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The story of infinity plus

a feature by Keith Brooke


In early 1998 I wrote two articles for Interzone: a guide to sf on the internet, and the following piece, a history of infinity plus (first published as '').

For this version of the article I've made one or two modifications to bring it up to date. If there's a moral to the story it is: 'Be wary of bright ideas -- they tend to take over your life...'

KB, January 1999.

The story of infinity plus

I run infinity plus, a science fiction and fantasy showcase on the World Wide Web. It features the work of over sixty professional authors, including some of my favourite writers. It takes up a large proportion of my time, and has won praise from the likes of Ellen Datlow and Rodger Turner, webmaster of the Asimov's and Analog websites.

As Algis Budrys says of 'net publishing: "No matter how you plan, it'll find a way to work out differently. And more than once."

He speaks the truth: it was never meant to be like this.

In my day job I look after the University of Essex website. Up until the summer of 1998 I was a multimedia designer, developing interactive learning materials for schools and colleges. Increasingly, I found that I was using the internet in my work -- at first for research and to find photographers to contribute to projects, and later both as a promotional tool (the website for The Science of Environmental Issues CD-ROM is one example) and as a delivery medium in its own right.

Back in the spring of 1997 I decided to set up my own home page. But I didn't want to do just another midlist author's home page: if I was going to do it, I wanted to do something just a little different.

It occurred to me that it might be interesting if there was more than a single contributor. One weekend last summer I went up to Haworth to visit Eric Brown. Rather tentatively, I asked him what he thought about putting one or two stories on the internet.

His enthusiastic response set me thinking. Taking Eric as an example, there must be quite a few authors out there who would like to promote their work on the 'net but simply don't have the skills to do so. The idea of republishing favourite stories in the hope of finding new readers appealed to us both -- as Eric puts it: "It's nice to know that there's an intelligent repository out there for stories which have been and gone in magazine form."

Back at home, I put together an invitation, setting out the aims of the site: "Science fiction and fantasy still share a (relatively) thriving short fiction market, but what happens to the stories once they've been published? Sure, some of them get picked up for reprints or translations, but a lot of excellent work becomes hard to get hold of a very short time after it first appears. I want to make some of these stories available again." And I came up with a name: infinity plus: the sf & fantasy archive.

I sent the invitation out to a few friends. The response was positive. I started to realise that this thing was going to be rather bigger than I'd expected. I'd wanted to do something just a little different. I just hadn't realised how different.

By the time I launched infinity plus at the end of August 1997, the list of contributors exceeded twenty names, including Stephen Baxter, Ian McDonald, Ian MacLeod and Molly Brown.

There's an awful lot of junk on the 'net and, as Ellen Datlow comments, "Right now, it's hard to separate the good from the bad sites. Everyone and every company has a website, most of them just boring advertisements with no feel for the web at all." To distinguish infinity plus from the crowd, I took a deliberately elitist approach: infinity plus wasn't open to submissions, it was by invitation only and I only invited professionally published authors. (This also had practical benefits: I have a full-time job, I write, I have a young family -- I simply don't have the time to deal with a slush pile.) Once the site was established, I took the opportunity to introduce newer writers, but I still don't have the resources to handle unsolicited submissions. Maybe one day...

By this stage, the site's contributors weren't only those who lacked the technical knowledge to set up their own home pages: it soon emerged that even those with home pages were attracted to the idea of taking part in a collective venture like infinity plus. Like sex, you can do it alone, but it's far more fun with other people (although perhaps it's a bit excessive when the number reaches double figures...).

Although Molly Brown already has a successful home page of her own, she was attracted to the idea of a group home page, with its implication of people pulling together for a common purpose. "It appealed to the old hippie in me," she told me. "I'd much rather have my stories appear in company with others, especially among the kind of people you've managed to pull together on infinity plus."

Although infinity plus started out as a predominantly British site, I wanted it to become as cosmopolitan as possible. One day I came across the home page of James Patrick Kelly, a writer I've always admired. Right at the start, he says, "In general I enjoy the writing life a lot, but I do have one complaint. Sometimes it seems as though the stuff I write has the shelf life of lettuce! A story appears in a magazine and a month or so later it winds up in a corner of some basement -- or the landfill. Even books come and go with alarming speed. That's why I wanted a home page: so I can get some of my stuff out of the filing cabinet and back under the eyes of readers." I contacted him, saying that this was exactly the reason I'd launched infinity plus.

He responded as enthusiastically as everyone else had: "I guess I was attracted to infinity plus because I believe in the concept of a reprint science fiction web 'zine and I had yet to see it carried off as well as you had done. The fact that you had already attracted several people whose work I admired was also a plus. From a purely economic point of view I see my story as a kind of advertisement for myself and IP seems like a good place to showcase it. I could just put the story up on my own site, but then it would only find an audience of people who were interested in Jim Kelly. Putting it on IP helps me reach the wider audience of people who are interested in quality short stories."

