Neil Clarke (neil-clarke.com) is the editor of the Hugo and World Fantasy Award-winning Clarkesworld Magazine and several anthologies, including the Best Science Fiction of the Year series. He has been a finalist for the Hugo Award for Best Editor (Short Form) seven times, won the Chesley Award for Best Art Director three times, and received the Solstice Award from SFWA in 2019. He currently lives in NJ with his wife and two sons.
Additionally, Neil edits Forever—a digital-only, reprint science fiction magazine he launched in 2015—and The SFWA Bulletin—a non-fiction periodical published by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His anthologies include: Upgraded, Galactic Empires, Touchable Unreality, More Human than Human, The Final Frontier, Not One of Us, and the Best Science Fiction of the Year series. His latest anthology, The Eagle has Landed, was published in July.
G42: As an editor, you’ve built up one of the best and most well-known scifi magazines on the planet; I won’t ask you your secrets in achieving that, but I will ask you about the opposite position, that of the reader. When you first reach a new genre magazine, what does it need to have in order to grab your attention? And what in order to make you come back to the next issue?
NC: I’ve always cared more about the stories than anything else in a magazine or anthology. I’ll skip the editorials, non-fiction, art, and anything else they’ve decided to feature and go straight to the stories. I’m always looking for something new and different and when I find something that entertains, you’ve got me. That is not to say the other things aren’t important though. For example, I’ve seen good stories absolutely butchered by bad design or a lack of editing and/or proofreading.
G42: We keep hearing short fiction is less the scifi queen it used to be, and there must be some truth in it, since many magazines did not survive; but we also keep hearing the younger generations have an ever-shorter attention span. Those two statements seem to contradict each other, so there must be a communication or technological gap somewhere. Where could it be? How do you think we could (and should) bridge it?
NC: I’m not sure I agree with that statement, at least not here. When we launched Clarkesworld thirteen years ago, short fiction was certainly on the decline, but online and digital publishing—as well as podcasting—turned that around. It brought in a whole new generation of readers and spawned many publications. It even turned around some of the declining subscription numbers at some of the more senior publications. I also believe that short fiction is the testing ground for new styles, ideas, and many new writers. It can be a good indicator of trends you’ll see at the novel length a few years down the line. You could say that short fiction leads the field, even if it doesn’t in total readers.
As for shorter attention spans, I’ll point out that many of the best-selling genre novels cannot be described as anything remotely close to short. If your attention span is short, it doesn’t mean you can’t finish something, but it might mean it takes you longer. I think the bigger problem for written fiction is that it has so much to compete against these days… that’s a compounding problem that started some time ago. (TV, movies, video games, Internet, etc)
G42: Scifi has always tended to be a genre of diversity and inclusiveness, and your magazine worked hard and made big strides in promoting those goals. Was it worth it, except in the literary added value? Was there ever a moment in real life you felt “oh, this is great, this is what we’ve been striving for?”
NC: It’s nice to think that, but the history of science fiction is littered with women who had to use male pseudonyms to be published and a lot less diversity on the whole. I’ve been reading some magazines from the 60’s that noted that we had very little in the way of international works, particularly translations, and that it was a problem we’d have to fix or risk becoming the most provincial science fiction audience on the planet. (A prediction that panned out.)
Great stories can come from anyone and anywhere, so intentionally limiting ourselves to just those never occurred to me. To be fair, it never occurs to most of my colleagues as well, but we are living with the consequences of decades of perceived tradition. When there aren’t a lot of people like you being published, it’s easy to assume you aren’t welcome. In fact, the most common question I receive from authors outside the US is “Do you publish foreign authors?” I’m very pleased by the strides we’ve made on that front since our launch. Yes, I think it’s great, but I also see how much work there is left to do. Speaking of which…
G42: And talking about diversity, I’ve discovered in your magazine very good authors from places like India, South America, Africa, Korea, even China. Yet there is a “black hole” in Western scifi media, one that covers more than a quarter of the globe: scifi from the former Soviet Union and its (former) Communist satellites. Why could it be? Don’t they (we) try hard enough, are they too frozen in the past, is the world still angry with the “bad Red guys”? How do you see it, from the other side of the former Iron Curtain?
NC: I can’t read Russian, so I can’t speak authoritatively about that community’s literature as a whole. I can say that over the years, we’ve received several translations from that region and they’ve all had a more vintage SF feel to them than I tend to prefer. Even if that turns out to be the dominant writing style there, it’s unlikely that it’s the only one. We’ll keep looking and if we find something that works for us, you’ll see it in our pages regardless of the politics. That’s never something that has stopped us. (By the way, we’ve worked with several artists and at least one author from that region, just not in translation.)