The Brave New World of Spec Fic Magazines: A Primer
Speculative fiction is a vibrant field with a lot of exciting stuff written by genre veterans as well as up and coming writers. When I first tried dipping my toe into the genre, I’ve found myself a little intimidated by all the available titles, not to mention the various mediums where this type of fiction is available.
SFF magazines in particular can be a little bit daunting. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America lists 26 magazines that qualify as professional-rated, and that doesn’t even consider the scores of semi-pro and non-paying publications. But I’m about to hook you up with recommendations for short fiction that are available for free online. Folks who don’t enjoy reading using the computer screen can also purchase digital versions (save for one that is completely web-centric) and you can even subscribe digitally or in print form.
My advice is to choose one or two publications for browsing, take note of the authors you enjoy, then look up the website to see where else they’ve been published. What I tend to do is save the pages using the Pocket app and blaze through them when I’m spinning my wheels and I don’t feel like reading longer works.
Here is my list of tried and true magazines. Many of them focus on certain genres like fantasy, adventure, or horror but in my experience, they don’t tend to get too rigid about what is expected of specific categories and have great overall appeal.
Let’s address the giant, unhappy elephant in the room. When I started building this primer early in June, I automatically rounded up some of my favorite short stories published on the Tor website, acquired by keen editors such as Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ellen Datlow and Anne Vandermeer. I was going to talk about how each story is paired with some of the most arresting artwork in the genre, thanks in large part to the art direction by Irene Gallo. That was before Tor publisher Tom Doherty proceeded to throw Irene Gallo under the bus, succumbing to an extended campaign by so-called Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, whose reason for existence is their opposition to the fact that more people of color, LGBTQ+ people, and women are taking up space in the SFF landscape. Rioter Brenna Clark Gray goes more in-depth with this story.
This is not the recommendation I had wanted to write.
Some who are appalled by these developments are disavowing support for Tor, since it is an institution that would rather appease genre reactionaries than support their own employees who are doing vital work. This is a valid response. But Tor (both the website and the publishing house) is also home to stories that Irene Gallo and other people like her are working hard to champion, the very voices that the Puppy Industrial Complex are saying should not be recognized by the Hugos or the Nebulas. It is your prerogative to not give Tor any of your money or your clicks, but I urge you to take note of these names, all of whom I first encountered through this publication:
“The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere” by John Chu – At turns poignant, hilarious, and heartbreaking, this is a specimen of mundane speculative fiction written by one of the most acute feelings writers in the genre.
“Anyway: Angie” by Daniel José Older – A story dripping with attitude, swagger, and some gore, told through the eyes of a bodyguard trying to bury a broken heart in her work. Except that her work involves old loves and supernatural roaches.
“Thirteen Steps in the Underworld” by Su-Yee Lin – I’m a sucker for a good old Orpheus in the underworld reimagining, and Lin uses a novel format here that highlights the emotional heft of the story.
“The Devil in America” by Kai Ashante Wilson – If you’re going to try a single story from this recommendation post, make it this one. A harrowing horror story for more reasons than the supernatural ones, centered around an African-American family a few years after the Civil War.
I’ve probably read more stories from Clarkesworld than from any other SFF publication. Part of it is because they used to only publish two short stories a month, making it easy to keep up. But even now that they’ve expanded to accommodate four stories and several essays, they are still the one magazine that I’ll consistently look at. Something about the publication’s aesthetic really appeals to me in a way that’s hard to articulate. Explicit stories are contrasted with whimsical and broody ones, showing you the breadth of possibilities in speculative fiction.
“A Buyer’s Guide to Maps of Antarctica” by Catherynne M. Valente – This is probably in the top five of my favorite short stories of all time. Who would’ve thought an auctioneer’s catalog could be so riveting?
“From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7” by Nnedi Okorafor – This story has echoes of the movie Alien, told in a series of journal transcripts. I highly encourage you to try the audio recordings for this one, it adds a lot of tension and depth to the story.
“Tying Knots” by Ken Liu – A great (and slightly infuriating) piece of near future science fiction about the things we value and take from people in the margins.
“86, 87, 88, 89” by Genevieve Valentine – What starts out as a cleanup and archiving effort turns into a disquieting look at how a society can be complicit in its own subjugation.
“Blessed Are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo – A story about a highly stratified society contained in a starship on its way to a new galaxy.
“The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” by Theodora Goss – The Snow Queen retold through the lens of a city succumbing to totalitarianism.
“Body Language” by Mary Robinette Kowal – A delightful futuristic crime story involving a puppeteer who inadvertently gets involved in a kidnapping investigation.
“Difference of Opinion” by Meda Kahn – A wrenching SF story positing that even love may not be enough to truly connect.
“Selkie Stories Are For Losers” by Sofia Samatar – I find selkie stories creepy yet compelling, and Samatar does a great job dissecting this folk tale’s implication when it comes to women’s agency.
“L’Aquilone du Estrellas (Kite of Stars)” by Dean Francis Alfar – A straight up fantastical story about working for love and the endpoint of journeys. This is the first story that first prompted me to look at short stories published online, and I’ve never looked back.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Master Hadj’s Sunset Ride” by Saladin Ahmed – A Western with a tremendous first-person voice, about Muslim bounty hunters encountering the undead.
“We Were Once of the Sky” by Yoseff Lindell – Alternate history depicting a society where aliens are living with the human population during the reign of the Black Plague.
“No Sweeter Art” by Tony Pi – This is a rollicking adventure story about a wizard that works primarily through the medium of candy. Yup.
(Lightspeed’s most recent issue is titled Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and if that doesn’t make you want to read it, I don’t know what to tell you.)
“勢孤取和 (Influence Isolated, Make Peace)” by John Chu – Another amazing story from John Chu, this time about supersoldiers, game theory, and Go.
“The Knight of Chain, the Deuce of Stars” by Yoon Ha Lee – I obviously have a thing for games in a science fiction setting. This one is told with a backdrop of galactic conflict barely explained, told in poetic, achingly abstract language.
“Herd Immunity” by Tananarive Due – Just when you think the subgenre of plague apocalypses has nothing more to offer, you get this great story about a woman you can’t help but root for.
“Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?” by Isabel Yap – I studied at an all-girls Catholic school in the Philippines, and believe me when I say that Isabel Yap has the setting and the urban legends down pat. Happily there were less hauntings in my high school experience.
“Ishq” by Usman T. Malik – Though primarily a horror publication, I really appreciate how Nightmare Mag consistently chooses stories that have stark human emotions at the center of them. This is a prime example.
“Raphael” by Stephen Graham Jones – This story has shade of Stephen King’s IT, about a group of friends and the single thoughtless act that devastates them and their families.