Soon I started to get approaches from prospective contributors. Jeff VanderMeer read about infinity plus in Locus. Like most of us, he prefers to be published in conventional print markets, but he wanted his work to appear in infinity plus for reasons similar to Jim Kelly's: "I visited the site because it sounded intriguing. I liked the layout and design very much, but the reason I wanted my work to appear there was because you had work from writers I very much admire ... since you were willing to take reprints, I saw a chance for one of my better stories, unfortunately obscure, to get more exposure in a quality setting."

Kit Reed, celebrating her 40th year in the business, came across infinity plus when she was searching for SF sites she could link to from her new home page. "I liked the layout and the association [her webmaster is based in the UK] ... I thought, what could be cooler?" As well as contributing a story to infinity plus, Kit mentioned the site to some of her friends, and soon Terry Bisson was in touch with me, asking to join in the fun.

The core of the site is the fiction: "The beauty of infinity plus is that unlike an anthology it's a constantly growing and expanding entity," says Eric Brown. "You might pull a landmark anthology from the shelves now and again, but with infinity plus you can go back to it again and again and it will never be the same."

Eric also makes the point that there's far more to the site than just the fiction -- again, a development I hadn't quite anticipated when I started out. There's a growing archive of reviews (some of which have been adapted for use in Foundation, reversing the general principle of print first, then 'net) -- many of these are far longer than those you would find in most magazines. There's also a range of essays, including pieces by David Langford, David Garnett, Vonda McIntyre and Ken MacLeod.

In December 1997 I received an e-mail from David Mathew, a new writer whose reviews and interviews have appeared in Interzone, The Literary Review and a number of writing magazines.

New to the world of the internet, one of the first things Dave did when he got on-line was to investigate two adverts he'd seen in Interzone: Geoff Ryman's 253 and infinity plus. Dave now writes reviews for infinity plus, and I've republished a number of his interviews (with David Pringle, Phil Rickman and Kim Newman, among others).

He had two main reasons for offering his services, both of which are common to most of the site's contributors. One was simply that he liked the site and was keen to support "a new venture that carries the torch for the genres in the way that infinity plus does."

The other reason is more down to earth: "Although I've been publishing professionally since I returned to England from Poland in February 1996, I only went full-time on October 6, 1997. I quit a job that paid okay (but which I hated) to do a job that pays very poorly (but which I love). I figured then and I still believe now that the only way I will ever make any proper money from my writing is by sheer bull-headed hard work; by doing as much as I possibly can. By spreading the word that I was around, and by trying to get my name known a little bit. I saw your site as a possible avenue to do just that." A number of people have been in touch with Dave since his work started to appear on the site, so his approach seems to have paid off.

People have ended up at infinity plus in a number of ways: through adverts or mentions in Interzone, Locus and Matrix; through links from other sites; as a result of searching the 'net for genre sites; through blatant self-publicity on my part...

The semi-chaotic nature of the 'net is one of its attractions: you can stumble across all kinds of sites quite by accident. Prospective readers can end up at a web-site for any number of reasons.

Since setting up her Invitation to a Funeral website, Molly Brown has received a lot of junk e-mail addressed to her as webmaster of an "adult site". A look at the visitor statistics reveals why: "I've had someone who was searching for 'whippings' get sent by Alta Vista to my page on Bridewell. A search for 'Spanish' and 'bitch' brought some poor soul to my page on Whitehall Palace, and so on. Then there were a huge number of referrals from the search engines after Diana died, because of all the people searching for details of either St James's Palace, and/or 'funeral'."

One thing I've noticed with infinity plus is that there are significantly more readers during the week, despite UK 'phone calls (and hence Internet use) being cheaper at the weekend. There must be an awful lot of people who surf the 'net from work.

(And how do I know this? I keep an eye on things from work, of course...)

infinity plus is all free, and I have no idea how long it'll continue to grow. There must be a finite limit to the amount of material professional authors are willing to give away in the hope of attracting new readers. Yet, well over a year after I started, interest is continuing to grow.

One of the reasons the project has struck a chord with so many authors is one of the basic frustrations of the writing life: we write these stories and novels out of a need to communicate with people, yet the publishing process means that a lot of our work -- particularly short fiction -- becomes unavailable almost as soon as it's been published. The 'net makes it possible to breathe some life back into our favourite creations, a chance to show off our favourite work.

As I said at the start, it was never meant to be like this. But I'm rather pleased that it is.

© Keith Brooke 1998, 1999.

This article was first published as '' in Interzone 133, July 1998, and has been adapted slightly for republication here.

(My thanks to Eric Brown, Molly Brown, Ellen Datlow, James Patrick Kelly, David Mathew, Kit Reed and Jeff VanderMeer for their help in preparing this article.)

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