My Interview with Futurismic submission editor, Chris East

16 03 2010

Science fiction is always in flux, a shift of focus that is often self contained and independent from the rest of literature at large. I will not try to give you a concise history of the genre, if such a thing is even unequivocally possible, but I will state a sort of history to serve as a platform to a question: Is science fiction relevant?

As a genre it lacks such a defining BC/AD event that fantasy literature had in the form of Tolkien’s Rings series of the 50’s and perhaps Harry Potter today. As a genre there was always something more of an insiders game going on in science fiction. Unless you count Kurt Vonnegut (he did and so do I) there are no household names in the genre. Neil Gaiman writes a little science fiction, sure. I think that many cool people know who Phillip K. Dick was. But the level of concurrent notoriety achieved by the “Golden Age Greats” such as Clarke, Asimov, Bradbury, and even Heinlein is lacking in current science fiction. In some ways I think this is the fault of a type of editor from that period and its, excuse the labored pun, fallout. The relevance of “far out” sci-fi really decayed (sorry again) under the glare of nuclear holocaust, but sci-fi set in space just kept on trucking. The better part of my silly sci-fi cover art collection is from the seventies. To think that 80% of science fiction released in the last years of the 1970’s was set in the far future on another world is depressing.  When taken in the light of the novels Phillip K. Dick had published a over a decade earlier (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and my vote for best title ever: We can build you, not to mention A Scanner Darkly) the trend in publishing becomes distressing. There is a lag in movements. 1984’s Neuromancer, though not prophetic and unprecedented as its devotees like to claim, certainly helped usher in the “punk” subs of the genre with the inaugural “cyber-punk” movement (Bladerunner, The Matrix and all that jazz for you unwashed masses). It was dark, it was near, it was obsessed with Tokyo, and it seemed- well, important.

After that point I have more difficulty finding a narrative for the genre that fits, or makes sense. I believe the post-modern impulses of art hit sci-fi hard and early. The genre has spent the last thirty years happily devouring its own skin, ushering in an era where sub-genre is a more relevant indicator of a marketing strategy than of content, and dusk jacket descriptions try to pander complex works to the “assumed fool” and thus end up insulting the novel.  In short: It’s a fun time to write science fiction.

But that  brings me back to my question of whether science fiction is relevant. I don’t mean as a market of course. Can a book about space ships say anything to your spirit as it slogs through the workday, or is it merely escape?  Is “merely” ever even appropriate when discussing escape? My answer is not so easy as a yes or no. I don’t think there is a subject, when handled correctly, that doesn’t speak to greater natures, but beyond that I haven’t the time to address it here…yet.  My interview with Chris East that follows this unusually rotund opening was very thought provoking for me. I had to ask myself the questions: what am I trying to say? Does it need to be said? I hope you find the interview as compelling as I did. Without further ado, here is Mr. East (how cool).

AP) First off, let me thank you for agreeing to this. As I said in an earlier post you give the best rejections in the business and I’ve been a big fan of your rejections for awhile now. You are one of the few editors that actually replies with commentary about why a story didn’t work for you. How the heck can you keep up with that?

CE)  Thanks for the kind words, and for the interview.  And I’m glad you “enjoy” my rejections.  I do try to make them a little useful, or at least painless.  As far as your question…I’m a writer too and I went into editing charged up with a certain amount of silly idealistic fervor:  “I’ll show everybody how it’s done!”  Rejection is an inherently frustrating part of the business of being a writer, and it’s all the more frustrating when you don’t know why your stories are getting rejected. I went into the Futurismic gig determined to at least provide at least a little bit of feedback.

Of course, now that I’ve been at it for a while, I understand why most editors don’t do it.  It’s not always possible (crush of time, number of submissions), it’s not always warranted (sometimes there’s not much to say – the story just doesn’t do it for me), and really, the effort rarely pays off (I mean, except for personal satisfaction, there isn’t much incentive).  It’s also not really an edtior’s job to teach writers — it’s the editor’s job to find stories.  But as a writer I always appreciate it when the editor says something helpful, so I do still try to provided some feedback.  I’m also proud that I’ve never resorted to using a form rejection.  I can see how people might think I do, of course – you do tend to repeat yourself once you’ve written a few thousand responses!  But take my word for it, I write every rejection from scratch.

