The Amazing Story of “Amazing Stories”

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According to Wikipedia “Amazing Stories was an American science fiction magazine launched in April 1926 by Hugo Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing. It was the first magazine devoted solely to science fiction. Before Amazing, science fiction stories had made regular appearances in other magazines, including some published by Gernsback, but Amazing helped define and launch a new genre of pulp fiction.”

The history of this publication is fascinating to read and rife with conflict and change. It was often considered little more than a publication of pulp fiction, and yet such writers as Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, and our own Ursula K. Le Guin published stories in Amazing. The magazine was declared dead in 1995, revived in 1997, declared dead in 2000, revived in 2004, declared dead in 2006.

For five years Amazing Stories lay in its grave until 2011 when Steve Davidson acquired the trademark name and announced he intended to revive it as an online concern.

Which brings us up to date. Steve Davidson has indeed launched an online version of Amazing Stories. We at Book View Cafe applaud his efforts and are excited about the prospects of this new old publication. One of the first things he’s been doing is tapping the BVC authors for a series of round table discussions to appear at the Amazing Stories site. (Note the listing on the cover.) We’ve been talking about the state of publishing generally, the state of science fiction specifically, how ebooks are affecting readership, and the perennial question of whether or not Margaret Atwood does, in fact, write science fiction.

While all these preparations have been going on, I’ve been talking with Steve about his project, his history, and how things are going. It’s a fascinating story and reads like a How To Be A Rabid Science Fiction Fan text book. I thought I should share it. Here goes:

Sue: What is your experience with the original Amazing Stories? In other words, when did you start reading it and what effect did it have on you?

Steve: I started reading Amazing Stories at the Berlin Farmer’s Market in Berlin, New Jersey, when I was ten or eleven or so and waiting for my parents to finish pigging out at the oyster bar.

Earlier in the year I’d graduated from the Scholastic Book Service’s offerings of SF (A Wrinkle in Time, The Runaway Robot, Revolt On Alpha C — and others) to “whatever I wanted to buy” from the Bookmobile when it showed up. I picked up Frankenstein, Dracula (it was a time of heavy monster/horror involvement and Creepy B&W comics), The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The First Men in the Moon, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Mysterious Island and (drum roll) Robert A. Heinlein’s Starman Jones.

I devoured everything in short order (The school had long ago banished me to my own corner during reading lessons; a couple of years later while the rest of the kids were reading some kind of planned, graduated reading system, I was sitting under the coat rack plowing through The Lord of the Rings.) and was soon riding my trusty 3-speed Stingray bike to the local book store, where I promptly went through everything then extant by Heinlein and was turned on to Ursula Le Guin, A. Bertram Chandler and Marion Zimmer Bradley by a helpful salesperson. (I pretty much was their SF customer for several years and discovered most of the then contemporary authors through that store.)

She also introduced me to anthologies which I thought were really cool since it introduced me to multiple authors at the same time (and for the same price; I think that first copy – Campbell’s Astounding Tales of Space and Time — was picked up for 25 cents).

By this time I was aware of the used book stall at the local farmer’s market (we went there pretty regularly for this and that AND the oyster bar) and on the aforementioned trip, I discovered that the store had a bunch of digest magazines with their covers half ripped off (ye olde ‘return cover for credit’ scam) and I picked up a bunch – it might have been something like four for a quarter or some such. (He also had pulps there which I somehow managed to ignore for a couple of years – eventually I think I bought him out.)

All of them were Amazings from its reprint era. It then dawned on me that here were anthologies that came out every month and I fell in love. It took me a while, but I was soon subscribed to Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, F&SF. Before I could afford the subscriptions, I used to have this great ritual: Once a month I’d go over to the local news shop, pick up copies of all of the magazines and a handful of chocolate covered cherries and then go sit and read. I usually got through all of them before heading back home.

