Welcome to Outer Alliance Spotlight #24. Each Friday, the Spotlight features an ally who writes, reviews, publishes, or is in some other way involved with LGBTQI speculative fiction. Our guest this week is Djibril Alayad, editor of The Future Fire.
Djibril has always assumed that explorations of sexual difference were key to science fiction, so The Future Fire has welcomed queer fiction since it began in 2004. The most recent issue has a feminist theme, and Djibril is currently reading for a queer themed issue, which should be out soon. In addition to the magazine, The Future Fire also has a reviews blog, which focuses on reviews for small press publications.
Djibril has lived and worked on both sides of the Atlantic, and is currently based in London, UK. He is a formally trained historian with a collection of animal skulls. He maintains a Twitter feed as @thefuturefire.
OA: The Future Fire is putting together a queer themed issue right now. Can you tell us more about that? Is it already full, or are you still looking for new pieces? Any stories you’ve accepted that you’re particularly excited about?
DA: The “Queer-themed” issue of TFF is basically a spin-off from the Feminist Science Fiction themed issue that we advertised about a year ago and published in January, which was also our 5th anniversary issue (though I forgot to make a fuss about that). We buy stories depending on how excellent each story is individually, and we don’t have any quotas or maximums, so we ended up buying too many stories that fit the “sex, gender, sexuality and gender identity” theme that we’d specified–more than we would normally include in a single issue, anyway. So we decided to divide them into two categories: the first, sex and gender and women’s issues generally; and the second, focussing on sexuality and gender identity, will be the “queer issue”. We’re still very much open to submissions on this theme, up to about the end of the month to get into this issue; but as we say, there will never come a time when queer stories are unwelcome in TFF.
Beyond that I can’t say very much more about what we’re looking for. TFF publishes speculative fiction with a focus on social and political themes (think 1984, Island, Fahrenheit 451, anything by Le Guin, Dick…), and would like to see more cyberpunk than we do. We have always valued the cosmopolitan, stories that address diversity and tolerance, stories by underrepresented groups (including non-Anglo scifi). This issue will be no different, except that it will further narrow that focus to stories that address issues of sexuality and gender identity, which have always been a key part of science fiction, I think.
In the stories we’ve taken on already, there are two main approaches: either there is a queer protagonist whose difference and difficulties reflect other differences or forms of alienness/alienation in the same or other characters; or queer protagonists only represent the queer struggle against very real repression in a dystopian, slightly exaggerated world. These approaches are both fine, of course; maybe there are others.
OA: What made you decide to start The Future Fire, and what are some of the upsides and downsides to running an online magazine?
DA: The Future Fire was set up kind of naively by a small group of SF fans some years ago–of the five of us there were two left within a year, and we’re still the core of the team. I’m not sure we really had any idea why we were doing this, or what we were letting ourselves in for; between us we had no experience of publishing either traditional or digital. I’d often imagined publishing a small print ‘zine, but I guess it was only ever going to happen when we had the possibility of doing it online. We were most inspired by the trippy paranoia of Philip K. Dick and the postmodern hoaxes of Jorge Luis Borges–imagined writing fake book reviews and event reports and all that sort of thing. It was only after a couple of years that we realized that what we really wanted was to focus on the social and political aspects of speculative fiction, things that we care about, things that can (or should) change the world.
As for the advantages of running an online magazine, the most obvious is just that it’s much less trouble–marketing and distributing a print magazine would be a *lot* of work (less so now I suppose that we could use POD to actually print and distribute, but still having to worry about marketing to make the magazine profitable would still be prohibitive for a volunteer-run venture). The down-side is the flip-side of that coin: because TFF is free, and we’re not interested in running crappy ads, it makes no money. The donations we receive cover less than 10% of our costs, and the rest comes out of our pockets. For a small ‘zine like this that’s fine, I think it’s worth it. The time is actually a much bigger cost than the money.
The correct answer to “what are the upsides of running an online magazine” ought to be that it removes certain restrictions of space and medium, and potentially attracts a much wider audience. If we buy a story that is 20k words long rather than the 4-6k average, we don’t have to worry about how that’s going to affect the page count of the next issue. (We do worry about how long a reader is willing to stare at a screen hitting page-down over and over, so we serialize longer pieces.) We ought to be able to say that we can publish stories with a visual element, animation, audio, interactive features, hypertext fiction, stuff that’s impossible on paper. That is true, but we’ve yet to be offered anything like that. I’d love to see it, but I don’t know what it would look like.
OA: The Future Fire holds mini-cons in the summer in London. What are they like, and who may attend?
DA: We started out holding joint mini-conventions with Whispers of Wickedness, a British small press magazine of dark and atmospheric fiction, to which typically a dozen people would come, read or perform some of their work, and generally chat about speculative fiction on a Saturday afternoon in a pub in London or Swindon. It’s a lot of fun. Since WoW stopped publishing a year or so ago, we’ve carried on with the TFFcon. Anyone and everyone is welcome. We often see a sample of TFF authors, artists, reviewers and editors, along with friends, fans and assorted randomers. Other magazines or small presses are sometimes represented, or sometimes just send promotional materials or freebies (especially if they’re not based in the UK). For the last couple of years we’ve tried to have a story competition, with entries voted for on the day, and prizes donated by various publishers present.
We don’t have a date for the 2010 TFFcon yet, but it will be announced on our website and in all the usual places. Would love to see some Outer Alliance representation there this year.
OA: How did you come to have a collection of animal skulls, and do you have any favorite, or unusual ones?
DA: I’m not sure any of them are particularly unusual, but perhaps the most random is a stag skull set on a shield, which used to adorn the wall of a zoologist at a Scottish university, and which mysteriously turned up at my door encased in cardboard and polystyrene. I’d like to be able to say that having samples of animals skulls are essential to my archaeological research, but I’m very much an armchair historian, not a fieldworker. I can’t remember the first skull I acquired, but the barn rat is one of my favourites. The jawbone of a shark is also pretty impressive–it’s the only part of the head that isn’t cartilage, so technically I guess it is a skull. For the record, the human skull is a replica, and the goat was not sacrificed.
OA: You say that explorations of sexual difference are the key to science fiction. Do you have any recommendations on this theme?
DA: I cut my teeth on writers like Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley and Michael Moorcock, so I guess I’ve always assumed that a genre like science fiction that explores difference, alienness, xenophobia and other prejudices, and social norms different from ours would be full of sexualities and gender identities that push the boundaries as well. Now that I think about it, I’ve been surprised by how much speculative fiction adheres to modern, western notions of heteronormativity and cisgender. Are we really that conservative a genre?
Beyond the above, and equally obvious authors like Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree Jr., Poppy Z. Brite, Joanna Russ, I suspect that your readers can suggest me more good queer science fiction than I can them.
Thanks, Djibril! Join us next Friday for another Spotlight, and in the meantime, check out The Future Fire.