“Gleaming and glittering with gold and wondrous surprises for young and old”
Ladies and gentlemen! Roll up, roll up! Come, my lovelies, and experience everything the Zineverse has to offer. Marvel at those spaceships! Meet the monsters (not all in alien form). Dream of new worlds!
Let’s begin our journey by meeting a publication that reviews the many different creatures you can find in the science-fiction-and-fantasy Zineverse, Tangent. It owes its thirty-year existence to Dave Truesdale, its editor, and the volunteers who review for the pure love of it. Truesdale is proud of the fact that Tangent was the first SF short-fiction review magazine, to quote the late SF historian Sam Moskowitz. As well as reviews, Truesdale asks reviewers to give “recs” for the recommended reading list for that year. In an email exchange, I said my baseline criteria for recs was whether I would read something a second time and whether there was something truly original. Truesdale replied that originality is getting increasingly rare:
“… it’s harder and harder to come across anything even halfway original, because the more you’ve read over time means you’ve had the opportunity to experience “originality” in theme or treatment many times over many years and many stories…The reverse is that, when you first began to read SF/F, everything was pretty much original to you, giving rise to that Sense of Wonder the younger (or newer) reader discovers. But… the originality metric is harder to find. That’s when I go to the other metrics… primary among them how the author executes his/her theme or treats the subject matter. Does the prose level perhaps sparkle above and beyond the norm? Is there an unexpected twist or POV on a tried-and-true theme elevating the story above the norm or cliche?”
These comments will resonate with all editors in the Zineverse. And the feeling of awe I too seek as a reader was also mentioned by Ádám Gerencsér when I asked him why he became co-owner and co-editor of Sci Phi Journal – with Mariano Martín Rodríguez:
“It’s a labour of love… a childhood attraction to SF’s infinite possibilities and [its] innate Sense of Wonder. For Mariano and I, it was really a question of: we want a venue for philosophical SF and if the only such publication is orphaned, we got to revive it [back in 2018].”
Sci Phi Journal happily tells you that it is “a cosy waystation for travellers who, through no fault of their own, find themselves at the cosmic intersection between speculative philosophy, cultural anthropology and hard SF.” It deals in idea-driven speculative fiction (not character-driven) and is an unapologetically European journal consciously setting itself aside from the “American model”. It embraces “semantic diversity” and all thought experiments, including those they do not agree with. It is itself an experiment in true free expression. I find this quite refreshing, and it is a cause I am willing to espouse. It also offers a platform for literary analysis and philosophical discussion in a genre considered by many as not worthy of such analysis (and it is not the only publication in the Zineverse to do so, for example Hélice, which publishes literary criticism in English and Spanish).
Truesdale has commented to me many times that Tangent reviews stories and not politics or ideologies. I’m not sure, however, that politics or ideologies don’t figure in the Zineverse. For example, Fantasy, at the time of writing this article, was accepting “BIPOC-only” submissions (writers who identify as black, indigenous and people of colour); its sister publication, Lightspeed, however, was concurrently accepting fantasy flash fiction open to all writers. Fantasy provides “entertainment for the intelligent genre reader – we publish stories of the fantastic that make us think, and tell us what it is to be human”. I particularly like its Q&A with authors and the fact that they include poetry, as well as short stories and flash fiction. Lightspeed has a broader focus, including many subgenres of SF and fantasy. Both magazines are available as e-book editions (where you receive everything in one go for payment) or free online (where you wait for a new instalment each week). And I haven’t forgotten the other sibling, Nightmare, that blends horror and dark fantasy (recent submissions were also BIPOC-focused). I must admit that, as a recovering insomniac, I haven’t delved much into this one but please do go and get your spine tingled and chilled by it.
