Every Monday, I'll be doing spoiler-free, bite-sized book/magazine reviews.
M-Brane SF is honestly one of the many publications that I haven't heard of and was reticent to review, mainly because I didn't know what to expect. Would I be reading through a pile of crappy stories? Or is this a magazine, as unlikely as it may sound, be a trove of undiscovered wonders? It didn't help that the roster was full of authors I haven't heard of.
First, let me discuss the overall presentation of the magazine. It follows a simple two-column layout that's quite functional and gets the job done. Since it's laid out like an actual magazine, there's some page-jumping involved and there's even one instance where it was counter-intuitive. It also has an amateurish-feel as some stories have inappropriate indents, lacking a paragraph break, or the layout artist experimenting with all sorts of fonts when it comes to quoted text. Nothing that makes it unreadable but it happens often enough to give you pause. (As someone who's attempted to layout his own magazine, I've made more mistakes than M-Brane SF, but unfortunately it still needs to be mentioned for the sake of readers.)
When it comes to the nonfiction sections, M-Brane SF is pretty informal (editor Christopher Fletcher even admits not knowing how to insert links into PDFs), not that it's a bad thing, but rather conjures a certain fanzine atmosphere. Noteworthy is Fletcher's discourse on Joe Haldeman's The Forever War and homosexuality, a topic that didn't cross my mind when I originally read the novel but Fletcher makes a compelling argument and at the very least shares it from his perspective and experiences.
Now we come to the most significant part of the magazine: the fiction. Is it crap? Is it good? Should we be even spending all our time reading this magazine? Here's the deal: a good chunk of the stories are competent, which is to say they're not bad but they're not too striking either. There are some that caught my eye but had some flaws. "Good News for the Dead" by Lou Antonelli for example has an inappropriate line and there's a word that I felt was unnecessarily underlined but otherwise decent and readable. "Time Noir" by Ivan Ivkovich was a fun romp although there were numerous times where I felt the author was cribbing his Japanese dialogue from anime. "Sleepless Sleep" by Bob Brill was off to a good start but I feel he overextended himself as the narrative needs to be trimmed down a bit. There's also some flash fiction thrown into the mix and I just wished that "See Saw" by Catherine J. Gardner was longer. (Take that with a grain of salt though as I'm not the biggest fan of flash fiction.)
For all my criticisms though, this issue of M-Brain SF has a couple of stories that really stand out and remind you why you love reading short fiction. The best story, hands down, is "The Barking Death Squirrels" by Douglas A. Van Belle. Most of the narrative is propelled by dialogue and this is his biggest asset. Through dialogue, the two stand-out characters rise to the fore as their personalities clash and their individuality shines. Even amidst the threat that pops up later in the story, it's still the banter between the characters that is the hallmark of this piece. Complex characters and a compelling narrative: what's not to like? If there's one story that makes this issue worth it, it's this one.
"Tripsy" by Garrett Calcaterra is this hi-tech espionage story that's fun and exciting. There's no other pretensions here and Calcaterra weaves an interesting plot and description of his protagonist's escapades. Another story which has a darker tone to it is "The Sufferance" by Richard Howard. The author's description presses the right buttons and conjures a sense of horror. It's anchored by the sympathetic character, without which the narrative would have fallen flat.
M-Brane SF is clearly a product that's still rough but as far as story selection goes, it's "good enough" along with some precious gems here and there. I'm vouching for Van Belle's fiction though and this is a story that musn't be missed and it's only fitting that nearly one-third of the magazine is devoted to this piece.