“sentenced the petitioner to a life term, but how long is a life?”
October 29, 2020 6:39 PM   Subscribe

If you enjoy the legal sci-fi stories here, you might enjoy The Law of Superheroes by James Daily and Ryan Davidson, two attorneys who run the long-running legal sci-fi blog Law and the Multiverse. It's a collection of expanded articles from the blog, and touches on all kinds of fantastic legal what-ifs (e.g., they have an article on the question raised by the title of this post, including an in-depth analysis of whether jailing an immortal being for life would constitute cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment). The blog has long moved past just comics and into all kinds of fantasy/SF TV shows and movies.
posted by star gentle uterus at 7:01 PM on October 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

As a warning, Sci Phi Journal was at best "neutral" and at worst taking the side of the "Sad Puppies" and their bullshit back in 2016-2017. They published one of Lou Antonelli's rants and have been known to harbor other weird awful people.

If they've improved themselves since then, they should probably change the name, because most of us in the low-tier SF/F writing/podcasting world know them mostly from that. I used to take it as a major red flag if I saw them listed as one of a writer's previous publishing credits on a cover letter.

ETA: (I freely admit I haven't given them a look at all since then, as that was more than enough for me to write them off forever. I have no data on their current official editorial stance IN RE Freeze Peach and libertarianish bullshittery.)
posted by Scattercat at 7:48 PM on October 29, 2020 [7 favorites]

Submissions page: So here are SPJ‘s quests:

SPJ does not employ a proofreader who can spot an apostrophe facing the wrong direction. Among other things, they're looking for:

Fictional non-fiction. The purest, most intimate form of world-building. A transcript of the last UN Security Council meeting before an extinction-level event. The dental bills of a cybernetic vampire. Interviews with eyewitnesses of a battle between Martians and archangels. Think ‘World War Z’, not ‘Walking Dead’.

The word for that kind of story is epistolary. Not only do they lack a proofreader, they lack an editor who's actually studied literature. (I can just hear the complaint: "But epistles means letters. You can't have an epistle-story made from court documents and dictionary entries - those aren't letters!")

They pay €0.03 ($0.035 US) per word for fiction. So I suppose the question is... where's the money coming from? Aha: "This site exists as a labour of love and generates no form of income." It's someone's propaganda project. They're hoping to build a community of fans who long for "Campbellian hard SF" wherein "The cast, if any, is functional and disposable."

The main editor, Ádám Gerencsér, is a "pragmatic idealist and faithful Catholic" and does not have "a non-binary gender identity, fancy pet-keeping habit, whimsically nihilistic hobby or any other badge of ostentatious progressiveness." That tells me everything I need to know about what kind of science fiction community he wants to build.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 7:57 PM on October 29, 2020 [12 favorites]

So not much change, then. Alas.

This is not to say that everything there is awful rubbish. Many lovely people are just plugging stats in the the ol' Submissions Grinder and submitting to everything, running down the list in order of pay rate (and three cents a word is sadly better than the vast majority of small markets). On a cursory glance, Sci Phi Journal seems fine. I certainly don't read all the backlog of every market I submit to.
posted by Scattercat at 8:06 PM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

ErisLordFreedom & Scattercat thanks for the heads up on SPJ. It is a shame as I'd like to read more idea driven sci-fi in the speculative social science and philosophy bent. Does such a thing exist that isn't SPJ and its ilk?
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:31 PM on October 29, 2020

Other than Ted Chiang's oeuvre? ;-)
posted by Scattercat at 9:32 PM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

Ted Chiang is great, who I discovered via Metafilter I'm pretty sure, but are there other newer authors writing long or short fiction in this mode?
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:37 PM on October 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

As a warning, Sci Phi Journal was at best "neutral" and at worst taking the side of the "Sad Puppies" and their bullshit back in 2016-2017. They published one of Lou Antonelli's rants and have been known to harbor other weird awful people.

Thanks for this; the phrase "idea-driven fiction as opposed to the 'character-driven' mode that has come to predominate science fiction" was a warning flag for me.

These stories might be great, and I've been loving all of brainwane's posts (which makes me sure they are great stories) but I think I might just take a pass here.
posted by nubs at 10:08 PM on October 29, 2020 [4 favorites]

the phrase "idea-driven fiction as opposed to the 'character-driven' mode that has come to predominate science fiction" was a warning flag for me.

