What can we say about Hugh Hefner that all the obituaries this week have not already said? Sure the slick legendary men’s magazine fuelled fantasies for generations, but did you know that Playboy supported science fiction as well? Yes, we actually did read it for the articles and stories too. As it turns out, the late Hugh Hefner was a pulp fan during the 1940s and had even joined the “Weird Tales Club”. Science Fiction was an important part of Playboy Magazine from the very start in the 1950’s with Ray Bradbury [serialized version of Fahrenheit 451], Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Avram Davidson, Robert Sheckley, Henry Slesar. Arthur C. Clarke’s A Meeting with Medusa was the first story from PLAYBOY to win a major SF award, Best Novella at the Nebulas in 1972. Michael Crichton published two short
stories there, including The Most Powerful Taylor in the World , a White House science adviser vs. a terrorist who is a tailor. After that, Playboy serialized his next hard SF thriller novel, The Terminal Man.
The July and August 1963 issues ran the Playboy Panel, transcription of an event a dozen SF greats discussed “1984 and Beyond.” Anthony Boucher moderated the chat with Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Ray Bradbury, Algis Budrys, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Frederik Pohl, Rod Serling, Theodore Sturgeon, William Tenn and A.E. van Vogt. Later, Playboy exposed the American audience to the wonder and weirdness of the magical realism of foreign authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Haruki Murakami.
The iconic centerfolds were not the only women of note in the mag: by-lines included Ursula K. LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, and Ayn Rand.
On the production side, one of Hefner’s contributions to the genre was to hire Alice K. Turner, Playboy’s longtime fiction editor from 1980 to 2000. She is widely credited with supporting the short fiction genre almost single-handedly so of course the SF world benefited. She cultivated new writers and established, such as Terry Bisson, Robert Silverberg, Dan Simmons, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Stephen King. Ms. Turner edited several anthologies while at Playboy, including Playboy Stories: The Best of Forty Years of Short Fiction and The Playboy Book of Science Fiction.
Of course, we all still look at the pictures, but there was more to see than the pinup photography. The cartoons were consistently so much better than they needed to be. Sexy of course, but also clever as hell. Cartoonists like Gahan Wilson, Shel Silverstein Jules Feiffer, The Femlin, ever-sassy Playboy joke column mascot by LeRoy Neiman, comic strips like Little Annie Fanny by MAD Magazine co-founder Harvey Kurtzman and collaborator Will
Elder. The magazine moved away from cartoons with the revamp in the past couple of years, because their surveys said that the 18-34-year-old focus group did not respond to them as well. This made a lot of people sad, beginning with the surviving cartoonists. Most of them seem to have other work opportunities, from the animation industry to Dark Horse Comics, so don’t worry too much.
It’s hard not to notice the polarizing effect Hugh Hefner has had on
modern society. He turned the ultra-prudish attitudes of the 1950’s on their head in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for better or worse — but he was also a champion of modern culture, and was a powerful advocate of literature, music and other arts. He got people thinking. We can say of him that he was remarkable, powerful, and significant without having to agree that everything he did was for the betterment of the human condition. The indelible mark he made on the world of science fiction, though, is as profoundly influential as everything else he did.