Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick Sips - Apex #89

It's October at Apex Magazine, which means that there's extra reasons to revel in some dark SFF. Halloween! And while neither the stories nor the poetry evoke the holiday directly, they do bring the darkness and bring the horror and don't let up. The prose is…well, it's violent and full of monsters and uncomfortable truths. About the people who get overlooked and how the abuses the world creates lead to monsters. Lead to death and tragedy. The poetry looks a bit more at the past and the future, reaching and touching the unknown through shared experiences, through the constellations of what joins us as humans. Today also kicks of Apex's subscription drive, so be sure to give that a look! It's a spooky issue and I'm going to jump right into the reviews! 

Art by Denis Corvus

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Quick Thoughts - New Kids on the Block

Things have happened. I dislike saying that SFF needs a lot of work, but…well, it kind of keeps getting proven to be the case. I'm not close to the situation and I don't really want to write about it. Other people have written some brilliant pieces things and I don't want to step on that. I believe the people who have spoken out. I want to write something else. Something about being new to SFF. Or perhaps about being outside of SFF looking in.

Maybe that will seem like a weird thing to say coming from a person who is best known as a SFF reviewer, as I am. But then, my inroads into SFF as a fandom, as an institution, has been rather strange and rather defined in part by rather abusive people and situations. Yay. And I still don't really feel in SFF. Not really. Maybe on the fringes, but still definitely looking in instead of really a part of it. I'm…what? An up-and-coming writer? A sage reviewer? A new face in SFF? An…introvert? Well, that last one is something I've been called. The earlier ones? Eh...not so much. Which is not to say that I've been wholly unsuccessful as a SFF short fiction writer and reviewer. I've sold stories. I will hopefully continue to sell stories. And some people seem to like my reviews. But my debut in SFF, such as it was, went largely unnoticed and since them my sales have been rather spread out and at publications that are outside what many considered "the core of short SFF." Which…I cannot tell you how grump I am about people only paying attention to certain publications because "those are the only ones that win awards." There is grump, readers. Such grump.

And okay, I'm rambling a bit because this is hard. This is hard. Refocus. Take a breath. Write. When I first wanted to really get into SFF, and short fiction in particular, I knew nothing about it. The mechanics of the business were obscured behind the veneer of names and book deals and my own hopes. I wanted so desperately and so blindly that I was very, very vulnerable. I don't think this is uncommon. Education in the formal sense rarely goes into the business of writing. And especially the business of short SFF. And there are so many places out there having so many different opinions on the "right way" to do things. The fast way. The best way. All I knew starting out was that I wanted. Wanted to write. Wanted to be a part of something. I wanted. And I let that want guide me. Now, it wasn't all bad. I found places to submit stories to. I found communities to join. I thought…this must be how it works. I imagine I was an easy target.

It's really easy to get tricked into believing you're doing something "for your career." You meet someone and they talk about the people they know, the names that you've only seen on the spines of books. You hear how you might help them out, or be a part of something, that you might do something that will earn you some gratitude. That maybe will give you some SFF cred. So you volunteer. You leap up and you give your time and your effort. And if you're uncomfortable with anything you tell yourself, who are you? Who are you next to these names? If the work seems too much you think how can I not? How can I say no when it might mean someone will hate me? Or someone won't want to help me? You get this weird idea that the business is this network of people doing favors for each other and if you do good enough, ingratiate yourself enough, then maybe someone will do a favor for you in return.

This, by the by, is a paralyzing thought. Is a toxic thought. If you buy into it, are you buying into the idea that the only way to get published is to know someone? To call in a favor? If you sell a story, is it because it's good or because you were nice to a person? Because you did something for them? From the outside, I remember thinking this at times. That my stories were just as good as the ones I read. Why not me? It must be that other people are part of some conspiracy to keep me out. The game wasn't fair. I mean, I get why the Puppies feel the way they do. Why people get angry and disillusioned and hateful. I understand it. I don't agree with it at all, but I understand those feelings. And I understand that those feelings, that fear and insecurity and anger, make a person easy to manipulate. I was, and contributed to harm being done. Made decisions that I wasn't comfortable with. Sacrificed my time and my effort in ways did not benefit me and that did not reflect what I believed in. I was bullied and I was used, and I am ashamed of that.

