Tuesday, January 6, 2015

PERSPECTIVES: on Jonathan McCalmont's Reviews of Uncanny and Terraform

Welcome to Perspectives, the yin to Blogtable's yang!

Here's how it works: three regular 'nerds of a feather, flock together' contributors all read an editoral, opinion piece or critical essay written by an external blogger, critic, journalist or creative person. The lead discussant summarizes the main arguments. Then the three discussants respond directly to the prompt (and not to each other, as in Blogtable). The idea is to capture a range of opinion--contrasting, complementary or just qualitatively different--to important or provocative ideas. Do not expect all three respondents to feel or react the same way.

In our first episode, the discussants will parse Jonathan McCalmont's blog post series at Ruthless Culture (links provided below), in which he compares the launch issues of the kickstarter-funded Uncanny Magazine, edited by Apex Magazine veterans Lynne and Michael Damien Thomas, and Vice Media's new online science fiction magazine, Terraform. These should, I think, be essential reading--whether you agree with the main thrust or not--and, as such, should serve as a launching pad for broader critical discussions about the current direction of short science fiction and fantasy literature. So, after a brief summary of McCalmont’s arguments, three of us will each provide our reactions. This episode's discussants:

The G

The G is founder and co-editor of 'nerds of a feather, flock together', which covers SF/F  and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic. 


Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog. When not holed up in his office
tweeting obnoxiouslywriting, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.


Charles is a writer, reader, reviewer and recent addition to the nerds of a feather team. Check out his latest fiction, "Handful of Spring," published by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

Episode 1: Reactions to Jonathan McCalmont's Comparison of the First Issues of Terraform and Uncanny Magazines


Jonathan McCalmont on Uncanny; Terraform; comparison.


Summary of the Argument(s) Being Made

Those invested in (or at least aware of) discourses internal to fandom will recall that Uncanny launched to great excitement, while Terraform mostly drew attention for claiming in its mission statement that there really wasn't much short-form science fiction available online and wasn't it great that someone was finally doing this! Unsurprisingly, this demonstrably false claim upset a number of people involved in, well, writing, publishing and reading science fiction online.

One might thus logically conclude
that Uncanny would be the more promising of the two new ventures. McCalmont, however, sees Uncanny as a very "safe" (i.e. risk-averse) outlet--a new market, to be sure, but an "insider" venture publishing the same exact kinds of form-driven, "awards-seeking" stories--by the same small circle of writers--you would find in a randomly selected issue of Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons or Apex. This, he argues, is no accident, but is instead a function of Uncanny's position within the social economy of fandom:
Increasingly dominated by a suite of free online publications, the genre short fiction scene is becoming a literary niche in which readers are entirely optional. As with academic publishing, many of the institutions supporting genre short fiction are less interested in reaching an audience than they are in providing the rungs for a vast aspirational ladder.
That aspirational ladder, he suggests, begins with publication in a pro-paying market before scaling up to inclusion in one of the many “Year’s Best” anthologies before peaking with Hugo and Nebula awards.

Put more firmly in the Bourdieusian vocabulary McCalmont uses to frame his argument, Uncanny c
ould be said to utilize social capital (i.e. networks) in order to produce cultural capital (i.e. prestige) for social actors who already possess institutional advantages within fandom--with results that, while polished in terms of craft, are predictable, stale and contrived. Provocatively, he further asserts that the online pro-paying markets have largely abandoned “traditional” idea-driven science fiction in favor of “over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions.”

McCalmont’s critique of Uncanny #1 thus feels like a corollary to the “exhaustion” thesis laid out by Paul Kincaid in his 2012 piece “The Widening Gyre” (and further fleshed out in part 1 and part 2 of our epic interview), but with the finger of blame pointed directly at fandom’s internal social hierarchies.

