I haven’t read all the stories in a science fiction magazine in decades. I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction writer but I’ve never had what it takes. At seventy, I’m wondering if there’s any chance left of even getting even one short story published? I plan to read several different science fiction magazines to judge where short science fiction is at in 2022. I’m starting with Analog.
Reading and reviewing new science fiction is difficult for me. I have sixty years of reading science fiction and new fiction just doesn’t compete with all the classics I’ve discovered over my lifetime. I’m getting tired of reading average science fiction. Nor do I want to write it. Can I identify what makes a story anthology worthy, or award-winning worthy, but most of all, what makes a story successful over time? I’m afraid none of these stories were classics, and only a couple might deserve being collected in a best-of-the-year anthology. Although they all missed the magic I love to find in science fiction stories.
Several times over my life I’ve tried to write science fiction, including taking MFA writing courses and attending Clarion West. I’ve never been satisfied with my own work. When I read a story in a science fiction magazine, I think about the effort it took to write each story, so I hate to criticize them. On the other hand, if I’m going to use the last drops of my psychic energy to write a story, I don’t want to write anything that’s already been done over and over again. And that was always common in writing workshops.
Finally, the comments on the stories in the Jan-Feb issue of Analog below are my memory notes. I thought maybe others might be interested in my notes as I read through different science fiction magazines.
My notes are mainly to help me remember what the story was about and how I felt about it. I’m also working on improving my memory by writing notes. I’m still refining this process. I try to summarize each story as a way to remember it or to get others to read the story. I’m still experimenting with my note-taking style, so they aren’t consistent yet.
To be blunt, most of these stories lack a sense of wonder. They are about far-out concepts, never transcend into the magical. And even though I’ve written dozens of unpublished stories in the past, I’ve never felt any of them had that magic either. That’s why I’ve always given up.
What makes “Vintage Season” or “Flowers for Algernon” or “The Star Pit” work? I’m sure all new writers aim to hit one out of the park with each new story. I remember at Clarion West hurting one guy’s feelings. He came to me after class and asked me which story was the best one that week. I didn’t think and mention the one I thought was the obvious best. It wasn’t his. And then I realized, he thought his story was the best and wanted affirmation. So I said I thought his story was among the better ones that week, although I didn’t believe it. It’s almost impossible to judge one’s own work.
Reviewing fiction often involves telling people their babies are ugly. I don’t like doing that. On the other hand, do you want to really believe your baby is beautiful when it’s not? I’m going to try and be honest in my notes, but not vicious. Hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but I’m just as harsh with myself.
The hard, cold, reality is most science fiction stories are just average stories, and that’s being excessively generous by some critics. The hard, cold, reality is only a few stories truly stand out each year. The hard, cold, reality is most writers produce dozens or even hundreds of short stories over their career, but just a handful of their stories are remembered.
Often these stories remind me of older science fiction stories. After reading thousands of science fiction stories, it gets very hard to find something that feels new and different. And all too often when I’m reading new science fiction magazines, I feel the writers were inspired by TV shows and movies rather than reading classic science fiction stories. I think they would be better served if they read the classics.
Choosing the right length is also very important. If you stretch your story, you can try the patience of the reader. If you tell it too quickly, it will diminish its impact. Novellas must be exceptionally good to justify the time they ask the reader to give up. Short stories must be extra potent to make any kind of impact in their short space. Personally, I find novelette length the best length for short science fiction.
I used to believe that television and movie science fiction wasn’t as evolved as written science fiction, but that’s changed. I can understand why new writers are influenced by television and movies. Unfortunately, the popularity of science fiction on television is so pervasive that all science-fictional ideas have been done to death
Most science fiction stories are meant to be entertaining. Some stories speculate about the future, revealing the author’s hope or fears. Most science fiction stories dwell in a fantasyland created by the momentum of past science fictional fantasies. In the real world, we’re on course for global civilization collapse. It’s too late to avert drastic climate change, and capitalism is about to self-destruct. Damn few science fiction stories deal with the future in any realistic way, revealing a bankruptcy of creative potential. Science fiction has become so close to fantasy fiction that any genre distinctions no longer matter. Still, I’m always looking out for what I consider real science fiction.
