My slush-reading stint has ended

This is what my inbox looked like.
My inbox

Since February 15th, I’ve been reading submissions for a venerable SF magazine, Strange Horizons*. According to my email client, I rejected about 850 stories. If I include the stories I passed up (which get rejected by the actual fiction editors), I read and reviewed about 900 stories. Which means I was reading about three stories every day.

And now I’m done. I can’t say that the experience was a bad one. Reviewing the stories didn’t take long. And I learned exactly what I wanted to learn. I got an intuitive sense of what’s out there and what doesn’t quite work. And I think it’s helped my own stories. Sometimes I’ll think of an idea for a story and realize, “Ugh, it’s just going to be another story in a slush pile” and I’ll back away and do something more creative. And that’s a good thing.

Nor was I particularly aggrieved by the quality of the slush. Most of it wasn’t terrible and almost all of it is clearly written by people who are intelligent and well-spoken. Personally, I’ve written and submitted worse stories than almost everything I’ve rejected. Although I’d like to think that nowadays my stories tend, more often than not, to drift to the top of the slush, they still get rejected by slush readers and editors all the time. So, no, nothing in the slush really bothered me. In fact, I feel like authors spend way too much time worrying about whether something is good enough or whether it’ll fit a particular market when they should really just be sending it out to whichever market excites them.

That having been said, I am glad to be done. I could never get over the feeling that the authors had worked really hard to write these stories. They’d slaved over them for days or weeks or months and they really cared about them…and I was glancing over them in five minutes. Of course, that limited time expenditure is exactly why I didn’t resent them, but still…

Well, anyway, that’s all over now. Never again! If there’s anything that I feel no desire to do, it’s editing. It feels too much like work.

*Alright, it’s only like 12 years old…but that’s pretty venerable for an online magazine, right?

Why you should donate money to Strange Horizons

I don’t really view my slush-reading for Strange Horizons as being in any way for the benefit of the magazine. From my point of view, it’s something that I do in order to improve my own writing. So that’s why it’s really weird for me to sometimes reflect that I’m actually a part of this magazine that I really love and that my work forms some small but concrete part of the process of putting the thing out every week.

 

Strange Horizon’s annual fund drive occurring this month, so I’ve been getting all these internal emails to get out there and talk it up. If you want to donate, the link is over here. You should feel free to donate whatever amount you want, but if you read it regularly, then it wouldn’t be out of line to donate like $20.

Your money won’t be going to some fly-by-night Kickstarter. It’ll go to the world’s longest-running professional online science fiction magazine. In fact, since the magazine is over twelve years old, I would not be surprised to find that it’s one of the oldest continuously-operated online magazines in the world. And your money won’t go to anyone in the organization (not that some of the editors in our all-volunteer staff don’t deserve some money). All of the money raised by the organization goes to pay contributors or pay overhead costs.

Beyond the fact that Strange Horizons publishes some great stories (and amazing reviews–there is nothing in the science fiction world that is amazing like its reviews department), I think it’s important to note the effect that Strange Horizons has had on the field. I don’t think there are many magazines out there which have as singular an editorial vision as SH does. Even though it doesn’t bar its door to any kind of submission, Strange Horizons consistently publishes really offbeat stories: queer deconstructions of fairy tales; super-hero subversions; metafictional exercises; formally and stylistically innovative stories; absurdist fictions; and many other types of stories that previously had no place in the science fiction world.

The existence of Strange Horizons has done a lot to pull the entire field in a new direction. Its stories not only inspire new writers and send them shooting off in new directions, but the mere fact that there is a home for these potential stories means that more of them get written. And, inevitably, that means that these kinds of stories overflow into other publications. Strange Horizons is an example of how a magazine can be a real force for aesthetic change.

And that’s worth at least $20.

Three pretty good short stories that were published in March 2012

This month, I read the March original fiction output of Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld.

I really didn’t want to like my favorite story of the month. In fact, I positively resisted it. I read it with the utmost disinterest for about a third of its length until I finally gave in–against my own will and political instincts–and admitted to myself that it was awesome.

