Friday, February 4, 2022

Quick Sips 02/04/2022 what? It’s strange to think that after seven years of running this blog, that things will be changing so much, but that’s also exactly what I’ve planned, exactly what I need. we are. Even as I say that, though, it will probably take me a few weeks, maybe even a few months, to really figure out what the new Quick Sip Reviews is really going to look like. Part of that is because at the moment I am waist-deep in reading for We’re Here, the Best Of reprint anthology that this year I’m co-editing with L.D. Lewis. So I’m reading. A lot. But also reading a lot of stuff from last year, so notes on what I’ve been reading from this year outside my Locus reviewing will be slowly trickling in as I catch up.

Which, I mean, we could start there. My first ever Locus column is currently available in the February 2022 issue! My second column, to appear in March, has been turned in as well. The three main short fiction reviewers for the publication (Karen Burnham, Paula Guran, and now myself) have had the conversation about who is covering what. And let me tell you, after years of doing as much as I could myself, the idea that someone else is covering a publication that I’ve been reading and reviewing for so long is foreign, but a bit welcome. I still plan to read very widely, but I suspect I will enjoy having a more defined and limited set of reviewing resposibilities. And I can still talk about other stories I come across that I enjoy, either here or through my Sip of Week on Patreon.

I will say that my reading for We’re Here is pretty amazing. There’s something very freeing about being able to read so much explicitly queer texts, ranging from joyous to terrifying and back again. There were actually some really good anthologies put out last year, from Queer Blades to It Gets Even Better, Burly Tales to Unfettered Hexes. Plus projects like Decoded Pride and just some really strong showings from various magaziens when it comes to queer short SFF (Strange Horizons probably most prominently). I’ll try to circle back and do reviews of some of these projects that I didn’t review in detail last year as I can, but that will have to wait a while.

What I can talk about now is actually some findings from one of my most ambitious projects from 2021--the Scales of Relative Grimness. You can read about that here, and really the main thing is that I had designed these scales to give me some better tools for being able to recommend stories, to give readers more context that might help them find stories they want or engage with stories with a bit of pre-knowledge about content and tone without having to see any spoilers.

Note that this was never a project that was meant to score any points or win any arguments. It was and is simply something I hoped would be useful to readers of my reviews. And indeed most of the feedback I got about the Scales has been positive. Anyway, a year later and over 1100 stories rated using the scales, and I want to talk about some of the rough findings.

Some disclaimers first. This data isn’t entirely complete. I did, it seems, forget to rate some stories last year. My bad there, and my apologies. These numbers also don’t include the works from before 2021 that I reviewed and rated last year. These are just 2021 works, to give that sort of snapshot of a year in my reading. Again, and always, these are relative ratings, how I would place the stories in terms of grimness, but again you can read about what that means and how I tried to make this as clear and useful as possible over on the Scales explanation page.

The chart covers 1125 works in total. Probably not entirely surprisingly, there are a number of squares that are blank. [c1 t5, c2 t5, c3 t1, c4 t1, c5 t1, and c5 t2] didn’t get used by me on any of the stories. I say it’s not surprising because it makes sense that when stories get extreme in their content or tone, they’re unlikely to be incredibly light on the other side of that. Not that it’s impossible, but it’s unlikely.

Anyway, just sort of going through things, the average content rating was 2.95, so pretty much exactly in the middle. There were 338 works with content ratings of less than 3, 334 with content ratings more than 3, and 453 with content ratings of 3. So not only was the average in the middle, but the curve looks mostly like the classic bell.

Not quite so for tone. The average tone rating was 3.41. Not hugely raised, but significantly on the high end. And perhaps more tellingly, there were only 115 works rated less than 3 for tone, while there were 548 with tone ratings over 3, and 462 with tone ratings of 3. Indeed, there were more tone ratings of 4 than there were tone ratings of 3, so the curve is skewed pretty strongly there.

Now, that might be because of a number of reasons. Content might simply be a bit easier to more objectively quantify than tone. After all, how does one define what a happy ending is? Or tension or intensity? It’s also possible that in terms of popular and published storytelling, there’s a bit of a preference to works that have a higher tone rating in terms of grimness. Stories that don’t offer the happiest of endings, that feature characters who might overcome barriers, who might survive, but who are still faced with situations that are by no means fixed, and where relief is often framed as temporary or fleeting. So yeah, there’s a number of ways the data here can be interpreted.

One thing that does stand out is that the most used rating I used was [c3 t3]. I’m almost happy about that, I will admit. Not because it’s a especially impacting or surprising find but because it means that I was at least partly successful in making a relative scale. Which I think comes a bit clearer if we look at how the ratings can be grouped together.

Let’s visualize the data a little differently, then.
I’ve clustered the ratings here into five distinct “zones” of equal size. Far and away the least populated zone is those that has low tonal grimness but high content grimness. I touched on that earlier but again, it’s just rather difficult to have a story that includes a lot of content that would require notes/warnings while maintaining a very light/not grim tone. Some stories do manage, typically by casting a narrator who isn’t entirely reliable, who is seeing some very disturbing things without feeling the weight of them.

