November 21, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - Oct/Nov 2022

 


The art for this roundup is a detail of the cover art for Apex Magazine #133. This cover art was created by three artists: Angelica Alzona, Alyssa Winans, and Pamela Zhang. Read an interview with the artists in Apex: https://apex-magazine.com/interviews-2/interview-with-artists-angelica-alzona-alyssa-winans-and-pamela-zhang%ef%bf%bc/ For more about each artist, check out their websites:

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:



Though the Heavens Fell by Louis Evans in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

A space (ship) opera, of sorts where the main characters are three massive spaceships: Sunspire, Happy Hippo, and the ancient Carmine. What follows is a ritual, and a judgement, playing out between and inside the ships. A crime has been committed, maybe, and now the ancient Carmine will render its judgement on the ships, and on one escaped cyborg. Evans’s prose is rich and ornate, and resonant with emotional power as we come to know the ships, especially Carmine, and the universe they inhabit. Having the story told through the ships gives this story a point of view, and a voice, that is unique and enthralling. I loved the reveal of Carmine’s tragic past and new purpose, I loved getting to know the cyborg at the heart of the judgement, and I loved the majestic feel of this story. As it says in the story’s intro: “How can we lonely aliens trust each other? How can we tear down a civilization of exploitation and replace it with one of care?”

In the Smile Place by Tobi Ogundiran in Fiyah #24

If you love found-footage horror (I do), if you love the kind of weird and dark and creepy stories that reach back into childhood and turn you inside out as you read them, then this horror story is absolutely for you. An older brother has gone back home after years away because his younger brother has gone missing. Hidden in the past is an incident that might explain what’s happening now, and there is also a stash of old VHS-tapes… I love everything about this story, the way it cracks open the relationship between two siblings, and the way it burrows into the deepest darkest places.

The Eighth Cigarette by Lisa Cai in The Dark

The only thing new to me was the perspective. He described me, my friends, my family as small, dainty, and child-like. Or, we were ugly yellow monkeys. In particular, I was tiny brained and thoughtless. Granted, those of us who sold our bodies were girls growing into women, but he didn’t know the training we went through. I spent years perfecting my singing and samisen skills. Would he have thought differently if he knew that part of me? Would he have cared?

I love every twist and turn of this story by Lisa Cai, as we follow a woman being reborn, reincarnated, again and again into a story, or stories maybe, written by someone else. It’s the story of Madame Butterfly, and of Madame Chrysanthème, stories written by authors who somehow know intimate details of the narrator’s past lives. We follow the narrator through lives and deaths, war and loss, horrors and glimpses of peace and also glimpses of a sister who is lost, again and again. Finally into a life where she tries to put an end to power of the author who keeps reducing her to a victim and thoughtless, child-like bystander in her own story. There’s such a gloriously shifting, dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic quality to this story, and I love how the narrator refuses to be what the fiction wants her to be, and fiercely keeps fighting against the stories told about her in order to live her own life and tell her own story.

Burning Sassafras by Cassie E. Brown in The Deadlands (non-fiction)

In the Ozarks of my mother’s people, clocks are stopped and mirrors are covered when the last breath leaves the body. The sound of the clock—the house’s heartbeat—is stilled, and the mirror—a place that the soul could get lost—is hidden away.

We feel our vulnerability deeply in the thin places. The Ozarks are a thin place.

I mostly recommend fiction here, but this piece by Cassie E. Brown is so exquisite as it delves into death and belief, magic and the deep roots of the past in the Ozarks. The ways in which people deal with death, how they try to ward it off, to understand it and get a grip on it, the way death used to be so close in everyday life… all of it is captured so beautifully here. I love stories and essays that have a strong sense of place, and that tell you something about a particular corner of the world while also telling you something about what it means to live in this world in general, and this piece does all those things.

 Rain in the Potholes by Marium Asif in Tasavvur

There are seventy seven pipes under the town called Jairaz. Of these, only fifty two can be accessed- the rest have caved in or been blocked. Not a lot of people live here anymore post the ‘32 bomb explosion, and now, almost four years later, most of these streets are desolate, deserted and depressing. Those who didn’t die in the blast live in dark alleys, or the blown apart rooms, only coming out in search of food, and sometimes family.

The fifty two pipes still standing have a center point called the Circle. It’s far from an original name, but it’s the one given by the forty year old lady, Nina and her husband, Kaz, who live there.

Set in a world riven by a terrible, destructive war that is poisoning the world and everyone in it, Asif’s story follows two people, Nina and Kaz, living in hiding from the horrors of the surface world. They keep away from others, and away from the world, navigating through the pipes that connect them to the town of Jairaz, avoiding the potholes that might claim their lives if they were to stumble into them. The story plays out like a tense psychological mystery/drama, as Kaz and Nina bring children and dogs to alleviate the loneliness, but everyone that’s brought into their hiding place eventually disappears without a trace. There’s so much tension in this piece, so much dread, and Asif captures the claustrophobia and inertia of  their survival beautifully. A gripping read.

Sister, Silkie, Siren, Shark by M.A. Blanchard in Strange Horizons

A fiercely powerful story that cuts to the bone. Blanchard weaves together myth and folklore into a new tapestry where a community of women, and their shapeshifting daughters, live out their lives on an island, trading some of their daughters to the sailors who visit: trading them to buy safety for the community, giving up their own, knowing they won’t come back. From this bleak setting, Blanchard tells us an epic tale about coming of age, coming together, of resistance and survival, where there is pain and grief but also glimmers of new hope. I love how the characters in this story, come full circle in the understanding of their past, and how they decide to find a different future than they thought possible.

Anu and the Vetala by Srikripa Krishna Prasad at Podcastle (narrated by S.B. Divya)

This story is one of several stories in Podcastle’s Indigenous Magic special, and it is a fabulous tale. Anu is on a quest to find a way to live, to defeat the disease that will claim her life. What she needs is the magic of a vetala, but they are not easy to capture and not easy to control or bend to your will. The specific vetala she goes after turns out to be every bit as strong and unrelenting as Anu had expected. But when Anu and the vetala meet, something unexpected occurs. This story weaves together folklore and horror, fantasy and fairytale, and I love how the tropes and themes are splintered and reshaped here.

Warm Beds / Camas Calientes by Mónica Bustos in Samovar (translated by Analía Villagra)

A surreal and absolutely gorgeous story about three people sharing a room and a bed, but who never see each other. All they see are the traces the others leave behind, like the indentation and warmth of a body in the bed. To me, this is a story about human nature, loneliness and companionship, and the difficulty of connecting with others or truly understanding the people we long to be with.

The Princess, NP by Brian Hugenbruch at Escape Pod (narrated by Leigh Wallace)

If he was as informed about Princesses as he appeared, he’d have read that we were once trained to sing on command. Tradition had become habit, and habit became a means of self-defense. Our minds were fragile after the Conditioning; evening songs drowned out the noises of our existence. Too much data could overload our brains and leave us useless wrecks.

A thought-provoking and fascinating science fiction story about data princesses, indentured thinkers, used by a ruler known as the Queen. The princesses are Conditioned, their fundamental brain processes altered to accrue and analyze massive amounts of information. Emotions and opinions are not required and actively suppressed. One of these princesses has been assigned to Hexa Station where she suddenly finds herself faced with a situation that will put her on a collision course with the Queen who has ruled her entire life. I love the world this story is set in, I love the characters, and the way Hugenbruch blends fantasy elements into the science fiction tale.

 

Of all the New Yorks in all the Worlds by Indrapramit Das at TOR.com

The story description at TOR.com:  "A student of multiversal time travel slips from  one version of New York to another, discovering that love may transcend timelines, but so too can heartbreak…"

This story is about a multiverse, and about a man traveling through that multiverse, but it’s also a story of how he lost the woman he loved because she turned him away, and how he holds on to that relationship by visiting an alternate version of his ex. Officially, he goes to see the alt-gf to deliver a letter from the other version of her to her alt-world self, but he’s also hanging on to something that he lost. There's this quiet sense of sadness and loss in this story, and an acute awareness of all the immense possibilities of pain and love present in a universe and in a life. A life, and a multiverse, can keep so many secrets, and so many stories told and untold.

