Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Wednesday Short: Sci Phi Journal, Issue #1 (Part I - The Short Fiction Section)

I don't really listen to podcasts. I have been in a few because panels tend to be recorded for that purpose at Dragon Con, but sadly, I've never had the time to make any of these shows a regular habit. Consequently, until a few weeks ago, I never knew a podcast like Jason Rennie's existed. And it's a damn shame, really. Mr. Rennie, you see, is as interested in philosophy as he is in science fiction, and so he evidently thought: Why not meld the two? Well, why not indeed! Scrolling through the titles of recent broadcasts, I can see quite a few topics that may interest the rabble here. I for one plan on listening to the shows that bring St. Thomas Aquinas to a discussion of philosophical concepts on Babylon 5.

Meanwhile, via John C. Wright's inimitable blog, I've also learned that Rennie has started publishing a zine that covers the same ground as the Sci Phi Show. The first issue of said zine - entitled the Sci Phi Journal - has already been released, and while I was cycling in the gym yesterday, I got a chance to read the entire "short fiction" section. My thoughts? The stories were pretty uneven; a few worked as science fiction literature and a few did not.

To be sure, all four selections achieved one of the cardinal goals of our genre: They played with ideas that were genuinely interesting and even awe inspiring. When Eric S. Raymond wrote a while back that science fiction must bring the reader to a moment of "conceptual breakthrough," he was largely right. If the "Wow!" factor is not present, then what you have is -- the kind of crap that is peddled as "award-winning sci-fi" today, which somehow manages to be pseudo-literary and pseudo-speculative simultaneously.

In my view, however, stories usually cannot thrive on the high concept alone; most of the time, you need, at the very least, recognizably human (or human-like) characters to respond in sympathetic ways to your fantastic premise. This is where the stories "Cosmic Foam" and "Falling to Eternity" fail. In "Falling to Eternity" in particular, the protagonist is basically a non-entity -- and the antagonist is so cartoonish that I half expected him to start cackling madly and twirling his mustache.

"Domo" and "Abandoned River, Dry Water," on the other hand, were much more effective. The latter, actually, was one of the best short stories I've read all year. The tale it implies - of a misplaced Catholic missionary attempting to minister to an alien race he was not prepared to encounter - is both haunting and poignant -- reason enough to look for some of Jane Lebak's other work.

So -- despite the flaws of the fiction Rennie has included, have I gotten enough out of this zine so far to push forward? Yes! I'm especially excited to read the article on the Prime Directive. After all, Matt and I have our own thoughts about that -- many, many thoughts! And next week, I intend to review John C. Wright's novelette "The Ideal Machine" for the Wednesday Short. The upshot? There is still much to discuss -- so go ahead and pick up a copy so you can jump in!

Final Verdict: Recommended... though there are a few bugs here and there.


  1. Jason Rennie-- That name sounds familiar. Why haven't I heard of this blog before? Aquinas AND Babylon 5?!?! Sign me up! I'll take that, warts and all!

    Hrm. About SF... I'm contemplating writing one of THOSE novels for upcoming NANO. It takes place in the midst of a city sized trash heap, on the edge of a massive futuristic salvage operation. One of the major themes how as far into the future we go, people will still be people. Because it beats the hell out of the alternative. That's not exactly high concept, but I still think it qualifies as SF.

    1. You may be confusing me with a guy who jumps dirt bikes or a maths (IIRC) professor from MIT. I'm a podcaster and software engineer from Australia.