Terraform Magazine – The First Month
Terraform is a new project from Motherboard, the specialist science and technology section of the vast online media conglomerate known as Vice magazine. Whereas Uncanny magazine was launched to a predictable chorus of affected interest and effective indifference, Terraform was born into a storm of controversy as the editors’ original manifesto dared to suggest that nobody was publishing science fiction stories online anymore:
There’s a distinct dearth of science fiction in its purest, arguably its original, form — short fiction — in the environment to which it seems best-suited. The internet.
As is now fairly typical for genre culture, people jumped all over the PR fail and completely ignored the short fiction. The rage was swift, unthinking and amusingly pompous: Like aging high school quarterbacks who have just been informed that their state championship rings don’t allow them to cut to the front of the line in a Manhattan Starbucks, a bunch of genre insiders expressed bafflement at the idea that people outside of genre culture might not have heard of Clarkesworld. Writer Jason Sanford voiced his irk in a fairly representative fashion:
This oversight irks me on a personal level because for many years I ran the Million Writers Award, which worked hard to highlight online fiction — including online SF stories. A number of SF stories won our top award over the years and an entire anthology of MWA SF/F stories was also released. Because of my work on the award it seems incredible to me that anyone could overlook pioneering online SF magazines like Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, InterGalactic Medicine Show, among many, many others.
As someone who pays attention to genre literature and cares a great deal about genre institutions, I have considerable sympathy for the feelings of irritation and disappointment triggered by the Terraform manifesto. Hundreds of people have devoted their professional and social lives to the great aspirational ladder of genre culture and it must have come as something of a shock to realise that nobody outside of the genre bubble appears to give a shit.
It was Jack Kerouac who first used the phrase ‘naked lunch’ to refer to those moments in which people suddenly become aware of what lies at the end of every fork. What I take this to mean is that humans are fundamentally fragile creatures who protect themselves from the existential glare by choosing to believe that what matters to them actually matters in some broader objective and quantifiable sense. A naked lunch moment is one in which all of our protective bullshit is stripped away, confronting us with a world without context… a world in which we use oddly shaped metallic instruments to force bits of charred animal flesh into our waiting mouths… a world in which hundreds of people have devoted their professional and social energies to the production of short fiction that virtually nobody bothers to read.
Naked lunch moments are seldom pleasant but they are always opportunities to learn. The editors of Terraform have given genre culture a rare glimpse into how it is seen (and not seen) by the outside world. The endless venal cycle of log-rolling, award-giving and congratulation-receiving may be enough to convince insiders that any of this shit matters but step away from genre’s hierarchical structures and everything instantly disappears. The wider public may have been raised to love science fiction but, as far as they are concerned, venues like Sci Fiction, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed and The InterGalactic Medicine Show do not exist.
There is a lesson here to be learned about the insularity of genre culture and the growing irrelevance of the fiction that it chooses to produce and celebrate. Rage fills the void where thoughts might thicken but it also serves to drown out guilt: Were genre insiders really angry at the editors of Terraform or were they angry at themselves for systematically failing to engage with short fiction to the point where it has become little more than a network of self-perpetuating vanity presses? I think that genre culture made short fiction disappear long before Terraform was even a glimmer in its Motherboard’s eye.
Birth pangs aside, Terraform is a really interesting venture with an opportunity to make large editorial waves. Unlike Uncanny, Terraform owes absolutely none of its funding or visibility to the hierarchies of genre culture leaving it relatively free to carve out a different kind of niche.
As part of a non-fiction website with no real ties to genre culture, Terraform’s future viability appears to depend less upon reaching a genre audience than upon the editors’ ability to convince an existing non-fiction audience to cross the aisle and start reading fiction. Uncanny’s future may be dependent upon convincing aspiring authors that donations will help them to secure a seat at the cool kids’ table but Terraform’s future seems to lie in page views, click-throughs and convincing the manufacturers of drones and 3D printing devices that people are actually reading science fiction stories. This funding model might yet be replaced by a more aspirational crowd-funding model but it seems safe to assume that a failure to deliver sufficient page views will result in Terraform being shut down, something that the editors of Uncanny will most likely never need to worry about.