In contrast, McCalmont sees the Vice-owned Terraform as a more progressive market--due, in no small part, to the fact that it is an outsider venture with little or no interest in fandom as a social field, and which is furthermore subject to the kinds of economic capital constraints that necessitate audience-building:
As part of a non-fiction website with no real ties to genre culture, Terraform’s future viability appears to depend less upon reaching a genre audience than upon the editors’ ability to convince an existing non-fiction audience to cross the aisle and start reading fiction. Uncanny’s future may be dependent upon convincing aspiring authors that donations will help them to secure a seat at the cool kids’ table but Terraform’s future seems to lie in page views, click-throughs and convincing the manufacturers of drones and 3D printing devices that people are actually reading science fiction stories.
Engagement with the world has been built into Terraform at a structural level as every story contains tags related to its subject matter meaning that you can read a story about drones and then click through to all of the articles about drones that Motherboard have published over the years. This easily overlooked design decision instantly makes everything that Terraform publishes seem relevant and connected to the real world. I know that some random piece of SEO shouldn’t grab my attention but a tiny detail like connecting stories to real-world events and ideas shows a willingness to engage and make moves that genre culture stopped making around the collapse of the pulps. Also interesting is that people are actually commenting on the stories! Most short fiction is received by reverential (or more likely indifferent) silence but Paul Ford’s story about Uber has people not only applauding the story but also talking about the story in terms of their own thoughts and experiences!"
This divergence of organizational approaches, McCalmont argues, has produced diametrically opposed trajectories for the two magazines:
Genre culture routinely lionises work that ‘breaks down genre boundaries’ without ever bothering to understand why genre boundaries existed in the first place. Genre boundaries were not for writers but for readers; they were a way of telling people what to expect when they picked up a book or magazine. Having read five Terraform stories, I know exactly what to expect the next time I stop by their website but after reading the first issue of Uncanny the only thing I expect from them in future is forgettable non-fiction and fiction that uses the same literary techniques as stories that have recently been winning awards. The editors of Terraform have the courage to set a creative agenda whereas the editors of Uncanny seem content to follow an ever-expanding field and rely on their social contacts to give them prominence."
McCalmont ultimately concludes that:
...compared to the manicured lawns and exquisite tea services of Uncanny, Terraform feels a bit like a frontier town; wild and woolly but still not quite finished. However, while Terraform’s stories may be full of tricks that don’t quite work and ideas that don’t quite join up, this roughness doesn’t so much detract from the stories as add to them by giving them a sense of urgency, as though the contributors were seeing things on the news and rushing to turn them into short stories before the news cycle ended.

The G

I guess I should start off by saying that I don’t share Jonathan’s negative opinion of the kind of stories published in Uncanny #1, which one could probably refer to, in more value-neutral terms, as “speculative neo-magic realism.” That is to say, stories that occupy the interstitial spaces between mimetic, science and fantasy fiction, and which are generally marked both by self-consciously “poetic” prose and frequent use of literalized metaphors as the primary narrative device. I found this kind of stuff really exciting a few years ago, back when I started reading Clarkesworld and Lightspeed regularly, while several stories that featured on my Hugo ballot last year--Claire Humphrey’s "Your Figure will Assume Beautiful Outlines" and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “Silent Bridge, Pale Cascade," for example--are the kind of thing Jonathan might dismiss as "over-written sentence fragments about magical people experiencing emotions." So different strokes for different folks and all that.

