Thursday, November 30, 2023

The Never-ending FAQ • our plans for 2024

Apparently I was less than clear in yesterday’s status update post. Stupefying Stories is *not* ceasing publication. Rather, we’re taking a step back and a little time off, to reevaluate our business model and change the way we go to market.

I still love genre fiction. I’m still proud of (most of) what we’ve published. I still like (most of) the people I’ve come to know through my years of running Stupefying Stories, and before that The Friday Challenge, and before that being on the SFWA Board of Directors, and before that et cetera, etc., etc., etc., etc.…

But Stupefying Stories, as a publication that aspires to be a monthly general-interest SF/F magazine, can’t go on. We are just plain losing too much money on it. I didn’t worry about this when I was a project manager pulling down a six-figure salary and could afford to consider it my eccentric and expensive hobby. 

[For the record, the real point of origin of Stupefying Stories was when I found a Jaguar E-type with a blown engine in a junk yard in northern Wisconsin, and Karen put her foot down and said I could either start a new science fiction magazine or buy and restore yet another refugee from a vintage British sports car museum, but I couldn’t do both.]

But now that I am retired, living on a fixed income, and watching my investment portfolio sublimate into thin air in the current economy (but that’s a topic for another time), I just plain can’t afford to keep Stupefying Stories going in this form. So now it’s time for us to step back, think, discuss, restructure, and find a new way to bring great short fiction to the market—preferably without shoveling bales of cash into the furnace this time. 

Yesterday I fished up a salient quote from that old Strange Horizons interview. After re-reading the entire interview for the first time in years, I have a better quote for today. Geez, that guy Lynne Jamneck interviewed for that piece was clever and observant. 

Maybe, with a little time to breathe, I can be that guy again.

LJ: Will electronic publishing have a negative or positive influence on the publishing industry?

BB: This is a case where “positive” and “negative” really are a matter of your point of view. For the delivery truck driver who makes his living hauling magazines around to newsstands, it’s bad. He’s going to have to find something else to do. For the writer who’d be willing to sell his mother for transplant parts in order to get published, it’s good. As I said earlier, there is a lot more material being published now than ever before, and thanks to the Internet, you can reach readers you’ve never reached before, literally all over the world. I mean, consider us; here’s a guy in Minnesota doing an interview with a writer in New Zealand, for publication—where?

As far as professional writers are concerned, the big problem is that the old business model for the publishing industry is dying and electronic publishing won't be “just like it, only electronic.” We’re probably moving to some model where author payments are based on actual unit sales, and the days of publishers giving out big advances based on the hope that the author’s latest book might break out of the midlist are probably over. Positive? Negative? It’s change, is what it is, and the emotional quality of that change depends on how you deal with it. [~brb: emphasis added]

As for what this new business model might look like: kindly remember that the original novel is a fairly recent development and the paperback original even more so. Dickens, for example, sold most of his work as newspaper serials, and people subscribed so that they could read the next chapter. The future of fiction authorship may look very much like the past. 

Ad astra per alta cacas,
Bruce Bethke
Editor / Publisher
Stupefying Stories | Rampant Loon Press

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

The Never-ending FAQ • assessing 2023


We always knew that November 2023 was going to be a difficult month. 

The last three years of Karen’s life were challenging. The last three months, horrific. The last three weeks, heartbreaking. The last three days… I don’t have the words. This coming Saturday it will have been one year to the day. Somehow I will get through it, but I don’t know how, just yet. I suspect it will involve my making a giant batch of mostaccioli and totally blowing my carbohydrate budget for December. 

I had thought that by throwing myself into work I could build up the momentum to plow through October and November without stopping. Stupefying Stories 26 was too ambitious, though; too big, too exhausting. By the time I’d recovered from getting that behemoth finished and out the door, other things in my life were starting to hit the fan, some of which you already know about and others of which are none of your business. Being forced to take a longer than planned time-out, then, I began to ask questions. Two of the biggest of were:

What exactly am trying to prove here?

