Monday, June 6, 2011
Interview: 'The Future Fire' editor Djibril al-Ayad
Djibril al-Ayad is the nom de guerre of the editor and critic behind The Future Fire (TFF), a magazine of socio-political speculative fiction that has been running since 2005 but is currently on temporary hiatus. He is a trained academic historian and a professional Internet practitioner, and sees "no paradox in combining an obsession with the past and concern for the future." He can be found on Twitter at @thefuturefire and blogs at djibrilalayad.blogspot.com.
Why did you decide to set up 'The Future Fire'?
A group of five friends had been thinking about starting a small speculative fiction magazine for many years, but we never got around to it when that would have meant producing (and distributing) it on paper. The Internet made everything easier, to the degree that it made it possible to run a labour of love without huge financial outlay and expending massive energies on promotion and distribution.
What we really wanted to do was contribute to the blurring of genre boundaries both within speculative fiction and between sf and other fields. At the same time, although I don't think we articulated this very clearly in the early days, we were very interested in the political potential of sf, the kind of thing that people like [Ursula] Le Guin, [Michael] Moorcock, [Octavia E.] Butler, [Samuel] Delaney, and even to some extent [Philip K.] Dick, do with their writing: use it to highlight issues, problems, dangers and opportunities in this world, either by showing a future where they've been improved, or a future whether they've been allowed to get even worse.
Why did you focus on speculative fiction?
I think because that's the genre in which we were all the most widely read, and it was the sort of thing we loved. Also because speculative fiction does best what I described above; it allows you to present an imaginary world, stripped of boring realia to whatever degree you choose, while maintaining the issues you think are important to highlight from our existence. Additionally, although I don't know if we knew this at the time, speculative fiction has a thriving small press and fandom which is fun to engage with and makes fruitful discussions of the kind we were looking for possible.
What are you looking for as an editor?
In our manifesto we say that good fiction should be both beautiful and useful. First and foremost a good story: well-written, original, tightly plotted, containing necessary details, believable characters and setting, and beautiful and unexpected use of language. But we have turned down the opportunity to publish many fine and beautiful stories that don't contain the socio-political element we're looking for. That is to say, stories that didn't tell us something about our own world, about the injustice or corruption or bigotry or the other evils that make it so hard to live in. A convincingly terrifying dystopia that doesn't contain 1984esque warnings about our own world; a thrilling military SF adventure that doesn't bemoan (or satirize) the dehumanization of the soldier; an eco-thriller that doesn't show us what we need to change in our lives *now* to prevent catastrophe from happening. Equally, the most useful story, in these senses, wont find a place in our pages unless it is also beautiful, writing of the highest quality, polished and poetic and surprising.
What are your response times?
Our response times vary depending on how busy we are and what other
distractions come along. At the beginning of last year, in the months
before we suspended publication, we committed to respond with a
decision within six weeks of receiving a story (and we often responded
a lot sooner than that). Six weeks is a long time, though; I'd hope we
can improve on that when we come back.
How do you sort through your submissions?
How we go through submissions is of course the biggest factor
dictating response times: we've tried various approaches in the past,
including having a large team of slush readers who filter out the
obviously inappropriate stuff (on which more in a minute), and passing
the rest on to the senior editors to decide on: which didn't really
work because rather than filtering out 75% of content as I'd hoped, in
practice they only filtered out 20%, so only added to the time it took
to make decisions rather that speeding it up and saving us work.
eventually we settled on a small team of senior editors (some months
that was just me) filtering out what was inappropriate, and then
circulating what's left among a larger editorial team for opinions.
When it was just me, incidentally, that led to bottlenecks because we
were receiving 3-4 stories a day, some of them quite long, and I could
only keep up by occasionally losing an entire weekend to reading.
When making the first pass at sorting through story submissions, we're
usually able to filter out three kinds of stories: 1. ones that are
very badly written or just don't contain a good story; 2. stories that
are well-written but don't fit what we're looking for (a significant
and recognisable socio-political angle or reading is essential); 3.
stories whose angle is either repugnant (contains assumptions that are
racist, homophobic, or similar), or contrary to our progressive
thinking (stories that push traditionalist or conservative objections
to technological or societal progress, for example, or that assume
superstitious and irrational approaches to science and
decision-making). The stories that are left we then apply a simpler
critierion to: which are our personal favourites?
What has been the highlight so far of your 'The Future Fire' editing career?
In a sense every great story we've published has been a highlight for me; every interaction with a talented and generous writer, with a skilled and wonderful artist has been a real joy. But I don't want to single out any one story or one person above all the others. Perhaps the most rewarding thing about editing a small press magazine like this has been making new friends in the process: friends and fellow-travellers met through social networking; authors and artists who've stayed in touch; friends of friends who have helped with refereeing and reviewing; people met at conventions (such as the great Whisper-and-Fire-cons we used to hold a few years ago jointly with
editors/writers from Whispers of Wickedness and The Future Fire). It's been fun.
