Hub hits a hundred (or did, last year)

So here’s a post I wrote half of last October (Hub is now up to #108). The fact that I didn’t find the time or inclination to finish a short and simple review of a short weekly SF e-zine for three months pretty much sums up the creative death that was Q4 2009 for me. Thanks a fucking bunch, my life last year.

But it wasn’t all bad, particularly if you’re not me, because British SF & fantasy e-zine Hub Magazine published its hundredth issue. If you’re not in the know about the general life expectancy of magazines built around genre fiction it may not be clear what an achievement this is, particularly given that Hub boasts 10,000 subscribers (or, at least, is sent to 10,000 email addresses, which is not quite the same thing) and thanks to sponsorship deals with publishers is both solvent and a paying market for writers.

I’ve written about Hub before (#12-18 here, and #35-38 for The Fix Online) and have generally found it an entertaining if hit and miss read since then. So, as a landmark issue what does #100 exemplify about its run to date and what does it indicate for the future?

The issue opens as you might expect; with retrospectives from its editor, Lee Harris, and other regular staff/contributors Alasdair Stuart, Ellen J. Allen and Phil Lunt. It’s interesting to read Harris’s potted history of the e-zine, which began (as the name indicates) as a print magazine. It folded after two issues, a source of much disappointment for many in the genre scene, but was soon reborn in the form we know today. As was presumed to be the case at the time, the reason for the shift was cold, hard economics.


The central piece in this issue is the winner of a recent short story competition, as judged by Hub’s editorial team and British SF stalwart Ian Whates (a writer himself as well as the editor of small publisher Newcon Press). ‘Under a Closed Sky’ by C. J. Paget is an entertaining and well-paced story that begins and ends with its weakest sections. The opening strikes me as almost embarrassingly derivative, obviously so to anyone who has played the Half-Life 2videogames – even down to the names of the 3-legged walking gun platforms, “striders”, and their role in near-future urban pacification operations (that’s slaughtering civilians to keep them in line to you and me).

I hate to harp on about a relatively minor point, but if the author is somehow not familiar with Valve’s multi-million dollar gaming franchise then this is an amazing coincidence that has defied the odds of both Occam’s Razor and the nature of the Internet. So, maybe, gloss over the plagiarism a bit more in future?

There’s an almost orgiastic scene of violence as striders and soldiers turn guns on civilians, and then the story gets going as orbital satellite strikes knock out the weapon platforms. It emerges that this is a far-future Earth that has suffered two further world wars – the “stupid wars” – and was collapsing into total barbarity until posthumans stepped in. Thought dead, these children of mankind have changed themselves and developed their technology far beyond terrestrial humans, and as the story begins have spent some years trying to win the nations of Earth over to the benevolent dictatorship of their AIs.

‘Under a Closed Sky’ focuses on an agent of the posthumans, Alicia, although she spends most of the story in the stolen identity of a corrupt politician’s pampered daughter. The tale is set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a nation that violently resists posthuman intervention despite the will of most of its impoverished and brutalised population. Alicia’s mission is to assassinate the president – presumably as part of a larger posthuman plan for takeover. The bulk of the story concerns her efforts to assume and maintain her false identity, which must be maintained through convincing contact with friends and family as well as demonstrating adherence to routine for the benefit of the inevitable surveillance. These parts of the story demonstrate Paget’s confident writing and eye for detail, as well as foreshadow the tale’s conclusion.

The conclusion, the pay-off for the story, almost works for me. On the back of knife-twisting betrayal it portrays a clash between two distinct mindsets, both with strong arguments to be made for them. Clean drinking water and life without fear of murder and oppression, or for a species to reach for the stars, grow and change? Cleverly, one of the two arguments mirrors the intellectual theory underpinning a lot of colonial activity in the 18th and 19th century: benevolent dictatorship for the peoples’ own good. Once you make this connection that argument seems a lot less attractive; humanitarianism as an excuse for oppression and resource extraction is a long-discredited idea, if one still popular today. The other argument, well, it is more selfish than selfless, but it has the virtue of not being what it is up against.

