The Demise of SciFiction

Earlier this month, a message appeared on SciFi.com’s SciFiction website from editor Ellen Datlow. Evidently, SciFi.com (which is owned by the SciFi Channel) has decided to cease online publication of SciFiction, leaving Ellen without a job.

I’m dumbfounded.

Over a seventeen year period, Ellen Datlow built Omni magazine into the premier market for science fiction and science fact. When Omni ceased publication due to the financial difficulties faced by General Media, Bob Guccione’s publishing company, Ellen ran the online version of the magazine — successfully — for three years. With the final demise of Omni‘s online version, Ellen collaborated with Robert Kilheffer on the Event Horizon website for a short time before being hired to edit SciFiction for SciFi.com in 1999.

Like Omni, SciFiction quickly became the premier market for short science fiction. Since the magazine was supported by the SciFi channel’s revenue stream and had no physical print costs, it was able to pay double the standard professional rate for fiction ($.20 per word!) Over its six-year lifespan, SciFiction broke new ground in many ways, most notably garnering Nebula and Sturgeon awards for stories and novellas first published in electronic form. Datlow herself won the Hugo award twice for Best Editor, as well as the Locus Magazine Best Editor award in 2005.

So, why would SciFi.com shut down such a well-regarded publication and editor? No one is quite sure, but suspicion points to finances. Evidently SciFiction wasn’t bringing in enough money, so it had to be cut.

Let’s get something straight; SciFiction was originally published as a loss leader. The idea was to become the industry’s leading fiction market, and with Ellen Datlow at the helm, they did that. It was never intended to make money; it was intended to attract fans of true science fiction. SciFiction was created to lend an air of industry credibility to a cable network becoming increasingly known for its reliance on formulaic original programming. Faced with declining ratings, I wonder if the SciFi.com brass decided that it was easier to cut Ellen’s salary and eliminate a well-paying fiction market rather than spend the money and time necessary to improve the quality of the network’s original programming. I don’t know for sure, and I’m not enough of an industry insider to have all the facts.

But I do have a blog (of sorts.) And I know an e-mail address where people can write if they think this was a poor decision. Write to feedback@scifi.com if you wish to express your displeasure.

Is Troubleshooting Creative? You bet!

The closest I got to creativity today was troubleshooting my Windows 2000 server. I received an old motherboard, processor and case from one of my coworkers as payment for upgrading him to a new system, and proceeded to move my Windows 2000 Server installation to this new machine. Rather than just move the disks over and hope for the best (I’ve had mixed results with this in the past on machines at work) I decided to format the drives and go with a clean install in the new system. The OS installed with no problems, but when I tried to set up Active Directory after the install, the machine locked up.

Ah! A challenge!

I tried swapping the network card out, thinking it was maybe a compatibility problem, but received the same result. I checked¬†Google for the last message displayed (“Configuring the local server to host the Directory Service”) and found several posts from people having the same problems, but no solutions that fit my situation. I tried setting up DNS manually, and was successful, but the installation still hung. Finally, I decided to move ahead with installing Service Pack 3 and the Security Toolkit for Windows 2000 Server, and tried promoting the server to a DC after that. Lo and Behold, Active Directory installed with no errors or hangs. Problem solved.

Then after I had the usernames and properties set up, I attempted to install the new Western Digitial 40Gb drive I purchased a couple of weeks ago. The motherboard BIOS detected and installed the drive without coaxing, and I figured it would be smooth sailing to format and get the shared folders set up on the drive. However, when I opened the Disk Management container and attempted to write a signature to the drive, I got the following error after a long wait: “LDM Configuration Disk Write Error.” I was also informed that the Disk Management container had become unstable, and that I should restart the machine or close Disk Management.

Ah! Another challenge!

When I tried to format the drive with NTFS, I got a similar error. But the solution to this one was easy. I restarted the computer with a Windows 98 boot disk, ran FDISK to create a Primary DOS partition on the new drive, and restarted Windows 2000. Now the Disk Manager saw the partition as a healthy DOS partition of the appropriate size, and I was able to format it with NTFS.

