23 April 2004

What to Read?

In the comments to the previous post, somebody asked what science fiction/fantasy magazine is my current favorite. I've been thinking about the question quite a bit, because I'm not sure I know the answer.

However, a couple of recent interviews with Gordon van Gelder (at The Internet Review of SF and Locus) made me think about how much I've been enjoying The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction over the past year or so. It's the only magazine that, when it arrives in the mail, a certain spark of excitement hits me, because with just about every issue there's at least one story that at least feels like it was worth spending the time to read. I can't say that for any of the other magazines these days.

The online magazines -- SciFiction, Strange Horizons, Fantastic Metropolis, Ideomancer, etc. -- have all produced some excellent work, with SciFiction generally, and usually deservedly, getting the most notice. Editor Ellen Datlow is one of the greats, I agree, and I thought their Nebula-winning stories this year fully deserved their awards, but there's a scrappiness, a willingness to push any envelope sitting on the desk, that I particularly appreciate about the other three titles I listed (though I should note some bias, since both Fantastic Metropolis and Ideomancer have work of mine in their inventories). However, considering that Datlow gets her funding from the Sci-Fi Channel, I think she's done a remarkable job of keeping the offerings at SciFiction diverse. She is, as someone else pointed out, a true exception to my guess that most great editors only have a few really great years.

And yet I've read very little over the last month or so that has made me want to tell anyone about it, never mind write in any depth about it here.

It could just be me. It probably is. Lots of things are going on in my life beyond this blog that have distracted me from both reading and writing, and so my current feeling that none of the SF short stories I've read recently have been particularly memorable probably has more to do with me than it does with the general and amorphous universal memorability of what I've read.

And yet, there have been some memorable stories. Most have been ones I've read in Jeff VanderMeer's forthcoming Secret Life and Nick Mamatas's 3000 MPH in Every Direction at Once, both of which have highs and lows for me, as they will for any reader, but overall showcase the work of two writers of seemingly boundless imagination, diversity of style, mastery of craft, and a willingness to attempt to accomplish more than most short story writers do.

Both writers have been hit with the hideous and deadly "slipstream" label -- a label which means "pretentious" when wielded by some and "accomplished" when wielded by others, and very little when wielded by anyone, though it is usually an attempt to describe writers who don't fit comfortably within the traditional definitions of "science fiction" or "fantasy". (Nick's fine and, as always, gentle response to being called a "slipstream" writer is worth reading. Jeff has his own sort of response in the next volume of the Nebula Awards Showcase.)

It may be because of their supposed slipstreaminess that both authors have published the majority of their work outside the realms of the more prominent SF markets. Jeff has had a couple of stories at Asimov's, but not (unless I'm forgetting something) at F&SF, which seems like the perfect market for his kind of writing. Or at least, it should be. Same with Nick. And at least ten other writers who don't appear in its pages.

Why do I find myself continually returning to these two writers while continually finding so much else to be competent but mediocre? I'm not seeking sex or eternal love from either Nick or Jeff -- indeed, I've never met either, and they could be evil, nasty human beings for all I know -- but their work has a consistent vitality rare for any writer.

There are other people who, if I happened to be reading their short story collections right now, I would also rave about -- The Rat Bastards, Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford -- but the number is small, and only a few of the people who come immediately to mind publish the majority of their work in the major magazines.

I'm not suggesting that writers frequently published by F&SF, Asimov's, etc. are bad writers, but rather that the definition of what is a story appropriate to the audience of one magazine or another may be too narrow, either in the editor's or the writers' minds.

The many stories I've read over the past month or so have mostly suffered, it seems to me, from two flaws: not developing their subject matter deeply enough, and not being original enough. This is a common problem of most short stories published, whether SF or not, but my standards for SF are, perhaps perversely, higher than they are for other types of fiction, because what I seek from SF, at the very least, is imaginative rigor. Mediocrity may be natural, even inevitable, and yet I can't help but yearn for more. Most readers are probably happy enough to find stories which engage them, but the more I read the more I want what I read to be different from what I've read before, to explore territories that surprise me and that I wouldn't have thought of myself. Once I encounter such territory, I want to see it plundered for all it can offer. (Easier done in novels, certainly, than short stories, which is why when a short story rises above mediocrity it is particularly exciting.) What a short story can do is imply more depth than its length suggests is possible; a great story blossoms in the reader's mind. Respecting the reader's intelligence is the first step toward accomplishing this feat -- I often feel most disappointed by fiction that works too hard to make sure the reader doesn't miss anything.

Admittedly, what excites and interests me is not what excites and interests the majority of SF readers, and so only a magazine seeking a niche audience within the already-niche audience of SF would really want to try to appeal to tastes such as mine. But would it hurt to try a bit more now and then?

Of course, my desires are for a utopian world where every writer is struck by brilliance and every editor has more great work to choose from than they have available pages. (A utopia where I am always receptive to what a writer has created, as well.) Life is far less certain than utopia, however, and the truth is that most writers and editors work for far less reward than they deserve, and produce more work of quality than the circumstances might lead an outside observer to predict. Still, I can't help dreaming...