 

Tithe the Bones, Sell the Blood by Auston Habershaw in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

In a city ruled by the bloodless dead, Cédric is playing cards with three ghosts and a wight. He’s trying to win a stolen soul back from them, and he’s betting using his own blood. Habershaw’s world in this story is a desperate place, and I love the detail and texture of it, and the way the terrible powers at play are laid bare in a game of cards. Cédric does have a plan, but in this card game, things don’t always go to plan. 

The Karitela by Io Carpiso in Anathema

Miguel heard it first: the hot, huffing breath in the humid night air. The sure, definitive clop of hooves on the grey asphalt. The stiff, dull rustle of dried grass and woven wood rubbing against each other.

From the doorstep of his house, he watched as the carabao trudged into view. His little mouth was agape as the buffalo shrugged past the cars parked on either side of the narrow street, its head low, almost burdened by its wide horns and the carriage it pulled. Distantly, he could hear the cheerful chatter of televisions in living rooms, music coming from radios, and nanay shouting at his brother from inside the house.

I'm late reading and reviewing this wonderful issue of Anathema, but it is FULL of great stories and this one is one of my favourites. This story has an evocative fairytale vibe, though it's a fairytale anchored and shaped by the real world. Miguel gets a ride on the strange carabao, and gets to see some magic up close. There's darkness and menace here, much of it lurking beneath the surface, and I loved the resolution. 

 His Soul’s Keeper by Koso Agboanike in Anathema

The boy on the floor of the room was the child of the village head. From the peep, she saw him roll around and around, muttering to himself; and she was going to tell him to get up and not mess up his locks any further, but someone slapped her back and her spirit was almost startled out of her body.

A wickedly tied knot of a story where a child tries to survive in a new place after her village has been destroyed and she has been taken away. She finds a friend in a new boy there, and even tries to help him by using some of the magic she was taught as a child. This is a sharp and jagged story where the repercussions of cruelty are laid bare again and again. I love the voice of this story, and the way it weaves together fantasy, magic, and horror with real world evils. 

The Ghost Eaters by Spencer Ellsworth in Nightmare

The Man had come and gone, other Someones too, and all the lessers, but Barley still guarded the House.

He still patrolled, passing right through the gate instead of getting caught under the slats, still lifted his nose and trotted the fence line every morning, though he could no longer smell the asphalt baking in the heat or rabbits in the hedges. At sundown he returned to his grave and lifted his leg even though he hadn’t urinated since the Man put his body in a cardboard box and dropped it into foot-deep earth.

With our old dog passing away so recently, I should have known this story would break my heart and it did. It's an exquisite dog-ghost story about a Very Good Dog who has been guarding his house for much too long. And now he's in danger from a new pack of foes. Luckily for the Dog, there is someone who wants to help him, though it isn't easy to gain the trust of an old, lonely guard-dog. I was sobbing at the end, and I love this story with every fibre of my being.

Sharp Things, Killing Things by A.C. Wise in Nightmare

We saw the first billboard while driving along Lake Road. We’d driven the road a hundred times before, because it was the only road out of town that went anywhere worth going, and there was fuck-all to do in town except get drunk, get stoned, and get in trouble.

A profoundly unsettling and deeply disturbing horror story about a place, about a town, about people who are slowly immersed into darkness, and where that darkness seems to enter them, creeping under their skin and into their souls. Strange images and messages on billboards. A strange person appearing in their midst, or was he there all along? A ruined building. Sharp things in the rubble. And so many deaths. This is horror that doesn't flinch from self-harm and suicide, so be warned that it is strong stuff. It is also brilliant.

This Excessive Use of Pickled Foods by Leora Spitzer in khōréō

“Bex gave up attempting to present herself as anything but a clueless newbie from a backwater planet just six seconds after stepping into the food court in the central concourse of Konkarken Station. Even with the translation glasses that let her read signs, she was entirely lost. For example, “Sunshine Glow Swish” might have been a literal translation of the name of whatever was served in the large iridescent cups at least half the beings in the concourse clutched the way humans held coffee mugs, but nothing about that name helped Bex know what was actually being served, let alone what effect it would have on her human metabolism.”

I've been reading my way through the latest issue of khōréō, and it's full of fantastic stories. This is a quiet, lovely, beautifully written, slice of life science fiction story that really hit home for me. It's about identity and memory, it's about food and community, it's about communication and loneliness, about friendship and so much more. AND it's also about pickles. When Bex arrives at Konkarken Station, she finds a shop that sells pickles. And when she tries the pickles, strange things happen. Bex also meets an alien and as it turns out, food and friendship might go hand in hand. 

All Good Children, Come out to Play by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez in khōréō

For longer than I could remember, we had been Lázaro and Marta. We should have been celebrating our ninth birthday together.

Instead, my twin brother was laid out on our table. He looked so small and still and pale: the silent point around which our family and neighbors swirled, dancing and singing and laughing. Abuela Trini held me in her lap and cradled my head in the crook of her arm. Her reedy hum meandered through the cuatro music until my tears dried and my sobs shrank to hiccups.

You might already know that I love stories about siblings, and this is a great story about a complicated, and complex, sibling relationship that goes on after one of the siblings dies. The horror simmers just below the surface of this story, and we know right from the get-go that Marta feels a lot of guilt about the death of her brother. And when there's an annual festival for the dead, things happen and things change... Dark and sharp, this story cut me to the quick.

Skin by Isha Karki in khōréō

From outside comes the scour of frost, the trail of a lit cigarette catching at your eyes. You drag the bathroom window shut and go back to watching your face mask harden into a white crust.

A rap on the door, and there’s your mother’s soft voice: ‘Chhori, I’m making momo for dinner tomorrow. You’ll be home, right?’

You twist open the tap and massage the mask with wet hands. The motion is soothing. But this skin, it won’t let you be. It’s tightening even now, pinching at your chin and nose.

Speak, it commands.

A surreal, yet so very real, story about the different faces we wear for different people, and what we lose and gain as we change ourselves to fit what others think we ought to be. Here, those faces are tangible and real, items to slip off and on, and when they are lost... things do not go well. There is a lot of pain and sadness in this story, and there is so much here that feels unsettlingly familiar. 

Rabbit Test by Samantha Mills in Uncanny Magazine

It is 2091, and Grace is staring at the rabbit in the corner of her visual overlay. It is an Angora rabbit, fluffy and white, and when Grace picked the icon out, she did not realize how much she would come to dread the sight of it. She moves, and the overlay moves with her. A reminder. A threat.

There are three other authorized users with access to her rabbit test: her mother, her father, and the family doctor who installed it at their request shortly after her first menses.

In two months, Grace will turn 18 and at that point she can maintain or disable the app as she sees fit. But she doesn’t have two months. Her period is six days late, and tomorrow her tracker will automatically administer a pregnancy test.

Grace pulls up the profile of her best friend, Sal, and sends their usual emergency alert: Coffee??

Powerful, incisive, and packed with a bright, blazing, ferocious anger at those who want to control and limit people's power to choose what to do with their own bodies, Mills's story hits hard and it hits true. We follow Grace and what happens to her in 2091 when she gets pregnant in a country that is controlling and supervising every facet of her body and denying her the right to make her own choices. Woven into this story is the history of abortion and contraception and oppression. Of choices and choices denied and made illegal. This is near future scifi that is also a history lesson, and it is so finely written, and illuminated from within by both anger, hope, and incandescent resistance.

The Skinless Man Counts to Five by Paul Jessup in Apex Magazine

The first corpse rode the waves to the beach and greeted the librarian on the shore. It was tied to a chair with catch ropes, skinless with eyes popped open and mouth gaping wide. Inside the mouth was a speaker, connected to an old ghostdrive in the corpse’s chest. The speaker said the same thing over and over again, in a rusty metallic voice. Clear and sharp as a bell.

"Five. Five. Five. Five. Five.”

Jessup's story is set on a generation spaceship, but this is science fiction that bleeds very much into horror of the strange, surreal, and (literally) cosmic variety. I love the enigmatic, yet foreboding sense of doom that infuses the entire story from start to finish, and I adore Jessup's darkly luminous, haunting prose that pulls you in and twists the perspective of everything around you. 