That members of the Zineverse uphold various causes, languages and genres can also be seen in the special issues. The ezine Strange Horizons has brought out special issues, such as where trans/nonbinary (queer authors), Wuxia and Xianxia ( “writers from the Sino diaspora as well as BIPOC creators in various parts of the world”) and Palestine meet SF and fantasy. This year’s June issue included each story in its original language (Bulgarian and Lithuanian) and in translation into English. Strange Horizons tells us it is “of and about speculative fiction” for all “flavours of fantastika”. In reviews of this publication, Tangent always adds a disclaimer about Strange Horizons’ political affiliations:
“On May 10, 2021 Strange Horizons officially expressed its political support for Palestinian solidarity. The views of Tangent Online reviewers are not necessarily those of Strange Horizons. Fiction critiqued at Tangent Online is, as much as is humanly possible, without prejudice and based solely on artistic merit.”
Aurealis favours SF, fantasy and horror authors from Australia and New Zealand for most of the year; it accepts submissions from anywhere in the multiverse for one month a year.
Talking of authors, I particularly enjoyed this comment from one of the authors published recently by Lightspeed, Sarah Grey:
“There’s no getting rich off short fiction in any genre; you’d be hard-pressed to even pay for groceries with a year’s worth of generous short fiction income. So just write the stories that appeal to you, at the pace your life allows. Read the stories and novels that call to you, not what anyone else says you should read.”
SF and fantasy, more so than many other types of literature, are peopled with fanatics, although I do prefer the terms aficionados or enthusiasts, which have fewer negative connotations. So most SF and fantasy publications are run by small teams of people who are passionate about the genre and reliant on readers who believe in that Sense of Wonder, such as Lightspeed: “There are no big companies supporting or funding Adamant Press’s magazines – and Adamant itself is kind of a two-person show – so the magazines really rely on reader support.” In a publisher’s note, the editor draws attention to the fact that, in September, Amazon will be closing its Kindle Periodicals program: some magazines will be transitioned to Kindle Unlimited; some will be dropped entirely. This will have a severe impact on publications who currently rely on Amazon’s digital subscriptions service for a substantial part of their income. This concern is also raised by Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine, who states that most publications in SF and fantasy rely on subscriptions and not on advertising for the bulk of their revenue. Clarkesworld and other journals will be encouraging their readers to transition to new subscription and pledge models, via their own and other platforms, such as Patreon.
Clarkesworld is probably one of the better-known publications in the Zineverse, along with Asimov’s, Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF and Apex (Asimov’s and Analog have the same publisher, Penny Publications). Beneath Ceaseless Skies tells us that it is “dedicated to publishing literary adventure fantasy: fantasy set in secondary-world or historical paranormal settings, written with a literary focus on the characters”. Asimov’s is proud of its history: “From its earliest days in 1977 under the editorial direction of Isaac Asimov, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine has maintained the tradition of publishing the best stories, unsurpassed in modern science fiction, from award-winning authors and first-time writers alike.” It publishes hard SF and SF brimming with nostalgia. Its sister publication, Analog’s Science Fiction and Fact Magazine, “remains the unparalleled literary magazine in the genre, and rewards readers with realistic stories that reflect both the highest standards of scientific accuracy and the far reaches of the imagination”. Another publication to have published well-known authors is The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), with authors like Stephen King, Daniel Keyes and Walter M. Miller in its quiver of arrows. Asimov’s can boast of authors like George R.R. Martin in its gallery, Analog of Orson Scott Card, Greg Bear, Poul Anderson and many more. Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex are probably more interested in publishing unknown authors. I love Apex’s mission statement:
“We publish short stories filled with marrow and passion, works that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. Creations where secret places and dreams are put on display.”
I think that should be the mission statement for the entire Zineverse, whether we are talking of flash fiction, short stories, novelettes or novellas. Whether you prefer to read your zines online, as a PDF, in some other digital form or on paper.
As a reviewer for Tangent, I have met some stories that were not very good, many that were competent and a few gems that reawakened my Sense of Wonder, first born when I read John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven (closely followed by Asimov’s robot stories and Bradbury’s Mars tales). I will read all SF genres (other than horror) and here is a taste of the tales I have read that I would read twice:
– “Showdown on Planetoid Pencrux” by Garth Nix, where warborgs meet High Noon: a tale of quiet courage, friendship and responsibility, without being preachy or superficial (Asimov’s, July/August 2023).