AP) As a zine that only publishes one story a month I would imagine that you are often sitting with several stories that you would like to publish but can’t. How do you make final determinations between near equals (i.e. topical relevance, good title, etc.)

CE)  This has never been a real problem for us, actually.  In fact, our inventory tends to run on the thin side most of the time.  I suspect this is a combination of high standards and a fairly specific focus on near-term future SF – I guess there aren’t that many available stories that fall perfectly into our wheelhouse.  So I honestly don’t recall having the kind of one-or-the-other decisions you describe.  The exception might be when we’ve  received a story very similar to something that we’ve already published.  If we’ve recently featured a story about brain implants, for example, we might hesitate to publish another brain implant story close on the first one’s heels.  (Which, since we publish so infrequently, equates to “the past several months.”)  But mostly, it’s kind of a know-it-when-I-see-it situation.  In other words, “Yep, this is a Futurismic story!”  Or, “Nope, it isn’t!”

AP) I noticed you live in Los Angeles. Does Jason Stoddard live near you with a formidable arsenal? Is that why he keeps appearing in Futurismic? (note to readers: Mr. Stoddard’s story White Swan was our story of the week awhile back. He also sends letter bombs)

CE:  Actually I have no idea where exactly Jason lives…this place is quite a sprawl!  I’ve only met him in person once; he was nice enough to invite me out to lunch shortly after I moved here a few years ago.  The main reason he appears in Futurismic is that he writes great, futurismic stories.  I would add that L.A. is a place where you’re constantly bumping into the future.  It’s just so vibrant and crazy and huge, and so much starts here and happens here.  A day doesn’t go by when you’re not confronted with reminders of population growth, environmental stress, media overload, and on and on.  I’ve never been in a more futurismic city and I find it very energizing.

AP) How did you become a superhero?

Okay, secret agent it is. I buy it. I'm sure none of my readers can guess where you are either!

CE:  I’m not a superhero.  I’m more of a secret agent, actually.  But not like Bond, more like Willy Armitage on Mission: Impossible — the guy who puts on a gray jumpsuit, walks casually into the office building, and gets mistaken for the elevator repairman.  And meanwhile I’m secretly manipulating things.  Okay…actually, not even that cool.

AP) How did you get into sci-fi?

CE:  Your usual combination of sense of wonder, restlessness, and teenage misanthropy, I think.  And timely exposure to Star Wars, D&D and Douglas Adams.  That pointed me down a  path that eventually fed into cyberpunk, which is the subgenre that ultimately corrupted me into the business.  Also, as a kid I had a friend who wrote stories in longhand.  My parents had a typewriter – this must have been around 1983 or so – and he asked me to type up his stories for him.  So I pretty much learned how to type on an old Smith-Corona typewriter, tapping out someone else’s stories.  Eventually I started typing up my own instead.

AP) What do you have against hobbits?

CE:  Um…their consumer electronics aren’t particularly advanced?

AP) I want to talk about Futurismic for a moment. This is not the usual venue that proliferates on the web these days. For one thing, it is sci-fi only, and not just any sci-fi- near future, cultural/tech sci-fi. When the rest of the web scene is obsessed with dark sci-fi, you guys are taking a very different approach. How did you get involved and can you walk me through the inspiration for Futurismic’s inception and focus on this particular vain of the genre? (Note to self: Place Link- here)

