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Stacey Janssen

Managing Editor:
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  • Bluejack
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Publisher: Bluejack

December, 2005 : Review:

Small Press Short Fiction

If you've already read the editorial, then you know that this will be my last review column, at least for a while. I won't play games, it's not all because I'm trying to stay on top of the magazine. Reviewing is tough work, and after doing this month in and month out for nearly four years now, I need a break.

Fortunately, Lois Tilton, of Tangent Online fame, and no slouch of a short story writer herself, has stepped up. Check out her first column here. Because of prior commitments, she couldn't include Strange Horizons or Fantasy and Science Fiction in this review, but they will appear in future reviews by Lois — and you can probably find her thoughts on those magazines over at Tangent.

Now, I never believed in pulling punches, but my reviews did mellow over time as I focused more on a deeper analysis of the stuff I thought merited special attention. Lois, however . . . well, she punches. I find her voice refreshing, her approach dynamic, her comments insightful, and if there be a few bruised egos along the way, well, you gotta break a few eggs. Hopefully other readers will feel the same.

As for me? "I plan to spend some time with my family," as the outgoing always like to say. Actually, I plan to work like a dog to make this magazine better.

So: I've been promising a "small press" edition of this column, but the more I read, the more I realized that the format I have used for the "big press" publications in this space is not a good match. There are a great many actual publications, they have erratic publication schedules, and many of the web publications post single stories rather than issues. In the past I have lumped SciFiction and Strange Horizons publications into an artificial month's worth of stories, as though it were an issue, but this was an awkward solution at best. This final column, then, is going to be a bit different.

Rather than review individual stories, I am going to review the magazines themselves, pointing to a few particularly interesting stories along the way. The desire is to cover more terrain here, bringing in some publications that I would otherwise be unable to hit.

Now, any list like this is bound to be incomplete, and I hope people will continue to share thoughts and observations in the forums. A few important absences include Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet which is a very influential little publication, but one that I have never seen. Also, Full Unit Hookup (FUHU), is a widely respected publication that I have never seen. I think they have offered to send me review copies in the past, but I was always so swamped I could never promise a review. A few others that I have often heard about, and would have included in the list if I'd had more time include Ideomancer, Flashing Swords, and Lone Star Stories.

So, in no particular order, on with the show!

Andromeda Spaceways (link)

Australia, in case you haven't heard, is a veritable cauldron of speculative fiction writers. Despite being a continent with a population smaller (20M) than New York City (21M), Australia has dozens of conventions each year, and a great number of short fiction magazines. The only one of the Australian publications to reach my hands has been Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, but to my delight it is just the kind of thing I love to read.

It's not the most polished, accomplished, or professional storytelling you can find. ASIM publishes a high number of first time authors, and I am sure that when these authors go on to long and distinguished careers they will look back on this stuff as somewhat regrettable juvenalia. Nonetheless, there is a range of work from the primitive-but-promising to the true gem.

ASIM is interesting in some other regards as well. Unlike other small press ventures, this magazine is not the hobby of a single individual, nor is it the magazine arm of some ambitious publisher putting together a multi-pronged attack on the industry. In fact, ASIM doesn't even have a single editor in chief! Instead, they rotate jobs, so each editor selects his or her chosen material from the pool of accepted works to put together an issue. You might think this would make for a chaotic, schizophrenic publication, but so far, they have pulled it off admirably.

The current issue includes a typical mix of styles and degrees of skill. Although ASIM tends toward the light-hearted, and even humorous, there are some serious and even dark works as well.

By way of example, in Dressing Down, one woman's wish that a fine but expensive bottle of salad dressing would "last forever" is granted. Now, if in all your life you are granted but one wish, odds are, this ain't it. And with good reason. Even as the miraculous salad dressing begins to grow a little old for the family that must garnish their greens with it every night, stranger things are afoot, and it looks like it is going to require one more wish to undo the harm. This is delightful, charming stuff from Paul E. Martens.

Immediately following this silly story, however, is Beans and Marbles by Floris M. Kleijne. It seems like a disagreement over how long someone occupies the toilet might be just another silly little thing, but when the toilet in question is on an interstellar voyage, and the disagreement is between the only two conscious members of the team, things are a little more serious. And when the narrator's madness begins to reveal itself, what seems like a light-hearted tale turns very dark indeed.