“The Bells of Subsidence” by Michael John Grist (Clarkesworld) – A young girl leaves a young boy–her very best friend–behind on a desert world. She goes up into a galaxy-trawling spaceship in order to perform the complex mental gymnastics that keep it moving through time and space. The ship moves without guidance or purpose. It is the remnant of an ancient empire that populated the galaxy and then subsided. Now it takes a hundred children from every world that it visits and then it slowly chews them up with its intense mental demands. But the girl remembers her boy. Even as she forgets everything else, she remembers his name. She remembers that the name is important. She resists the crack-up, and retains her mind, and becomes captain of the ship, and searches the galaxy for the answer to a question that she cannot remember.

Now, if you’re like me, you’re groaning right now. Really? Love conquers all? You can become a spaceship captain and travel the galaxy, but what really matters is the boy you left at home? It’s horrifying, and until the very last sentence, I kept hoping that the story would subvert the trope. But it didn’t, and I guess that’s okay. In a way, I suppose the story is a subversion of all the stories in which people are so anxious to get into space that they are willing to take any risk and undergo any kind of physical or mental trauma. In this story, a woman is given the galaxy, and she turns it down, in favor of the comforts of home.

The story is great. Its portrait of an empire that continues to propagate itself mechanically is awe-inspiring. I loved the Bells–the spaceships–and the lost, confused Bell-captains. I loved the strange planets. I loved the way that each third of the book feels different in tone and setting, as if this was three different stories. It’s a beautiful, suspenseful story, and it’s definitely my favorite out of all the ones that I read this month.

Alarms by S. L. Gilbow (Lightspeed) – I think we’ve all met someone whose personal problems made his presence kind of alarming. A person who has made us say to ourselves, “Umm, this guy has way too much going on right now. I’m just going to stay away until his issues sort themselves out”. In this story, a woman finds that her presence sets off all the mechanical and electronic alarms in her vicinity.

It’s kind of a metaphor for the woman’s mental problems, but it’s also a problem that’s treated seriously within the text in that interesting way that genre-fantasy (as opposed to allegorical fantasy) sometimes does things. She can’t go into any building because she’ll set off smoke detectors. She can’t go too close to parked cars because she’ll set off their car alarms. She can’t work. She’s isolated herself. She’s slowly falling apart.

What drives the story is a very spritely voice. Even when things are going to shit, the protagonist remains committed to examining her own life and trying to figure things out. And I really admired the last third: the ending deft and thoughtful. The story takes its premise as a starting point and goes farther than most stories would.

“Nightfall in the Scent Garden” by Claire Humphrey (Strange Horizons) – A contemporary fantasy story told as a letter by a grown woman to her (female) childhood friend. She describes an incident from when they were young. Her friend was about to be enslaved by a fairy queen, but the protagonist claimed her as her beloved and, thus, saved her (or perhaps not–it is implied that the friend’s true desire might have been to go and live with the fairy queen). In return, the protagonist agreed to take no other lovers and to, someday, spend a hundred years in the service of the queen. But now they’ve grown up, and the two friends are not together. Her friend is married to a man and has a child, and the protagonist is left alone with her unrequited love. And the protagonist is wondering whether she should break her deal.

I loved this story. It’s very tragic, but it’s also kind of creepy. The protagonist feels, somewhere deep inside, that she has some kind of claim over her friend, and she can’t stop begging her friend to honor that claim. If this was a straight guy writing to a lesbian girl, it would be super creepy*. As it is, the lesbian girl to straight woman version is just sort of creepy. We’ll know we’ve achieved equal rights when we consider the lesbian version to be just as creepy as the straight version.

At the same time, whatever. We’ve all experienced unrequited love. It’s creepy and it’s quite distasteful, but it’s a real feeling and it deserves a place in our stories. I loved the internal tension in the protagonist. She knows the beautiful–and perhaps the most honorable–thing would be to continue to hold to her bargain and to throw her life away in service to this love, but she also cannot help but struggle against that fate.

 

*It’s kind of hard to imagine a version of this story in which a gay man writes to a straight man, not because it’s impossible for a gay man to have an unrequited crush on a straight man, but because it’d be hard for such a letter to contain a similar allusion to the possibility that the straight man might turn and choose to be with the gay man after all. Rightly or wrongly, men are not thought to be so fluid.

