Expectation Management

What Lightspeed Magazine’s guidelines say:

we encourage writers to take chances with their fiction and push the envelope.

What Lightspeed Magazine publishes:

Lynx awoke before dawn. He got out of bed, brushed his whiskers, and licked his fur clean. He dressed in boots and a tunic, then donned his rucksack and set out into the dusty streets. The sun was just beginning to peek up over the thatched rooftops. Most of the other catmen of the village were still asleep.

I suppose there is a sense in which publishing this story in the first month of a new magazine constitutes taking a chance, but it’s not the sort of chance-taking I was hoping for, I must admit.

30 thoughts on “Expectation Management

  1. Well, at least he’s not a catgirl….

    Lynxa awoke before dawn. She got out of bed and, twisting her sinuous body, licked herself slowly and sensually all over until she was clean. Dressed only in her tabby fur, she set out into the dusty streets. The sun was just beginning to peek up over the thatched rooftops. Most of the other catgirls of the village were still asleep.

  2. Jonathan: Most of the non-fiction is sub-io9 space-filler, as far as I can see. Some of the author spotlights aren’t bad.

    Patrick: Yeah, that was clearly the best of the first month, but that’s really not saying much, and I found it rather laboured.

    Kyra: Ha! On the downside, they literally are all catmen; I have no idea how they reproduce. (There is a “female dogman”, but no other female characters at all.)

  3. I thought ‘link-fodder’ when I saw the page. As though the non-fiction editor was mostly interested in getting the site linked to on stumble and services like that in order to drive some traffic to the new zine.

    It’s a pity actually, most online zines that don’t do reviews tend to struggle with non-fiction – I’ve never been mad about Clarkesworld’s non-fiction output either.

  4. Hey guys. “Cats in Victory” was mine. I’m sorry to hear that it disappointed you.

    As far as the catmen reproducing, Lynx does have parents. They’re mentioned a few times.

    One of my big concerns is the lack of young people reading short sf, and I try sometimes to write stories that I think will appeal to them. Animal hybrid soldiers is a concept I really found engaging when I was a young sf reader, and I thought it would be fun to do my own take on it.

  5. That was my own take on the story, that it was juvenile SF. And nothing against which, per se.

    But it creates a dissonance with the concept of chance taking and envelope pushing. In fact, the only one of the stories in the debut issue that could have been considered anywhere in the neighborhood of the cutting edge was the Kaftan.

  6. I swear to you that if someone with much more money than me happened to be bereft of her senses long enough to pay me to edit a magazine, and, if I happened to be equally bereft of mine to accept…

    There will be no $%$#$ catman, catgirl, shecat, hecat, or thundercat stories of any $#%#% kind.

    I don’t care how good the story is or who wrote it, I’m shutting down the moment I see catmen. I freaking hate catmen.

    I take that back. If Elizabeth Bear wants to write a Thundercats pastiche, I’m in, snarf. But the rest of it?

    Why, JJA, Whyyyyyyy?!


  7. Hi Lois. Of course, I wrote my story and it was accepted long before those guidelines were drafted, but even if I’d had those guidelines to go by, it just doesn’t seem to me that they indicate that Lightspeed means to consist exclusively/predominantly of chance-taking, cutting edge work — just that that’s something they’re receptive to. In fact, the preceding sentence states that Lightspeed will include “all types of science fiction,” which it seems to me leaves plenty of room for some fun action-adventure stories aimed at bringing in new young readers.

    Hi Joe. I often meet people who detest a particular fantasy notion, whether it’s elves or zombies or unicorns or time travel or talking cats or whatever. And of course all too often I meet people who hate _any_ fantasy notion whatsoever. So it goes. Personally I love all fantasy notions with heedless abandon, even the cheesiest of them … perhaps even _especially_ the cheesiest of them. “Catmen” stories, whether it’s Larry Niven or Brian Jacques or yes, Thundercats, have meant a great deal to me, and I would hate to see them, or any other idea, banished forever from our stories.

  8. David — While I must admit to not understanding a) why one would write stuff that didn’t consciously push the envelope and b) why you should take it upon yourself to ‘groom’ the next generation of SF readers, I don’t think it’s your job to justify your story’s inclusion in the ‘zine. You wrote it, you submitted it, hey presto they published it. It’s up to them to explain in what way kiddy-friendly anthropomorphic animal space opera is cutting edge SF. You’re off the hook :-)

    I actually disagree with Joe about cat people. I certainly think that they’re a throwback to Larry Niven and are decidedly ‘old fashioned’ but if you look to what furry fandom are doing with those kinds of characters they can still be pretty transgressive. I mean, a story about a gargantuan transgendered and heavily pregnant catgirl with disproportionately large genitalia and a fondness for eating her sexual partners during sex would certainly push the envelope were it to appear in Asimov’s.

