"Start Your Engines, and Retreat!" Editorial by Barb Galler-Smith

When I first learned to drive a standard transmission car, I stalled a lot. I practised how not to stall at a light, shifting gears from first to second, then never at all on a flat road. Then I learned how to not
stall or roll back on a hill. That felt the best—delicate balancing of clutch and accelerator to keep the car steady and motionless until the light changed and I could keep going without need of a brake. I loved
making a game of not rolling back even a little. Because I practiced every day, over the weeks and months I got better. I stalled less and less.

I think writing is a lot like that.

When life gets in the way of writing, stalling is practiced so much it becomes easier and easier to stall and not finish that story. Then one day you realize you’re standing still, practising only how to go nowhere.

And that is where writers’ retreats can come in to get those gears shifting smoothly again.

What does a person DO at a writers’ retreat? Meditate? Get therapy? Practice yoga? Sing Kumbaya by the fire? What about having a pancake breakfast, going for hikes, reading books and listening to learned people tell learned things?


There is something amazing about being in a room with many other quirky people who are all writing, staring out the window, sipping hot beverages, and doing the hardest and most fulfilling work a writer can do.

It’s as simple as that. I like retreats because everyone around me is doing what I want to do—write. The entire environment is geared for that. There’s no need to wash dishes, do the laundry, feed the family,
walk the dog, and especially work at your 9-5 day job. This is time just for you.

Why should you spend all that money to go someplace secluded when you can just rent a hotel room or go to the cabin or camp, or go to mom’s to babysit the dog while she’s away in Hawaii?

Because writers! Because company! Because no one understands a writer like a room full of writers. Companionship of the best kind is the main reason. We can write anywhere, but there is something extraordinary about being in the company of others sharing that activity with you for a few days.

Unlike house sitting for your mom, a writers’ retreat allows a person an uninterrupted spate of time away from all responsibilities and random distractions. Unlike checking into a hotel, the few distractions are geared to encourage and rejuvenate your writing.

That’s exhilarating.

You eat with writers, converse with writers, and see and hear writers. Perhaps most important of all, hours are spent in the comfortable silence of being in a comfy warm room with other people all doing the same thing you are. No one talks, yet there is an extraordinary companionship.

Solitary figures curl on sofas with pen in hand or tablet on lap, and write furiously. Others may stare out the window at a lake, at the sky, at the desert vista, not seeing anything but their story unfolding. There’s time to finish that detailed outline, that story, that novel’s first draft or last draft—it’s all time you get to have, to fill your motor with the right kind of fuel.

So get your motor running, practice gear shifting, and pretty soon you will find that steep hills in your story are a challenge you are up for, and writing that story is just another hill you smoothly drive right over.

Whether you participate in a Nanowrimo write-in or head off to a secluded resort in the Rocky Mountains, or the rainforests of Washington, your time will be well spent.

If you’ve never been to a retreat, you really should try one. There are lots of reasons why having peace and quiet is good for a writer’s soul and how it can kick-start a stalled motor. Write on!

On Spec wishes a fond farewell to one of our fiction editors, Robin S. Carson, who is leaving us after several years of devotion and hard work. Robin’s final duty was to co-produce and co-present our new Teachers’ Toolkit at several teachers’ conventions in Alberta during February. He was a valued member of the editorial team. So long, Robin, and thanks for all the fish.
At the same time, we are welcoming a new member to the On Spec family. Constantine Kaoukakis! He’s an English teacher with varied interests in science fiction and fantasy—we think he’s going to fit in quite well! ▪

"Preaching Loudly to the Choir (so others might hear the message)" Editorial by Susan MacGregor

As I write this editorial, it’s January 1, 2014. This year, On Spec celebrates its silver anniversary: we’ve been representing and supporting the speculative fiction community in Canada for twenty-five years. I’ve been honoured to be a part of this group. I feel as if I’ve been with it from its earliest beginnings. At about the same time On Spec started up, so did SF Canada, to be followed by other great Canadian SF magazines and publishing houses (Neo-Opsis, ChiZine, Edge and Five Rivers Publications are fine examples). In the greater scheme of things, we are all part of the Canadian writing scene, but we remain a minority. Not everyone appreciates what we do, or sees how we have value.

Those who aren’t a part of our unique community often question what the point of speculative fiction is. We encounter this bias fairly often, but it begs the question—why, as an SF community, are we important? Further, what do On Spec and other publications like it contribute to the arts and to society, in general? Isn’t SF just pulp fiction? Cheap action space opera? Rockets in space, monsters and magic? Why should SF be as worthy of notice and support as, say, more important literary work?

Of course, anyone who defines speculative fiction as cheap pulp fiction doesn’t understand the breadth or depth of the genre. Instead of restricting ourselves to what is ‘everyday’ and ‘real’, we tend to reflect reality in ways that stretch the limits of the imagination. As a group, we are bright, creative, and passionate people. Not so unlike other bright, creative, and passionate people elsewhere, except we are a little different. We tend to exhibit:

• a talent for invention and a drive to explore where we are going and where we have been (through science fiction)
• a need to acknowledge and contribute to the beauty and magic that we see in the world (through fantasy and science fiction)
• brutal honesty and acknowledgement of our own demons (through dark fantasy and horror)
• an understanding that our world is not always ordinary, nor is it always as it appears (through magic realism).

My point here isn’t so much as to congratulate ourselves on who we are, but to point out that we bring these same predispositions to our everyday lives, outside of our writing and reading speculative fiction. We are scientists, artists, doctors, educators, business, and trades people. We may write science fiction, but we are also vocal and conscientious about how our society develops—we warn where it may go, what it could become. We may write about flights of fancy, but we also celebrate what is awe-inspiring and unique about our environment. If we pen dark fantasy or horror, we are quick to see where our society fails and where governments go wrong, where people are victimized, and where wrongful situations need to be addressed. We see beyond appearances, we don’t easily accept the status quo, nor are we willing to ‘look away’. When society supports writers of speculative fiction, it reinforces those inclinations to invent, celebrate, correct, and protect. It isn’t about supporting ‘cheap pulp’. It’s about recognizing that this kind of literature reflects a certain kind of thinker and doer—a person who is dedicated to making positive changes in the world.

Question two: genre aside, what does On Spec contribute to the arts, specifically?

Like any minority group, SF writers and readers deserve a voice and a place. On Spec provides a forum for that. Many fiction writers make their first attempts with the short story before attempting larger work. On Spec has been a ‘cradle’ for many writers who have had their first professional sale with us and then have gone on to become successful novelists in Canada and beyond. Unlike many markets, it is part of On Spec’s mandate to offer constructive critique on the majority of manuscripts we receive and reject. Our suggestions have helped writers hone their craft and attain higher levels of proficiency. As a fiction editor, I also contribute to this effort through my blog, Suzenyms (suzenyms.blogspot.ca) which I treat as a promotional arm of the magazine (I also use the blog to promote Canadian SF novelists through guest interviews, as well as my own work).