I think it also helped that Ted White started editing the magazine shortly after these experiences and his tastes were pretty close to my own. A few years went by and while I was in High School he started publishing a series on the history of Amazing Stories that largely refuted Sam Moskowitz’ account of the bankruptcy that caused Gernsback to lose his publishing empire. I’d always been a history buff and this intrigued me as I’d been reading some Moskowitz. My local library had microfilm of the NY Times, so it was fairly easy for me to verify the quotes and facts in the article and I wrote about this in a couple of letters to the magazine. Ted published them in the lettercol, which pleased me no end (though the rejection slips still pissed me off). This episode whetted my appetite for the history of the magazine, though I had always been into “old” things (and still am, lol).

Once I discovered that science fiction had a history – a meaningful, much varied, quite quirky and often disputed one – there was no looking back. I seem to have a thing for firsts, first editions, first time something was done. We still don’t have time machines (tho I hold out hope) so I can’t go back and attend the first convention, or work on the first fanzine, or pick up a copy of Amazing Stories when it first appeared on the stands, but I can collect that history and I can read about it.

(Which, parenthetically, is one of my pet peeves with the more recent generations of fan: there was so little SF published prior to the 1990s that it IS possible to survey the entire field up to or close to that point. There’s no reason not to read Poe, or Lucien, or de Bergerac, all of Wells, all of Verne, all of Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke and Heinlein and Wollheim and Pohl and Williamson, Weinbaum and Wandrei and Simak and Niven and Bunch and Brin and Delaney and Spinrad, Moorecock and Disch, Dick and Dickinson, Le Guin and Merrill and Russ and Bradley and Moore and Brackett and Wilhelm; I get so POed when I read something new that is ignorantly derivative – and often arrogantly so – it makes my blood boil. But that’s an aside and I could rant about that endlessly so….)

I have quite an extensive collection of first edition paperbacks, 1st edition original SF anthologies and Volume 1, Number 1 magazines. I discovered my first convention through ads in those magazines and it was Susan Woods column in Amazing (she reviewed the fanzines) that got me started in fandom.

My actual first two conventions were among the first two Star Trek cons ever held (I was a TREKKIE dammit, not a ‘Trekker’) and I discovered what was then called the Hucksters Room and people who sold all of those wonderful old out of print and back issued magazines.

After the first two Trek cons I’d pretty much had my fill of Kirk wannabes armed with water pistol Phasers and – again through the pages of Amazing Stories – I discovered Philcon. I attended my first one at the age of 13 and at that same convention I made the acquaintance of Robert Madle, a collector and seller pretty much at the top of that niche. He explained a lot to me (his revelations about the sheer size and cost quickly put me off the idea of collecting everything – tho I remain terribly jealous of Forest Ackerman to this day – and it was then that I set my sites on collecting firsts) and sold me my copy of the first issue of Amazing Stories (April, 1926).

Susan Woods column provided addresses for contacting fanzine publishers and I corresponded with several and started my own (Contact: SF. I got a grant from my college and produced one semi-prozine issue with that money.), and it was an ad in Amazing that made me aware that the 1977 Worldcon was being managed out of a house in my neighborhood. I was shortly on the committee and eventually ended up managing that year’s Hugo Awards Banquet, at which I learned the seminal, critical and immortal lesson: never, ever, ever offer assigned seating to science fiction fans.

So you can see that while I came to the party pretty late (mid 60s), the magazine not only inspired me and introduced me to a lot of authors I might never have heard of, it also gave me my first magazine credits (those letters to Ted White) and got me involved in both fanzine and convention-running fandom.

Sue: Your experience illustrates why science fiction is not so much about the fiction but the relationship between the authors of the fiction and the readers of the fiction. It really seems like this genre couldn’t exist without the fans.

I love that image of the chocolate covered cherries while reading Amazing. Reminds me of the way Betty Smith (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) described eating her mints while sitting in a tree and reading books from the library. For me it was rootbeer fizzies while reading Batman comic books in a blanket tent in the backyard. I’m sensing a BVC series about what you eat and where while your read your favorite genre work. At any rate, it’s obvious you have a pretty extensive science fiction background. And you’re obviously a voracious reader. Anything else you’re interested in, literature-wise?

