghost genre.” Well-known authors, including Raymond Chandler and H. F. Heard, were to be asked to clean out their trunks of stories unsellable without a going fantasy market, and to be paid top dollar because writers of their stature “will hardly be content with less than two cents a word.” Contracts, for a flat fee of $100, were mailed out to six writers. Stuart Palmer returned his first, and on June 24, 1946, his story was stamped as mss. Number 1.
Bad timing. The bottom dropped out of magazine newsstand sales in 1947, and the date for publishing the first test issue slipped and slipped, although Joseph Ferman, then general manager of Mercury Publications, kept renewing the contract for something whose very name was never clear, even internally. Fantasy and Horror became the usual designation, but The Magazine of Fantasy and Terror appears at least once in the archives.
Donald A. Wollheim, at Avon, kept their hopes alive, all unknowingly. His Fantasy Reader, technically a series of digest-sized paperback reprint anthologies, were truly magazines in all but name, even to their soliciting fan mail from their readership. Although the first issue featured a hoary host of names from the fantasy field, the actual lead and cover spot belonged to Murray Leinster’s “The Power Planet,” a novelette that began with a very unfantasyish, “The war-rocket wasn’t sighted from Earth until it was three million miles out…” Despite a slow start, the Reader’s eventual sales figures drove imitators the way a successful Internet IPO does today.
So much so that when Joe Ferman finally gave the okay for a one-shot test of Fantasy and Horror in early 1949, he also suggested the use of a science-fiction story in each issue. Mick and Tony were quick to agree, with the proviso that they wouldn’t be using the “routine gadget-story type of stf or the Interplanetary Horse Opera.” Ferman also soon suggested substituting The Magazine of Fantasy, emphasis surely being placed on the “The,” as a less pulpish name that would be better suited for a publication from Spivak, so mainstream he was a panelist on Meet the Press. The first issue launched with a celebrity-filled luncheon at the Waldorf, not in backwater San Francisco, but in the center of the publishing world, in New York City, ostensibly to also honor the hundredth anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s death with a collector’s limited-run edition of “The Masque of the Red Death.” (On his way to the podium, Basil Rathbone was heard to ask, “What’s this about?” “Poe,” he was told. “Ah,” he said, and proceeded to recite "Annabel Lee" to thunderous applause.)
The magazine itself drew less acclaim, selling only 57,000 copies, well below expectations. There were any number of reasons, starting with the cover, a Bill Stone Kodachrome of a red-haired wench in a strapless gown, a grinning cartoon gargoyle drawn awkwardly perched on her shoulders. The blurry and yellow typeface made the authors’ names nearly unreadable, almost as unreadable as several of the stories themselves. Percival Landon and Fitz James O’Brien were represented with old-fashioned talky spook stories about scuttling things and lost rooms better suited to the Fantasy Reader audience. Stuart Palmer’s old number 1 concerned a ladies club summoning the devil, a pleasantly lightweight story, still heavier than Cleve Cartmill’s lead piece, its ahead-of-the-curve Dianetics reference (as the Science of Mental Dynamics) notwithstanding. As late as 1952, in their introduction to the first Best of... anthology, Mick and Tony could still boast that “every issue has contained…at least one professional debut.”), this one’s being Winona McClintic’s, a dystopian future in which a hidden old book is found and cherished by a new generation of readers, a prescient topic.
Theodore Sturgeon, an odder choice then than now who wrote back that he’d “much rather be known as a fantasist than a stf writer,” contributed the last-minute sf story. But “The Hurkle Is a Happy Beast,” is a failed alien takeover story so whimsical that it might as well be a fantasy.
It might have ended there, with The Magazine of Fantasy no more than a half-remembered footnote in the histories, as are Other Worlds Science Stories, and Future, and Fantasy Fiction, and Out of This World Adventures, all of which also went onto newsstands in late 1949 and early 1950.
Instead, Mick and Tony regrouped. And magically, the kind of magic generated by fine minds, hard work, and true inspiration, it all fell into place.
Everything changed, starting with the name. The volume 1, No. 2, Winter-Spring 1950 issue became The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, the F&SF known to one and all. The nameless art director [the first cover was done by Bill Stone] was replaced by George Salter, who graced the cover with one of his elegantly stylized aliens and immediately made the typeface legible. (Joe Ferman, later to be Publisher and Editor, is General Manager; future Editor Robert P. Mills is Managing Editor: in many ways F&SF has been a family publication for its entire run.)
Mostly gone too were the octogenarian retreads. Now the reprints were 1940s works taken from the likes of Argosy (Robert Arthur) or Harper’s (Miriam Allen deFord) or The New Yorker (Robert M. Coates). Even the 19th century reprints no longer bore us with draggy spooks. We get the delightfully twisted tale of an astral body going off on its own from Anthony Hope and early demented sf in W. L. Alden’s piece on how the Krakatoa explosion was caused by an attempt to harness it to generate electricity.
Better yet were the homegrown stories. Not one but two of the story cycles whose humorous take on science-fictional clichés would become an F&SF hallmark begin in this issue, the Papa Schimmelhorn stories of R. Bretnor and the Gavagan’s Bar tales from L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. Add to these the first major stories from Damon Knight and Kris Neville and a Margaret St. Clair transition piece between her earlier adventure stories and her later Idris Seabright fantasies, and you already have a strong, readable, modern issue that compared well to anything on the digest racks.
And I haven’t even mentioned Ray Bradbury.