Under the subject heading of The ABC’s of How ‘Not’ to Write Speculative Fiction, I post writing tips that cover many common errors On Spec encounters in the slush pile. These tips are applicable to all types of fiction, speculative or otherwise. For more seasoned writers, I also offer my ‘Letters to the Slush Pile’ which are based on manuscripts that are technically good but fall short in places, making them not quite up to standard. I never mention names or titles, but address the more difficult or subtle errors I see, then offer advice on how they might be corrected. Since I re-started Suzenyms last April, its popularity has risen at a surprising and exponential rate. The posts that receive the most attention are my ‘ABC’s’, ‘Letters to the Slush Pile’ and other subjects I devote to the magazine. I could not do this, if not for my involvement with On Spec. All of our fiction editors also contribute to the Canadian writing scene—Barb Galler-Smith and Ann Marston mentor writers through writing groups, and Diane Walton and I offer workshops, visit libraries and universities, and offer talks.

In 2014, On Spec will be engaging in some new initiatives. To celebrate our silver anniversary, Tyche Books is publishing a 25th Anniversary Anthology that showcases twenty-five stories selected by the editors. The launch will be in summer of 2014. We’ve recently switched to Submittable, a submissions handling software that will keep writers better informed as to the status of their work. We editors expect it will also make our handling of manuscripts easier. As I write this, our six-week submissions window is currently open; we will close it at midnight on January 5th, 2014. On Spec has never received so many manuscripts during a submissions window—to date, nearly five hundred, a new record. I’m not sure to what this increase is attributable, although possibly, it may be because of the popularity of our I Read On Spec Facebook group and Suzenyms. With so many manuscripts to choose from, the magazine will have an outstanding year’s offerings. Very recently and further afield, we are encouraging writers to represent On Spec at conventions and other events in other provinces. To date, we have one representative in Saskatchewan, and hopefully we will have more. Here in Alberta, editors Barb Galler-Smith and Ann Marston will soon be presenting a teacher’s kit to the upcoming Edmonton Teacher’s Convention that Barb and Robin Carson created using “Space Monkeys”, a short story the magazine recently published. They hope to encourage teachers to include it in their high school curriculums as a thoughtful, poignant, and excellent example of speculative writing.

Why is On Spec important? As for my own reasons, I’ve been with the magazine two years short of its inception, since 1991. Diane Walton, our Managing Editor, is the only remaining founding member. For her dedication, I thank her and everyone else who has contributed to On Spec over the years, whether they are writers, editors, assistants, volunteers, readers, friends, fans, or those who have supported the magazine financially. As 2014 begins, I am grateful for the twenty-three years I have served as a fiction editor. Because of On Spec, I’ve become the editor and novelist that I am today.

"Hey, Mister Spaceman! Won’t you please take me along for a ride? (with thanks to Roger McGuinn)" Editorial by Diane L. Walton

For those of us who were kids in the 1960s, in my humble opinion, the Space program still gives us a thrill. After all, we were “there” when it all started. My best friend Kathy and I stood outside at recess that day in 1962 and imagined that Mister John Glenn was passing by overhead in his space capsule at just that minute, so we could jump up and down, wave at him and send our best wishes from two eager little girls in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. I think the seeds of What If? were planted in my brain even then. It never even entered my mind that, in 1962, little girls grew up to be housewives, teachers and nurses. We were going to be astronauts when we grew up!

Years later, as an editor of On Spec, I was fortunate enough to shake the hand of Canada’s first astronaut, Marc Garneau, when he graciously agreed to present one of the Aurora Awards at the 1994 Worldcon in Winnipeg. Now, as I write this, Chris Hadfield has just made a safe return to Earth, and is about to begin his long journey to return to his former physical condition following months of weightlessness. To have a Canadian as commander of the International Space Station makes us all very proud. He’s made the idea of participating in our space program more accessible than ever to thousands of eager Canadian kids, as they work on their science experiments in classrooms all over the country. He’s embraced social media, and has made the whole ISS experience more real to us than any of his predecessors have. His being Canadian makes it all the more sweet. And he’s a darn good singer, too. Welcome home, Mister Spaceman!

Have I mentioned that I work with a great team? In our most recent submission period, we received upwards of 400 manuscripts. Four of us split up the slush, and read the stories assigned to us. We each selected stories to be rejected after the first read, and wrote the rejection letters. The 80 or so stories deserving of an extra set of eyes went into a separate folder, pending the discussions at Fight Night. In this case, it was Fight Day—aided well by Barb’s lovely lunch and plenty of coffee. This time, we were joined by an intern who had been working with us long-distance from his home in BC. He made a special trip to Edmonton and stayed with relatives so he could complete his On Spec experience. We appreciated Gareth’s contributions to On Spec, and hope the relationship was equally beneficial to him.

After purchase comes the contract, and then comes the copy edit, layout by the talented Cat, proofing and printing. All of this is overseen by Jen, who is worth her weight in platinum. Eventually the story will make its journey to the pages of On Spec. Sometimes it can be a long journey. We bless the patience of the writers waiting to see their work in print. It’s just the way we do things: buy a story we like, and then find a time and place to use it.

Of course it’s not just about putting On Spec together. We also have to work our tails off to promote it. In April we were at the Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo. Three days in a huge convention hall, smiling (oh, SO much smiling) and chanting the mantra… Hi, have you heard of On Spec? Do you read SF and Fantasy? Answers ranged from No, I never read the stuff, all the way to In this crowd, who DOESN’T read the stuff? Interesting disconnect. Yet when you look around one of these events, and see people patiently queuing up for an hour or more to get an autograph or photo op with a star from Game of Thrones, you have to expect that maybe not every one of the 65,000 people wandering through the convention centre could be called an “avid” reader. By my rough calculation, we sold a copy of On Spec to .1 per cent of the people who were there. With the hundreds of vendors of all manner of geek paraphernalia (including some sweet steampunk stuff) who were there selling their wares, I consider that to be pretty good ROI.