In an effort to convince their non-fiction audience to start reading fiction, the editors of Terraform have wisely chosen to impose a 2000-word limit on the stories they publish. Successful non-fiction sites seldom carry long-form articles and so it would have been surprising to see Terraform carry stories as long as most traditional genre short fiction venues. In and of itself, this word limit poses a technical challenge that makes it stand out from the crowd of increasingly interchangeable online short fiction venues.
Terraform’s mission statement has now been re-written a number of times but the current ones suggest that Terraform is to be a magazine of engagement rather than literary escape:
We believe that fiction isn’t just a place we go to escape from reality; it’s a place where we can come to understand, even take control over, what is real. To test code, you have to run it. To see if a building will stand, or an airplane will fly, you have to build a model. Science fiction’s functionality is the same: to take the world as we know it, tweak some key variables, and let it run for a few—or a few million—years. What emerges from the experiment may or may not tell us anything meaningful about the future, but it’s a really, really good mirror for what’s happening right here, right now.
Engagement with the world has been built into Terraform at a structural level as every story contains tags related to its subject matter meaning that you can read a story about drones and then click through to all of the articles about drones that Motherboard have published over the years. This easily overlooked design decision instantly makes everything that Terraform publishes seem relevant and connected to the real world. I know that some random piece of SEO shouldn’t grab my attention but a tiny detail like connecting stories to real-world events and ideas shows a willingness to engage and make moves that genre culture stopped making around the collapse of the pulps. Also interesting is that people are actually commenting on the stories! Most short fiction is received by reverential (or more likely indifferent) silence but Paul Ford’s story about Uber has people not only applauding the story but also talking about the story in terms of their own thoughts and experiences!
There are a lot of competing theories about the origins of science fiction and none of them are even remotely trustworthy. Talking about science fiction’s past has always been a sneaky way of talking about the genre’s future and any attempt to isolate the origins of science fiction must be read as an attempt to argue for the greater legitimacy of a particular type of story. For example, the academic Gary Westphal has long argued that science fiction began in the 1920s with Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing magazine and that science fiction should therefore return to publishing the types of story championed by people like John W. Campbell in the 1930s. This origin story may be complete horse shit but it’s horse shit of a kind that I happen to find personally compelling.
As someone who has never really understood why you would want to form an attachment to people who don’t exist, I was drawn to science fiction for what it told me about the world. This often leaves me rather at odds with popular discussion in genre circles as I am still not clear on what it is about the writings of Greg Egan and Stephen Baxter that is supposed to make me want to read either young adult fantasy novels or short fiction that invokes genre imagery as part of conventionally literary trajectories. Given that I am drawn to science fiction that functions as a window on the world, it is hardly surprising that I am also drawn to an origin story that paints science fiction as a form of experimental non-fiction that uses the lightest touch of the fictional brush to explain and explore ideas about the world and our place in it. I want to believe that science fiction can engage with the world and Gernsbackian scientifiction provides that belief with a sense of historical legitimacy, a reminder that I’m not being completely unfair when I roll my eyes at whimsical froth or regret that British genre imprints have almost completely turned their backs on traditional science fiction. The difference between me and the likes of Westphal is that I do not think that the historical legitimacy of my preferences translates into the illegitimacy of other people’s preferences… I just wish that people were publishing more of the type of science fiction that I enjoy.
Having read its first few stories and looked at the way the magazine works and secures funding, it would appear that Terraform is an attempt to rekindle the Gernsbackian flame and re-discover a science fictional tradition that functions not as a branch of conventional literature but as a branch of non-fiction. Not all of the stories work but there is a sense of urgency about Terraform that has long been absent from genre culture.
