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July/August 2020
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Editorial - July/August 2020
by Charles Coleman Finlay

As I write these words near the end of April, we've been informed that many links along the supply chain from our printer to our distributor have been slowed or shuttered as a result of the global pandemic. Which means that the May/June issue will be running—or, by the time you read this, will have run—slightly late.

But you're reading this column! That's good news, because it means you're holding the July/August issue in your hands even though there's a chance that it ran slightly behind schedule as well. We thank you for your patience and understanding in dealing with these inconveniences. In the context of all the other problems people have faced this year, we hope this feels like a small one, and that the stories in these past few issues have provided you with a welcome distraction and perhaps a temporary escape to some strange and wonderful new places.

It seems odd to me to describe speculative stories as "escapism" because surely we are living in science-fictional times. Genre fiction feels less like a portal to other worlds and more like a mirror held up to our own. Recently I was talking to our children, who are in their twenties, just out of college and getting started with their lives, and I commented that as a parent I never wanted them to have to live through something like the 1918 pandemic or the Great Depression but now here we are, living through both at the same time.

While there are pressures to reopen businesses and get the country back to work, at the moment I write this most of the world is staying at home to slow the spread of COVID-19. There are early signs that it's been an effective strategy even though there are three million confirmed cases worldwide and over 200,000 deaths. Both of those numbers will be woefully—I choose that adverb deliberately—out of date by the time I send this to the typesetter, much less by the time you read it. It will be interesting to look back from the far future in early July, and contemplate how much has changed in just two or so months. We can only hope it will be for the better.

Come July, I am scheduled, along with my wife Rae Carson, to teach at the Cascade Writers Workshop in Washington, one of the states hit earliest by this novel coronavirus. It appears increasingly likely that workshop will be rescheduled. But if I teach there, one of the things I will talk to writers about is the principle of unintended consequences.

John Locke, one of the most influential thinkers of the Enlightenment, introduced the concept of unintended consequences to explain the side effects of regulating interest rates, but since then the idea has been extended across economics into sociology and even popular use. These days we understand the phrase to mean that any intervention or sudden change in a complex system creates unanticipated outcomes.

When it comes to the coronavirus, we are already surrounded by those outcomes. As hundreds of millions of people around the world stay home from work and curtail our other usual activities, nature has been quick to react. In just the first few weeks, animals have moved in to occupy our former public spaces—we've seen coyotes fighting at the Presidio and wandering the neighborhoods of San Francisco, bears walking the suburban streets of Los Angeles, alligators strolling empty shopping centers in Myrtle Beach, wild goats cavorting through yards and gardens of Llandudno in Wales, and fish taking leisurely swims through the suddenly quiet canals of Venice. Some of these images call to mind the opening scene from the 2007 film I Am Legend, based on Richard Matheson's classic novel of the same name, where a herd of deer are running through the streets of an abandoned Manhattan after a global pandemic.

Other, less easily imagined changes happened just as quickly. There are measureable decreases in air pollution around the world—Los Angeles and Delhi are smog free, with the best air quality they've had in decades, giving us a glimpse of what cities could be like if we switched just a third of our car traffic to electric vehicles. Greenhouse gasses have dropped more than thirty percent in China, and early estimates predict a four percent decrease overall in carbon emissions for 2020, which will be a historic decline. With fewer trains, planes, and automobiles in motion, our cities are thirty to fifty percent more quiet, measured in decibels. Suddenly, the birds have the loudest voices in our urban areas again. Even the surface of the Earth is rumbling less because of the decrease in rail and road traffic: Without as much interference, scientists report that seismographs are more sensitive, picking up data that couldn't have been recorded two months ago.

The unintended consequences also spill over to human behavior. Stay-at-home orders have accelerated the use of technology in education, entertainment, and a dozen other industries, giving us a glimpse of both the possibilities and problems of wider use. Other changes are less obviously extrapolated and include moments of beauty and grace. Early on during the lockdown, we all saw the videos of Italians coming out on their balconies at sunset to sing to one another, and all around the world from New York to the U.K., from Buenos Aires to Istanbul to Tamil Nadu, people have leaned from their windows or stepped out front doors to cheer for healthcare workers on their way to work. Things like this draw us together, perhaps only momentarily, even as we stay apart.

It's harder to discern if there will be lasting effects from other changes. COVID-19 has caused criminals to adapt their behavior, and that's apart from the profiteers who promoted quack cures or hoarded hand sanitizer hoping to make huge profits. In El Salvador, criminal gangs have been using violence and threats of violence, the same methods they employ to extort protection money, to enforce social distancing measures and reduce the spread of the virus in San Salvador and other crowded cities. In Mexico, people connected to the Sinaloa cartel have distributed care packages of food and toilet paper stenciled with the image of the drug lord El Chapo, and other cartels have initiated similar relief efforts. In parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban is enforcing strict quarantines on anyone with symptoms, and they've been using black market PPE and testing kits to help track and fight the spread of the disease.

It's one thing to think about these unintended consequences in isolation as they pop up in news feeds, but it's another to take these changes—with all the others that haven't been mentioned here or perhaps even noticed yet—and consider them cumulatively. The best speculative literature, whether it's fantasy or science fiction, has a habit of thinking aslant, of taking an idea that alters our world in one way or another, and playing out the intended effects side-by-side with the unanticipated outcomes. Sometimes the most compelling stories happen on the margins of an idea rather than right in the middle of it, not just because it makes for great narrative but because it also more accurately reflects our own lives. It's one thing to talk about this concept with writers in a workshop setting, but another thing entirely to live through it as it happens.

Most fiction has a long lead time, from premise to prose to print, and the experiences we go through in this moment may not show up in the stories we read until months or even years from now. Here at the magazine, we saw a rush of pandemic stories in the submission queue during the first weeks of the stay-at-home orders, many of them with very similar ideas played out in mostly linear arcs. I like to tell writers that if their imagined worlds aren't at least as weird and unexpected as the one we live in, they may need to push it further. While we've already bought the stories that will appear in the magazine for the rest of this year, I'm looking forward to being surprised by the new stories that come in as writers have more time to process this experience and to apply these lessons to everything they write.

One of the unintended consequences of the effort to control the coronavirus has been the closing of bookstores along with many other businesses. We've had an electronic edition for decades, and many of you now read us in that format. But as a print magazine, we rely on bookstores and newsstands to help us reach new readers, and a significant portion of our print sales, a quarter or more every issue, occur through these venues. That revenue stream has been dried up for months, which means we depend on our subscribers now more than ever. If that includes you, please know that we're grateful for your support. Every new subscriber, gift subscription, and renewal that has come in since the bookstores closed means the world to us.

We also understand that almost everyone has been struggling these past few months. Whether you've been reading us for decades, are a new subscriber, or have just picked up this particular issue on an impulse or recommendation, we appreciate that you've chosen to spend your time and money here. All of us at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction hope that you and your loved ones are doing well, and that you'll weather this storm and all its unanticipated outcomes. Be careful out there.


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