We are pleased to bring you another episode of the graphic tale by Kyle Charles in this issue. Kyle sat with us at the table at the Calgary Expo, and I was able to watch him create some pretty amazing art during the weekend. Winnipeg’s Robert Pasternak, an artist who has been a friend of On Spec for most of our 24 years, gives us another really cool cover image. And yes, we have stories. But I don’t need to tell you that. Just read. ▪

"Let’s Boldly Go Somewhere" Editorial by Cat McDonald

When I was at the university, taking those mandatory Canadian Lit courses, my classmates shocked me by literally wincing at the notion of “magic realism”. I took classical lit courses rather than modern ones whenever possible, and I knew speculative fiction wasn’t widely considered literature, but to see people wince like it was an assault? I didn’t know what to make of it. Then, as now, I believed that anything a person writes is by definition a product of who they are, of their emotions and experiences, and shouldn’t be disregarded as important work just because it may not adhere strictly to a literal reality.

Years later, I find myself in the position to write editorials at On Spec, surrounded by people just as passionate about speculative literature as I am, and surrounded by works that easily prove me right. I don’t need to mutter to myself in the shadows about it for lack of proof anymore; I can pick up one of our back issues and point out something that can change a life. Speculative fiction is real literature; you agree with me, right? You must, or else you wouldn’t be reading this.

Those of us who work in speculative fiction tend to treat the Star Trek opening as an imperative. We see the broadening of our horizons not as a useful life stage or a tool but as a goal unto itself, and the more we experience, create, and invent, the richer our world will be. We’ve got to keep on moving and look for new opportunities wherever we can, because we can’t be going anywhere boldly if we’re not going anywhere at all! There’s no boldness in going somewhere familiar.

And tha't philosophy has driven us somewhere really exciting. Just because people say something’s inherently non-literary doesn’t mean a good artist can’t use it to produce literature. And just because a medium is used for pop-culture, for sheer entertainment, or as the basis for summer blockbusters, doesn’t mean it can’t also be used to express something important and beautiful. If it’s true for speculative fiction, and I believe it’s true for video games, then of course I believe it’s true for comics!

So, we said, let’s start running a comic. Let’s show everyone what Canadian artists can do, not just with gorgeous cover art and some exciting interior samples, but with a narrative. We sent out a submissions call with the help of our local indie comic scene, including the inimitable Jay Bardyla of Happy Harbor Comics here in Edmonton and the magnificent Vanessa Beckmann. We got some really amazing submissions in response to the call, gorgeous art and intelligent writing, and in the end we managed to narrow it down and choose our candidate.

In this issue, we’ll be debuting our new comic feature, “The Last Division”, by Kyle Charles. I love Kyle’s sense of timing and his strong concept, and now that I’ve been working with him I’m even prouder to be able to help bring this comic to you. The story arc will run for eight issues, with eight standalone chapters (we haven’t forgotten our back-issue buyers) before we open the submissions call again and resume the hunt for more brilliant Canadian artists.

In the meantime, I’m confident that Kyle will step up and show you the art in comics the way all On Spec’s many writers have shown you the art in speculative fiction. I hope you all love it as much as we do!

For more about “The Last Division”, and about Kyle and this project, check out the first chapter of the comic and my interview with Kyle, both in this issue! If you’re curious about his issue’s cover (and who wouldn’t be?), you can find at a later time an interview with Herman Lau online at our website www.onspec.ca. •

Purchase Spring 2013 here!

"The Proof is in the Reading" Editorial by Diane L. Walton

You don’t have to be an editor to cringe when you hear the oft-misquoted phrase “the proof is in the pudding”. We all know that the “proof” of the pudding is in the eating.
In other words, something has to be experienced in order to determine just how good it is.

We do this with On Spec all the time. We shamelessly try to entice new readers at conventions and trade shows, by waving a copy or a promotional item in front of them, and attempting to convince them that we offer a unique reading experience; one that is going to change their world view or improve their quality of life somehow. In this day and age, even $6.95 is difficult to part with. So what will it be? Copy of On Spec or a latté? In a perfect world, a copy of On Spec PLUS a latté makes an excellent pairing, but first, we have to get past the “I have never heard of you” challenge (referred to in a previous editorial).

So we do “the pitch”. Authors often come to us to pitch their story ideas, and similarly, we have to go to prospective readers to pitch the qualities of On Spec. You, who are reading this editorial, have already joined us on this magical mystery tour, and we hope you stay with us for a long ride. But in order to sustain this magazine and pay the piper, we need a constant supply of new readers─readers who demand proof that we can provide them with quality short fiction over the long haul.

Some people are easier to convince than others. You may recall I’ve mentioned the lady who had found some old On Specs at a yard sale, read them all, and then purchased a gift subscription for her son. This year, at the World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, we had another such moment that warmed the cockles of our hearts. A couple bought a copy of our Fall “Apocalypse” theme issue from our table in the Dealer room. (Note: we sold more than 50 copies over the WFC weekend!) As we later learned, during that day, the wife read the issue, cover to cover. Then she gave it to her husband to read. He, apparently, read the prize-winning story, (All Them Pretty Babies, by Camille Alexa). The next day the couple came into the Dealer room and bought a one-year subscription! That is the kind of validation we live for. So for us, the proof of On Spec, like the proverbial pudding, is in the consumption of it. It’s all about the reading.

We look for new ways to deliver On Spec to readers. People still enjoy our handy digest format, and we have no intention of ever going completely paper-less. In fact, it is already possible to subscribe and/or buy a single issue in pdf format through Zinio (see the link on our website). We are very happy to announce that soon you will be able to buy On Spec in formats that are compatible with your Kindle and other eReaders. We will be partnering with Weightless Books (http://weightlessbooks.com/) to provide (drm-free) a pdf version of On Spec, with mobi and epub versions to follow as soon as they are available.

2012 was a busy year for us. Our Apocalypse story contest brought in 90 entries, all from Canadian authors. It was a great pleasure to bring you the best of those stories packed into the Fall issue, and it has been selling very well. Our Summer issue, with the lovely Melissa Wartenberg (http://www.intheattic.co/) and one of her masks on the cover, has sold out of the print copies. Our appearances at both the Calgary and Edmonton Comic & Entertainment Expo events were very good for business. The World Fantasy Convention in Toronto brought us to the attention of a world-wide audience, and opened the door to new partnership opportunities. Stories published in On Spec have come to the attention of a movie director, and we are eager to see some of them brought to the big screen in the years to come. All in all, it was a very good year. As usual, we do depend on you, our faithful readers, to help spread the word about On Spec. Link to us from your website; Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter. Every little bit helps.

This year may bring even more adventures. We have learned that some libraries in Canada and the U.S. have signed on with Zinio to provide free access to magazines electronically for their patrons, and On Spec is found on some of those lists of magazines. In view of this, we are also investigating the potential for virtual On Spec editor visits to libraries, classrooms and writing groups via Skype. If you are interested in this, don’t hesitate to contact us.

