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Posted by Matt | September 15th, 2011

This month Strange Horizons begins its annual fund-raising drive for 2011. I’ve donated, and while I wouldn’t feel comfortable suggesting that you should, too–I don’t know you or your circumstances–I thought I might outline some of the reasons that I value Strange Horizons as I do, some of the ways it fills needs that I think are worth supporting.

Most immediately, as an occasional writer and voracious reader of in-depth reviews of fantastic fiction, I value Strange Horizons as one of the only edited, paying venues for such reviews that is freely and widely available. It is one of the very few edited online review venues unaffiliated with a book publisher; it is perhaps the only online venue that positions itself as accepting unsolicited reviews; and it is one of the few venues, online or in print, without a strong editorial bias against negative reviews. If a reviewer wants their writings to be considered seriously, openly, and widely–if a reader wants serious coverage of a wide variety of fictions–then Strange Horizons must occupy a central position of consideration. As such, Strange Horizons serves as something of a hub for independent-minded readers and writers with a deep affection for the fantastic in media, but who are generally able to distinguish between I like it and it is good.

This is a fraught distinction that I’d suggest is more important now than ever. As the publishing landscape has changed over the past decade, there have emerged not fewer gatekeepers, but more. Myriad small presses and imprints with editorial guidance tuned to myriad tastes and affinities mean that it is easy for potential readers to find any given book or story being advocated, but harder to find coverage that looks at what readers outside a targeted affinity group might make of a book. Likewise, it has become harder for readers to find reviews written with the intention of being interesting and valuable whether or not the reader goes on to read–or has already read–the book; harder to find venues that value and nurture reviews in their own right as worthwhile methods of conveying ideas. At the same time, it has also become harder for authors of fiction to garner balanced feedback on their work; for an author this new media world must seem divided into fans and haters. With editors less able to spend time actually editing, the only detailed feedback writers may receive to measure their success and improve their craft must now come mainly from other sources, such as reviews. By striving to provide all of this, Strange Horizons reviews thus serve an invaluable role to multiple audiences.

Of course, Strange Horizons publishes more than reviews. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the publication has been its inclusiveness of material. Strange Horizons is one of the few paying markets to treat poetry as integral rather than a separate niche; it is a regular part of each weekly issue. It was one of the first online venues to integrate art, although that has diminished–perhaps due to lack of funds. And of course Strange Horizons has been publishing leading-edge fiction for more than a decade. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, slipstream, interstitial: the determining factors of publication in Strange Horizons are not category but quality, an avoidance of the clichés that are the bread and butter of many other story markets, and a contemporary attitude toward intersections–between normal and strange, past and future, known and unknown. You never know quite what you’re going to get with a Strange Horizons story, except that it will be something that deserves publication. This is its excellence for readers, and as a market for writers.

Recently I have been volunteering time to help proofread some of the older issues of Strange Horizons in preparation for a revamped website. It’s been an eye-opening experience to discover (or in some cases, rediscover) so many gems from the past decade. (A “best of the decade” volume of Strange Horizons content would be phenomenal.) In those archives are a gaggle of stories from award-nominated authors who have just recently seen, or will soon be seeing, publication of their first novels and collections–N.K. Jemisin, Will McIntosh, Genevieve Valentine, Lavie Tidhar, Kameron Hurley, Amal El-Mohtar, Saladin Ahmed, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Theodora Goss are just names off the top of my head–as well as now-established vets like Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, and Justine Larbalestier. Writers of such quality would have achieved success without Strange Horizons, of course; but there’s a lot to be said for the way that the openness of Strange Horizons can help writers simultaneously expand their range and their readership.

What’s been most pleasing about Strange Horizons in recent years is seeing how hard the publication has worked at improving itself. In particular, at bridging gaps without losing its identity. Among various improvements and additions in the past year, Genevieve Valentine’s film columns have been bridging the gap between surging film/media fandom and the more traditional, book-oriented; Mark Plummer has been bridging gaps between that traditional SF&F fandom and individuals who like some of the fiction but don’t necessarily self-identify as fans; Vandana Singh has been providing a look at real science not as the gee-whiz Golden Age savior of so much Western SF, but as a holistic component of the choices people worldwide make when we interact with the world, and each other. Strange Horizons also took a lead role in examining issues of diversity in genre reviewing early in this year, including a hard self-examination; an informal count of its subsequent reviews shows improvement, with a number of new contributors offering interesting perspectives on a noticeably more diverse distribution of works.