Kings and Popes and Saints by Jon Hansen in Apex Magazine

Patricia could hear them gathered on her front porch, the kings and popes and saints, gossiping and chattering and generally having a good time. She turned. King Solomon lay sprawled across the bed like it was his golden throne. He raised his head to regard Patricia. “It’s time,” he said. “Ready for battle?”

“I am,” she said. Solomon nodded.

Delusions or visions, the world Patricia sees is not the world others see... at least not most of the time. There are indeed kings and popes and saints all around her yard, and there are also the strange weed things in the yard that trouble her (even though she's got tinfoil to protect her brain). And then Justin comes along, trying to sell magazine subscriptions... This story has a dark sense of humour and I loved how it takes you into the surreal mind of Patricia, and I love how you're not quite sure until the very end of what is real and what is not. 

Ten Steps for Effective Mold Removal by Derrick Boden in Apex Magazine

We used an old sock to apply the disinfectant, because all our rags are in the garage and the EPA was very clear about us not leaving the house NO MATTER WHAT. If you ask me, they went a little overboard with those explicit instructions about what to do if you get the stuff in your nose, your ear, wherever. Anyhow, the sock worked fine.

The mold apocalypse/pandemic as told in a series of product reviews by Hitomi A. I cannot do this story justice in a short recap and review, all I can do is tell you to read it. It is heartbreaking, hilarious, and spine-tingling horror all at once. The mold is everywhere, but surely there must be some products out there that can help get rid of it, or protect you? Boden captures Hitomi A's voice so perfectly in this story, and manages to tell a story, and let us see the characters, so vividly. And at the end, when the twist of the knife comes, it gave me chills. 

Nothing that Bleeds by Leah Ning in Apex Magazine

Rain patters lightly on the pavement, and you bleed among broken glass in the cool afterglow of the sunset. Sometimes it’s like this: it is sunset, and you bleed, and clear, rain-studded umbrellas shatter the blue-white of phone screens into a thousand drops of light.

A devastating, powerful, and gorgeously told story about violence and love and a relationship that shatters the lives of those in that relationship. Again and again the same relationship plays out in different iterations, with the same darkness and the same secrets and the same pain and love. And yet things change, and things pass. Masterfully told and sharp as a knife's edge.

On the Sunlit Side of Venus by Benjamin Parzybok in Apex Magazine

She used to stand here with Jorn, her husband. What was it now … six … seven months ago? He’d made it all of three weeks after Earth went silent, the poor emotional, beautiful wreck of a man, weeping nonstop for days.

In this science fiction story, a woman finds herself alone on a research station on Venus. Earth has gone silent and she doesn't know what happened. Her husband is gone. Her only company is the station's AI. For all she knows, she's the last human being left alive, until a message comes in... There's so much going on beneath the surface of this story, love and grief, hope and despair, and I love that Parzybok allows the quiet moments to unfold... quietly. 

The Day When the Last War is Over by Sergey Gerasimov in Apex Magazine

It’s the day when the last war is over, and skeletons of swallows are already starting to return. They don’t have beaks, and their white, hard-boiled eyes fly three inches ahead of their semi-transparent faces, or sometimes on their side.

Gerasimov is from Ukraine and reading this story about the remnants of humanity returning and fading away, dissolving, absolutely gutted me. There's a sense of exhaustion, of hollow hopes, of a yearning for something that cannot be in this story that makes it cut deep and linger.

Sweetbaby by Thomas Ha in Clarkesworld

You don’t look Sweetbaby in the eye when he pushes out from under the tree throw. We know that now. Instead, the ears, or what’s left of them, are a better place to settle your gaze. They’re close enough to the face that you can tell which way he’s looking and whether or not he’s smiling at you, and, in the end, those are the two things that matter most with him.

A truly unsettling and profoundly disturbing story about a family that is so dysfunctional as to descend into utter horror. The relationship dynamics at play between the children, between the parents, and between parents and children in this story are both painfully incisive and devastating. This was a hard read for me, but Ha brings some grace and salvation at the end that I wasn't expecting, and that elevated the story even more for me.

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October 18, 2022

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - Sept/Oct 2022


The art for this roundup is a detail of the cover art for The Deadlands #17, by Lente Scura. More about the artist: https://lentescura.net/.

 An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


A Dervish among the Graves of Ghazni, by Tanvir Ahmed in The Deadlands

Among the strange happenstances and peculiar mischances of ancient times is the story of a dervish in Ghazni who dwelt only among the dead.

This was not, in and of itself, unusual. The annals are overflowing with friends of Allah who made cemeteries into their abodes. Baba Abdal of Herat was known to hold court among the headstones of Khiyaban. Far to the west, in the lands of Syria and Egypt, Jamaluddin Sawi once did much the same. But even among the ranks of death-drawn mystics, this dervish of Ghazni stands out.

What an exquisitely wrought tale this is. Just full of beauty and light, love and death, and also: revenge. Ahmed's story has the texture and tone of an ancient fable, but with a grit and nerve and heart that makes it shimmer and glow with life and grief. We follow two story threads: the past and the present, and as the past of the dervish in Ghazni is revealed, the urgency and desperation of the present increases. I can't say enough about this story and the way it feels both ancient and brand new all at once. Read it! That's all I can really say.

The Deadlands is running a Kickstarter to fund more great stories, poetry, and non-fiction. They have some awesome swag available, including hoodies, mugs, story and poetry critiques, and some stunning limited edition artwork. The Kickstarter is here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/markey/the-deadlands-year-3

The Red Lehenga by Tanya Aydelott in Tales & Feathers #1

As I grew older, my mother paraded men before me: a neighbour’s son, in his final year of dental school; her friend’s cousin, who had a career in the Emirates; another neighbour’s son, who was guaranteed a management role in his father’s business when he earned his MBA; her childhood friend’s nephew, kind and unambitious, a man someone else could easily love one day. I smiled at them all and politely declined. I had my own dreams to pursue.

Tales & Feathers is a brand new zine focusing on “the cozy, the comforting, and the sentiment "no plot, just vibes." Every month, we'll release a new short story of 2 500 words or less that luxuriates in the slice of life fantasy genre.” There are several fabulous stories up already, including this intriguing tale about a young woman who feels like her mother is trying to push her into a marriage, any marriage!, regardless of her own wishes. Now, there’s a very neat twist at the end that changes the perspective on what’s been happening, but what I love most about this story is it’s beautiful prose, and the way it weaves the vibe of an old fairytale into the present day.

Elephant Doctor by Tehnuka in Worlds of Possibility

Tehnuka’s story is a quirky and slightly surreal story with a razor-sharp sense of humour and a definite eye for how people are treated very differently depending on who they are and what they look like. It deals with sizeism and discrimination in healthcare, and I just love the subtle, matter-of-fact voice of this story. Siva has been having real trouble finding a doctor that takes them seriously, and who will use their pronouns, and she has almost run out of hope when she meets Dr Gajan.

Worlds of Possibility is an interesting and quite wonderful project by Julia Rios:

In the Worlds of Possibility project, Julia Rios buys original stories, poems, and art by other creators to display on this website. Paid subscribers directly sponsor these pieces with their subscription fees, and get to see the contents before the general public! As of August 2022, issues are released to subscribers in ebook format on a bimonthly basis before individual pieces are released online and on the OMG Julia Podcast. The eventual goal is to publish an anthology of works originally published on Julia's site. Worlds of Possibility works leave us with a sense of hope, peace, or contentment.

If you can't afford to subscribe, consider supporting by subscribing for free to the OMG Julia Podcast on your podcatcher of choice. Subscribing to the podcast directly does support the production!

3am Eternal by Eden Royce in Worlds of Possibility

It’s a fallacy that the witching hour is at midnight. In reality, the time when the veil between the worlds is thinnest is at three in the morning. That’s why the bars in New Charleston all close at two for humans, so they can get their asses home before the clocks strike the top of the hour and control of the city passes to the witches, the haints, and other creatures of the night.

