Monday, July 16, 2007

Recurring themes and tropes in the May slushpile

As I'm almost* done with responding to all May stories, a bit of musing about the kind of stories that I see that don't quite (or very rarely) work.

(* = when I was sending out my replies to the last couple of stories, I found out I had forgotten to read two, which I will do tonight. Oh well.)

BTW: I'm thinking out loud here, so expect a few edits to this posts as more things strike me.
  • The US becomes a de facto right wing Christian dictatorship. This one was the most predominant in the May slushpile. I do understand that the current political situation in the US triggers this. However, none of these told me anythign new;
  • Darwin -- or his trip with the Beagle -- redone to refute 'intelligent design'. Again, I realise this has everything to do with the current state of things in the US.
  • Pirate stories. Arrr, Matey: fallout from the Black Sails, Fast Ships anthology and the Shimmer special pirate issue (all, of course, having nothing whatsoever to do with the popularity of the "Pirates of the Carribean" movies). I sympathise, as I had a pirate story bounced for one of these three markets, as well, and know it'll a be a bitch to sell elsewhere. Still, unfortuantely, none really caught my fancy;
  • Unicorn stories. Maybe because Peter S. Beagle is showing up all over the place has something to do with that? While I'm not allergic to the mythic beasts, a story about them will have to be really exceptional to make me stand up and take notice. Not in the least that the unicorns of the *actual* legend -- as my IZ colleague Liz Williams likes to point out -- are not the lovely, cuddly things they seem to be, but rather quite the contrary;
  • A genius, dead or dying, finds the meaning of life, the Universe, and everything, but nobody really understands it. How unfortunate (while it conveniently relieves the author from having to have a go at it): the answer to it all, but always just out of reach. Allow me to be blunt: if you use this trope, and the answer can't top "42", then fuggedaboutit;
  • The assumption that 'the human condition' is so tremendously unique. Read Diaspora (Greg Egan), Accelerando (Charles Stross), or Blindsight (Peter Watts) first, and then try again. Warning: these novels might cure you of your inbred homo sapiens superiority complex (although it's an *enormously* ingrained viewpoint);
  • No Arthurian stories. There were none in this slushpile, which surprised me, as there are usually at least five. Aren't they fashionable, or will they make a comeback with a vengenace?
  • Shakespeare stories. With Shakespeare plots or with the bard as a character. There were only two or three this time around, which is well below par. But I have no doubt that old Will will rise again;
  • (More?)

So, in order to see what *did* work (for me, at last), a short summation of the type of stories that I've held over (and will whittle down over the weekend):

  • Two Alternate Histories: both about a very significant change. One rife with passion, the other full of erudition;
  • Four adventurous fantasy stories: two with a strong mother/daughter theme, and two with a revenge theme. One of the latter two also with a highly imaginative setting;
  • Two humourous fantasy stories: one contemporary and naughty, the other with very surreal overtones;
  • One more fantasy story which I would call contemplative;
  • One hard-to-pigeonhole story (call it cross-genre, slipstream or interstitial: I don't care much for the term) where reality slowly shines through in a fantastical place, or vice-versa, all depending on your viewpoint;
  • Four humourous SF stories: one that goes to absurdist lengths in a very short space, one that's like a comedy of manners in a future rife with aliens, one that is (self-) satirising, and one that I would call sick, but in a good way;
  • Two stories that I would call contemporary (possibly literary) with a single SF element;
  • Two adventurous SF stories on alien worlds with imaginative settings;
  • One SF exploration story set in the solar system;
  • Three near-future SF stories (well, I guess you could call them mundane SF): one with a cyberpunk sensibility, the other about memory targetting drugs, and one where big politics are played on a very personal level leading to a thought-provoking ethical dilemma (OK, I quite like this one);
  • Two more near-future SF stories (call them mundane SF, as well, if you like), albeit that these two play with (the idea of) identity;
  • Two SF stories from the POV of an exotic culture (with exotic I mean one that actually exists -- or has existed -- on Earth. (One could be called mundane SF, the other not as it uses a kind of instant transportation portals. Now I'm not trying to steal Geoff Ryman's -- and Trent Walters's and Julian Todd's -- thunder, I'm just cherry-picking what I like.)
  • One philosophical SF story, and an intricate mind-bender at that;
  • One post-apocalyptic SF story where people try to uphold certain civilised values against all odds: poignant, heart-wrenching and ultimately uplifting (can you guess I really like this one?)
  • One science fantasy story in an almost Jack Vancean vein: on the surface it looks like fantasy, until the SF trappings slowly filter through;
  • One SF story from an alien viewpoint (actually there's one more that's mostly written from a non-human POV, but I'm including it below);
  • Three SF stories filled with sensawunda: one where the alien is approached gradually and where, in the end, the choice must be made (jump in the unknown, or stay in the known); one that starts out almost normally, and where the strangeness slowly pervades until it almost literally breaks through; and one that starts slam bang right in the middle of the alienness and sweeps the reader along whether she/he likes it or not, and keeps the fireworks going until the reader understands how things have changed (possibly after a reread, or two). It already pains me that I will most probably will have to drop one of these three for variety's sake.

The second list doesn't tell you that much, right? Well, roughly speaking, for Interzone I am looking mostly for SF (say 60%), fantasy (say 30%), and the hard-to-define rest (say 10%).

Also, my tastes and preferences run to stories with:

--ambition (I'd rather see one reach too high and fail spectacularly than aim low and succeed);

--originality (if not a new idea or concept, then at least a new insight or angle on an old one);


--a willingness to explore;

--a strange setting (either existing exotic cultures on Earth or fully imagined aliens);

--a contemporary setting that's intricate, plausible, thought-provoking and in some way estranging;

--humour (although that's highly subjective, of course);


--high concepts;

--a sharp style, a certain flourish;

--a unique voice;

Where some of these points can be mutually exclusive, and some can go together. And some are definitely more difficult to achieve than others.