For that all-in-one experience, you might try Matthew Bey's marvelous little The Monster at Baggage Carousel #3. Hudson Principes returns from a week with his family to find that his girlfriend Elle has turned into a monster. Really. She's eight or nine feet tall, has talons, horns. She devours tourists. During the ride home from the airport she gives him the bad news. She doesn't love him any more. It's time to move on. She's going to have to kill him in one week. This is one of those short works of contemporary fantasy that feels just like humor, carries a strong aroma of dark satire, yet comes complete with a perfectly fine twist at the end that is, well, it's funny, but the humor has gone very black indeed.

Weird Tales (link)

Anyone with a sense of history knows that Weird Tales is one of the most venerable names in the genre. There was a long discontinuity between the Weird Tales of history and the current incarnation, however, and the current incarnation has had its ups and downs as well.

Recently, Weird Tales was the crown jewel of the DNA Publications magazines. (Others in the DNA arsenal included Fantastic, Absolute Magnitude, Dreams of Decadence, and their non-fiction Science Fiction Chronicle.) But DNA has been erratic, and is currently more focused on publishing, of all things, a magazine devoted to KISS, a rock group that is apparently not nearly as dead, buried, and forgotten as I thought it was. (Hmmm . . . zombie-metal rock band. There's a story in that. . . .)

Now Weird Tales is carrying on under the auspices of Wildside Press. It's publication schedule has bounced all over the board in recent years, and the current issue backs off prior promises of a bimonthly publication schedule.

But what about the fiction?

The one thing that has been consistent in Weird Tales of recent years is the inconsistency of its fiction. The current issue includes the first part of a two parter, which is something new, and according to the editors, not likely to be repeated. Ripper is a (yawn) story about you know who, transported to Arizona in some sort of psychic affiliation with the transport of London Bridge to Lake Havasu. Kind of a cool idea, I guess, but the implementation is, like many Weird Tales stories, not very satisfying. Cardboard characters and overly obvious dialog leave the story limping.

Other works in this issue include reprints by Darrell Schweitzer (a sometimes editor of the magazine) and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as original work by Jack Williamson, who is probably one of the few people living who actually has a mature recollection of the original incarnation of this magazine. Despite Williamson's miraculous longevity as a writer, the story doesn't really resonate with the glory years of H. P. Lovecraft.

The thing about Weird Tales is, there's often something superb tucked into the pulpy pages, and this issue brings The Invading Spirit by Fred Chappell, which is a super-creepy piece that walks that truly weird edge between dark fantasy and pure psychological horror.

Two children with very active imaginations have a make-believe magic that's so vivid the reader wants to believe it. For a little while anyway. Their magic does not work quite the way they intend, and the bodies start stacking up.

The ending is a chilling moment of perfectly awful justice.

Strange Horizons (link)

Strange Horizons pays a professional wage and has a very professional presence on the web, so it feels a little strange to call it a small press. You will find top tier authors such as Charles Coleman Finlay, Leslie What, Ruth Nestvold, David Moles, Liz Williams, and Elizabeth Bear in the archives.

Nonetheless, Strange Horizons is the plucky little mag that could. They are innovative in organization — they operate as a formal non-profit business, and find their funding both through arts grants and fund-raising drives. And they publish a mix of creative stuff from writers both new and established. As with many small press publications, the level of skill and talent varies from story to story. Stylistically, Strange Horizons tends towards the slipstream, but you never know what you will find. They are always willing to take chances, and many of their stories are the sort to prompt conversation.

One notable series has been this year's Chinese Astrology with Jenn Reese: each month Reese has provided an intriguing fable tied to the twelve (annual) signs of the Chinese cycle.

For reviews of recent Strange Horizons stories, I direct you to Lois Tilton's work over at Tangent Online.

Aeon (link)

Aeon exploded onto the scene this year with four exceptional issues, two of which I reviewed in this column. Marti and Bridget McKenna put out this e-zine, but each month's editorial is written by no less than Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

I think the jury is still out on how successful this format can be. Recent discussions on various internet forums suggest that a great many people still don't like sitting down with an electronic publication — or paying for the privilege. Personally, I'm an internet guy. I have no problem reading off a big screen, or scrolling through fiction on my palm pilot.

But one thing is true: sometimes I like to have those back issues in physical form. Sure, I can archive the digital copies to CD when I'm in a clean-out-the-hard-drive mood, but nothing feels as comfortable as looking a nice row of magazines on the bookshelf, maybe pulling them down and flipping through them. And, so far, Aeon is the kind of publication that you want to have that way.