Our Winter 2012 issue cover marks Kenn Brown’s return to On Spec after several years. You may remember his stunning Winter 2006 issue cover image. Authors Kevin Cockle and Andrew Bryant are back with new stories and we welcome the other authors who are new to us. We hope you enjoy their works.

If you have been to our Facebook page “I Read On Spec”, you will know that our photo gallery needs more content. So send us a photo of yourself reading a copy of On Spec, and we will be happy to post it on the page. We’d like to get to know you. •

Correction: In the last issue, cover artist Andrew Czarnietzki’s name was misspelled. We regret the error.

Purchase Fall 2012 here!

Read Camille Alexa's winning story, a guest article by Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine, Candas Jane Dorsey's tribute to Ray Bradbury and more!

"We’re doomed!" Editorial by Barb Galler-Smith

Yes, this is the year of the biggest doom of all—the Mayan Apocalypse. Time will stand still; the earth will cease to turn; giant asteroids and rogue planets will collide with us; a new Ice Age will cover much of Europe and North America; global warming will make a desert of everything and melt the polar ice caps. Angels, demons, and aliens will appear and whisk us off to Heaven or Hell, or to a perfect planet that has no war or pestilence or famine, or even death.

I’ve been thinking a lot about doom since Y2K. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I asked my husband if we should store some water or something and he replied “If you want to” and went back to reading his book on ancient history.

Y2K was a blip. All those years that should have heralded the end: 999, 1999, innumerable dates in between, were also blips. Most people just shrugged it off and went about business as usual. The end would come in God’s own time.

Now it’s 2012. I intended to lay in a store of grains and freeze dried foods last year mainly because this summer the harvest is predicted to fail. Now all I have put aside are four jars of pickles and one jar of last year’s peaches. And oatmeal—lots of oatmeal.

Yet in spite of my lack of preparedness, I’m not worried. I’m not scared of any of those horrible things possibly happening, but I am terrified by other things, things I see actually happening around me (you know: political, economic, environmental, stupid things). But in 2012, just what am I most afraid of?

The ultimate fear—that of ceasing to be. Now I see how all that pondering over Kierkegaard decades ago scarred me and left me falling from the highest tower of being trying to count the windows, or have conversations with others, or engage in fun-filled adventures. Anything but look down and see the inevitable splat.

Then there’s the nausea. Some things do make me ill—violence, loud angry voices, threats, unkindness, thoughtlessness, and of course, my own lack of perfection.

Then came the dread. Yup. The dread that washes over one’s nausea like a five kilometre high tsunami and threatens to drown everything beautiful, and great, and joyous, and uplifting, and hopeful.

By nature I am a happy person. I always try to see the best in everyone’s motives and I was completely astonished to discover that not everyone is nice and some people really are as mean as junkyard dogs, and that beauty might be only skin deep, but ugly spirit went clean to the bone.

So an apocalypse seemed distant and had nothing to do with me.

Yet, it has everything to do with me. I am a selfish being, it turns out—not as nice as I once was, nor as naive and credulous. But it IS all about me. And you. And them. And that’s why I think we become afraid when confronted with a big ending.

We’re selfish creatures and a sense of self-preservation is strong in us. It’s fed by our natural greed without which we likely would never have made it out of Africa. Some other anthropoid would be in charge of the world and maybe stripping leaves off the trees for a light supper rather than stripping trees off the land to build more houses for more people.

I’m trying to make sense of six decades of images and ideas that contradict each other at every turn. Would the earth be better off “Without People”? What the heck does “better off” mean? Would the natural world recover from our abuses? Of course. Would some beautiful species still go extinct? Certainly. Would the rats and cockroaches care? Nope.

What if only SOME of the people disappeared? Who gets to pick? All the right-wing religious fanatics? All the left-wing humanist fanatics? Libertarians? Librarians? Indigenous people? Immigrants? Do we all go back to the land of our fathers or mothers? Yikes, what a prospect!

What I’m trying to say is that every day is an apocalypse somewhere on our planet.

It doesn’t matter if we are hit by giant sow bugs from outer space, ten times the usual number of tornadoes, or hailstones the size of basketballs. It will be something. It will be a motor vehicle, misadventure, self-destruction, or even autodestruct when you are 127 years old and riding your bike too hard uphill and the old ticker can’t keep up. Every day, every year is Armageddon.

My father-in-law Jack used to say most people are just trying to get to the next day in reasonable shape. How we each get to the next day varies, and that explains a lot. It also explains in part why we are so fascinated by doom. Other people’s doom, that is. It distracts us from our own and when we walk out of the theatre, or put the story down, we are relieved we lived through it, and can continue to hope we will live well into the next day, and beyond.

I pause here because this is where I paused to get myself to the airport to fly home from the 70th World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago.

Following the end of a hectic weekend at WorldCon, I relaxed all afternoon and evening before my 9 p.m. flight out of O’Hare. The aircraft landed a little late, and then we had to wait for late passengers, probably from a connecting flight. We were nearing 30 minutes late by the time we pulled away from the gate. Then we had to wait on the tarmac for the crew to input a new flight route. I knew then that this was going to be a longer than usual delay. Then we needed to go back to the gate for more fuel. That did not make me feel secure. We needed more fuel to avoid some “weather”, they told us.

Since I’d spent much of the afternoon also working on this editorial about doom, destruction by giant meteors or rogue planets, zombie plagues, and coronal mass ejections of an unusual ferocity, my mindset was not in a mood for “weather”. I’d also come to the part in the editorial where I discussed personal annihilation just before I arrived at the airport.

So, when our airplane took off, fuel-heavy and loaded to the max with passengers and their gear, the pilot was putting pedal to the metal to get us airborne quickly. I didn’t enjoy the liftoff and was in fact relieved when we did. I didn’t want to reach the end of the runway while we were still on it.

Bliss. Height. Speed, and then, what I thought was the dark of Lake Michigan, the dark of clouds. Dense clouds.


Another bump.

Anti-collision lights on and reflecting back so bright we could read by them. Then came the really big bumps and now I understood clearly why flight attendants say “fasten your seat belt as we may experience some turbulence”.

Bumps and granddaddy of bumps. A Disneyland of bumps: Mr. Toad’s wild ride and Indiana Jones’ shaking train car ride joined into frightening, belly-dropping, weightless moments.

I almost panicked. Of course then I thought again about personal annihilation. Mine. And while I was concerned, there was not a darned thing I could do but meet my end gracefully and with forbearance. I would not scream, even if I wanted to.

Not having control of the outcome was a sobering thought. More bumps. Big bumps. And what I was sure was loss of significant altitude, since gravity didn’t seem to be pressing on me as much and my stomach was somewhere in my throat.

