When I first read about Lester Del Rey’s theory of the boom-n-bust cycle in the field of science fiction publishing, it utterly fascinated me. Here was Asimov’s Pyschohistory brought into the real world and made flesh.
For those who don’t know, Lester was the science fiction field’s first all-around EXPERT. Or at least that’s how he billed himself on his business card (one of which I used to have…). Lester was always an approachable figure at conventions and easily recognizable, standing under five feet in height, fronted by coke-bottle glasses and with a voice that easily overcame all of these, ahem, short-comings.
He’s well-known for a few things (as are many of the early fans-cum-pros): he wrote two stand-out stories – Helen O’Loy (the first exposition of mechanophilia) and Nerves, a story of the China-Syndrome before that term was invented. He joined his wife, Judy-Lynn Del Rey in establishing the Del Rey science fiction line (which gave us the novelization of Star Wars almost before it was named that) and turned out regular, well-received reviews for Analog. He was a fun guy (plagued by eye problems and writer’s blocks) who frequently told people that his real name was Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heartcourt-Brace Sierra y Alvarez del Rey y de los Uerdes, when it was really Lester Knapp.
His early work was collected in the second “The Early…” series (the first was The Early Asimov) which gives one some idea of how influential is work was considered (in the 1970s); among the many other things Lester did was to call out L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology in a point-counter-point series of letters that ran in Marvel Science Stories (5/51). He was a fun guy and I always enjoyed hanging out with him at conventions. (Judy-Lynn was always running somewhere….) He was a champion of the necessity of the so-called SF Ghetto:
“…to develop, science fiction had to remove itself from the usual critics who viewed it from the perspective of [the] mainstream, and who judged its worth largely on its mainstream values. As part of that mainstream, it would never have had the freedom to make the choices it did – many of them quite possibly wrong, but necessary for its development.”
At one time he edited no less than five SF Magazines (Rocket Stories, Space SF, Science Fiction Adventures, Fantasy Fiction and Fantasy Fiction – despite so many adjectives to choose from, different magazines frequently appeared under the same title).
But the one thing Lester did that has always stuck with me is his twelve-year science fiction field boom and bust theory, in which he makes the case that the SF publishing field, despite all manner of external forces (ranging from the inconvenient interruption of World War II to the upstart New Wave movement) operates on a 12 year cycle. That cycle has two characteristics: there is a peak of activity during the 3rd or 4th year of each cycle and the bust of the current cycle finds things better, overall, than the previous cycle. (The worst years of the current period are better than the best year of the previous.)
I believe I first learned of this contention of Lester’s in one of his review columns for Analog titled, appropriately, “Boom and Bust.” Fortunately I am able to lay my hands on the January, 1977 issue of that magazine, where it appears under the Reference Library heading:
The history of science fiction seems to break into a series of twelve-year periods, each period representing a change of some kind over the previous one which can be determined much later by hindsight. And each period seems to have a boom year that occurs three years (four for the first period) after its beginning – 1930, 1941, 1953, 1965…Then there’s a decline, usually referred to as a bust, though the drop isn’t always that dramatic. Eventually, it all begins over again for another twelve years.
If the pattern doesn’t break, the current cycle began in 1974 and the boom year should be 1977…
The cycles, as laid in far more detail in Del Rey’s book The World of Science Fiction, 1926-1976 (Garland Publishing, 1980) are:
1926-1937: 1938-1949: 1950-1961: 1962-1973: 1974-1985: (1986-1997: 1998-2009: 2010-2021), and, like good fans everywhere, Lester has given each of them a name:
1926 – The Age of Wonder
1938 – The Golden Age
1950 – The Age of Acceptance
1962 – The Age of Rebellion
1974 – The Fifth Age
A couple of things ought to be noted at this point: Del Rey made his 1977 will be a boom year prediction in late 1976: considering that he had to be working with Lucas before then to get Foster’s novelization done in time for release around May, 1977, he probably had some inkling of the fact that Star Wars might help spark a boom in SF film (sparking a general interest in all things SF, including the literature). (One does wonder if Lester saw an opportunity to make reality conform to his theory. He and Judy-Lynn were certainly in the right place at the right time.)
The other note, which skews things just a little bit (and which Lester mentions in his book) is that SF’s first year actually began at the beginning of the second quarter of that year – March-April 1926. He states that this is one of the possible reasons why the first boom didn’t occur until the 4th year. (But then why do the remaining periods not go on a strictly calendrical basis – March-April till February twelve years hence?
Regardless, Lester had some interesting things to say in The World of Science Fiction, among them:
In the chapter on the Age of Rebellion, he writes:
This comfortable nirvana (the SF field) came to an end in the sixties with the influx of new writers who were totally disenchanted with science or the idea that there was a bright future of endless progress ahead. Many of them had grown up in the aftermath of World War II and atomic bombs; they saw the growing ugliness of the cities, the beginning of man’s destruction of the environment, the apparent shrinkage of the dignity of the average citizen, and the total failure of politics to deal with technological problems logically.
By contrast, the new writers were primarily interested in writing as a thing in itself. Many came out of college literature and creative writing courses. They did not turn to Asimov or Heinlein for their background, they turned to Faulkner, Joyce, Kafka….
In the previous ages of science fiction, there had been no market for such writing.