Another fabulous story from Worlds of Possibility. Here we meet Mikayla, worried sick about her mother who has not come home after the two o’clock curfew, and cannot be found even by scrying. Mikayla has called in her sister witches Shavon and Ayo to help her find her mother before she ends up in the kind of trouble no human can easily escape. This story has magic and a bit of romance, and I love the worldbuilding and the way we are introduced to this world and these characters. An adventure in the middle of the night that does not end the way Mikayla might have thought…

The Angel Azrael and the War Ghosts by Peter Darbyshire in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #367

It was a gunshot that woke the angel Azrael from his dream of the wars and put him on the path to redemption. A single shot that cracked through the hot air of the day like the world had snapped an broken somewhere.

I’m jumping the gun on this story since it is not available online yet, but is available if you subscribe to Beneath Ceaseless Skies (this zine delivers so many great stories and is well worth a subscription, imo). I read my first angel Azrael story in BCS in March this year. It was “The Angel Azrael Encounters the Revelation Pilgrims and Other Curiosities” from issue #351 and fell in love with this strange, ravaged world and the creatures and characters in it. There’s an old war looming in the background, a war where the angels banished from heaven destroyed the Earth and killed untold numbers of humans. In the aftermath there is destruction and despair, and there’s the angel Azrael riding his dead horse through a weird western landscape where bibles hold magic powers, and where ghosts and ghouls bring terrors, and so do angels and humans. In this particular story, Azrael must fight off some fierce war ghosts and also has to face an old friend turned foe: Lazarus.

If you like this story, check out Darbyshire’s other tales about Azrael in Beneath Ceaseless Skies:

There is also a novel coming, and I cannot wait to read it!

Idomeneja by Eris Young at Pseudopod (narrated by Steph P. Bianchini)

It’s morning by the time I get you back and into the house. Relief of a cool entryway, of knowing you’re safe in the garage below the tiles under my feet. Birdsong comes in through an open window somewhere. I wash the dust off my skin and it pools, red, around the drain.

OH MY. If you want an unsettling, disturbing horror tale that burrows into the ground, into an ancient grave, and into the past and into history to bring you a different kind of blood-drinking creature, then this story is most certainly for you. Young says about this story: “The speculative elements from this story are based on the death masks found in the grave circles at the site at Mycenae. I have taken serious artistic liberties with the archaeology and the language, Linear B.” I loved every delicious drop of this story and the way it plays around with perspective and power. Beautifully narrated by Bianchini.

Wind Settles in the Bones by Stephen Granade at Cast of Wonders (narrated by Miyuki Jane Pinckard)

Syn hated pre-race press conferences. Instead of mentally preparing for competition, she had to smile and answer every media outlet’s repetitive questions. Timm Yancy with One AU especially frustrated her. He unfailingly asked inane human-interest questions like “what did you have for breakfast this morning?” (a magnetocarbonate shake so she could sense magnetic fields, followed by protein-rich cricket bars for the nausea, same as every race day) and “is that a new haircut?” (as if it would be seen under her spacesuit helmet). But Syn hadn’t become the third-ranked solar wind racer by putting off unpleasant tasks, so she called on him first. And that was how Syn learned that her dad had died.

An excellent science fiction story that deftly weaves together the space-bound thrills of solar wind racing and a dysfunctional family drama. Syn has worked hard since she was a child to make it as a solar wind racer, working hard with her coach Fiona to become one of the best. But along the way, she’s cut all contact with her father who did not approve of her obsession with the sport, and now he’s gone. But in addition to her grief, she has to deal with a betrayal and her own past. Granade captures Syn’s grief and anger so well, and I loved the way the story allows Syn to find a way to go on and find some kind of solace, even though the odds are stacked against her.

Civilian Assumptions by Dominique Dickey in Lightspeed Magazine

Like all captains, Maddox raised Olivia—that was what they named their ship, a soft name for a dangerous thing—from a seed, a glowing pearl small enough to fit in their hand. Maddox cupped the ship seed in their palm and whispered, “Hello, little one”—though Maddox knew she wouldn’t be little for long—“my name is Maddox, and it is my highest calling to love and command you.”

I love stories about sentient ships, and in this story we meet Maddox, a spaceship captain and fighter for the Consortium among the stars, and their ship, Olivia. They've been bonded almost their entire lives, but now Olivia is dying and Maddox, who should be a fighter, who should leave Olivia and head out with their crew, is devastated and cannot leave. Captain and ship should not be able to, willing to, love each other... and yet. A tender and piercing story that went straight to my heart.

Apolépisi: A De-Scaling by Suzan Palumbo in Lightspeed

I find Aleda’s scale, sticky with ichor, tucked between the tentacles of our pink anemone bed. I tweeze it out from the undulating appendages with my thumb and index finger and flounder against my escalating heart rate.

A beautiful, fierce, and heartbreaking merfolk story, and a take on The Little Mermaid that moves it into a darker, deeper territory. Here, the mermaid doesn’t choose to be magically transformed into a human. Instead, that transformation is a natural process, more like a kind of disease, and its effects are devastating as it means she must leave everything, and everyone, behind.

The History Eaters by Marissa James in Kaleidotrope

These are the words they use: The city is ancient. Our ways are primitive. The city has always been here. Our village, our culture, is unrelated, coincidental to the mound beside it.

If they looked deeper into the roots of our earth brick walls, they may say otherwise. But they are here to study the city, not us.

A gorgeous flash story set in a community near an archeological site where outsiders come to dig up and look for the past, while disregarding the people who still live nearby, not realizing that the past is still alive right here and now. I love the physical, visceral flavour of this story the way the fragments of the past are literally passing on the old knowledge as they are consumed.

Everything You Once Were by Marisca Pichette in Flash Fiction Online

After the water has drained from your lungs, your mouth emptied of salt, teeth washed clean, you find yourself in a garden.

You don’t remember drowning, but you know you are no longer a girl. Your eyelashes have become aphids. Your tendons are unwrapped from your bones and tied instead to mycelia. Your bones abandon their calcium in favor of xylem, phloem, sap replacing blood. Skin peels into petals.

A spellbinding, and lyrical tale about death and rebirth, and finding new ways of existing in the world. In each reincarnation, there are echoes of the other lives, of all the lives, as time and space and memory and life are spun out together in new combinations and new forms.

A Hole in the Light by Annalee Newitz in Sunday Morning Transport

At the island’s edge, Arch’s beloved Plaza broke apart, his once-solid edges softening into a jumble of molecules. The adepts’ long song of mourning tumbled through the air, but she felt no slow gathering of boredom. She wanted to stay here forever, to imagine Plaza magically reconstituting himself the way he might have thousands of generations ago in the age of cities.

I love this story to bits. It's set on the planet Skiff, a planet that has been inhabited for generations by creatures that are not at all humanoid, but who are very much intelligent and social. They live together in communities, sharing ideas and molecules and their lives with each other, and at all times they are aware of the Big Puddle in the sky above them: 

Overhead, the Big Puddle rose in the sky, a dark maw in the swirl of gleaming firmament—a promise, her physics teacher had once said, that the universe would eventually become a void lit only by distant, unreachable nuclear reactions.

Arch, one of these creatures is stricken by grief and sets out on a journey to Memory, an ancient city where the stars and the universe and the past are studied. This is such a beguiling story, thoughtful and with effortless, intricately crafted worldbuilding that made me crave more of Arch, and more of Skiff, and more of this part of the universe.

The Blade, The Hammer by Lina Rather in Baffling Magazine

Fourteen was not, apparently, too young for Sanan to be chosen by the implacable and unknowable powers of the kingdom. It wasn't even supposed to be her. She had six cousins downriver in the capital, all trained in combat and sorcery since birth by the finest tutors. But the inheritance running in her family's blood cared nothing for any of that, it seemed.

An aching, and brilliant take on the concept of being the chosen one, and not being able to freely choose what to do with your life and yourself. The horror of war lurks in the background as Sanan and Mia talk to each other, maybe for the last time, before Sanan has to go off to become a hero, a protector. There's a sweetness and a sharpness to this story that makes it cut deep.

How the Wolf Domesticated Herself by December Cuccaro in Baffling Magazine

My mother said never go near men; they only want you for your coat. She took me close to the village where I met a man’s gaze from across his fire and recognized his hunger—and something else I couldn’t place in my youth, that I now know as hate.