I closed my eyes and remembered the rides at Disneyland. Whee! I pretended I could almost enjoy the moment—after all, I was still alive and the airplane was still where it should be—up.

The flight attendant looked a little grim, but her eyes weren’t wild with terror and so I tried to relax.

I reached for my neck pillow—not really thinking I would go to sleep, but hoping it might somehow prevent my neck from breaking from the bumps and wobbles. Okay, not really thinking the whole thing through, but it helped settle me.

Then all the bumping stopped and we were out of it. Really out of it. And when I looked out the starboard window I saw what we’d actually avoided.

Thor in a rage. Zeus duking it out with Indra. And others in one hellish donnybrook.

At 32,000 feet, I could see the thunderstorm was as high as we were. Flashes illuminated the miles and miles of a massive storm cell that marched toward Chicago. Every second one, two, or ten flashes. A battlestorm of cannon flashes. Then we moved away from it and sleep once again crept over me, but first I had to write this all down.

We were an hour and a half late into Edmonton. I was glad. It is always better to be late with the storms behind you.

So my editorial about Doom finishes a little as it started—with hope and acceptance of the inevitable.

As for an apocalypse, everything will go on—either the same or differently, and there’s not much we can do about it except marshal our courage to do what we can to make the world and our existence in it a better thing, until the world’s natural end, and the end of all time and space.

Until then, happy trails to you, and peace and long life.

Barb •

Purchase Fall 2012 here!

Read Camille Alexa's winning story, a guest article by Sandra Kasturi of ChiZine, Candas Jane Dorsey's tribute to Ray Bradbury and more!

"To Boldly Go..." Editorial by Diane L. Walton
Jen Laface

It has been an interesting year for On Spec so far. We occasionally step outside of our comfort zone and attempt to bring On Spec to a new audience. We have been to farmers’ markets and craft fairs, with varying degrees of success, especially when people are looking for a unique holiday gift. When we go to a mainstream writers’ conference, there is always the chance that one or two people there may dabble in genre fiction, and take an interest in On Spec as a potential market. They may even buy a copy to see what kind of stories we are likely to buy. I took copies of On Spec to a conference of Alberta magazine publishers, and left them on the “free samples” table. They were all gone by the end of the first day!

We have rarely attempted to break through the glass wall between so-called “literature” (and I say this with my nose high in the air and tongue firmly planted in cheek) and the world of comics. What’s with that? Most of my friends who read SF also love and collect comics and graphic novels. In Edmonton, two of our strongest retailers are comic stores (thanks Jay and Brandon!) So this year, we took a leap of faith and purchased dealer tables for two comic and media events in Edmonton and Calgary. Would this be our audience? Or would we be buried under a mountain of action figures?

In March, we rented a dealer table at the Edmonton Collectible Toy and Comic Show. The results were so encouraging from this one-day event that we took the plunge and got a table at the massive Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo the following month. And was that a blast! Perhaps, curmudgeon that I am, I would have thought differently had we not been graced with Vendor badges that allowed us to seamlessly slip in and out through the service entrances of the huge BMO Centre. We certainly heard the horror stories of the Fire Marshall preventing thousands from getting in, or fans waiting in long lineups for hours just to have a photo taken with a ST:TNG celebrity. But for On Spec, it was an opportunity to be exposed to literally thousands of fans of the genre, who, even if they didn’t stop at our table, at least went away with the On Spec logo as one of the many images permanently locked into their brains.

Then there were the writers and artists who did introduce themselves to us, or who stopped by to renew an acquaintance already established at an earlier convention. Hi Megan! Hi Dan! Hi Tim! Hello Lar!

One person who came by the table and saw our merchandise was incredulous. “On Spec? I thought you guys had folded years ago!” (Not sure where THAT came from!) A young woman stopped to tell us that she had sent us a story... when she was a mere ten years old. That took some moxy for sure! She assured me that our rejection letter had been kind and gentle, and did not forever crush her dreams
of becoming a writer.

My fellow editors, staff, volunteers, and I talked ourselves hoarse to many people over the two days we were at the Expo. And we even managed to see some other vendors and get to some of the programming. My personal moment of SQUEEEE! was sharing an elevator in our hotel with John Noble (Fringe and LOTR), and telling him that yes―he did look much younger in person. (OMG did I really say that?) We were obviously in the “cool kids” hotel, as the evening before, we had been in an elevator with Aaron Douglas (BSG) and the one and only Wil Wheaton (AKA the nemesis of Sheldon Cooper).
And I can’t forget the moment when I walked nonchalantly past Sir Patrick Stewart as he waited in the Palliser Hotel lobby for his ride to the Expo grounds on Sunday morning. I was tempted to bow and say, “I’m not worthy!” But that would have been undignified. (Take off your Fan hat and put on your Editor hat, Walton.)

This year, we will have even more opportunities to engage with our readers and writers at the When Words Collide convention (August) in Calgary, and the World Fantasy Con (October) in Toronto. On Spec editors will also be schmoozing at Chicago’s Worldcon this summer. And we will most definitely be at the Pure Speculation Festival in Edmonton in November. (See our ads in this issue for some of these events.)

Will we be at next year’s Calgary Expo? You betcha!

For those of you waiting for the Apocalypse...

Just in case the world is coming to an end December 21, 2012, we will make sure that our Fall Apocalypse issue is available for your reading pleasure much sooner than that date. In the issue, you will be seeing the First-Prize-winning story, “All Them Pretty Babies”, by Camille Alexa, plus several other powerful contest entries that deserved a place on our pages.

"Capitalism, Writers, and the Tangled Web" Editorial by Cat McDonald
Jen Laface

Web publishing is a hell of a thing. You probably knew this already; you’ve probably already read fiction online, maybe read a comic or watched a web series. Maybe a family member or coworker has emailed you a cute picture or an interesting article. You might even follow a blog, a comic, a YouTube channel, or some other web product. Even if you’re not a regular internet user, you’re probably pretty used to being told that the internet is the wave of the future and that books are going out of style any day now. Well, that may or may not be true. But, whatever happens to books, web publishing is changing the face of literature in a lot of exciting, terrifying, unexpected ways.

Let’s start out by saying that there’s stigma against web publishing, especially in the literary world. Many people see web publishing as a cop-out. Why is this?

Well, frankly, because there’s a lot of crap. If you’ve waded into online fiction at all, you’ve almost certainly seen some of the crap, because it’s not hard to find. But, you’ve probably also seen something really brilliant, too, and all of it for free. Not only that, but the internet is capable of all kinds of new and exciting multimedia projects, comics with animated frames, stories that come with embedded background tracks, fictional information websites that have created their own elaborate worlds, stuff that can really take entertainment to some new and exciting places. I’ve rolled the dice a fair number of times by now, but to those of us familiar with books and magazines, rolling the dice is an awkward way to go about our search for a great story.