CE: Futurismic is mostly the brainchild of Jeremy Lyon, one of my classmates at Clarion 1994, and its fictional vision was shaped, I think, largely by a number of discussions the writers in our class (along with some of our instructors) were having about the state of science fiction in the mid-to-late 1990s, particularly at shorter lengths.  I can’t speak for the others, but I came out of Clarion ready to set the world on fire with my brilliance.  (Heh…whoops!)  I was full of piss and vinegar, and mostly just energy, for talking about and writing science fiction.  At one point our discussions grew into a fairly intense and complicated e-mail thread about the backwardness of a lot of SF being published in the magazines at the time.  Judith Berman eventually wrote a highly regarded critical piece that grew out of this discussion called “Science Fiction Without the Future,” which examines a year’s worth of Asimov’s stories and statistically evaluates how plausible and forward-looking they are.  But when it came to “real futures,” as she called them, Asimov’s didn’t do so well.  (It’s a pretty widely read piece of SF criticism, actually, and it made a bit of a stir at the time.)  Some of us felt that SF was a genre uniquely positioned to confront change, and actually do something about it – get people ready for it, make them think about it, and seriously consider the consequences of everything that happening now.  And it really wasn’t doing that.

I think our conversation ran parallel to the formation of the Mundane SF concept, incidentally.  I’m definitely an advocate of Mundane SF, and I think that movement is probably one of the most misunderstood and unjustly reviled ideas to hit SF.  It really touched a nerve, and elicited a severe knee-jerk reaction, which to me is proof it was on to something.  If they’d had a more colorful name, like the Futurismic movement or something, maybe it would have caught on…

Anyway it was my feeling (shared by others, who were frankly a lot more eloquent about it than I was) that a lot of science fiction seemed less interested in the actual future – what was bearing down on us by the second – than in the science fiction world’s nostalgia for the futures of our genre’s past.  The field was ducking the issues.  And reality seemed to be outracing the genre in terms of innovative SF concepts.  That’s still pretty true to some extent — it’s certainly outracing me, at least!  My motivation for Futurismic‘s fiction section kind of grew out of a desire to see more “real futures” — to see science fiction embrace the imminent changes our world was facing, rather than resisting them in favor of hoary old tropes and nostalgic remembrances of how SF used to be.  It was, for me anyway, very much a mission.

Jeremy’s notion was to create a website that bridged the gap between the people who wrote and read science fiction, and the people who were out there actually doing science fiction.  In other words, getting the writers and SF fans (imaginers of the future) in touch with the early adopters and scientists and futurists (designers of the future).  The blog section of the site would try to keep people abreast of technological, scientific, societal, and political changes, while the fiction section would feed off of that vibe — provide the fictional take.  Jeremy focused more on the blog side (and the business side, and the organization side, and, okay, just about everything else).  I came onboard to handle the fiction section.  Jeremy eventually passed the reins over to Paul Raven, who’s done a brilliant job sustaining the site’s vision, which we think is still pretty relevant.   I don’t know that we’ve achieved our goal — really, I think we’re probably more popular with folks interested in futurism and tech than we are with science fiction readers — but that’s the basic idea behind it.

AP) You have a good eye for successful story telling and by that I mean work that evolves and takes the reader on a particular journey where the next step is not necessarily intuitive. I’ve always felt that you learn more about an editor from reading a magazine’s fiction than you ever do about the writer so, beyond particulars of Futurismic’s guidelines page, what narrative traits are appealing to you? I’ll know if you’re lying, I have like six examples of traits that aren’t appealing.

CE: That’s actually kind of a difficult question to answer.  I’m not usually consciously thinking about specific narrative elements, I just start reading and hope the story hooks me.  But I’ll try anyway…Futurismic is a pretty distinctive beast, and looking back over what we’ve published I can see some patterns.  I’m particularly fond of near-future stories that feel plausible, or at least authentic.  If they’re less realistic, more gonzo futures, though, I still like them to feel like they’re connected with or descended from our crazy present reality.  In fact, that’s probably the biggest thing for me – I want it to be fiction, but I want it to interact with reality, to deal with certain truths.  A lot of science fiction stories focus a bit too much on ordering their ideas, and come off feeling too simplistic.  Or they’re so out there, they may as well be fantasy.  But to me, present reality is a fascinating mess, so I’m interested in seeing fascinating, messy futures too.  So I like busy stories with lots of elements and actions and ideas and intricacies.  And tonally, I’m fond of clashes and contrasts – dark ideas approached with zany humor and enthusiasm, for example, or powerfully bleak scenarios that nonetheless leave one with an underlying sense of hope.

All of this said, some stories just kind of sneak up on me, and come at me from a direction I’m not expecting, and I end up buying them in spite of my usual tendencies.  I don’t think there’s really a surefire formula for success with me.

AP) Editing mistakes that make you want to gouge out your eyes and replace them with radishes?

CE: I assume when you say “editing mistakes,” you mean mistakes that I find writers making when submitting…?

I have a pretty high tolerance for mistakes, because everybody makes mistakes. Repeated mistakes are more frustrating.  When an author misinterprets the guidelines, for example, and I respond informing them that they’ve violated the guidelines, and their next submission violates the guidelines in the exact same way.  Clearly they did not learn their lesson.

That’s probably my biggest pet peeve; failure to read guidelines.  There’s no excuse for not reading a market’s guidelines if you want to sell a story to it.  I don’t expect people to read everything we’ve ever published, but if a writer is sending me stories from our “What We Don’t Want” list, which is clearly bulleted in our guidelines, then they are being truly lazy.

AP) With slugs?

CE: On the assumption that slugs are worse than radishes…this is basically a variation of the radish answer.  It’s about the guidelines again, but this time involves writers who clearly have read them, but violate them anyway, as if to say, “These don’t apply to me.”  They usually give themselves away in a cover letter that describes the story as what we’re looking for, but the story quickly betrays itself as something entirely different. Saying your lifeship story to Planet X takes place in the “near-future” doesn’t make it so.  Editors don’t like to feel like a submitter is trying to trick them.   And in all these cases, you are wasting the editor’s time, which is absolutely the most irritating thing you can do.  A lot of short fiction editors do the job in their spare time, for no money, and wasting that time is not going to help your chances at all.

AP) Do you find most stories that you receive fail because of weak writing, poor premise, or failure to uphold the guidelines?

CE: With us, failure to uphold the guidelines is by far our biggest reason for rejection (see above).  I would say poor premise would be next, but I’d modify it to say “poorly handled” premise.  I’ve loved some stories with fairly simple premises, and hated some stories with really wild and interesting premises.  Weak writing, while not uncommon, isn’t nearly as common as I was expecting it to be when I started out.  Often the writing, at the sentence level, is quite good, but there are other issues, or the sentences just don’t all come together into a satisfying narrative.

AP) Your submissions page mentions “post cyber-punk” as a requested story type. Does that mean you want stories about letter carriers in neo-Tokyo or the BAMA sprawl? (note to readers: Boston Atlanta Metropolitan Axis of William Gibson coinage.)

CE:  Well, no.  But you know, now that I think about it, I’m not entirely sure I know what the hell I mean by post-cyberpunk.  It’s another know-it-when-you-see-it thing.  To me cyberpunk wasn’t so much a genre as an attitude.  When I got into it, I remember finding it really inspiring, and I was ultimately pretty disappointed when it became “another ingredient” for SF writers to use.  To me, it was a direction.  So when I think of post-cyberpunk, I think I’m talking about stories that descended from that edgy, frenetic cyberpunk attitude.  I’m not looking for cyberpunk pastiche or anything.

AP) “I was pinned down behind the fetid dumpster by six street samurai, but they didn’t know that I was a cyber ninja.”  How does this make you feel?

CE:  I’m kind of having an unemotional response to it.  But I have a feeling the cyber ninja is going to win.

AP) I have a long running (and very one sided) fight with the S(y)-F(y) network that basically involves me complaining about them and them not knowing that I exist. That isn’t a question. I just wanted to mention it.

CE:  This is not an answer, but I share your pain.  I thought the Battlestar Galactica reboot had some great moments, but beyond that the network has done little to advance science fiction and much to set it back.

AP) I always elicit advice for new genre writers when I talk to editors on here so let’s have some. Ways to improve the craft?

CE:   I only have three pretty simple pieces of advice, here.  First, read a lot — and not just fiction.  Figuring out why you like other people’s writing will help you improve your own, and the more knowledge you absorb, the more you can deploy.  Second, find a critique group.  You can study on your own as much as you want, but until you’ve found people you trust to read and evaluate your work and provide feedback, you might as well be flailing around in the dark.  This can be a humbling and difficult experience, but it’s absolutely necessary.  Ultimately, this is where you get real feedback — not from editors, especially when you’re starting out.  Editors will never have the time or inclination to give you what a good critique group can.  The third thing I will mention is this:  studying writing is great, but studying it exclusively isn’t a great idea.  I actually tailored my education to writing, but if I could do it all again I’d be a history major.  Knowing how to write is one thing, but having something to write about may be even more important.  This is pretty basic stuff, I think, but it’s what I’ve got

AP) I’ve been talking about writing as being more than a lonesome act, about being an act of engagement in a larger social conversation. If writing is the author’s input in that conversation, what do you think are the best voices for authors to listen to?

CE:  I’m not entirely sure I get this question…but I think to write science fiction well, you do have to know the field inside and out, and your work is very often going to be a “conversation” of sorts with the many other writers who have come before you.  I would never presume to tell anyone who the best voices are, however.  Writers needs to listen to the voices that speak to them.  Not to dodge the question, but to me this is a your-mileage-may-vary kind of thing.

AP) Favorite new writers out there?

CE:  Paolo Bacigalupi is shaping up to be a must-read author for me. The Windup Girl blew me away.  Is he new?  “New” is kind of a moving target in our business, there are writers I’ve been reading for years that other people would consider “new.”  I hesitate to mention anybody and miscategorize them.  Alexander C. Irvine has written a bunch of  novels, but he’s probably still new.  I absolutely loved Buyout.   Those two books are among the best “futurismic” SF novels I’ve read lately.

AP) Best venues other than your own?

CE:  I can’t say I’m all that well versed in the market these days…I’m too busy to keep up!  But I am a big fan of  TTA Press.  If you subscribe to any two print magazines, I highly recommend Black Static and Interzone. These are big, beautiful magazines.  In terms of fiction content, its sensibility might be a bit darker and more challenging than some of the other markets, but it really speaks to me, and both magazines are just gorgegously made.

AP) Last question, if you rejected a story and that story’s author replied with something like, “suck it!” how would you react?

CE:  I definitely would not agree to an interview with them, that’s for sure!

So that is the Science of Fiction. For the record, I don’t ever recommend telling an editor to suck anything, but this was a special circumstance. Chris East is available for weddings and birthday parties and you can find him any time at Futurismic or at his blog (which I will admit I love).

I want to thank all my well wishers in the last couple of weeks of tuffedness. They were certainly tuffed! If you want to especially thank Mr. East for being super easy to work with, and Chris next time you reject one of my submissions just remember this- I know where you live, what you look like, and your social security number… seriously dude, that’s never going to be a for real interview question.

Next up: …hmmmm, well we’ll see.

This is me happy. Here's to happier times ahead!




6 responses

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19 03 2010
Maggie Jamison

Great interview! Makes me want to try figuring out what post-cyberpunk means in my own head… Hmmm… ^_^

24 03 2010
Jason Stoddard

Wow, great interview, and kind words from Chris.

Of course, you know this is a Los Angeles plot, Chris only buys stories from me because we’re both LA insiders, we’re seen at the same fine restaurants rubbing shoulders with the celebs, we go to the same wrap parties . . .

Or, er, not.

Chris is a great guy, and I’m embarrassed to say that I only met him once for lunch. LA is a big place, and it ranges from Futurismic to, um, *less so.* We now live in one of the *less so* areas, an old town north of LA where a lot of the silent Westerns were filmed.

In any case, I think Chris is doing a wonderful job. Near-future fiction is tough to write, and I imagine even tougher to choose–but, regardless the difficulties, Futurismic is home to a huge percentage of the best near-future SF out there.

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