I am ignorant here and have low awareness of fandom stuff. The phrase sounds potentially appealing, is it dog whistling something I don't yet hear?
posted by majick at 8:43 AM on October 30, 2020

What’s funny about this is that a common criticism of sci-fi since the beginning has been that it’s ALL idea driven with cardboard characters and bad dialogue to prop up the ideas part. That’s why rereading all the stuff from my youth is so cringeworthy ... I’ve come to realize that the character development and writing style tends to suck in older stuff, and the better stuff coming out lately is a breath of fresh air, as is my discovery of lesser known authors of the past. Is there truly a dearth of idea-driven sci-fi?
posted by freecellwizard at 8:51 AM on October 30, 2020

I am ignorant here and have low awareness of fandom stuff. The phrase sounds potentially appealing, is it dog whistling something I don't yet hear?

Absent context, preferring "idea-driven SF" over "character-driven" is fine. But the right-wing Sad and Rabid Puppies pushed back against diversity and progressive themes in SFF in part by claiming that SFF used to be about ideas and now it's about F E E L I N G S and "identity politics". So the editor of Sci Phi Journal not only preferring idea-driven SFF but saying that character-driven is dominating SFF is a red flag to me.
posted by sgranade at 9:43 AM on October 30, 2020 [4 favorites]

I think of myself as someone who likes character-driven speculative fiction and when I originally came across Sci Phi Journal's submission guidelines I thought "I find it really unlikely that I will find stuff I like here".
There are plenty of amazing print and online journals out there for ‘character-driven’ fiction, and we encourage you to read them.

SPJ is not one of them, though.

Hence, we are not interested in stories predominantly about the sentiments and subjective experiences of fictional people. We want hard SF that zooms out of the personal and lifts off into the structural, the systemic, the epic. We yearn for carefully crafted philosophical speculation that puzzles over the questions of the future and alternate pasts. And we have a soft spot for stories created as ‘artefacts’ (fictional, ‘in-universe’ non-fiction).
This reminded me of, like, the Olaf Stapledon that I've read, and the reputation that Analog Science Fiction and Fact has in my head. I haven't read Analog in years! But my spouse once said his stereotype of Analog stories is 'the story comes with a technical diagram, and once you see the diagram you say "oh, cool" and you don't need the story itself'.

But then I looked through the archives a bit and I found some stuff I liked, which I've linked to here. I also found a few stories that didn't speak to me enough to want to recommend them here, but whose authors are both people I've met at WisCon, the feminist scifi convention: "Infinite Boyfriends" by Marie Vibbert (character-y and silly) and "Network Protocols of Reef Six" by Benjamin Rosenbaum (no characters at all). And I saw some stories by some Puppies folks whose names I recognized, which I didn't click on.

Of the stories I linked to in this post, "Habeas Corpus Callosum" is a bit like a Nancy Kress story -- a strong point of view from a particular character, and a legal battle related to a change some of us are making to our bodies. The other three stories I would call "fake primary sources"; I hadn't known till today, or I'd forgotten, that "epistolary" was also a term for stories told through in-world documents other than letters.

It was really interesting to reflect on how I had assumed that "character-driven" WAS equivalent to "good" in narrative fiction, but then seeing these three epistolary stories juxtaposed, along with Sci Phi Journal's explicit mission, challenged that for me. I know a few people who strongly prefer speculative fiction that is about exploring ideas, talk about the books/TV they like mainly in terms of concepts explored, and who don't particularly care about/notice characters. The ones I know are not Puppies-y. But I had a bit of a bias, thinking that they had poor taste, that they were enjoying things wrong, and now I'm more able to develop a taste so I can enjoy some of the things they enjoy.

On a different note -- I've been a wee part of the indie scifi publishing world in the past; my spouse and I took submissions, commissioned artists, etc. and self-funded and published an anthology back in 2009 (we paid $200/story, which was a little under three cents per word). It seems really common for tiny magazines and anthologies to be funded by the founders/publishers, as a labor of love. Maybe I'm missing something there?

And - if you want to highlight some great lesser-known sf/f magazines that emphasize idea-driven stories, I also want to hear about them! I'm stopping my daily posts after tomorrow but one neat thing about doing this project was discovering some cool magazines I hadn't known about before, such as Compelling Science Fiction and Cossmass Infinities.
posted by brainwane at 9:59 AM on October 30, 2020 [7 favorites]

It's not that the type of story is bad or wrong, or that it necessarily leads one to identify with Nazis. It's just that the Nazis have taken up a lot of those same angles as their cover for being shitheads, and the editor of SPJ (who is to all appearances still in charge) is sympathetic to their "cause" and actively signal-boosted their assholery.

