As our European home base is emerging from the clutches of the pandemic (or at least its first wave), we hope that our readers, authors and their loved ones have weathered the storm in good health and high spirits.
We resume our standard format this quarter, but given the doom and gloom of recent months, we try to add a cheerful touch this time, with quite a few stories that strike a light-hearted cord. These are punctuated by three essays, each courting controversy in their own particular way; be it the relationship between faith and science fiction, the dearth of SFF translations from languages other than English, or a timely reflection on pandemics as depicted in the sci-phi canon.
During the spring, we had received a record number of submissions – a welcome development, which we, however, ascribe to the unfortunate circumstances of the global lockdown. Solitude is good for literature, it seems.
The rules of social distancing also meant that the crew availed themselves of the opportunity to spend more time with their families, while doing their day jobs (and reviewing submitted stories) confined to their library armchairs. Co-editor Ádám marvelled time and again at the manner in which the world that to him seemed to be closing in, was at the same time opening up for his little daughter, barely three years old, who is at the age when the mere shadow of a cloud on the balcony is ripe with speculative possibilities.
In a way, science fiction (and sci-phi in particular) is a genre that at its core sets out to inspire in readers that same inclination towards subliminal wonder, as if seeing a new phenomenon through the eyes of a child. May we never lose our ability to revel in this playfulness of the human mind!
ps: While most of the SPJ crew leads rather old-school, analogue lives, we are following the advice of a couple of kind readers to re-animate the Journal’s Twitter account from its long cryogenic slumber. If you wish to support our authors by sharing (re-tweeting?) their work, you may do so by following @sciphijournal (which we are told is not a hashtag, but an account handle, apparently).
As we enter the second year since the relaunch of SPJ and encourage our readership to retreat into cosy bubbles of isolation to avoid the looming spread of a ‘novel’ contagion*, it is sobering to contemplate that we are protagonists (or, at the very least, extras) in a major SF scenario.
At the time of writing, your co-editors are hunkering down to witness epic, planetary-scale medical speculative fiction unfolding in front of our eyes. Fortunately, for the time being, the events are mostly mediated by our screens, ensuring a distance akin to that of a reader to words on a page. Or to the dispassion wherewith an immortal being would regard the morbid curiosity of death (c.f. Brian Stableford’s now-classic “Mortimer Gray’s History of Death”).
Which brings us to our first departure from the usual mixture of speculative essays and challenging fiction. The Q1 issue of 2020 is made up entirely of short stories, all clustered around the theme of immortality, and various antitheses thereof, from legislating a timely death to erasing one’s memory from the bookshelves of history. These were selected from a rich spectrum of submissions, and we note with relief that more and more authors ‘get’ the conceptual narrative and world-building approaches to speculative fiction, and particularly the fictional non-fiction (FNF) subgenre we strive to cultivate.
The time of the fabled spring clean will be upon us soon, and fittingly our plans for 2020 include completing the process of making archived digital content from SPJ’s previous incarnations available, which had previously languished behind a subscription or paywall, and strive to clean up the tags and category markers across the site.
Coinciding with the 2020Q1 issue is an update of our FNF bibliography, which we intend to continue expanding, grateful as always for further recommendations. We might explore the possibility of another thematic issue later during the year (depending on our means), but also hope to continue our series of articles on speculative fiction in less well-known regional literary markets. If you speak a language that is, perhaps due to lack of exposure or translations into English, less accessible to the international public, and feel inclined to write about the state of SF in that milieu, don’t hesitate to get in touch!
Stay safe, memento mori.
* In reference to the virus carrying the ‘novel’ epithet, we wish to reiterate our long-held opposition to fat literature.
Alas, one cannot shake the feeling that it is not entirely appropriate for a publication dedicated to SF, a genre most commonly associated with the future, to avert its gaze towards the sentimentality of the path already travelled. Yet with the approach of the festive season, we permit ourselves this small indulgence.
Thus as we mark the relaunched Sci Phi Journal completing its first year, we wish to use this opportunity to thank you for your continued readership and the kind expressions of support we have received throughout 2019.
In this winter issue, we are delighted to once again offer you an unconventional selection of original fiction, essays as well as a translation of an obscure gem of contemporary European spec fic. What more, this edition accompanies an important step forward for the Journal, one that has been in preparation for quite some while.
The SPJ site is unveiling a major new feature as a culmination of several years of research work by co-editor Mariano: an extensive, living bibliography of our favourite stylistic sub-genre, Fictional Non-Fiction. In its present state, the index runs to a printed length of about 80 pages, and Mariano does not conceal his ambition to make it as complete as possible. For that, we invite your help to expand it by writing to us or posting suggestions in the comment section. We hope that with time the FNF List will grow to serve as a valuable resource for all scholars and readers interested in this rigorous, concept-driven mode of writing.
