Fantasy and Science Fiction and the state of Fantasy and Science Fiction

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction recently made a marketing push, sending out copies of their latest (July) issue to any blogger who asked for one. I have mixed feelings about The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. On the one hand, everything about it from the covers to the editorial position seems generally rooted in 60s and 70s New Wave (strange how a magazine of a genre that thinks constantly about the future can dwell so much in the past). On the other hand, the stories in F&SF are generally better than those of its rival publication Analog (which is not just SF, but Hard SF, the most tired and irrelevant type of that genre), and more over, I'd much rather read F&SF than Glimmer Train or The Paris Review or any of the other publications running the MFA meat grinder for what passes for literary short fiction these days. At least I can read F&SF without falling asleep. Still, compared to quite edgier magazines like A Public Space, Weird Tales or Strange Horizons, any given issue of F&SF seems like a relic from another age.

However, I figured I'd give them the benefit of the doubt and ask for the new issue. It starts off promisingly enough; the "novelet" "Fullbrim's Finding" by Mathew Hughes is a kind of metaphysical detective story, in which a future detective looking for a missing person discovers the origin of the universe. The story also has a group of people responding in exactly the same, drastic manner to a piece of information, which is not realistic, but I'm willing to buy it for dramatic purposes and otherwise the prose is good enough, the characterizations work and the lead character is the kind of guy you'd want to revisit for more adventures. (Which is good considering he's the subject of three novels and a number of other short stories). The metaphysical detective story is not a new idea, and the kind of semi-gnostic revelations uncovered are nothing particularly novel, but it's fun and the kind of story I'd like to read in a fiction magazine, especially if surrounded by other stories in the same general league. Sadly, this turns out to be the finest story in this issue.

After "Fullbrim's Finding" are two sets of book review columns, one by Charles De Lint and one by James Sallis. Lint's piece is delivered in his reliable workman-like style, and if the books he likes here (including Duma Key by Stephen King) aren't the kinds of books I think I'd enjoy, at least I can see his reasoning. Sallis on the other hand does a review of the anthology The New Weird that talks about the New Weird movement but doesn't actually review the book at all; one would think from his description that the entire book was just one short essay about a certain kind of fantasy fiction.

Next is "Readers Guide" by Lisa Goldstein, which I would have thought was wonderful had I read it before I read Neil Gaiman and Jorge Luis Borges. As it is it's derivative, and not derivative in a particularly interesting way, though at least it's derivative of the right people.

The centerpiece of the issue is the novella "The Roberts" by Michael Blumlein. Let's see if I can sum up the plot for you: Robert Fairchild is an architect. He has a habit of being uninspired when he's not dating anyone, but when he is dating someone he becomes so involved in his work that he neglects her and she gets hurt and leaves him. Peppered here and there are bits of prose that point at not only to the character being sexist, which would be fine, but a sexist narrator with a sexist worldview. "Unlike many men, he did not despise or fear women," Blumlein tells us of Robert (as if this is somehow the default position of men), "but rather he exalted them, on the whole a more forgivable offense." Well, okay. Robert lives in the future, so he decides to fix his problem by having a flesh-and-blood women built for him to his specifications, one who cannot be emotionally hurt by him. Building the dream woman is not a new idea, of course, and Blumlein never touches on any of the social repercussions of a world where lovers can be built for you. Would more and more people withdraw from real human relationships preferring those of artificial people? Would there be protests from activists, feminists, religious groups, disgruntled ugly people, anyone? None of that is so much as mentioned; Roberts world seems like it only extends as far as his house. But okay, maybe Robert's just a self-absorbed guy. So Robert builds his dream woman and, naturally, neglects her for work, and she, naturally doesn't mind at all despite the fact that she's never described as having any other hobbies than cooking, reading, or the occasional game. Eventually he feels so guilty that he gives her a present: an exact duplicate of himself, created in the same way she was. But there's a twist! She knew he felt guilty about leaving her alone all the time and made her own present; another duplicate of him! (Though less perfect that the first because its modeled not on him, but her impression of him.) This is where the story really heads out into left field. Robert never once even considers that his girlfriend might have sex with one of these duplicates, and when he finds out that she has, he freaks. The duplicates, even the one who's supposed to be an exact copy of Robert, don't seem to be interested at all in making architecture or in doing much of anything. (I suppose all they do all day is shtup Robert's girl.) Meanwhile, we're treated to more sexist babble. Here's Grace (her name) talking to Robert No. 3 (the Robert she created, who is more sensitive and understanding and therefore (ugh) wants to be a girl):

"So much love. It's your gift, Grace. A woman's gift."