What is the point of Stupefying Stories, anyway?

I could answer those questions by quoting our mission statement. I wrote it, after all. But instead, I keep hearing echoes of these other words of mine, from an interview I did with Strange Horizons back in 2005.

LJ: Are you seeing any interesting avenues in which the genre finds itself expanding?

BB: I think it’s a mistake to talk about “the genre” as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we’ve been going through for at least the last 30 years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with “the genre” fragmenting into dozens of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.

The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it’s now at least semi-practical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there’s more fiction being published than ever before.

The downside for the writer, though, is that there’s no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they’ve always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov’s and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you’d read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.

But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it’s both fascinating and disturbing. When the reader can exercise such fine control over the input he receives, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?

Eighteen years later, the answer seems clear. You can’t. The algorithms have triumphed. Amazon über alles. Not only is Amazon making sure their customers only see ads for stuff just exactly like other stuff they’ve already bought and liked, they’re making sure none of those damned Mississippi centaurs are sneaking in the back door and surprising anyone. The literary omnivore, the “general interest” SF/F reader, while not extinct in the wild quite yet, definitely should be on the endangered species list. There aren’t many left. Maybe we should start a captive breeding program. God knows most of them need all the help they can get in that department.


I chose the above collage of covers to illustrate a crucial point. Stupefying Stories 20, with the cover story “Zombie Like Me” by Clancy Weeks, was the last issue we did that moved a thousand copies. Stupefying Stories 21, with the cover story “D.E.W. Line” by K. H. Vaughn, was the last one we did that broke even. Ever since then the trend has been accelerating steadily downward, with the result being that Stupefying Stories 26—our biggest, most recent, most ambitious, and most expensive project in years—turned out to be a Disney Plus-level flop. While we’ve put out some real turkeys over the years, SS#26 is our worst-selling title ever. For what we spent on producing SS#26, I could have given every person who actually bought a copy of it a $50 bill and come out money ahead.

We could talk about the why of this for weeks to come. We could discuss all the couldas, wouldas, and shouldas until we talk ourselves hoarse. None of that matters now. The point is, this is where we are. The window for Stupefying Stories, at least as a monthly general interest magazine, has passed us by. Four years ago we still had a fighting chance. While we were busy dealing with other issues, though, the publishing ecosystem continued to evolve, and one need not have a 12th-level intellect to see that this new world in which we now find ourselves is one in which we cannot thrive. Everyone and their cat has a publishing company and an SF/F/H magazine now. There are too many writers and underfunded small-press publishers fighting tooth and claw for attention and chasing after ever fewer readers. If you want to know what this world looks like from my perspective, read The Mote in God’s Eye, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

When we launched Stupefying Stories, it was with the idea that we would use the attention people wanted to pay to me, because of what I did back in the 1980s and ‘90s, to get them to pay attention to newer and younger writers who are writing now. The irony of it is that no one seems to want to listen to me talk about anything new now; they just want me to go on and on and on about what I was doing forty years ago. If you think it’s boring listening to your grandfather talk, imagine being him, and having people be interested only in your stories about The Old Days. 

Then again, perhaps I am dead, and stuck in some circle of the Inferno that Dante Alighieri failed to mention.


This is not the end of Rampant Loon Press. Our original novels are doing well, in general. It’s just that in the past year, only Stupefying Stories 25 has managed to crack into our in-house Top Ten bestsellers list. This truth is not the market whispering subtle guidance to us. It’s the market screaming through a bullhorn, “SPEND YOUR TIME AND MONEY ELSEWHERE!”

Consequently, Stupefying Stories must change.

We’re still going ahead with issues #27 and #28. We’re too far along to pull the plug on them now. I had thought about consolidating them into one volume, probably to be titled something like Bruce Bethke Presents The Big Fat Book of Cyberpunk, but Penguin Random House beat me to the punch with this book, which landed on my front porch with a loud thud the other morning. 

