Reviews by Peter Tennant
This is the first in a proposed series of bi-monthly review columns taking a look at what the world of electronic media has to offer the dedicated fiction hound. The format is simple. Well be examining one electronic publication in detail, and then doing a round-up of however many others we feel like.
Future Fire first popped its head over the parapet in January 2005 and has been delivering solid, if irregular, packages of fiction ever since. The site has close links to Whispers of Wickedness, with FF co-editor Djibril a moderator on our Forums, and well shortly be co-hosting a Convention in London.
The site publishes Speculative Fiction, Cyberpunk and Dark Fantasy, and there is no limit on word length, other than the usual qualifier that anything in the upper word ranges will need to be outstanding to merit inclusion.
As regards formatting, the ToC is the hub of the magazine, with links to individual pages for each slice of content. Stories etc are published with one column to the page and the occasional illustration to break up the text, and a (burgundy, burnt umber, buggered if I know what colour it is?) border on the left side of the screen, with links at the top. This format is accessible and user friendly, though scrolling down can become tiresome with some of the longer pieces.
The current Issue 2007.08 has a selection of book and magazine reviews (in the past FF has featured various articles, opinion pieces, interviews and film reviews, so in context this issue is below par as regards non-fiction content) of varying degrees of competency, plus a provocative editorial on the theme of why we write/publish that ties in with a discussion here on Whispers Forums.
There are three pieces of fiction, with a combined length of 26k, though I cant be bothered to do the math for individual word counts.
Pianissimo by Alan Frackleton is the kind of story that would once have been tarred with the brush of slipstream, a brand name that seems slightly pass now. There is a fantasy or outr element to the story, but it plays second fiddle to a mainstream narrative of loss and alienation. The opening sentence Two days after I learnt that Rachel was dead, Dave Rose offered me the job as well as being one of those hooks readers are supposed to get snared on, sets out the two complementary strands of the story. Protagonist Danny, informed of the death of the woman he once loved, replays in his memory details of their relationship, and how it poisoned his friendship with Craig, the man Rachel loved and was to marry, the repercussions of one night of stolen passion. And contiguous with that, he takes on the job offered by the slightly shady Rose, which involves minding an abandoned house. Every so often Danny has to admit visitors and show them into an upstairs room, empty except for a piano. He hears various noises from behind the door, but can only surmise what is taking place. And, of course, Dannys guesswork is spot on, leading to a meeting with Craig, and the hope that both of them will be able to put the ghosts of the past behind them. This is a beautifully written piece of work, one with a keen understanding of the character of Danny informing every paragraph, and rendered all the more effective for having the main plot device left ambiguous. It deals with themes of loss and hope for reconciliation, but always with a light touch and never sinking into the excesses of sentimentality such things often invite. Ten thumbnail illustrations by Cecile Matthey punctuate the text and capture perfectly its prevailing mood.
In an oblique, off the wall kind of way, Terry Grimwoods Coffin Road struck me as a zombie story but without any zombies. The characters within its lines seem every bit as deserving of the living dead epithet as any shambling revenant from the oeuvre of Romero. The backdrop to the story is a virulent flu epidemic, and with the elderly vaccinated it is the young who must bear the brunt as society collapses and the old clich about having to bury your children is brought home with a vengeance. When so much else has been stripped away from them, the dignity of a decent burial is all that remains to the people of Grimwoods world. Old Doug sets out to bury his daughter Lisa, aided by grandson Jason, a trek of dire necessity that has about it all the travails of some great quest undertaken in a hostile land, as they must contend with corpse gatherers, grave stealers and their own failing flesh, Doug nurturing a ruthless streak. Grimwoods future is bleak and he misses no opportunity to make it more so, albeit I thought the final, bitter twist was an obvious step too far, bringing this terrible landscape populated by the dead and the dying to macabre life, and with futility at the heart of it all. The inspiration for this story, we are informed in a footnote, was the 1918 influenza pandemic in South Africa, but with yet more health scares on the news daily and the smoke from foot and mouth bonfires still lingering in our memory it all seems painfully contemporary. Theres an evocative illustration by J E MacMillan to accompany the text.