I love wolf stories, and I love shapeshifting stories, and Cuccaro's story is both those things. It is also strange and surreal beneath the surface of fur and skin. We meet a wolf and the wolf meets a man. Things go badly. Then, things change and the wolf finds that she is becoming something other than she was. Cuccaro's prose is gorgeously evocative, and there's dark edge to this story, an unsettling quality, that I really appreciate.

This Tattered, Marooned Sentinel by Marc A. Criley in Martian - the Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles

So much goodness is packed into this drabble: a whole epic history and future as we find out what the marooned sentinel saw. Martian is a great place for beautiful, sharp, glorious drabbles. 100 words to tell a story, and sometimes that's all you need. (And sometimes it leaves me wanting a whole novel... but that's another story.)

Skitterdead by Mel Kassel in Nightmare

I used to be Director of Human Resources at a nonprofit. I remember a particularly difficult Caleb, we went to lunch once and I thought we had connected, had hurdled his problems by proving our humanity to one another, but he continued to steal credit for things his coworkers had done. I was frustrated with him when I died. My heart gave up in my ergonomic chair. I’m still frustrated with him when I shove myself into the house centipede’s body.

A wonderfully strange ghost story where the ghost is so small that all it can animate, is a centipede crawling around in the office where they died. I love how Kassel takes us inside the mind of the ghost, but also very vividly takes us inside the body of the centipede. A trippy and decidedly unique and haunting story.

A Girl of Nails and Teeth by Hannah Yang in Nightmare

The girl has not yet seen the simulacrum. She has only caught glimpses of the blueprints, which her mother takes out once a year to update the necessary measurements: the size of her feet, the circumference of her skull, the length of each arm.

Oh , this story packs such an emotional wallop in the way it depicts the quiet, hidden horror of this mother-daughter relationship. There is no gore or violence here, not in the way we might expect from horror, but the violence and the terror and the twisted reality of this small family's life, permeate every word. Outstanding horror flash.

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October 3, 2022

BEHIND THE ZINES with Marguerite Kenner & Alasdair Stuart, co-owners & publishers at ESCAPE ARTISTS INC.


It is my very great pleasure to publish this interview with Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart, co-owners and publishers of Escape Artists. They happen to be two of my favourite people in SFF-publishing, and I am just thrilled that they were gracious enough to talk to me about their work in the speculative fiction field.

Escape Artists is home to five outstanding speculative fiction podcasts: Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the newest addition: CatsCast. These venues publish both original fiction and reprints, and if you're into spec-fic, these podcasts are some of the best places to find excellent short fiction, both new and old.

 

(Photo by Jeremy Carter of Edge Portraits.)

More about Marguerite Kenner:

Marguerite is a California transplant living in the UK. She co-runs Escape Artists, the media production company behind original, award-winning free weekly audio fiction.

A practicing technology lawyer, Marguerite loves doing voice work for podcasts, community organizing, and teaching business skills to creatives.

(Photo: © Edge Portraits 2019)

More about Alasdair Stuart:

Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, writer and voice actor. He co-owns the Escape Artists podcasts and hosts their weekly horror fiction show, PseudoPod. He is an Audioverse Award winner, a multiple Hugo Award and BFA finalist, writes the multiple-award nominated weekly pop culture newsletter, The Full Lid, blogs at www.alasdairstuart.com , streams on Twitch, and tweets @AlasdairStuart.

Q. What’s your background: where are you from, where are you now, and what do you do inside and outside the world of speculative fiction?

Alasdair: I come from the Isle of Man, a small piece of land off the coast of Ireland and Liverpool. I’ve lived in York, Milton Keynes, California, Nottingham and now live in Reading. In the world of spec-fic, I’m the lead host of the horror podcast PseudoPod, occasional host of the science fiction podcast Escape Pod and co-host of horror podcast Caring into the Void.

I’m also a game writer and my background there is in TTRPG. I’ve written for the Doctor Who, Primeval and Star Trek RPGs and have also written original work for After the War, a game I co-created.

I also write a weekly pop culture newsletter called The Full Lid and write about The Walking Dead for SciFi Bulletin. Adjacent to that is my work for Obverse Books on long-form critical analyses of individual pieces of TV.

Outside the world of speculative fiction I love to cook and living across the street from an arthouse cinema means I get to indulge my deep love of movies.

Marguerite: I was born and raised in California, and this year is the 10th anniversary of my moving to the UK, where we live in Reading, about 30 minutes outside central London by train. Inside the spec fic world Alasdair and I co-own and run Escape Artists. We took over from Serah Eley in 2014. There we focus on the invisible and less glamorous sides of publishing so that the editorial teams can focus as much of their attention as possible on reading and producing great audio fiction.

I give lots of presentations and talks about business skills for creative people; the last one I gave was about Fan Art policies for indie creators. I’m on lots of different committees for different orgs, I volunteer at different cons and orgs (like Dream Foundry), and in the past Alasdair and I co-led the Redcloaks, the Fantasycon volunteers for the British Fantasy Society.

But that’s the nights and weekends work, because like lots of creatives we both have full time day jobs. And mine’s as a commercial / privacy lawyer for a big US software company. I also have a few personal legal clients, all in the podcast and genre fiction space. *laugh* I always tell people to find a lawyer who will answer their questions for drinks or cookies, and that includes me!

Q. What attracted you to the speculative fiction genre as a child or young adult (or adult)? What were your “gateways” to genre fiction, and is there a specific genre that appeals to you and has that changed over the years? Are there some specific books, movies, TV-shows or similar that you feel were responsible for sucking you into the world of SFF?

Alasdair: One of my earliest memories is watching the Fourth Doctor get trapped under a collapsing pillar by weird disco-looking aliens. Another is a deeply terrifying children’s TV movie where two kids from the present time-slipped to the 19thcentury and helped a third child fight a horribly burnt fairground ride owning villain. There was a fight in a burning house where at least one of these kids clearly died and then… they were all on a merry-go-round smiling and waving over the end credits.

Also The Adventure Game, in which a group of cheery 1980s BBC celebrities were transported to an alien space station and competed to finish challenges. The first episode featured beloved children’s newsreader John Craven consigned to the vacuum of space. I mean he was in the van back to Earth at the end but still, the trauma was real and usually on TV on Saturday mornings after the Transformers cartoon and before the football.

Anyway those had a big effect on me and they catapulted me into the Sylvester McCoy era Doctor Who, the first Star Wars movies and a lot of one-season American TV. Then I found books and I was in trouble. Then I found comics and I was in Trouble.

For the longest time I convinced myself I was just an SF fan. Then it occurred to me I’ve hosted a horror podcast for 15 years and that I’m maybe in fact very fond of horror which was a really nice realization to have.

L. D. Lewis talks about asking panelists at cons ‘Are you a fan or WERE you a fan?’ It’s a great question and one I’m aware I look like I’m on the wrong side of given those answers. So! Recent stuff I’ve really enjoyed includes Fonda Lee’s stunning Jade City books, Jen Williams’ excellent fantasy and crime novels, especially Dog Rose Dirt and the most recent Jordan Peele movie, Nope.

As to how my tastes have changed? I think I’ve made a conscious choice to be more open. When you’re a guy growing up in the West, emotion is viewed as weakness. I’m much more willing to explore and interact with media that elicits emotional response now and that’s a really good thing.

Marguerite: My intro to genre was my Uncle Brian, who loaned me his Zelazny and Heinlein and Niven books. Like many in our industry I read Tolkien young. He tried to teach me his love of Pratchett as well, but that particular variety of British humor just doesn’t work for me (likewise Gaiman). From there as a teenager I fell headlong into the ‘reclaiming of sword and sworcery’ era of fantasy - Lackey, Zimmer Bradley, Cherryh etc.

I’d definitely say my introduction to fantasy was driven by books, but my love of science fiction is all down to Star Trek. I adore everything about it. I’m a second generation Trekkie, and my mom and I went to my first fan conventions together when I was a teenger. Star Trek or other science fiction was ALWAYS on the TV when I was younger. And then I started to branch out into related fandoms like Doctor Who, reenactment / the SCA, comics, anime, cosplay, etc.

