In recent weeks, adult men's magazine Playboy surprised everyone by announcing that they would shift the tone of their magazine by eliminating the nude pictures for which they are famous. The move comes at a time when print magazines are struggling, and with magazines like Playboy finding increasing pressure from free alternatives online. While the magazine is known in particular for its adult content, it’s also a source of rich articles and fiction—including science fiction.
Hugh Hefner founded Playboy in 1953 after working for several years in the magazine industry, including at Esquire. Hefner wanted to create his own lifestyle magazine, one that would appeal to a wider single male audience. With $8,000 raised from investors and family members, he put together the first issue in December of 1953. Upon its release, the first issue sold out quickly.
In 1954, Hefner hired Ray Russell, an author and editor who had written for magazines, to become the magazine’s associate editor and oversee fiction. Both men were interested in science fiction: Russell had published a number of speculative works, and Hefner had been an “avid reader of Weird Tales during the 1940s and had even joined the ‘Weird Tales Club,’ ” as noted in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Thanks to this mutual interest, the magazine began reprinting science fiction. In January 1954, they published “Bird of Prey,” by John Collier, and then landed a major work by Ray Bradbury: his novel Fahrenheit 451, which was serialized in the March-May 1954 issues. Later that year, stories from William Hope Hodgson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, and Charles Schafhauser appeared in the magazine.
In 1956, Hefner brought on A. C. Spectorsky to edit the magazine, and he helped to bring the magazine quality writing and authors. The magazine was quickly becoming a major hit with the American public, and was providing high quality literature and articles alongside pornographic images. Within science fiction circles, the magazine was also proving to be a useful one, as monthly periodicals were beginning to fade away. According to Mike Ashley in his book Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970, “Not only did it maintain a high profile for science fiction, it became something of a sanctuary during the lean years that hit at the end of the fifties.” In 1966, Russell left his post as Associate Editor and was replaced by Robie MacAuley. Starting that year, the publication began publishing a number of anthologies, including: The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1966); Playboy’s Stories of the Sinister and Strange (1969); and The Dead Astronaut; The Fiend; From the "S" File; The Fully Automated Love Life of Henry Keanridge; Last Train to Limbo; Masks; Transit of Earth; and Weird Show, all in 1971.
When Spectorsky died in 1972, Hefner hired Arthur Ketchmer to take his place, and just a couple of years later in 1976, MacAuley stepped down. In his place, Ketchmer hired Alice K. Turner to edit the magazine’s fiction. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that under Turner and MacAuley’s respective tenures as fiction editor, the magazine became an important publication for science-fiction literature.
Science fiction was also beginning to break out into the open during this time: it was time to go mainstream. While mainly confined to dedicated genre magazines such as Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Weird Tales throughout the 1930s and 1940s, outlets such as Playboy offered the genre community something that had largely eluded it: respectability. Predominantly, and perhaps a little ironically, science fiction was viewed as something akin to pornography throughout the pulp era, due in part to the lurid magazine covers and content of the magazines.
Playboy, on the other hand, was incredibly popular, in part because it had established for itself a respectable reputation despite its content: its high-quality fiction and nonfiction certainly helped. By the 1970s, circulation of the magazine peaked with 7 million subscribers, which is an incredible audience and platform for any science-fiction author, giving them reach far outside of fan circles.
Playboy’s regular schedule and high pay rates attracted the best writers in the field, and helped to provide its authors with a wide audience that would turn their names into widely recognizable ones. Soon, authors such as Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, J.G. Ballard, and Ursula K. Le Guin were writing stories for the magazine.
After becoming the fiction editor in 1980, Turner continued to cultivate the section and bring in authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Crichton, Philip K. Dick, Harlen Ellison, Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Stephen King, Dorris Lessing, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, and numerous others. She had a hands-on role with her department. According to her obituary in the Washington Post, “Bruce Kluger, a former Playboy editor, recalled that Ms. Turner handled most aspects of the editing process, from signing authors, to coordinating with agents, to perfecting the copy.” Turner also edited an anthology of science fiction published in the magazine in 1998: The Playboy Book of Science Fiction.
The New York Times cited Turner as an important figure not only for bringing a certain amount of class to the magazine, but also for championing short fiction as a medium. “by sustaining that respectability for two decades, from 1980 to 2000, Ms. Turner helped keep literary short fiction on life support in the late 20th century, when few other publishers would or could.” Turner left Playboy in 2000, and since that time, the magazine has never quite resumed the same level or commitment to genre fiction as it had during its heyday.
As fiction editor, Turner looked for something very specific in her stories: they were to appeal to a general audience.
“Playboy stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. They have a kind of general appeal. They are not experimental. They are not terribly modern or forward reaching but they have real quality, or so I hope. When you consider how very formularized the women's magazines tend to be, Playboy looks like the last resort of the solid well crafted "story" story that isn't written to order. And many of the other magazines have gone a bit off track,” Turner said in an interview with the Missouri Review in 1984.
With Playboy eliminating nudes from the pages of its magazine, it’s hoping to revitalize its brand. And by putting the content of its website at a PG-13 level, their Web traffic has increased. Hopefully, as the company continues to reinvent itself, they will return to publishing science fiction in the future.