People will do a lot to not feel alone. To feel like maybe they're just a little bit closer to their dream. And other people will take merciless advantage of that. The truth as far as I can find it is you have to find a way to make the work worth the effort. Meaning in some ways it can't be about the goal. The dream. It has to be about the work, the moment. If you want to write stories, then the writing has to be worth it. Not the selling. Not the praise. And that's…hard, because there are times when it seems like everything is pointless and you're on the outside looking in and you'll always be on the outside looking in and I can't guarantee that you won't be. I can't guarantee that I won't be. And some days, when you see the time you spend on writing and the bills that need to be paid and the starved, struggling hope that looks like one of my houseplants that I seem to either water too little or too much…

The work has to be worth it. And if you don't feel it is, then you might have to ask yourself why and what you can change. For me, it wasn't a quick decision or a painless one. It's a question I'm still asking and still answering. I can say that I'm happier now than I was before I made certain decisions. Before I started asking that question. Not because I'm selling more, but because I like the work I do. I believe in it. I own it without hesitation. I am no longer ashamed. Or at least no where near as much as I was.

Being new in SFF is hard. It is also dangerous, especially if you aren't of the most dominant group. So take care of yourself. You are valuable and you are worth so much. You deserve respect and decency. Always. Thanks for reading.

All the best,

Charles Payseur


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Quick Sips - The Book Smugglers October 2016

The Year of the Superhero at The Book Smugglers might be winding down, but that doesn't mean there isn't a few more surprises in store for 2016. Which is why I hesitate to post this review. Not because I didn't love the story (spoiler alert: I did!), but because I worry that there might be a release later in the month to coincide with Halloween and I'm worried by posting this I'll miss it. But these are the risks of a reviewer. What is here is a story that sets up the fourth and final book the Extrahuman Union series. These stories are always gripping and this one brings in action and angst and identity, the main character stuck between being broken and being...something else. It is a profound story that makes me quite excited to read the novels, but until then I should really get to that review!

Art by Kirbi Fagan

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Quick Sips - Fireside Fiction #37

Surprise, I've added a new publication to my review pile! I've been paying attention to Fireside Fiction for some time now and as a few publications have closed of changed their release schedule I found a spot had opened up and didn't have to debate long what to fill it with. The fiction of this issue is, well, dark. From outright horror to heartbreaking science fiction, these are stories with a shadow falling across them, where what moves in the darkness is vague but moving closer. Each piece features someone brushing against both loss and the unknown. Grief and the struggle for relief. These are sharp stories with a great weight and a powerful force. So yeah, time to review them! 

Art by Galen Dara

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Quick Sips - Beneath Ceaseless Skies #210

The stories in the latest issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies are not exactly for the faint of heart. They are violent stories, and in some ways they are about the triumph of violence over peace. But they take very different meanings and paths when dealing with that idea. Because in the first peace is something artificial and corrupt, hiding a violence that is ongoing, and ending the peace means allowing that old and infested wound to perhaps heal. And in the second, peace is something that seems impossible, that seems naïve and stupid, and through the actions of the story peace is something that seems to be put out of reach, the wound only further infected and festering. Side by side they make an interesting contrast, and I'm just going to get to the reviews! 

Art by Raphael Lacoste

Monday, October 17, 2016

Quick Sips - Strange Horizons 10/03/2016 & 10/10/2016

The Strange Horizons fund drive is nearly over, but that doesn't mean that the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction have slowed down. Indeed, I'm looking at two stories, four poems, and two nonfiction works today. The stories focus on change and history. On progress and what is lost and what is gained in the slow march of years and opinions. The poetry mixes resistance and loss, folktales and tenacity. And the nonfiction looks at gaming and communities. It's a very full two weeks of content and an amazing publication. If you haven't already, maybe considering contributing to the drive. And now, to the reviews! 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Quick Thoughts - SFF Poetry Venues (that also do fiction)

Every now and again, I just have to talk about poetry. It's something that's always been rather central to me. I started out writing poetry, way back in the day, and I still find that poetry can do things that other forms just cannot. But often I feel that poetry, and especially SFF poetry, is left out of conversations when thinking and talking about SFF as a whole. People think of stories and novels, but not chapbooks, not individual poems. Which is a shame. I love poetry and though I am primarily a short _fiction_ reviewer I make sure to look at the poetry at the publications that I check out. And today I want to highlight those SFF fiction and poetry venues that I read. I apologize that I won't be looking at poetry specific publications here. For those eager for SFF poetry more exclusively, there are certainly publications. But for those who already read SFF short fiction and might want to start transitioning over to poetry as well, I have a few recommendations.