Any low points?
I don't like to dwell on the low points, but they have included the usual pitfalls of trusting other people to be honest in their dealings with you: one of our reviewers at the very beginning who turned out to have plagiarized two of her reviews from other prominent online publications; a writer who submitted a story, then published it elsewhere while we were in the process of accepting it; an author who submitted a (not very good) piece of writing that was plagiarized from several other stories and stitched together in a pretence of stream-of-consciousness writing; a poet who submitted a series of religious devotional poems, and when I told him this were not what we were looking for proceeded to send me a stream of increasingly abusive emails ending with a threat to "eliminate" me. Oh yeah, it's been fun.
How do you feel about the state of online publishing market today? What do you think of certain online publications introducing paywalls?
I don't think the online fiction market is over-saturated, but I do think there is a tendency for people to feel baffled about how to find the content they're looking for, that they will enjoy, and that will be of the quality they're after. The quality of online material is very variable (so is print material, but probably not as much so). Also I think people are still coming to terms with the possibility of reading long texts on electronic devices as opposed to from paper, so there's an issue of the market not being fully opened up yet. It'll be interesting to see how it develops as better readers and more affording e-books become mainstream.
As for your second question: obviously it's fine for publishers to charge for their content if that's their business model. The problem is that doing so drastically reduces their potential audience, so there's a question of whether it really is the best way monetize your online content. When big companies like news conglomerates start charging for content, you can bet they're not going to take a plummeting market share lying down, which is when you see underhand tactics and attempts to take other free material off the Web. That's obviously a very worrying development. We've seen attacks on institutions that release their content free-at-point-of-access, we've
seen attacks (both legal and propagandist) on the Creative Commons organization, for example. Since many people do have a perfectly functioning business model that doesn't involve charging for access (through advertising, offering premium services, or other models), we can't let people with less imagination or ability to compete sabotage these models just because they can't keep up.
You don't charge for pdf editions of 'The Future Fire' nor do you have any ads on your site so you don't generate revenue in the usual ways that other online magazines do. How has this been sustainable?
True, at TFF we don't make money through advertising or selling content. We don't really have a business model at all. So far we've been happy to work for free and pay for 90% of the costs of running a magazine out of our own pockets. (We do receive some donations through the button on our site, but we haven't been especially aggressive in soliciting such donations.) Basically we run TFF as a hobby, and some
hobbies cost money; as passtimes go, this really isn't that expensive. Is this sustainable? I don't know, but I don't know that I'd much enjoy the marketing and self-prostitution (or even promotion of others) that would be needed to turn this into a real money-making, or even self-supporting, operation.
One thing that we might yet do to test the water and see if people are willing to pay for extras, would be to make print-on-demand versions of the magazine or anthologies of content available via a printer like Lulu or Lightning Source. There would be little or no initial outlay for us, and we'd see whether it took off. This would still need some pushy marketing though, so I'm not sure whether it will happen or not.
What is your vision for the upcoming re-launch of 'The Future Fire'?
Beyond the same vision as before: beautiful and useful socio-political speculative fiction, feminist SF, queer SF and eco-SF, I have two ideas to envigorate the new TFF when we relaunch it (date tbc, but later this year): Firstly we will be being more proactive in asking for fiction on certain themes, whether this means themed issues like the FeminstSF and QueerSF issues last year, or mini-anthologies (perhaps even in print, as mentioned above) or just going out into the community and soliciting work of certain kinds from people we know write this sort of thing. The second thing is that we will be actively bringing in new blood, in the form of periodical guest editors to suggest and help curate some of these themes. My hope is that these
new bodies will take us in new directions, and I can't really predict how that will work out.
Which other online magazines do you enjoy reading?
Some of the best small online magazines out there today include (in no particular order): Sein und Werden, Crossed Genres, Ideomancer, Expanded Horizons, The Harrow (not currently publishing), M-Brane SF (paywall), Fantastique Unfettered and Three-Lobed Burning Eye. I don't read every issue of any of these (I have to confess to the paradoxical position of rarely reading anything lengthy on-screen), but they are all consistently good quality.
What development would you most like to see happen in the speculative fiction genre?
I'm very interested in developments in digital publication in the speculative fiction genres. At the moment almost all the publications we're talking about are basically incunabula: they are using the medium of the screen to replicate as closely as possible the experience of reading static black ink on white paper. I was to see
scpeculative stories on screen that could not be told on paper: stories with animations or audio built in; interactive fiction that requires the reader's input; non-linear narratives (throw together a lot of data, evidence, clues, and let the reader build a narrative from them); multimedia that provoke the imagination through more than just the eyes and brain's language centre; things that I cannot currently imagine. The potential is huge, and is barely tapped.