I often find I have my best ideas walking around the house wearing only my underwear. These usually involve my wife and various kitchen appliances. But if the mood is not on me to make beef cobbler or an apple pie, I think about what’s missing from the world. Very occasionally, I wonder about the market for magazines. There are as many possible models for magazines as there are people prepared to put their money into the venture of producing one. The only real criterion for success is whether they find enough people to pay the price and so cover their production costs. Few have the deep pockets and commitment to continue producing a magazine at a loss. Then there’s the question of time. Until they’re making enough to pay living costs, the editor(s) and other staff can’t give up their day jobs. It’s a hobby no matter how professional the resulting magazine. This additional constraint puts more pressure on the dedicated people. Over time, people get tired. The lack of financial success undermines motivation. The magazine withers away. Yet there’s no lack of people like this editorial team coming forward with their best hopes to the fore. As always, we welcome new warriors to the fray and wish them well.
The Speculative Edge launches this August. In writing this review of the first issue, it’s not my job to make any kind of prediction as to whether the venture will be a success. That’s a judgement the market will make. My only task is to describe the concept and say a little about the content. As the title suggests, it features science fiction, fantasy and horror. The issue has four elements: interviews with two new authors and excerpts from their work, four short stories (two of which are reprints), some poetry, and non-fiction with both reviews and a brief discussion of the relative merits of literary as opposed to genre fiction.
There’s something refreshing about putting the spotlight on new authors. Too often magazines trot out interviews with the same headline authors. In part this gives the magazine a certain credibility. That Stephen King was prepared to vouchsafe ten minutes of his time impresses some potential buyers. It also goes with the flow and produces a self-fulfilling prophesy in the book trade about which authors in the magic circle will appear in self-promotional venues to reinforce their brand image, sell shed-loads of books, have their names on the NYT Bestseller List, and so on. I always try to give support and encouragement to the so-often-ignored midlist authors. In this case, we have two self-published authors. This is more of a risk for two reasons. First, there may be a very good reason why a publisher has not picked up the titles. And it can be an example of cronyism, i.e. the magazine gets a reputation for promoting the work of the editor’s friends. I’m all for bringing talent to the attention of the wider market. Having read the two excerpts, I’m not convinced either author is so spectacularly good to have been preferred over the several thousand midlist authors who are largely unknown to the mass market. This is not to say that the interviews are uninteresting or the fiction is bad. I simply find the editorial choice of these two authors slightly odd.
Similarly, with thousands of perfectly competent people producing original short stories, it’s a little strange to find two of the four stories are reprints. Even allowing for the lack of payment for rights, there should be enough content of publishable quality coming through the electronic door with proper editorial standards being maintained over what appears in the final issue. That said, “The Cosmic Stringbusters” by D L Chance is a very good take on the social problems likely to be encountered in a generation starship. It elegantly questions whether the psychological pressures of the journey will be better faced by abandoning the past and only looking forward, or whether censorship of those things reminding people of the past would, in its own right, cause more problems than it would solve. “Of All the Gin Joints” by C T Hart is a nice joke about androids and the games they play. Except, if one android is following another based on an electronic signature, why does the switch work? “Gravity 101” by Christian Riley is a routine alien invasion story with somewhat judgmental aliens who decide they’ve had enough of us as a species and would rather we were no longer around, polluting the place and generally making too much noise. So, rather like teens, we’re to be grounded. “They Call Her Miss Hood” by Matthew Sideman is a fairy story reinvented as a noirish PI episode. It’s too long to sustain the conceit, but makes a brave shot at a difficult target. I regret to say I’m not competent to judge the quality of the poetry. Although I learned all about scansion at school and can read iambic pentameter aloud with flair, I’ve never actually been interested in verse of any kind so, regretfully, will pass over this section without comment.
As to the reviews, the films selected are contemporary which is as it should be. The two books selected are The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) and The Magicians by Lev Grossman (2009). No matter what the quality of the reviews, I’m not sure of the value to the readers in discussing books published three or four years ago. The essay at the end follows a well-worn path, but doesn’t really say anything new. When the word “edge” appears in the name of the magazine, I would hope for something more original and challenging.
