Semiprofessional publication has a proud history in the speculative fiction fan community, which has long produced "'zines" devoted to the genre. The advent of the world-wide web has spurred new creativity in the design and content of 'zines and enabled them to develop more sophisticated formats and to reach wider readerships than ever before. Now, following in the wake of the semi-professional zines, professional magazines devoted to publishing speculative fiction, like Strange Horizons, are coming on-line (we differ by definition from semi-professional publication on the basis of the rates we pay for the fiction we publish). This week, I'm taking a look at some of our elder cousins among the speculative fiction semiprofessional webzines. Many regular readers of Strange Horizons probably have some favorite sites already; I'll try to add a few more to your list.
Two webzines that might be a good place to start exploring the world of specfic webzines are Jackhammer, edited by Raechel Henderson Moon, and Nuketown, edited by Kenneth Newquist. Jackhammer is quite small by webzine standards; it doesn't have a vast, permanent archive of materials. Its featured stories (about two each month) and the editor's journal stay on-line for only a few months. It's notable, however, for the quality of the writing that it publishes. Two of the stories currently featured there are well worth checking out. Amanda M. Hayes in "Tangled Webs" spins a deft, brief fantasy tale that delineates a complex relationship between twin brothers, who uneasily share the inheritance of a magical lineage. "Adjustments" by Derek Paterson is another rewarding story. Its unconventional first-person narrative may lead you to think at first that the story is merely some sort of "Terminator" knock-off, but if you stay with it past the first page you'll be surprised at the way the protagonist's strange mentality opens a window onto a quite different sort of tale, a grim homecoming. It's a compelling SF work. Both stories shine especially in their style and distinctive vision. Many semipro 'zines feature tales engagingly told, but elegant writing is something of a rarity, and stories that offer a truly distinctive vision are rarer still. Check these out. If you do, you'll have the opportunity to post comments to the stories in a writer's forum that Jackhammer provides in connection with each story. This is definitely a serious writer's 'zine. From Jackhammer's site, you can also link to the site for Dark Matter Chronicles, also edited by Raechel Henderson Moon, which features reviews of webzines and specfic-related websites. It's a good place to find links.
If you want to keep tabs on what's happening in webzine world, Nuketown is another good place to go. I like Nuketown particularly because it preserves the feel of a print 'zine very nicely in electronic format. Updated monthly, it includes an eclectic mix of stories, editorials, reviews of fiction, films, comics, and role-playing games, and a valuable and interesting news section, which provides regular updates on the contents of many other webzines, as well as brief science pieces and libertarian political news. It's an excellent brief compendium of the webzine scene, and its archives, stretching back to 1996, are a fabulous resource. I find Nuketown's fiction offerings less engaging than its editorial and news content. The two stories featured in the December issue -- "Chaos Magic," by Andrew May, and "May Day," by D.F. Huettner -- are both lively first-person narratives, competently told and basically entertaining, but they don't seek to be any more than that. Rather than striving to articulate a new speculative vision, they conform comfortably to the time-smoothed conventions of horror and science fiction short stories. I haven't delved deeply into the fiction archives at Nuketown, so I may be missing some gems there. Based on recent issues, I can recommend Nuketown wholeheartedly for its distinctive non-fiction content, but I can't say that its fiction offerings are outstanding.
I'll wrap up this brief survey with a brief mention of two rather different webzines: Aphelion and Lost Ages. While Jackhammer and Nuketown present themselves as print 'zines translated nicely into the web environment, Aphelion (senior editor Dan Hollifield) and especially Lost Ages (senior editor Roger C. Lee) are more agglomerative creations that take their form more from the evolving genre of the website than from that of the print 'zine. Both of these sites are extensive, containing large collections of fiction, including short stories, poetry, and serialized novels.
Aphelion produces new issues each month, so it retains some connection to the magazine model; Lost Ages updates whenever it has new material. While Aphelion prints both fantasy and science fiction, its design and most distinctive feature are oriented towards SF. This webzine is home to an extensive shared-universe story collection, Mare Inebrium. Taking up the traditional SF locale of the spaceport bar (most memorably developed in Spider Robinson's Callahan's series), Aphelion hosts nearly forty stories by many different authors based in this setting. If you like the shared-universe idea or the spaceport-bar setting, this part of Aphelion offers great reading (and potentially writing) opportunities. The regular fiction offerings of Aphelion are less distinctive, but quite extensive; I expect the dedicated browser will find many pieces of high quality.
Lost Ages is a less extensive and expansive site than Aphelion. Its whole site might be compared, actually, to Aphelion's Mare Inebrium section. Not that Lost Ages is a shared universe site, but it's a site with a shared, consistent theme in all its parts. The site deals in fantasy, with a special emphasis on fantasy creating a sense of a mysterious and magical past age. "Somewhere along the median between fantasy and reality lies The Lost Ages Chronicle," an animated narrative informs the newly-arrived visitor. The site is visually sumptuous throughout. It presents all of its printed material on aged parchments scrolls, it has several pieces of lovely animated graphics, and its art gallery is impressive! Although the site has a number of different departments, its main feature is its story collection, which is updated whenever there is new material to post, not on a regular issue schedule. The stories I have read so far seem to stay firmly within the bounds of fantasy, but the writing is very strong; the lack of a regular publishing schedule may permit Lost Ages the freedom to be more selective than some issue-driven 'zines, and the site itself seems to inspire serious contributions. I found it telling that the authors of the stories are listed together with the editors as part of the "Lost Ages Team". This is a site I've only recently started reading, but it's one that I think will reward further visits.
If you decide to visit the sites of any of the zines I've reviewed here, you'll be pleased to find that all offer their visitors very professional browsing environments. They are well-maintained, well-presented, and well-edited. Their content is not always of professional calibre, but where it is amateur, it is amateur in the best sense: it features creations by people who love science fiction and fantasy and who want to participate in its creation and share their work with others. If these zines often publish writing that elaborates on the existing field of speculative fiction rather than advancing it, that's an eminently worthy project. Besides, it gives us, here at Strange Horizons, our own project and identity, too.