Mike Ashley tells us in the preface to Gateways to Forever that he intended his history of the science-fiction magazines to be a trilogy complete in this volume. The Time Machines covered 1926 to 1950, and Transformations 1950 to 1970. But he found the '70s to be too rich and complex a time to fit into one book with everything that came afterward. And so we have a volume of nearly 400 pages with another hundred pages of apparatus, including many appendices, for this decade alone. (Volume 4, The Eternal Chronicles, is scheduled to be published in 2009.)
The more the merrier! My enjoyment and interest in the book did not flag.
In tackling the history of the science fiction magazines, Ashley gives himself a wide remit, including original anthologies of which, in the '70s, there were many running in series, such as Orbit, Nova, Universe, and New Dimensions. The book is detailed enough for him to examine individual stories, issues, and volumes, and one gets an idea of the mosaic of what was being published in the important short fiction side of the field. But he also discusses novels, both when they were serialized and when they developed out of stories; writers (paying special attention to when and where well-known writers made their debuts); editors and publishers (including an alphabetical listing in an appendix), and the strengths and flaws of both; artists (with an alphabetical listing of cover credits); Clarion (there was a brief series of Clarion anthologies); and the state of the market, fan activity, role-playing games, media magazines—anything that touches on the central subject. The book becomes a cultural history of science fiction and fantasy during the decade.
Ashley does not neglect the business side, either factors intrinsic to the business of publishing, such as financing and distribution challenges (he gives an appendix listing circulation figures), or external woes, such as recession and paper shortages, which strongly affected magazines' survival.
Ashley has been working this territory for many years. He previously published a three-volume (as far as I can tell) History of the Science Fiction Magazine (Vol. 1, 1926-1935 ; Vol. 2, 1936-1945 ; Vol. 3, 1946-1955 ), but those books were anthologies as much as histories; the historical narrative was only a bit more than 200 pages, with another hundred-plus of appendices. Because of that work, or because he's made this an ongoing project since then, he has files of correspondence with authors and editors going back at least to the '70s that he can and frequently does draw on, an invaluable and possibly unique resource.
Ashley's writing is generally straightforward and serviceable. In this type of book one doesn't expect or want any kind of elaborate or high style. He does lapse into occasional awkwardnesses, which one simply ignores, and at times an infelicity or a syntactical car crash that distracts or even confuses. In discussing a story in David Gerrold's anthology Ascents of Wonder (1977) (yes, it's a pun), he says: "Daniel P. Dern's 'White Hole' is an inventive twist on the black-hole obsession by having an alternative point of creation rather than destruction" (p. 168). Sure. When you don't want to do the work of making a sentence say clearly what you mean, one option is to throw in a random preposition. Only "with" outdoes "by" in popularity.
For no errors to creep into a book this length, with the enormous amount of detailed information it contains, would be remarkable (or perhaps I should say Astounding, Amazing, or Fantastic). For the most part, I'm not in a position to judge Ashley's accuracy; I simply assume it. However, when he says that "Gene Wolfe's masterful 'The Death of Dr. Island and Other Stories'" ran in Universe 3 (p. 152), he's conflating two stories; it was Nebula-winner "The Death of Dr. Island" in Universe 3; "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories" ran in Orbit 7, according to the copyright page of Wolfe's The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (1980). But this sort of thing is bound to happen.
At times Ashley pursues an idea or theme to give some shape to the narrative, perhaps to escape the endless iteration of facts, names, titles, and dates. The connections and arguments he makes vary in their strength and ability to convince. For instance, he argues (pp. 93-94) that science fiction of the '30s, '40s, and '50s looked outward, at what man could achieve, and that in contrast the SF of the '70s looked inward at what we hadn't achieved ... but with a glimmer of hope. "Mankind unceasingly traps itself in cages and has to redesign the cage in order to try to escape. The hardest cage from which to escape is that created by our own fears and prejudices. It was by working through these neuroses that science fiction, which, like the society of the time, had become tormented and distraught, could be reborn." This seems basically true, though one has to wonder in what way an entire, disparate field of individuals working at their own purposes undergoes a process, as if it were an individual. And "neuroses" is a sloppy term for "fears and prejudices."
His judgments of the value and worth of both publications and individual stories are sometimes positive almost to a fault, and when he must say something critical, he often tends to try to soften the blow. That's admirable, in a way, but occasionally it feels like we're handling things through mittens. Fortunately, this tendency is only intermittent. At times he is ready to dismiss things that he thinks have no value.
