Friday, February 27, 2009

The Decline of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine

Asimov's used to be my favorite science fiction magazine. There are stories I read in past issues that I still remember today. For me, it was what a science fiction and fantasy magazine should be, the standard by which all such magazines were to be judged.

After Isaac Asimov died, things changed. Some of these changes were harmless. Isaac Asimov liked to have the each issue's number of pages appear in the top-right corner of the cover, to let people know what a good deal they were getting. He also released 13 issues a year instead of the more traditional 12, as if he was going by the Jewish lunar calendar instead of the Gregorian solar calendar. I enjoyed these little eccentricities, but didn't grieve when they were discarded. I was much more concerned about the sharp reduction I eventually perceived in fiction quality.

Until recently, I wondered if it was just me. After all, art is a subjective thing. I felt vindicated when I read the February 2008 issue of Locus. On page 77 is quite an illuminating table. It lists the number of short stories that Locus has singled out for recommendation from each science fiction and/or fantasy magazine, as well as from anthologies. Here are their data for Asimov's:


You can see an almost steady decline. In fact, Locus recommended almost half as many stories in 2008 as it did in 2002. It would be interesting to look at the summary for 2002 and find out if the decline in Locus recommendations has been going on since Asimov died in 1992. I wouldn't be surprised if it has.

What is the cause of the magazine's decline? I believe it is twofold. The editors indiscriminately publish work by established authors while seldom giving new writers a break.

In issues following Asimov's death, the same author names began to crop up with unreasonable frequency. The names Brian Stableford and Michael Swanwick often appeared over stories that left me bewildered as to what they were doing in a magazine like Asimov's, either because they seemed pointless, came to no resolution or were boring. These two authors had apparently achieved the dubious distinction of being editor-proof, at least as far as Asimov's (post-Asimov) was concerned.

These days, the list of authors who appear in Asimov's magazine over and over again includes not only Stableford and Swanwick but also Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Kate Wilhelm and Nancy Kress. In fact, all fivefour of these authors appear in the latest issue (April/May 2009).

Somerset Maugham once wrote, "Only a very mediocre writer is always at his best." This is as true of Stableford, Swanwick and company as it is of mainstream writers. But that's not the only problem with this magazine's tendency to dip too often into its too-small stable of favorite writers. Even when these writers are at their best, they cannot encompass all of the possibilities of SF. By operating this way, the editors are not only reducing the quality of the stories in their magazine but also the scope and variety and therefore, ultimately, the level of interest the magazine can arouse. After all, a plurality of possibilities is just what SF readers are seeking, just what attracted them to the genre in the first place.

Too, when editors insist on publishing the same writers over and over again, there can only be that much less space available for new talents to make their debut. Which is ironic, because if you Google "asimov's science fiction magazine", the following text will appear under the link: "As one of science fiction’s most influential and prolific writers, Isaac Asimov wanted to provide a home for new SF writers--a new magazine for young writers ..." I'm sure this is true, just as I'm sure that the current editors have no such priority.

A new writer can get into Asimov's. It's just very, very hard. I know of two new writers who have recently managed the trick. One is Nick Wolven, whose story "An Art, Like Everything Else" was published in the April/May 2008 issue. It was one of the best stories, if not the best story, to appear in that issue. Another is this blogger, whose story, "Camera Obscured," has been accepted and will appear in a future issue. Both these authors have something in common: they took the Clarion workshop, an SF-writer boot camp of six weeks' duration.

It is possible, and may well be the case, that these writers only became publishable once they'd passed through the Clarion grinder. It is also possible that Asimov's makes a point of harvesting Clarion graduates. It strikes me that if an editor, for whatever reason, is reluctant to rely on her own judgement to select stories, she might like to publish mostly well-known authors, selecting an occasional new writer only if he'd proven himself by... oh, I don't know... ponying up four thousand dollars to attend SF's most prestigious workshop. And if a new author chose to hone his craft in some other fashion, he might be unable to wrest an acceptance from this editor until he'd racked up a number of publishing credits from other magazines. In which case, of course, he'd no longer be a "new" author.

I am speculating here. I don't know if Asimov's magazine has a prejudice against new writers that haven't graduated from Clarion. It just seems awfully coincidental that of the two new writers I know about who have recently appeared or will appear in Asimov's, both attended Clarion.

Isaac Asimov was able to found a great magazine because he cared, above all, about publishing good stories. His namesake needs to regain that spirit. If it cannot, some other magazine will take its place. I can only hope that one or the other will happen soon.

Edited Feb. 28, 2009 at 10:18 AM.

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