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Dislocated Fictions
by Gabriel Chouinard

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the dennis miller syndrome

A few days ago, I found myself writing an angered, polemic essay that attempted to address the current state of speculative fiction. Instead, it became an empty call to arms, bordering on a manifesto.

I should have just taken a nap.

The Post-Modern Archipelago Still, I learned something from writing "The Long Road To Nowhere", as I titled it. (And which can be seen here: http://www.delphi.com/n/mb/message.asp?webtag=metrofanatic&msg=50.1 if you really need to read it.) I learned that no matter what, empty harbinger-of-doom ramblings will do nothing to change the overall state and quality of the publishing business. Such self-serving drivel will only momentarily assuage individual pangs of anger and frustration, accomplishing nothing in the longer run. For change -- real change -- to be effected, it will take so much more than sarcastic diatribes.

So I'm working at an evolution here.

So far, Dislocated Fictions could have been subtitled "Your Source For Rants." And while rants are occasionally worthwhile (and even worthy of attention), they are not the end-all of change. Eventually, sustaining one note grows sour, and even the heartiest (and most optimistic) must eventually turn away in disgust.

Time to change direction, before I end up slamming my face into the wall.

bold new directions -- where do we go from here?

Robert Frost once said, "Half the world is composed of people who have something to say and can't, and the other half have nothing to say and keep on saying it."

Wise words. Words that work well as a mantra for any opinionated columnist. Even myself.

I have much to say, don't get me wrong. Don't fear that I will now bow down to the publishing gods, offering up my first-born as a sacrifice to appease their mighty powers. Nor will I bow down to slurp at the feet of fandom, offering accolades to the many multi-volume 'epics' that are so fashionable (a status symbol, no doubt... "My book is bigger than yours!"), and which threaten the lives of any small children that roam the bookstores. No, I will not become an encourager of those baby-killing volumes. I still have my elitist bastard views of speculative fiction, and what it stands for.

Originality. Vision. Innovation. Style. Individualist examinations of the fantastic. The literature of ideas.

That's what you come here for. That's what you'll continue to get.

proving my point... again

Super-Cannes Recently, I read a review of J.G. Ballard's novel Super-Cannes by H.J. Kirchhoff. In the review, Kirchhoff has the gall to say: "Ballard's always been a fine writer, even early on, when his luridly lyrical allegories were confined to the science-fiction ghetto. At least two of his works will live on: Crash (1973), his self-proclaimed attempt at a 'pornography of violence,' and the award-winning Empire of the Sun (1984), his autobiographical novel about a British boy interned in a Japanese prison camp for the duration of the Second World War."

My god, what a sickening sentiment.

The idea that Ballard has been confined to the ghetto of SF is, to say the least, grossly inaccurate. The reviewer -- like many people -- has no real concept of what the 'ghetto' of SF is, nor what that term implies. In truth, Ballard is one of the authors that has had much cross-over appeal between the SF community and the mainstream literary circles. At no point was he 'confined' to the ghetto of SF. Rather, Ballard is one of those wonderful authors who is never limited by genre conventions, and has never been 'confined' anywhere.

It is those types of misconceptions that we must address, and which we must battle against with all our strength. Because, in the end, that is what the so-called 'ghetto of SF' is; a misperception. If you've ever read Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Mervyn Peake, J.R.R. Tolkien, Michael Swanwick, Peter F. Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, or any number of writers of the past or present, you KNOW that this is no ghetto. This is literature, straight and pure and true, no matter what genre trappings come along in the package. There is only one ghetto in SF, and that is the ghetto populated by commercial fantasy and 'sci-fi'. Crash Empire of the Sun

The real genre, the true genre, is so much more than that.

The sad fact is, we cannot ignore commercial genre work. Some people would like to; they maintain that they are not affected by the cookie-cutter blobberies that others call 'novels'. I envy their views. Ignorance is, after all, bliss. I cannot see it that way; every time I try to look past commercial genre work, my view is blocked by an appalling stack of Terry Goodkind novels roughly the size (and weight) of Mt. McKinley. They say you can't see the forest for the trees; well, you can't see around a stack of Goodkind novels either.