A bit like if someone has a website dedicated to "free speech" and "philosophical consideration of ideas on their merits", those things are fine and even good to some extent, but those buzzwords in conjunction have a contextual meaning beyond that. If the person running the website is also personal friends with Milo Yiannopoulos and has published a QAnon essay in the name of freedom of speech, then there are even more considerations to take into account.

SPJ hides their power level pretty well, and as I said, I'm sure there are perfectly good fun stories to find in their archives, but they seem to be shitheads actively dedicated to a shithead agenda, and I thought it was important that people have that context before we direct MetaFilter's site-breaking attention and occasionally mainstream-newsworthiness toward them.
posted by Scattercat at 12:05 PM on October 30, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am ignorant here and have low awareness of fandom stuff. The phrase sounds potentially appealing, is it dog whistling something I don't yet hear?

Part of the rallying cry of the "Sad Puppies" was that the SF of today is too "character driven", which was code for the fact that there were characters in the stories that were not all straight, white, men and that sometimes stories dealt with things that challenged the status quo. A lot of ire was directed to things like Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice (told from the POV of a character from a society which does not distinguish based on gender, and which used female personal pronouns throughout) (I will add, that past that feature for the story, the tale of Ancillary Justice is very much a traditional SF story about the problems of empire & tyranny), or NK Jemisin's novels, and lots of other examples.

In short, it became a bit of a way of saying "unless the work is written by and/or about white men, we don't want it". It may be an unfair way of characterizing all SF of this type, but it sets off alarm bells for me now.
posted by nubs at 1:59 PM on October 30, 2020 [3 favorites]

There is some great "idea-focused not character-focused" science fiction. Unfortunately, "not character-focused" is often used to mean "I don't want to notice anything about the characters... and if if they're not white straight men, that's distracting. Being a woman or gay or black isn't necessary for the plot, so it shouldn't be part of the story."

Somehow it's never, "being white or straight or a man isn't needed for the events to happen, so the characters shouldn't be any of those things."

And it's annoying as hell that that's what "not character-focused" has come to mean, because there are indeed some great stories where the characters are just devices that make the plot happen, where they're deliberately bland because they could be anyone, where the focus isn't on who the characters are but what they're doing or even what happens to them. They can be neutral and the story can still be good. But some of us don't think straight-white-man is human-neutral, and unfortunately, SPJ shows all the signs of being a publisher that does.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 11:29 PM on October 30, 2020 [1 favorite]

star gentle uterus: Thank you for the book recommendation! That sounds super up my alley and I am gonna order The Law of Superheroes for pleasure reading!

Ashwagandha and majick: here are some recommendations for more idea-driven or idea-centric speculative fiction that you may not have run into. (Of course assessments will vary but these stories, like, have more ideas than characters, maybe?) I'll start with stuff I've linked to here on MetaFilter recently, and then mention other authors and stories. I hope ErisLordFreedom and other fans will also make some recommendations!

"Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter" by Emery Robin

"Applied Cenotaphics in the Long, Long Longitudes" by Vajra Chandrasekera

"The Hard Quarry" by Caleb Huitt

"True Stories Never Satisfy" by Amanda Ajamfar

"One Hundred Sentences About the City of the Future: A Jeremiad" by Alex Irvine

"How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary" by Tochi Onyebuchi

A bunch of the scifi by actuaries from their speculative fiction contest

From 1905, "Sultana's Dream" by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Several of these stories and what-if suggestions about aliens and monsters

I'd also recommend you check out: Ada Palmer's novels (I've only read Too Like the Lightning but I think the entire Terra Ignota series is idea-heavy), some of Vajra Chandrasekera's other work (such as "Terminus" and "The Roman Road" -- but he also does write more character-centric stuff), "The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird’s School for Girls" by Gwendolyn Kiste, "The Case for Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant" by Slant, "Packing" by T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon), and "Paradox" by Naomi Kritzer.
posted by brainwane at 5:43 AM on October 31, 2020 [3 favorites]

From their about page: Run by volunteers, SPJ is open to readers and writers of all persuasions, and tolerates no restriction of free expression on grounds of ‘political correctness’.

A red flag that had me backing out so fast it red-shifted.
posted by Sparx at 1:03 PM on November 1, 2020

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