Wednesday, November 1, 2017

MAPPING SHORT SF/F: Part 2: Fun Short SFF

Fun. For some people, fun evokes childhood and a certain kind of carefree energy. For others, it means something more like excitement and adventure and novelty. Mapping fun short SFF is something of a challenge, not because I cannot point to works that I’d consider fun, but because fun is a weirdly nebulous term that, like most things, I probably define oddly in terms of genre. But, as that what I’m seeking to do in this series, I’ll do my best.

To me, fun as a genre operates a lot like horror does. It’s not so much about elements of world building or how the piece conveys message. It’s not about theme or about any one style. When I say it operates a lot like horror, what I mean is that they both are built around a feeling. Horror as a genre is defined (or at least I define it) by its ability to evoke fear and unease in the reader. Whether the story seeks to do that through gore or violence, or through atmosphere and suspense, doesn’t matter so much, because it’s all horror. Similarly, for a story to be fun, it has to be about evoking an emotion. Instead of fear, though, I’d say that fun is about joy. To me, fun SFF stories are those that seek to make the reader feel joyous. Which, given the times, is both an incredibly difficult and important mission.


Now, I’ll start with the bad news. Fun seems like a rather difficult genre to pin down, and also a difficult one to market. I know that there is an assumption that some people have when they see the word fun it means easy or simple or...not important or impacting. There aren’t to my knowledge too many venues that specialize in fun SFF, though there have been a few that have tried. First and foremost, Mothership Zeta did an excellent job of exploring what fun SFF could look like. Released as a non-podcast branch of the Escape Artists, Mothership Zeta released a number of issues bursting with stories of all sorts of short SFF, all with the editorial intent to explore the intersection of speculative fiction and fun. And it did so with stories that were romantic, stories that were gripping, stories that were suspenseful and epic. There was a huge range of stories that the publication looked at, and a huge range of subgenres represented. I loved the publication, and while sadly it is on indefinite hiatus, it remains the sole “pro-level” publication I can think of that so intensely pursued fun as its goal.


Similarly, The Sockdolager had a focus on stories “that are fun to read.” So from an editorial level, The Sockdolager was looking to push stories that were fun, what flowed quickly and left the reader feeling invigorated and joyful. Which, again, doesn’t mean that they were only happy stories, or that they were without violence or meaning. My favorite horror story of 2016, “Butter-Daughters” by Nin Harris, came out at The Sockdolager, and it’s loads of fun as well as intensely creepy. It perhaps didn’t range quite so widely as Mothership Zeta in terms of pacing, preferring (in my opinion) rather fast-moving and punchy stories instead of more romantic or slower narratives, but I can safely say that the publication was always rather fun to read. It’s another publication, though, that has sadly closed its doors, and together with Mothership Zeta it makes the number of publications specifically interested in fun SFF...well, kinda slim.

That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be had. The other Escape Artists podcasts, especially Cast of Wonders, has a rather fun feel to them. Now, here’s where I have to slow down a little and say that it’s often the case that YA SFF or SFF geared toward younger audiences does often lean a bit more in the fun direction than does more “mainstream” SFF. There are reasons for this and not reasons I feel like going into here in great depth but, well...

MINI-RANT: There’s a whole long discussion that we could have about aesthetics and fun and art. Within SFF this is a very tangled and complex web, because genre work is often dismissed as fluff or without literary merit or escapist drivel or...all that. And in counter to that, there is a lot of SFF that brings in traditions that are more associated with literary fiction (and defining that would be another exercise is pain), by which I mean short fiction that is often considered for the highest awards for literature. There are also camps, though, that resist this effort to make SFF “more literary” or “more artistic,” not because they believe that SFF (and all genres, really) are already artistic and worthy of discussion and examination of art without shaming people’s tastes or preferences, but because they condemn “literary” fiction and “artful” fiction as pretentious and dull. So suffice it to say that we’re into some heady waters here. I do not believe that being fun makes a work suddenly not adult or not artistic (and again, not that I’d ever argue YA isn’t artistic, either). But I do recognize that YA and fun intersect or perhaps are allowed and expected to intersect more frequently than “mainstream” SFF and fun, so for those hungry for fun SFF, checking out the YA publications (Cast of Wonders and Cicada specifically), might yield some fruitful searches.
Similarly, checking out where SFF intersects with other genres often leads to finding a bit more freedom with regards to fun. While it ran, Urban Fantasy Magazine had a number of fun stories, and those looking for where SFF and romance intersect can find a whole slew of fun SFF stories that deal with relationships and spaceships, magic, and monsters. Indeed, for those looking for fun queer stories, checking out small queer presses (like Lethe, Circlet, Less Than Three, Dreamspinner, JMS, & more) can lead to finding fun SFF that gets pushed to the margins because it contains fun queer relationships, and these can come in all levels of heat (from lots of sex! to no sex at all to everything in between). Admittedly, finding short fiction of this sort normally requires searching for anthologies (of which there are many), or else shopping the individual ebooks of shorter works (which can be difficult when comparing it to the “mostly free” stuff that dominates “mainstream” SFF). It also means that you might end up putting down money for something you don’t much care for, and especially for those for whom money is tight, this can be a real barrier to getting at fun stories.