Exceptionally creepy — and memorable — in the current issue is The Tinker's Child by M. Thomas, in which a golem (or artificial intelligence) is just a little less intelligent than its maker had hoped for. Similarly creepy, and similarly memorable is another story of parenting gone wrong: Copper Angels by Joseph Paul Haines, although to my taste the latter has a preachy political edge that I don't quite care for.

Shimmerzine (link)

From a reviewer's perspective, first issues of new magazines are a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it could be a wonderful new venue, and by "finding" and "discovering" this fabulous new market, you can scoop the other reviewers out there. More often, however, the magazine is like to be a short lived affair. Most fiction magazines, especially on the web, seem to put out three or four issues, maybe even making it past their first year, before the owner moves on to a more sensible hobby, like raising dahlias, maybe.

"How do you make a small fortune in publishing?" the old question goes. The answer, of course:

"Start with a large one."

Publishing, especially small press publishing, is hard work. And for all your hard work, you can expect to lose money and garner almost no attention whatsoever.

This being the case, it's no surprise that most fiction venues only last a few seasons. And why would a reviewer want to put time and effort into some fly-by-night publication that's like to be gone and forgotten this time next year?

Well, for the fiction, that's why.

Even before their first issue came out, Shimmerzine signaled that they were both sensible and serious — as well as a bit naive. Conversations on the Rumor Mill talked them out of that certain death business model: pay-for-web-content. I don't think anyone outside the porn industry has made that work. But to their credit, the publishers of Shimmerzine listened, and now we have this.

Available in both electronic and physical formats, Shimmerzine is a nice-looking publication with some nice-reading stories.

Headlining the issue is Dario Ciriello's Valley of the Shadow, a zombie story with a difference. Complex, subtle, and powerful, one man makes his way in a world where the dead walk again. These zombies aren't eating brains, though. They walk with us, watch us, silently reproaching the living.

This is characteristic of the other material in Shimmerzine: contemporary fantasy with a dark edge, from capering death clowns to predators among sheep-like shoppers. The lightest piece here is a fun little take on the rapture.

By way of non-fiction: John Joseph Adams reviews John Twelve Hawks' The Traveler.

Fictitious Force (link)

Another issue-number-one came sliding under my door in the last couple of months, and it's unusual format caught my eye immediately. Tall and thin, Fictitious Force feels more like a wine list at a fancy restaurant than the magazine of speculative fiction it declares itself to be.

Nonetheless, speculative fiction it contains, and some pretty good stuff, too.

The ubiquitous Jay Lake has staked his claim here with Like Cleveland, without the Sparkle, which hints at the consequences when marketers sell crap to their own kin. Speaking of marketing, Greg Beatty comes up with a unique one in his A Fully Integrated Marketing Plan. After reading that one, I crossed my fingers and hoped the corporate execs aren't reading this magazine.

But despite the narrow format, it's not all skinny little flash fiction. There are some vividly imagined stories, including The Harps of the Titans by Sharon E. Woods, a delectable piece of fantasy somewhere between high and weird, with a nice emotional rhythm to it.

Wil McIntosh's Horse Years is a particularly intriguing premise: aliens have set up a gambling parlor in which the coin is not financial but spiritual. One can wager psychic energies in the hopes of winning hundreds of years of lively youth. Most gamblers, however, simply die the slow death. After a failed suicide, one man goes in with no desire to win. He plays the big slots, where each pull of the one armed bandit sucks a week off his life, more or less. But just when his decline is nearly done, and management is sending the big boys to drag his quickly fading body out onto the street, the unthinkable happens. He wins it all. This poor fellow can't commit suicide no matter what he does! Winning all that life only compounds his problems . . . and yet he finds an answer after all. An imaginative and deftly told story!

A similarly deft, but perhaps less universal story is The Writer's Orchard by Sandra McDonald. This is fiction by and for other writers: In Maine there is an orchard that grows story apples. These apples, when consumed by a writer, fill her or him with inspiration, ideas, and energy. Many well known writers, it turns out, come up to Maine to buy these apples, but our narrator steals one. Stealing magic apples hasn't been a good idea since, well, since the beginning. But McDonald takes this a slightly different direction, exploring the difference between real and artificial inspiration, and comparing the impact of such magic on the talented and the talentless. It's filled with sly commentary on the practice, and the business of writing. For the right reader, this is clever stuff.

Fictitious Force. Look for issue #1 today, and I'll be keeping an eye out for issue #2.