Unfortunately this clash is built on a foundation comprising shaky understanding of international relations. Not wanting to give too much away with my criticisms, I’ll point at some background examples to highlight my argument. Why does the author posit that 51 American Nation-States would be at peace, existing in serene co-operation, as opposed to a Union that squabbled and infought? Not one US state – indeed hardly any nation in the world today – could exist in isolation. Without extensive international trade, not to mention intellectual cross-pollination, immigration and emigration, the idea of a modern, healthy and wealthy nation-state is absurd. And it is from the necessity of such agreements, put up against the scarcity of resource flow or the desire to not be left behind in economic, social or technological terms, that generates the majority of large-scale modern conflict.

The author even presents a diametrically opposed example within the same story: the argument that a nation-state established in the 1900s as a colonial territory, historically composed of many distinct tribal and ethnic groups, works better together as a group united by suffering and oppression under a dictator than it would as an atomised and warring confederation of component groups. Not only is this contradictory, it also overlooks a fairly central tenet of authoritarian politics and class theory: divide and rule. Whilst I know little of Congolese politics I would not be surprised that smaller ethnic minorities were used as a scapegoat by other groups or those holding power. So, unfortunately, with these and other examples undermining the ideas that thematically underpin the story, it doesn’t quite work for me.

But even if the story opens with plagiarism and ends with political naivete, despite this I like it. It’s well-written with a plethora of skilful small touches, the plot is sufficiently gripping to hold one’s attention to the end, the twist is cleverly foreshadowed but not signposted, it is set in an environment that sets it apart from many genre short stories, and it engages with big ideas even if it is a partial failure on that account.


The second story in this issue is ‘The Sorceror’s Apprentice’ by Dan Abnett, a name some may recognise from many a media tie-in novel or British comic. Here he presents a short tale set in a generic rural landscape. It is a story that verges on the pastoral, but turns quickly to intrusion from balance-upsetting external entities and forces.

The farmer Rayf Hamner is a retired soldier; a hero, really, albeit one who has been forgotten by those he left behind in city life, in politics and the army. He has his friends and his family, now, though they don’t seem to be enough for him. He projects his hopes and desires onto his son, Nile, hoping that the stolid, reliable boy can achieve the metropolitan success that he never did.

Nile, on the other hand, is perfectly comfortable working on the farm. The very picture of an unimaginative, loyal and honest farmhand, he is not enthusiastic about his father’s plans, but nor is he unfaithful enough to argue against or otherwise resist them. It is what his father wants, he supposes, so it is what his father shall have.

When an elderly teacher of devices – a sorcerer in all but name – is secured by Rayf for Nile, the family are pleased to have him with them. A humble yet charismatic man, he professes to be pleased to enjoy a simple country life for his retirement in exchange for teaching the young man. Nile puts his all into his education, and although he does not understand what it is that he is supposed to be learning, both he and his teacher are surprised at his success, despite his age being far in excess of what is considered ideal for a magical education.

But, of course, all is not as it seems.

It’s a stronger if less ambitious story than ‘Under a Closed Sky’. The pastoral environment is simply described and evocative for it; the archetypical characters a reflection of the uncomplicated nature of their lives. Both the conflict that arises and the manner of its resolution emerge organically and in keeping with the nature of the story’s characters, and it’s possible that it will leave a smile on your face. The latter is dependent on whether you regard striving for greater personal accomplishment in the eyes of the great and good, or being at peace with one’s surroundings and close friends and relatives, as the more worthy goal.


Closing out the issue is the usual grab-bag of non-fiction. Here we have a short review of a ‘Dalek War’ Doctor WhoDVD boxset, followed by a small article – ahem – about sex in science fiction. Its an article that contains more enthusiasm for and justification of erotica in an SFnal context than anything particularly interesting on the subject, but hey. Was it Max Stirner who claimed there was no science fiction pornography? I’d like to see an article that set out to prove him wrong; after all, he was writing in the days preceding the Internet. On the other hand, such an article might not be suitable for publication in any venue excepting Warren Ellis’s blog.

