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Dislocated Fictions
by Gabriel Chouinard

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dislocated x -- things i've wanted to write about

Since this is the tenth Dislocated Fictions, I thought I'd celebrate by writing about some things that I've wanted to get off my chest. So sit back, settle in, and buckle up.

It may get messy.

the critic is a smushy creature...

I've managed to hedge around a major issue in speculative fiction -- criticism.

Perhaps I was afraid of pissing off the critics. Perhaps it's because my own critical skills are extremely underdeveloped and flaccid. Or, perhaps, I was simply unprepared to tackle that particular issue.

Not that such things have stopped me before...

In a speech/essay entitled "The Stone Ax and the Muskoxen," Ursula K. Le Guin wrote:

"We've got to stop skulking around playing by ourselves, like the kid everybody picks on. When an SF book is reviewed, in a fanzine or a literary review, it should be compared with the rest of current literature like any other book and placed among the rest on its own individual merits. When an SF book is criticized, in print or in a class, it should be criticized as hard as any other book, demandingly, with the same expectations of literacy, solidity, complexity, craftsmanship. When an SF book is read, it should be read as a novel or a short story -- that is, a work in the traditions also employed by Dickens and Chekhov -- not as an artifact from the Pulp Factory."
Oh yes. I could almost end this column right here.

But I won't, because that excerpt first appeared in 1976. Surely things have changed since then, right?

Well... sort of.

The Redemption of Althalus Criticism of fantastic fiction has gotten better in the last twenty-five years. But it is still fairly pathetic when you really think about it. I mean, take a look around -- have you seen any reviews for David Eddings' The Redemption of Althalus? Some pretty good praise for what was an undeniable stack of pap from a literary perspective. And, oddly enough, that seems to happen a lot in SF.

So what's going on?

Granted, there are some critics focused on SF that are quite good. John Clute springs immediately to mind, of course. M John Harrison, Rhys Hughes... Nick Gevers is amazingly good, and if you haven't been reading his literate reviews you should go read them IMMEDIATELY. (They shouldn't be too hard to find...) Rich Horton has his occasional burst of brilliance, and Dean Thompson is a newish reviewer whose take is very balanced and interesting.

However, within SF, the majority of reviews still consist of a brief synopsis of the story, followed by the reviewer's brief comments on whether it was good or not. The majority of reviews out there are generic, boring, and little more than blurb-worthy synopses. A waste of time, in other words.

I think that part of the problem is that so many genre books cannot stand up under literary criticism. Let's face it -- the majority of genre work is commercial junk food. So really, what's the point in offering up a literate criticism for what is the novel equivalent of a Big Mac? It's a waste of time, right?

Well, not really. See, if we continue to give reviews that are basically publisher/author blow jobs, we are never going to be taken seriously. Until we have consistent, literate criticism of SF, we're going to be viewed as empty calories throughout the genre. So when people DO write work that is worthy of being considered literature, everyone outside of the SF industry is going to smile and nod and pass that work by. Because, you know, it's just SF.

So the next time you read a glowing review of Robert Jordan's boredom opus, think about it. Is this something that's going to change your life if you read it? Or are you going to forget about it before the next book is out? Shouldn't we be honest within the industry? Shouldn't we recognize our shit, like the rest of the world? I mean, if it looks like shit, smells like shit, tastes like shit, reads like shit....

...and the publisher is a smelly old whore

Publishers piss me off. Truly, they do.

We've all heard about the 'three strikes, you're out' concept of publishing. No one likes to talk about it, probably because they're afraid the publishers will sic their pet critics on any naysayers. But the ugly reality is simply this:
Publishers like to fuck their writers. Usually up uncomfortable orifices, with very large power tools.

I just don't think that they do it on purpose.

See, in theory the idea that an author has only a finite amount of time to begin selling well is a good one. After all, if a writer is GOOD, she will be discovered by readers, right? Right?

In a perfect world, yes.

In our world... maybe.