Commercial genre work is the antithesis of true speculative fiction. It is the shadow of Moby Dick floating beneath the waters, ready to swallow the industry like so much plankton.

running with the bulls, leaping for the moon

Sometimes, true wisdom is knowing when to admit your failings.

I've been on a crusade. A raging, essentially empty crusade with only a handful of followers who were misguided enough to join the side of a wild-haired madman. I've preached and hollered and moaned in dismay, promoting a Movement whose very participants are unwilling to be considered a Movement.

Right idea: promote individualist speculative fiction that shows innovation and intelligence and literacy.

Wrong method: declare a Movement that does not exist, and should not exist.

So now it's time to take a step backward, regroup, and learn from mistakes made.

In short... I've changed my mind. Welcome to freedom of thought.

This same next wave work deserves a wider audience, more exposure, more space on the shelves. We are still in danger of having the speculative fiction world implode, destroyed by mass-produced junk food crap. We are still in danger of being buried beneath the endless muckery of Star Trek novels that seem to spawn with a rapidity that suggests roach-like tenacity. We're in danger, and screaming and waving our hands in the air won't help.

Instead....

Instead, I'm not entirely sure. I have some ideas of what can be done to address the situations that we face within the industry. I have some clues, some vague murmurings from myself and others, on ways to not supplant the current work being produced, but to co-exist with them. Until, finally, they are stomped out in a frenzy by a drooling, frothing mass of readers whose horizons have suddenly expanded, who now see the error of their ways...

Errrr....

maggot zines and wild-eyed activists

Lately, I've been thinking about magazines. Specifically, SF magazines. And the incestuous, navel-gazing existence eked out by the few SF magazines that remain.

Folks, I'm going to go out on a limb here.

Maybe, just maybe, they're doing it WRONG. Analog, Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction... Interzone, Tangent, everyone else. Face it: magazines are collapsing left and right because the people who run them are fucking up.

It's fairly pathetic when the average video game magazine shows more flash and style and design sense than a magazine featuring speculative fiction. SF has the ability to define and shape modern sensibilities. So why in God's name are we relegating our forward-looking stories to the dinosaurian realms of poorly-designed, digest-sized hackbooks suitable only for use as coasters? Why are my Swanwick stories being covered with coffee rings?

Because no one is doing it right. No one is producing a speculative fiction magazine that people want to hold onto, and want to read. Instead, they're following the mold of five decades ago, unaware of the mould growing over them in the process. They're too busy, locked into a decades-long conversation with the same 5,000 fans who have supported them all along.

Inbreeding creates defects.

Magazines and short fiction are the borderlands of speculative fiction. True innovation occurs in short fiction more often than in novel-length works. Short stories are the lifeblood of SF, bringing in new concepts and styles. Magazines that feature such works cannot stagnate -- if they are cesspools, tarpits, they become unnecessary, and a vital piece of speculative culture is lost.

Warren Ellis, one of the true genius comic book writers, has a mantra: defect from the old, create the new.

That is what we need to do with the short fiction market. We need to distance ourselves from the past, to bring newness and innovation blasting into the modern. The simple fact is, we aren't going to do it with a handful of backwater hick magazines. If all of the current magazines were to collapse and fold today, I would be thrilled. Because out of ruin would come something different, something new. From the ashes, rebirth. And maybe this time, it would be a rebirth with style and substance.

Several magazines have attempted to bring modern sensibilities to the genre, and failed. Truth is, they did it wrong. They tried to pander to the commercial masses, which is a losing battle that ultimately leads to destruction. If a magazine is to survive, it needs to be broadly appealing, true. Not in the sense of marketing to the Star Trek crowd, however. Rather, it needs to appeal to the people who are NOT a part of fandom. There are millions of people who groove to the beat of speculation, who have never picked up a Star Trek novel, and wouldn't be caught dead wearing an anime T-shirt. These are the people who made magic realism a success. They are intelligent, literate, interested in technology and society and art and culture. They are our choice demographic -- the people who are able to read for the sake of reading, who wish to be affected by a story, who do not necessarily read for escape.

They are not the majority. But they are allies.