The Blood of Castalsara by William J. Piovano is the longest story here and the least successful. A fantasy set in the war torn province of some cod-medieval empire, it is told in the first person from the perspective of Innislan, a royal messenger who has become disillusioned and abandoned his calling. He falls in with the troubadour Gilnay and, after overcoming his inclination to kill the musician for his awful singing, the two of them agree to help a beautiful noblewoman save her friends from death at the hands of the ruling prince. This has about it the feel of being a chapter from some longer work. As a self-contained piece it raises more questions than it answers, such as the reason for Gilnays presence (his purpose seems to be simply to provide comic relief and give Innislan something to fret needlessly about) or the wealth of back story Piovano gifts us with. From a plot perspective it seems slightly flimsy, with the princes actions put down to madness at first and then explained as a way to keep the prison population down (on that score, wouldnt not arresting people without reason work just as well?), while the beautiful but petulant woman who persuades the men to do the right thing is pure clich. On the plus side, Innislans agonising about his behaviour in the past (he is a not entirely sympathetic character and this is handled well) adds an extra frisson, while the blighted landscape of Castalsara is well realised, its natural beauty and wealth twisted to degenerate ends by the work of men. Djibril provides an illustration that, for me anyway, brings to mind a fusion of Zorro and Ghost Rider.
Edited by Nick Mamatas and a paying market, Clarkesworld Magazine began life as an adjunct to the book dealership of the same name, and continues on as a separate entity. Its kept to a monthly schedule since inception in October 2006, along the way publishing the likes of Ian Watson, Elizabeth Bear and Jeff Vandermeer, with stories up to 4k in length. The layout is very basic, no frills, with two stories per issue and one column of text in the centre of the screen. Its a format the publishers seem comfortable with and have maintained since #1.
The current issue contains stories by Paul G. Tremblay and Jetse De Vries. Tremblays There's No Light Between Floors is the tale of two survivors of a never named disaster, buried in the ruins of a collapsed building. Its beautifully written, with some telling phrases and lovely imagery, such as that of a skyscraper stretching between worlds and coming unmoored, and conjures up a doom laden atmosphere with echoes of September 11, or any of the other meaningless atrocities that seem to be part and parcel of the human condition. De Vries Qubit Conflicts is a Hard SF offering, and had a curious effect on me, in that at the sentence level whole stretches of the story could just as easily have been written in a foreign language, but regardless of that the overarching structure of the story made perfect sense. It concerns the development and evolution of artificial intelligence, eventually ending in an intellectual cul de sac, reminiscent of the ending of Tiptree classic Ill be waiting for you when the swimming pool is empty.
Subterranean Online appears to be a promotional tool of go getting indie outfit Subterranean Press (near as I can tell theyre not open to submissions, instead presenting work from authors published by Subterranean). The Spring 2007 issue offers a wealth of fiction, with writers of the stature of Joe R. Lansdale, Bruce Sterling, Charles Stross and Jay Lake contributing. Big names aside, not much thought seems to have gone into presentation of the material, with text pushed over to one side and nearly disappearing off the edge of the screen, the remainder just white space after youve scrolled down past the ToC. And a lot of the fiction is in the form of serials (novels or novellas by Lansdale, Stross, Caitlin R. Kiernan etc).
Of the stories I did read, Jude Confronts Global Warming by Joe Hill is a piece of flash fiction with some good characterisation and build-up, but fizzling out in an ending where the point is to provide a comeuppance for the self-satisfied protagonist regardless of how left field. A Plain Tale from Our Hills is Bruce Sterling on auto-pilot, a common or garden piece about the wife outsmarting the mistress, albeit its never clear why either of them want the loser who prompts this rivalry, the plot dolled up in its science fictional best but all window dressing, albeit it does rally somewhat with a powerful ending. Saving the best to last, John Scalzis Pluto Tells All is a delicious tongue in cheek send up of celebrity gossip rags, with everybodys favourite ex-planet giving his side of events (apparently it was all the fault of his agent). This one should put a smile on everybodys face, except Phil Collins.
