Waiting for the Mail: Science Fiction World

For some time now, people have decried the decline of science fiction and the science fiction magazine in particular. They would always point to the declining newsstands sales and subscription numbers of the larger science fiction magazines. Then people would talk about a science fiction magazine that had a circulation of 300,000 with an estimated readership of more than 1,000,000. People would declare, “It can be done! You can have a science fiction magazine with a lot of readers!”

The caveat? The magazine, Science Fiction World (SFW), is Chinese. I don’t know that you can compare the English-language genre market (with the largest circulation being that of Analog at roughly 23,000) to that of China. My initial feeling was that you had a market of a lot of people (more than 1,000,000,000; yes I could say “billion,” I just like typing all those zeroes) and not much by way of outlet for those with science fiction interest, i.e., no imported/translated/home-grown books/movies/games/etc.

But as I thought about that, it didn’t make sense to me. There were news stories about bootleg Harry Potter novels. And I know that even if US movies aren’t making it into China (and they are), there are a lot of Asian genre films being made. And many of them are more interesting than what’s appearing on our movie screens. As for games, well what I know about games is stunning in its ignorance. The most recent video game I’ve played was Disney’s Cars on the Playstation III while I waited for my daughter to get her hair cut (she played on the slide).

So as I looked, and found SFW‘s website (and wiki and forum) which had an English-langauge section (without much information, but it did provide descriptions of their magazines). Better yet, I found a recent article about Science Fiction in China from this year. It seems that Chinese youth are energized about science fiction. Students, in particular, are reading the magazine and sharing it with classmates. It reminds me of what I think was happening here in the States in the 1940s and even the 1960s (I was not alive in either time). And while I’m sure there are students who are reading and sharing science fiction here, it’s not at the levels, or even percentages, that China is seeing.

I wanted to see the magazine. See what it looked liked. But I couldn’t find it anywhere. I tried looking at auction sites, at specialty magazine and comic book stores, but no one had it. SFW has an online store, but I couldn’t get a translator to work in realtime for me to know what was happening; and even if I could, would it get shipped to me? I eventually found a contact e-mail on the SFW website, and wrote to them. I asked if they knew somewhere I could purchase a copy. They wrote back and said they would send me a few sample copies. Here’s a small Flickr set of what they sent me.

My reasoning was that I wanted to see if the production of the magazine was different than that of similar magazines in the States. It’s not. It has shiny covers and newsprint interiors, similar to LOCUS or Cemetery Dance or even Asimov’s although SFW has a bigger trim size. So it’s not some slick thing that engrosses people with ground-breaking layout, lots of photos/images, slick paper that will hold up to multiple readings, etc. So if the production is the same as similar magazines in the States, what’s different? What is it that SFW is doing that isn’t happening here?

You could argue that the audience is different. It’s certainly bigger by sheer volume of population, but I think the tastes and interests aren’t all that different. I suspect that your average Chinese college student isn’t much different from your average American college student. They watch movies, do stuff online, play video games, eat junk food, drink too much; except Chinese students are reading a science fiction magazine where American students are not.

Do American students have that much more available to grab their interest, that much more distraction, than a Chinese student? I honestly don’t know. It’s been almost 15 years since I was in college, so I don’t know that I’d be a good judge of what an American college student is into and what they do for fun. The Chinese student does benefit from a relatively recent cultural revolution (1966-1976) where science fiction stagnated with authors afraid of being branded as “different” for writing science fiction. After the cultural revolution, there’s a resurgance of science fiction writing which should in turn lead to a swell in fans. You can read more about the recent boom in Chinese science fiction here (this is a revised version of a 2003 article by Lavie Tidhar from Foundation).

Culturally, science fiction in China has a better image than it does in the States. (You certainly don’t have writers so afraid of the science fiction label that they actively thumb their nose at an entire community of people.) You might even say that science fiction is considered relevant in China. So that’s one thing that’s different from the States.

SFW has something like 90% of the science fiction periodical market in China. I don’t know what would happen if there were suddenly only one or two science fiction periodicals in the US (and I include even things the size of my magazine Electric Velocipede in this thought exercise). Would their subscription/sales numbers increase dramatically or would people just walk away? I see over and over again (and this could be the vocal few) that the content isn’t interesting to them. Do we suffer from a glut of choice? Is it really that the level of interest in science fiction in China is the same as here, but that there’s so few places to get it that leads to SFW‘s success?

That might explain things on a very simple level. However, if they don’t have the content, the fans won’t keep coming back. So SFW must be supplying high-quality content. And by merit of the fact of being the biggest of the few players in the field, they most likely get the highest quality submissions to chose among. I don’t know how easy it is to start a magazine in China, but again I’ll assume it isn’t any easier than it is here. So it’s not likely that SFW will face any real challengers to its dominance of the field any time soon. (And I don’t mean to paint SFW as a tyrant or some giant beast that crushes its opponents; they’ve worked hard to get to the top of the game and it will be difficult for someone to supplant them.) My initial thought is mostly correct: you have a large potential audience, and only a few outlets when it comes to short fiction. And as is apparent, the best of them gets the lion’s share of the readers.

Could you create a successful English-language science fiction magazine to rival the numbers of SFW? It would be difficult, and you’d need a lot of money (we’re talking millions). You’d have to fight: the general populace’s mindset of science fiction’s unworthiness; science fiction’s own pride at being a part of the publishing ghetto; and all the people who tried and failed before (or watched people try and fail). Of course you’d also have to fight for amazing content, and you’d have to have online/interactive components that update frequently, and on and on. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it is hard enough to look impossible.

If you have a spare $5 – $10 million lying around, I’d love to give it a try.

[Photo taken by John Klima; used with permission.]


Subscribe to this thread