February 2012 Short Fiction

 All The Young Kirks And Their Good Intentions (Clarkesworld) by Helena Bell – Earth is being ravaged by some kind of disease. It responds by sending a few brilliant men and women to a moon colony where they try to recreate Earth’s (often extinct) ecosystems. Meanwhile, the town of Riverside, Iowa, has gotten caught up in this interplanetary fervor: it starts naming all of its children after a mythical hero from the past, James Tiberius Kirk.

I am normally very suspicious of fan-service stories, because I think they have a tendency to try to glamour their audience by namedropping nerdery instead of creating interesting characters, situations, and settings. And perhaps that’s what is happening here, but if that’s the case, I am thoroughly beglamoured. I love this story.

It’s just a story about kids, jostling to be special. Ostensibly, they all want to grow up and go to the moon and be heroes. But right now, they’re sitting in Iowa, playing status games with each other. The story is slow, but implacable. All of its pieces resonate with each other, and obey some unseen internal logic.

 

Bear In Contradicting Landscape (Apex) by David J. Schwartz – An author finds that a character from one of his early (terrible) short stories has come to life. In most hands, this story would be really playful and silly and insubstantial. But Schwartz just keeps throwing stuff in there. He spends all this time detailing the really dystopian story that the character came from. Then he starts describing the author’s girlfriend, a woman who is having her whole life story tattooed on herself. Then he’s writing about the character’s wife and her fascination with Elvis. And then the character’s cats corner a rabbit and the author saves the rabbit.

There’s really not a wrong note in the whole story. I’m just reading and reading and I’m never thinking–as I usually am, for most stories–“Okay, how is all this crap going to cohere.” No, because it’s cohering and agglomerating as we go. Even the everyman schlub narrator manages to avoid being just another everyman schlub. He has an engaging, fox-quick voice that’s full of wonderment and understanding (rather than the usual self-pity and neuroticism that I’ve come to expect from everyman schlubs). Anyways, I liked this story alot.

 

Aftermath (Strange Horizons) by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill – The zombie plague was averted after only a year by an airborne cure that turned the zombies back into ordinary human beings. A former literature professor struggles to live with a husband who succumbed to the plague and spent several months as a flesh-eater.

I love zombie stories. And I love that zombie stories are so versatile. They’re not just about titillation, like vampire stories, or about scaring you, like most monster stories. Zombie stories are about how we relate to society: the blank mass of strangers that we see around us everyday. And I love this story’s twist on the zombie tale: in this story, the zombies come back to life and try to live like ordinary people (they don’t remember any of their former atrocities). It has a lot of resonances with many modern situations in which people have to live with situations that they were not fully responsible for: Slavery or the Civil War (in America) or The Partition (in India). But it’s also a story that fully engages with its own premise. This is a story about the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. It’s rigorous and it doesn’t provide easy answers to the dilemmas that it raises.

 

In addition to the stories mentioned above, I also enjoyed Genevieve Valentine’s “The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” (Lightspeed), Brooke Bolander’s “Tornado’s Siren” (Lightspeed), and Justin Howe’s “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street” (Beneath Cease Skies)

As of today, I’m reading slush for Strange Horizons

I actually applied to be a slush reader (and was accepted) way back in December, but SH has been closed for a little longer than was expected. Still, we opened about eight hours, and I’m looking forward to reading my first stories.

I decided to start reading slush after my class with Nick Mamatas last summer. He said that a slush-reading stint could do wonders for a person’s writing. Now, this is something I’d heard before, but I’d always dismissed it as being too time-consuming for me. However, I’ve come to realize that if I am going to get better, then I really need to start doing all of the things that I am afraid to do. It is a little scary to have this fairy major commitment hanging over me. And it doesn’t help that this also means that I can’t submit to one of my top short story markets (Strange Horizons has rejected me more than any other market: 32 times). Still, I am confident that it’s the right thing to do.

And I am especially pleased to be doing it for SH. I’ve been reading it for years and it’s one of my favorite magazines. I’m not supposed to talk much about my slush reading (although I am allowed to say that I have the job), so I expect that this is the last that I’ll blog about it for awhile. Still, I thought it was something that was worth mentioning

Four pretty good short stories that were published last month

Longtime blog readers may perhaps remember that in December 2010, I promised that I was going to read the top online SF/F markets every month and find nice things to say about at least three stories (in order to combat the pernicious feelings of envy that had been [and still are] assailing me). Well….my bad. I only did it once. Okay, but now it’s a new year, and I’m trying again.