After that we have another article about the iconic nature of the Doctor from, of course, Doctor Who, which appears to be a quite detailed mini-history of the character and the actors playing him. I admit to only skim-reading it due to lack of interest; I’m under thirty and didn’t really encounter the TV show until last year when I was finally convinced to try watching the post-2005 version. Then there is a little puff piece about role-playing that doesn’t really say anything beyond “role-playing is good”; perhaps its author could have collaborated with the writer of the piece about erotica. And, finally, there is a competition. Best get your answer in before October 24th 2009, readers!

So, not a great non-fiction showing – the only strong-looking piece being one of no interest to me. But Hub is read for its fiction, and #100 made a good impression on that front. So what says this of the future? Well, with the benefit of eight issues having been published since I started writing this review, I can state with confidence that it says “more of the same”. The e-zine is still publishing stories that include a decent number of gems among them, and is sticking to the same formula that has seen it through its first hundred issues. It has changed sponsors, which makes for a change in banner ads. Stylistically it’s also identical; perhaps this is an area where Hub could innovate? Consistently finding good or at least mediocre SF or fantasy artwork on a limited budget cannot be easy, although half an hour on DeviantArt proves that it’s possible, but sprucing up the design a little would require little investment outside of time with software. But hey, since #3 Hub has been exemplifying the maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” – so perhaps that wisdom should be respected. Here’s to another 100 issues.

Comments
3 Responses to “Hub hits a hundred (or did, last year)”
  1. Colum Paget says:

    >but if the author is somehow not
    > familiar with Valve’s multi-million
    > dollar gaming franchise then this is an
    > amazing coincidence that has defied the
    > odds of both Occam’s Razor and the
    > nature of the Internet.
    LOL, I think Occam’s Razor is still intact, at least in its ‘The simplest explanation…’ form, because the simplest explanation is this: He doesn’t play videogames (or at least, not since the 80’s. Ahhh, Elite, now there was a game. This massiverly-multiplayer-million-polygon modern stuff is all very well, but it’s not real gaming).
    My knowledge of ‘Half life’ pretty much comes entirely from adverts seen on bus-stops, and as such, I thought it took place within a government building? You wouldn’t get an autostrider in there (maybe if you folds it)! And I didn’t know there were civilians involved?

    If I was worried about plagarism, I would have been more worried about Mr Wells. He’s conviniently dead, and thus unlikely to sue, but this was one of the reasons that I avoided a lot of obvious names like ‘tripod’, ‘walker’ and ‘martian war machine’. ‘Auto-strider’ seemed ideal. I guess I should have wikipedia-ed it, a lesson that I’ll take on board for the future.

    However, at least I now know that if Mr Wells does decide to reach out his undead hand to protect his intellectual property, I can hide behind the skirts of Valve software!

    > These parts of the story demonstrate
    > Paget’s confident writing and eye for
    > detail,
    Confident? If only you knew…

    > Cleverly, one of the two arguments
    > mirrors the intellectual theory
    > underpinning a lot of colonial activity
    > in the 18th and 19th century:
    It does?! Er… I mean yeah, of course. I’m glad you spotted that, I spent a lot of time researching 18th century intellectual theory. Do you know a wikipedia link for said theory, just in case anyone ever asks?

    > Unfortunately this clash is built on a
    > foundation comprising shaky
    > understanding of international
    > relations.
    I cannot deny it, I don’t get on with my international relations. Fortunately, they rarely visit.

    > Why does the author posit that 51
    > American Nation-States would be at
    > peace, existing in serene co-operation,
    > as opposed to a Union that squabbled
    > and infought?
    It seemed a good idea at the time, and I refer you to the earlier mentioned AI control of states taken into administration.

