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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Magazine Review: Residential Aliens #4

I am new to Residential Aliens.  Last year they published one of my stories, being the first place to publish anything I've written.  The publication was a fluke.  Mr. Perry, the regular editor of the online and print magazine, responded to one of my tweets about a story I was having trouble placing, and I decided then to send it his way.  Clearly he liked it.

Issue #4 of the magazine is a special edition, though.  Not because it includes anything I've written, which would represent a conflict of interest on my part for this review, but because John Ottinger, the infamous blogger at Grasping for the Wind, stole the editor's seat for this one issue,
selecting seven speculative tales for inclusion.  I don't know what the editorial process was like for him, and I can't recall if this is his first foray into editing (which is not an easy job to do, by the way; rejection letters are not fun to write).  In any case, it gave me the opportunity to use my Nook, which has not been getting the use I would like due to graduate school.
Cover Art ("That Darn Tower of Babel!") by Aaron C. Wirtz
Issue #4 is somewhat of a mixed bag, but it is also an issue that shows a fair deal of potential, which I think is important to note for a small, semi-pro market.  While the issue contains stories that I didn't care for, there are also stories here that I think are fantastic examples of speculative fiction.  "Salieri" by Marina Julia Neary, for example, end well enough, but is most interesting because of what it does with its setting and novum (the "new" idea).  It follows a brilliant college student in a faux-Victorian-era city who finds himself turned second-rate by his equally brilliant, but unusual, albino roommate.  The main character's interactions with the social landscape of a rigid university is only overshadowed by the plot twist, both of which are interesting concepts to consider in a realistic setting.  The only significant flaw in the story is its light-handed tackling of the twist, which could have been expanded and addressed with as much fervor as the university's social rules.  There's a grain of something brilliant in this story, not just because the ending flips the relatively mundane setting on its head, but also because what happens and what is left to be discussed are both ideas that really should be explored in quasi-fantasy (quasi-steampunk; quasi-alternate-history) fiction.  "Salieri" is certainly one of the strongest stories in Issue #4, despite its minor flaws.

"Flawed with some shiny, expensive gems," I think, is a useful way to describe Issue #4.  Most of the stories in this issue are at least entertaining (which I'll get to in a moment), but there are also stories that I think miss the mark.  "End of Eden" by Shane Collins, for example, reads more like fan-fiction for The Road (or any other dystopian tale from which McCarthy might have drawn), with a pair of lovers traveling across a ruined landscape avoiding gangs of wild people.  The problem with post-apocalyptic fiction (for me) is that so much of it reads like things that came before, and are, as a result, predictable.  In the case of "End of Eden," it is obvious from the moment the main characters arrive in a utopian community early in the story that everything is going to fall apart.  The fact that the female character gets pregnant during this journey--which is supposed to be devastating for her and her partner--is left unresolved; as far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, few stories that I have read have dealt with how one survives while pregnant in that kind of hostile environment, which might explain why I was surprised to see this particular plot point in "End of Eden."  It would be better to see that plot resolved, though.

While Collins' story benefits from the potential for unfamiliarity--i.e., that readers unfamiliar with dystopian SF might not recognize the story's cliche framework--the same is not true of "The King of Infinite Space" by Jason Reynolds.  As a story about drunk driving and racing, Reynolds' tale suffers from being utterly familiar.  We've heard this story told before:  a young man gets plastered and attempts to drive home, decides to try racing someone at a light, and then pulls out in the end only to find out the following day that the other car had crashed, killing the passengers.  Even the final "twist" is problematic, since it does nothing but conveniently connect the main character to someone else and provide closure.  As a motivational story, I suppose it works, but it is otherwise seriously lacking.

Other stories have similar flaws, though less pronounced, but they also contain a flare of originality.  "Fishing the Moons of Jupiter" by Jason Rizos takes a premise that should be quite boring (mining in space) and flips it on its head like a Doctor Who story by changing the search for minerals to the search for enormous, and dangerous, space worms (which produce copious amounts of energy that can be harvested back on Earth); but after the story progresses from the trials and tribulations of a mining crew in space to a very interesting "discovery," it ends, leaving an unresolved bigger picture.  I would have liked to see where the story could have gone with that ending, but the story simply stops.