  9. Hi Jonathan. As to why would anyone ever want to write something that doesn’t consciously push the envelope … I dunno, maybe because often there’s some really great stuff that fits just fine in the envelope. When I think of my favorite books and stories, a fairly high percentage of them don’t “push the envelope” in any way that I can identify — they’re just great stories about characters that I care about. And many of my favorite books and stories do “push the envelope.” And I’m glad to have both. Requiring that everything push the envelope all the time would seem to me to lead to a pointlessly escalating cycle of grotesquery and obscurantism, in a way that would deprive us of the wonderful variety of potential stories.

    Anyway, there’s more I could say, but it’s 4:30 am here so I think I’m going to have to take your advice and bow out.

  10. “Pushing the envelope” is a terrible cliche. I like to see specific requests in sub guidelines (stuff like “no horror”, “we don’t like swearing”, even “we are looking for stories that challenge/ignore/go beyond traditional SF and fantasy conventions”, or quoting specific authors if you really can’t describe what you’re looking for) but what does “pushing the envelope” actually mean? Sex and body horror? Just say “we’re looking for stories that address issues of sexuality and body horror”.

    Although, if pushing the envelope amounts to sex and body horror then that envelope has been pushed already as far as it goes. The challenge remains, as David points out, to write great stories about characters we care about. Everything else is the easy part.

  11. Well… the term ‘avantgarde’ originally referred to the people who went into battle BEFORE the front rank of the army (think of the skirmishing types from the Sharpe novels). But of course, that term only really works if you think of culture as this huge monolithic mass with everyone marching in straight lines in the same direction.

    In a postmodern age, nobody’s marching and everybody’s moving in their own direction and at their own pace. In this kind of cultural climate the term ‘avantgarde’ is not only not a useful metaphor, it’s effectively meaningless.

    I think that ‘pushing the envelope’ is a more useful term than avantgarde simply as a short-hand way of saying “don’t do what other people are doing”. Which is kind of a mantra for the postmodern age.

  12. “Don’t do what other people are doing” is an equally waffly and useless bit of advice for sub guidelines. It suffers from the same problems you have with “avantgarde” – what people are we talking about? Are you just saying “we’d like to see stories that go beyond the trad SF/F conventions”? Just say that!

  13. Sorry you guys didn’t like “Cats in Victory” or feel that the first issue pushed the envelope enough. But while I point out that we’re looking for stuff that pushes the envelope, nowhere in the guidelines do I say that *every single story we publish will push the envelope.* As Dave said, some great stories fit just fine inside the envelope. Writers guidelines are *guidelines.* They’re intended to *guide* writers into sending the sort of material I want to see. You never have to encourage writers to send stuff that fits in the envelope–everyone publishes stuff like that. But if you want to see stuff that does take chances, I think it behooves you to specifically call out for that stuff. If those guidelines made you think Lightspeed was aiming to be the 21st century Dangerous Visions, well, sorry about that, that was not our intent. We’ll be publishing some “dangerous” stuff, but that’s not necessarily our focus.

  14. A little tangential but:

    Perhaps they wouldn’t have to sort through “several hundred submissions per month” if their guidelines were more than a paragraph long?

    I agree with the other posters that the generic language gives me next to zero ammunition with which to approach them as an author but the paucity of actual content certainly doesn’t help things either. Pretty much all I got from it was:

    “We like stories. Also, if you’re like gay or something, that’s O-K.”

    I would suggest giving us a bit more to work with than that, though I suppose the inclusive language for diversity is a nice touch. But “pushing the envelope” is a cliche. It’s the kind of phrase you expect from some really poor business site that’s looking to “synergize its synergies” or some other abomination of language. It is exactly the sort of language I would expect they would want authors to avoid in their submissions. Cliches are a special kind of awful in sci fi.

    I don’t want to be too picky about the specific language of the guidelines though as I still think the bigger issue is the fact there are hardly any to begin with. The ones that are there really don’t seem to guide at all.

    Perhaps they should take a page from Strange Horizons on this one? I think SH has the best guidelines I’ve encountered thus far for fiction. I recently showed off their “do not want” list to some clients starting up a magazine and they thought it was absolutely brilliant (and hilarious.)