Faith of the Fallen We're dealing with something called 'glut'. We have too many books out there, all struggling to become the next cash cow for the publishers. And in some cases, it's working; after all, the only possible reason I can think of for the existence of Terry Goodkind's dreadful novels is to suck money in for the publisher. [Aside: if there had been some serious criticism of Terry Goodkind's work, it's possible that his novels WOULDN'T be a cash cow for the publisher...] But in the process, we're stifling the genre with too many books that really shouldn't be eating up so much shelf-space.

At the moment, it's still extremely difficult to find literate SF. Literate works tend to be tougher to market, harder to sell with the great big marketing machines that churn out epic fantasies and slender SF one-offs. And they end up cast aside, pushed to the back of the shelves to make way for the bestsellers. They don't even stand a fighting chance.

Take a look for a moment at the Amazon.com paperback bestseller list. In a listing of the 41 top-selling books, there are only 21 different authors. HUH?!?! Does that even make sense? Doesn't that seem just a bit... well, wrong to you? Where is the diversity?

There is none. And that's the problem.

With the three-strike plan of publishing, authors are barely given a chance to make a scratch in the readership's consciousness. Three books to make a mark, and unfortunately most authors of literate SF don't even stand a chance when confronted by the fat product that receive all the marketing and publisher-push. It is, ultimately, a self-fulfilling prophesy. A book that isn't visible can't turn a profit, and a profit is needed to keep those books coming. So where did we go wrong?

We went wrong the moment we let the publishers decide the bestsellers for us.

Really, publishers aren't actively 'out to get the writers'. They just want to make some cash. But in the process, they're picking and choosing what we want to read. We're buying into the internal hype, and we're letting it dictate our reading habits. And, because we can't easily find the good stuff in the stores, we keep letting them do it to us. Again, a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Luckily, there are alternatives.

the small... err... niche publishers

Cosmos Books The niche presses are coming into their own, and they deserve every iota of our support. We need to start spending our billions of dollars on these publishing companies... that way, we'll finally inject a little bit of vitality into a stagnant market. Because, to be honest... let's leave the big house publishers to their cookie-cutter junk food. They can keep on using their clout to sell us reams of paper fit only for toilet paper. Because we've got options!

One of the best publishers for offbeat, literate fantastica is Ministry of Whimsy. Recently acquired as an imprint of Prime Publishing, the Ministry is well-known for its broad selection of speculative and mainstream fiction. They are the publishers of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel The Troika by Stepan Chapman, several Leviathan anthologies, Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, and other excellent editions. Still under the creative control of Ministry founder Jeff VanderMeer, I think that we will soon see some great things from this excellent publisher -- not least of which will be Leviathan 3, which I am personally anticipating with drooling excitement.

Similarly, Prime itself is shaping up to be another kick-ass publisher. Currently producing deluxe limited editions of books by people like Tim Lebbon and Brett A. Savory, Prime expects to expand into other areas in 2002. Again, I am nearly beside myself with thrilled expectation.

Another excellent publishing company is Cosmos Books. Senior Editor Sean Wallace has said that Cosmos Books will be releasing over a hundred speculative fiction books throughout 2001 -- and I believe it. Already, Cosmos is responsible for a wide range of authors, from Neal Asher to John Clute, to Robert Silverberg and Colin Wilson. Their book list is diverse and a hodgepodge mixture of the best of all speculative genres. If you have never purchased a Cosmos book, you need to. NOW.

And let's not forget PS Publishing. The brainchild of Peter Crowther and Simon Conway, PS Publishing is another high-quality SF publisher, touting books by people like Graham Joyce, Peter F. Hamilton, Stephen Baxter and numerous others. For my money, I'm betting that PS Publishing will become the best of the niche publishers from a literary standpoint. Go check out some of the folks that are coming soon to PS and you'll understand....

Of course, there are dozens of others that need support as well; Night Shade Books, 4 Walls 8 Windows -- there are literally more publishers than I can list. And if you're truly looking for work that goes against the grain, dares to take chances with ideas... you can't go wrong searching through the niche publishers.

the free alliance: a calling

Fantastic Metropolis With the death of a multitude of speculative fiction websites, a void has been presented, which we now must fill. We have the opportunity to 'Do Things Right' this time around, as we move to replace those commercial sites that have fallen. And as I have conceived Fantastic Metropolis, we will be able to begin that filling of the void, concentrating upon the literate works that deserve the attention that commercial genre has been so hesitant to provide.