More specifically on the New Wave (or the recent unpleasantness as some may remember it) he states that the new wave writing –
…seemed to be based upon the idea that the primary element of fiction lay in the handling of style and attitude, rather than in story development, plotting or ideas. What was said was assumed to be less important than how it was said. Symbolism – sometimes with little evidence of real referents for the symbols – became a virtue, and the more intricate and abstruse the structure of the story, the better it was considered to be.
The Philosophy behind New Wave writing was a general distrust of both science and mankind.
One major change in the field, however, was more than welcome. This was the emergence of many new women as writers of science fiction.
…science fiction had generally been the province of the male writer, like most forms of adventure fiction.
Suddenly, in this period, a great many women began writing and achieving success in science fiction.
Of all the changes going on in the field, this evolution was probably the healthiest and most promising to the future.
Hmmmm. 1980…and here it is more than two ages later….
We’ll focus less on Lester’s social commentary and more on his B&B theory.
According to the theory, the measure of the success of the different ages is realized in the quantity of SF that is published, first in the magazines (encompassing the number of individual titles, the number of issues of those titles and the quantity of the contents) and later by a combination of magazines and book publications.
What he suggests is that quantity encompasses quality to some rough degree: the more markets there are, the better chances there are of seeing quality work. But the only thing that can really be measured is the quantity, and here, I think, Lester’s theory breaks down a little.
I have, in my spare time (and quite some time ago) created a spreadsheet of the field’s magazines, from 1913 (Electrical Experimenter) until the recent past (it does not include the more recent online/electronic publications as that was not the focus of my original effort) because I wanted to get some idea of whether or not there really were Boom and Bust periods. Looking at the graph, you’ll have to agree that there is a regular wave pattern of dips and rises. Unfortunately, they don’t match Lester’s twelve year cycle.
Lester doesn’t take into account the period from 1913 to 1925 (agreeing with most historians that science fiction, as a thing, began with the publication of Amazing‘s first issue in March-April of 1926), despite the fact that a fair amount of fiction was published in Gernsback’s Science & Invention and the existence of The Thrill Book in 1919 and Weird Tales in 1923; it’s a thirteen year stretch as opposed to 12, but it follows the same general pattern of having a “peak” year. Regardless, lets turn to Del Rey’s Ages:
The first age, 1926 to 1937, peaks in 1930 – four years into the age.
The remaining peaks look like this:
2nd: 1938-1949: Peaks in 1941, four years in
3rd: 1950-1961: Peaks in 1953, four years in
4th: 1962-1973: Peaks in 1970, nine years in
5th: 1974-1985: Peaks in 1981 & 1982, eight and nine years in
6th: 1986-1997: Peaks in 1993, eight years in
7th: 1998-2009: Peaks in 2000, three years in
Current age: 2010 to present: peaked in 2010
four, four, four, nine, eight, eight, three, one.
Hardly a pattern.
On the other hand:
There does seem to be some kind of four-year pattern: the number of issues peaks and then falls off for three years, beginning to rise again, sometimes for a single year (followed by three declining years), sometimes rising steadily for five years and then dropping off again.
Some of this may be ironed out as a change in total year-to-year issues of a single or handful of issues is probably not statistically significant. But as it stands right now, there does appear to be a pattern and that pattern is, after a peak, the publication of magazine issues drops steadily for three years before there is another change.
Some of the variation from Lester’s age pattern may also be due to lack of data; back in the late 70s when he proposed and wrote about this theory, it is doubtful that he could lay his hands on publication data as complete as we now have available.
Is there a different picture if we look at individual magazine titles rather than issues?
Sadly, no. The peaks do not arrive with anything like the regularity posited by Del Rey.
But (but), there IS a pattern. Within any twelve year period, there will be a peak, and nowhere is there a decline lasting more than four years (a decline being defined as a year in which fewer titles were published than the previous year).
And of course the big gaping hole here is the lack of inclusion of data for book publishing in the field (if anyone has gathered together the publication numbers printed by Locus for the appropriate years, please get in touch), nor for the online publications (which seem to get announced with regularity and then tail off rather rapidly, other than the well-established mainstays).
Nor does it take into account other media (it sure seems like SF film and related genres are hitting a 1950s style peak right now…), but I’m pretty sure we ought to discount that (unless we were measuring the availability of SF media content to mundane audiences).
I think it’s pretty safe to say that the identification of a twelve year cycle in SF (magazine) publishing is a chimera, most likely due to a lack of access to all of the data. I think that the rise and fall we see that almost makes a pattern is due to little more than market forces: Gernsback established and then proved a market for SF fare; competitors jumped on the bandwagon until things reached the saturation point, at which point the weak efforts dropped away; at some point the saturation level dropped to make the market attractive once again, and so on. The number of factors influencing these things – associated costs, changes in technology, changes in other markets affecting this one (magazine distribution for one), the steady growth of the population, the unsteady economic fortunes of the same – do not occur at regular intervals either.
But it certainly is nice to know, when things are in the doldrums, that you won’t have longer to wait than three years before they start picking back up again.
Where are we now? Can’t say – I don’t have the data. But assuming for the sake of argument that 2016 is the WORST year in SF publishing, I can state quite confidently that 2019 is going to be a pretty good year.