“Huxleyed into the Full Orwell” by Cory Doctorow
I must admit that I am not the greatest fan of Doctorow’s fiction. On a basic level, I don’t think that he has ever managed to write anything quite as interesting as his first novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. On a more substantial level, I think that Doctorow’s politics are far too bourgeois for the style of story that he seems to enjoy writing.
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is actually a really good example of the mismatch between Doctorow’s politics and his choice of subject matter as while the novel touches on themes of post-scarcity economics and personal identity it does so in the context of a story about a bunch of people living the easy life in a corporate holiday resort. More problematically, Doctorow’s young adult novel Little Brother presented itself as a novel all about encouraging teenaged activism despite actually being about a group of spoiled white teenagers messing about with their Xboxs because they’re annoyed that fear of terrorism has caused their government to pick on them rather than the brown people who are (according to the novel) far more deserving of harassment. Having fucked about ineffectually with flash mobs and burritos for a few hundred pages, the novel concludes with the kids reaching out to grown-up journalists and politicians who immediately spring into action and solve all the problems in a manner suggesting that direct action had always been a waste of time as the checks and balances in US society still function like a dream. Any novel about political activism that ends with a full-throated roar of support for the establishment makes me uncomfortable as it smacks of naïvete at best and politically motivated insincerity at worst. In other words, I don’t trust Doctorow’s politics and “Huxleyed into the Full Orwell” did little to prompt me into reconsidering my position.
With only 2000 words to play with, the story contains little in the way of narrative. Little more than a fictional vignette, the story is set in and around a demonstration protesting the mistreatment of cyber-activists who had taken it upon themselves to reveal the fact that Netflix apps contain a rootkit allowing the NSA access to users’ private data.
Little more than an overly fictionalised account of institutional relationships we now know to be real, “Huxleyed into the Full Orwell” feels less like a story or a meaningful comment upon corporate collusion with state oppression than it does a delivery vector for the image of thousands of activists standing in the street lip-synching a transcript while images of the person who originally spoke their words are projected onto walls around the demonstration. This image is incredibly striking and you can imagine it forming a fantastic climax to either a film or a novel but without the dramatic, conceptual, thematic or psychological support of a longer narrative the image feels insubstantial and incomplete in a way that highlights the technical challenges inherent in producing an eye-catching 2000-word story.
“The Brain Dump” by Bruce Sterling
Sterling is precisely the kind of author I would expect to see appearing in a magazine like Terraform. Still best known for his involvement in the Cyberpunk movement, Sterling enjoyed a great deal of critical success in the ‘90s and ‘00s before re-inventing himself as a sort of in-house character assassin for the tech industry.
Written in the form of a blog-post by a member of a Ukrainian hacking collective, “The Brain Dump” is a hilarious pastiche of confused political hacktivism that blossoms into a searing indictment of disaster capitalism informed by the observation that periods of intense social conflict often result in people with no aptitude for leadership being propelled into positions of extreme power and authority, hence the protagonist moving from worried blog posts about:
We listen to streaming techno and metal, coding a lot, smoking cannabis and never go into a church. So we are called “decadent” by repressive Russian-Orthodox militia of Donetsk Peoples Republic.
To confused and excited blog posts about:
We were thinking all along we were helpless victims of situation, but truth is now clear to us. We are Internet people, but also major part of the problem. We are serious power player, frankly. We can do anything Internet black global money can do, buy media, hire liars, recruit mercenaries, ship weapons, buy own private jet get the hell out go live in Costa Rica.
Sterling weaves his world from hacking jargon and fragments of stories culled from the daily news and while the resulting world may not be complex, it is rich, evocative and perfectly suited to the shorter type of story favoured by Terraform.
