Some more SF history, here in drafty first draft; first written last October, cleaned up a bit here. My target for essays like these are the very casual consumers of science fiction books and movies, and even some sophisticated current readers who have no clear idea about the genre’s past. (This isn’t so much as a draft, come to think of it, but more of a background summary.)
(The image here is from a random Google search on “garish science fiction magazine,” and is from the January 1930 issue of Astounding Stories of Super-Science.)
Again, confining this discussion of science fiction to the written form, the formats in which science fiction has been published have changed steadily over the decades.
In the 1920s and 1930s, there were virtually no science fiction books — exceptions in a moment. The primary mode for published science fiction was stories in pulp magazines. There were largish magazines printed on cheap (“pulp”) paper, the consistency and durability almost as poor as those brownish paper towels in public rest rooms, and with garish cover illustrations depicting monsters and heroic astronauts, or of visions of futuristic cities. (Wikipedia has this; also this about SF magazines.) Like the TV programs of the 1950s and 1960s, they weren’t expected to last, and most of them didn’t; fine copies of these early, once-cheap magazines are now pricey collectibles. (I don’t have any of these myself; I didn’t begin buying SF magazines until about 1970, when the formats and looks had improved, and I’ve never felt motivated to seek out back issues of the pulps.)
The exceptions in the early 20th century were books that weren’t called science fiction at the time, but retrospectively came to be considered part of the genre. These included novels by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and even George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four (published in 1948).
Following World War II — during which magazines of all kinds suspended publication, to save supplies for the war effort — they became a little less pulpish, a little more respectable looking. The premiere magazine of the late 1940s was Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. Only a few science fiction books appeared during these years, mostly in hardcover from small presses run by science fiction fans. Examples included Gnome Press, beginning 1948, and Arkham House, beginning 1939 (founded mostly to preserve the works of H.P. Lovecraft in books).
In the 1950s the magazines reduced in size to the standard “digest” format (like that of Readers’ Digest), and several of the major New York publishers began releasing science fiction books, especially Doubleday, with a two-a-month line of thin volumes (typically no more than 200 pages), and Scribner’s, publishers of Robert A. Heinlein.
Throughout the 1950s there were a dozen or two SF magazines of varying quality, and several reliable publishers of SF books. Ballantine Books was founded in 1953, for a while publishing simultaneous editions of new books in both hardcover and paperback. But the number of books published each month was few enough that a devoted fan could keep up on them all. The magazines mostly collapsed in the late 1950s due to a distribution crisis, leaving just three major ones surviving into the 1960s–Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF.
When hardcover publishers like Doubleday or Scribner’s began publishing books, those titles were typically reprinted in paperback about a year later. This pattern continues to this day, albeit as a minor part of the current publishing patterns. There were also book clubs, led by the Book of the Month Club, and the genre-focused Science Fiction Book Club and Mystery Guild. These clubs published hardcover editions in but in cheaper formats than the publishers’ original editions. So a reader in the 1950s, through the ’60s and ’70s and beyond, had a choice: buy a new novel in the publisher’s first edition hardcover (which in those days cost, say, $2.99), wait to buy from the book club, if they offered it (for, say, $1.49), or wait a year for the paperback edition (for, say, $.60 in the ’50s, rising to $.75 in the ’60s and $.95 or even $1.25 by the early ’70s, when I began buying lots of books).
In the mid-1970s “trade paperbacks” began to appear. These were paperback editions nearly the size of hardcovers, sometimes reprints of hardcovers and sometimes originals, deliberately designed to look more like hardcovers and less like the cheaper “mass market” paperbacks one found in supermarket or drug store racks. The trend grew until, today, even the most prestigious SF publishers release about half their new books in hardcover, and half in trade paperback. And release directly to mass market paperback has become rare, mostly for books intended to casual readers.
Ordinary inflation played its part over succeeding decades. In 2020, a hardcover typically costs $25.99, or more for an especially long book. A trade paperback runs $12.99 or $15.99, and a mass market paperback runs $7.99 or $9.99.
More significantly — over the decades books, in particular novels, have grown much *longer*. In the 1940s and ’50s, the length of a novel was constrained by the size of magazine issues (for novels that were serialized) and the length that book publishers were willing to release. So the typical length of a novel was 200 pages, or a bit more. (So readers were able to read a lot of 1950s era novels relatively speedily.) At the same time, the size of the print in books of that era, especially the paperbacks, was tiny by modern standards; thus a 1950s novel published in 170 pages of tiny print would be released today in a trade paperback of some 250 pages.
Nevertheless, as science fiction found access to more and more hardcover publishers, who as the popularity of the genre grew were more and more willing to publish longer books, the average length of SF novels grew. An early outlier was Frank Herbert’s Dune, rejected by so many mainstream publishers (if only for its length) that it was eventually published by Chilton, until then known mostly as a publisher of auto mechanic manuals. And Heinlein’s popularity allowed his publisher to let him get away with longer and longer novels in the early/mid 1960s (though even then some were cut by the publisher, and only published in full length decades later).
Another significant factor was the rather abrupt popularity of high fantasy, beginning with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, originally published in UK hardcovers in the 1950s but not widely read until release in the US in three paperbacks in the 1960s. These inspired new fantasy writers, and new trilogies, and new single-volume works with lengths challenging the trilogies.
The upshot, after several decades, here well into the 21st century, is that virtually no genre “novels” are a mere 200 pages. Most novels are 300 or 400 pages, sometimes substantially longer, as if challenging readers to accept a circumstance (an intrusion on their time) that would have been unthinkable, except in very special circumstances, 50 years before.
And yet works of a couple hundred pages are still being written, and published, especially by current publishers like Tor (or Tordotcom), but they are now called “novellas,” a term that used to be reserved for shorter works of 40,000 words or less (i.e. roughly 80-100 pages, or fewer). It is, therefore, much more difficult to “keep up” on very many current novels today — as was possible throughout the 1950s — not just because there are so many published every year, but because they are so long.
The situation is analogous to movies, which over the decades have had their changes in format and availability. Until 1929, films were silent; very few of these are still watched. “Talkies” took over the in 1930s, but most films were black and white. The transition from b&w to color was gradual, with significant exceptions all along the way. (Even now, some directors prefer to shoot in black and white, just as some photographers do.) Films have passed in and out of various genres, e.g. Westerns in the ’50s, smaller ambitious ‘art-house’ films in the early 1970s, and science fiction ever since Star Wars in 1977. Many casual film viewers now don’t care about silents, or black and whites, and are even offended by the thought of paying them any attention. Standards and attitudes and acting styles change. A student of film understands how these things change, and explores the entire of history of film, understanding how those standards have changed.
Similarly… the bottom line for a current reader exploring science fiction for the first time is that there is plenty of material available for casual reading, especially books in mass market paperback format and on familiar, Wars and Trek inspired, topics of space wars and battles with alien adversaries. (Many don’t think science fiction is about anything but that.) These are fast food, compared to fine dining. The fine dining of science fiction are the many thoughtful and ambitious and even literary stories and books that have been published over the decades, the ones that explore ideas that challenge populist assumptions, the ones still remembered through repeated reprints by publishers, and anthologies that reprint worthy stories from the past.