Here’s how it is. It all comes down to capitalism. Most things do, if you’re accustomed to overthinking. This time, it’s all on account of the fact that paper costs money.

When a publisher chooses a story, it’s a gamble. The stakes are the cost of author payments, preparation, printing, and promotion, and the game is sales. Any publisher’s goal, no matter how much she loves literature, is to sell enough copies to make back all the costs associated with production, and enough profit to keep rolling. If a book doesn’t sell, she’s still got to pay the author, the printers, the marketing team, and if a book undersells by enough, that leaves her with less money than she started with, and publishing is a business. So, of course, she’s going to choose stories with good odds—stories with well-known authors, with interesting angles, with a niche in the market at the time.

The result of all this is a barrier to entry; a lot of stories get passed over for traditional publication for a variety of reasons. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of submissions to any publishing house or magazine are going to be rejected. The figure you’ll hear kicking around is about 90%, and whether it’s quality of writing, the market, or any other reason it always comes down to a gamble the publisher hasn’t got any faith in. The same thing applies to music, to games, to just about any part of the entertainment industry you’d care to name. If it’s not paper distribution, it’s discs, or TV broadcasts, or a studio full of dedicated digital artists that need salaries.

Now, that brings us to the internet. Obviously, the internet is not made of paper. Internet publishing costs far less than traditional publishing methods. The bare minimum is server space, which many sites are willing to give away for free. A dedicated internet publisher will want to buy banner ads here and there for the product, or hire people to format an ebook, but it’s still less expensive than everything involved in the creation of a paper book, which means a web publisher has a lot less riding on any given story.

In fact, these days pretty much anyone can publish for free, which means a writer can go ahead and post a story somewhere just for the sake of readership, no need to make any bets on making back paper costs. An amateur can just format the story as a .txt file or an HTML page, tell some friends and hope for good word of mouth, and have a story up and ready for the world to read without having spent a dime. So, more and more writers are becoming publishers, and third-party publishers no longer need that barrier to entry. Sites like Blogspot and Tumblr can publish anyone with an account, no need to vet or edit anything.

That there is the sticky bit. No need to vet or edit anything. Because there’s no need for an editor to make sure the story’s got enough quality to increase those odds, many stories you’ll find on the internet haven’t been edited. And, because there’s no risk involved, there’s no need for anyone to say what is and isn’t going to be published except the authors themselves.

Long story short? Everything gets published on the web. With no one sitting behind a desk (or in my case, usually on a couch) saying what will and won’t sell, absolutely everything makes the cut, for better or for worse. Brilliant stuff that’s too experimental for a publisher to feel confident about, terrible stuff that no one would want to read, average stories that never stood out and got the chance. Everything makes the cut. It’s all out there, and the best you can hope for is for word of mouth to point you to the good stuff. Actually, web publishing is a lot like a traditional publisher’s slush pile; there’s a lot of material there, and no guarantees.

So, yes, the internet is changing the face of publishing. Consumers can find free entertainment online as long as they’re willing to sift for it—and a lot of us are. More importantly, though, web publishing is giving people the freedom to prove themselves; authors who many publishers would be too scared to publish can get their start for free online, prove they’ve got what it takes to build an audience, and then move into more conventional methods. Publishers and producers are gaining new talent, talent they can be confident about knowing that they’ve already got an audience. Video game designers these days get their start online, and even major companies are looking to downloadable formats rather than more overhead-intensive physical distribution, just like a lot of traditional publishers (including On Spec, of course) have started producing ebooks of their hard-copy products.

Is the internet going to render books completely obsolete? From here, it’s hard to say. Maybe. But, more important than changing the format, the internet is changing the way people interact with and search for entertainment, and changing the way the publishing industry works. That’s what happens when an established economic model gets a sudden rush of low-cost alternatives. Everyone involved, producers, distributors, and customers, suddenly has a completely new way to interact with the product.

But, rest assured, as long as people want to be entertained, the internet can’t destroy the entertainment industry no matter how much it changes. That, too, is how the market works. No matter how much the face of the publishing industry changes, its heart isn’t going anywhere.

"Writing as a Violent Act" Editorial by Susan J. MacGregor
Jen Laface

When I attended the When Words Collide convention in Calgary last August, I sat on the ‘Writing Difficult Scenes’ panel with a number of folks, including Lynda Williams (author of the Okal Rel Universe saga), fellow On Spec editor Barb Galler-Smith (author of Druids, Captives and Warriors) and others. I made a comment that I liked gritty scenes and that one of the most personally disturbing stories I ever wrote was about castration. The story was later published in Northern Frights V. After the con, Lynda asked if I might write about violence on her blog, Reality Skimming. She assumed that I liked to write ‘extreme stuff’, and that I might address some questions on ethical considerations.

I had to decline.

Why? Because what I write isn’t excessive compared to some of the really extreme stuff out there. But it did get me to thinking about the portrayal of violence in fiction, and what works for me and what doesn’t.

Violence in fiction needs to be there for a good reason. With my castration story, the horror wasn’t only in the act to which I alluded in the end; the horror came from my protagonist’s lack of conscience, her ability to manipulate events and her sense of loss and betrayal coupled with her need to control. Embedded even deeper in the story was the idea that her psychopathy stemmed from demonic influence. I kept the reader guessing, never knowing what my anti-hero might do next. Horror is much stronger when it leaves an aftertaste, when you can surprise your audience and make them wonder about the potential of such things happening in their own lives. I set out to write a story that suggested an unremarkable girl with a crush might hide something sinister, might stalk the object of her infatuation and see his involvement with another as an ultimate betrayal. Her love interest and his paramour had no idea of her intentions until my protagonist took matters into her own shaking hands.

I’m not titillated by blood spatters and intestines looping about one’s knees, left to steam in a pile on the floor with a ‘the end’ sign affixed to them. On their own, such scenes are gratuitous. For such visceral elements to work, they must be appropriate to the action. More importantly, there must also be a strong emotional reaction to them on the part of the point-of-view character. The stronger and more graphic the scene, the more I need to understand the character’s motivation and his psychological make-up. These things should be in place before the violence occurs, or afterward, in some kind of a review. I have no sympathy for characters (or their writers) who fail to give me a reason for their violence. Even then, it will also be a question of whether the seeds sown beforehand are enough. Many times they aren’t, or there’s a disconnect, where, despite an attempt at validation, the violence is justified by a thin excuse like ‘that’s just what werewolves do’. A defense such as this shows a lack of imagination and the effort needed to present something original.