Creative? Yes. Simple? Yes, but I still had to think creatively to get around the roadblocks.

Kim and I went to see S1M0NE today. I think John Shirley was very kind to this movie in his Locus Magazine review. Probably too kind. Even my wife, who is not a computer expert, picked up on the obvious computer-related flaws in this movie. I agree with Shirley that the movie has a pleasant taste, but if you know ANYTHING about computers — and if you’ve read this far in this log entry, you must — don’t take your brain to see this movie. Leave it at home, on the bookshelf, enjoying the company of Shakespeare and Conan Doyle.

Old Possum’s, Paula Guran, and Quality

The Old Possum’s Writing Group met tonight, and for the first time in recent memory, no female members showed up. That was a little strange, and slightly changed the dynamic of the group, I think. It wasn’t a significant change, but it did have a bit more of a locker room feel to me. Maybe I’m just being hypersensitive, though.

After the critiques were done, we discussed Paula Guran’s article “Tribal Stand” on the Locus Magazine website. In short, the article laments the current state of the horror genre, pinpointing incestuous webzines and “miniscule press” magazines as being at fault for the large volume of substandard writing being published. Basically, because anyone can now be publisher on the Internet or use print-on-demand and self-publishing services to create a work of fiction, no one has to enforce industry standards or pay respects to the masters of the genre.

This is interesting, since Paula Guran is, herself, editor of a genre magazine, Horror Garage, and has also produced an electronic newsletter, Dark Echo, for many years. A quick look at the Horror Garage submission guidelines shows that Guran is not being hypocritical, though. Horror Garage, in its early issues, published a wide variety of quality writers in a wide variety of styles; Paula wasn’t just printing articles by her friends. Also, the guidelines make it clear that literary quality is a requirement for stories published in Horror Garage. The article also has a great quote: “Real writing happens when your blood meets the bayonet, when your bone is nicked with the blade.” It sounds to me like Guran thinks there are too many rubber bayonets out there right now.

So where do I stand on this? Certainly, by posting this journal and by linking to writers, magazines and bloggers on the Internet, I’m participating in the sort of networking that enabled many of the Buddy Publishing cabals to come into existence. However, I also believe in writing standards, and I do my best to adhere to them. To me, the most basic of these standards is the proper use of grammar, spelling, and punctuation in a submitted manuscript. Occasionally, I come into conflict with people in my writing groups because of this. Their argument is that those little things really don’t matter much; what matters is the story structure, plot and characterization. Ultimately, I agree with them.

However, I also find it very distracting to wade through an unclean manuscript, and though I try not to focus on the mechanical problems, I am never successful in doing so. As a result, I sometimes miss the point of a story, or I miss clues in the text that illuminate why what’s-his-name did such-and-such. I feel more like a copy editor than an evaluator, and I’m sure that reflects in my critiques. The guideline I use is this: If I’m submitting a manuscript to a critique group, I pretend that every member is an Ellen Datlow, a Gardner Dozois, a Gordon Van Gelder, a Paula Guran. I want to make the best impression I can on these “editors,” so they will give me good feedback on the story, rather than just reject it out of hand or focus on mechanical faults.

If I succeed in turning in a presentable manuscript, I am much more likely to get meaningful critiques of the important things, the things that are the most difficult to learn: structure, plot, word choice, characterization. To me, these are the aspects of writing that really determine whether or not a story has literary quality.

I guess this puts me pretty firmly on the side of Paula Guran and other “tribe” members. Some may see this viewpoint as elitist or snobbish; that’s unfortunate, but it won’t make me change what I believe, and it won’t keep me from doing my best when I critique a manuscript. If doing my best means copy-editing a manuscript so that it’s readable and then re-reading it for content, that’s what I’ll have to do. But rest assured that I will tell the writer that the amount of mechanical problems distracted me from focusing on the main story elements, and that I probably could have given a more fair critique if the manuscript had been cleaner.