You only get a feel for a magazine when you can detect trends so this is a wait-and-see moment. Fortunately with The Speculative Edge, it won’t cost you much to find out how things develop. The subscription rates are low and represent good value for money — https://sites.google.com/site/thespeculativeedge/subscriptions. All I hope is that the editorial policies turn to original fiction, contemporary reviews (more of them and shorter might be better), and edgier articles and essays. Indeed, edgier all round would be good rather than the slightly “safe” middle-of-the-road feel to much of the first issue’s contents. So, all in all, this is worth a look and support. Hopefully it will grow in stature and join the ranks of the great magazines of the day.
A copy of this magazine was sent to me for review.
And so it was on a bright shining morning in early Spring that the Lord Accountant did glance from the window in the high tower above the estate he so lovingly tended. He smiled for what he saw was good. Below, on display, were the serried ranks of books. The latest volumes to issue from the mighty printing presses that churned endlessly and ensured a constant supply of text to satisfy the cravings of the masses. “More pages for the dollar. A bigger bang for your buck,” he crooned happily to himself, having been brought up by a grandma whose proverbial wisdom came down to, “Never mind the quality, feel the width.” In the distance, he spied a new 600-page behemoth and knew life was good.
In all the wide world of publishing, the collection is a curious beast. Since all the stories are by the same author, there can be a certain monotony about the writing itself and the themes explored. For better or for worse, authors tend to have their own interests and obsessions, and these show through what they choose to write about. But, the truth is we buy collections because we like the way the author writes. We are seduced by the hope there will be a transcendence in the content to get us through any sense of repetitiveness. In a collection like Cryptic. The Best Short Fiction of Jack McDevitt, the challenge is even greater. There are some 587 pages of fiction in the same volume and, because it is a “best of”, a proportion of the stories are drawn from earlier collections. There are thirty-eight stories to hand. My copies of the three previous collections are in storage, but I think only about ten of these stories are uncollected. None of the stories are original and appear for the first time in print. Reading through the work is therefore a mixture of remembering what happens next and occasionally making new friends.
Writing the review also becomes more challenging. The main reason I was faintly unhappy was so many of the stories were familiar. I wish I could hold my hand up in solemn form and declare reading each story faithfully to the end. Actually, I confess skipping through those I remembered. I cannot conveniently unremember and read “as if for the first time”. So this is a volume for those with poor memories or who come to McDevitt for the first time. In this surging 600-page heavyweight, you will find everything from short, short stories that demonstrate a wry sense of humour to longer works that explore issues of morality or the paradoxes of time. There’s a moderately consistent theme: how do scientists relate to the world, or vice versa.
Having been engaged in research efforts as a younger man, I have struggled with the problems of reconciling the scientific method with the reality of the subjective observer. We all have our cherished beliefs and view the world through the lens of what we take to be self-evident. Even if you make those beliefs explicit at the outset, there can be a continuing subconscious distortion of what we see and choose to report. This is not to decry the scientific method in any way but, simply, to argue its limitations. It may work well in some contexts but, in what we choose to research and the actual methodologies we adopt, religious, political and other considerations will always have roles to play. So, what would the inventor of a time machine say to a pastor who found his faith threatened? And, if you could go back to establish the reality of the past, what would you go to observe and would you report it? And, even if you made the greatest discovery in the scientific world, who else would care? People have their lives to live regardless. Ironically, this can place burdens of responsibility on those who make discoveries. That you might be one of the few to realise the danger in what you have found means you have to deal with it. No-one else is going to understand or care until they are directly threatened by which time it may be too late.
This is not to say that the collection is bogged down with high-minded debate. McDevitt is never anything but accessible in the writing style and exploration of ideas. But there is a tendency to pick targets and take aim. With a title like “Cryptic”, you would expect meanings to be concealed to some extent. Sometimes the results hit the bull’s eye. The set-up and storytelling combine into a singularly pleasing whole, often capped with a “twist in the tale” ending that provokes thought and/or a smile. I will not play the game of picking favourites. There’s much to like here and, with the wide variations in the taste and sensibility of you, the readers, I leave it to you to find your own “best”. With thirty-eight stories from one of the top writers in the science fiction field (three of the stories are collaborations), there’s a lot of good to excellent material to explore and some interesting aliens to meet, albeit sometimes only in the carved form.