But FUN! Let's get back to what's out there. Though the number of fun-specific venues has decreased, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t publications that regularly put out really fun stories. I want to highlight three more that spring to mind as being good places to start. The first is Fireside Fiction. Especially at the flash fiction length, it often has joyfully fun stories, like "A Silhouette Against Armageddon" by John Wiswell and “Feeding Mr. Whiskers” by Dawn Bonnano. The publication definitely trades in darker and denser works as well, but fans of fun will be well served keeping an eye out for their weekly releases.


Secondly, The Book Smugglers put out some amazingly fun stories, both shorter stories to read for free as part of their yearly themes (this year was Gods & Monsters) and for their longer work such as the Novella Initiative. Again, some of their work does drive very dark, but there's a charming quality to so much of it and lots of it is just amazingly fun. Go read Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap, which is at times intense and at times rather violent but which is all about friendship and hope and joy. There's "Superior" by Jessica Lack and "Avi Cantor Has Six Months To Live" by Sacha Lamb and just so many stellar stories that center heart and fun. The publication doesn't tend to put a huge amount, but they're growing, and they're definitely one of my go-to sources for fun.

Thirdly, Daily Science Fiction is also well worth checking out. Given how much they put out, perhaps it’s not surprising that they hit the “fun zone” often enough, but I think overall the driving aesthetic of the publication leans more towards the fast and fun. These are pieces that are meant to be read almost every day, and as such they often act as little rays of sunshine to lift the spirits and inspire a push toward freedom and joy. There's a lot to sift through, but you'll find a lot of treasure if you give it a go.

I could go on with publications that often have some fun stories but I would challenge readers that if they want fun it’s often to go straight to the source, and perhaps track down your favorite writer of fun SFF and see if they have a Patreon. As this skirts around most gate-keeping in SFF, it’s often a place where authors can explore joyous stories without the crushing question of “can I sell this” or, if they’ve tried and failed to sell it, “what the fuck do I do with this now.” I can personally recommend the Patreons of Rose Lemberg, Merc Rustad, and Bogi Tak√°cs, where I’ve read recent fun SFF such as Lemberg's “The Splendid Goat Adventure” and Rustad's “Just Like Mombeast Used to Make.” The Patreon of Lethe Press also offers levels of support that include short stories, many of which are fun (and very queer). Obviously not all the content is going to be fun, but in my experience so far Patreon is a place that creators go to put up the stories they want to tell that they might not think will please “mainstream” venues. These works are often a bit freer, a bit looser, and a bit more fun than you might find elsewhere, so my advice is that if you find a piece that you love and is fun and want more, track the author down and see if they offer more like it through a Patreon.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of my advice is going to run along similar lines. Namely, that because fun SFF is something that is often viewed as...less marketable, I guess, it’s not often something publications take as many chances on (at least at the short fiction level). Which means that the costs of finding it are often passed down to the fans. It’s out there. There’s the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies which are loads of fun and funny to boot, but these are not things that you’ll get access to for free. Patreons, small presses, anthologies...at least at the short fiction level most of the more reliable sources of fun require a monetary investment. The good news is that there is a lot out there to support, and that your support can make a huge difference for people trying to do more with fun SFF. The bad news is that it can feel like fun SFF (and especially fun SFF that crosses other boundaries, like allowing marginalized character to just be happy and have adventures) isn’t incredibly welcome. It’s a complex conversation that SFF is having with itself and with the larger writing landscape, and one that continues to be tricky to navigate. In the wake of that conversation, the map of fun short SFF has some noticeable holes, gaps, and ruts. It doesn’t mean you can’t find what you’re looking for, just that it’s not the easiest of tasks, made more difficult by some recent closings of publications. But hey, some might rise to take their places, or they might even rise from the dead. There’s always hope, and where there’s hope, there’s often fun.

So thank you all for joining me on this first cartographic adventure! If you want to help determine what continent of short SFF I’ll be trying to map next, find me on Twitter and vote in my poll (closes date). Cheers!

[For those looking for the previous Mapping Short SFF installment, check it out here: A Key to the Kingdom]

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POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

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