"Overgrown" by Stoney M. Setzer, in contrast, reads like a pulpy action story that knows it's a pulpy action story, which might explain why its narrative feels disconnected.  The story tries to work too many narrative strands together (the story of a scientist who has overstepped and of a dysfunctional family who has to contend with the effects of science gone wrong--i.e., plant monsters), as if the author wanted to interject and say, "See?  This is what is going on over here.  Now back to your scheduled programming."  The story is, overall, entertaining and humorous, but too much attention is placed somewhere other than on the characters who seem to actually matter, and the ending is both convenient and too predictable.  But those might be features of pulp writing that I've simply forgotten, which might mean the story works just fine within its narrative parameters.

But there are also stories in this collection that I think are fantastic works of serious SF which outshine the other works. "Immortals" by Leah Darrow is a primary example. While slightly predictable in terms of its ending, Darrow's story is thoroughly fascinating based on its worldbuilding alone.  The story takes place in a world of humans-become-immortals, where natural acts of biology like childbirth have been reduced to "selfish" indulgences and where one man must "grow up" in a world that doesn't make it easy to do so.  I'd recommend it for those interested in social SF, since it digs deep into the implications of our inevitable mastery over death and the strange, if not terrifying, influences such changes will have on our social lives.  Wondering what we will become in our social and cultural lives is a fascinating avenue to consider in fiction, especially if the apparatus under which such changes come is a scientific one.  Technology has and continues to change us, and thinking about where we might end up in the next twenty years is a fertile field for science fiction writers to play in.

Lastly, there is is "Testament" by Michael C. Lea, which I consider to be the crown jewel in this issue (perhaps because I am fascinated by how technology influences the development of human identity).  As a murder mystery told through trial testimonies, "Testament" does two things:  1) plays with structure so that each succeeding speech reveals new pieces of information, new falsehoods, and so on, thickening the plot across multiple strands (like one of those logical grid puzzles we did as kids); and 2) imagines how human beings react to the complex emotions of jealousy, love, and so on when displaced by the technological "threat."  The story is engaging for those reasons alone, but the ending will also leave you spinning because it takes physics to its incredible (I'm hesitant to say logical here) extreme.  If not for its mundane setting (a trial and a lab), you might even call the story SciFi Strange.

Overall, I think the problem with the issue is that it doesn't feel consistent.  I don't know if that's an editorial or a personal problem (probably personal), since even an issue of Interzone will contain stories that I don't much care for.  This is the flaw of general SF/F magazines (even though Residential Aliens is technically a themed magazine) and collections; the more stories you include, the more likely you'll split your reading audience on certain stories.  But I also think it's important to note that while I think many of the stories in Issue #4 are flawed, they are also often (at least) entertaining.  In the end, I suspect this is what matters most.  Readers aren't always looking for "great" or "perfect" stories.  They're looking to be entertained.  For a lot of readers, Issue #4 will entertain throughout (with an exception or two).  There are plenty of amusing ideas, odd situations, and fun pulpy romps here.  For more "sophisticated" readers (I put that word in quotes on purpose, because it's an odd and controversial term to use to describe readers), however, I suspect that some of the stories will fall seriously short.  They will be pleased, I suspect, with "Immortals" and "Testament" ("Salieri," too), both stories that take unique approaches to truly human problems.  Hopefully more stories like these will be published in Residential Aliens in the future.

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  1. Shaun,

    I dunno, I think it's bad form for an author to trash markets that he sells to. I mean, personally, if I published an author in EDF and they later trashed a subsequent issue, I'd be disinclined to publish them in future (cause I'd be pissed).

    At Clarion West, David Hartwell (senior editor at TOR) encouraged budding authors like ourselves to give glowing reviews to authors we liked and never to publish a negative review, because both will be remembered and you need every friend you can get at this point. I kind of agree with that philosophy. If you need to publish a negative review, publish it under a pseudonym...

    Finally, Residential Aliens is a market that pays almost nothing and therefore publishes almost exclusively material from new authors. I'm sure some of these stories are flawed, but likely they're the best that came into the submission pile. Giving these guys, or even the magazine, a bad review is kind of pointless, because you expect flawed stories from RA.

    What does a bad review accomplish?

    1) It informs an editor when they've made poor story selections, but RA doesn't have much choice, does it?

    2) It informs the authors when they've written a poor story. Well, these guys know they're not being published in Asimov's (yet), so again, what's the point?

  2. A) I praised three stories (and noted their flaws as necessary), and only pointed out that some stories didn't go where they could have, but that they were entertaining nonetheless. So the whole thing isn't negative (only two stories I disliked). It starts negative, because I wanted to get that out of the way.