Theres also quite a bit of non-fiction available; several articles, including columns by Elizabeth Bear and Mike Resnick, plus a healthy smattering of reviews. The only thing I looked at was Norman Partridges opinion piece on the merits of various awards systems, a familiar bone of contention in genre circles, and Partridge speaks a lot of sense, so obviously will end up reviled by all sides. Lastly, a bit of innovation Mary Robinette Kowals reading of Kage Bakers novel Rude Mechanicals. I only sampled this, but it sounds interesting and MRK has a voice I could listen to for hours.
Hub Magazine started life as a print-zine with a quarterly publishing schedule, but after two issues migrated to the web and lives on as a weekly publication of 15 pages, available to download at no charge in several formats (my choice of poison is to have it delivered to my Inbox as a PDF). For the first three issues the format was one long(ish) piece of fiction, plus a handful of reviews in various media (and gratifyingly the book reviews are not restricted to titles from Orbit, who are helping to finance Hub ). The fiction contributors for the first three issues were Eric Brown, Ian Whates and Alasdair Stuart.
With the issue under consideration, #6, editors Lee Harris and Alasdair Stuart have played with the formula a bit, in that the magazine now has more non-fiction, with an article on the origins of Doctor Who and a comparative piece on the young pretenders to SFX's crown, DeathRay and SciFi Now (the conclusion is that the market leader will see off these upstarts), along with the usual reviews. Its a trade off though, and for fiction we are on reduced rations, with only Career Change , a slice of flash fiction by John H. Stevens, the story of a dissatisfied rat racers encounter with a tramp, that I found predictable and very slight.
Production wise, Hub is pretty much your bog standard PDF document, with text that fills the screen nicely at 93% and one column of print to the page. By way of illustration there are book and DVD covers, stills from films and TV shows, plus one solitary illustration to the Stevens story. Its an unimaginative mix, but delivers the goods in a painless manner.
The Lightning Journal is another publication available as a PDF that can be downloaded for free, and at 46 pages its somewhat more substantial than Hub , albeit over the long haul that weekly schedule will tell. More effort has been put into the production as well, with coloured borders to each page and a colour cover, the striking image of lightning hitting a rocket on the launch pad by Dana Blankenhorn, but no illustrations to the stories, though we do get photographs to go along with the two non-fiction pieces, a report on the recent World Horror Convention in Toronto by Dan Naden and an interview with author Andrea Dean Van Scoyoc (who also provides a story). Actually, and no sarcasm intended, the best visuals in this magazine are the three pages of adverts at the end.
Designated Vol 1 Issue 2, the current issue is billed as a relaunch, with a new team of Lincoln Crisler and A J Brown taking on the editorial chores. Fiction is pitched in the 1-3k range and theyve selected four pieces for our enjoyment, of which I sampled two. Cicadas by Nickolas Cook is a competent but uninspiring piece. Set in what comes over as Depression era America, though no time or place is given, its the tale of a child murderer who descends on the area every thirteen years with the cicadas. Theres a good atmosphere to the piece and some solid characterisation, especially child protagonist Willa who is just coming into womanhood and curious about so many things that shouldnt concern her, but for all of that its a familiar scenario and Cook brings nothing new to the table. A Town Called Night by former LJ editor Mark E Deloy is not as well written, with its fair share of grammatical errors and infelicities, but does provide more substantial entertainment. Its a romp of a Western story with a possibly supernatural twist, as gunfighter Gentry takes on acid spitting monsters that have plagued a town, and held my attention all the way, despite prose shortcomings, only to end just when the story got interesting. I suspect well be hearing more of Gentry in a future issue.
