Saturday, October 1, 2016

Quick Thoughts - Some Opinions on the State of Short Fiction

First, some happy news. This month marks the second anniversary of my monthly short fiction recommendation series, The Monthly Round: A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction. Woo! I did not know starting The Monthly Round that it would pull me into SO MUCH reviewing, as it's a large reason that I decided to start Quick Sip Reviews, but here I am. After the official anniversary post a little later this month, I will have featured 216 of my favorite reads paired with thematically appropriate drinkables. Mostly short fiction and flash, but with a few poems for good measure (and some not-so-short-but-still-considered-short short fiction). So yeah, two years after I started doing the Monthly Round I feel like it's a good time to check in and have some thoughts.

To be honest, I was waiting for Truesdale over at Tangent to release his full rant from the State of Short Fiction panel before really looking at this issue, but seeing as how each week seems to bring some other flavor of…response to the state of short fiction, I didn't feel like waiting any longer. I am not an editor of short SFF. I am not involved with any publication or magazine or site that's really in a position to talk about the business of short SFF. I understand that financial concerns are large and that the pressure to always succeed is great and that sometimes to make money people aim for what might be easiest. For what they expect to make the most money. I don't want to speak to that, really. Again, I am a (mostly) unpaid reviewer and blogger and a (sometimes) paid writer of short SFF. I am, however, first and foremost, a reader and a fan of short SFF. So…

There are a great many different conversations going on in short SFF at the moment. And most of them absolutely need to happen. It's not the overwhelming response that one might have hoped for, but Fireside's report about black writers of short SFF has already seen large impact. Strange Horizons and The Dark have been vocal about adding new editors in hopes of working to fix the issue. Apex has announced guest editorships along the same lines. Fireside had eluded to changing the way that submissions are received (and Strange Horizons also announced that they might be changing some of their methods, as well). Clarkesworld has hinted that something might be happening there, though no details on that yet. Meanwhile Fiyah has opened to submissions and Mithila Review has recommitted to reaching out to more marginalized voices. And there is more that I'm sure I've missed in my haze of trying to keep up with reading and reviewing.

This conversation seems to me linked but also distinct from the one that centers around awards and the more nebulous idea of "diversity." In some ways, the conversation surrounding awards, which the Puppies and the like have been and still are engaged in, is so far removed from the one surrounding how to better solicit to marginalized and non-dominant writers as to be laughable. Forget trying to do better, the Puppies have essentially declared—we're already too special snowflake and entitled and blah blah blah. Kids these days, amirite? This framing of the conversation seems consciously and deliberately constructed to try and stall the conversation. To try and Trump up the idea that it's those damned SJWs who are too easily offended. PC politics run amok! When really, really, it's not that racism and homophobia and ableism are offensive so much as…harmful.

To be fair…is a terrible thing to say in an argument. So is "life's not fair." Pretty much anything about fairness. Trust me, the people for whom life is less than fair already know that, and the people for whom life is more than fair don't know what fair is. Using that as a tool against those who are already oppressed takes a certain amount of assholery and I fear is the reason why certain fucking horrible politicians have gained in power and popularity. By ignoring the facts and speaking to what "feels" true. Ignore the fact that statistically short SFF still has HUGE problems and instead speak on how you "feel" that it's gone too far toward the "PC" and how the proof is how there's not a violent mob running non-dominant writers and fans out of the genre. All this while sharpening pitchforks and testing torches. This is not to say that short SFF doesn't also have it's share of people who see that, see that the genre is taking some steps in the right direction, and declare mission accomplished. Who think "I'm on the good side of this debate because I don't support X [Trump, the Puppies, what have you]." When…boiling the conversation down to an argument between two sides is erasing so much of what is being said.

There is a sense of clueless white guy "Yeah, but what am I supposed to do?" about this entire thing. An urge from certain parties to want to demand some magic way of doing things that will result in no risk, in no possibility of being called racist or homophobic or…"bad." You have people upset with "call out culture" because it doesn't allow dominant people a clear path to never being harmful. When…I don't really care what your history is or how much "good will" you think you're due, when you cause harm you should fucking own that, try to make amends, and then improve your actions. And even then, no one owes you understanding. No one owes you forgiveness. Do the work because it's important, because it's necessary, because it's right. Don't do it for cookies and certainly don't do it to profit off of the harm done to others.

It's been two years since I started The Monthly Round. And in that time I've read thousands of works of SFF. As a reader, I am excited about the stories coming out. I think the quality and the complexity rivals or surpasses anything written previously. But I know that there are even better stories out there that aren't being published. That are being rejected out of hand or that never get submitted because the field is such a fucking minefield of shit. I want those stories. And many need those stories. So what's the state of short SFF? It's a beautiful mess. It's among the best pockets for amazing, affirming, and inspiring stories being published today. But it needs improving, because it could and should be so much better. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur

Friday, September 30, 2016

Quick Sips - Tor dot com September 2016

September brings a certain return to form for my enjoyment of the stories from Tor dot com. Meaning, I like them. Quite a bit. The four stories provide a moving and often dark picture of the world. Of cities and the dangers lurking in and around them. Of songs and their power and their transformative essence. Of resistance and the call of standing up to the overwhelming press of danger and corruption. Of finding oneself suddenly in a very precarious situation and having to fight out of it, though not always alone. These are great pieces that explore humanity brushing against something…different. The great unknown. A monster from the night. Living cities. They are fascinating and powerful and it's time to review them! 