Bradbury, at the tender age of 29, truly was, as they would describe him, the young master, and master in several senses. Master as in good, and master as in experienced (though younger than all but two others in that issue, he had had a far longer professional writing career than most), and master as in deserving deference. Through his exposure in the slicks he wore the most public face of anyone in the field, though his true and chosen field was the Ray Bradbury story, a genre he naturally wrote better than anyone.
Mick and Tony bounced him.
They had to, of course, for Bradbury turned in the near throw-away you might expect of a man talking an 85% cut in salary to do a favor for the good of the field. But Mick said, “Rule number one of our editorial policy is to always take advantage of our friends,” and Tony said, “We rather doubt that Thoreau is a good idea,” and between the two of them they squeezed out of Bradbury the archetypal science fiction slash fantasy slash literary story that would ever after give luster to F&SF’s initials.
“The Exiles” of Bradbury’s story, screed in truth, are Poe and Lovecraft, Bierce and Baum, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen and Charles Dickens and all the other dreamers, fantasists, and dwellers in the depths of our ids and subconscious fears. They (or their shades or essences) have been exiled to Mars since the day in 2067 their books were outlawed and destroyed, all save the last copies now in the hands of the first manned expedition to the red planet. The exiles despise these “clean young rocket men with their antiseptic bloomers and fish-bowl helmets, with their new religion,” and torment them mercilessly from their distance. Even the captain, “smelling of menthol and iodine and green soap on his polished and manicured hands” now dreams for the first time in all his fifty years. But the Rocket Men come on, inexorably. Their first act upon reaching Mars is to burn the last copies of all the old books, and then there is nothing left at all, save distant screams on a dead and barren world.
The typical F&SF story thereafter had a tone, literate above all, vivid, witty, always crisp and detailed, as up-to-date as menthol and iodine, as timeless as Dickens and Baum. (“We have no specifications and no tabus,” Mick and Tony wrote, “save these three: bad writing, trite ideas, and the ponderous deadpan sobriety which has marred so much work…”) F&SF would acknowledge the mainstream (or be it: Truman Capote and John Updike, P. G. Wodehouse and Ogden Nash, both C. Day and C. S. Lewis appeared in time) without slavish imitation, building its own stable of prose stylists who could match anything written elsewhere, many of whom would become the mainstream (Walter Tevis and Michael Shaara and Kurt Vonnegut and…).
How did Mick and Tony accomplish this? Not in person as in our Campbellian images of the young Asimov, manuscript in hand, traipsing into Astounding’s office for harangues and advice from the sensei. Mick and Tony didn’t have the luxury of a body of writers in the San Francisco area large enough to carry a magazine, no crowd of Futurians scheming one and all to publish. They needed to make their contacts, search out new writers, and work at kinks in stories all through correspondence. They churned out letters by the dozen, the score, the hundreds, soft words of encouragement, blunt words of rejection, sometimes both in the same sentence (“It is a truly wonderful piece of terror which you have executed probably as badly as possible.”). Authors lived and died by those letters, and responded with stories unthinkable, undoable, unpublishable elsewhere.
The rest is a highlight reel, a procession of names and greatness. Robert P. Mills, Avram Davidson, Joseph W. Ferman, Edward L. Ferman, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Gordon van Gelder as editors. Eight Hugos for Best Magazine along with four in later years for Best Professional Editor, bookloads of award-winning stories. Beautiful covers by Chesley Bonestall and Ed Emsh and Jack Gaughan and a double dozen others. Three-hundred ninety-nine straight issues of science columns by Isaac Asimov. Penetrating and illuminating book reviews by Bester and Blish and Boucher and Budrys and on through the alphabet to Zebrowski. Unique film reviews by Harlan Ellison and Kathi Maio. Special author tribute issues, with appreciation, bibliography, and a superb new story, that started with Theodore Sturgeon and continued through Bradbury, Asimov, Leiber, Anderson, Blish, Pohl, Silverberg, and Ellison. (The first six comprise the magazine’s hardcover 25th anniversary anthology, worth searching out from any dealer.)
And I haven’t even mentioned the cartoons.
Although the magazine started doing annual October all-star issues in honor of its anniversary sometime in the 1960s, the 10th, 20th, 25th, 40th, and now 50th anniversary issues were especially special, huge, double-sized phantasmagorias of all-new important stories by the biggest names.
But what of the 30th anniversary, you ask? Ah, the October 1979 30th anniversary issue was a look back, a reprise, F&SF’s greatest hits, containing all the incredible stories mentioned in the opening and a dozen more. (It too had a deliciously acquirable hardback edition.)
No clean antiseptic futures here. No faith in rationality and engineering triumphing over all obstacles. Not a Rocket Man in sight. Not that the magazine had scorn for space and science and action – a piece of Starship Troopers topped their 10th anniversary highlights, after all – more that F&SF offered, allowed, demanded of its writers a unique slant, a blunt appraisal of science and humanity and the realms in which they intersected that call to us across the decades.
These are our glories. We, as writers and readers and devotees of science fiction, outcasts and ghetto-dwellers, forward-seers and backward-lookers, have these people, these stories, these memories in our collective family. We have a tradition of urbanity and charm and wit and excellence and, above all else, literacy, that cannot be taken away, that we now celebrate, that we past and future owe to Mick and Tony. Their time came, their rightness shone. We are their beneficiaries. We are the children of their minds. And all grown up and on our own we take them with us always.