1. Strange Horizons
Strange Horizons does a lot of things. Publishes some outstanding SFF short fiction, yes. Provides a wide range of SFF nonfiction, including scholarly articles and more personal columns, reviews, and opinions, yes. Commissions some world-class SFF art, yes. And this year, as part of their funding for 2017, they hope to add SFF fiction in translation and more SFF interactive fiction. But poetry is still what I know them best for. And Strange Horizons publishes SFF poetry across the board. Science fiction and fantasy and contemporary poetry. Inspiring pieces and devastating pieces and works that range all the way between. Pretty much every week there is a new poem to enjoy, and the podcasts capturing the month's poetry are probably my favorite the publication puts out. They have released some truly beautiful work, including "Long Shadow" by Rose Lemberg, which was probably my favorite poem of 2015. From epics to very short and razor sharp poems, Strange Horizons has a long history of being one of the best sources of SFF poetry around. If you were going to start somewhere, my personal bias is towards Strange Horizons, if only because to me it puts out the widest range of poems and styles. And if you like what they do and want to help them expand further, consider chipping in to their annual fund drive.

2. Apex Magazine
Apex definitely rivals Strange Horizons for sheer number of poems published, normally putting out four a month, though occasionally a little less. These poems are also solidly SFF and cover a wide range of genres, but they narrow the focus a bit more to follow the magazine's push toward darkness. The poems typically waste no time in going right for the eyes and the feels, hitting readers where they are most vulnerable. For dark and horror poetry, there is no better source than Apex, and there are some downright chilling poems that they have put out. I've also been impressed with how they've taken chances on some formal poetry, and overall the quality and the number of poems they publish is incredible. And, as luck would have it, Apex is running their annual subscription drive starting on the 24th, so any interested in getting a great deal on dark SFF fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, should get ready for that. Until then, you can support them here.

3. Mithila Review
This is the newest publication on this list but it's one that's just blown me away in terms of what they've managed to put out in that amount of time. The publication as a whole aims to put out work from the borders and from the margins. It's rare enough to see a publication organized outside of the US or UK or similarly West-centric location, so seeing Mithila Review focus on works and writers coming from outside those places seems vital. It has certainly produced a lot of phenomenal work in a very short amount of time. The publication started off as monthly (and mostly unpaid) but has recently committed to paying writers and to focusing specifically on various underrepresented areas in SFF. The "Asian SF" double issue is FULL of poetry and is definitely worth reading and enjoying. Next will be an issue devoted to Central and South American SF and I'm very, very excited to read it. It's undergoing some organizational changes at the moment, and could definitely use some support. Consider contributing to their Patreon here.

4. Uncanny Magazine
Uncanny has certainly made a name for itself in the relatively short amount of time it's been in operation, and that's largely deserved thanks to a strong array of SFF fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. As far as poetry goes, it publishes widely and with an eye for those pieces that fit into its larger ethos of strange, beautifully written works. The main drawback is that the overall output of poetry is pretty small compared to most of the above publications. Normally publishing just three poems every two months, it makes up for what it lacks in quantity with a stunning quality. It also pushes work of some bigger names in SFF poetry, which might give people unfamiliar and wary of getting started in reading poetry a bit extra incentive. Whereas the previous publications tend to run more poems than fiction works, Uncanny is solidly fiction first, so those hungry for just a taste of poetry might be best served starting here and then, if so moved, seeking out more robust offerings. It's certainly a great source of SFF poetry and you can support them on Patreon as well.

5. Heroic Fantasy Quarterly
I have the least familiarity with Heroic Fantasy Quarterly's poetry offerings but from what I've seen so far it's the place to go for people looking for more classic fantasy takes on the form. Wanting some dragons, knights, and wizards in your poetry? Then look no further than here. The publication is, as the name implies, quarterly, so there's a bit of a wait between issues, but it typically publishes at least four poems an issue and, in the case of the most recent offerings, the first half of an epic poem that's probably going to end up being novella-length. So if you're serious about poetry, have at it. And because of the editorial direction to focus on heroic fantasy, this publication might suit anyone looking more for the works that sometimes pop up in "classic" fantasy novels, though that's not to say there aren't some delightfully innovative pieces on display. For those wanting a more carefully curated collection of solely fantasy poetry, find out more about them here.

And there you have it! As I said, there's a lot of publications that publish solely poetry, but I wanted to take this opportunity to highlight a few that cross streams and offer up both SFF fiction and poetry. For me, it makes for a great combination, contrasting styles and forms while highlighting the strengths of SFF—the imagination, the language, and the flow of ideas. Thanks for reading!

All the best,

Charles Payseur