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Postscripts #1, Spring 2004

(PS Publishing, £6, 170 pages, paperback quarterly magazine, published 2004.)

Review by Keith Brooke

So, here we are: according to Mike Ashley's typically detailed and entertaining look at the evolution of SF magazines (one of the few non-fiction cover scanpieces in the title under review) PS Publishing's new venture, Postcripts, is the 300th new magazine in the history of the genre. A landmark, then, but it's not this that makes it one of the more eagerly anticipated publications in a long time (in my household, at least) -- it's the outstanding reputation of the publisher in producing high quality fiction from a host of outstanding names: now that they're doing it in magazine form we should all be queuing up to see what they can achieve.

As one might expect, PS have adopted a slightly different publishing model to the norm. Less frequent (quarterly), more costly (£6 a copy) than you might normally expect for a professional genre magazine, and with more content (13 stories plus non-fiction in some 170 pages), not to mention an ISBN rather than an ISSN, might make it more of a frequent anthology series than an infrequent magazine. But that would be to quibble over detail: Ashley says it's a magazine, and that's good enough for me.

Oddly, for the first edition of a new magazine, Postcripts features a guest editorial. This could be seen as a statement of intent, a non-egotistical, business-as-usual approach from the off. A statement of understatement, if you like. Christopher Fowler's guest editorial takes the form of a rather lengthy pat on the back for those of us with the discernment to enjoy daring fiction, rather than the comfort food that consitutes so much publishing output. The piece is worth it for the conclusion, though, which I hope the author will forgive me for reproducing here: "If there is one piece of advice I would give every writer, it's that the old maxim, 'write what you know', is bullshit. Write what you feel, what you connect, what you guess, what you chance, what you dare, what you dream, what you don't know. Then see if there's someone brave enough to publish it." Maybe there was a reason for starting with a guest editorial. Maybe Postcripts does have a manifesto, after all.

One thing editor and publisher Peter Crowther is brave enough to do with this maganthology is publish good fiction, across a range of genres: crime, horror, SF, fantasy. The size of Postcripts allows room for variety, and plenty of room so that everyone will find something to thrill them, something to connect with, something to feel strongly about ... along with a few that do nothing for them.

There were several fiction highlights for me. Adam Roberts' "Roads Were Burning" does what the title says, and extrapolates this into a bad-dream-logic tale that builds to an inevitable conclusion which somehow manages to be transcendent, too -- either a gloriously extended metaphor or simply a plain, hard-to-categorise story. Ed Gorman's "Riff" is a brilliant piece about an old jazz cat on the cancer ward: punchy and evocative and line-by-line authentic. Allen Ashley's "The Overwhelm" is a brilliant parable of stress and breakdown -- one of those hard to categorise stories that could appear in almost any genre (or non-genre) magazine, but probably wouldn't. James Lovegrove's superb "Seventeen Syllables" is a wonderfully wry extrapolative tale: could life be as simple as the seventeen syllables of a haiku? Dr Matthewson determines to find out. Eric Brown's "A Choice of Eternities" is one I had already seen in an earlier draft, and it was good to see it again: one of his best Kethani stories, at last pushing the idea of aliens who abolish mortality further, giving us a post-death protagonist. In the Buddhist octagenarian Mrs Emmett, Brown gives us one of his most resonatingly vivid characters yet. I've worked closely with this author, so perhaps that undermines my critique, but I was a fan before I was a friend, and this is a beautifully-formed gem of a story. Ramsey Campbell gives us a consummately chilling and oppressive story of a stuffy, struggling teacher's encounter with technology.

Other pieces here didn't do so much for me. Some high calibre contributors on half-throttle: Brian Aldiss offering a pleasing enough little whimsy; Peter Hamilton a clever enough satire on relationships -- separated Jannette and Colin, the UK and Europe, the UK and the planet of New Suffolk -- but which relies too much on talking heads to move things along; Ray Bradbury gives us a poem inspired by his Mars stories, which I suppose would be okay for all those of you wanting to read a poem inspired by his Mars stories; Gene Wolfe provides a nicely-crafted short about mysterious happening on a captured alien ship which never really amounts to all that much... Most of these were still well worth the time to read, with only one tale that I really didn't like.

As already mentioned, there's non-fiction here, too, although not, perhaps, as much as other magazines might include. In addition to the editorial, there's an author interview with James Blaylock and the aforementioned look at the history of genre magazines. For me, it's hard for an author interview to be done badly, as such: give an author space to talk and I'll be engrossed. Having said that, it's possible for some to be better than others (it's a shame, for instance, that Postcripts' Assistant Editor Nick Gevers doesn't do as many interviews these days as he once did). John Berlyne's depth of Blaylock knowledge made this interview one of the more classy ones. It would, though, have been nice to see some fiction from Blaylock in this issue, too, with one's appetite whetted. And Mike Ashley's look at genre magazines is well-researched and entertainingly told: he knows his stuff like almost no-one else, and when he tells us to take his word that Postcripts is the 300th magazine according to his well-thought-out yardstick, we should probably just take his word for it, rather than debating his exclusions of Omni (a science mag that also featured fiction, not a fiction magazine) or Terror Tales (weird menace, apparently, not weird fiction).

One thing does let this landmark volume down, however, and while it might seem unreasonably niggling to complain about typos and inconsistencies, the standard of proofing really does fall short of what you would expect. It almost became a sport: hoping that eventually this would be the one story free of errors. But no, not one could make that claim. "Manufacturers warranty", "a extreme clarity", hyphens instead of em or en dashes (particularly distracting when there's no space around the hyphen, so it appears that two words are hyphenated), curly quotes that curl the wrong way (even in prominent positions, such as right at the start of a story intro), missing spaces, scatterings of stray hyp-hens appearing mid-line ... I gave up noting them down. It really was a shame that this fine volume didn't get just one more proof-read.

Quibbles aside, Postcripts lived up to my high expectations: an excellent magazine/anthology with some knockout stories and fine non-fiction. A debut that holds a lot of promise for the future of the 300th English language, SF, if-you-accept-Mike-Ashley's-reasoning, magazine.

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