Strange Horizons and Successful Online Magazines

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.

Online speculative fiction magazines are held to a strange standard of success. Even though the best e-zines reach far more readers than most genre print magazines, there are continual questions on the viability of these online publications. One of the most recent regurgitations on this theme came from Simon Owens, who asked on his site, Bloggasm, if genre e-zines will ever find a profitable model.

Owens’s essay yielded a ton of predictable outrage as people dissected his analysis, with many commentators questioning Owens’s underlying assertion that an online magazine isn’t legit unless it makes a profit. The irony, of course, is that one of the most successful online genre magazines around—and one specifically mentioned by Owens—is Strange Horizons, an e-zine which doesn’t even attempt to be profitable. Instead, this magazine operates as a 501(c)(3) non-profit and pays its authors and artists while the magazine’s staff work as unpaid volunteers. Obviously this model is successful since Strange Horizons is not only about to celebrate its 8th anniversary, the e-zine is also one of the dominant genre magazines either on or off the web.

One of the strengths of Strange Horizons’s non-profit e-zine model is they are very willing to take chances on new writers. This approach is in full bloom in the magazine’s June 2008 fiction offerings, with each of the five featured writers being essentially at the start of their careers. While several of them have stories forthcoming in magazines like Asimov’s and Baen’s Universe, for all of them, their story in Strange Horizons appears to be one of their first professional publications.

The first story, “On the Eyeball Floor” by Tina Connolly, is set in a fascinating futuristic cyborg factory, which more closely resembles an industrial-era heavy industry factory than what passes for manufacturing in the surgical-scrubs environment of today’s Silicon Valley. The story focuses on a factory worker named Bill, who helps the newly assembled cyborgs transcend into consciousness. You see, just as human kids need to develop their consciousness after birth, so too are cyborgs not instantly gifted with this most human of characteristics.

Unfortunately, helping cyborgs achieve consciousness is extremely draining. Every time Bill helps awaken a cyborg, he feels like he loses a piece of his own soul. As Bill descends into madness from this job pressure, he fixates on a defective female cyborg who can’t quite achieve consciousness. To make matters worse, the cyborg looks like a woman Bill lost out on to a fellow coworker. Part love triangle, part musing on what makes us human, the story starts off well but bogs down toward the end amidst too much ambiguity. Still, Connolly’s story is written with a keen ear for language and presents some fascinating imagery and ideas. She is definitely a writer to keep an eye on.

Running” by Benjamin Crowell is an updated take on the old science fiction standby of space station residents only receiving air and vital supplies if they contribute to the welfare of the entire space colony. In short, freeloaders are not permitted. So when Joe loses his job, marriage, and visa, but doesn’t take the next shuttle back to Earth, he is fitted with a device which measures the bare minimum of oxygen he’s permitted to consume until the next outbound flight. Unfortunately, this libertarian view of the future has been around so long that it’s barely even interesting. Worse, while Joe’s character is basically a good person, he doesn’t elicit a lot of sympathy from the reader because he’s so passive about his fate. I mean, he’s like “Oops, I missed the shuttle to Earth. Oops, I’ve been kicked out of my marriage. Oops, I lost my visa to stay in the space station.” When Joe finally does make a decision shortly before the end of the story, he merely proves that humans will do almost anything to survive. While this story is well written, it simply can’t move past the incredible weight of all the SF history on this subject.

In Lieu of a Thank You” by Gwynne Garfinkle is an updated take on those late-19th/early-20th century mad scientist stories like The Island of Doctor Moreau, in this case focusing on a gentleman researcher who is attempting to merge animals and humans into new hybrids. In Garfinkle’s version of this oft-told tale, the researcher has his henchman kidnap a proper Victorian lady, one Miss Vanessa Grand. After grandly showing Vanessa previous examples of his work—such as tropical fish which can fly—the researcher explains that he is going to graft butterfly wings onto Vanessa. But where the original mad scientist tales would have had the female victim falling into hysteria and screams at such horror, Vanessa’s response it totally unexpected—and forms the crux of the story.

Unfortunately, the dialogue and writing are a bit stilted at times, such as when the narrator states that “I am Miss Grand. Vanessa Grand. And I demand to know who you are and where you have taken me, and for what purpose.” Or when Vanessa thinks, “In that moment, at least, I knew I was alive.” Even though the author is obviously playing with the cliches and flat writing of 19th/early 20th-century horror literature, this approach causes the reader to stumble over certain phrases and dialogue. Still, Vanessa is a fun character, and the moment she gives her opinion on having butterfly wings grafted onto her body is priceless.

My Greedy Plea for Help” by Ted Prodromou is a philosophical exploration of magical wishes, and how both those granting wishes and those receiving them try to twist words to their own advantage. The story involves meta-wishes—such as wishing for more wishes—and mixes in the philosophy of Douglas Hofstadter, who helped popularize the term “meta” in his 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach. There is some clever wordplay in this story, but at only 770 words in length, this story isn’t truly a story. Instead, it is an anecdote of a man and a genie on a beach, with a weak plea to the reader at the end for a “wish lawyer, a lexicographer, a symbolic mathematician, and a fierce rhetorician.” Perhaps one of those people would enjoy the story, but most readers should give it a pass.

That brings us to the best of Strange Horizon’s June offerings: “Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” by Ramsey Shehadeh. In recent years there has been a boom in post-apocalyptic tales, as evidenced by John Joseph Adams’s excellent anthology Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, and the large number of TV shows and films on this subject, such as I Am Legend and Jericho. Theories on why this boom exists are many. Perhaps it is a cultural reaction to 9/11, terrorism, war, and politics. Or maybe the trend results from humanity’s general unease about where the future might go.

“Jimmy’s Roadside Cafe” fits 100% into this post-apocalyptic genre, with a plague having devastated the northeast corridor of the United States. Into this scene of devastation steps a lone survivor named Jimmy, who opens a thrown-together shack of a cafe in the median of an interstate clogged with abandoned cars. Even though Jimmy has, like everyone else, suffered horrible losses, he still tries to help those few survivors who come his way. Initially the reader will think he is crazy. But by the end of the story, we instead see that he is offering that rarest of gifts—human empathy—to a grieving world.

One problem I have with many post-apocalyptic tales is that the stories only showcase the worst of humanity. In grim times, both the best and worst of humanity are on display. The character of Jimmy definitely belongs to this better half, as he waits in his little shack like an off-kilter angel of mercy. This is a heart-breaking and heart-filling story, perfectly written in a sparse style, which makes it one of the most emotionally satisfying stories I’ve read in months. This will be on my long list of the year’s best stories and is highly recommended.

Returning to the aforementioned essay about the profitability of online magazines, it’s probably too much to ask that people stop questioning the viability of online genre publishing. But as Strange Horizons approaches its 8th anniversary, I suggest from this point on that anyone who whines about the viability of online genre publishing should have a great big cream pie of Strange Horizons thrown in their face. After all, connecting readers with great stories will always be the most important test of how viable an e-zine truly is. And in this regards, Strange Horizons continues to shine.