A couple of websites now where I have stories currently appearing. I probably shouldnt do these, but if I dont then those sites wont get mentioned, which isnt fair on anyone. Well take it as read then that my stories are the best pieces on the sites and say no more about them
F&SF magazine Worlds of Wonder is published online with a quarterly schedule and, according to editor Sharon Partington, is a labour of love. Design-wise theres not much to be said. The Yahoo Geocities ads are an annoyance, but easily disposed of. Less satisfactory, there seems to be no way (at least for your technologically challenged reviewer) to link directly to the stories. The layout for content consists of a take it or leave it sun and moon frieze, with the text laid out in the middle of the page, yellow font on a navy blue background, everything very clear and precise, for ease of use, and easy on the eye as well.
The current issue, Spring 2007, comes with an illustration by George Grie, a moody and evocative painting of a ship about to tip over the edge of a waterfall. This issue contains a book review, movie review, article for writers, a couple of poems, the latest instalments of three ongoing series and four short stories.
I looked at a couple of the stories. Metal Bones & Paper Skin by Christopher Death is set in the year 2200, or thereabouts, and tells the story of little Jimmy Nelson, a remarkable child, and how his desire for a brother is granted, along the way revealing something about the nature of Jimmy himself. The best that can be said about this is that its well written, but nothing much to it, the kind of story that holds the attention while you read but wont stay in the memory more than five minutes after. More substantial is The Rainmakers by Kate Smith, a writer whose work will be familiar to readers of Whispers. This steps out in Relic Hunter/Indiana Jones territory, with Zac and Holly H posing as security professionals at a museum so as to get their hands on an artefact required by a client, and of course there are complications. In all honesty not a lot happens and the ending is somewhat inconclusive, but Smith writes so well, with a lovely turn of phrase, larger than life characterisation and tongue in cheek humour that complaining is rather like asking the point of ice cream instead of simply enjoying the taste.
Lastly we have Sein und Werden, which like Whispers comes in both online and print format, with exclusive content to each, though SuW online presents its content in the form of themed issues whereas Whispers simply posts new material as and when it becomes available.
The current issue is #12, which makes SuW the veteran of this electronic miscellany and that shows in the production. Editor Rachel Kendall has been at the game longer and developed a keener appreciation of the potential of online presentation. Flicking through the pages of this publication its obvious that a lot of thought has gone into the production and layout, with efforts to make it as interesting for the visual aspects as the written content. There are subtle differences from page to page white text on black background and vice versa, pages with several items and those that have only one, some unadorned and others with borders and yet despite all the variety a guiding intelligence is at work, so that the separate parts complement the whole perfectly. In another difference, the illustration here seems to be of equal importance to the text, presented as stand alone work and not simply as an adjunct to the prose, with especially strong pieces from Spyros Heniadis, John Brewer, Talulah Belle Lautrec-Nunes and Rachel Kendall herself.
In terms of content, we get illustration, reviews, poetry and snippets of prose. With a philosophy that name drops Expressionism, Existentialism and Surrealism, the emphasis is on the experimental and unabashedly cutting edge, which wont be to every taste. The common bond between most of these writers is that they appear to be intoxicated with words, beguiled by language and its possibilities. And, as anyone who has ever dealt with a happy drunk can probably tell you, while intoxication can be entertaining and give rise to wonderful flights of fancy, it doesnt always make sense to those not in a similar state of inebriation, which is sometimes the case here. But the work is all short and you can dip into and out of the magazine at leisure, taking what you wish from its pages, a colourful or provocative sentence, an image that burns its way into the consciousness. And when things do come together the results can be highly rewarding, as with Ralph Robert Moores wonderful celebration of the choreographed excesses of Pornography and Martial Arts Movies or the wry and ironic Conceiving by the possibly pseudonymous Ada Mantine. And be sure to take the time to check out Re-Birthing, a sinister and amusing slice of animation by Jeff Lowe (story by Marc Lowe), which is another fine example of SuW getting to grips with the possibilities of technology in ways that seem to have mostly eluded these other publications.
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