Jonathan Cowie

Jonathan Cowie editor of Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation
talks to Dark Matter

SF2 Concatenation is the fanzine that has won the most European SF Awards. Dark Matter thought it ought to investigate and so interviewed its editor Jonathan Cowie.  This interview was conducted via email so is text only.

DM: For those who do not know, what exactly is the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation?

JC: Oh, the hard ones first… Well, the SF2 Concatenation is on one level an SF and science news and reviews printed fanzine or rather it was: it then became an e-zine. On another level, it is a loose affiliation of mostly scientists and engineers who are into science fiction and who do various things. In addition to the zine, these have included: book publication; event organising in other countries; and in the 1990s cultural exchange with former communist European countries. Being scientists and engineers we tend to look at SF through the prism of science as opposed to with an artistic perspective. ‘Concatenation’ means a joining (side-by-side) of two or more things. But we have been called the poor person’s European Locus.

DM: How did it start?

JC: Well SF2 Concatenation began as a fanzine to be given out as part of, and mid-way through, the 1987 British national SF convention. Though it had photographs and justified text columns, the first issue was a bit rough and ready, especially by today’s desktop publishing standards: remember back in the 1980s offices had typewriters, Microsoft was yet to be created and home PCs were largely unknown (in Britain the BBC – the television folk – produced the most popular one at the time with the Open University). However, we got good feedback and so for the next ten years produced an edition, with a higher print standard, for each annual British natcon (national convention). The deal was that the convention committee had to transport copies to the con and if the con made a profit they made a contribution to our production costs (which were then about £1,000 an issue: that would be a lot more today!). Meanwhile we covered the rest (and, for just a couple of conventions, all) the print costs from advertising revenue.

DM: How did the cultural exchange with former communist nations start?

JC: Even within three years of 1987 Concatenation was getting quite a bit of profile in the old printed and gestetner-duplicated fanzines. Then in 1990 the iron curtain across Europe came down and Eastern European SF fans and writers started requesting fanzines by post and we started getting requests for copies from Eastern Europe. These climbed up to around 250. Then, when some 50 Romanians came to the British Eurocon in 1993 (so as to bid to hold the next Eurocon in Romania), our team decided to take a different Romanian out to dinner each of the convention’s four nights and to invite several to our issue-launch room party. These writers and fans told their friends… Word spread through the rest of the Romanian contingent. Anyway, to cut a long story short, Romania won the bid to hold the next Eurocon and we were told ‘you will come to Romania and bring your fanzine’. To cut an even longer story short, we did produce an issue for them and this was in three languages: English, Romanian, and German (with a Swiss accent). This issue went on to win us the first of our Eurocon Awards.

DM: So how come you went from a desktop published glossy print fanzine and now have a text-only website?

JC: It was all a bit of an accident really. We had not intended to continue but to simply archive the text of some of our original material on, what was in the 1990s, the new internet in text-only format: it was the simplest thing to do. After all we had material from folk such as Colin Greenland, Terry Pratchett and even a then young chap called Neil Gaiman among others we wanted to share for posterity. However what happened was that our webmaster noted that we were getting quite a few visits. By today’s standards these were trifling: a hundred or so a month but remember we had only been producing 2,000 print copies once a year, so a hundred or so visitors a month meant that we were quickly getting an internet reach equivalent to our former print incarnation. So we added new content to the site, again as text-only as that was the simplest thing to do, and the visits continued to rise. In recent years we have started to post a seasonal (spring, summer and autumn) news page and we have a deal with the science journal Nature to post as ‘free access’ our selection of its one-page ‘Futures’ SF stories by SF authors and scientists. And our site statistics have still continued to rise. Because we are seasonal, our stats go up and down like a proverbial yo-yo, but this demonstrates to us we have a following as opposed to attracting steady passing traffic who just stumble upon the site. Last year (2010) on a month between our seasonal postings we got a little over 10,000 unique visitors downloading 100,000 pages and on better months (following one of our seasonal editions) we had over 20,000 unique visitors.

Anyway, we kept Concatenation text only as that was less effort, and we only update seasonally as that too was less effort. Besides, virtually all the major SF sites update each week if not more often. We wanted to be a place you did not have to continually monitor but could come to every three or four months and get a solid burst of news and reviews. So you could say that we are thoughtful or are lazy: you decide.

DM: What of the future?

JC: This is hard to say. We’ve been at it nearly a quarter of a century and we all have our other ventures of our own. It takes quite a bit of effort to gather in news from so many countries. The book reviews and forthcoming books’ listings are a never-ending cycle like painting the Forth Bridge. However, while there is still interest in what we do and as long as we have energy, I guess we will continue. So I suppose we will be around for a few years yet. It would be nice to reach our 30th anniversary and then decide what to do then.
Meanwhile, good luck with your own Dark Matter… but beware where it may lead.
For more information go to www.concatenation.org