The entire SPJ team thank you for your companionship along the journey in 2019 and look forward to sailing forth into 2020 to bring you more cutting-edge philosophical speculation.
We wish all our readers, authors and contributors a merry Christmas and an auspicious start into 2020!
At the time of writing, Ádám of the SPJ editorial team is on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Yet the primary impressions his sojourn inspires belong not in the realm of theology, but world building. (Admittedly, the two are related.)
To an avid reader of the fantastic, even a cursory intercourse with the State of Israel reveals it as a prime example of applied utopian SF. Aside from its symbols and official historiography, consider the resurrection of arcane Hebrew as the vehicular language of a new society: t’is the stuff that compensatory alternate history is made of.
Take Theodor Herzl’s foundational novel Altneuland, published in 1902, which lays out plans for the future Jewish state, in the guise of programmatic fiction. The title of the book was translated into Hebrew as Tel Aviv. Now guess the name of the country’s largest city today…
Israel’s continued existence and demonstrations of might attest to the power of narratives in shaping social consent. (And yes, except for the man-versus-nature tales of the hard-SF tradition, it is a staple of drama that triumphs often come at someone else’s expense – this is no different in the geopolitics of the Middle East.)
Ask three Israelis and they’ll have four opinions. Yet in spite of ‘sinat chinam’, the eternal curse of discord, this heterodox society that oftentimes intimates a Mediterranean re-imagining of Blade Runner, where college girls in army uniform carrying assault rifles mingle with Haredim and rainbow warriors at retrofuturist malls, has nonetheless managed to forge a sense of identity and purpose.
It even has its own hermetic SF scene in Hebrew, though some gems slipping under the radar may be stumbled across in English, such as It Could Have Been. Safra’s wish-fulfilment fantasy reads like a guided tour of a Jerusalem that is proudly the largest city in the world, where the Second Temple still stands. This 2015 graphic novel is predicated on an alternate history timeline, wherein literally every character we encounter holds fast to a dress code associated with Orthodox Judaism and Israel’s capital is the envy of the globe. No doubt it has the potential to appeal to some readers and upset others. As good speculative fiction should.
So beware, narratives are powerful. Be mindful of what you write. It might spark a cult, inspire riots or, heaven forfend, cause offence. (If so, we’ll publish it.)
In this spirit, the editors wish you an enjoyable read of our autumn crop of world building, speculative philosophy and exotic SF!
Some of us like to read our dose of speculative fiction and articles on trusty old paper.
For your convenience, here you can download the 2019 summer issue of Sci Phi Journal in its entirety, formatted as a user-friendly PDF – ready for printing or viewing via e-reader.
the SPJ crew
One of the parables attributed to Christ tells of the evolutionary trials of seeds that fall unto various kinds of soil, particularly with reference to their subsequent growth prospects.
Now cyberspace certainly is a difficult terrain with plenty of rocky patches, so we at SPJ are well pleased that this summer issue of the relaunched journal augurs a bountiful harvest, with fresh fiction and essays from both established and new authors. We continue our series on rarely explored regional SF, this time with an expedition into Chilean dystopia. We also publish our first annotated translation: a seminal piece of early fictional non-fiction, brought to you in conjunction with our sister journal Hélice, where you will find a different(!) translation of the same work.
We were overwhelmed by the amount of stories submitted to us for publication in the spring issue, and by the number of visitors to the site. We are gradually making available the entire treasure trove of past SPJ stories (incl. those previously restricted to subscribers) and bring you new content with each quarterly issue. The comment sections remain fairly quiet, though, so don’t be shy, please share your thoughts with our authors. Feedback (even, or particularly, critical) helps us, authors and editors alike, hone our craft.
We plan ambitious initiatives for the near future, most importantly a comprehensive, ‘living’ bibliography of virtually the entire modern corpus of speculative, fictional non-fiction, as a permanent feature to be hosted on our site. Our next call for submissions is not far off either (1-31 July). In August, we’ll be represented at both the WorldCon in Dublin and TitanCon in Belfast (you may recognise Mariano and me by our SPJ T-shirts).
With these ongoing efforts we hope to ensure that the seeds planted by the founders of SPJ will continue to fall unto fertile ground and bear sparks of literary joy for many a friend of spec fic.
Some of us like to read our dose of speculative fiction and articles on trusty old paper.
