Reading Playboy for the stories: The magazine’s long partnership with science fiction

Gautham Shenoy September 30, 2017 5 min

The year was 1955. An SF writer named Charles Beaumont had just written a sci-fi story called The Crooked Man, set in a future where heterosexuals are persecuted in a world dominated by homosexual people, and where heterosexuality is stigmatised and outlawed. Unsurprisingly, given the times and its controversial nature, no magazine or publisher, however progressive, was willing to touch it, save one: a magazine just two years old at the time, Playboy. A year ago, the magazine had already published another story of his, ‘Black Country’ and when the expected outrage ensued following the publication of The Crooked Man, the magazine’s editor, Hugh Hefner stood his ground, defending the story and its ideas.

The previous year – between March and April of 1954, hardly a year since it was begun – Hefner had chosen to serialise a somewhat-unknown novel which had only seen a small print run, called Fahrenheit 451 by an author called Ray Bradbury, helping make it famous enough to have printed again in its most well-known form as a standalone novel. This was to be the first of many contributions that Bradbury would make to Playboy in the decades to come.

Playboy and science fiction may look like strange bedfellows. The contradictions only magnify when you realise Playboy also printed feminist stories, like The Handmaid’s Tale author, Margaret Atwood’s The Bog Man. Make sense of this contradiction of being published in Playboy, Atwood notes – in her book, In Other Worlds – about genre fiction, saying that when it came to mainstream perception, science fiction – like the magazine – often used to have a “sluttish reputation”, stressing that it’s an unfair perception. Not surprising then, that Playboy and SF/F came to have a long-running and fruitful relationship.

Left: Ray Bradbury in 2002 visiting an old friend at the Playboy Mansion. Right: ‘Forty-Five Years of Tomorrows’ reads the line above the title in the Playboy Book of Science Fiction.

The roots of this relationship lie with Hugh Hefner, a sci-fi fan himself and a big enough fan of the legendary US weird-fiction magazine, Weird Tales in his childhood and youth to have become a member of the ‘Weird Tales Club’. So when he started his own gentlemen’s magazine – as he saw it to be – he wanted it to provide stimulation of an intellectual kind as well. So in 1954, Hefner brought on fellow sci-fi fan, Ray Russell, an author and editor to be Playboy’s Associate Editor. Russell was followed in later years by Playboy’s Fiction Editors such as Robbie MacAuley, Arthur Kretchmer and in 1980, the well-regarded and renowned Alice K. Turner under whom original short fiction and literature would flourish in the pages of Playboy.

Playboy, as a publisher, even had its own science fiction imprint under which it published quite a few anthologies, like the ones pictured above, and also original novels.

The 1950s were a mixed period for science fiction in print. With the glow from the ‘golden age’ slowly receding, the genre was looking to break out of the ghetto it found itself in and was looking for an audience beyond the genre periodicals. It was time to go mainstream. That’s where Playboy came in. Giving a popular platform for SF authors to truly explore their ideas unencumbered, not least by censorship, and helping them find a wider and mainstream audience beyond fan circles. Playboy – which at its peak had subscribers in the millions – played no small role in turning some of the biggest names in science fiction into recognisable popular ones. It also helped that Playboy paid the authors quite well for original fiction.

A few more SF collections published by Playboy Science Fiction, including on the left, the Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy which is a sought-after collector’s item today.

Playboy was amongst the first non-genre magazines to publish Arthur C Clarke much before his eventual mainstream fame with 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, one of Clarke’s stories – originally published in Playboy in 1971 – A Meeting with Medusa, about astronauts discovering a giant alien life form on Jupiter, was the first Playboy story to win the prestigious SF prize, the Nebula Award. Another of Clarke’s stories originally written for Playboy, Dial F for Frankenstein – about a worldwide network of connected telephones and AI – is credited by the person in question himself for sowing one of the many seeds for the world wide web in the mind of a then-young reader of Playboy, Time Berners-Lee.

Amongst the more impactful, yet (in)famous, debuts in Playboy was that of the acclaimed author Ursula K Le Guin, whose influential 1968 story, Nine Lives, that explored the theme of humanity and the concept of self via the concept of cloning, was published under her initials U.K. Le Guin because the publisher feared a female author would make its male readers ‘nervous’. Le Guin would not write again for Playboy again until twenty years later, the aforementioned editor, Alice K. Turner convinced her to. Nevertheless, the story gained a national readership when one of the readers of Playboy, the then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson read it in the magazine and endorsed it heavily. Nine Lives would end up being yet another Playboy story getting nominated for the Nebula Award.

The science fiction that was published in Playboy ranged from space opera & hard SF to cyberpunk and slipstream, with the authors getting published a veritable who’s-who of the many eras of SF – from Golden Age authors to the New Wave superstars, and more: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, AE van Vogt, James Blish, Frederik Pohl, Theodore Sturgeon, JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, Damon Knight, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Harlan Ellison, Frank Herbert, Stephen King, Roald Dahl, Haruki Murakami, to name just a very few. SF stories from Playboy also made their way onto the screen, not least the 1957 short story by George Langelaan, The Fly which at last count was adapted for the screen five times.

‘Playboy has always been about breaking the rules. So has science fiction.’ Thus begins the blurb of the anthology book, The Playboy Book of Science Fiction. Maybe that explains this symbiotic relationship. Maybe many of the people who used to say that they read Playboy for the stories weren’t joking after all.