Art by Linda Yan

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 09/19/2016 & 09/26/2016

The Strange Horizons Fund Drive continues with two more weeks of excellent content, featuring two stories, two poems, and a nonfiction piece. There are also nice previews of some of the initiatives that Strange Horizons will be running or hopes to be running that are worth checking out but that I won't get into here. The pieces from these weeks, though, seems to deal heavily with both history and heroes. Looking at the myths we tell, about the way in which history and narratives mix and mingle. There is a strong Greek mythology vein that is explored in a number of the works, and larger than that they all explore old wounds and newer efforts to heal and make right the injustices of the past. And the pieces are touching and interesting, complex and heavy. It's a great collection of works that I'm going to get to reviewing! 

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Quick Sips - Terraform September 2016

This month marks another one of experiments for Terraform's short SFF. Not only is there a story told as a series of documents making up a packet of information that still manages to tell a compelling story, but there's also a continuation of the running graphic story and two rather formally daring pieces of fiction. There's a lot weird in this month's offerings, but also a lot of good. Most of the risks taken pay off, are exceptional for their innovation as well as their hitting content. And it mixes a jaded look at the future with a spot of hope as well, that even in the worst of futures there's something worth fighting for. To the reviews! 

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #208

The stories in this issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies carry with them a heavy dose of darkness. From madness on an isolated island to being hunted through the heart of a swamp, they're about pursuit, about pursuing and being pursued. They're also about stories, about narratives, and the power of knowledge and ignorance. Often, those who hold the narratives are those with power, and when the stories become lost, the dangers they were illuminating become active and aloof once more. It's an interesting issue and it's time to review! 

Art by Marek Hlavaty

Monday, September 26, 2016

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers September 2016

The Year of the Superhero officially comes to an end at The Book Smugglers with this story. At least as far as original short fiction is concerned. It's a good thing, then, that it's a longer piece, and that it's a bit of a departure from the other superhero offerings the publication has put out so far. Instead of capes and cowls, this story looks at the idea of being a chosen hero, of having some role to fill in a larger story. And what happens when, for most, the story ends. What happens to the primary character? It's a fascinating and poignant work and it's time to review it! 

Art by Jenna Whyte

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Quick Thoughts - Essential

So recently at Nerds of a Feather we've been running posts that feature "essential SFF." Followers of Quick Thoughts know that I have some opinions about canon and about anything that seeks to create objective divisions between genres, books, and writers. And so when tasked with thinking about essential SFF, my first reaction was to balk. To want to step back and let other people more comfortable with the concept make their lists and leave it at that. But then… Well, it's not that I necessarily object to other people making essential SFF lists. It's that…it's that when I was thinking about what to include on an essential SFF list I looked at what other people put on their lists. At what was out there in terms of recommendations.

The answer, predominately, was novels. Pretty much every list out there about essential SFF was about novels. And yet the lists weren't necessarily labeled as essential novel lists. More often they were labeled as essential SFF books. And there was really no YA on these lists. Or romance. Or graphic novels. Or collections. Or poetry. These things got their own lists. Separate lists. And…and to me those are just as much books as any novel. I feel that often people think of amazing books and they think only of novels. Because how can you consider poetry next to short fiction next to graphic novels next to novels? They're apples and oranges and lemons and grapefruit. Mustn't we strive for specificity? Mustn't we first determine what is a great novel and then, elsewhere, determine what is a great graphic novel? Mustn't we first determine what is a great SFF novel, and then, elsewhere, determine what is a great SFF romance? Or SFF poem? Surely we can all agree that these things cannot share a space.

There is a reason that it is harmful to have a list of American Authors and a separate list of Female American Authors and have it mean being included on the second means you are not included on the first. I understand people who like to look at genre and want narrow definitions of what makes something SFF. I just don't agree with them. At all. I find such narrowing of genres and considerations to be harmful. For the health of the genre, for the writers trying to push the boundaries of form and meaning, and for readers looking to connect with books they love. It is a way only to catch people in an endless loop of the same boring, comfortable crap. And that does no good for anyone. So when I approached putting together a list of essential SFF, I wanted to do it in a way that reflected my thoughts on the matter but also…well, I wanted to try and define "essential" in a way that doesn't mean "should be part of a canon." I do not really find value in a canon. But I find value in book recommendations. I do find value in knowing what works spoke to people.

Basically, what I've enjoyed when many places have done lists of recommended stories and books has been the passion of those recommendations. The sense that here were books that shaped a person, that inspired them. That pushed them to try new things. That affirmed them. That saw them. And so when I thought about what is essential SFF I ended up looking at what has been essential to me. What has shaped me. So yes, I wrote it and it will out on Tuesday and everyone can check it then. It was, ultimately, a fun experience, because it made me think about the person I am and the person I want to be and how my reading has steered that internal conversation. How I've changed because of the books I've read. How I am changing still. It's a list that, for me, ranges all over the place, so SFF purists might want to avoid (though what SFF purists are doing on this blog I'm not sure).

Anyway, it would also be cool to know what other people's essential SFF lists would be. I love getting recommendations and if anyone has a list they've published on a blog or on goodreads or who wants to, I'd love to hear about it. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur