Category Archives: science fiction

The Demand for Optimism

The world of science fiction magazines these days seems to be on the hunt for positive material. When conducting my monthly review of the SF short story market, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in many place, stories that show a virtuous future are preferred. One magazine searches for stories that ‘show us the way back to a livable future’. Another requests stories that ‘celebrate and elevate’. Humor anthologies are in big demand. ‘Nothing dark and gloomy’ is a common refrain. ‘Eco stories’ requested, describing how we can live in a future run by solar and wind power. The list goes on. Once, I found a magazine whose mission of literary depth and engaging characters I felt I agreed with exactly. Then I noticed a small tag, noting that sometimes Vegan themes were preferred. Undeterred, I sent him my best story, at the time. It featured genocide as a major motif, but no animals were hurt, as requested. The editor rejected my story in the strongest terms…

It’s a trend that’s left me feeling a little out of place. My writing can be pretty bleak; though I’m not overly enthusiastic to describe it as such, it probably must be admitted.  My proudest achievement has always been the galaxy-scale universe my fiction is set in and, well, it’s a pretty terrible place. Approximately 50% of the time, the protagonist will wind up violently killed. Perhaps it relates to the more British traditions in fiction that influence me, and the more gloomy tone that often involves.

But I believe my work is relevant and creates real feelings in my readers. I have confidence in the validity of what I produce, at this point. The question is what form my writing will manifest in when it interacts with the professional sphere.

Yet trends in the science fiction markets are not good. Short stories markets, in particular, sometimes seem on the brink of annihilation. Many venerable old publishers and publications seem to have gone into deep hibernation, sealing their doors to outsiders. The retreating, shrinking feeling reminds me of a Savannah waterhole, drying up in the summer sun. Nobody seems to have any significant plan to reverse the decline.

I still submit, of course. But sometimes I have to laugh a little, as I imagine an editor’s face as he opens up the file to read. It’s a great story, and I’ve sent it to a great magazine, but he won’t like it. I consider my work to be highly progressive. Others do not. I speculate that my violent or misanthropic  themes can alienate some of those whose perspectives I share, but I maintain reporting the horrors that could one day come is indeed an act of subversion against the problems of today.

Speaking of horror, the horror market is absolutely booming. The contrast is stark. Requests for horror and dark writing are everywhere. So what’s a horror story? Sometimes I will be picky over my work, and sometimes not, but this is one area where I’ll do whatever’s needed. Market my work as Horror, with SF elements? Or am I trying to sell Hard SF, with Dark elements? To a certain degree, I don’t care. Straddling genres has always been a  virtue, a rejection of arbitrary limitations.

So I produce horror now, even though I produce nearly the same as before.  Every story I write has a pretty dark background, though fear is not usually the primary purpose of the story. A small relabel, and my market situation is looking much healthier. These considerations have even produced some changes in my style. Adding in good horror scenes is always fun to write.

One conclusion is that Horror and Science Fiction markets are heading in radically different directions. One encourages visions of a hopeful future, the other almost by definition reaches a bad end. And yet, humans beings will always vote with their feet to some degree. It makes me anxious to imagine that the world of science fiction publishing is preaching to the choir, appealing to an ever dwindling core with no new recruits to replace them. Consider what has happened the the readership of actual Marvel and DC comics, as an example.

Has trends in literary science fiction fallen out of step with the society around them? Should art reflect our culture, or should art drive our culture? These are questions for different essays, of course. Certainly the world of cinema science fiction has significantly parted ways with written fiction in terms of tone and atmosphere.

If my writing reflects the world I live in, and the Horror genre more accurately reflects my writing than the Science Fiction genre, has the Science Fiction genre failed to capture our present reality?

Either way, I struggle to meet the demands of the magazines. At the risk of sounding cantankerous, I’m not going to rub my readers shoulders and tell them everything is going to be ok. Because we’re not going to be ok. It’s a new dark age out there, and it may just be getting started. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.


Right Wing Nationalism, and the Future

This post was inspired by reading the following article, on the diveristy of characters in science fiction:

At the time, I found the article fairly engaging. In retrospect, it’s not great in tone. My own view of the future is probably much darker than these writers expressed. But the concept of reviewing hidden implicit bias in a fictional character’s gender and ethnicity all made clear sense to me.

It’s lazy writing to rely on stereotypes, and cliches. It requires minimal effort, and can easily be derivative.  It also generally reproduces the image of the world we already had, rather than creating anything new. And it’s also inaccurate…

What surprised me most was the comments to the article. Many expressing real anger and disbelief at the article’s contents. I found it quite a shock, as I had literally not even conceived of their arguments. Am I in a bubble? Maybe.