    B) I don't believe it is fair to only give good reviews or only to give bad reviews.

    C) If being honest means I won't get published again (whether by Lyn or another market), then what the hell is the point of trying to write in this field in the first place? I don't see a point in a field that doesn't have the integrity to be honest. Honesty sucks. If someone hates one of my stories, it'll hurt, but that's the point of criticism (no doubt someone did hate the story I sold to RA). You learn from it.

    D) I think assuming that a low-paying market publishes low-quality stories is a little more problematic than posting an honest review of the market itself. There are a few really good stories here. I noted as much. I even talk about them at length. They're top notch pieces. Sometimes the little guys publish really good fiction. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes even the big guys don't publish good stories. It happens. I even noted that even magazines that I love (like Interzone) publish stories that don't grab me as much as their other stuff.

    E) I can see your point about reviewing RA after selling to them. You're probably right. I don't know.

    And, yes, this comment is annoyingly methodical :P.

  3. Well, there's integrity and then there's what happens in the real world.

    Think of it this way: say you're selling oranges to vendor A who then resells them. Later on, you publish a review saying some of vendor As oranges are rotten and unhealthy. Do you think vendor A will respect your integrity? My guess is that she'd be less likely to buy oranges from you.

    About the "negative first" philosophy... I'm a big fan of sandwiching bad news between two sets of good news. They taught that in business school and you'd be surprised at how effective it is.

    In regards to D), I'm not saying that Res Aliens publishes bad stories, simply that they don't have much choice in the matter. If they get 20 submissions and have to fill four slots... well that's not much to choose from. Sure, some of those 20 stories might be good, but usually better stories go to higher paying markets, unless there's huge prestige or some other factor that the lower paying market has that the higher paying market doesn't.

    I agree with you about B), which is why any reviews I write, good or bad, are published under a pseudonym.

  4. Your example assumes that the oranges he's reselling were originally mine, which implies that I'm the slimy bastard trying to undercut him by saying what I sold him is rotten, but that it isn't mine.

    I also don't think they had a shortage of stories, since they have two separate components (online and print) with different sets of stories (they told me when they bought my piece a while back that the print issue was full). But I don't know. I'm not on the editorial board :P.

    And I don't think better stories always go to higher paying markets. Sometimes they end up at the lower-end folks because the bigger folks either don't have the room, didn't like them, and so on. I don't think any editor is perfect. Even when I edited SBS I got reviews that thought some of the stories inside weren't all that great. I think that's okay, though. You can't please everyone with every selection.

    Okay, point taken on the sandwich thing. I'll move it around. Makes sense. I debated how to approach the review anyway, since I don't usually review collections of things.

    I have no idea how you publish under a pseudonym. It took me 3 years to get the audience I have now...starting over would be...insane.

  5. I fixed the review. The sandwich idea was a really good idea for writing the review. It's not perfect by a long shot, but it does mean that more attention is paid to the stories I actually liked (which I think are worth considering). Re-reading the old version gave me the impression that it was all doom and gloom, and not enough "yippee." That's not what I wanted.

    Thanks for stabbing me with your Jordan talons :).

  6. Thanks for your review. I loved all the stories (I would I am the editor) but for widely different reasons. I will point out that the print issue are not themed, although the online ones are, which is why we have a diversity of stories here. I think you give a fair shake to the issue as a whole, and am appreciative of the time you took to read it from a busy school schedule.

    Best of luck in your own writing endeavors.

  7. Thanks, John. Just to clarify, in case anyone comes along and wonders what Jordan was concerned with: the review currently up is slightly different from what I originally posted.

    In any case, I'm glad you thought it was fair. Reviewing magazines is tough business :S. Totally not like novels.

  8. Appreciate the fact that you guys are even talking about RA. (And Jordan, I get 25 submissions and have to fill 5 slots! lol) And Shaun, send in a story any time, no worries and no hard feelings. :)

    I'm grateful to John for selecting these 7 pieces for this non-themed (generally speculative) issue - the previous one was actually alien themed and the next one is "dark fantasy" whereas online is more of a mixed bag. (It is hard to find a rhythm though, so John's observation about lack of theme is valid.)

    And one of the pleasures of editing is getting to meet other, often new, authors. I need to do an exact count, but I'd estimate that 20% of the stories I publish are from "first timers." To me, that's exciting. I've also had a New Yorker (and Penguin published) author appear on the site.

    So again, any time ResAliens is in the news - even if the review has critiques, which only help me as an editor - then I'm happy. Thanks again for reading and commenting.