The ending is slightly jarring as the sudden realisation that the collective’s disused bunker hides a huge foreign currency reserve jolts the story off of its comic/realistic trajectory and onto a more metaphorical trajectory in which we are invited to imagine the witless hackers as both tomorrow’s oligarchs and younger versions of the oligarchs of today. The transition is not exactly smooth and it feels as though Sterling suddenly decided that his short comic piece needed an extra beat before the end but the result is still charming, insightful and funny.
“The Overview Effect” by Claire L. Evans
This is a story that made alarm bells ring when I first started reading Terraform. Not only was it written by one of the site’s editors, it was also the only story from the first batch to be written by a woman. Did they not know of any other female writers? Thankfully that fear is now receding as two of the site’s more recent stories were written by women but I was concerned that Terraform might turn into something of a sausage fest, if only because Terraform needs to convince Motherboard’s non-fiction audience to start reading fiction and a predominantly male target audience might prove reluctant to start reading women. Time will undoubtedly tell as I imagine that the editors are still looking at their page views and trying to work out what type of story brings in the viewers.
“The Overview Effect” is a bit of a puzzle. The story hinges on a comparison between the slightly trippy effect of looking down at your own planet and the undeniably trippy effect you get from eating magic mushrooms. In fact, the story involves a female astronaut taking drugs in orbit and recording her experiences under the watchful eye of her ship’s AI.
There is nothing all that new about linking drugs with SF. The New Wave was a product of the 1960s counterculture and the interest in what Ballard called ‘Inner Space’ encouraged people to write stories that revolved around people taking drugs as a means of changing either themselves or the world around them. The best-known cinematic expression of this story type remains Ken Russell’s Altered States about a man who experiments with drugs only to find himself either de-evolving into an ape or evolving into some sort of energy-based creature. Sadly, “The Overview Effect” lacks anything approaching Altered States’ hippy boldness. Evans introduces us to the astronaut, has the astronaut take a load of drugs but rather than using this as a hook on which to build a story she simply has the astronaut listen to some poetry.
It’s not badly written and I suspect that the John Donne reference may carry some meta-textual payload that passed entirely over my head but yeah… not much going on here unfortunately.
“Targeted Strike 2: Judgement Database” by Adam Rothstein
Adam Rothstein is a name that I am quite excited to find attached to Terraform.
One of the reasons I found genre culture’s reaction to the launch of Terraform so funny is that genre culture is *constantly* making people disappear. Take one step away from the institutions of genre culture in the direction of academia, tech, public sector think tanks or the contemporary arts scene and you will find dozens of people writing about society and the future in ways that seem to dip in and out of fiction. Many of these people were brought up on genre fiction, some of them even have even written for genre venues but rather than hitching their wagon to a scene that grows progressively less interested in the future with every passing year, they attend different conferences, write for magazines like Rhizome and use names like design- or infrastructure-fiction to refer to what they do. I don’t know whether Rothstein would agree with me pigeon-holing him in this fashion but I would definitely position him as someone who uses fiction to engage with science, technology and the future without the support of either genre or literary cultures.
“Targeted Strike 2: Judgement Database” is best described as a re-telling of Terminator 2 that replaces the language and concepts of the film with language and concepts culled from contemporary technology in general and America’s growing dependence upon robotic killing machines in particular. The judgement database in question refers to Obama’s presidential kill list while ‘targeted strike’ is the currently-favoured euphemism for attempts to murder suspected terrorists by blowing up their homes, workplaces and family gatherings.
It was interesting to read this story soon after reading Christopher Barzak’s story from Uncanny as while both works are exercises in lore-wrangling, Rothstein distorts the lore to make it shine a light on the truth while Barzak distorts the lore to draw a veil over real unpleasantness. I also liked the use of a framing device to hint at a future in which films critical of drone-strikes might be illegal as it not only ‘does’ future activism better than the Cory Doctorow story but also does a pretty fantastic job of pointing out quite how much of a science fictional dystopia contemporary America has become:
So, the film is pretty good, but if you are going to see it don’t go to Cinema 10, because I heard they are still deep-cleaning the big screen room to get out the tear gas powder. And besides I think their license for TS2 was revoked after the melee. Maybe try Scene Screens at the mall, if you aren’t Zone A restricted. Otherwise you can always just find yourself a [redacted] like everyone else, but this blog is linked to my name, so no mention of that here! No hoodies, yo! :)
The various frames of reference are a touch confusing and Rothstein doesn’t so much usher us between them as force us to find our own way but despite a lack of technical polish, the story is clever, well-written and engaged with contemporary politics and technology. What more could you ask for from contemporary genre fiction?