The source of their irritation was the article’s accepted wisdom that science fiction should present viewpoints and experiences from groups outside of traditional western society. They seemed clearly to feel this were a waste of time, and a fundamentally fraudulent concept.

It’s an extremely persistent attitude in our culture, that I may well describe more in further posts. Soft forms of white supremacism in science fiction date back a very long way. An editorial by Isaac Asimov written in 1972 describes how previous editors of his in the 1950s would insist their tales of space describe a universe of white characters. The old Jetsons cartoon is another well-known example. It seems to present a clear narrative that whites have left behind the other races, as though separation was always the goal. White nationalism, in today’s language.

Even in films as considered as ethnically  diverse as Star Trek and Star Wars, the cast are still disproportionately filled with white characters, when planet Earth is considered. Gene Roddenberry made a massive effort  always worthy of respect to think outside the box.

Perhaps living in Asia has changed my perspective, but it’s hard to see dominance of the world by European ethnic groups as a serious possibility 100 years from now, like it has been over the past 500 years. Even less so 200 years in the future, and even less so after that…

One potential big difference in approaches to race can be the application of deep time in the philosophy of a writer. As a science fiction writer, the concept of deep time is perhaps the single most compelling reason I find to work in the genre. We are at the forefront of a species that has lasted 500,000 years. Regardless of what we do to the planet, I believe some form of us is certain to continue long ahead. Political structures such as the nation or  borders can only be fleetingly temporary. The history of life is one of constant adaption. The insistence that the future will preserve the cultures of the present seems absurd.

But other science fiction writers don’t feel the same way about these ideals. Odious and notorious members of the far right can tend to loudly make their presence known on the internet on these issues, and topics of culture. And they do feel like their time has come, at this present moment.

But I strongly doubt the future will look like they expect it will, no matter what happens.

Abyss and Apex and Disappointment

Hello all!

I missed a week due to travelling India, but I’ll be posting more in general in the future to make up for that.

Last night, I received a disappointment, and over the past 12 hours it’s led me to something of a paradigm shift.

Science Fiction Short Story magazines. They aren’t many of them left. And they’re important. They form the traditional gateway into the industry. They’re still in many ways used as the gatekeepers of quality. And they know exactly what they want, and they aren’t expanding.

Like much of the publishing industry, they are in a state of chaos that borders on existential crisis, and like much of the world around us today, no one has any idea what the hell to replace them with and how that’s going to work – me included, but I’m going to have to find a solution whether I like it or not.

Today’s case study: Abyss and Apex

Now plenty of these magazines have short submission windows. Veeeeeery short submission windows. As in, they’re basically trying to make it as difficult as possible to submit to them. They do this to filter out the lightweights, and I accept that. It takes a careful degree of planning to successfully meet their submission window. And so that brings us to last night, my phone calendar informing me that Abyss and Apex has opened.

Their schedule looks like this:

  • first week of November 2016 CANCELLED
  • First week of February 2017 FLASH ONLY
  • first week of May 2017
  • first week of August 2017

I’m sure you can see the problems here immediately.

After the August 2016 submission, I waited patiently for November. It was cancelled. Ok, these things happen. I set my patient wait for February 2017. A six month wait, not exactly minor, but sadly not atypical for this sort of business. And now, I learn that February 2017 has abruptly been closed to all but Flash fiction. I will not be able to submit my work to this. My carefully co-ordinated wait has been for nothing.

I don’t think Abyss and Apex are doing this through any fault or laziness of their own. I think they just have too many damn stories, and not enough sales or funds to justify publishing more. Indeed, that’s just a wider symptom of the industry as a whole. Abyss and Apex was always one of my top choices, their published work matches my style very closely and I’m a big fan of their work. It’s been suggested before that if the short story magazine market is dying, why would I frantically be trying to join such a sinking ship?

Part of me wonders if my current approach stems from some degree of nostalgia for the traditional publishing processes, or anxiety over the alternative routes to acceptance.

But I think this is a turning point for me. I’ve long been falling out of favor with searching for magazine formats for my short stories, and moving closer to the  concept of releasing anthologies of my own. Of course, getting an anthology published as an unknown author is still another set of tough challenges, but it’s starting to look more feasible that keeping the fiction magazine industry alive on artificial life support.

My short stories are great, and I have no doubt they will one day have a life of their own somewhere, some year in the future. But I think I would be surprised now if it happens in an old school magazine, like our classic SF ancestors before us…

On to a new and dizzying unknown future, friends! Good luck out there