Apex Science Fiction and Horror Digest. Editor Jason Sizemore. Issue 1. Spring 2005. Pp. 104. ISSN 1553-7269. $5.00.

 [ Image courtesy Apex ] Reviewed by Djibril

This is a new magazine (issue 2 appeared just before the publication of this review), with a glossy cover and medium quality paper. Editorial standards are very high, and overall the magazine feels very professional. Issue one contains ten short stories (plus on flash-fiction style über-short), with quality ranging from excellent to significantly above average; the final twenty or so pages are given over to reviews, one short essay, and an interview. Artwork is understated but good, and there are several full-page advertisements.

The first story in this issue is also the longest: M.M. Buckner's ‘Permutations’. This tale, which begins with a deceptive lightness of touch, tells of the crew of a geosyncronous orbital station, and how they cope when the link to Earth goes down. Permanently jacked into the station's computer, their bodies atrophied and their every need supplied by life-support systems, the solution to their problem can only be on-line and in their (virtual) interactions. Taking unexpected turns at several points on the way, this is an elegant, sophisticated, well-crafted story.

Another sensitive and inventive piece is Liam Rands's ‘His Cross to Bear’, the story of a suffering criminal on a harsh world, crucified beside the road and subjected to the scorn and aggression of his fellow-settlers. Again not all goes as expected in this story, which makes no excuses for either the sentenced man nor his judges, and moral issues are not clear cut or banal. A certain amount of background is left unexplained, but this factor probably highlights the central conflict more than it causes confusion or incomprehension (although the uniformly hostile passers-by were a little hard to believe).

J. Stern's ‘The Throne Room’ is a tight little story that shows the FBI's reaction to the discovery of an alien artifact. The agency's cynicism, pragmatism, secrecy, and bureaucracy are well-illustrated, as are some of the real-world implications of such a discovery. Unfortunately, the whole story is told in the manner of a field agent's report to a committee of his superiors, and while the dry tone and pedantic attention to detail may be realistic in this regard, they do not make for a very entertaining read. It is fine for a five page short story, but I cannot imagine sticking with it for, say, twenty.

The worst thing about Lavie Tidhar's ‘Invasion of the Zog’ is the title, which is either ironic or silly (or both—I won't even consider the third possibility), but not very promising. However the story itself—short at under three sides—is effective, both spiritual and cynical in equal measure. The Zog are an amorphous alien race made up of purple snow, whose invasion of the Earth (starting on a beach in South Africa) is as unstoppable and unsettling as it is peaceful. But any change in the world's paradigm affects the economic status quo, and there are always powerful figures unwilling to let that happen.

Anna Parrish's ‘PH: Only Partially Human’ is a light little story about the prejudice suffered by transgenic labourers on a moon-base at the hands of their pure-blooded human co-workers. The characters are charming and slightly whimsical, the villains stereotyped and unsubtle, the plot not especially unpredictable. I enjoyed this piece until the final page, where the happy ending was suddenly sprung upon us in the space of about ten lines when a couple of pages and more tension would have served the purposes better.

Michael Simon's ‘Layers’ is the story, told from the point of view of a news-reader, of a medical miracle drug that suddenly goes horribly wrong. Cerebis is a drug that permanently cures all mental illness in those who take it by rewriting the surface structure of the brain; it transpires, however, that the drug will not stop at stripping away the diseased surface layer of the brain, but goes on to strip away the layers of civilisation itself. The idea behind this is either confused or confusing, as the assumption seems to be that if humans become somehow neurologically more primitive and lose their identities they will (a) revert to historical types and take on the personalities of men like Hitler, Leonardo Da Vinci, Vlad the Impaler, Confucius; (b) become savages and descend into mob violence. I didn't find this terribly convincing.

On the other hand ‘A Place in the Sun’ by Doug Hewitt, is a competent, traditional SF story of human colonists encountering trouble with an alien enemy on a new world. The hero is a grouchy, slightly misanthropic tycoon, unwillingly awoken from cryo-stasis before his luxury colony has been completed, and now faced with a ruthless, equally misanthropic alien aggressor. The ending is quirky and unexpected, but a little light-hearted for my taste. Some nice scene-building, though.