Look at it from the SF consumer’s POV. Why take the risk of spending money on new stories by new writers who you probably don’t know when you could drop $32.50 on this one and get a thousand pages of old stories by famous writers? Seems like a slam-dunk to me. If I was a customer, I know which one I’d buy.


The future of Stupefying Stories, then, looks something like this. Issues #27 and #28—formerly the cyberpunk-themed issue—will be our last numbered and dated issues. (Unless I change my mind and consolidate them into a single book. That may yet happen.)

Beginning with what would have been #29—a.k.a., “Clankalog”—we’re going to tightly focused “theme” anthologies, on approximately a quarterly basis. We haven’t settled on the themes we’ll be looking at for books to be released in 2024, but one thing seems obvious: no more horror. The market has been quite clear on that point. We can’t do horror, at least not in a form the horror-buying public finds desirable.

SHOWCASE will continue, albeit in scaled-back form. The response to our many calls for support has been gratifying, and we sincerely thank you for your donations and support, but we’re still not bringing in enough each month to cover the cost of publishing new SHOWCASE stories daily. Therefore we’re going to scale back the publication schedule for now, although we reserve the right to increase it at a later date, if we can afford to do so.

There are more changes coming, but these are the biggest ones. Any questions?

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke
Editor / Publisher
Stupefying Stories | Rampant Loon Press

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Creating Alien Aliens: Does How Aliens SENSE Their World REALLY Make Them Alien: A Thought Experiment With SOUND…

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction.

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

All right…I want to start doing some experimenting with creating aliens based on the information in Dr. Robert Freitas, Jr’s book, XENOLOGY (link below). So, first the facts/observations and concept: 

“For instance, water striders…Much like the kinesthetic sensors in human bodies which provide continuous positional and velocity data for each limb (called Proprioception), water striders can detect the slightest disturbance traveling across the surface of the water…one species conducts its entire courtship display using complex patterns of modulated surface waves…”

“[some] spiders are known to use surface wave communication by] strumming the webs they weave in specific rhythms and patterns…between mother and offspring…Desert scorpions can also detect compressional and surface waves in sand to locate prey…”

“…the universe inhabited by such creatures [using] two-dimensional waves [would create a world of] ‘persistence messages’. 3-D acoustical waves pass an observer…one time, never to return again…oscillations in 2-D media die away only very slowly from frictional forces. The entire surface space is set in motion by such stimuli, and damping is often very weak. The media continues to ‘wave’ for a long time after[wards]…[it would sound like] they were in an echo chamber. Words would have a peculiar drawn out quality, persisting long after they have been spoken. And since the higher frequencies always travel faster than the lower ones, each repetition of the echo will sound distinctly different. The word will stretch itself thin, the higher pitched treble notes bunching together at the beginning of the sound and the progressively lower bass tones trailing behind.’”

BTW: this concept has already been PERFECTLY explored in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s, winner of the Arthur Clarke Award in 2016 and nominated for a similar award in France and Germany, CHILDREN OF TIME details a millennia-long Human mission to seed Humanity on another world gone horribly wrong that creates a civilization of intelligent “spiders”. If you haven’t done so, read it for a fascinating story – and an explanation of this form of communication.

I’ll play around with this in my own way: say I’m a First Contact specialist, and there is an obviously sapient civilization on a world that is made up. The atmosphere is going to have to be exceptionally dense, so I’m going to postulate that the world is, while NOT a water world, has an atmosphere that Humans would describe as incredibly HUMID. “If the relative humidity is 100 percent (i.e., dewpoint temperature and actual air temperature are the same), this does NOT necessarily mean that precipitation will occur. It simply means that the maximum amount of moisture is in the air at the particular temperature the air is at.”

