On 30th March, a new ebook magazine will be launched, offering you the first instalments of stories from an intriguingly varied handful of science fiction and fantasy writers. There will be ‘Gela’s Ring’ by Chris Beckett, the sequel to his 2012 novel Dark Eden, which has attracted much well-deserved praise. Philip Palmer is writing ‘Murder of the Heart’; a contemporary and spooky tale, and that sounds intriguing since his versatility as a writer includes detective fiction for radio and screen alongside his SF novels. ‘Spiderlight’ by Adrian Tchaikovsky promises a completely new epic fantasy, humorous in places, deadly serious in others, by way of a deconstruction of the traditional prophecy-journey-dark lord narrative.
Ian Whates is contributing ‘The Smallest of Things’ while I’m offering ‘The Ties That Bind’, an extended story set in the River Kingdom where I’ve written three (or possibly four) short stories in the past few years. Subsequent editions will see the start of ‘Bartholomew Burns versus the Brain Invaders’ by Eric Brown and ‘Cosmopolitan Predators!’ by Tony Ballantyne, who has set this whole enterprise in motion. You see, not all the stories will have the same number of episodes. Some will be longer, some will be shorter but all aim to prompt pleasurable suspense as you wait in between instalments to see how a story unfolds, to learn if your expectations will be fulfilled or confounded, to see if the characters you’re learning to love or to hate will face triumph or disaster.
Aethernet Magazine will run for 12 issues. The first issue will go on sale on 30th March 2013, and subsequent issues will be on sale on the first of the month from May 2013 onwards. Individual issues will cost £3 and a full year’s subscription for all 12 issues will cost £20.
So why did I have a good long think and then say, ‘Okay, interesting, yes, count me in,’ when Tony Ballantyne contacted me? Firstly, that’s a roster of authors with whom I’ll be very proud to share a Table of Contents. Secondly, serial fiction isn’t something I’ve written before, and I’ve lost count of the authors over the years who I have heard advise never passing up the chance to do something new. Constantly challenging ourselves as writers is how we avoid stagnating.
Thirdly, as a reader, I’ve always really enjoyed serial fiction. When Tony Ballantyne first explained the plan, like most bookish types, my thoughts immediately turned to Sherlock Holmes’s adventures in The Strand Magazine, and to Charles Dickens’s novels first appearing in various Victorian periodicals which no one but Dickensian devotees can now name. More recently, some of SF’s greatest names from Asimov to Clarke, Le Guin to McCaffrey published serial fiction in genre magazines such as Analog and Astounding Stories. And let’s not forget that this tradition of episodic story telling woven around cliff-hangers and tantalising anticipation goes all the way back to Schehezerade and The One Thousand and One Nights, one of the foundations of our epic fantasy tradition.
At the same time as those classic pulp SF magazines were on the news-stands, Buster Crabbe was on cinema screens as the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in those wonderful black-and-white space adventures with rocket ships apparently driven by sparklers and stories driven onwards by weekly last-minute betrayals and revelations. With a wonderful sense of the wheel turning full circle while moving forward, the advent of the DVD boxset and online streaming has seen TV drama return to serial formats after years of weekly reset-button writing, now that missing a scheduled broadcast isn’t the disaster for an ongoing narrative which it was in pre-VHS days.
In similar circular yet progressive fashion, ebook technology now offers us, readers and writers alike, new opportunities to enjoy the varied and shorter forms of fiction so popular in the past which the current costs and logistics of hard copy publication and distribution now make unfeasible for the most part. Not entirely, mind you. It’s worth noting that Alexander McCall Smith first publishes his ‘Scotland Street’ novels as daily serials in The Scotsman newspaper. Daily? How on earth…?
That would be a challenge too far for me to contemplate but the notion of putting together a story over eight monthly episodes is an intriguing prospect. Not least because once an episode is in print (or pixels, in this case) I am committed. There will be no going back to the beginning and rewriting, as there is with a novel, until the final draft is delivered. How will that work out? At the moment, it’s an unknown quantity, especially since I’ve already found my ideas changing between my first episode’s draft outline and putting fingers to keyboard. On the other hand, I will have the chance to adapt what I have planned for subsequent instalments in response to far more immediate feedback. Dickens used to do that a lot, apparently. Will I? I honestly don’t know. For one thing that will depend on what feedback is forthcoming.