“One Day, I Will Die on Mars” by Paul Ford
This very much reminded me of two other stories.
Set in a near future where all business and government services are run by the (real world) predatory mini-cab app Uber, the story is divided between three point of view characters:
- The first is a rather entitled consumer who orders a huge bag of gourmet cat food. Given the size of the bag, the consumer is forced to use Uber to arrange delivery and despite Uber’s protestations that the food will be delivered soon, the consumer is becoming more and more annoyed.
- The second is the voice of Uber, a vast AI who claims to be managing the city but appears to devote most of its time and resources to managing its brand by dreaming up way of placating its increasingly annoyed customers.
- The third is an ambitious delivery person who was recruited out of grade school by Uber on the promise that years of faithful service would allow them to enrol in Uber’s space programme. Tasked with delivering a giant bag of cat food from one side of the city to another, the delivery person trusts Uber to manage their transportation but they still wind up having to run across the city with a huge bag of cat food.
“One Day, I Will Die on Mars” reminded me of Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants in that both stories build ghastly dystopias whose horrors are almost entirely invisible to the inhabitants of their worlds. The dis-connect between the ugliness of the world and the inability of the characters to see how awful their world has become lends both stories a rather unsettling comic edge. Utterly brain-washed by a corporation that has turned state schools into capitalist hunting grounds, the delivery person puts up with all kinds of mistreatment on the understanding that they might end up as one of the lucky few to make it under this ghastly and dysfunctional system. As buffoonish as this may sound, one of the reasons why people are willing to put up with inequalities in our world is that they are encouraged by the system to identify with the system’s winners rather than its far more numerous losers: People vote against taxes on fortunes they will never have because they like to believe that they will one day be rich. People vote against help for the poor because they would like to believe that things will never get that bad.
This type of story is a perfect match for the format: It’s a neat idea that wouldn’t necessarily support a longer story but it certainly supports a breezy 2000 words.
Another thing I liked about this story is its willingness to name names. Unlike the Cory Doctorow story that paints Netflix as a villain rather than the more demonstrably villainous and ubiquitous Apple or Google, Ford aims squarely at real-world company Uber whose minicab rental app has proved remarkably popular in big cities despite the fact that it is demonstrably evil both in its business practices and in its social consequences. The tech industry loves to talk about ‘disruption’ but most disruption involves exchanging one group of sinister corporations for another group of corporations who tear up the social contract and drive down wages only to use the money to hire PR firms in an effort to convince people that everyone benefited from said ‘disruption’. Uber’s record is well known and Ford does a fantastic job of imagining what our cities might come to look like were they given over to the good graces of companies like Uber.
The other story that “One Day, I Will Die On Mars” reminded me of was Tim Maughan’s completely overlooked “Zero Hours” that imagined a future in which zero-hour contracts were managed by an app that forced people to compete for jobs by lowering their prices. Maughan’s story was less grand-guignol than Ford’s and he played the dystopian angle for pathos rather than comedy but both works are doing something that Uncanny magazine would never think of doing: Picking a fight with the workplace and daring to argue that technological ‘disruption’ seldom benefits anyone except the owners of said technology. Ford’s story is maybe just a little bit too silly for its own good (way too much poo) but it is always refreshing to see people use science fiction to look directly at world and this is precisely the sort of story that I hope Terraform will continue to publish.