Even so, as someone deeply invested in science fiction and fantasy literature, the convergence on this style among the online pro-paying markets--a convergence Jonathan sees symbolized in Uncanny’s first issue--bothers me. And it does so for a number of reasons:
  1. Because, by nature, science fiction and fantasy should offer limitless imaginative possibilities. Thus any convergence insofar as approach is concerned represents a narrowing of the genre’s potential to do the exact things that make it special. 
  2. Because convergence both reflects, reinforces and reproduces consensus on what a “professional” story “should” look like, and the kinds of stories a pro-paying market "should" publish in order to look “authentic."
  3. Because consensus leads overworked and underpaid editors and slush readers to identify stories according to the emerging model of “authenticity”--consciously or unconsciously.
  4. Because this organizational isomorphism sends a message to submitting authors, inevitably backed by experience with the slush pile, that there are formulas to be adhered to and not transgressed.
  5. Because adherence to formulas inevitably leads to the preponderance and eventual hegemony of form-driven content.
My concerns are not, strictly speaking, *about* Uncanny the magazine. Judged solely on its own merits, I thought the first issue was solid if unspectacular. But even if I’d felt as strongly negative about it as Jonathan, I wouldn’t judge the whole venture based on the first issue--I’ve seen too many rough pilot episodes for good TV shows to do that. Besides, the emergence of any new and viable pro-paying market, regardless of how it launches, is arguably a good thing for the overall ecosystem. Hopefully in time the need to “stand out” in a crowded field will provide incentives for Uncanny to forge an identity distinct from its competitors.
Nevertheless, I do see Uncanny #1 as a missed opportunity of sorts--a lost chance to widen the band of what the online pro-paying markets are currently publishing, and in the process add something new and vital to the overall conversation. In that sense I do very much agree with Jonathan that Terraform, to date at least, represents the more dynamic and exciting venture. Genre needs more outlets that eschew formulas, or at least try new ones. More to the point, it needs more outlets that don’t give a shit about conventions or consensuses. Terraform can do this because, as Jonathan notes, it isn’t linked to the institutions of fandom or its internal social hierarchies.

Yet Terraform also has its limitations--serious ones at that too. Capping stories at 2,000 words, for one, makes no sense to me. And though I welcome experimentation with voice and narrative structure in fiction, several stories--Bruce Sterling’s “The Brain Dump,” for example--center on conceits that fall on the wrong side of the line dividing "zeitgeisty" and "gimmicky." That's the downside of Terraform's clickbait economic strategy--an approach that can get old really fast.

Luckily for both ventures, a first issue really is analogous to a pilot episode. Nothing is set in stone, and there’s plenty of time to adjust trajectories in order to provide the pro-paying short fiction space with the most dynamic new markets possible. I do hope that’s where both end up.


We review damn near anything here on this blog- comics, movies, book, video games, pretty much anything, ya know, nerdy. We also have a whole mess of people who review, and lord knows I don't agree with all of them all the time (except Vance, from whom I am pretty sure I was separated at birth). So opinions are far, far from universal, particularly on artistic works.

One trend I have seen (I am speaking beyond this blog) is the refusal to write negative reviews. "Who am I to judge?" is sort of the general statement that is made, which is true, to an extent. But that is sort of the point, isn't it? I could go on for hours about the present trend of never, ever judging anything, but let's focus on artistic works for now.

I get a ton of review requests for my Adventures in Indie Publishing column, and most of them I decline because, frankly, most self-published books are terrible on every level. The cover, the writing, the story, the editing. I choose not review them, generally, for two reasons:

  1. Space and time are limited, and the point of AiIP is to highlight the good self/indie works
  2. I haven't made it past the first few pages before giving up due to the above deficiencies
So I certainly understand the hesitancy to negatively review books, but if you aren't willing to say "this was bad and I did not enjoy it", what standard is there for the works that you DO enjoy? And, let's say, you enjoyed a book, but there were several problems with it, would you not point those out? Of course you would. The first go 'round of 3024 was poorly edited, and that was pointed out in reviews. This was perfectly fair, and made me aware of where the failings were (I say 'were' as I got a new editor. Check references, kids). And I can tell you that my book was a far sight better than a lot of what I have seen. So if something is good, say it, and if not, hell, say that, too. If the author can't take it, they are in the wrong game.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Recently, there were a couple links tweeted out from the NF Twitter account, to
Ruthless Culture, reviewing the new short fiction markets Uncanny and Terraform (the latter of which I went on my own rant about). I found the tone of McCalmont’s reviews to be somewhat 'cynically pretentious'. I actually agree with most of his points (particularly about genre, which is a rant unto itself), but found the tone to be unnecessarily superior.
That is, until I went back and read the post contrasting the two publications, making good points about both, while also being somewhat condescending along the way.

