Strange Horizons and New Writers of SF/F

Note: A few years ago I wrote a series of monthly reviews for The Fix Short Fiction Review. Unfortunately, The Fix is no longer around so I'm reprinting these reviews on my website.

Pity new writers of SF/F short stories. They come to the genre bubbling with exciting ideas and linguistic beauty, and smack right up against reality. The simple fact is that publishing short fiction in professional speculative fiction markets is not only downright hard, it’s also very much like the proverbial fart in a hurricane—no matter how much of a stink a new writer makes with their short fiction, they’ll gain only a fraction of the attention a decent first novel receives.

The problem is not the weakness of the short story genre or the magazines that publish these stories; the problem is that the publishing world is totally geared toward novel-length fiction. Readers go to bookstores looking for novels. Publishers promote SF/F novels to the almost total exclusion of everything else in the genre.

Which is, of course, a shame. The short story is the purest form of fictional storytelling, and it is through the practice of creating short stories that the best writers hone their craft. A decent writer can turn out a decent novel by dumping a ton of situations and characters into the medley and letting them go at each other. But if said writer did this with a short story, the story would be easily seen as the crap it is. As a result, short story writers learn to balance description, narrative, plot, characterization, and insight against the need for the story to both make sense and be beautifully told. To do otherwise is to guarantee that a short story will fail.

Because short stories demand so much from their authors, it is no coincidence that the best SF/F writers cut their teeth on the short story form. Before Gene Wolfe created the masterful Book of the New Sun—in which not a word or character or event isn’t tied to the greater plot—he created a number of top-notch short stories and novellas (which are now collected in the must-have collection The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Definitive Retrospective of His Finest Short Fiction).

Because new short stories writers have such potential, one of the most important roles SF/F magazines have is to cultivate new talent and bring them to the attention of readers. Yes, their stories may not gain as much attention as a first novel filled with epic fantasy hijinks. But discriminating readers know that in the long run, it’s the new writers of short fiction who will likely set the literary world on fire, not the writers who jumped in front of a computer one day and babbled their way to a 100,000 word first novel.

The February 2009 fiction from Strange Horizons features four stories from new writers. The first is “This Must Be the Place” by Elliott Bangs, which is also Elliott’s first professional publication. The story is the tale of Andrea, who is newly dumped, slightly drunk, and far from home when she meets Loren Wells in a San Francisco club. Loren is a fascinating guy who seems to already know Andrea, which simply can’t be true. But then Andrea discovers Loren’s secret: he is a time traveler from the future, reliving over and over what he consider the best year in history.

Elliott’s story is well-told, with a sharp style that enhances the story without ever overwhelming the actually storytelling. For example, when Andrea is dumped by a new boyfriend, she mutters that “All Bud had left me was a heap of dirty bowls and spoons, a crap sci-fi paperback, and that same old case of rabies,” with the rabies being her curiosity to discover who this Loren Wells character truly is. Because this is a first story, there is a small problem with the narrative. The story is set in 1984, but the reader doesn’t realize this until halfway through the story (meaning the writer should have set up this little fact better). But the mere fact that someone from the future would want to relive 1984 over and over delighted the hell out of me, while the story’s ending is as perfect as can be. As a result, the reader can’t help but overlook the story’s minor flaws. Recommended.

The next story is “Obedience” by Brenna Yovanoff, a new writer who has previously been published in Chizine. “Obedience” starts off as a typical zombie story, with the remnants of a military platoon pinned down in an old house by smirkers, the disease-created zombies who smile as they tear you to shreds. Private Grace is one of the platoon’s survivors, and she and a medic are on a wild-goose chase to see if the medic has truly stumbled onto a cure to the zombie disease.

Yovanoff’s story is fast-paced and exciting, although it doesn’t move beyond the zombie stereotype we’ve all seen of a small band of survivors fighting against an overwhelming tide of flesh-eaters. However, Yovanoff’s idea to have the zombie smile sends shivers up the spine, and the ending is a true reflection on people turning from high-minded ideas and beliefs when civilization itself is being destroyed.

The First Time We Met” by Maria Deira is the character-driven story about the different ways people become mutually dependent on each other. Narrated by a middle-aged Hector, the story focuses on his girlfriend Elena, who he met when they were teenagers. Elena can heal wounds and injuries with her saliva, and when she meets Hector and notices his bleeding arm, her first reaction is to lick this stranger’s wound.

If that sounds disgusting, this story probably isn’t for you, since the story also explores Elena’s pre-Hector relationship with a girl who cuts herself. Elena continually heals the girl’s wound, after which the girl cuts herself again to keep the two of them dependent on each other. While the story was a little scattered for my tastes, it was still a good read, which is always a great thing to say about an author’s first professional publication.

The final story is “Sometimes We Arrive Home” by K. Bird Lincoln, an author who has been previously published in Strange Horizons and an assortment of online magazines and print anthologies, but is still very much at the start of her career. “Sometimes We Arrive Home” is a short tale about Seri and Pimiko, two East Asian refugee girls who are transported to new worlds by their House and ever-controlling Mother. This story is very sensually told, with lush prose and vivid characterization. Lincoln also perfectly captures the mindset of young girls thrown into a strange universe, not an easy thing to do in only two thousand words. While the story is vague about many aspects of its setting and outcome, it is still a fascinating read.

So there we are: four new writers, and four stories to showcase their abilities. All of these writers deserve watching over the coming years.