I literally can’t remember a time in my life where genre of some kind was front and center. TTRPGs were a huge part of my life for a long time, though somehow I’ve never really played D&D -- these days videogames occupy that spot, especially my beloved Bioware titles. I’ve read very little what we could call ‘literary fiction’ outside of academia, mostly because… it bores me. I prefer nonfiction over literary fiction, which is probably a slightly snobby way of saying I’m very into worldbuilding. I know it’s a trope that ‘lawyers only like legal stuff’ but yeah, it’s a self-reinforcing cycle. Give me an examination of the economics of the undead, or essays on the Star Trek legal systems any day (and yes I own both of those books).

Q. As co-owners and publishers of Escape Artists, you are two of the driving forces behind EA’s wonderful podcasts. What drew you to the world of podcasting, how did you first get involved with Escape Artists, and can you tell us a bit about the history of Escape Artists?

Alasdair: Serah Eley set up Escape Artists around the time the podcast was formally born, about 2005. Serah wanted, if I remember correctly, something fun to listen to in the car on the way to work so she recorded herself reading short stories. Then, she decided to release them as a podcast and as the first genre fiction podcast at the time, they really took off.

Meanwhile in the UK, a very kind friend (Hi Steve! And thank you!) had burned episodes of I Should Be Writing to dvd for me and I’d listen to those while I worked. When I got an internet connection in my new house, I downloaded, via dialup, the first episodes of Escape Pod and PseudoPod and I was DOOMED. Especially when Mur announced she was stepping down as co-editor on PseudoPod. I volunteered, they said yes and 15 years later here we are.

Marguerite: *laugh* You can literally blame PseudoPod - it was my introduction to podcasting. An episode and a drive-through coffee was my Friday commute routine forever. From there I got involved with slush reading at Cast of Wonders, and then because it’s host and editor. When Alasdair and I took over at Escape Artists, integrating Cast of Wonders was one of our first goals.

Then Serial happened, or The First Time Someone Invented Podcasting. Those who had been actively working in the space for a while rightfully took umbrage, but the success of Serial and then Welcome to Nighvale raised podcasts in public perception. And most of that indy work was speculative in nature, specifically dark fiction and horror.

At the time EA had always been run firmly on the speculative fiction magazine model using podcast convention wisdom - establish a schedule and stick to it. But podcasts with different models were becoming popular and starting to meld in the audience’s mind as its own medium. So we made a really concerted effort to go out and meet and engage with the indy podcasting community, especially here in the UK. These days EA has one foot firmly in each space - spec fic mag and podcast.

Q. What is your role in the day to day running of Escape Artists, and how have your roles evolved since you first started out?

Alasdair: I started out as a co-host, graduated to host and I’m now lead host at PseudoPod for a fantastic team. We always try and provide teaching opportunities for our staff and opening up the hosting spots has really helped do that. I’m really proud of how varied the voices you hear on PseudoPod are and I’m honored to be part of the team.

Marguerite: Alasdair and I work really well together, and each of our strengths are in different arenas. He’s very much the ‘face’ of the company -- promotion, talking about what makes us unique, being actively involved in the larger community. I’m a ‘devil in the details’ person. I like an agenda, a schedule, goals and deadlines. As I talked a bit about earlier, our job is to make anything not directly related to editorial work as painless and streamlined as possible. Contract questions, filing the taxes, wrangling tech issues, awards prep - a gigantic grab bag of things most podcast fans won’t ever see or hear about.

When we first started as co-owners I foolishly thought I could do that, and edit Cast of Wonders, AND work full time. That lasted longer than it should have, to be honest. We intentionally scaled up the ‘back office’ team around the end of 2019 - now we have nearly a dozen people in roles that aren’t related to producing a weekly podcast episode. Managing that team has become a bigger part of my role, especially since we try really hard to find and pass along opportunities for learning new skills, building a CV, etc.

Q. Both of you host podcast episodes and also narrate stories for the podcasts. What are some of your favorite episodes that you have hosted and/or narrated?

Alasdair: I’m still SO fond of "Why I Hate Cake" for PseudoPod. It was one of the earliest ones I did and I was late for a dental appointment and I just…kind of forgot to act. So it opens with this long suffering sigh and goes into horrifying detail about a very good reason to hate cake and then I went and got a filling. All very synchronous.

I love doing the White Street Society stories by Grady Hendrix. Grady is a genius and those stories are a chance to basically have my extrovert and introvert selves on stage at the same time. Also I never, ever make it through a page without corpsing.

More recently, Episode 821, which was my 15th anniversary in the job, was "Celestial Shores" by Sarah Day and Tim Pratt and we got to read it together and it was a TIME. Loved doing that one.

Marguerite: Seconding the "Celestial Shores" narration. We crammed into our little tiny recording closet together for that one and it was SO good.

My favorite event that I got to host at Cast of Wonders was Banned Books Week, a tradition I’m really heartened Katherine Inskip has continued. Being able to talk about censorship and the so many different ways it impacts a person and a community is really powerful.

Q. Good narration can really add another dimension to a story. Do you have any tips for people who want to get started as narrators, or who might want to become better narrators? What do you look for when choosing narrators for a story at EA? How does that process work?

Alasdair: I’ll do the first one here, because I know Marguerite can speak to the back two a lot more specifically.

First tip; find people you want to sound like and impersonate them. For the last 15 years I have been doing audio cosplay of DJ Chris Stevens from Northern Exposure. Endlessly enthusiastic and kind, always open to new experiences and just a big amiable vortex of love for all culture.

Jack Killian too, the lead character of a show called Midnight Caller and absolutely the sort of character a tabletop RPG player would roll up and the DM would go ‘…FINE but you need more flaws too.’ Ex-cop turned DJ in a show which was basically an excuse for Gary Cole to monologue. His outros are a big part of why mine are like they are.

Rod Serling too, as well as Valentine Dyall, Edward DeSouza, Mark Gatiss and Jordan Peele. All of them have done excellent work as that slightly alien narrator of the story but not in the story.

Second tip; read everything aloud before you record. I never do this. I should. My dad prints a script off and marks it up too with breath points, pauses and odd words. Always worth doing.

Last tip. If you want to become a better narrator it plays a lot like becoming a better artist in general; be brave enough to get out of your own way. That sounds pat but its act of courage not to be under-estimated. My proudest moment in narration this decade is in "The Secret of St Kilda". There’s a flashback sequence where a character is in hospital and I was praised by a couple of listeners for how emotional the narrator sounded. It wasn’t acting. It was channeling and using prior experience. Which, now I see it written down, probably is in fact acting but the point stands.

Marguerite: The short answer is: try it. Podcasts have NEVER been more prevalent, and the technology more readily available. Yes, you can record on your phone. Or many public libraries or community centers have accessible recording equipment or space. Get a group of friends together and record plays or scripts to other podcasts you like. Technology isn’t the barrier to participation - it’s time and opportunity. Take advantage of any you come across, and work with others to make those opportunities available for more people.

Regarding choosing narrators for stories, that is truly the secret ingredient of audio storytelling. We can all think of examples where a wonderful story was diminished by its telling; good audio fiction takes a good story and makes it better.

One of the things I’m extremely honored to be a part of is how hard the audio drama community works to center lived experience in performance. Our editors and producers work hard to find representational voices for protagonists and characters, bringing the author’s full intention to life. It’s time consuming and at times heartbreakingly difficult, but it’s also critical.

Q. Each one of the EA podcasts seems to have a devoted and hardworking team at the helm. What are your thoughts on how to put together a good editorial team, and do you have any “management tips” on how to help a podcast or any other publication get a strong editorial team, and develop a strong editorial voice?

Alasdair: Work with people you trust who do not feel the way you do about everything and listen to them when they come to you with concerns. Even if there’s nothing you can do, creatives are perpetually so endlessly overlooked or downtrodden that simply saying ‘I hear you’ is more than most people bother with. When they have a problem that you can solve, solve it.

When you screw up, say so. You’re going to screw up. Everyone does. When it’s your fault, own it. Say so out loud. Very little is more powerful, or more classy, than ‘I’m sorry, here’s what I’m going to do to fix it.’

