Strange Horizons and Writing What You Read

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.

One of the clichés thrown at new writers is “Read the publications you submit to!” The reasoning being that each magazine’s fiction uniquely reflects the wants and desires of a particular editor. If a writer’s fiction doesn’t match what the editor already publishes, why waste everyone’s time by submitting to said editor?

As with all clichés, there’s some truth to this. People who read Sheila Williams’s Asimov’s Science Fiction or Gordon Van Gelder’s Fantasy & Science Fiction know the general type of stories to be found in those venues. That doesn’t mean Sheila or Gordon won’t still surprise—all great editors love to throw curveballs at readers—but I’d bet if you presented regular readers of those magazines with ten unidentified stories, most could state which stories belonged in which magazine.

The problem with this cliché, as with all clichés, is it doesn’t always hold true. For example, take the January 2009 fiction from Strange Horizons. I’ve been reading Strange Horizons for a number of years, and have been reviewing it on a regular basis for most of the last year. But just when I thought I’d nailed down the types of stories published in Strange Horizons, dang it if the editors didn’t pull a switcheroo to shock me out of my complacent talk of clichés.

Let me explain. Typically, Strange Horizon stories tend away from hard science fiction, instead embracing more of the fantasy and slipstream genres. Their stories also usually have a general literary feel—which for the sake of argument, I define as stories in which the voice and style matters more than plot, setting, or characters.

This isn’t meant as criticism. Stories that Analog: Science Fiction and Fact would publish—hard science fiction, with lots of action—would rarely find a home in Strange Horizons, and vice versa. Different magazines, different worlds of storytelling.

As an example of what I’ve come to expect from Strange Horizons, examine their first January, 2009, story: “Sisters of the Blessed Diving Order of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew” by A. C. Wise. This is a wonderfully sweet, singsong of a tale about Lucy, a girl raised by underwater nuns. Straddling the line between science fiction and fantasy—which is the hallmark of the slipstream favored by Strange Horizons—the story is a literary examination of how Lucy wants to stay in her underwater monastic order, but also desires to push beyond the order’s constraints and actually help people (and, specifically, dead people). Unfortunately, the order’s mother superior feels that the people Lucy wants to help are unclean, merely because they have the bad misfortune of being deceased. Naturally, Lucy doesn’t take this “hell no” as final, and seeks her own approach to helping the dead.

I really enjoyed this story, despite the fact not much actually happens plot-wise (although in many ways, this is a mirror of how most people live their lives, where not much appears to happen until after the fact, at which point we’re amazing at all which occurred). What carried me through Wise’s story is the author’s strong voice. As a result, the reader overlooks the tale’s weaker technical aspects, such as how this group of nuns could survive for decades underwater using nothing but hard-hat diving gear. All in all, this is a very good slipstream story that long-time Strange Horizons readers will enjoy.

And if that’s where Strange Horizons had stopped for the month, I wouldn’t be dwelling on the types of fiction published by different magazines. But instead, the next story I read is “Greetings from Kampala” by Angela Ambroz, a crazy science fiction ride which is both unsettling, irritating, fascinating, and one of the best character-driven stories I’ve read in a long while.

“Greetings from Kampala” is the story of Ghada, an African woman who took the “big drop” through a hole in space to serve as a soldier in the ongoing war between futuristic Hindu and Chinese empires. Unfortunately, each time one goes through a hole in space, you not only risk a very high chance of death, your very sanity is also placed up for grabs.

Ghada winds up on the spaceship Rahu Ket—saved in a rare act of wartime mercy—only to discover that the ship’s captain is her former boyfriend. Unfortunately, due to relativistic and space drop issues, her former boyfriend is now 40 year older than the last time she saw him, while she has aged a mere five years. As if that wasn’t maddening enough, Ghada is also harassed by an overworked ship doctor pretending to be a psychotherapist, who seeks to convince Ghada that she must examine the insanity in her life if she is to move beyond it.

As dictated by the subject matter and setting, this story’s narrative is difficult to embrace at times, and is likely to leave some readers with a deep sense of WTF? But this confusion also represents the life Ghada has been thrown into. As such, the story has a true New Wave feel to it, reminding me of Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah…” (minus the sex). I predict readers will either love or hate this story. Myself, I loved it. Highly recommended.

After reading a story which would have been nicely at home in Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, I wondered what the Strange Horizons editors were up to. Then came the next story—”The Shangri-La Affair” by Lavie Tidhar—and I knew the truth: the editors were messing with our minds, deliberately selecting stories we don’t expect to see in Strange Horizons.

Told in two parts, “The Shangri-La Affair” opens in a near-future Southeast Asia as an unnamed man books passage on a newly reconstituted Air America. Like its Vietnam War predecessor, this Air America flies “anything, anywhere, anytime,” and is one of the many covert players in the regional war now raging between various powers.

The story’s unnamed secret agent convinces pilot “Richard—but call me Rick”—to fly him into Vientiane, Laos, where the agent tries to track down an engineered virus called Shangri-La. It turns out Shangri-La is dangerous to the powers-that-be because Shangri-La causes people to embrace pure and total peace. However, the secret agent isn’t convinced that forcing people into a zombie-like peace is a good thing, so he aims to stop the virus from being unleashed.

Tidhar’s story reads like a drug-infused John Le Carré novel, if Le Carré wrote science fiction and dropped LSD as he pounded on the typewriter. The narrative is tense and action-based, pulling the reader through a story with flat-out beautiful prose. The result is a tale which is both fun to read, and a fascinating glimpse into the madness of future wars. All in all, an amazing accomplishment, and highly recommended.

So all hail the clichéd death of believing specific magazines can only publish specific types of stories. While magazines and editors do indeed develop their own voice, they can also break away from that voice. And as the case of Strange Horizons‘ January fiction shows, leaving a magazine’s voice behind can be a wonderful thing to behold.