Ashley seems to reserve most of his impatience—disdain would be too strong a term—for authors, stories, magazines, and publishers that he feels hold the field back, or fail to advance it, to make progress. I doubt that science fiction, as a whole, is a teleological endeavor progressing toward an apotheosis. So what might it be progressing to, or towards? Ashley seems to mean, primarily, progress away from crude and simple-minded adventure fiction, intellectually and emotionally stultifying wish-fulfillment and (sub)adolescent power fantasies, what in Transformations he calls "puerile sf" (p. 2), and towards something more mature (than its origins), to new territory, to new reaches of literary and intellectual sophistication. I'm afraid his faith in the possibility of "progress" seems, at this point, like that of the Victorians. Few of us would want to see the field wallowing in the equivalent of Captain Future and Perry Rhodan; but Ashley doesn't seem to see an opposing danger of science fiction "progressing" right out of being any kind of a "field" at all, or even out of being a truly popular fiction toward the sort of thing Stephen King describes in a recent essay in the The New York Times Book Review ("What Ails the Short Story" Sept. 30, 2007). In reading for an annual Best American Short Stories, King says, "I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won't go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers." In other words, to impress rather than to entertain.
As far as I can tell, that sort of thing started in science fiction and fantasy in the '60s and '70s. If it's not exactly what Ashley's praising, he doesn't seem to see the dangers in it, either—among others, that of alienating an already shrinking audience.
Toward the end of reading Gateways to Forever, I decided, in the limited time available, to read a few things from the period and picked some items at a kind of double random—random that I own them and random that I chose them. I read all or part of: Universe 3, edited by Terry Carr (1973); Nova 2, edited by Harry Harrison (1972); the December, 1971 and June, 1972 issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (edited by then-publisher Edward L. Ferman); the August 1972 20th Anniversary issue, and the July 1974 issue, of Fantastic, edited by Ted White; and The Day the Sun Stood Still (1972), a collection of three novellas edited by Robert Silverberg (according to Ashley; he's uncredited in the book, which gives the appearance of being edited by Lester del Rey).
One thing that struck me is the—for a contemporary reader—gratuitous and sometimes cheesy use of sex in some stories, at times smarmy or leering, as if they'd been cowritten by Austin Powers; one can almost hear the "Yeah, Baby!" at the end of some lines. The sexual and feminist revolutions still had a long way to go in the early '70s. I include in this the story "Forever to a Hudson Bay Blanket" by James Tiptree, Jr. from Fantastic, August 1972. It would not have won her a "Tiptree."
There is at times also a straining to be "hip," to use contemporary slang, and a straining to be clever, edgy, original, arty, pointlessly difficult—"show-offy," in King's sense. Unfortunately, this "cleverness" is sometimes only skin-deep, over an otherwise uncompelling story. Some pieces make the same sort of painful impression made by '70s fashions; they're ordinary fiction on platform shoes.
Every period has good and bad fiction, of course, and Sturgeon's Law applies (although I don't think 90% of everything is crap; just 90% tends, in a falling curve, toward crap, which constitutes a smaller, though still respectably large, percentage of everything). But the late '60s and the '70s have the distinction, I think, of producing the most speculative fiction that, when it didn't work, was irritating, in a way that fiction from earlier eras, anyway, was not.
Complaints aside—and some of what I read was perfectly good, some impressive—what the fiction of this decade seems to have in common with the rest of the late '60s and the '70s is a sense of experimentation, possibility, broken bonds, along with anarchy, excess, and silliness. Ashley is positive in his overall take, saying in a short, summing-up final chapter that "Science fiction in the magazines [I think he would include the original anthologies] was more mature, more human, more literate ... [than in previous decades]" (p. 392). But he gets at the sense of the turmoil of this period of transition, when the supremacy of the main magazines began to falter and science fiction publishing branched out into a "large number of different initiatives moving in different directions under the control of different editors and publishers" (p. 383). The market diversified and aged and, in some cases, wandered off to other interests. It was a period of writerly experimentation, of opening to new ways and new topics. In both markets and fiction, it was a period of breaking up, of falling apart, and of new formulations.
Ashley's work will be, perhaps de facto, the standard history of magazine SF; even if someone else wanted to and could undertake this work, I doubt that anyone will publish a rival on this scale any time soon. But even if there were other real contenders, this would still stand out by dint of its thoroughness, its scope, and its passionate interest in the subject. Any complaints I've made here are quibbling. Some may only want to dip into the book or consult it at need. Anyone with a serious professional interest in the field should read it, and anyone with such an interest will probably enjoy it. And some will, like me, find it consumingly interesting and fun.
Bill Mingin, a graduate of Clarion West, has published seventeen short stories, with more forthcoming, and more than two hundred nonfiction pieces, including reviews in Publishers Weekly. He currently reviews audiobooks for AudioFile Magazine. He's married and lives in central New Jersey, where he runs a small book-export business.