Take a look around. SF imagery infects the world we inhabit. Commercials, music videos, games, movies, advertising... it's everywhere. Why aren't these same people picking up SF magazines?

Because what we have now, the magazines that exist today, are tripe. Old, tired, limping along on broken knees and strained tendons, attempting to survive and failing in the process, too lost in the struggle to even notice their imminent deaths.

Doomed species never know when to just roll face-down in the mud and suffocate themselves.

Defect from the old. Create the new.

Words to remember, Warren.

So, what do we do about it?

First step. Stop buying the existing magazines. I mean it. If a horse has broken a leg, you shoot it out of mercy. Let the magazines die a decent death; don't prolong their suffering. They were vital, once, and worthy of their existence. But they did not evolve, did not change with the times. I will forgive them for that short-sightedness if they pass on the torch.

Yes, harsh words. Blasphemy. I know. Mailbombs can be sent to gabe_chouinard@yahoo.com. But, you know, go ahead and get pissed off. While you do, though, watch the sales figures of each of the remaining magazines continue to drop. Watch the authors who continue to get paid a paltry 5-8 cents per word, simply because they still believe in the viability of short fiction. And then tell me I'm wrong. I dare you.

Second, it's time to fill the gaps. There are massive holes in the short fiction marketplace. Those holes need to be filled, with new magazines and new anthologies. And they need to be done right. As another essayist has noted, having a magazine that simply prostitutes itself out to the SFWA does not ensure quality or relevance. The SFWA is NOT the pinnacle of genre. They're nearly as backward as the magazines that feature their authors. (Sidenote -- Has anyone ever actually investigated the role of the SFWA in modern times? Tell me... does belonging to the SFWA do anything for you that you couldn't do on your own? I'm curious...) Rather, I suggest aiming a bit higher. If a magazine is going to make it, it needs to go for broke, balls-out and pedal to the floor. It needs to be slick and lovely, and full of mad beautiful ideas -- possessed of style and poise and readability. It needs to view the SF world through a haze of literacy, and it cannot have limits. ANYTHING MUST GO.

THAT is speculative fiction. THAT is what will capture the attention of the masses.

It must be well-funded, and dedicated to the cause of speculation. It must pay its authors a decent rate. 5-8 cents per word is an insult. It's sickening. Pitiful. Pathetic, and symptomatic of the same SFWA bullshit. Come on, All-Powerful Organization, what's with endorsing payment of 4 cents per word? It's a new world out here, away from your hallowed halls of Almighty Enlightenment. Why write stories for such paltry sums when one can write video games for a hefty sum that may actually put diapers on the baby and food in the belly?

More maggots, devouring the industry.

A magazine must also be filled with vitality. That means artistic design. Artwork that pushes boundaries, rather than smudgy line drawings. Utilize the people who are out there, making their LIVING drawing. You know what I want to see? I want to see Dave Gibbons illustrating an SF magazine. I want to see Ashley Wood, and Brian Wood. And Rafael Kayanan, and Enki Bilal, and... the list is endless.

A magazine must contain the highest quality work available. No bending the rules. If it's going to be published, it needs to be fucking brilliant. THERE CAN BE NO QUARTER GIVEN. To survive, every issue must push the envelope, must strive to walk the razor edge of what truly defines speculative fiction. Lukewarm issues are not an option. No excuses. No politics in selection of stories. Merit is all that matters.

Honestly, there are a thousand different pieces that need to be addressed for a proper speculative fiction magazine to thrive. Format. Layout. Advertising. Support. So many facets, all of which need to be completely thought out before anyone dives in to create a magazine. Sadly, that isn't the way most magazines begin. Too many have come about from a couple of fans in a garage, pumping out their fantasies in the guise of a magazine. Marketing? What's that? Visibility? Huh? Format matters?

Sometimes, if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.

Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is a writer and editor living in obscurity, struggling to get published by chucking rocks at the windows of the publishing industry and hoping someone will notice. He runs a Fantastic Metropolis Forum, semi-maintains a pathetic webpage at www.geocities.com/gabe_chouinard, and is editing the latest in a line of New Worlds anthologies. Still, he isn't making any money...


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