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Aboriginal Science Fiction

Entry updated 25 March 2019. Tagged: Publication.

US magazine published from Massachusetts by Absolute Entertainment Inc and, from December 1991, by the Second Renaissance Foundation Inc, edited by Charles C Ryan, first issue October 1986. It went through several changes of format, publisher and frequency. The original format was 24pp tabloid (17 x 11.25 in; about 430 x 290 mm), but it changed to letter-size (11.25 x 8.25 in; 290 x 210 mm) with #4 in 1987 when distributors claimed the magazine did not display well on the newsstands. A feature of the first two years was the use of full-page, full-colour illustration throughout the magazine, which from #8 in January/February 1988 to #19 in January 1990 was printed entirely on slick paper: "cover art for every story", as the editor put it. The cost of producing a full-colour Slick, however, proved prohibitive when sufficient advertising revenue could not be raised and from issue #20 (March/April 1990) it reverted to newsprint paper internally and coated cover stock when possible. Thereafter most internal illustrations were not in colour.

Originally bimonthly, with slight gaps for rescheduling, it dropped to quarterly in October 1991 when it began to publish a series of double issues. These combined issues were almost twice the size of the original single issues, and carried two consecutive issue numbers for subscription purposes. The magazine went on hiatus in June 1994 due to illness in the editor's family, and in early 1995 the Second Renaissance Foundation put the title up for auction, but found no buyers. The magazine was resurrected in Spring 1996, continuing quarterly as before, still edited by Ryan but with the business management run by Pawn Press in Montreal, Quebec. Management problems led to further delays and in the autumn of 1998 the magazine was passed to DNA Publications to manage. Sales continued to dwindle and the quarterly schedule was never maintained. Aboriginal reverted to single issues from Spring 1999 but continued the numbering from the double issues. This meant that when the magazine ceased the final Spring 2001 issue was numbered 65 but there were only 49 physical issues.

The title arose because Ryan wanted something that came early in the alphabet. Having rejected "Aardvark" as unsuitable he settled on "Aboriginal". This led to an ongoing but not very good joke about the publisher, envisaged as a "crazy alien", who produced the magazine about the aboriginals of Earth as part of a message home. The Alien publisher wrote his own editorial each issue, commenting on various eccentricities of the human race. Most of these were written by Ryan's work colleague, Floyd Kemske, and a number were collected as Letters of the Alien Publisher (coll 1991) co-edited by Charles C Ryan and John Gregory Betancourt.

The magazine soon developed a strong personality, partly because of the "alien" conceit, partly because of an informative feature on contributors, including photographs, but mostly because Ryan encouraged reader feedback with a lively letter column (called "Boomerangs") which later led to reader awards for the best fiction. There were several regular columnists, with book reviews conducted throughout the run by Darrell Schweitzer and a second review column initially by Janice M Eisen and later by Mark L Olson. The original film columnist was Jessie Hortsing, but for most of the magazine's run it was Susan Ellison (wife of Harlan Ellison), though Marvin Kaye took over for the last five issues. The science column was by Robert A Metzger who had also sold his first story to the magazine and remained an occasional contributor of unusual fiction.

At the outset Hal Clement provided a scientific template for the planet from which the alien publisher had come, called the Home System, and invited stories to be set there. This brought stories by John A Taylor, Connie Willis and John Betancourt but the Shared World idea soon faded.

From the start Ryan emphasized that he wanted to help develop new writers and part of the remit of the Second Renaissance Foundation, when it was established in 1991, was to encourage scientific understanding and literacy through the magazine. Ryan had considerable success at the outset and writers who owe their first or early sales to Aboriginal include Patricia Anthony, Jonathan Lethem, Robert Reed and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Aboriginal paid a fixed fee for stories, regardless of length. Originally this was $200, but rose to $250 between 1988 and 1994. This was attractive to new writers, especially with short fiction, and throughout its lifetime the majority of the magazine's fiction was provided by new writers. Patricia Anthony became the most regular contributor and her work, which was usually poignant and emotional, contributed to its character as a caring and thoughtful magazine. It also published much light-hearted fiction, and the emphasis was usually on Hard SF with strong characterization. Two stories were nominated for the Nebula Award, "Story Child" (September/October 1990) by Kristine Kathryn Rusch and "Burning Bright" (Summer 1996) by K D Wentworth. "At the Shadow of a Dream" (Spring 1993) by Howard V Hendrix was a runner-up for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. Major writers who contributed occasional stories included Ben Bova, David Brin, Orson Scott Card, Harlan Ellison, Larry Niven, Michael Swanwick and Frederik Pohl. Pohl's contributions included "The Gateway Concordance" (January/February-May/June 1990).

An unusual experiment was an exchange of issues between Aboriginal and the British magazine Interzone in 1991 to help gain wider publicity and increase sales. This does not seem to have happened as Aboriginal's average paid circulation peaked during 1990/91 at just over 23,000 from a starting base of 4900 in 1986, but it continued to fall thereafter and never recovered from the hiatus in 1994/95. By its final issue sales were down to 3600. Aboriginal thus started and ended as a Semiprozine, and was nominated for a Hugo award in that category in 1988, but between 1988 and 1992 it qualified as a Prozine and Ryan was nominated for a Hugo as Professional Editor in both 1989 and 1990.

Perhaps because of its emphasis on artwork, it seems right that the only award arising from work in Aboriginal was the Chesley Award for Bob Eggleton's cover of the January/February 1990 issue. Eggleton was a regular contributor of artwork, as were Larry Blamire, David Brian, David A Cherry, David Dietrick, Carol Heyer, Pat Morrissey, Cortney Skinner and Lucy Synk.

In 2001 DNA chose not to renew the contract with the Second Renaissance Foundation and Ryan was unable to run the magazine on his own, so it was merged with Absolute Magnitude, the issues from Spring 2002 to Summer 2003 bearing both titles and running some of the fiction bought for the unpublished Summer 2001 issue. Aboriginal was a very readable magazine, most of its fiction thought provoking and challenging though, because of their brevity, often lacking depth. It excelled in its role of encouraging new writers, though only a few took advantage of this to develop a strong career.

A spin-off reprint anthology in magazine format is Aboriginal Science Fiction, Tales of the Human Kind: 1988 Annual Anthology (anth 1988 chap) edited by Ryan. [MA/PN]


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