Is that what criticism has come to? That it has to come from a place of smug superiority? If you bash 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight, unadulterated pieces of garbage of every single level, it's met with "well, at least they read". And perhaps that's the reason people don't want to leave a one-star review. That, and the author might stalk you beat you with a wine bottle.

One of the main reasons I accepted the invitation to write for this site is the scale we use. One to ten, instead of five (seriously, the five-star system is TERRIBLE). Ones and tens are pretty rare, and it allows for a poor work to have redeeming qualities, and a great work to have flaws pointed out.

Isn't that the point of criticism?


After reading the reviews, I think the discourse used is skewed. It assumes that there are two sides (the Uncanny Side and the Terraform Side) and that they are at odds. But I don't think anyone on the "Uncanny Side" of the argument has a problem with Terraform existing in the way that the reviews seem to have a problem with Uncanny existing. I don't even think there are sides. I think that some people took issue with how the mission statement of Terraform was worded. When it was cleared up, and Terraform did recognize that it had erred and changed, it was done. I haven't seen anyone complaining about the caliber of the stories. Indeed, I've seen the fiction applauded. Especially with Terraform paying twenty cents a word. That seems to be what most people are talking about now. Not that there weren't some hiccups, but I think people (including those writers who criticized that mission statement) are glad that Terraform is here.

The thing is, people are generally glad Uncanny is here, too. The reviews seemed to imply that people don't actually want the stories that Uncanny publishes, that those stories don't appeal to "casual" readers and that the stories Terraform publishes do. Or that having sites like Apex, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and others makes Uncanny unnecessary. Except what these publications are united in is bringing a very diverse range of stories to the public. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror in many flavors. It might make knowing what you’ll get in each issue difficult, but that’s part of the appeal, that you never quite know what you’ll be exposed to, and that is a powerful and useful. That's why Uncanny was successfully funded. The reviews seemed to imply that Uncanny only got its money because of Kickstarter trickery, but why would it be easier to believe that than that readers are hungry for the sorts of stories that Uncanny and other magazines put out? Why is it easier to believe that near-future science fiction will bring more people into spec fiction than fantasy or horror?

Because I can agree that the methodology of Terraform is interesting, and might indeed bring in new people. But I cannot agree that science fiction is the only way to push boundaries. I think boundaries are being pushed now. After all, in my mind the point of science fiction was never to show us how to have better stuff. It wasn't really to make science better. It was to try and make humanity better, to try and imagine how we can step into new frontiers. And fantasy can do that as well. Horror can do that as well. I don't see an abundance of very good publications, even if there is some overlap, as a bad thing. Because it's not like the stories Terraform is publishing would not be published otherwise. The writers they've published are not unknowns. They are not genre outsiders. If you compare them to, say, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination or Lightspeed, you'll see some similarities in their recent releases, some overlap.
The reviews, really, seem a way to complain about the stories that are "winning awards" right now, as if there is no diversity in the genre. And as if those award-winning stories are all the same and are making it so that every other kind of story is no longer published or valued. And that's just not the case. There is great diversity in the genre, which I think is a good thing. I like more than just science fiction, more than just fantasy. I like light comedies and dark, brooding tragedies. I like stories with aliens, stories with magic, stories with airships or superheroes or some combination of all of the above. And that's why I try to read as widely as possible. Including Terraform. Including Uncanny. Including a dozen or so other publications. It's a great time to be a reader. And there is room enough for everyone, and best of luck to them all. What the genre needs is more places paying writers and publishing good stories.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and
'nerds of a
feather, flock together' founder/administrator