For your convenience, here you can download the first issue of Sci Phi Journal in 2019 in its entirety, ready formatted as a reader-friendly PDF e-zine with a printer-friendly layout.
The Sci Phi Journal crew
by Ádám Gerencsér
Online publishing is a fractured landscape. There is a large volume of content vying for the attention of a relatively narrow readership. So why another journal?
In his post ‘So Long, and Thanks for the Philosophy’, the previous editor, Ray Blank, who had steered the Sci Phi Journal through the turbulent year of 2017, announced that it would be discontinued.
It so happened that I stumbled upon SPJ the very day Ray published that post. Looking for a venue that carried ‘my kind’ of SF, I realised that, while there are many sites, they all feature similar content. If you compare the submission guidelines of most SF mags, you’ll see a tendency to gravitate towards popular criteria that resemble contemporary literature at large. I was particularly aggrieved by the ubiquitous demand for the C-word: stories must be ‘character-driven’.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe that tales concerned primarily with the goings-on of imaginary people have their place and are likely what the majority of readers have come to expect, particularly now that narrative tastes are shaped by television and online media. But writing, especially short fiction, can do so much more.
Thus sprung the wish to resurrect SPJ in order to provide a home for philosophical, conceptual and idea-driven speculation. I’m most fortunate that on this quest I can count on formidable allies such as Mariano Rodriguez Martín, editor of the speculative fiction journal Hélice and prolific scholar of the genre’s history, along a small but plucky band of enthusiastic (foolhardy?) volunteers.
Over the coming months, we intend to add additional sections to the journal, reminiscent of ‘pinned posts’ or wiki articles, on topics that broadly correlate with serious philosophical speculation. For instance, we plan to build a comprehensive bibliography of ‘artefacts’ (the above-mentioned fictional non-fiction) and will invite readers to flag up any titles we might have missed.
We have few illusions, for we are pragmatic idealists. This site exists as a labour of love and generates no form of income. But if we can gradually gather a core of readers and writers who are ‘into’ this niche and wish to engage in an exchange of ideas and inspiration through stories, articles and frank discussion in the comment sections, it will have already been worth it. For in the cacophony of the world, we will have found each other.
P.S.: Our heartfelt thanks go out to the crew who made this first edition possible (you may read more about them in the About section of the website) and the authors of fiction and articles who had so generously contributed original work to support the journal’s revival. You are awesome!
A lost tale reconstructed from the Byzantine chronicle of 1453
by Ádám Gerencsér
A portent of imminent defeat hung heavily in the air. This day of reckoning had been put off for generations by the forefathers of the city’s current inhabitants, in turn by diplomacy, by cunning or deceit, at times by feigned fealty and tributes, but always with an increasing sense of humiliation. The impoverished inheritors of Christendom’s Eastern capital had fought a forlorn struggle to stem the tide of their decline, as their empire aged and wilted in the shade cast by its young and powerful neighbour, the harbinger of a new prophet promising conquest and mastery over ever more chatteled infidels.
Tomorrow, the harvest. What Crusaders had sown two and a half centuries ago, the sword, nay, the scythe of Islam would finally reap. With each passing lifetime, fortresses fell, land was laid waste, fiefdoms splintered, dynasties fought over dwindling mementos of past glory. For each mistrusted ally, two loyal enemies were made and the people of the soil were crippled by soldiering and levies of taxation. The territory crumbled and contracted like a tightening noose, until nothing but a claim to titular figments stretched beyond the ramparts. Owned, perhaps, but not governed. Even Constantinopolis was a ghost of its former self, with more stones than menfolk, more bastions than arms to man them. And for the past two moons a resolute foe on all sides, wearing down what remained, preparing for the morrow’s final assault. The Occident had sent blessings but no ships to their rescue.
But now the city was awake with chants of hope and consolation. The emperor Constantine, eleventh to carry the Name, had summoned the Patriarchs, the generals of the army, the admirals of the fleet, the magistrates of the districts, the priests, monks, merchants and mendicants. And the women, huddling their children, too soft to fight, too scared to sleep, sensing despair on pale adult faces. Processions with all the paraphernalia of devotion. In the church of Holy Wisdom, Romans and Greeks saying mass together at last, clinging to prayer for reassurance. And what prayer! Supplications of a mindfulness only produced on mortality’s verge.
“I had looked into the future and did not like what I saw. I besieged Him for His permission to intervene. And now I take form.”
