Deep Forests and Manicured Gardens – A Look at Two New Short Fiction Magazines
Genre culture’s ability to produce short fiction now so comprehensively outstrips its ability to engage with short fiction that the odds of any given story receiving much attention are rapidly approaching zero. Dozens of anthologies can drop out of print without ever being reviewed and entire magazines can launch, acquire a following, lose vital editorial staff, and collapse without anyone ever bothering to comment on the nature of their output. Little wonder that Hugo voters now find it almost impossible to pick five short stories that stand out against the deafening hum of cultural production. Increasingly dominated by a suite of free online publications, the genre short fiction scene is becoming a literary niche in which readers are entirely optional. As with academic publishing, many of the institutions supporting genre short fiction are less interested in reaching an audience than they are in providing the rungs for a vast aspirational ladder:
- Your first sale makes you a ‘proper’ writer.
- Your 10,000th published word makes you a ‘professional’ writer.
- Your first appearance in a Year’s Best anthology makes you a ‘notable’ writer.
- Your first appearance on an award ballot makes you a ‘promising’ writer.
Hundreds step foot on the lower rungs of the ladder but almost none of them will ever reach the top. In fact, there may not even be a top as regardless of how high you have climbed, there will always be another rung to reach for… you could always be just that little bit more visible and just that little bit better connected. By now the process is mature and disproportionately funded by those on the lower rungs of the ladder: Money goes in, visibility for authors and social capital for editors comes out. No need for anyone to actually engage with the fiction itself as aspiration not beauty is what drives the economics of short fiction. In fairness, this is not a genre-specific phenomenon. All across the arts, the same process is being played out: Kids take an interest in an artistic activity and their parents try to encourage them up the aspirational ladder. There may be no jobs at the top of the ladder and the artistic output of those on the way up may leave the public indifferent, but the ladder is always well-funded and carefully maintained. Institutions perpetuate themselves even when they have outlived their original social function and there is always more money and social capital to be extracted from those who dream of working in the arts. With this cultural dynamic in mind, it is interesting to compare the first month’s output of two quite different free online genre short fiction magazines; One is created by cultural insiders and reliant upon the good will of the genre community, the other is created by and for people with little or no connection to genre culture and is reliant upon advertising. I was originally intending to publish this all as one piece but my decision to look at the magazines as well as their fictional content made the separate sections long enough to justify being published on their own:
The differences between the two magazines are extensive and striking. Having read the first month’s output of both magazines, I find myself drawn to Terraform with almost as much force as I am repelled by Uncanny.
Even at the level of site design, Terraform is a magazine that looks out onto the world while Uncanny gazes only at itself: Uncanny concludes every story with a picture of the author and an extended bio while Terraform links only to pieces about related subject matter. Uncanny re-uses a format that is common in genre culture meaning that it winds up looking and feeling almost exactly like Lightspeed, Apex and Clarkesworld magazines while Terraform is about as distant from that format as it is possible to get without engaging in the kind of expensive technical experimentation that drives Arc magazine. They don’t even bother with the formality of issues!
The differences are even more pronounced at an editorial level as Terraform limits itself to science fiction and a hard word limit while Uncanny sprawls across the literary end of the entire genre spectrum. In fact, Uncanny imposes so few editorial constraints upon itself that its remit might as well be to bring its readers the best stories that were submitted to the magazine. Genre culture routinely lionises work that ‘breaks down genre boundaries’ without ever bothering to understand why genre boundaries existed in the first place. Genre boundaries were not for writers but for readers; they were a way of telling people what to expect when they picked up a book or magazine. Having read five Terraform stories, I know exactly what to expect the next time I stop by their website but after reading the first issue of Uncanny the only thing I expect from them in future is forgettable non-fiction and fiction that uses the same literary techniques as stories that have recently been winning awards. The editors of Terraform have the courage to set a creative agenda whereas the editors of Uncanny seem content to follow an ever-expanding field and rely on their social contacts to give them prominence.
At a textual level, Terraform publishes stories that are more urgent but feel less polished… Uncanny is a conventional genre magazine filled with carefully constructed artefacts that have been tweaked and massaged to make them everything that they can possibly be. Compared to the manicured lawns and exquisite tea services of Uncanny, Terraform feels a bit like a frontier town; wild and woolly but still not quite finished. However, while Terraform’s stories may be full of tricks that don’t quite work and ideas that don’t quite join up, this roughness doesn’t so much detract from the stories as add to them by giving them a sense of urgency, as though the contributors were seeing things on the news and rushing to turn them into short stories before the news cycle ended. The operators of the anime site Colony Drop once noted that their name implied that they were dropping a colony onto something that was already in existence. A similar observation could be made of the fiction department of Motherboard magazine: What exactly are they trying to terraform? Given the tone of the original editorial announcement, I suspect the idea might have been that the magazine would break new ground by publishing short science fiction stories online but a more apt metaphor would be to see Terraform magazine as a sort of Genesis Device fired into the middle of the online genre fiction scene in an effort to bring deep forests and verdant pastures to a landscape that has long grown airless and inhospitable.