She glared at him. "What makes you say that?"

"It's something I read. Men have a different muscle. It's why we worship you. Why we can't get enough. Why we have to run away."

Naturally, Robert hates the other hims, especially the one that's exactly like him, he hates himself really, but then before you know it Grace and Robert have accepted each other, the other two Roberts go off to live in a wondrous building that Robert has made, his crowning achievement, and Robert gives Grace a key to the building, about which "nothing was ever said."

This is God-awful crap. And it's God-awful crap that takes up 56 pages of a 162 page periodical, about a third. Like a lot of the second-tier fiction that came out of SF's "New Wave" it has the pretensions of being mature and adult by depicting sex and taking up the issues of male-female relations in a serious way, but it seems to come from someone who has a juvenile understanding of them. And it's attempting to do its thing with a concept that was clichéd way before movies like Weird Science and Multiplicity were playing with them, and would really need something more novel to make work.

What follows The Roberts is a silly but mildly amusing short-short from Paul Di Filippo, and then another story, Enfant Terrible, which is a fine Midwich Cuckoos/Invasion of the Body Snatchers sort of tale whose main problem seems to be the complete emotional detachment of all the characters involved, characters who don't seem to really care about anything. But the story is not long enough for this to become really bothersome.

There is then a review of the movie Jumper by Kathi Maio, which compares it unfavorably to the book it was based on. The review does a competent job of summing up how the movie completely diverged from the source material and ignored everything that was good about it. However, I kept being reminded of the much more interesting article in The Onion A/V Club on the same subject. The problem with Jumper is not just that the movie bares almost no resemblance to the book; sadly, that kind of thing has been pretty common in Hollywood for a very long time. The problem is that the author of the novel and its sequel, Reflex, also wrote a novel called Jumper: Griffin's Story and a graphic novel called Jumper: Jumpscars which are not based on the world of his books but rather the world of the movie. In other words, the book's author was not only complicit in the ruining of his concept, but actually participated in it, and I was a little baffled that the article in F&SF didn't even mention that.

Next was the only story in the magazine I couldn't finish, Poison Victory by Albert E. Cowdrey. This wasn't because the story was particularly badly written, though the writing wasn't anything special, but because it's about the single oldest cliché in parallel universe fiction: the Nazis win World War II. This concept was interesting when Philip K. Dick did it in 1963. At this point, you've got to be kidding me. Throw in the unlikely series of notions that the Nazis take Stalingrad by using chemical warfare on the population, somehow take the rest of Russia simply because they took Stalingrad, and then turn the entire Russian population into serfs, absolute slaves to the Reich. After I banged my palm against my head a few times in disbelief, I skipped forward.

Lastly, The Dinosaur Train by James L. Cambias is a little all-ages story about a carnival that keeps dinosaurs who came originally from some kind of Lost World/Skull Island type of land-of-dinos, and the boy who has to take care of them. Not very much happens in this story, basically, the boy has to convince his paranoid grandfather to let doctors give antibiotics to a sick brachiosaurus. Cambias has some fun describing the dinosaurs and the carnival, but still I couldn't help but think to myself how the whole hidden-land-of-dinosaurs is yet another done-to-death SF story concept.

It seems perfectly accepted now that SF writers will tackle the same ideas over and over. How many times have we seen the generation ship, or the time traveler who uses future technology to change the past or the above-mentioned Nazi victory story. These days, one first encounters this as a kid, as the children's shows cycle through the various stand-by sci-fi concepts like two characters switching brains or the Earth being threatening by an incoming comet. In children's television there's a sense that this is filler, and a lot of TV in general could be classified as that, as when sit-coms recycle plots from The Honeymooners. But at least TV writers can claim to be pulling in decent paychecks; SF prose writers, whose income from their work is usually minimal to non-existent, have no such excuse for churning out formulaic crap. I honestly don't understand why SF writers take unoriginality for granted; if you're not doing something totally new or interesting with a concept, why do it at all? Why bother? Why has this become the standard to the point where an entire magazine of new fiction can be composed almost completely of stories derivative of other people's ideas? Why is this okay?

This issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is a testament to SF mediocrity, and this is why when people blame movies and television and the Internet and comic books for the dearth of people who read SF, I just shake my head and sigh. If you want people to read more SF, write better SF. Better yet, since genre labels like Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction and Fantasy have been mored in people's heads as representing just this kind of recycled-ad-nauseum "heritage," give up those labels entirely and just write fiction that happens to have fantastic or futuristic elements. After all, José Saramago has written almost nothing but fantasy novels his whole career, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I challenge you to find a single Fantasy cliché in his entire oeuvre.

As it stands, the free issue of F&SF has served to reaffirm my belief in the magazine's obsolescence, and I will continue looking elsewhere to find high quality short fiction.

Comments

Good luck.

You know, I've had a love-hate relationship with F&SF my entire adult life. There have been a few times over the decades that I became fed up with the mediocrity that regularly infests its pages, and indeed at times overwhelms entire issues.

But I came to realize some important things:

1. F&SF is far from perfect. But if you want better SF, you NEED TO PAY FOR IT. Subscribe to F&SF or some other magazine that publishes SF stories. Encourage your friends to do likewise. That will lead to higher sales figures for F&SF, which will hopefully lead to better rates for the authors, so that people with talent will be more motivated to actually write something and submit it, rather than just think "meh, when I've got the time". The people who are writing and submitting as an act of love or because they need to scratch the itch are already doing it, and you're reading their prose in F&SF right now. You want better? Pay up. Take a good look at the rates that F&SF currently pays. Think about how long it would take to create a good, polished story. Now calculate your hourly rate; even if you're a stunningly creative writer and a fast typist, you'll be hard-pressed to approach even a fraction of minimum wage. This doesn't include the costs of printing and mailing your story, or checking up on submissions you've already sent out. Which leads to...

2. If you want better SF, WRITE IT. I've tried, and come to realize that it is an extremely difficult thing to do, both from a craft standpoint and an emotional one. It requires a lot of time just to figure out your story arc, characters, conflicts, and context. It demands a lot of determination and focus to keep at it as you grind out thousands and thousands of words that never seem quite as good on paper as they sound in your head, and especially after you've gotten some critical (but correct) feedback and need to go back and re-write entire chapters. The whole process is an incredible emotional drain, especially when your polished masterwork is rejected by some grist mill publisher, and they don't even have the decency to send more than a form letter explaining why. After going through the cycle a few times, I have a little more sympathy for the authors who manage to get published (even if their dreck does suck compared to my Great American Stories). And I tend to be a little more forgiving of a story that is flawed in some ways but acceptable in others.

3. I have seen many, many new SF/F magazines launch over the years, crank out a handful of brilliant issues, and close their doors. Like you, I keep looking. And I keep sending checks to any promising startup magazines that I hear about. So far, though, none have lasted (even Omni, alas). I suppose that there's a lot more to getting a magazine out the door than having a good nose for the gems in the slush pile. And, for better or worse, F&SF, Analog, and Asimov's are about the only ones that seem to have figured out how to keep their presses running.

Good luck with your search.

1. What you're essentially

1. What you're essentially saying here is that if a magazine sucks I should subscribe to it in the hopes it might one day suck less. Politely, I will say that's a very silly idea. You're point about short fiction not paying very well is well taken, but then literary fiction magazines don't pay AT ALL (for the most part) and they seem to keep getting submissions. Lots and lots of submissions.

2. This is fair enough. Of course, I'm not going to call my work SF because I'm pretty openly anti-genre-label, but I do write fiction that I try to make embody everything I'm talking about.

3. You're forgetting Strange Horizons and Weird Tales, which is significant since I think both those magazines have a higher quality of work than F&SF, Analog and Asimov's. Also I think a lot of SF people could really do with picking up an issue of A Public Space or McSweeneys or One Story or other literary magazines doing consistently interesting work. Go try one out. You might be surprised.

ROFL!