Marguerite: Creating a spec fic magazine is a side hustle for all but a privileged few. Which means it isn’t going to be the only thing - the only priority - for anyone, no matter how much they love it. If you can build a team with complementary strengths, like pairing someone who lives for spreadsheets with someone who can spot a gem in the slush at ten paces, it’ll minimize the amount of time anyone has to do a thing they dislike. Redundancy is good, flexibility is critical. And you MUST look outside your personal circle or echo chamber. Lining up editorial taste is important, yes, but less critical than having perspective outside your own experience. Without that, you’re going to turn into a publication that is only being read by the people who want to be published by it.

Q. What have you learned since you started out at Escape Artists, and what are the most enjoyable things vs. the hardest things about your work at EA?

Alasdair: Never have one person in a job. The old military maxim of ‘two is one, one is none’ exists for a reason. Every show has multiple editors, multiple producers, hosts and associate editors. They don’t just do vital work, they stop one person doing all the vital work. That helps people stay energized and healthy, means bottlenecks are kept to a minimum and ensures that we’ve always got opportunities for folks to learn new things.

Marguerite: That’s too many projects, put some back. No, more. *laugh* Every single thing you want to do will take three times as long as you plan through no one’s fault. You just have to accept and be flexible with that reality.

The hardest part? Not being able to raise rates, or pay everyone more. Don’t get me wrong, EA is incredibly fortunate to be entirely donation supported for coming up on twenty years. And we’re one of the few - maybe the only? - genre mag that pays absolutely positively everyone, from our senior editors to our community moderators. That’s just mind-boggling. But we can only spend on stories what we receive in donations - they’re directly related. Most podcasts these days receive a big portion of their funding through either a single crowdfunding campaign per season (which doesn’t work for how we publish), or through advertising. We’re starting to dip our toe into ads, and we have another big change we’re trying to roll out next year which we hope will help incentivise more donations.

The most enjoyable part is when a new author tells you one of the EA podcasts was their first published story, or is their dream market to crack. That always makes me so happy.

Q. What advice would you give to writers submitting stories to your podcasts, and podcasts / publications in general?

Alasdair: Rejection isn’t criticism. We have a lot of vastly talented writers who bounce off our submission windows not because of the work they do being bad but because it isn’t a good fit at that moment. I know that sounds like a truism and I hate those but it really is.

Read the submission window guidelines. For the 98% of you going ‘Come on, Man!’ right now, I’m sorry. This is for the 1% that don’t. The 1% who think it’s funny to send massively offensive stories we’ll never buy can’t and won’t be helped. Or published.

Last one. I have NO editorial say whatsoever. None. Never have had. That’s what our amazing editors are for.

Q. How has your work at EA over the years affected your view of the world of speculative fiction publishing? Do you feel podcasts are getting the love and respect they deserve in and outside the speculative fiction community? What do you see as the main challenges, and the main positive changes you’ve seen in SFF publishing over the years?

Alasdair: Let’s do these one at a time:

1. It has added depth to the vast ocean of respect I have for creatives. It’s also shown me that the level of talent in the field is truly astounding. SF especially is vastly guilty of bemoaning the fact time passes. I would, and have, argued that we’re living in a new renaissance of science fiction, and one that constantly betters and improves itself. Often despite the best efforts of those who’d rather salute the past.

2. No. Honestly. We have a running gag that once every six months someone will write the ‘Audio dramas are back!’ piece and we reset the big clock from Pacific Rim. Closer to home we’ve had recent, contemporary experience of journalists completely failing to understand what audio producers do, companies who’ve reached out to us four times for the same collaboration that has yet to appear, and anecdotal data that because we’re a podcast we’re viewed as more ephemeral than other publications. None of that’s true. None of it’s fair. But it’s what we deal with.

3. The biggest challenge is that no one’s paid a living wage unless they’re one of a half dozen authors or editors. That’s wrapped around an equally large challenge: the belief that you have to ‘pay your dues’. If you’re creating? If you’re working? If you’re wearing PANTS right now you’re paying your dues. No one has to earn their spot and yet, at every level, we see SF creatives expected to do just that and sneered at when they make money doing it. A friend of mine jokes that Patreon is just a few thousand of us passing the same ten bucks around and it’s only just a joke.

4. The first positive change is that this stuff is being talked about. The second is that digital publishing has empowered a vast amount of people. Look at the sheer amount of fiction out there. Short fiction, novels, novellas. Entire forms are being brought back into the Sun and it’s amazing to see. The challenges built into that are threefold; to ensure the financial and infra-structure barriers to entry (Internet connection, computer) are as low as possible. Then there’s the challenge of reaching and maintaining an audience. This is just one manifestation of how vastly uneven the playing field publishing mega-corporations and indie presses share truly is. Finally there’s the need to empower your audience. The ongoing pandemic has understandably convinced a lot of folks that they only need to interact with fiction they know. I get that absolutely, there is no blame here. I’ve done that myself. But once you move outside your comfort zone? There’s so much great stuff out there.

Marguerite: I’d definitely say that becoming a publisher has given me a broader perspective of the industry as a whole. One of the advantages in-house lawyers have is that they can see over the silo walls between departments in a company; that’s how I think of my perspective on genre these days. For example, one of the projects I’ve been working on for several years now with SFWA is reworking the qualified markets scheme. I felt it was really important that group of people wasn’t just made up of only authors, but would have the perspective of the issues and pressures that publishers have as well. It would have been all too easy to make standards that small publishers would have found impossible to meet.

Are podcasts getting love and respect? I think the genre community does a slightly better job than media in general, probably because audio drama is such a successful category of podcasts, and they’re almost always speculative.

Main challenges to the genre publishing? Oof, that changes almost every week it seems. Right now the ‘fan versus pro’ debate is back, which I loathe. If I had to summarize it, I’d say we’re facing a regime change, a generational tipping point in assumptions about things like creation in the face of capitalism, and building new systems which center inclusion when our old systems fail us. And those are the positive things I see as well. The fact that more of us are saying ‘No, it’s not right that X isn’t happening, we’re going to make X happen’ and bluntly, just not taking no for an answer.

Q. What would you say are some of the most important issues to think about for people who are running podcasts or zines?

Alasdair: Those financial barriers I just mentioned. As important? The fact everyone has to be able to play. Inclusivity and diversity aren’t just ethical obligations, they're going to help you. The more people feel welcome and feel seen listening to your show, the wider and more appreciative and more interesting your audience will be.

Genre audio fiction and audio drama is the secret garden of podcasting. There are thousands of us out here and more every day. An hour or so ago I read a piece about how podcasting is ‘just radio now’ and nothing has ever been as big as Serial. If that’s the only thing you ever look for? That’s on you. And you’re missing so many incredible shows.

Marguerite: Know what you want out of the experience before you start. That old saw about ‘twice is tradition’ can be an unhealthy assumption. If you want to do something purely to learn a skill and then put it down, you can do that! You don’t have to continue past that point. And whatever you do, under commit and over deliver. Audiences hate being disappointed, but they’re usually pleased to be surprised.

And for the love of all that’s holy, spend two minutes to Google search a name before you use it!

Q. Marguerite, I first got to know you through your work as editor at Cast of Wonders. I love CoW, and I sort of wish there were more YA-focused publications in general in the SFF community. I know you’re not the editor there anymore, but what are your thoughts on young adult SFF-fiction and the role a venue like CoW can play in the speculative fiction community?

Marguerite: I desperately, desperately wish that YA wasn’t such a novel-centric genre. And yes I think it’s a genre; it’s moved far past being the marketing label for which it was originally created. But it’s still primarily centered around novels, which makes publishing YA short fiction a particular challenge.

You’re also a lawyer, and I was wondering if there are any specific legal issues that you wish writers, publishers, and others in the speculative fiction community were more aware of, or had a better understanding of?

Marguerite: Okay how much time do we have? *laugh!* Seriously, I could teach an entire course on Basic Business Skills for Creatives. Probably the most universal recommendation I have is to find an advocate - an editor, an agent, a lawyer, even a peer or someone senior in your field that you can talk to when you have questions. Creatives are often taught that learning about money or how to negotiate a deal is counter-productive, or shameful, or unnecessary. None of which is true, but does make them targets for predatory behavior. You wouldn’t buy or sell a house with help; don’t sell a show or a novel without help either.