  9. Lyn,

    I think you turn out a quality product with the material you have available to you.

    I know from my experience at EDF how hard it is to fill slots. We have 30 slots to fill, and though subs have picked up tremendously, at the start there were some months when we were accepting 1 out of every 3 stories. There were some pieces in there that made us wince, but all we could do was select the best available.

  10. Shaun,

    In my oranges example, I meant to imply that later, after he'd sold your oranges, you published a negative review...

    About the drawing power of your name... yeah, but being a reviewer and being a writer are two different things, right? Just because you're a good reviewer, that doesn't mean you can write for squat and vice versa... so your audience as a reviewer and your audience as a writer are likely to consist of different people...thus, to me, it seems okay to write one under a pseudonym. But I see your point. In web 2.0, the number of people who read your site is everything.

    I absolutely agree that the best stories don't necessarily go highest paying magazines, but there's a whole ecosystem out there that pays better than RA (or EDF, to be clear) that captures good stories. Right now, Lyn probably attracts good work based on the fact that he's a great guy and good writers want to support people like him; and that the sheer quality of RA is very high... but writers who aren't familiar with Lyn or RA, who use Ralan or Duotrope instead have to get rejected by a lot of higher paying magazines before they get to RA.

    Finally, I write these huge comments on your blog because I respect your opinion. If sometimes it seems like I have Jordan talons, I'm only trying to repay the favour for the talons you bring out on the posts I >don't< comment on. ;)

  11. Lyn: No problem at all :). I may poke some of my forum members to submit, since it's one of them writing forums and all. They're young, so I can use my evil influence to make them do what I want :P.

    Jordan: My problem is that I've been writing criticism/reviews for a while on this name (well, S.M.D. for a while, but someone figured out my real name at some point and I stopped pretending I was just a set of initials). I think trying to restart right now would take another three years to get where I am for reviews. I can't, after all, point to that new site and say "look at this blogger I totally don't know anything about." The Internet makes it really easy to track things these days. So, I dunno. Maybe if I had thought about this when I first started...but that was so long ago and you didn't even know I existed, which means you couldn't possibly have been there to stab your critical Freddy-claws into my critic feet :P.

    On another note: while I think that, in principle, stories that have been rejected by all the highest paying markets first are not "good" stories, I think it's fair to assume that a fair amount of those stories don't place there for different reasons. The problem for me is that there aren't many high paying markets to begin with, and those markets have particular tastes. Some truly excellent stories likely never would place in those markets because they don't fit the "feel" those markets are going for. 10 pro-market rejections is really easy to get (I've got stories with that many, some of which maybe aren't good stories--no idea), and it isn't always a reflection of the quality of your work, just its comparability to what is already being published.

    Maybe these are a minority, though. I haven't edited for an extended period of time, so I can't say. I did a short stint at editing, which was fun, and we read a lot of stories that were interesting, but didn't work, and so on (and we had a particular vision--mine, which is weird).

    But I'm rambling on this. It's a very strange thing to discuss, since it isn't something that I see regularly brought up in SF/F circles.

    And you're welcome to stab me with your talons again. I like it. Some sort of critical sadomasochism or something...

  12. Shaun, thanks for taking the time to review the magazine, and thanks for the kind words about my story.

    Jordan, as you observed, there is sometimes some other factor at work in a piece ending up in a small market like ResAliens. This particular story is one of those that bounced around for years, getting very complimentary rejections -- I suspect that editors were hesitant to take it because of the religious connotations. Fortunately for me, that's the bread and butter of ResAliens. Lyn and John took a chance on it, and the positive reviews I've been included in have been a much richer reward than the higher pay I've gotten elsewhere! I couldn't be happier with the experience.

  13. Oops, I didn't identify myself above, sorry... I'm Michael C. Lea, author of "Testament."

  14. Graptak: But your story is hardly "religious" so much as illustrative of the human potential to play "God." It's religious in that sense, sure, but it's not some sort of Biblical retelling in any obvious way that I can see.

  15. Michael,

    I think Lyn's support of the magazine and the quality of the end product plays a part in which submissions he gets.

    I usually only target pro-mags, but if I had a story that suited RA, I'd consider sending it his way.

  16. Jordan: You should see the cover for the next issue. It's really nifty :).

  17. My story "Testament," reviewed here, is nominated for best Science Fiction / Fantasy Story in the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll... if you haven't voted and enjoy my work, please consider stopping by and voting!