One of the stronger stories in the issue is Lawrence M. Schoen's ‘The Conservation of Thelos’, a powerful, unpleasant story about a condemned killer who learns to harness pain—his own, and others'—to give him untold power and perception. The story is both graphic and unsettling, and tackles both metaphysical and moral issues without flinching, in a flow of dense, well-written, unstoppable prose.

Christopher Stires's ‘Old World New World’ is a shorter piece about a human space traveller taken prisoner by a corrupt alien government that finds his message of peace and equality dangerous to their security. An interesting idea that might have been more effective if the metaphor for humanity's tolerance and respect had been something with a little more international currency than the US Constitution (or any other single country's declaration). A pointed reminder that not all of our truths are so "self-evident".

‘Allergies’ is Christine W. Murphy's study in alienness, following the travels of a woman who is allergic to the natural produce of Earth, who thrives in the sterile, synthetic environment of frontier space, but suffers and sickens as soon as the comforts of home catch up with her. Perhaps ironically, given that an allergen is something the body rejects as alien, it is only in the most distant parts of space and the most alien environments that she feels comfortable. An extremely interesting story, although perhaps not the most smoothly written in the volume.

I have summarised each of the stories in this issue, but I should not neglect the delightful little piece of flash fiction with which the volume ends: Jonette Stabbert's ‘Training Ground’, which begins: "2504 AD. Human women still travel to planet Earth to train their small daughters. It's a dangerous place. ..."

I like the way book reviews are handled in this volume. Rather than a few dozen, paragraph-long reports of the latest paperback releases in SF and fantasy, which most magazines seem to offer, Apex limits itself to a small handful of titles, both fiction and non-fiction, with detailed reviews up to a couple of pages long. The essay by Gill Ainsworth on Science Fiction—the real horror is a similar length. It may be self-evident (!) that I find longer reviews more useful, and more of a contribution to the field than any number of short notices.

The interview with small press legend Jon Hodges discusses the man's own editorial and authoring work, and also issues of concern to the genre small press as a whole. I wish to take issue in some detail with one point he makes about "e-zines". Hodges feels that non-paying online publications (which he admits be pays little attention to himself) do the small press as a whole a disservice for two reasons: (1) that they will publish any garbage; and (2) that they give authors too much exposure, especially in the case when an early, not very good story remains in the public eye long after the author has grown beyond—and even ashamed of—it. On the first point, it is fair to say that we have all seen rubbish published on the web: nothing is to stop John Teenage Doe setting up a free website and "publishing" on it every piece of crap that he and his school-friends write, along with anything any misguided member of the public might happen to email him. No quality control. But if I find JTD's webpage, I can immediately tell the difference between that and a good magazine such as Neometropolis, Planet, or Whispers of Wickedness. (And to be fair, I've seen plenty of crap in the printed small press, too.) The essential difference is in the cost of production: even a photocopied fanzine requires some outlay to create, not to mention to distribute. The web is cheaper, easier to access; but among those who would not be heard without the web, there are plenty who are genuinely worth hearing.

Hodges's second point is more serious, however, and it may be my academic background that leads me to disagree here. I would think that one of the essential features of any publication is the commitment to being permanently available. Obviously small press magazines disappear all the time (and websites do so even more often, leaving behind only a few pages in Google cache or the Internet Archive), but any serious magazine, whatever the medium, should have an ISSN and make copies available to the major deposit libraries (Library of Congress, British Library, Bibliothèque nationale, etc.), which will archive them and keep them permanently available in case they are cited in the future—whether in an author's CV, a review, or a scholarly article. Permanent access is a feature, not a bug.

But hey, maybe I'm biased. (I should also point out that nowhere did Jon Hodges say everything on the internet was garbage.)

The Apex Digest looks like being a very well edited and professionally produced new magazine. If the quality of writing in the first issue is variable in places, this is probably to be expected in a print magazine in its early days: unlike a web magazine, which can afford to maintain standards by only accepting as many outstanding stories as are submitted in the three-month space between issues, a responsible print magazine has to fill 80-odd pages with stories every issue. So while a web 'zine will gradually get bigger as its reputation grows and it can choose from a wider field every issue—a print 'zine will in the same period get better. I have no doubt that—so long as the editors have the patience and financial support to stay afloat for a couple of years—Apex has everything it takes to become a most respectable and reliable small press magazine. I wish them the best of luck.

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