I just finished reading the combined output January 2012 output of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, and Strange Horizons….err…except for the reprints*. I chose four stories this month, and they are below.

“Scattered Along The River Of Heaven” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld) – This story is simultaneously about a woman leading a rebellion against an interstellar colonizer and about her granddaughter coming to an exile community to witness her heroic grandmother’s funeral. While I was reading this story, I thought, “Hmm, this is pretty good…but I’m not sure it’s going to be one of the ones that I blog about.” The story is beautifully written, and there is something very delicate about the very carefully calibrated narrative distance from which it’s told. However, the plot seemed banal. And then I got to the end. It has a great ending. A perfect ending. The ending ties up every strand in the story in one arresting image, and manages to comment powerfully on exile and assimilation.

“How Many Miles To Babylon?” by Megan Arkenberg (Lightspeed) – Okay, so sometimes I read a story, and even though it seems pretty good, I keep thinking, “What’s the point of this story? Why does it exist? What makes this story original?” and then, other times, I read a story and I think, “Holy crap, this story is awesome”. This story is one of the latter ones. It’s a man and a woman driving across a perpetually-darkened Earth, and perpetually under attack from these devilish pseudo-Biblical creatures. It’s full of arresting images: a civilization subsumed by rotting, leafless trees; a town on fire, with skeletal figures writing in the sky above…

But, do you see the problem? None of that stuff is exactly new. The hellish landscape is a mélange of Hieronymous Bosch, Hellboy, South Park, and everyone else who’s ever treated the subject. And the central plot of two survivors making a line-drive through a hostile environment to the supposed safety of some last redoubt has also been done a large number of times. And yet, I don’t care. I still really like this story. It’s weird biblical-horror tone and intense pace was enough for me. This makes me wonder whether I actually dislike stories for their unoriginality or whether I find them unoriginal because I dislike them.

“The Five Elements Of The Heart Mind” by Ken Liu (Lightspeed) – Sometimes I forget that there is such a thing as a science fiction story which hinges upon some interesting scientific concept. Most SF stories don’t have too much to do with science. They’re either about playing around with mythopeic tropes (aliens, robots, generation ships, immortality, etc) or they’re about gadgetry and futurismic speculation. This story is about an interstellar traveler who is marooned on a planet that happens to contain a long-lost colony that has regressed, technologically, into the Iron Age. There, she falls in love with a local villager. Now, that would be a pretty dull story (although it is very engagingly written), if it didn’t have a super amazing scientific speculation at its heart. I don’t even want to tell you what the speculation is, for fear that it will ruin the story. And what’s more impressive, the scientific speculation provides new vigor to the castaway plot. The whole thing really works. I was very impressed.

“The Chastisement Of Your Peace” by Tracy Canfield (Strange Horizons) – Okay, so this one is pure jealousy. Astute fans of mine might perhaps have noticed that doubling is one of my themes. I’ve written about office-slave clones (“Ted Agonistes”); a British Navy staffed entirely by parallel universe versions of Admiral Nelson (“Death’s Flag Is Never At Half-Mast”); a society created by the discarded nanotech replicas of one man (“The Association Of The Dead”); and a tiny cockroach that gives birth to replicas of itself (“What Everyone Remembers”). I don’t know why, okay. I just love doubles. And I have so many more unpublished stories and story ideas that involve doubles. If I published them all, I could literally populate a whole collection of doubles stories. And when I read Tracy’s story about a world populated entirely by parallel universe versions of Jenny Sirico (just one random woman), I thought, “Damn, I wish I’d witten this one.” It’s not only an idea that I love, but it’s treated in exactly the manner that I love. It’s full of all these fun little flourishes that give the Jenny-world the illusion of being as rigorously logical as (we hope) the real world is. And I like the direction that the actual story went, too. Everything about the story really clicks. It feels like, given this setting, the story used the exact right character and told the exact right story.

*I’m sure that some people enjoy reading the reprints, but I am not one of those people. I kind of feel like the only reason to read a monthly fiction magazine is to get a glimpse of what’s new…these stories are literally the latest thing that is happening in the SF/F world. The reprints are probably pretty good, but they’re just not new, and hence they’re hard for me to get excited about. Whenever I want to read reprinted short stories, I prefer to read them in a Year’s Best or single-author collection.