No publication is perfect, none get it right all the time. I do not enjoy every Strange Horizons story; I don’t find every review meaty enough; not every interview asks the tough questions that I wish were asked; not every poem reads to me as more than an over-determined set of words joined by indifferent grammar. But Strange Horizons seems better than most at being self-aware and working to improve. It is the publication that feels to me least satisfied with the status quo–its own and the larger field of narrative fantastika. It seems to have the largest vision, the widest aspirations: to serve as an example that diverse content from diverse hands leads not to “the problem of maintaining quality,” but rather goes hand in hand with increased quality; to catalyze an aesthetic that appreciates the consideration of individual nuance, complexity, and ambiguity, rather than easy morals and quick, rigid categorizations; to represent people living in a world that is indeed facing strange horizons, but to present the unknown as something that, while sometimes scary, can also be suggestive of openness and possibility. Change may not always be good, but it is inevitable, so let us make the best of it; let us make art of it.

In short, Strange Horizons is doing a lot right already; I’d like to see what it can achieve if this fund drive enables further improvement.

Posted by Matt | December 31st, 2010

There is, to be clear, no such thing as the Encyclopedia Fantastika. I use the label because my models for these brief pieces are the wonderful “motif” entries in John Clute & John Grant’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and in Peter Nicholls and Clute’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

SAIL AWAY. At the conclusion of some fantasy stories, especially those with epic themes, a subset of the victorious heroes will sail away from the land of the tale, forever departing it. This image of sailing away, of leave-taking over water, is powerful because, in the best tradition of the fantastic, it unites a complex mesh of primal narrative themes, psychological metaphors, and actual cultural activities. In epic fantasies, centrally concerned with the restoration of rightness and health to a land afflicted by wrongness, heroic figures are typically bonded with the land. The land will reflect their moral advancement, and in turn their moral standing is a gauge of the land’s health. For the heroes to sail away displays that the land has been healed as much as it can be–that the hero’s work has been done. In this display, the instability of water marks an important contrast to the land. Merely walking away from a land can be an act of repudiation. But the contrast of a newly-stabilized land with water can suggest that something has been birthed, often a new nation or ordering of nations, based on a concept of rightful rule. And so, by association, a new hero. This hero’s sailing away is often a stately farewell, ceremonial–a sign that proper order has been restored to the land. This often marks another contrast, with what was often a panicked and unruly initial departure earlier in the story. Sailing is a potent symbol of mastering chaos.

On the other hand, there is more than a hint of death ritual in scenes of sailing away, as sending the dead away by boat, and/or a land of the dead reachable only by crossing water, figures in many world cultures–and is duplicated in such scenes as the Departure of Boromir. The departure of the hero necessarily results in a land lessened by their absence. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, this lessening is a literalized departure of what the heroes symbolize: that is, the departure, or death, of moral absolutes and certainty from the world. In this sense sailing away as a movement can be a deliberately anachronistic evocation of a time when sailing was a perilous to journey into the unknown and unmapped. This uncertainty is now our world writ large. Similarly in The Lord of the Rings, and in other epic works such as Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, the hero’s departure is connected to the departure of magic and possibility from the world. In these cases the departure has connective and explanatory content. It connects the fantasy world with our own, or one like our own, and explains the mundanity of our world. This has led some critics (cf China Miéville) to label this narrative of departure as consolatory, in that the modern world is presented as inherently imperfectable–and so discouraging of attempts at perfecting it. The hero has healed the land, but only imperfectly; and the land, in turn, is often unable to heal the hero: the hero has perhaps become too pure for the land to sustain. This disparity, that the hero must often leave the land and move on to some heaven-like realm to receive healing, sets ultimate limits on our ability to improve conditions in this world, and so is often conservative. And the associated element of sacrifice often makes it a movement utilized by Christian authors or authors steeped in Christian cultures. This can also be true of the sort of SF that can read like fantasy: each of Gene Wolfe’s Sun series, for example–New, Long, and Short–ends with a departure by ship. But in cases where heroes are offered a chance to sail away and refuse this opportunity–as do both Taran and Eilonwy in Alexander’s Prydain, or Raederle at the end of Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster trilogy–there can be both a conservative sense of knowing one’s proper place, of quasi-Christian rejection of temptation, combined with an un-Christian groundedness in the land and affirmation of its vitality and the primacy of the relationships it offers. Ursula Le Guin’s original Earthsea trilogy cleverly mixed these possible endings: the commonly-told ending, the book’s narrator tells us, is that the hero Ged, having given up his magic, sailed away never to be heard from again; but, we are also told, others hold that he returned to the forests and mountains of his homeland, where we first encountered him.

