Magazine Review: Hub #1

It’s a brave move to launch a print magazine devoted to short genre fiction in a climate where everyone seems to be trumpeting the decline of the scene, and that is exactly what the producers of Hub magazine have decided to do – a paying market for both fiction and non-fiction, in glossy (if small-format) magazine quality (as opposed to small-press chapbook). I’ll leave the debate as to whether they can last the course without trimming back on writer’s fees or magazine quality for those who know the industry better than I, and report from the reader’s perspective.

As mentioned above, the first thing to strike the reader is the glossy paper and colour printing that runs throughout the magazine’s 80 pages. It’s not unheard of – Interzone now comes out in full colour, but they have the advantage of a long international reputation and a decent subscriber base. This format allows a level of layout design that most fiction mags cannot aspire to, and the Hub team have revelled in that freedom – sometimes to the detriment of actual readability, especially in some of the fiction pages.

But this is a first issue from a new team of producers, and it is only to be expected that they will need to find their feet. Ambition is certainly preferable to its opposite, but it is to be hoped that a magazine that uses the tagline “it’s all about the story” will let the fiction speak for itself as time goes by – especially on the front cover, which here focusses on the non-fiction articles and only mentions the stories in passing.

***

So, to the stories. Again, it must be borne in mind that as a new launch from unknown producers, they probably didn’t have a huge pile of great work ready to choose from, which to some extent excuses the patchy quality here. The quality seems to strengthen toward the end of the magazine, and it may have made more sense to put some of the better pieces nearer the front to avoid the initial sense of disillusionment that came with reading from front to back.

*

First up is Bubba Pritchert and the Space Aliens by Bud Webster, which is a naked pitch for the spoof seats. The titular Bubba witnesses a pair of aliens park up their out-of-action flying saucer in a local parking lot, and offers his mechanic skills to get them back on the road. After introducing the two occupants to the joys of beer and cable, he calls for the assistance of a computer technician buddy from the same UFOlogy club. The pair of them fix the ship with the assistance of the ship’s sentient computer, and somehow get given clean-fusion technology as a parting gift.

The premise, hokey as it is, could have gone somewhere with a different focus. Regrettably Webster’s writing is light on ideas and heavy on dialogue – that dialogue being couched in cheery sit-com Deep South good-ol’-boy banter doesn’t help at all. There’s little suspense or excitement; all the potential routes out of such a knowingly clichéd and comedic storyline are left untrodden. This is the sort of story that non-genre readers assume sf anthologies are full of; thankfully, they are incorrect.

*

James Targett follows with Old Gods. As the title suggests, this is a short stab at the ‘ancient gods, not yet dead’ meme that Gaiman and his imitators have made very popular. Credit where it’s due, Targett doesn’t beat the reader around the head with the theme. The POV jumps around a bit at first, but settles down eventually as we follow the misadventures of student barman Andy, who puts his foot in his mouth in front of a trio of slumming deities and has to pay the piper. But the story suffers from being unsure of whether it’s in a comic or horrific mode, robbing it of any real tension. The final result is also marred by a major typographical screw-up that replaces one column of text with another that appears earlier in the story. A brave attempt at a bold idea, but Targett has a bit of polishing to do before he can pull off a tale of this type.

*

Alasdair Stuart‘s short-short Connected is a spooky riff on the ubiquity of mobile phones. I’m no authority on horror or thriller fiction, so it’s hard for me to assess the effectiveness of the piece, but there’s a neat little twist at the end that I didn’t see coming.

*

James Cooper continues the spooky vibes with A Frailty of Moths, which is a mildly surrealist dream-scape horror tale. His use of language underscores the weird situation the lead character finds himself in, capturing that bewildered quasi-logic that one experiences in dreams when one has realised one is dreaming. He tries a little too hard to reach for poetic prose from time to time, but that may be more a reflection of my personal taste than any genuine failing on Cooper’s part. More mysterious than horrific, all in all, but that seems to be the writer’s intent.