Ralan Contest (link)

Most people know Ralan from his incredible online resource for writers, his Webstravaganza. But every year Ralan also holds a fiction writing contest, and publishes the results. This year, his contest took an interesting form: all entries were judged solely on the last five hundred words. Thus, a "Clincher" contest.

Like many contests, this is an annual, and the current year's material is mostly fantasy.

Now, however reputable, I tend not to pay much attention to contests. For those who do, I think Ralan's is worth checking out, as is the Fourth Annual Firebrand Fiction/SFReader contest. Of course, there's also the Writers of the Future Contest, but I'm not sure that can be construed as small press.

Abyss and Apex (link)

Abyss and Apex publishes three or four stories and collection of poetry every quarter. In their submission guidelines they claim to be looking for "character-driven stories that examine the depths and heights of emotion and motivation from a broad variety of cultural and social perspectives."

I have in past reviews taken some small exception to the fact that the published stories do not necessarily fit this description.

The current issue is unusually flush with fiction, including a pair of stories featuring a prominent role for Zeno of Elea. And, I should add, the themes this quarter do seem to map better to the mission statement, with the possible exception of one of the Zeno stories in which humanity has either been stripped of free will and is walking through a deterministic dumb show of life, or the narrator is simply off his rocker.

Black Gate (link)

Black Gate is due for another issue in the next couple of weeks. Like several other publications in this list, Black Gate could be improved primarily by holding to a more frequent publication schedule. However, also like other publications on this list, it is a labor of love by a single individual: John O'Neill.

Typically, Black Gate comes out twice a year. It's almost more of an original anthology series than a magazine, if only because of its size: a thick, perfect bound book the size of an RPG ruleset (think Dungeon Master's Guide in paperback). The tome is packed with a dozen or so stories, most of which are firmly in the high fantasy tradition, but it also includes features, and reviews of books and games. It's a terrific value for those who like a big bundle of sword and sorcery.

It's not all wizards and warriors, of course. Each issue includes a broad spectrum of imaginative fiction. There may be a few traditionally Tolkienish settings, but more common are the kinds of truly original fantasy that publishers are loathe to take a chance on, and when they do, tend to bury in the unmarketed midlist.

ChiZine (link)

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest lapses in my column has been my neglect of Chiaroscuro, or ChiZine as it is more popularly known.

ChiZine publishes dark fantasy and horror by some top notch authors, recently including Lavie Tidhar, M. K. Hobson, K. Z. Perry, and Hannah Wolf Bowen.

The current issue runs the gamut from intriguingly experimental (Stephen M. Wilson's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate), to the classically fantastic (Sins of the Father, by S. E. Ward).

Quantum Muse (link)

Quantum Muse has been delighting readers and giving aspiring writers a publishing venue practically forever now, but they remain an underappreciated venue. Editors Michael Gallant, Rebecca Kemp (Gallant), and Raymond M. Coulombe may shun the spotlight, and avoid the cons, but month after month they keep putting out this nifty magazine, and have at least one print-on-demand best-of collection to go with it.

One of the delightful things about Quantum Muse is their sense of humor. In their editorials, and their monthly newsletter, their lively personalities always shine through. In fact, they remind strongly of Andromeda Spaceways in their natural sensibilities.

The downside, it must be confessed, is that much of the fiction is very amateur, and I must include in that category the one story of my own that they published a couple of years ago. But different kinds of fiction are suitable for different frames of mind. For fiction that bubbles with enthusiasm, and has the slightly raw feel of early pulp stories — Quantum Muse teems with ideas and good fun characters, just like the good old days.

Paradox (link)

One of my favorite small press magazines in the past two years has been Paradox, which I have reviewed in my column. Checking out their web site, I see that a new issue was published a couple of weeks ago. Maybe they didn't like my last round of reviews, because I never received a copy of this one. The headliners of this new issue are Jack Whyte, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhof, and one of my favorites, Carrie Vaughn: all very reputable stuff. There's also poetry by Darrel Schweitzer, if you go in for that sort of thing.

Paradox publishes material with a focus on history, which can mean straight non-genre historical fiction, but far more frequently includes a speculative element. Some of my annual favorites often come from the pages of Paradox.

Combine big names in the world of short fiction with sharply focused stories and themes, and stir in some strong new writers hungry to make a name for themselves, and the result is almost always delightful. Paradox is the sort of magazine I carry with me everywhere until it has been thoroughly devoured.