Steve: I pretty much covered that above, but in addition, I’ll mention that by the fourth grade I was already out of the formal learn-to-read school programs and pretty much allowed to read anything I wanted to read. My parents were both highly educated – and in the teaching biz to boot – we had this library in an upstairs den that had texts covering subjects from botany to psychology and I pretty much read them all, as well as working my way through an entire Websters Collegiate Dictionary and an encyclopedia set. I read westerns and mysteries, the newspaper, biographies and history, but it was probably no later than 6th grade that I’d settled on science fiction as my daily passion.

Sue: It makes sense, then, that you are moving beyond consuming content and graduating to creating it. How has it come about that you are bringing Amazing Stories back from the dead?

Steve: When I was heavily into my fannish activities, Amazing Stories as a magazine was dying. When it got purchased by the D&D people (a company I and my friends loathed for reasons that aren’t important here), I pretty much stopped reading it and shifted my allegiance to Asimov’s; Asimov’s was being edited by George Scithers over in Philadelphia, less than a 15 minute high speed train ride away. I eventually interviewed George and Gardner, Ben Bova, David Hartwell and the editor of F&SF (though I never hooked up with Ted) for my fanzine (the never produced 2nd semi-prozine issue was to be a feature on all of the magazines in the field).

My fannish friends and I lamented the suborning of Amazing – and even more so when it went multi-media in the late 90s and early aughts – and we frequently discussed what we could do with it if given the chance. Pipe dreams and fantasy.

Many years later, following my gafiation (I gafiated over a dissatisfaction with conventions, the loss of a long-time girlfriend and involvement with the fledgling sport of paintball) and return, I had a job as the manager of an intellectual property department for an R&D shop. My job was to write patent and trademark applications, find flaws/holes in competitor patents and recommend strategy regarding the handling of IP.

One of the things I had to do as routine was to check new filings for things we might want to contest. I don’t know about anyone else, but wading through trademark applications is a boring and onerous task for me. To lighten the mood and keep myself interested, I’d often look up words and phrases to see what their status was. Among the list of things I looked up was Amazing Stories.

Long and short of it is that D&D owned it when they were purchased by Wizards of the Coast (Magic: The Gathering publisher), who were in turn picked up by Hasbro. The staff folks at WOC who had been doing their magazines did a spin-off company (Paizo, still going strong today) and they licensed the title for a while. They even tried to purchase it from Hasbro, but Hasbro wouldn’t sell, so in 2005 Paizo gave up the ghost. And Hasbro sat on the name.

One day I was doing routine searches and, more out of habit than anything else, I once again checked Amazing Stories. Much to my surprise, it was listed as Dead/abandoned. (Believe me, I double checked and even had my wife look at it to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.) My wife and I discussed it and decided that it was worth the filing fees to put in an application and so, after an agonizing wait of several months (during which time I checked the filing daily, if not hourly, to see if someone had beaten me to it) I put in an application.

This was held up for quite some time over a pending application for a similar trademark, one that I didn’t think was eligible but that the trademark office was treating with (I could have fought it but just didn’t have the money to do so), but eventually I received notice that my trademark was going to grant in September of last year.

Sue: Ha ha! Your gain is Hasbro’s loss. Thanks for the view into the trademarking process. Congratulations on garnering ownership of the title. What’s this new incarnation going to look like? What type of writing are you looking for?

Steve: Wow. Ok – my vision of Amazing in five words or less, lol.

Sue: Yes.

Steve: First I have to explain that when I work on a design for something, I tend to start out with the most grandiose version imaginable and then I whittle back from there, sometimes far enough to approach practicable (but never so far as to uncover the mundane).

Sue: (laughs)

Steve: This approach seems to be some kind of instinctual response to the design process for me: I’ve applied it – successfully – to everything from interactive museum exhibits to paintball tournaments. Let me give you one example to illustrate what I mean.