*

Angel Paper by Ellen Phillips is a very squeaky-clean little story; a single mum and her child catch an angel, by dipping ribbons in honey in imitation of the somewhat more noxious fly-paper, and then set it free. And that’s it. The writing is fine enough, if the subject matter is a little twee. But the reader is left thinking, “yes, and?” – Angel Paper is more a vignette, sketch or preface to something else, and doesn’t really go anywhere on its own. Maybe Phillips will expand it into something more satisfying in future.

*

Liam Rands’ Holiday is the type of short-short that this reader particularly enjoys, the gradually-revealed-setting story. Wry humour and a new twist on an old nasty premise, sure to raise a grin from all but the most cynical of consumers.

*

James S. Dorr supplies the first piece of ‘proper’ sf in the magazine so far, The Frog Pond. A space-fleet rescue pilot lands on a swamp planet to bail out a ‘claim team’, who have come to assess the planet for colonisation. As the misadventures of the team and their fast-and-loose interpretations of the colony assessment rules become apparent, the pilot’s long-held disillusionment with his work reaches a climactic peak. The writing is rather dry and slightly too direct for the atmosphere Dorr is trying to evoke, but it’s the first story in the mag with a really mature theme – a slightly longer piece could have had more emotional impact, but the retrospective strand in the narrative that looks back into the pilot’s childhood is a strong idea that raises Dorr’s tale above the pack.

*

Adam’s Lawyer is a team effort from Martin Owton and Gaie Sebold, and as far as professional writing tone is concerned it’s probably the pick of the bunch. This is a present-day sf tale that the Mundane movement would approve of, handling the social and ethical issues of cloning in a contemporary setting without resorting to bells and whistles or dark dystopia. The narrative is clean, the point of view expertly maintained in the third person, and the characterisation is by far the most convincing and true to life in the whole issue. Very refreshing.

*

John B. Rosenman’s Santa and Mr. Worm pretty much sums up why this reader gets very little enjoyment from most mainstream horror writing – which means, one must assume, that it successfully pushes the buttons that the genre aims for. A man who was raped as a child by a wino in a Santa outfit has grown up to become a paid kidnap-torture-and-murder professional. In the course of his latest assignment, the flensing-alive of a successful cosmetics mogul on behalf of a business rival, he encounters something that shocks his hard twisted heart into surprise, disgust and terror. And disgust is the word; a deeply unpleasant story that will no doubt fulfil the type of reader who seeks such things. It is written from a rather pompous and wordy first person perspective, but this actually serves well in the characterisation of the lead. A strong story, albeit one not to this reader’s tastes.

*

Wanting to Want by Eugie Foster is a gritty urban fantasy about Bitty, a midget junkie prostitute in some nameless US city. The theme is the classic ‘everything has a price, but sometimes the price is too high’ idea – Bitty encounters ‘The Magicman’, who offers her a route out of her addict lifestyle at the cost of her entire identity. It’s an unflinching piece of writing, and takes the brave course of avoiding any happily-ever-after frippery with the ending, but it takes a while to get going. While the descriptions of Bitty’s rough life on the streets is well-written and very believable, Wanting to Want might have been stronger as a shorter piece. That having been said, Foster’s warts-and-all handling of the scenery is well crafted, and this is a very contemporary piece of work which closes the magazine well.

***

So, after a weak start the fiction selection turned out very reasonable, if a little slanted toward horror for this reader’s personal tastes. The one continual gripe all through the magazine is typos – there are rather too many of these, thankfully no more the size of that in Old Gods, but still pretty frequent. Hopefully schedules will allow for closer proof-reading in future issues, as well as a little restraint with the layouts and graphics.

Hub are embracing the idea of online content as both a hook for new readers and a supplement for subscribers – most of the non-fiction pieces are available on the website in expanded form, and they plan to do much of their reviewing there as well. It will be interesting to watch the magazine mature over the next few issues, and I sincerely hope the producers can make it a lasting proposition. Another native British market for short fiction would be a welcome addition.

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