On Spec (link)

Another publication I have only seen one or two of is On Spec, a Canadian magazine that does its best to be more than just Canadian fiction, despite their domestic laws requiring some percentage of the contributors to actually be Canadian.

On Spec is a nicely produced, digest sized, perfect-bound publication that has a reputation larger than its diminutive size and regional limitations. Getting published in On Spec is an accomplishment, and readers can expect to find an inspiring mix of contemporary science fiction and fantasy with a strong literary flavor that only rarely slips into slipstream.

Because I have not actually held one of these in my hands in such a long time, I can't point to any current fiction that is noteworthy, but I would generally put this publication in the same category as Talebones, which is discussed below.

On Spec is, in theory, a quarterly, but like many small publications, not every year sees a full four issues. They have been a little less regular recently than in days of old.

Talebones (link)

Apparently a new edition of Talebones has just been released. I pulled the cover here off their web site, but haven't gotten a copy in my own hot hands yet. Talebones was once quarterly, but they have been hovering between two and three issues per year of late. The birth of a child in the family, and the increasing success of Fairwood Press' book publishing division has been taking a lot of their attention.

Talebones is one of those magazines I would read even if I weren't reviewing it. They publish an exciting mix of established and new writers, and they are unafraid of taking risks. Not every story in Talebones works, but whether the adventure is in the story, or in the storytelling, adventure there is.

Their tagline is "A Magazine of Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy" — and while that "dark" element is often present, it is never overwhelming. One particularly exciting thing about reading Talebones is falling in love with some story and knowing you'll be able to say "I was there when . . ." The Talebones editors have a great eye for up-and-coming authors, and it is often a stepping stone to more widely read publications for the best new writers.

Challenging Destiny (link)

David Switzer's Challenging Destiny made the transition from print to electronic publication a year or two ago, which was personally something of a disappointment. Switzer had bought one of my stories, and it was going to be the first print publication to my name . . . except then it was never printed.

Challenging Destiny is now available through Fictionwise, in all the usual electronic formats, and it's still the sharp little magazine I was excited to be published in.

The current issue is #21, December 2005. It has a typical mix of fiction, criticism, and an editorial by Switzer (in this case part two of an essay on great SF and fantasy television shows).

Challenging Destiny includes a broad range of undoubtedly genre material. Fans of science fiction and fantasy will not be disappointed by tepid or exceedingly subtle materials. They may find themselves challenged by surprisingly complex and, shall we say, "Challenging" material. For example, the current issue has a marvelous story by Jay Lake, To Live Forever, a sort of sci-fi/fantasy crossover exploring a planet in which death has been banished forever. This is meaty, mature stuff from one of the most prolific short story writers working today.

Copyright © 2005, Bluejack. All Rights Reserved.

About Bluejack

Bluejack resides in Seattle. In addition to publishing the Internet Review of Science Fiction, he herds cats for an Internet startup, designs and develops distributed software applications, and dabbles in a broad range of less useful endeavors.


Dec 9, 03:05 by IROSF
Thread for the discussion of small press short fiction.

The article is here.
Dec 9, 07:25 by Chris Cevasco

Thanks for the kind words about Paradox. And fear not; I certainly haven't forgotten about sending you the new issue. Although Issue 8 has been available for pre-order on the Paradox website for the past two weeks, it is not scheduled to begin shipping until the week of December 12 (I'm actually getting the print run back from the printer today). Anyway, I'll definitely be sending you a copy. And again, thank you. Your column will be missed, but I look forward to reading more reviews in Lois Tilton's new column.

Chris Cevasco
Dec 9, 11:12 by Michael Gallant

Thanks for the review of Quantum Muse. Feel free to send us more stories if you want.

Glad to have found this site. Nice job on the reviews.

Dec 10, 19:59 by Sarah Edwards

Thanks for the small-press review. With so many small press mags out there, I look to other people (like you!) to tell me which ones I simply have to find and read. I've very much enjoyed and appreciated your thoughtful reviews, and wish you luck on your editorial adventures. :)

Dec 10, 22:35 by Jim Van Pelt
Hey, Bluejack. So you've made the jump! It looks like you've left the reviews in good hands.

By the way, although no one seems to mention it much about Talebones (one of my favorite magazines), not only are the stories consistently entertaining, but Patrick Swenson always finds outstanding cover art. The cover you showed in the review, for example, is creepy, dark, a bit funny and oddly appropriate all at the same time.

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