Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.― Neil Gaiman
In the final part of the Visual Signs series, we’ll dive more deeply into science fiction (SciFi) magazines as a specific case of visual elements use to support non-visual content, short stories. We’ll look at their covers and art work and how they’ll relate to the short stories they contain. In our example, we’ll take two modern SciFi magazines: Bastion, which is a recent arrival with its second issue in May and Clarkesworld, which is a bit more established at roughly 8 years old.
So, let’s break down these covers a bit. Bastion’s cover doesn’t scream SciFi. It uses warm and inviting colors, albeit a little on the Martian Red side. It’s only when you examine it more closely that you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. This sweet little girl’s swing is hanging precariously from the apex of a hill whose height seems greater than major mountain peaks. Where you would expect a verdant green hill, you have a martian red point that hangs over an impossibly deep abyss. It is simple, focused and to the point. Similarly, the magazine is focused exclusively on short stories. No interviews. No state of the Sci Fi writing world; it simply contains short stories. At least for some of its short stories, the cover is also indicative of the content. In particular, Gary Emmette Chandler’s The Endless Flickering Night appears to be another dystopian tale of post-war survival, however, appearances are not quite what they seem. There is more to it than post-war survival. Mr. Chandler deftly and quickly pulls you into the world and culture. He allows us to connect with the characters and their lot in life and provides the context for why his characters matter. He takes you down a path you didn’t know you were travelling in his short story.
The April issue of Bastion, however, is more muted in color scheme and it’s a photo rather than art work. The picture is techie but a little old school. This seems to communicate the inaugural issue’s focus on content. It says that this isn’t about being generically geeky or writing about pop culture; this is all about the short stories within its covers. While M. Justine Gerard’s The Dreamcatcher has SciFi elements in the apparatus used by the dreamcatcher and the milieu of its world with futuristic elements and multiple inhabited planets, it is really all about our dreams. Specifically, it’s what we become when we let go of our dreams, when we sell them out (literally). What’s left of us when the dreams are gone? The cover seems to foreshadow the story in that it’s a bit bleak, lots of apparatus but with a barren feel. It is bereft of activity and people. Once introduced to the joys of Sci Fi short stories, you’ll want to subscribe to Bastion, or better yet subscribe and donate.
Clarkesworld, on the other hand, has a slightly more complicated cover that screams its Sci Fi genre origins.
It also has a more complicated purview – besides original short stories, it has interviews, editorials, software reviews for writers and so forth. It covers a little more classic SciFi (i.e., previously published). I’ve previously reviewed Aliette de Bodard’s Immersion in Clarkesworld Issue 89. I fell in love with her writing then and so couldn’t resist using her as an example of short story here. She is a story teller par excellence. My main experience with her is in short story at which she’s particularly adept. (I am however, looking forward to seeing her work in longer form as well. I’ve bought her Obsidian and Blood series (Servant Of The Underworld, Harbinger Of The Storm, and Master Of The House Of Darts) to add to my to-be-read list.
She does all of the right things:
- Makes every word count.
- Draws you into the story immediately
- Provides backstory as part of the narrative rather than giving it in exposition outside of the narrative stream
- Builds relationship and character even in the brief span of a short story.
Simply put, her writing is exquisite. Ms. de Bodard uses SciFi elements in Ship’s Brother to push and prod your thinking about family, personhood and preserving culture in the midst of interaction with many cultures. That alone is pretty amazing within the confines of a short story. However, that’s small potatoes compared to the heart-ripping story about a son and his relationship with his mother, sister and dad. She immerses you into the family, the different interactions and the cultural context in which they occur. You feel the rashness of youth and live through the repercussions of decisions made. As a story teller, she doesn’t describe these relationships, she has us live in them. The pain and agony of relationships within this family were felt by me. I hurt, not just for the mother, but with the mother. Ms. de Bodard invites to us come along side her characters to see what they see, feel what they feel and recover what they can.
One nice feature of Clarkesworld is that they will often have the lovely Kate Baker read the stories. By the time she’s done with them, you feel like you’ve participated in a one act audio drama rather than listened to someone read a story. It doesn’t hurt that she has a velvet voice which seems to pull you intimately into the story while rooting you in the world. So read Ship’s Brother, then listen to Ms. Baker perform it. Then subscribe to Clarkesworld.
If you haven’t dabbled into short story lately (or ever), learn the joys that format brings with its laser sharp focus and care in crafting – plus you’ll be back from a 20 lightyear space travel for dinner.
[The post banner is from the lovely retro artwork of Bastion’s web page.]