    > Not one US state – indeed hardly any
    > nation in the world today – could exist
    > in isolation. Without extensive
    > international trade, not to mention
    > intellectual cross-pollination,
    > immigration and emigration, the idea
    >of a modern, healthy and wealthy
    > nation-state is absurd
    Ah, but after Stupid War I and Stupid War II, you aren’t dealing with modern, healthy and wealthy states! Damisi lampshades this when she says ‘Ess Double-You-two knocked the stuffing out of them’. If the 51 states were still as well off as they are now, there is no way that they’d have agreed to AI administration.
    Also, don’t forget that the orbital technology dividend is going to alter what’s needed to run a society.
    When E-Shine says ‘walls between it and its differently thinking neighbors’, I wasn’t imagining a ceasation of trade, but rather a blocking of information and people-traffic (much like what currently exists in china, or from the chinese point of view, currently exists everywhere outside of china). There’s still a huge flow of goods between china and everyone else, but what proportion of the population will ever go anywhere outside of the country? How much information do they have about the outside world?
    The states of the former soviet union have survived the break-up of that institution, as have the members of the British Empire (ingrates!), and North Korea manages to keep itself in a bubble.

    But it’s an interesting point you raise here, and one that sends a chill up the spine, because all this, all our world, is very much built upon the premise that ‘the oil must flow’. If it stops flowing… well, international trade etc will have to be scaled back in a big way. Brrrr…. that’ll be ugly.

    > historically composed of many distinct
    > tribal and ethnic groups, works better
    > together as a group united by suffering > and oppression under a dictator
    It’s E-shine who claims that. I wouldn’t trust him if I were you.

    > Was it Max Stirner who claimed there
    > was no science fiction pornography?
    Whoever it was, they clearly didn’t have access to google images.

    > the Doctor from, of course, Doctor Who
    Don’t get me started on what they’ve done to Dr Who. I was going with it till the end of series 1, and then…

    > Stylistically it’s also identical;
    > perhaps this is an area where Hub
    > could innovate?
    Do you know, I suggested that to them too! I think they should have a cover-art competition just like they did a writing competition, and at the time I was offering to contribute my prize money as the prize for the art-comp (and, if the winner of the art-comp were to recontribute for a non-fiction comp….) but they never got back to me about that.

    Anyways, thanks for mentioning me, because after the publication that story kinda sunk without trace, so it’s great to find that someone out there read it!

    I had an awful 2009 too, but I have this really great feeling about 2010, which I shall now share with you:

    OOOOOOOOOooooooooooommmmmmmmmmm

    There, better? Admittedly, said great feeling is based entirely on the fact that ’10’ is a round number, and that things can only get better (and comes without any warranty or guarentee of fitness for purpose).

    Colum

  2. Colum Paget says:

    > I’m under thirty
    Oh really? Elsewhere on this site, I found this:

    Disclosure Policy
    1. No sex.
    2. No drugs.
    3. No wine.
    4. No women.
    5. No fun.
    6. No sin.
    7. No you.
    8. No wonder it’s dark.

    Kinda thinking that’s ‘Exhibit A’ against the ‘under 30’ case right there!

    Colum

  3. Shaun CG says:

    Hi Colum, thanks for commenting! As you say, always good to know people are reading.

    Heh, well, Half-Life 2 is a fairly expansive game (series, now). If you’re curious I’ve found a video on YouTube that shows some of its striders in action – exaggerated and nimble and packing miniguns.

    The environment is urban rather than shanty-town, and the game’s civilians are almost all armed rebels, but the scenes are certainly redolent of one another (at least as I read yours; obviously there is always going to be some projection here due to the associations I have with the name and image of “striders”). Although yes, they both owe a big debt to Wells…

    Regarding the theory underpinning some strands of European colonialism:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism#Justification
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilizing_mission

    Interesting to see your expansions on the world you’ve built. I haven’t got anything to add to my review so I’ve got no response, but interesting all the same.

    Here’s to a superior 2010 all round.

    P.S. I first heard ‘Turning Japanese’ covered by No Use For A Name in the 90s!