"Communion" by Jay Werkheiser & Frank Wu Thread 1: Sentient organism struggles to survive when separated from its hive. It communicates with biochemistry. Thread 2: Nes Mason and his robot Alex crash onto an icy moon. They communicate with language. For each to be saved they must discover each other's existence. The story has a lot of organic chemistry. Pleasant enough tale hurt by its novella length and excessive science. However, it's a neat idea and reminds me of The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. =============== "The Lobster Pot" by Tony Ballantyne "By His Bootstraps" meets GATEWAY and "Rogue Moon" wondering into THE MATRIX. A fairly compelling tale. Four characters with no characterization other than different names. =============== "Wind Gets Her Own Place" by Joe M. McDermott Wind, a 17-year-old Tau Ceti colonist has a tough first year in this YA science fiction story. Her mother doesn't make it through cold sleep and Wind is forced to share a tiny room with her mother's boyfriend who she hates. The story is mostly teenage angst that could have been set on Earth. However, it's a well-told story. One takeaway: colony life is dreary, although realistic. Few readers will fantasize about this adventure. I want to write something that's realistic, and maybe even deals with our depressing reality, but I want to add something new or transcendent. How can we make readers excited about the future when its so damn bleak? (Many writers in this issue try by writing essentially science fiction fantasies.) =============== "Cloud Chaser" by Tom Jolly Another story with twin storylines, but this one is the first in this issue to have any kind of storytelling finesse. It's a space opera but with a number of cliche elements, including space pirates, and feuding royal brothers. I enjoyed this one and it had fair degree of what's-going-happen tension in the second half. Yet, not quite good enough to believe I'll reread it. One of my main measures of a better story is if after reading it I know I'll want to reread it in the future. =============== "Splitting a Dollar" by Meghan Hyland Amy and Brad are on the Moon in ancient spacesuits that have been in museums for two hundred years. Before our civilization collapsed, we left presents in a Lunar stockpile for the next civilization. This is Meghan Hyland’s first professionally published story, and the first I've read that's maybe anthology worthy. It's not a retread, and that impressed me. The title is based on the Ultimatum Game, a psychological experiment that makes a nice metaphor for the tale, unfortunately it's explained in the story. It shouldn't have beem. I think trying to make the title clever spoils the story. Just plot the story on the Ultimatum Game. The story has many weaknesses, even though I like the idea. Having Brad just be greedy for gold was too simplistic, making him a strawman. The story would have been better if Brad had a believable motivation. The lesson here is don't imagine routine scenes. Make each scene as good as the overall idea. =============== "Charioteer" by Ted Rabinowitz Short, tightly written tale of survival during a solar sail race. Sadly, the story's driving conflict was tired and cliche. Why didn't she get a name? =============== "By the Lake Where We First Loved" by Paul Starkey Moira Cohen, nee Ishikawa is on Titan to perform a ceremony to commemorate her dead husband. She looks back over her life and realized her husband's success separated him from her, and diminished her own success. Not a bad little tale, but the sentiment was strained for me. Again, the problem with such short works of fiction is we don't get to be with them long enough to care. It's like meeting an interesting person in line at the post office. Lesson here is be wary of the short story length. Too much was said and not shown. =============== "The Bumblebee and the Berry" by M. Bennardo Axel is the governor of generation ship, a hollow asteroid that's been traveling for 630 years. They have reached another star system, but for three attempts they have failed to plot a correct path to their destination, and are now on their fourth attempt. Within this brief story Axel has an epiphany as to why. I'm partial to generation ship stories. This story is almost a mood piece it's so short, but the character struggles to figure something out. It brings up the problem of story length. It's hard to create a really good story that's short, and even when a writer succeeds, it feels like getting one spoon from a bowl of ice cream. =============== "The Way Back" by Jen Downes I thought this was a lovely story, and it's the closest I've come thinking I'd reread a story in the future. But not quite. It's so hard to judge a story from one reading. Reading new stories are like seeing a new baby and wondering what it will be like when it grows up. TJ Marshall, or Teej dreams of going into space from age 7. And in this short story, we get to see their dream come true. I'm not sure if Teej is male or female -- I'd need to reread the story closely. What I really liked was the details of Rocklea, Teej's hometown next to the spaceport. It was a very literary beginning. The writing in this story reminded me of early Delany. The rest of the story is kind of cliche but still well done. It also reminds me of Heinlein's STARMAN JONES. One reason I resonated with this story is it reminds me of how I wanted to go into space as a kid. However, when Teej realizes he needs to return to Earth, it reminds me of how I feel now. Better characterization really helps a story. =============== "Dix Dayton and the Miner From Mars" by Liz A. Vogel Dix Dayton gets wins weird device in poker