I’m going to add a denser atmosphere on this world as well. How do my aliens sense vibrational waves in this dense, wet atmosphere? I’m going to give them long bristles – maybe rigid, protective spines surrounded by a “bush” of delicate, sensitive fibers. Do I have to have them be spiders or other creepy-crawly things? Nah, I’m going to make them a bit like large echidna…spiny anteaters. Not small enough to “step on”; large enough to both hold a complex brain somewhere in their bodies…let’s say in the CENTER of the body mass, well-protected by bone, and equidistant from the surface of “spines and bushes” – plus I’m going to raise them off the ground by giving them four longish motivation limbs, jointed so that movement in any direction is easy. They’ll have a “manipulation limb” between each “leg” – so four legs, four arms, a brain in the center…

They’ll need something to see with…above each arm, an eye, roughly equivalent to a Human eye…nah, how about more like a land snail’s eyes (and nose – they typically have two tentacles with eyes, two tentacles below them that “smell”. So the body is ringed with eight eyes and eight “noses”…

I’m also going to give them fur, though not as boring as Human fur. About half of the fur is a sort of extension of the sensory “bush” and can change color somewhat as well as compress and extend. It’s shorter than the spines, the bush, and the eye and snorf-stalks.

OK, there I am on the Home World of the Echidnates – which is what they’ll end up being called in the Human-Alien Contact records for all time…

How do I talk to them? How do I even approach them?

Approach is easy – they see and smell all around them (BTW, I’m excluding predators and disease at this point to keep the thought experiment easier…) They’ll see me as slightly taller than they are; though very weirdly…spindly and incredibly balanced on two legs – they’re smart enough to be able to recognize Human legs as a version of their own legs. Eyes same thing – smart ones will look at us, see the big knob on top and make a serious connection that OUR sensory organs seem to be clustered on a single tentacle – the legs and arms, while two of each seems to be courting a life of constant falling over, are at least recognizable.

Now for sound. I’m going to give the Echidnate Home World an atmosphere that is, while uncomfortably humid for us, breathable, though the O2 level is higher and the CO2 level is lower. There are some nasty fungi and other microorganisms in the air, though it appears that they can’t gain much foothold in Humans. However, the world around us is less…rigid than our own world.

Trees seem to be limited to Ginko-type plants, maybe palms, lots of hardwood. In fact, from what we can see, there’s not much in the way of “wood stuff” around. Structures appear to be stone, though the main construction material appears to be a sort of “land-based” coral. We don’t seem much in the way of metal tools; though stone, the coral, and other “nonmetals” appear to be used as Humans would use metal. We DO know that they have radio communication minimally, but it seems that LASERS are predominant…

I lift up my hand, and I speak a version of a language we’ve picked up from several of their laser coms. My target Echidnate stops and turns so that two pairs of eyes and noses are aimed at me. One leg forward, the other three back, forming a stable-looking tripod. Two side-arms swing forward, and the third, forward arm hangs, slightly coiled straight at me. “We come in peace,” I say, hoping that we’ve parsed out the words correctly. The landing of our own spacecraft was never hindered by the spacecraft we discovered exploring their star system.

The spines-and-bushes on the Echidnate’s back vibrate and my host opens a thin-lipped mouth above the eye and scent stalks and speaks. The sounds are surprisingly high-pitched, more child-like than what I expected. Suddenly understanding that the higher-pitched sounds will facilitate speedier communication than my lower-pitched male voice, I gesture and one of the women on the First Contact team who steps up and repeats our message of greeting…I also wonder if they have four mouths as well. I make a mental note to talk with our xenobiologist – what and how they eat will be another interesting aspect of these new sapient beings.

We recall that, somewhat like Humans, the Echidnate sense their world in a more-or-less single dimension. We also notice that the one we’re trying to contact stands in front of a curved wall of solidly-grown coral colored bright blue. I can hear the fain echo of our voices, as if the Echidnate is standing at the focal point of a parabola…

OK – there you go. Using the information I had and extrapolated, I now have a totally new alien; one I’d never imagined…

Next Time: ACOUSTICAL SENSES: Three Dimensional


Saturday, November 11, 2023

Armistice Day 2023

One hundred and five years ago today, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, and the “war to end all wars” came to an official close.