Q. Alasdair, you run a great weekly newsletter called The Full Lid where you write about various aspects of pop culture, and you’ve also written non-fiction books and essays that deal with speculative fiction and pop culture. What are your thoughts on the importance of analysis, serious critique, and in-depth explorations of speculative fiction for the genre?

Alasdair: Thank you! I think serious cultural analysis is vital and I also think it’s far, far too often mistaken for nitpicking or snark. It ties into my earlier point about how guys from my generation are raised to fear emotion. If something elicits an emotional response, the first logical action for a lot of folks is to attack it. Witness the ongoing horrific realization that its no longer 1977 every time Star Wars does something political, a woman in charge of opinions, a voice and a starship speaks on Discovery or someone thinks it’s a good idea to defend Providence, Rhode Island’s most famous racist from his own famous racism.

See? Snark. It’s easy.

But it can’t be the only thing we do. When I was coming up, one of my oldest friends told me something I’ve never forgotten: it is almost impossible to finish a creative project. Anyone who does deserves at least basic respect.

Over the years, what I’ve added to that with the realization that it’s almost impossible for something to be entirely bad. I’ve seen terrible movies with great special effects. I’ve read books with gorgeous turns of phrase hidden inside purple prose. An analyst’s job, a critic’s job, is to not just talk about the bad stuff but raise the good stuff too. To treat the text with respect and context.

I first came to know you through your work at PseudoPod and Escape Pod, and I love your narration, and your commentary for the episodes you host. What are your thoughts on how the field of science fiction and horror short fiction has changed since you first got involved with EA?

Alasdair: Thank you! And WOW, that is a question and a half. I think it’s expanded massively and in the direction it desperately needed to; into non-English as first language markets. Magazines like khōréō and Constelación do incredible work and continue to prove that this weird trio of genres don’t end when Europe and America do. There are some amazing voices out there, and I’m especially excited to see folks like Sasha Stronach, Cassie Hart and the Fiyah team continue to do amazing work.

Q. You are both based in the UK. How do you feel about the sometimes rather North America-centric focus in speculative fiction when it comes to SFF awards, cons, publishing, etc?

Alasdair: I think it’s slowly killing the field or at the absolute least seriously damaging it across multiple axes. Worldcon being outside the US twice a decade at most. A measurable percentage of assistant editors in genre fiction quitting on one day because the wages and demands were equally ridiculous. The belief, although this is being challenged at last, that if you’re not in New York or London it’s not real publishing. The enraging decision from some conventions to downsize their online component. The times have changed and they aren’t going back despite a lot of genre’s best efforts to do the same.

This is always a hard time of year to have this conversation due to award season which takes all that pressure and doubles it. But it’s a conversation, hell it’s a fleet of conversations, we’re decades past due on and superficially there’s very little you can do other than read diversely, support online events, vote for what you love and lift up as many creators as you can.

This is a little silly but there’s a line in The Day After Tomorrow that always haunts me. It’s the last communication from Sir Ian Holm’s character. He just says ‘Save as many you can.’. I think ‘help as many as you can.’ Is a pretty good, less fatalistic variant on that and it’s what the parts of the field that truly sing and will survive all this, do.

Marguerite: ‘Rather’ nothing, it absolutely is, and for the same reasons most things are english speaking western hegemony centric. Which means changing those assumptions involves tackling all the systemic barriers that have been staunchly defended for centuries now. But I don’t think that’s the core of the issue, those are just facts. What’s core -- what we COULD change -- is the VALUE we place on those institutions, those publications, those awards. They’re prestigious because we collectively decide they are, even when we’re presented with alternatives. But that goes back to that mentality, that cycle of abuse that says ‘I paid my dues, I earned this, it’s my turn.’ Which is hard to break individually, let alone systemically. But I have hope, I see the signs its starting to happen.

Q. For people out there who might be thinking about getting involved with a podcast or a zine in any capacity, what would you say to them? Any cautionary tales? Any tips or advice

Alasdair: Absolutely do it. It will change your life.

There are some caveats. Never, ever, EVER pay to play. We’re entirely donation funded, most other shows I know run off crowdfunders or are in one of the five corporate walled gardens that dominate the field. If you want to donate to a show, do it. If you’re being asked to pay an entry fee, you’re being scammed.

Manage your expectations and your time. Writing is very hard. The rest of the process is harder. Get a team you like and trust. Set boundaries and have regular meetings.

Marguerite: Two points here. First, I’m not a writer, but every writer I’ve ever talked to who was also a first reader / slusher / associate editor said that the experience was helpful.

Second, whenever I’m evaluating whether to do a project or presented with an opportunity, I ask myself seven questions. If I can’t answer the majority of them with yes, I walk away:

1. Is this a community or organization I want to serve? I.e. do I care?

2. Does this organization’s values align with my own? Is there proof of that?

3. Will this project accomplish a goal that is important to me? Not just ‘does this need to be done’, but do I personally care about this outcome?

4. Is the commitment of my time, talent or treasure something I’m willing and comfortably able to donate?

5. Are these skills I am seeking an opportunity to learn and develop? If you’ve done something for years and it’s become an expectation you no longer find pleasurable, say no! Or offer a final transitional period.

6. Do I trust my potential teammates? If the people involved with the project aren’t ones you’d share a meal with, think twice about collaboration.

7. Will I be provided with / have access to the resources and support I need to succeed? Or are you being brought in to make a token effort to appease, to fill a seat or tick a box?

Q. I know both of you do all sorts of work in the SFF-world besides your work at Escape Artists. What are some of your own favourite projects outside of EA? Do you have any new things coming up?

Alasdair: I love writing The Full Lid every week. It’s incredibly useful as writing practice and as a means of getting stuff out of my head. It’s also just really fun to work with Marguerite on it. She’s an amazing editor and we’ve got very good at thinking like each other. She writes me better than I do and I have an editorial instinct now that sounds a lot like her.

I’m also really enjoying working with Brock Wilbur and Will Biby hosting Caring into the Void. CiTV is a great podcast where the two hosts tell each other a horrific true story and then find something positive in it. I’m work cover over there for Meghan, the fantastic regular host, and it’s always a blast to record.

Also, I act now! My work on The Magnus Archives as Peter Lukas kind of kicked off a voice acting career, and I won an award for it. Some of my recent audio dramas were the SF disaster show Roguemaker, Celtic horror The Secret of St Kilda, and an upcoming legal superhero show, Supersuits, where I’m working with Marguerite. IT IS SO WEIRD. I love it tremendously.

Oh! I also co-created an excellent memetic tabletop horror RPG called After The War. It’s set on the last planet standing after a catastrophic war with a piece of sentient alien music and discusses themes of community building, individualism, horror and PTSD and also how amazing being somewhere new is. I co-created it with Jason Pitre of Genesis of Legend and other amazing creators like John Adamus and Jacqueline Bryk and it’s a lovely game. I get to go back there soon too which will be fun.

Last thing promise! I do regular non-fiction work for Obverse Books. Paul and the team over there do my favorite thing; non-fic deep dives and I’ve had the honour of doing two. One on the Doctor Who Anniversary Special, "Day of the Doctor", and one on the Star Trek: Discovery episode, "Through the Valley of Shadows". Loved doing them both, and I’m working on their next new Doctor Who Project too which will be fun.

Marguerite: Like Alasdair I love getting to do more voice acting, though I prefer smaller supporting roles and helping out behind the scenes.

Most of the projects I’m working on right now are behind the scenes at EA. Some of them have been reactive or defensive, but a couple are things we’ve wanted to do for years with EA finally coming to fruition. Keeping a company with five active shows and over 100 people focused, supported and happy isn’t a new project, but it’s my best!

 

Huge thanks from the bottom of my heart to Marguerite and Alasdair for doing this interview!


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About Behind the Zines:

In this interview series, I talk to people working behind the scenes at various speculative fiction publications. My goal is to highlight the work that goes into keeping these publications alive, and to share insights from the people doing that work. Each interview is available exclusively on my Patreon for one week, and is then posted here at Maria's Reading

If you want to support my work, check out my Patreon or Ko-Fi.