Back in the early 80s I was working on strategy board games and after a few successful designs (one was nominated for Most Humorous Board Game of the Year by GAMA) I decided to tackle the concept of interstellar warfare, whose working title was ‘The Biggest Damned Space Game Ever’. After I finished the first prototype, I had a game board about four feet on a side, a notebook (literally) of forms for each player, and well over 10,000 individual playing pieces. The prototype simulated everything that I wanted to model in the game – stellar evolution and its effects on planetary habitable zones, technological advancement, political negotiations, active non-player ‘alien’ races (each player was an alien race to his opponents), colonizing, resource management, economics a point-to-point FTL movement system and a bunch of other things.

Over the course of a year, I whittled that down to a game that still modeled everything of importance to the subject, but involved no more than 200 game pieces per player and a turn that took no more than 15 minutes for everyone to complete. And a game that achieved its goal of allowing us to explore the many problems inherent in interstellar warfare (it is nearly impossible to support it economically) and ways in which interstellar empires could grow – and wither.

So no one should be surprised if my description of the plan for Amazing Stories seems larger than life, because it is.

And much of it I can’t describe because it is of a proprietary nature.

Suffice to say that my vision for Amazing Stories is more along the lines of building a community as opposed to building a magazine.

I believe that it’s pretty obvious these days that going with a paper-based publication is just about instant death. The economics aren’t there and even if they were, I wouldn’t be able to find a distributor willing to handle it (most of them are out of business as well).

So we’re ‘stuck’ with an electronic magazine.

What I hope to do is provide a pleasing online design and a variety of content on a weekly basis, including new fiction, carefully selected reprints and surround that with the usual and customary – non-fiction articles such as profiles of authors and artists, reviews of books, movies, television shows, websites & etc., interviews, and features.

Those materials will be collected into a ‘monthly’ issue (which will be available in perpetuity as an ebook) and then three of those issues will be combined into a quarterly, which I hope to issue in both print and electronic formats. In effect, the first renewed print version of Amazing Stories will take the form of Amazing Stories Quarterly.

I have two overarching considerations: 1. that the magazine won’t start doing its thing until financing – of a sustainable nature – has been acquired and 2. that the quality of the product justifies the effort.

So far as contributors go? Again, it’s no secret that there are far more good writers out there than there are paying outlets for their work.

Early on in this process I was inundated with queries. I have no doubt that the magazine’s biggest issue is going to be handling the massive number of submissions we’ll be getting in.

I guess the straight forward answer is – anyone and probably everyone at some point.

I hope to launch with stories solicited from well-known names in the field; that makes sense from a marketing point of view. I also hope to be able to put into place systems that will help us identify new and emerging talent (working with workshops, for example) and systems that will insure that Amazing’s content is representative of the entire fields of science fiction, fantasy, horror and all of their many sub-sub-sub-genres.

In support of that I want to explore a ‘guest editor’ program (that may entail inviting an existing editor to select stories for an issue – give them a budget and a deadline and let them showcase the brand(s) of fiction they champion through their own work) and I want to explore a very robust reader interaction methodology – some system by which the magazine’s readers can effectively bring new talent to our attention.

I want the magazine to engage with every aspect of fandom (that’s the market for it, so doing so only makes sense) with content that will appeal to those constituencies – I hope to avoid any institutionalized prejudices: good writing that appeals to any kind of FAN ought to be able to find a place at Amazing.

It is important, I think, to remember that an ezine platform potentially allows a publication to effectively service multiple sensibilities. The magazines currently serving the field (and I love them all) each have a perceived niche: Analog is for “hard SF”, F&SF is more character and cross-genre oriented, Asimov’s sometimes has room for adventure style SF.

Those perceptions reflect editorial tastes, past history and their audiences, which have helped create the niche through a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

One major reason why this is so is because those magazines (and many others online that essentially model themselves after those publications – even if the model is “nothing like those others”) are built around the concept of regular monthly, physical publication. Once in print, the issue is done. If every single story in that issue was written by an author of Hard SF, that issue of the magazine is Hard SF forevermore.