That wasn’t exactly what really happened, of course. On the Eastern Front, the Great War segued into the Russian Revolution, followed by the Polish-Soviet War, and then the Russian Civil War. On the Greco-Turkish front the fighting continued until 1922, and in a very real sense what is happening in Gaza today—and in the streets of London right now—is lingering fallout from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then.

But back to 1918. If you read German sources, you’ll find the German military leadership at the time considered the 11/11/18 Armistice to be merely an opportunity to fall back, rest, reorganize, re-equip, and get ready for the next chapter in the never-ending war between the Franks and the Saxons, which with rare exceptions has been going on since the time of Charlemagne. 

Never mind that now. Let us accept for the moment that on November 11, 1918, “the war to end all wars” officially came to an end. The older I get, the more poignant this anniversary becomes to me, while at the same time the more horribly sardonic H. G. Wells’ 1914 propaganda phrase—yes, H. G. Wells, not Woodrow Wilson, coined the expression, “the war to end war”—becomes as well.

The Great War was my grandparent’s war. As I sit at my desk and write this, if I were to look up, I’d see some of the medals my great-uncle won as an infantryman fighting in the mud of the trenches. Charles Everett came back from his war, but according to my mother, he was never the same again.

The Great War, Part 2, was my parent’s war. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing soldiers who landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific, and flew and fought in heavy bombers over Germany. To this day I remain in awe of what they did in those terrible days. My father was U.S. Navy, but like Robert Heinlein, he was sidelined by a medical condition and never saw combat. My father-in-law was a Marine Corps Pacific Theater combat vet; he never talked about what he saw or did. My wife’s Uncle Leon died in the Battle of the Bulge, and for sixty years his family didn’t know where he was buried, until a family friend on assignment to NATO headquarters in Brussels happened to find his name on a headstone in the Ardennes American Cemetery.

To me, though, the face of WWII will always be that of my childhood best friend’s father, Ben. He was a Navy landing craft crewman attached to a Marine division, and his service record reads like a list of the Hellholes of the Pacific. On those few occasions when he talked about his time in the Navy—usually after quite a few drinks—all he could talk about were all the friends he’d left behind, face-down in the sand on some faraway beach. He came back from the war, but never really came back, and before he turned 50 succeeded in committing suicide by drinking hard liquor and chain-smoking Camel straights.

My teachers’ war was in Korea. I’ve had the privilege of knowing men who landed at Inchon or fought at Chosin Reservoir. My generation’s war was in Viet Nam, but through the grace of God and a high draft lottery number, I missed it. Far too many of my friends and relatives got the invitation to the party, though, and some came back in boxes. Some never came back at all, we only know approximately where their aircraft went down. Some came back damaged, either physically or psychologically, while others came back just fine. Two of my best friends seemed to have come back just fine, only to explode in cancer years later, likely as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. 

I have had the honor of knowing, and sometimes even hiring, young soldiers who have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan. All the same, I fear that in years to come, we’ll learn that GAU-8 ammunition exposure was every bit as bad as Agent Orange.

In all these years, though, and after all these wars, I have learned that one thing is universally true. Anyone who is eager to talk about his or her time in the service—anyone who talks about the glory of war—anyone who insists that young people (and preferably someone else’s young people) should be proud to have the opportunity fight and die for their country—

Was probably a REMF.

Those I have known who were in the shit—in Normandy, or in the Pacific, or at Inchon, or as a door-gunner on a Huey flying over Quang Tri, or acting as a bullet magnet in Helmland Province—what they always talk about are the friends they left behind. 

