Article: It Came From the Slush Pile

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, on my way home from the editorial offices of F&SF, I stumbled across a lovely brass lamp in a mysterious shop. I bought it for a song, only to come home and discover it had a nasty blemish.

Starting to sound familiar yet? Or do you need some more?

I took out a rag and some polish and tried shining it up. Much to my surprise, a genie sprung from the lamp and offered me three wishes. Fed up after a long day of slushing, I blurted out, without thinking, “I wish I never had to listen to another slush writer complain about fast rejections! I wish that I never had to explain the “code” of my rejection letter! And I wish that I never had to see another poorly formatted manuscript ever again!” The genie said “Your wish is my command,” and struck me deaf, dumb, and blind.

Does it sound familiar now? Wait, here’s the kicker:

At just that moment I woke up and realized it was all a dream.

Groaning yet?

If you think that’s bad, you should see the slush pile some time. Cliches are the bane of slush readers and editors. They’re more likely to drive us out of the business than the poor wages, the long hours, or the incessant paper cuts.

Sure, the above example was exaggerated for effect, but that same kind of “reinvention” of genre clichés appears over and over in the slush. You might be asking yourself “What reinvention?” But that’s exactly the point.

Aside from genie-of-the-lamp stories, deal-with-the-devil stories are probably the most oft-“reinvented” cliché. Sadly, though this plot offers a great deal of promise for character development, no matter how good, most stories in this vein simply can’t overcome the fact that they are deal-with-the-devil stories. And there’s a special place in hell reserved for people who keep writing them.

But this special issue of Subterranean is focused specifically on science fiction clichés, so we won’t be seeing any clever reinvention of those tropes. So let’s talk about SF.

Two of the hoariest of all science fiction clichés revolve around twist endings. For example, stories in which (a) the alien planet being described by the protagonist turns out to be…Earth; and (b) the two people that crash land on the alien planet turn out to be…Adam and Eve. Cliched endings are what make us editors want to hurl the manuscript across the room, and/or run it through the shredder (or perhaps set it on fire). Assuming you’ve actually written a story that’s good enough to get us to the ending, for us to have wasted our time reading it only to find out it concludes with a cliché twist ending…it’s, as I said, a burn-worthy offense.

Robots turning against their creators is another popular theme, if only because without that conflict there’s not much story there. If the robots all behave, what fun is that? Sometimes I think that the writers themselves are robots—evil machines created by the vast conspiracy that’s out to get me (and other editors), monotonously typing out cliché after cliché.

Some clichés are harder to reinvent than others. The aforementioned Adam and Eve, and the planet-turning-out-to-be-Earth clichés are really tough, as is this one: going back in time to kill Hitler (varieties on this theme include going back in time to save Kennedy or Lincoln). This one’s become so difficult that most often writers will simply explore this theme through alternate history, since that’s what they wanted to play with in the first place—it’s not the time travel part that gets people to write these stories, it’s the great changes that could occur from one little tweak in the historical record. This cliché is so hoary that when the most recent incarnation of The Twilight Zone aired a temporal-kill-Hitler tale in one of their early episodes, it immediately jumped the shark for me (not that it was really any good to begin with, but at least before that they were trying to tell stories that were new).

The popularity of a certain theme can move it into cliché territory. For instance, lately, the slush pile has been inundated with memory wipe stories, probably courtesy of the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Likewise, The Matrix trilogy spawned its legions of virtual reality imitators (which itself was imitating work done more than twenty years ago in prose form), and all the recent zombie movies of late seem to have, ahem, given life to a flood of undead stories.

The mocking of clichés at this point has also become a cliche, so much so that editor Scalzi forbade such stories from being submitted for this issue. Mocking clichés can still work, but it requires a bit more work than most new writers are willing to put into it.

I guess the question editors and slush readers alike eventually come to ask themselves is: why? With all the breadth and scope of science fiction and fantasy, why would writers spend time writing yet another genie story, when they could be out inventing something totally new?

A lot of clueless newbies probably just don’t know any better, and they think the little tweak they gave the cliché transformed it into something new and wonderful. And since a lot of newbs get all or most of their SFnal knowledge from movies and TV, they really have no idea that the stories they’re writing have been done a million times already.

However, established pros—who know better—often cannot resist the lure of the cliché reinvention story either, and I think this is for the same reason that Mr. Scalzi wanted to focus this issue on this subject: Because everyone says you’re not supposed to.

Pros (and some novices too, I imagine) take that sort of thing as a challenge, which is all fine and good, but how receptive would you be to Yet Another Genie Story after reading several dozen (or hundred, or thousand) stories like “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind”?

But having said all that, despite all the negatives these kind of stories have going against them, every once and a while, someone manages to write a good one. So now that I’ve thoroughly bashed cliché-based stories, let me point you to some recent examples of good ones.

  • “The Five Cigars of Abu Ali” by Eric Schaller (genie of the lamp)
  • “Non-Disclosure Agreement” by Scott Westerfeld (deal-with-the-devil)
  • “The Revivalist” by Albert Cowdrey (Rip Van Winkle)
  • “Refried Clichés: A Five-Course Meal” by Mike Shultz (mocking clichés)
  • “Undone” by James Patrick Kelly (Adam & Eve)
  • “Born-Again” by K.D. Wentworth (Jesus clones)
  • “Suicide Coast” by M. John Harrison (virtual reality)

Those are just a few that came readily to mind; there are others out there if you really look. And aside from these gems, I’m sure this issue is full of ’em.

But. I’m guessing many stories submitted for publication in this issue will have been rejected. There’s only so much room, after all, and I’m sure Mr. Scalzi has impeccable taste (he did invite me to write an article, didn’t he?). Which means those cast-offs will be coming soon to a slush pile near me.

Nooooooooooooooooooo! Oh god, let this all have been a terrible, terrible dream!

[This article originally appeared in Subterranean Magazine, guest-edited by John Scalzi]