– “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers” by Karawynn Long, where a neurodiverse person learns to talk with genetically-modified crows: a tale about not underestimating others (Asimov’s, July/August 2023).
– “That We Maye With Free Heartes Accomplishe Those Thyngs” by Thomas M. Waldroon creates a London you can almost smell and touch, a monster born from effluvia and a hero who has his memories stolen, with poetry and rhymes woven through it like golden threads (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 13/07/23).
– “A Dead World Wakens” by Amy Dawn Buchanan, where a lone human wakes up in a distant future in a synthetic Eden: a lyrical coming of age story (Aurealis, 4/23).
“The Ocean Remembers The Wave” by L. Chan, where the hero follows a trail of enhanced bones in his sentient ship and wuxia and xianxia (think, immortal itinerant warriors of ancient China) meet space adventure (Strange Horizons, special issue May 2023).
– “Schroedinger’s Kitten Falls In Love” by Bidisha Banerjee follows the brief and lethal love affair between two quantum cats: pure fun, full of quirky turns of phrase (Fantasy, June 2023).
– “Queen of the Andes” by Ruth Joffre imagines life in a refugee shelter in the Andes. Humanity has managed to destroy the Earth’s climate, and many have already left for the space colonies: to stay or leave, that is the question and where does true freedom lie? (Lightspeed, June 2023).
And that is just a slice of the stories out there, not forgetting many smaller online portals to the Zineverse, like tor.com (SF and fantasy), 365tomorrows (SF and speculative flash fiction, a story a day), Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores (“otherworldly encounters”) and so on. If you want an overview of what is out there, go to Tangent and look at the publications down the left-hand side, categorised as “print” and “e-market” (although the line between the two is becoming blurred with e-readers and smart phones) and periodicity. There are many excellent magazines to choose from in the Zineverse: follow one or two, or hop around several; you won’t regret it.
I cannot do justice to the whole range of styles, subgenres, plot twists, weird and wonderful characters – it’s a smorgasbord of talent and ideas. To quote another author in Lightspeed, Ashok K. Banker:
“I am absolutely in awe of all the amazing writers, the vast majority of them new or recently published, who fill the pages of the SF zines. The sheer range and depth of craft, skill, imagination is extraordinary. SF has always flourished in the shorter lengths, but I truly think we’re seeing a new golden age of SF short fiction…”
And, echoing Truesdale’s comments at the beginning of this article:
“It’s no longer enough to simply have a great idea well executed. But I do feel that the big ideas, bold use of tropes, breakout storytelling have waned. I’d love to see someone bust the genre wide open, more than once, break the rules, cause outrage among purists and virtue signal police, and still create awesome SF that is inclusive, sensitive, and essentially humane…”
Although Banker goes in a slightly different direction in his musings:
“SF is no longer a genre unto itself, it’s been absorbed by the literary mainstream and now belongs to everyone. I love and embrace that fact and I hope to see more of this beautiful hybrid cross-species fertilisation!”
I beg to differ – yes, there has been a lot of cross-pollination but, as our tour round the Zineverse shows, there are many specialised SF and fantasy publications out there, each with a slightly different focus. I would prefer to see such magazines maintain their individuality, and that they not be subsumed by “the literary mainstream”. The Zineverse should ring with a carillon, not a death knell.
Coda: You will have noticed that I have done two things in this article: given you lots of links to follow for your own exploration of the Zineverse and focused on the people that make the Zineverse work – the authors, editors and reviewers. This is a pæan to their hard work, vision and passion. (And, in case you’re wondering, the quote that opens this article is a circus slogan from 1961.)
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night, and a magazine reviewer at Tangent Online in-between. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She publishes essays in Sci Phi Journal as well as “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.