On the ceiling of the Hagia Sophia, obscured by the scented smoke from a forest of candles, a mosaic on the right apse appeared to move. The slight alteration of form at first remained subtle and was perhaps dismissed as a mirage by the devoted who witnessed it privately. The archangel seemed to slowly spread her wings and firm her grip on the golden staff. She gently drew towards herself the orb in her left palm, which intimated familiar outlines: a walled city perched on the tip of a peninsula, folded into a narrow, lengthy bight and nestled by a great waterway.
The ceremony was interrupted by a breath of collective awe as tiny cubes of cut stone began to rain down from the arch of the apse. The winged messenger literally stepped out of the masonry and crashed to the ground, indenting the tiled floor with her knees. The impact echoed through the vaulted dome like the recoil of Ottoman siege batteries. Then silence.
She only spoke for a moment, words uttered in the Language, her voice intent and clear.
“Many of you will die tomorrow. Repent and He shall accept you into heaven. But if you live, then stand your ground and I will deliver you victory.”
Holy water still pearling on his regal armour, crying the tears of a lifetime’s uncertain faith thus vindicated, the Basileos was first to kneel before her and embrace her feet in the relief of surrender. The prelates and the congregation gazed on, numb with catharsis. Yet the angel enfolded Constantine in her arms, pulled him up and kissed his temple.
“I saw that you would die with honour, so you shall live. In His name you still rule.”
They beheld her soaring on the parapet of the Mesoteichion, at the moment when ladders went up against the whole length of the wall from the Propontis to the Golden Horn and the serried ranks of warriors assailed the breaches lacerated by Turkish bombards. She ascended with wings outstretched, then plunged into the mass of bodies, helmets, pikes and lances.
She struck with elemental force, the impact scattering a cloud of flesh and material. Battalions of men were knocked over and cast afield, or left lying shattered, semi-conscious of blood seeping from torn eardrums. A blur of blade-like feathers tore through confused lines of janissaries, spahis and topchis, leaving concentric circles of devastation in their wake.
Once the damage was sufficient to make the outcome a foregone conclusion, and the angel was confident that the resolve of the defenders was thus steeled, she shot forward across the Horn. The Sultan’s golden-red tent commanded the height of Galata hill, from whence Mehmed could observe the entire field of battle, then the city and behind it, the sea. Proper form required that he be seated, on a portable throne, or a white horse, but now he stood erect, bitterly fixated on a spectacle of the impossible. Allah had never shown himself to his worshippers and yet was saving that whore, Byzantium.
The apparition knew the power of words and left courtiers and guards unharmed as she landed with the softness of benevolent judgment. A tall seraphine shadow against the midday sun, she threw the remnant of a horse-tailed banner at the Sultan’s feet and gently laid a hand on his throat.
“You will leave Rumelia and never cross the Bosporus again.”
With the realisation of his life spared, his campaign lost and his creed made nought, the ruler whispered acquiescence. The angel released her grip and gave him a second glance before taking to the air.
“Convert. Spread the faith. You could still be of use.”
After the dead had been buried, and the probing dusk was lit up by torches – not to scorch, but to illuminate – the Emperor and his Patriarchs ascended to the roof loggia of the monastic library where the messenger landed to rest. Approaching her with the shy, impassioned love of freshly adopted orphans, Constantine dispensed with thanks and addressed what mattered to them most. Was this miracle a fleeting sign? Would she disappear by the morning? Would the city have to fight another day, left to rely once again on desperate human efforts for its survival?
Yet wings folded, legs crossed and brows serene, the visitor seemed comfortable.
“I will stay, if needs be, until a hundred generations grow old.”
Over the city, death-bound yesterday, now preserved and born anew, the angel’s gaze caressed a starlit, virgin horizon of infinite potential.
“Don’t fear. Hell has no power but over the mind. It softens the virtuous and flatters the vicious. Its might relies on the meekness of good men. I will make you strong.”
As the incantations of triumphant oratories rose to the balcony of the monastery, her thoughts drifted from the present. She envisioned the building of armies and fleets, foundries and siege engines, the sending of emissaries to the realms of Christendom, a personal apparition at the Papal Council, the founding of new schools, academies and hospitals, hastening the advance of civilisation for the ennoblement of a race fashioned to her liking. A succession of souls living disciplined lives of faith and valour. A world of glorious victories, then lawful peace and pious order. And glancing further into her immortal future, she saw limitless promise: a pilgrim armada of obedient starships ploughing the depths of space, forever expanding her regency. An empire uniting all under heaven.
Leaning intently over sprawling maps of Europe, the Holy Land and the Silk Road under the insurgent light of her own Morning Star, she could not help but utter in exultation: “My kingdom come. My will be done.”