So here we are, on Armistice Day. Once again I will pray for peace, but I fear that war is baked into our genome. I am not concerned for myself, or even for my children—they seem to be doing okay—but I think of the world in which my grandchildren will live, and try not to shudder. We Americans have been really lucky, these past forty years. No run of good luck lasts forever. 

Thus when the sun sets tonight, I’ll take down my American flag, carefully fold it and put it away, open a bottle of wine, and raise a glass in a toast: to those who never came home

May there be no more.

Monday, November 6, 2023

The Never-ending FAQ • tearing up our Q4 2023 schedule

This was always going to be a difficult month. 

The events of a year ago are still very much with me, very much on my mind, I’d just made a choice to stop talking about them in public. If you’ve been following Stupefying Stories for a while you know what I’m talking about. If you’re a newcomer, you’ll find the gist of the story here and the conclusion here. I’d unpublished these posts because I’d gotten tired of seeing them in the “Most Popular Posts” widget in the right column. I expect I’ll unpublish them again in about a week, but for today, I’ve made them visible again.

I had thought that if I threw myself into work and built up momentum with issues 24, 25, and 26, I’d be able to plow through October and November with barely a hitch. Doing 26 as a double-issue was, in hindsight, a mistake. By the time it was finally out the door I needed a few days’ break from work, to rest and recuperate, so I took those days off.

And then the terrorist attack on October 7th happened…

I had been doing a lot of spelunking through my old archives recently. With issue 27 in the works and the 40th anniversary of “Cyberpunk” coming up, I was getting interview requests and invitations to speak and the like and wanted to refresh my memory as to just exactly what was in my mind when I came up with the idea, 43 years ago. One thing that stood out in my notes, and that I’ve spoken about only rarely, was that cyberpunk in part began as a strong and cynical negative reaction. In the late 1970s, a lot of very authoritative people were going on and on about what a wonderful future lay ahead of us, once the whole world was wired and we had the free flow of information to and from everybody everywhere. It would usher in a new age of peace and understanding, they said, as we all got to see how much we were alike and how much we all shared. 

No, I’d decided then, that wasn’t how it was going to play out. Instead, I wrote, “In the future, anyone with a television camera, an AK-47, and a willingness to commit atrocities can be a player on the world stage.”

I hate it when my most dark, cynical, and misanthropic ideas turn out to be not dark, cynical, and misanthropic enough.  


October thus turned into a washout. The whole idea of filling the month with “fun” horror stories on SHOWCASE seemed to be—well, in questionable taste, to say the least. There were stories I had scheduled that I elected to delay or defer, at least until I wasn’t getting my daily dose of horror from watching the evening news. As for work on issue #27—well, I’m back to work on it now, but my usual sense of humor and optimism took some serious hits in these past four weeks, so I’m behind schedule.

Ergo, here’s where we stand, as of today.

STUPEFYING STORIES 27 • The 40th Anniversary of Cyberpunk issue is in progress. I’m hoping to have it ready to release by the 15th but will be happy if it’s out by the 20th.

STUPEFYING STORIES 28 • This was originally planned to be “Clankalog,” but we received so many outstanding stories for #27 we decided to do two back-to-back cyberpunk-themed issues instead. This one is also currently in progress, and I’m hoping to have this one ready to release on December 1st. I’m also hoping that spreading the release out to be what is essentially #27, Volume 1 and Volume 2, won’t be quite as exhausting as just plain doing a double-issue.

STUPEFYING STORIES 29 • This is “Clankalog,” the hard sci-fi issue, previously planned as SS#28 and scheduled for December 1st and now planned as SS#29 and scheduled for a January 1st release. If all goes according to plan—yeah, right, like that ever happens—we should have it buttoned-up by mid-December. 

We’d better have it done by then. Because at that time—here’s your last-paragraph bombshell—I’ll be going in for eye surgery and will be unable to work on anything that requires being able to read for a period of one to two months.

Nil desperandum,
Bruce Bethke