Similarly, the second least populated zone is for works that have high tonal grimness score but low content grimness score. Now, this is still much more populate than the high content, low tone side. 72 is not nothing, weighing in at 6.4% of the total (the previous zone being only .27%). These works tend to be intense and bleak, but manage it without much blood, rape, or other things that would merit content notes/warnings.

Those two zones are the more “unbalanced” of the areas, representing works where I assigned scores where the content and tone were rather different from each other. More common was finding works where the scores were closer alligned. Of those zones, the one with low content and tone scores is the least populated, containing 12.36% of the total stories. These are the “nothing hurts, mostly happy” stories that probably lean humorous, conversational, and light. It’s this area that I feel I see people asking for the most, and we see here it’s a significant part of the publishing pie. It’s less common, though, than either of the next two zones.

Next in terms of population is the section with the high content and tonal grimness scores, which contains 25.87% of the total works covered. So not an overwhelming about, but still a bit over double the population of the low content and tone scores. These are the works that deal most heavily with content that’s likely to be upsetting, and marrying that with often bleak or barely hopeful conclusions. Now, the numbers here are likely helped by the fact that there are a number of genre publications that cater specifically to SFF horror and “dark” SFF. Apex, The Dark, Nightmare, The Deadlands--all of those have specific and stated leans toward the more grim side of things. And others, like Fantasy, Clarkesworld, Tor, Kaleidotrope, and others, certainly have a lean in practice, if not stated in their submission guidelines. On the other side of that, there are few publications that specifically or exclusively put out works that aim at the low ends of the Scales of Relative Grimness. Translunar Travelers Lounge, Fireside, Diabolical Plots, and a few others lean in practice, but even they step over into very grim territory from time to time.

Far and away the largest zone, though, is located in the middle of the chart. Not too grim, not too...uh...ungrim. The middle cross/plus sign contains 55.11% of the total stories. Over half! Which makes sense, as it has the most popular square [c3 t3] and the third and fourth most popular, [c3 t4] and [c2 t3] respectively (the second most popular, [c4 t4], was in the previous zone). Such a dominance in the middle of the chart suggests...well, again, the interpretations can be varied.

It could be that I’m just rather good at being rather relative and judging stories in comparison to other stories. If that’s the case, then hey, I think that the ratings can be incredibly useful, because they can allow readers to vaguely see how grim a work is in relation to other stories, where [c3 t3] is roughly neutral and then things shift as you move around the axes.

It could be that the majority of stories published are just middle-of-the-road when it comes to my two axes of grimness. That they contain some upsetting elements, that they aren’t too bleak, but also not too light. That this is just the area that most people write in, that most stories are published in, that feel most balanced to editorial tastes writ large. In which case the scales here can still be valuable, because they accomplished what they set out to do, and offer ratings that correspond to what I spelled out in the rating system.

It could be that I am just incorrect, impartial, or ignorant when it comes to grimness. I might not know what’s truly upsetting, and I might not know what bleakness or hope are. I might simply be a bad judge of this. In which case, the scales aren’t very useful.

Because it’s me (and if you know me at all by now this should come as no surprise), I’m not personally all that interested in drawing conclusions from all of this. I’m interested, as usual, in doing the work of reviewing, and enjoying playing with spreadsheets. This is not, and hopefully will not be taken as, any sort of comment or reaction to anything else. Honestly how can it be, when it’s merely a planned recap of an element of my own reading and reviewing that I started a year ago?

But I do find it fascinating, and am happy to share the results with you all. Indeed.

In other news, I am undertandably pissed that Marvel Unlimited has cheated me of the conclusion of the 1992 Shattershot crossover that played out in the Annuals of the X-titles that year. Seriously, they have the first three parts (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, and X-Factor), and they even have the issue that the last part came out in (X-Force Annual #1) but for some fucking reason they don’t actually have the Shattershot story from it. They have the back up stories! But not the main part of the issue, and so I am left without getting to read what happens unless I want to find it online somewhere or pay like $8 for the physical comic. Sighhhhhhhhhhhhh. Yes I know it's not exactly a...great crossover, but I was still interested in what happened.

Otherwise I’ve started X-Cutioner’s Song finally after having caught up to it in each of the books it crosses over (familiar territory, as it’s also Uncanny X-Men, X-Men, X-Factor, and X-Force). Cable is a little shit is the takeaway I’m having so far, but we’ll see. This seems very familiar to something, too, but it’s possible that I’m just confusing it with something else? Or that I’m remebering having read it before. Something about Professor X being attacked at a Lila Cheney concert. Anyway, it’ll come to me eventually.

In other news, I’m still early-ish in my Blue Lions second playing of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. But I do now have all the recruitable students, and I handily won the Battle of the Eagle and Lion. I am working my way through mastering all the intermediate classes, and I think I only have a few left (archer...bandit? maybe?...anyway not many). I’ll be happy when I can finish up all the statue levels, too, which I’m just a bit shy of. Still really enjoying the game.

And that’s about it for now. Oh, my collection The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories made it onto the Locus Recommended Reading List, as did my co-edited anthology (with the amazing C.L. Clark), We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction 2020. So if you are voting on that and looking for things to vote for...

All right, enough of that. Cheers!


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