Your experience rather exactly parallels mine with a previous Big Special Edition of F&SF, except that Cowdrey's was the retro-sexist+bonusracism societal observation story, there was a lot of offensive stuff throughout and some stuff that was just blah, and I used it as an example of why the hardcopy media market is going down the tubes, and got yelled at by Van Gelder's gal and some other bigwigs (or supposed bigwigs, most of us hadn't heard of them before) for being oversensitive & nekulturny clods who didn't appreciate all that the greats of professional fandom had done for us by allowing us to partake of their greatness for a measly few dollars a month...

It was pretty funny, and sure told the lot of us how wrong we were for preferring to hunt up good online fic written by other fans, and the novel recs of fellow fen with trusted taste, instead of buying shortfic in pro zines to satisfy our cravings. We were TOTALLY convinced of the error of our plebian ways.

--Ahem. Said that almost with a straight face...

An Interesting Take

"If you want people to read more SF, write better SF. "
Well, no matter what else I may or may not agree with in your review, certainly, I can agree with this. Honestly, though, it sounds as if you were expecting Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine to give you something other than, well, something clearly in the f&sf genre. Perhaps it's that you find the entire process of publishing in genre fiction tedious or trite or out-dated, but it's how the publishers sort fiction. And, frankly, it's easier for them to sell and market things they can clearly identify. Though, I have to admit that separating things out this way, into genres, is an artificial exercise in sorting at best.

The three periodicals that you suggest as alternatives to F&SF all were filed away in my mind as "horror", which is a genre I generally find overdone, overwrought, repetitive, and predictable. However, the next time I'm in a bookstore, I'll look for them. Strange Horizons, in particular, seems like it's worth a second look. However, perhaps it's not the genre, or even what genres represent, that is the problem. Rather, there just aren't enough writers writing well. And, truly, TV aside, there are fewer people reading, as a percentage of the population, than there have been. It's not a "feeling" or an excuse, but a sad truth. But, also not one that should keep anyone from writing well.

You indicate that you've written some. Sadly, I'm far out of touch with current writing, in any genre, or current writers, so I haven't had the opportunity to read your work. Where can I find you?

I think it's strange you

I think it's strange you would classify those three periodicals as horror. A Public Space, for instance, bares no resemblance whatever to horror (it's basically a Literary Fiction magazine, though an open-minded one) and Strange Horizons is a slipstream magazine. Weird Tales could be called a horror magazine, I suppose. Strange Horizons is also only online so you won't be able to find it in a bookstore.

Sadly, you can't find my fiction anywhere, as I am unpublished. This is mostly because I haven't sent much of my work out, because it's not good enough yet, and what I have sent out has been largely rejected. So it goes.

Two out of Three

Sorry, I really meant that to be applied to the two more genre-centered magazines. Also, I think I'm confusing Strange Horizons with another magazine, because the one I was thinking of was print, too.
But, thank you for the correction/update/clarification!

nice review

Hey man,

Just gotta say that I was happy to read someone who had the exact same reaction that I did to "The Roberts." God! What a messy, wish-fulfillment piece of crap.

I will admit, I was intrigued at first. The writing itself wasn't bad. I thought, here's a character who's fundamentally flawed, and his attempt to substitute a fake human relationship in liue of a real one is doomed to failure. Like Frankenstein, the protagonist's attempt to play God would backfire.

Instead we were treated to escapist crap and copout ending where I Sing the Body Electric by Bradbury meets Multiplicity. I kept wondering if the author wasn't project his own women problems into this story. Just because he has trouble with the opposite sex, shouldn't give him license to write a shitty, novella-length essay on why his life would be better if he could genetically create his own partner.

I agree that all social ramifications of this were completely ignored. Two other story flaws to point out. One was that we never learned how he lost his eye, which is one of his most important plot points. Two, honestly, his "wife" Grace should have run off with one of the created Roberts, and left the flawed protagonist on his own. That ending would have made a lot more sense, since the original was too human and flawed to actually find fulfillment in anything.

Mediocre SF like this drives me up the wall. I guess its up to writers like us to raise the bar. Cheers man.

Same Old Thing

My impression is that the magazine publishes the same old thing and the same authors over and over. I suspect that many of the stories are solicited, rather than coming from the slush pile. It must work. The magazine remains successful. It doesn't help to think you can write something better if you are a woman, or gay, or any number of variations. This magazine is not a friendly market for writers who write something different.