    Although I tend to swoon over most things SH does.

  15. Perhaps they wouldn’t have to sort through “several hundred submissions per month” if their guidelines were more than a paragraph long?

    Probably they still would: They’re paying pro rates.

  16. Casey, you say that as if we don’t *want* to get several hundred submissions per month, whereas of course we *do.*

    And it’s my feeling that very specific guidelines will do more to turn away authors from submitting stories I want rather than just keeping away the ones that I don’t.

  17. Mr. Adams,

    Yes I would imagine you’d prefer a wealth of average material to a lack of any at all. You are hedging your bets favorably and thoughtfully, there’s no doubt about that. I also did not know that particular point about the rates which I’m sure also makes it a publication of some considerable desire for both newcomers and the established.

    Kudos to you for not nickel and diming those who put in the hard work to deserve it.

  18. Well, this thread certainly took off more than I was expecting it to. I wish I’d had time to review the first month of Lightspeed properly, because in truth my perception of the kind of magazine it was going to be came from more than just the guidelines, and my disappointment with the kind of magazine it is originates with more than just “Cats in Victory”.

    So in the former column you have the fact that it was trailed as a sister magazine to Fantasy, and the fact that it’s called Lightspeed, which led me to expect something forward looking and on balance quite narratively sophisticated; like Strange Horizons or Clarkesworld but with a purer focus on sf. That is a magazine I would want to read quite a lot.

    But in the latter column you have the McDevitt story, which is smooth reading but doesn’t do anything new with a very old conceit, the Vaughn, which seemed quite emotionally and conceptually facile, the Kaftan, which as I said above does go to some interesting places, but felt somewhat laboured, and “Cats in Victory”, which I didn’t find convincing even as a cat story, even as someone who likes cats. Were I to caricature, I’d say McDevitt felt sub-Analog, the Vaughn sub-Daybreak, and the Kaftan sub-Interzone.

    But actually, that variance bothers me more than my assessments of the quality of the stories does. I don’t get, from these four stories, a sense of what a “Lightspeed story” might look like. And from the discussion above, I guess that’s deliberate. That’s not really a proposition that appeals to me as a reader, though. I want to read sf with a broad range of concerns, yes, but before that I want to read fiction with a certain level of ambition (which can come in different forms — conceptual, stylistics, whatever). I don’t know that I’ll keep checking in to a magazine that might give me something I might like one week out of every four.

    Still, roll on the July stories, and we’ll see.

  19. My expectations of Lightspeed were formed by it being a sisterzine to Fantasy Magazine, which immediately claimed a very specific place on the fictional spectrum and has maintained that position pretty well.

    I assumed at first that Lightspeed would do the same with SF, but if there is any specific position so far, I think I would have to call it a YA zine.

  20. Is Clarkesworld not from the same stable then? The site looks the same and it has the same publisher and the non-fiction articles are in a similar (if even less interesting) vein.

  21. Ref Jonathan’s comment on avante-garde:

    1. Do people still use envelopes?

    2. Tom Wolfe has a great essay in his collection “Hooking Up” where he defends the “derriere-garde.” The basic argument is that art involves skill + imagination, and that avante-garde focus on the imagination while the derriere-garde obsess about the skill.


  22. Anil —

    1) Hah! Splendid point.

    2) I shall have to look that up, it sounds interesting. As I said above, I think the concept of an avant-garde is now profoundly questionable. Culture simply doesn’t work that way anymore. People nowadays who declare themselves avant-garde tend to be part of movements and movements are more about promotion.

    There’s probably also a point to be made along the lines of the difference between science and the humanities. The humanities tend to draw upon life experience and breadth of knowledge rather than the specificity and intellectual fireworks of youth. An art form that has been around longer has had more space in which to mature. I imagine that there are still things to be said about space opera.

  23. Jonathan: No. Clarkesworld is published by Wyrm Publishing and has nothing to do with Fantasy, Lightspeed or Prime. You might be a bit confused because Sean is one of my editors and they (like a few others) use my submissions system.

    Our websites look the same? Really?

  24. There is a definite incestuous feel to many online SF venues. Look at the current issues of Lightspeed and Apex Magazine – very similar bronzey cyborged females, in profile.

  25. I would recommend that anyone unsatisfied with the first few issues of Lightspeed to give it some time, and make sure you read the next issue to see if you still feel the same way. There are some really unbelievable stories in the upcoming line-up, and if you didn’t care for the first few, wait for the next set. Everyone’s going to find something they like, soon enough, and get a good idea of what Lightspeed really is.

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