game in a bar on the asteroid Euphrosyne. While asleep the device causes hole in pressured habitat. Hole is fixed. End of story. Bland space opera that seemed inspired by the Expanse series. Felt like possible chapter out of planned novel. Didn't work as a standalone story. I think readers want more than just a bit of space opera. Also, I just don't believe in this future. It's television's idea of life in the asteroids, with stereotype characters. Heinlein did asteroid life better in THE ROLLING STONES. =============== "Doe No Harm" by Louis Evans A John Doe arrives at the ER in this short story set in the future where privacy laws are encoded into all computerized medical equipment. The patient is unidentifyable and their embedded ID chip with medical records is destroyed, thus the doctors don't know how to contact next of kin, or have ID directed permission to use their AI driven computerized medical equipment. Every piece of routine equipment shuts down because of automatic privacy lock. Thus, the ER doctor and nurse resort to old fashion methods. This has been the most entertaining story so far in the issue. Dramatically extrapolating on current medical trends. Solid story, worthy of being anthologized. Still, it's problem solving over characterization. But that seems to be the way in Analog. =============== "Yellow Boots" by Stephen L. Burns Stude, a robot, and Louis, a human who has had better jobs, work for an organized crime syndicate selling fresh water in a city flooded by rising oceans. They discover their water has been adulterated with sea water by the syndicate and want to help their customers avoid dying without being eliminated themselves. Few science fiction stories deal with our inevitable future. That makes me appreciate "Yellow Boots" even though the story isn't ultimately inspiring. It's a readable enough story, unfortunately, like many Analog stories, the focus is on the problem rather than the people. I wish science fiction writers would give us stories of people finding ways to thrive in a doomed world. That's a lot to ask. Stude and Louis solve a problem but their solution doesn't offer hope, just survival. I don't expect Pollyannish fantasies, but more stuff like Kim Stanley Robinson is doing. And I downright loath abandoning Earth for Space stories. =============== "A Living Planet" by Benjamin C. Kinney Ethan misses his wife Liza, who is on a mission to Mars. Worse yet, communication with her spacecraft has been lost. But that's not what this story is about, even though it's enough of an idea for a story. Next, the story shifts to how Ethan doesn't get along with coworkers and boss at JPL because of the way he likes to joke around. Another good conflict for a short story. But even this isn't what "A Living Planet" is about. Ethan's job is to write code for a satellite that gathers up space junk. The real story begins here when Ethan discovers small alien spacecrafts that are light-sail-driven. This story would have been better if it got right down to the main story. Actually, I was most interested in the missing wife story. ============== "Patience" by David Cederstrom When I started reading "Patience" I was delighted -- it read just like something from a 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. The first POV character is Antal, an intelligent creature waiting for a warm-blooded animal to kill. Starting off, I thought it was a past or future primitive human. Either before civilization or post-apocalyptic. I love such stories. But then it mentions its rear set of eyes, so we know it's not human. Through Antal's stream of consciousness, we know it's desperate for food, for blood. Then the POV changes to a human and we see things completely differently. This was a short but effective story that sucked me in. My only criticism is it was too short. Very nice first science fiction story. Makes me wonder if I shouldn't pattern my writing on older SF. =============== "The Middle of Nowhere" by Rachel S. Bernstein Bernstein gives us a grim view of the future, one where transporters are replacing old forms of transportation. The only problem is data snafus where travelers end up in limbo. Less bloody than plane crashes. Stephanie works for the Border Patrol monitoring illegal transporter traffic into the U.S. She intentionally routes bad guys and illegal aliens into the bit bucket. Too close to a final solution. (Did I read this story right?) This is another first story, and Bernstein does an effective job of storytelling but I'm appalled what appears to be happening. =============== "A Fistful of Monopoles" by Raymund Eich The 'Winona from Pomona' is an interstellar salvage ship crewed by Barnet and Faraday McCandless in 2572. They come across a billion-year-old derelict alien spacecraft they hope will have magnetic monopoles they can salvage. Reminded me a bit of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. Decent, but a minor story with an ending that solves one of the main limitations of first-person narratives. =============== "Soroboruo Harbormaster's Log" by David Whitaker At a distant interstellar outpost, the harbormaster logs in a growing list of new ship arrivals and the number of immigrants. Uses the idea that FTL ships will overtake generation ships, and thus the harbormaster ends up logging in older and older ships. A minor story based on an idea I first read in TIME FOR THE STARS by Heinlein. =============== "On the Rocks" by Ian Randal Strock Flash fiction that mixes ideas from old science fiction stories and highly theoretical science that doesn't work. Mildly amusing way to recall Asimov and Heinlein, but the story is a groaner. James Wallace Harris, 12/20/21