So I propose the Free Alliance.

As things now stand, there is a huge amount of information scattered about the web that focuses upon quality speculative fiction. But it is cast willy-nilly across cyberspace, drifting here and there, a chore to discover. Fantastic Metropolis is my attempt to reduce that chore for the interested reader, to bring all that information into one vast Portal, to bring it to their fingertips. The Free Alliance is one piece of that mission.

What I propose is simply this; to interlink all of the websites that share a similar focus on literary speculative fiction. Fantastic Metropolis itself will act as the central hub of all those websites; a resource for people intent upon discovering what fantastic fiction truly has to offer. But I will not do this in a haphazard way; I will do this as an official show of solidarity among creators, with the Free Alliance.

And so I seek your aid.

The Free Alliance is not a webring. It is a professional, membership-oriented network created by all of us. It is not profit-driven, it is not commercially-financed, it is not a society or a club.

Roughly based upon the concept of open-source code in software engineering, the Free Alliance is simply a sign of our dedication to one another, and a sign of our dedication to quality in fiction. It is a concrete symbol of our struggle against commercialized garbage and intellectual junk food. It is a symbol of our collective line in the sand.

How does it work? As easily as possible.

What I ask of you is simply this; that you agree to put some mention on your website that you support the Free Alliance, and that you provide a link to the Fantastic Metropolis website. Easy. Free. No ugly banners to add, no 'approved' script to add, no fees, no hassle. By this act, you will be linking your site to a Portal that will lead to other sites that contain complimentary works, and to other people that have similarly allied themselves.

Ah, but that isn't ALL that I ask, sadly. There is more; this is the part where I actually need your help.

I need you to provide me with links that can be added to the Fantastic Metropolis Portal. Links to specific articles or short stories or biographies that are contained within your site that somehow focus upon the gray, blurry realm of fantastic fiction. The reason for this is easy; the internet is huge, and to comb through it to find every single article/piece that is of interest to readers would be a lifelong chore. I simply do not have the time to hunt down every link. And so I ask for your aid.

I have no hard and fast rules for what can be featured. I trust your judgment. If you believe that something that you possess on your website is worthy of note, of being discovered by readers, feel free to send it along. Ultimately, I will be the final judge for inclusion of course. In the end, there must always be a decision-maker, after all. But I am dedicated to this mission, as I think you should all realize.

In addition to the Portal, another important feature of the Fantastic Metropolis website is the Fantastic Metropolis message forum. Already in place through Delphi.com, the forum is meant to be a centralized gathering place for writers and readers, editors and critics. My aim is to draw everyone into the forum; to provide a place for those of us who support literate speculative fiction to interact with one another.

Sure, many writers have their own forums scattered about the internet, at their own sites. But in the end, this is selfish and biased. This is not interaction, not really. There is no exchange of thoughts and ideas. Think on this; if a sufficient number of creators come together as a group, what can be accomplished? What possibilities can be explored through an open exchange of ideas? I have seen some of what may come through my own email lists with multiple authors contributing -- and the potential is frightening.

Think about it.

Please, help me. With the Free Alliance and the forum, we have the opportunity to claim the streets, to bring literary speculative fiction into the spotlight for once. And we have the opportunity to show our support for one another on a massive scale that has never before been attempted. Let's make some noise.

The links for the Fantastic Metropolis website, the Fantastic Metropolis Forum, and the email address for the website where correspondences, links, questions and comments can be sent are included at the top.

Thank you for your dedication.

Copyright © 2001 Gabriel Chouinard

Gabe Chouinard is a reader, writer and editor who is very vocal in his support of cutting-edge speculative fiction. He detests skiffy, deplores Fat Fantasy... but is a good guy to have a drink with. Expecting his second child, Mr. Chouinard is now writing with much more frantic vigor, in the hopes of getting published before he has NO time...


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