The content of the movement of sailing away is not just metaphorical–the question “what would it be like to live in a world in which qualitative differences between lands were incarnate” can be evocative because many cultural stories of our world have historically represented lands in that fashion–America as a golden land of opportunity, for example. This can have negative consequences. Insofar as it is often an entire race that sails away (Tolkien’s elves, Alexander’s Sons of Don), this movement can be connected with notions of racial essentialism and can have colonial connotations. It can feel like attempts at justification: there is a pattern of a “superior” race sailing to a land, saving it from great evil, and then sailing away; and it is the rare fantasy in which those who remain are depicted as glad to see such drive-by saviours depart. It is also a movement generally rejecting of multicultural ideas, in that it tends to imply that there are separate, rightful places for different races and other groups. Exceptions–such as the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, who teach each other to love each other’s realms–are nearly always individual, and nearly always due to love. There can be a complexity to this movement, then, even in “classic” genre works often regarded as morally simple: the meaning can change depending on the scale examined, and so will be read differently by different readers at different times. And with these tropes established by the classics, more modern fantasies can–deliberately or not–offer larger subversions of the motif. In VanderMeer’s Finch, for example, the usual movements of departure are first revealed to be false, and then fail; and what is left, as the eponymous Finch observes by rickety rowboat, is a teeming mass of races and peoples with equally valid land claims now faced with the challenge of living together, however imperfectly.

If you have any good examples that I missed, or further thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments.

Posted by Matt | August 5th, 2010

This is a short piece I wrote as a contribution for a feature on another website a few years back. It seems worth re-posting here and now (with minor revisions) for several reasons: first, so that I won’t forget about it–I was only reminded of it this morning because of this excellent piece on the playfulness of David Mitchell’s writing; second, because some of my upcoming book reviews may involve these topics; third, because it’s relevant to recent discussions I’ve seen about critical thinking and reading. To my mind two of the tasks of a reviewer are to encourage critical reading by showing the enjoyment and other benefits that can derive from it, and to gently demonstrate it in their work so that readers who want to learn can see it “in action,” as it were. I try to do some of the latter in my reviews–some of both, really–but perhaps the former could also use addressing more directly….

* * *

One aspect of fiction that I tend to focus on and appreciate is the sense of play intrinsic to the very unreality of fiction, the delight in human imagination that comes from knowing participating in the creation of a fictional story (in my case, via completing the loop of the story’s creation as a reader and occasional reviewer). On a large scale, that of story groups and genres, this is part of why I enjoy fantastic and speculative fiction, which make no bones about their unreality; it is part of why I enjoy metafiction, stories about the creation of story; it’s part of why I enjoy postmodern fiction, which suggests that all we have are stories. I don’t read fiction because I expect it to be “realistic,” as that word is usually understood; that’s what nonfiction, and in particular journalism, aspire to. Rather, I read fiction because I expect it to be true to our unique and marvelous human need to imagine and share stories; and true as well to the imaginative possibilities of each unique human’s different perceptions of and perspectives on the world.

At the level of individual stories, my focus on the joy of imagining leads me to enjoy those works that make evident that an author is at play; for example, those that feel structured and architected to set up interesting or unusual themes, conflicts, and dramatic situations. However grim and dour the story situation may be–or however complicated the choice between multiple positive possibilities–we can tell that the author enjoyed imagining it and bringing it about in the story. Similarly, I enjoy a strong sense of narrative presence, unreliable or otherwise, that makes plain that a story is being told. This appreciation is also part of why I enjoy elements of prose such as simile and metaphor: these encapsulate the essence of story, how saying that one thing is something else, or is two things at once, can be (or seem) impossible, and yet be true and revelatory in their wondrous connections. Somewhat more prosaically, my appreciation for the sense of play intrinsic to story leads me to appreciate stories that include scenes of play, of games and fun, or that incorporate puzzles for the reader.

These are some of the elements of story that delight me when I encounter them, yet often I see many of them called pretentious, elitist, or simply unrealistic. Allow me to suggest an alternate interpretation: they are there to evoke delight, to be enjoyed, and to communicate a sense of hope in people’s ability to imagine.