mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

Thoughts on Helix

A while back, I commented on the death of SciFiction and the question of how short science fiction might survive. I'd like to revisit that discussion in light of an announcement that was made yesterday.

A group of science fiction writers and editors led by William Sanders and Lawrence Watt-Evans have started a new quarterly webzine, Helix, which debuted yesterday. I haven't had a chance to delve into it too deeply so far, although I know quite a few of the people involved, including people who have blogs here on LiveJournal. The philosophy behind the webzine, described in their editorials, seems to be rooted in the whole Dangerous Visions concept, to have a place where writers can publish stories that the regular markets don't want to publish due to their controversial nature. They also note that they don't plan to be a commercial publication; in other words, the stories are offered for free, but they're hoping that people will donate. And finally, despite their uncertainty over whether or not they could end up paying a professional rate to their writers and staff, they wanted to put together "a professional-quality online magazine."

From what I've seen, they've definitely succeeded on the first and third point. Helix looks like an extremely high quality zine. The one story I've read so far is readily described as controversial, bordering on taboo, and it impressed me enough to recommend it for the Nebula Award.

On the second point, of course, the concerns I brought up in November 2005 are still present. Obviously they're succeeding at not being a commercial publication, but my concern is about the lack of commercial publications. Back when I commented on the death of SciFiction, I noted that no one other than Ellen Datlow as far as I knew was making a living off of editing a fiction zine on the web. For the moment, Helix's existence doesn't change that proposition, and the editors even admit as such. The fact is that none of the participants are making a living out of this website yet, nor is it paying anyone's salary. Nor do they expect to in the near future. But it's an interesting experiment, and I think a lot of us will be tracking reports of donations (assuming they release any of that information publicly, like other sites sometimes do).

There's also the question of just how much is this a science fiction magazine or equivalent when -- for the moment -- no one can submit to it. In fact, their own site displays a contradiction in their philosophy.

Let me quote directly from William Sanders's editorial:

"One, Helix would be a place where writers could publish things that none of the regular markets wanted to touch, either because they were too edgy or controversial or, as sometimes happens, simply because the authors were too unknown. [italics mine] (Another growing problem, the inevitable result of the Dying Of The Light; with fewer and fewer pro SF magazines, there aren't even enough markets for all the established pro writers, let alone the new kids on the block.)"

And now let me quote from their submissions guidelines page:

"At present Helix is taking contributions by invitation only. We are not considering any submissions. We are sure you are very talented and your work a delight to read, but we already have sufficient material for upcoming issues on our quarterly publishing schedule and until we are more solidly established we do not want to acquire a backlog."

On the one hand, Sanders says in his editorial that they also want to publish stories that the other markets won't touch "simply because the authors were too unknown." On the other hand, it would appear that they themselves aren't ready to look at authors they don't know either. In some ways, this is much more like an invitation-only anthology than like a quarterly magazine.

So how does this differ from some yahoos just posting their stories on the web?

The difference is in the names. Remember when almost no one thought people would want to read fiction delivered in an electronic format? Then Stephen King released his novella "Riding the Bullet" and it was a bestseller. Frankly, it takes someone like King to pave the way.

In the same light, when you see people like Richard Bowes, Adam-Troy Castro, and Janis Ian offering their stories on this site, it's a far cry from a bunch of yahoos. The people behind it have established credentials in the field. Presumably, they and the editors know that these stories are of professional quality, and so they feel no qualms about posting them on the site.

So here's my hope: that Helix will provide a new business model for short fiction, and that the editors will figure out a way to start reading unsolicited submissions, while at the same time paying professional rates to their writers and a living wage to their staff. Because that would be a good sign that short science fiction will not end up as a dead art form of the past.

Copyright © Michael Burstein
Tags: science-fiction, supporting-fiction
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