This week, it's the latest from Futurismic and Strange Horizons (or at least, the latest when I made my selection last week, so not actually the latest at Strange Horizons any more - tempus fugit!) These sites are both great examples of how thoroughly fansites have occupied the ground once held by fanzines and the amateur press. I miss the old print zines for very non-scifi reasons of cultural conservatism, but these sites provide everything the old fanzines did and much, much more.
Out Walking the Streets By Eric Del Carlo is one of those low-context stories that makes few concessions to the reader, but gradually builds up the detail to communicate what's happening. I'm going to try and not give it away, because I think that knowing it before hand spoils the effect, but it does kind of limit the points I can make here. After all, I'm trying to encourage you, dear reader, to go read 'em (and dontcha hate people her refer to you as "dear reader"?) These types of story often reward a re-reading, to catch the hints you might have missed before, or to appreciate the author's subtlety, but you can only get the feeling of dawning realisation once!
The intriguing premise opens up a host of questions, and this story lets us take a peek at just one. It's a dynamic situation well portrayed by De Carlo, and the emotions of the protagonist and his wife are portrayed with great conviction. The resolution relies perhaps a little too much on co-incidence, and rather conveniently closes off the myriad other questions raise. There's a limit to how much one can do in a short space, of course, and Del Carlo's intriguing premise has a lot more drama inherent in it than he has room for here.
I was drawn to Middle Aged Weirdo in a Cadillac by George R Cruikshank by the laconic title, and the story doesn't disappoint. It's a funny and well-observed slice of life with a brimstoney whiff of suburban diabloism. Cruikshank keeps the character goals focused and low-level – both Bob and his hitchiker are looking for a way home, and maybe a little company as the night drags on into the Tom Waits hours of the morning. In fact, Tom Waits would make a pretty good Bob in the Twilight Zone version of this story.
These stories are great examples of the quality short fiction being published online at the moment. Securing great material doesn't seem to be a problem for short fiction publishers right now, the problem they really have is the same problem the old fan publications have always had – how do you make money from it?
A common tactic I've seen on these short fiction Wednesday is to treat the webzine as a loss-leader for print products, such as at Weird Tales or Apex Book Company, which featured in a previous Short Fiction Wednesday. Some others, I guess derive some income from advertising, and others have a link to paypal for donations. However, recently there's been a bit of news on this front, with Ether Books announcing an iPhone-based short story service and Orbit US hoping to sell shorts from their popular authors at £1.99 a time.
Two things occur to me. Firstly, as I've learned – and hopefully shared here – there's a great deal of excellent fiction available online for free, and I haven't even started with the websites of popular authors like Cory Doctorow or Charlie Stross, who have tons of stuff on offer, nor Tor.com, which has been putting out free stories from it's star authors for a couple of years now. Possibly it's different in mainstream, literary fiction, where Ether are hoping to make an impact, but Orbit have surely got an uphill battle. Tim Holman made the point in the comments on John Scalzi's blog that the existence of free stories doesn't necessarily mean people won't pay for other stories, and that's certainly true. However, it does bring me to my second concern: does the audience exist in sufficient numbers to make Orbit's and Ether's efforts turn a profit?
It'll be interesting to see! As the owner of neither an iPhone nor a Kindle, I guess I'll miss out on making my contribution for now!