So perhaps I’m talking about the skill level of the writer, or maybe it’s just a matter of personal taste as to when something is ‘not enough’. I prefer to see some sophistication in what I read, which is another way of saying that I want to see solid characterization. Gratuitous violence rarely includes the inner workings of the characters’ minds or their world. It gives no understanding into the horror. The point is to shock rather than to offer insight.

Of course, there are times when the characterization doesn’t provide insight, but the theme does, and being theme, the reasoning doesn’t become apparent until the piece is seen or read in its entirety. One of the best examples comes from the movie, Pulp Fiction. Lots of violence there, but every brutal scene is linked with elements of down-home, folksy Americana, like the music in the background, the settings—kitchens, bathrooms, pawn shops, restaurants with look-alike Marilyn Monroe waitresses, consumer goods—hamburgers, gourmet coffee, magic markers, or simple niceties, like saying ‘pretty please with sugar on top’. Spoiler Alert: When Pumpkin and Honeybun chat over coffee and then hold up the coffee shop, when Jules recites Ezekiel 25:17 before he executes Brett, when Butch toasts toaster pastries and notices Vince’s gun on the counter before he blasts him full of bullets, or when Jules is more concerned about Vince bloodying Bonnie’s bathroom towels than the dead body in the back of their car, the message is obvious: Our culture is familiar, misdirected and dangerous. Violence is Us. The theme shows us who we are. Not to mention the irony and black humor that causes us to laugh because we recognize ourselves in it. If Pulp Fiction portrayed violent scene after violent scene without any juxtaposition to the culture, it wouldn’t be the amazing piece of fiction it is. It’s also interesting to note that the actual violence portrayed is short-lived. It doesn’t go on and on. When Marsellus tells Zed that he’s going to ‘get medieval on your ass’ we know that he’s going to have thugs take pliers and a blowtorch to Zed for sodomizing him, but we don’t actually see this scene. Marsellus threatening Zed is enough.

Violence is the stuff of action. As writers, most of us will pen a violent scene at some point or another. Therefore, it’s important to understand why we’re writing the scene, who we’re writing for, and what our motivation is. Here are a few reasons I’ve come across as to why writers write violent scenes:

1. They write them to prove they can.
2. They write them to live vicariously through them. The violence gives them an outlet where they can blow an enemy away or portray a rival in an unflattering light.
3. They like being able to stomach vivid, violent events with dispassion. They have guts. They can handle it.
4. They write the story to impress or compete with others. Anything you can do, they can do bloodier.
5. They write the scene or story because it’s based on real life. The event actually happened to them or to someone they know.
6. They write the piece in the hopes that it will work for a particular anthology, magazine or publishing house.
7. They write the scene or story to give the reader a thrill.
8. They write the scene because violence is the outcome of rising tension and action.

All of these reasons (with the possible exception of #5) fall short of why we should write violent scenes or stories. If we’re writing to prove we can, that’s fine for a start. Many of us begin this way. We want to push ourselves to see what we can do. But as we mature as writers, we need to get beyond this motivation. Reasons #2, #3, and #4 are misdirected. They’re all about the writer, and the focus is in the wrong direction. Reason #6—writing for a publication—is strictly pragmatic. On its own, it’s slightly removed from what a better motivation might be. Reason #7—writing to give a thrill—heads in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough. Reason #8—violence as an outcome—makes sense and is justified, but it shouldn’t be the sole reason for penning a violent scene. As for Reason #5, if a writer is writing a memoir, or using a past experience to add reality to a story, it may or may not be an appropriate reason for writing it. It depends on whether or not the violence provides a fulfilling experience for the reader.

The point of any violent scene or story should be to give one’s audience a visceral, an emotional and, by the end of the work, an insightful experience. Some readers are happy if they encounter only the first element. I’m not one of them. The trend to make things more graphic than ever doesn’t satisfy me. What does is encountering violence in a creative work that punches me in the gut, the heart, and the head. That brings me a new understanding or a way of looking at things. That makes me feel deeply for the characters. That makes me want to do something about a situation. That makes me feel richer for the experience, because what’s happened in the story matters.

Creating stories that do those things takes a lot of work. There are many layers, and much thought and craft that go into making them. Certainly, much more than the shallower stuff that settles for the shock of a cheap thrill. Here’s a final reason:

9. A writer depicts violence because it provides the platform and stimulus for higher ideals to address it. Those things might include actions involving sacrifice, forgiveness, love, justice, determination, survival, hope, gratitude or redemption.

This last point invites us to strive for loftier goals than simply pointing out that ‘life is hell and then you die’. But that’s me. And there are many folks who write from the opposite camp, where violence is depicted and relished for its own gory sake. •

"All This Has Happened Before: Cycles in Genre Fiction " Editorial by Adam Shaftoe and Matt Moore
Jen Laface

Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, science fiction thrilled the people with tales of wondrous new futures and what dangers new technologies might pose. We settled Mars, led the Fremen against
House Harkonnen and rendezvoused with Rama.

But then something happened. We stopped reading science fiction. Fantasy became the dominant genre in the land of make believe. Gone were the advanced machines (and humans) on futuristic worlds. In their place came kick-ass heroines with werewolf lovers fighting mages and fae on a city’s dark streets.

And sci-fi fans wondered: “What happened?”

Some pointed to Harry Potter, saying the popular and accessible boy wizard turned parents and kids alike from science fiction to the world of magic and creatures. Young boys didn’t dream of being Andrew “Ender” Wiggin or Paul Atriedies, but the Boy Who Lived.

While one book can certainly have an influence in the growth of a genre (see The Hunt for Red October and the surge of technothrillers), it doesn’t explain the decline of another.

So what happened to science fiction? We caught up to it.

Reading offers an escape into worlds, lives and situations far removed from ours. And that escape is entertainment. But the closer stories resemble our real lives, the less escape they provide and, therefore, the less entertainment they offer. (I’ve always felt that’s why 90210 lasted ten seasons while My So Called Life barely lasted one.)

We’ve seen the same thing with horror. In the 80s, Stephen King led an unstoppable juggernaut along with Peter Straub, Dean Koontz, Robert R. McCammon, Brian Lumley and more. While the Devil was the villain of choice in the 70s (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen), 80s horror found evil in cars, dogs, country-side villages, middle class suburbs and cities. The government was out to get you, mind control was real, your seemingly nice next door neighbour was a homicidal maniac and the (un)dead stalked the Earth’s small towns and remote forests. We escaped into these worlds where we had no idea just how awful things would get, finding entertainment and titillation in the suffering, struggles and set backs of our heroes, knowing they would rise up and fight back, but not without sacrifice.

