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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


It is very similar to an invitation-only anthology. Sort of a print on demand invite-only anthology, in that no pay is guaranteed. I hadn't noticed the contradiction you pointed out, but it's definitely there.

It's a fairly low-risk endeavor for them, in that the only investments (though they are significant) are time and web hosting costs. And maybe that is the way to leverage more publications into existence: low start-up barriers. But at the same time, what writers need (paying markets) is different than what commercial publishers need, and both of those differ from what daring editors and for-the-love publishers need, and sometimes all these needs intersect, but not often.
I suspect that the contradiction came from a clash between ideals and practicality... My guess is that they are thinking of controversial stories that others won't publish by an unknown writer, but that might get published if the writer were a New York Times bestselling author.

But yeah, they can't publish works by unknowns themselves until they set up a system by which they can actually see stories by unknowns.
I wanted to correct myself-- not a pod invite-only, but rather a royalties-sharing no-advance invite-only. (Can I *get* more hyphens in there?) In that POD is a technology, not necessarily a business model.

I wonder if any kind of viable business model can be created based solely on product that the only viable businesses won't sell?

Can you see it in retail? "We only sell the products Wal-Mart won't dare!"

So, I can see it as an artistic endeavor, but unless the big print mags are totally out of touch with what little market there is, I don't know if there's much money to be made that way.

Where's that revolutionary "SF = big bux" model I keep waiting for? :D
Do you honestly think there still exist stories which the mainsteam won't print because of their controversial nature? Aside from really explicit erotica -- for which there's a separate niche market which will pay for it gladly, including SF/fantasy stuff -- I am dubious.
From what I understand, and from a trustworthy source...

One of the stories that is appearing in Helix was sent to the three major SF magazines. All three thought it was of publishable quality and all three chose not to publish it due to its controversial nature.

Also, it was reported on the Asimov's messages boards that the editor of Asimov's recently bought a story but that the publisher and owner nixed it. You can find the thread at http://www.asimovs.com/discus/messages/2/5614.html?1150461935 .

So to answer your question: yes, I think those stories exist, because it's apparently been happening.
I particularly liked the suggestions in that thread for stories that could appear in Offensive Science Fiction:

"The Day The Earth Farted"

"Gender Bender On A Bender, Return to Sender"

"God Is a Zombie"

Ellison: "A Boy, His Dog, and Your Mama".

Asimov: "I, Robot - You, Sexy".

Clarke: "Childhood's Rear End".

Heinlein: "Your Mama is a Harsh Mistress".
Well, there was ther recent brouhaha over Jim Grimsley's story at Asimov's. My understanding with Helix is that they are stocked for the first few issues and don't want to open their submissions until they have a better idea of how things are going. I know that they are making some policy for queries from pofessionals.*

*I'm justa columnist there, not staff, and don't really know what Im talking about.
I hope so. The current policy, as stated on the Submissions Guidelines page, is: "Queries, however courteous and persuasively written, will be a waste of your time and ours."
Thanks for the update, Beth. Could you post links to those newsgroups?
Well, I'm doubting that Strange Horizons fails to publish things for their controversial nature. I could of course be wrong.

But I don't think the "contradiction" really is one. They certainly all know people whose writing they feel justifies more exposure, so they can both be invitation-only *and* publish relative unknowns. It remains to be seen whether or not they do. :)


Sorry, didn't see this discussion 'til now. You wrote:

I'm doubting that Strange Horizons fails to publish things for their controversial nature.

Yeah, I can't think of anything that we've rejected because it was too controversial. However, there have been one or two stories that I was worried might be too controversial in various ways, that we ended up rejecting for other reasons. The controversiality in those cases probably wouldn't have stopped us, but it gave us (or at least me) pause.

There's also the question of what counts as controversial. There are some areas in which we at SH happily leap into publishing controversial stuff; there are other areas in which we might be more wary. (Do stories that might spark copyright-violation lawsuits count as controversial?) ...There are probably plenty of authors who think that we rejected them because their stories were too controversial; in many of those cases, we would argue that the story wasn't very good, or was too politically heavy-handed, or just wasn't to our tastes. So the answer may vary depending on your point of view.
Which was the story you liked, out of curiosity? I only read one so far, and was neither impressed with it nor disliked it particularly.
It will be obvious once the Nebula Awards Report is updated in a few months, but in the meantime, check your email. Just don't tell anyone; I'm curious to see if people can figure it out.

(Come to think of it, anyone who reads the first few pages of each story and knows me will probably guess it very quickly.)

December 2016

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