This does not have to be so with an online publication, especially one that provides daily content (not necessarily fiction) across a broad spectrum of interests. Don’t find today’s fiction to be your cup of tea? Fine – read a few reviews, maybe a feature article because tomorrow’s story looks like it is going to be right up your alley.

The danger of doing something like this is, of course, that in trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one, a danger that I am well aware of.

My solution to that is buried in detail that I can’t discuss, except to say that I believe that interest in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror is itself the niche market, not some smaller subset of a subset (fantasy stories featuring dragons at war with unicorns), because the reader who enjoys those unicorn stories shares a special something in common with the reader who wants nothing but space Vikings or the one who excludes everything but steampunk featuring clockwork bunnies – that sense of joy they get from engaging with the fantastic. It will be Amazing’s job to find content that appeals to them all and to blend it together in a way that makes readers want to stretch their boundaries.

Sue: Your ideas are really exciting. I think spec fic authors have been trying to break down the genre walls since forever. They want to write against the pattern of their previous work. If you can indeed create a space that encourages readers to stretch, we will do nothing but bow down before you. We will give you that content.

I’m intrigued by the idea of guest editors. One of my favorite issues of Whole Earth was the Viridian issue with Bruce Sterling as editor. I wasn’t overly familiar with his work at the time, but I really liked what he did with that issue and have since become a fan. Of course, science fiction is different from the usual Whole Earth fare, but the fact that they used guest editors from so many different walks of life made for a very effective publication. At least for me. People do tend to want what they want, but as you said, sf is sf. I hope you look to the roster of authors at BVC when seeking guest editors. We’ve got a fair number of science fiction, fantasy, and horror authors and many of them are in fact editors.

At any rate, we’ll be watching the skies for new Amazing Stories content on a regular basis. Good luck with it!

Thanks so much, Steve Davidson, for giving us an idea of where you’re taking the new Amazing Stories. I look forward to seeing the new incarnation.

And to all the BVC fans and readers, when you get a chance, go and check out the new Amazing Stories. Read a couple of pieces, drop Steve a line, comment here if you have your own Amazing Stories story you want to tell.

Sue Lange

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The Amazing Story of “Amazing Stories” — 5 Comments

  1. I was an Amazing writer, too! The Alfreda novels are “fantasy” and not SF because I sent a reprint to Amazing from a small YA anthology, and he said: “I like this. Shouldn’t it be fantasy?” And we talked….

  2. I had three stories published in Amazing in the 1990’s: “The Devil His Due”, “The Boy Who Loved Clouds”, and “Taco Del & the Fabled Tree of Destiny” (which is now out in novel form from Book View Press. The first of those stories I wrote because I had heard a Deal with the Devil story on NPR and was unsatisfied with the ending. I finished it and sent it to Kim Mohan because he said a Deal with the Devil story was one of three plot lines he would never, EVER purchase.

    I told him that in my cover letter. His acceptance letter was something to the effect of “Yeah, well, you got me. This is the exception that proves the rule—you managed to do something unexpected with it.”

    I still have that letter somewhere as proof that one can occasionally do the impossible.

    Oh, and one small niggle. Analog has a reputation as “hard SF” only magazine. I’ve been mostly published in Analog (about two dozen stories) but I’ve been told (many times over) that I’ve never written a lick of hard SF in my life. That’s not quite true, though I do favor the “soft” sciences, such as sociology, psychology and archaeology. Stan Schmidt has gone to great lengths to dispel the misapprehension that Analog is a nuts and bolts magazine, even giving talks at conventions on “What is an Analog Story?” I’ve been with him on a number of panels on that subject, in fact.

    Here’s Stan’s bottom line: “I would have published ‘Flowers for Algernon’.” And to aspiring Analog writers: “if you have any question that a story might be right for Analog, send it to me and let me be the judge of that.”