History That Never Was

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An Interview with Djibril al-Ayad of The Future Fire

I’ve been fortunate enough to have two of my stories published by the fine folks at The Future Fire. “Salt in Our Veins” appeared in their Fae Visions of the Mediterranean anthology, and “I Believe” appeared recently in the magazine itself. They’ve recently published their 50th issue, which they celebrated by accepting longer stories and long poems! I’m happy today to host an interview with General Editor Djibril al-Ayad!

Where does the name The Future Fire come from?

This is going back a long way—I think we registered the domain futurefire.net in 2003—so I honestly don’t remember exactly what we were thinking. But if I may reconstruct a feasible story, and pretend it’s perfectly true, it was probably a combination of a couple of things. Firstly we thought of ourselves as a cyberpunk venue, so our inspirations included titles like Burning Chrome, so the imagery of flames with “future” for the SF theme was already there. At the same time, we were thinking about environmental and ecological fiction already, so the idea of a future where “the world is on fire,” either as a metaphor for global heating or a reference to political turmoil and conflagration, was also one we hoped to evoke. And in general words like fire, flame, holocaust, apocalypsis, and inferno, all ring loud in the imagery of horror, of fear, of religious imagery and passion. So while we never really sat down and decided that the name meant any one thing, it was an expression that sounded true to us—and most importantly, wasn’t already the title of a sci-fi magazine or novel.

What has been your most challenging moment editing TFF?

There are several different ways to answer this question, but I’m going to choose the one that has a positive outcome—the challenging time that led to our taking an eighteen-month hiatus from publishing the magazine. In mid-2010, a range of different factors had led all of my then co-editors into either retiring from or at least taking a back seat on TFF, and I wasn’t sure if I could—or wanted to—carry on doing this alone. As I’ve explained elsewhere, editing and working in SF is for me a very social activity, and without that social interaction there would be no joy in it. This could have been the end … although obviously it wasn’t (29 more issues have come out since then)! Ultimately, this hiatus gave us time not only to recharge the batteries and bring some new collaborators onto the editorial team, but also to come up with new strategies for the future. We put out a call for guest editors, which led to the publication of the Outlaw Bodies and We See a Different Frontier anthologies, and was how we met our long-time friends and collaborators Lori and Fabio. We invited 26 different authors, editors, and critics to join us in writing a “speculative alphabet,” with blog posts on themes such as Alternative History, Borgesian, and Cyberpunk, which also helped potential authors to understand better what we meant by “social-political and progressive” in our tagline. Once we relaunched with issue 22 in February 2012, with a rejuvenated and enlarged editorial team, we were bigger, better, more diverse, and more successful than ever before. What started as a serious challenge turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.

If you could collaborate on a zine or book with any editor, alive or dead, who would it be?

I have a hundred different thoughts about this, but at the moment I’m obsessed with the idea that I once mentioned to Vonda N. McIntyre on Twitter, but didn’t have the courage to actually follow up on, of an anthology of SF stories “edited by” her character J.D. Sauvage from the Starfarers series. I’m thinking in particular of one scene from the end of the first Starfarers book, where the ship receives a signal from an alien source, and several characters try to guess what message it will contain: the mathematician thinks it will encode prime numbers, the biologist DNA sequences, etc. “It won’t be any of those things,” J.D. said. “I don’t know what it will be, but it will be something different.” Something Different could almost be the title of this anthology, signaling that any aliens in the science fiction therein would be truly different and unexpected, not only in intellect and biology, but in social and political organization as well. I think Vonda would also have been an amazing person to work with, so dynamic, so generous, so brilliant. I’m afraid this anthology is never going to happen, though, because I couldn’t do it without her (or at least her blessing), and sadly, she died earlier this year.

What is the first SFF novel that you remember reading and enjoying?

When I was way too young to really understand her writing, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s City of Illusions and for years remembered only that it was deeply sinister and intense. (Probably fair!) More recently I reread it in the context of Rocannon’s World and Planet of Exile, and was blown away by how elegantly it tied up those stories, and surprised by how little of it I remembered from the earlier reading (probably 30 years earlier). Although I don’t find the novel as overwhelming as child-me did, I still find the representation of the Shing colonists to be a deeply sinister element, and the struggle with their mind-lies to be intense to the point of existential panic, which is a wonderful piece of writing.

How is reading for a themed issue or anthology, such as the novelette-length Jubilee issue, different from regular slushreading?

In the case of TFF #50, for which we selected novelette-length stories (above 7,500 words) and long poems, the process wasn’t especially different from our usual slushreading process. We had put out word that we were looking for longer pieces than usual, which led to an increase in 10,000+ word stories (which has barely abated, by the way), but other than that, we read all stories as they came in and in the usual way: pieces the first reader loved were looked at by a couple more for second opinions, etc. Then we divided stories in our accepted pile by length, and the longer ones went into the jubilee issue. (Some readers have detected an editorial hand in crafting the issue by theme or content, but truth is that was either serendipity, or just the theme of the kind of stories we love …)

For the anthologies, however, we read very differently: stories submitted for a pro- or even semipro-paying anthology cannot just be dropped into an issue of the (token-paying) magazine if we love them but they don’t quite fit the theme or other requirements. Plus for an anthology, the readers will be different, and we tend to make a short-list of the stories that both/all totally adored, and then select from those for both fit and coverage, diversity or variety. It can lead to a more satisfactory final table of contents, and of course needs to be coherent and carefully planned for publication and marketing as well.

Into which animal would you like to be able to morph?

I’ve long had a soft spot for being a gecko, especially when it comes to escaping, to passing unnoticed when you need to learn something, or even to just hanging around. But I would much prefer to have the ability to morph a part at a time, at choice, so I could get just the tongue, or just the tail, or—best of all, of course—just the super adhesive finger pads so I could climb sheer glass. And ideally, I’d keep my own eyelids always, because I’ve never fancied licking my eyeballs clean.

Thanks for stopping by, Djibril!

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