Yet like one of its stories, the horror genre fizzled and died. True, a glut in any genre can lead to reader fatigue, but I think there was more than that. In the late 80s and early 90s, the Soviet Union collapsed and without this villain to focus our fears on, we looked to ourselves… and realized we had a lot of problems to deal with. We began talking openly about AIDS, bullying and suicide, teen pregnancy and abortion, street gangs and sexual abuse of children. Cocaine morphed from the cool Wall Street drug of choice into the scourge of poor neighbourhoods in the form of crack. Middle-aged men who had worked for the same company all their lives found themselves out of work. It was almost like our lives had become horror stories. We no longer needed to escape and sublimate our feelings of revulsion or fear. And more than that, we came to realize that in the end the hero doesn’t achieve some small victory. Sometimes, the hero dies unceremoniously and no one notices. And sometimes, the hero is just as bad as the villain… he’s just “our” hero.

Today, we’re seeing the same thing with science fiction. It’s a cliché to say we live in a science fiction novel, but that doesn’t make it any less true. William Gibson might have written about a whole country being cut off from the Internet, only to have hackers dust off old-school technology or hack into satellite feeds to show the world the oppression in their country. The American President debating an Internet kill switch sounds like the subplot of a Tom Clancy novel. Where Will Riker handed Captain Picard a PADD, a small device with a reconfigurable interface, today we call it the iPad. And a private businessman building his own spaceship hearkens back to the dreams of Delos David Harriman.

But the decline of science fiction is more than just real-world technology becoming as fascinating as rebelling robots or hyperdrives (though both might arrive sooner than we think). First, we are not only acclimatized to technology but the speed at which it’s evolving. Who would be surprised if thimble-sized blue tooth headsets were announced tomorrow, or self-cleaning clothing? We have plug-in cars, like in Watchmen, that might become as ubiquitous as cell phones before we know it. Technology companies keep advertising thinner, faster, smaller… and we expect that these things will be thinner, faster, smaller. In a few years, the MacBook Air will be considered a big, clunky device from some primitive age.

And there’s more. Good science fiction doesn’t just rely on cool gadgets or settings, but their effect on us. Is an AI alive? If so, what does that mean for us humans as living beings? How much can you tinker with human DNA and still have it be human? What parallels do we see between invading extraterrestrials destroying our culture and imperial powers of old?

In the past, we relied on science fiction’s authors to offer up tales examining these issues while entertaining us with adventure, intrigue and escapism. Now we debate these things on Facebook, Twitter, text messages and articles’ comments sections (all of which, 20 years ago, would have had homes in science fiction stories). Do we buy organic? How dangerous are genetically engineered crops? How much information about us does the government have stored in its databases? And just who has access to all those cameras watching us on the street? We love our devices, but we know every smart phone, tablet and laptop we plug in to charge is that much more environmental damage we’re causing. And if not the greenhouse gas produced by coal or oil, then nuclear’s radioactive waste, wind-power causing headaches and health problems, or the toxins found in solar panels.

So we turn to greater escapism in fantasy. A virtually limitless field, it still offers up analogy and allegory but in tropes and McGuffins removed from our daily lives. Parents worry about their daughters dating a troublesome or abusive young man, but no one really need fear her dating a vampire or werewolf. Yet young women can still get that dangerous thrill from the story of the rebellious but still good girl taming the bad boy. We can be entranced by stories of two magical races going to war over ideologies, which resemble the West and China, but because this takes place on another world with magic instead of nukes and shaman-emperors instead of presidents it still allows for escapism.

So what will the future hold for science fiction? Again, we can look to horror. Horror, especially in Canada, has morphed into a genre of not horrific things, but horrific situations. The uncanny, the
disquieting. Horror doesn’t just come from the monster, but knowing that we might be even more monstrous.

Science fiction will likely similarly evolve. The growth of steampunk and biopunk take sci-fi tropes and sensibilities, but transform them into worlds that never were (steampunk, usually set in the past) or probably never will be (biopunk, which posits worlds where rather than developing technologies external to us, we develop ourselves; the human body is the technology).

What is also interesting is how social sciences—politics, sociology and history—are creeping more and more into science fiction (with all respect to the legacy of Heinlein). Like all future worlds, the cause of ruin is what we fear at the time of writing—militarization, overpopulation, disease, nuclear war. But consider the science fiction of the 60s and 70s. Writers therein recognized the terror of the Cold War and drew a very short line between the idealized politics of the previous generation (most notably the inclusive ideologies of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt) and the politics of the future. Indeed, the United Federation of Planets takes its founding language almost directly from the League of Nations charter.

The last decade or so has seen science fiction, with exceptions like Robert J. Sawyer, abandon that optimism. Hope for a peaceful and egalitarian future has been replaced by millenarian warnings of environmental catastrophe and capitalist avarice that turn Huxley’s “Fordism” into a best-case scenario—social engineering aside, at least everybody had a job.

Yet novels such as The Windup Girl, Julian Comstock and Oryx and Crake do more than look at our demise through all-powerful corporations; they tap into the culture of fear and apathy that has become the hallmark of the early 21st century. Are those emotions the product of the collective anxiety produced under the George W. Bush era? Few would argue against the notion that those years filled the traditionally left leaning SF/F community with fear of a religion corporation-military triumvirate that would trample the arts, personal liberties and tolerance. Fewer still would argue that the three year long post-Bush hangover has had no influence upon the creation of future worlds. Convenient as that causality may be, it presumes to overlook the impact of the past generation on current writers. Ill-fated sequels aside, Gordon Gekko would find himself quite at ease in any of the worlds created by Bacigalupi, Wilson or Atwood. Top-down economics, politics of hegemony and challenges against individual agency are just as much a product of the 80s and early 90s as they are today. And perhaps that is the new, and old, direction for science fiction—using sociology and political science as the science in “science” fiction rather than interstellar travel, cloning or computers of today’s “hard SF.”

In conclusion, let me share a personal story. In July, the space shuttle Atlantis completed the last mission of the shuttle fleet. Aside from one or two friends, no one talked or even knew about it. Shuttle launches had become commonplace and the end of the manned American space program—for the moment—should have been a major cultural milestone. Thirty years ago, the flights of Enterprise and launch of Columbia held the world rapt. One wonders if the space program will ever regain the support, let alone attention, it once held because it no longer thrills us. Will its absence renew our excitement for space exploration, or has its waning momentum finally flagged and this could be the end of the West’s space program for many, many decades? Or might we see the exploration of space replaced with its commercialization? •