Summary of a Train Wreck: Helix Speculative Fiction Magazine’s Sordid Bigotry and Blunders


Is it worth it to submit to some place or other in the mere hopes of publication?

As the worms turned up from Helix: A Speculative Fiction Quarterly‘s recent wankery show, sometimes it is decidedly not.

Come with me as we explore a trail of

  • racism, bigotry, and rejection letters;
  • the acts of nonprofessional spewage from an editor of a Hugo-nominated semi-prozine;
  • what happens when your contract with your publisher is not well-examined;
  • and how to deal with the blatant wankery.

It All Started With a Rejection Letter

July 7th: a rejection letter from William Sanders, founder and head editor of Helix, was posted to a writer’s LiveJournal:

I’m impressed by your knowledge of the Q’uran and Islamic traditions. (Having spent a couple of years in the Middle East, I know something about these things.) You did a good job of exploring the worm-brained mentality of those people – at the end we still don’t really understand it, but then no one from the civilized world ever can – and I was pleased to see that you didn’t engage in the typical error of trying to make this evil bastard sympathetic, or give him human qualities….

… the narrator seems to be saying that it was this incident which caused him to take up the jihad, but he’s being mendacious (like all his kind, he’s incapable of honesty)…

… most of the SF magazines are very leery of publishing anything that might offend the sheet heads…

Sanders responded to the posting with a furious backpedaling claim that really, he was just talking about terrorists, not about everyone of Arab descent or anything:

Of course none of these people have read the story, and so they fail to grasp the context – that I was talking not about Muslims, or Arabs, or Oompa Loompas or any other religious or ethnic group, but about terrorists and violent extremists. (That being, after all, what your story was about.)

But I don’t feel any need to defend myself, or Helix, to these people; indeed I doubt that there’s anybody outside their little Mutual Masturbation Society who gives a damn what they think about anything at all.

Already William Sanders’, ah, classiness is starting to show through.

Note: It has all since then been BAHLEETED! but the juicy bits of Sanders’ rejection letter live on at K. Tempest Bradford’s and Tobias Buckell’s blogs.

Swells of Support for Sanders

July 7th and 8th: Some people, most notably co-editor Lawrence Watt-Evans, tried to support Sanders’ attempts at redaction.

There were even more people who claimed that the looked-down-upon act posting a rejection letter supersedes the content of it, and in Asimov’s forum at that. (For those not in the know, Asimov’s is one of the so-called Big Three of science fiction/fantasy’s genre short fiction magazines.)

The Backlash of Sanity

July 9th: Nick Mamatas, formerly one of the editors of Clarkesworld and soon to be an editor for Viz Media, LLC, tears Sanders’ claims of “only talkin’ ’bout terrorists, rilly” to shreds:

Well, just swap out “those people” and put in terrorists. Does the paragraph make sense? Of course not. For one, it transforms Sanders ’s claim of familiarity into a claim of being familiar with terrorists from his time in the Middle East. What was he doing chillin’ with terrorists in Turkey? (And which terrorists.)

Further, the idea of the “civilized world” falls apart — there are plenty of terrorsist in the US (abortion clinic bombers), Spain and the UK (separatist groups), in Greece (N17 and related Marxist-terrorists), etc. Where is the actual “civilized world” geographically if Sanders meant terrorists? Nowhere at all, clearly. Heck, had he said “no civilized person” could understand them, he might even have a centimeter of wiggle room.

July 9th and onwards: Even more professional editors and writers chime in, including:

and many, many more.

As a nice foreshadowing of future wankery to come, writer N. K. Jemisin (forthcoming book The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms from Orbit, and contributor to Strange Horizons) criticizes Sanders and gets banned from Helix.

Writers Start to Pull Stories from Helix

It’s no surprise that people should want to start disassociating themselves from Sanders and his lunacy, and as soon as possible.

An editor with a professional attitude would have allowed the writers to do so quietly, particularly since he isn’t particularly a friend of tolerance and all that and the way to react to stink is sometimes to let it fade away from memory.

But then again, this is William Sanders.

July 14th: The first three takedown requests (Yoon Ha Lee, N. K. Jemison, and Margaret Ronald) go through, but the stories are replaced with this wonderful bit:

Story deleted at author’s pantiwadulous request.

As K. Tempest Bradford notes, very classy.

Two of these placeholders have now been BAHLEETED (but not the third one), but Nick Mamatas has screencaps for posterity.

Oh, but the train wreck doesn’t stop there.

Blood Money

July 15th: To ward off even more content fleeing from his site, William Sanders starts to demand $40 for the privilege of pulling a story from the Helix archives:

I am hereby making a change to the aforestated offer. Effective as of now, any Helix contributor who wants his/her work deleted from the archives will have to pay for the privilege. Specifically, it’ll cost you forty bucks, payable to Melanie.

This and more delicious morsels preserved over at Tobias Buckell’s.

For those who think that this is sane (after all, most professional web developers charge over $100 per hour for their services), note that she only bills at $40 an hour in the first place, she wasn’t sending out bills to Helix before, and a “professional” web designer who does not know how to delete links in a second when they use DreamWeaver as their modus operandi is an absolute idiot.

Question: does Helix use DreamWeaver 6?

Answer: Oh yes it does:

<html><!-- InstanceBegin template="/Templates/HelixJul08.dwt" 
codeOutsideHTMLIsLocked="false" -->
<!-- DW6 -->
<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" 
content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1">
<!-- InstanceBeginEditable name="doctitle" -->
<title>Helix :: A Speculative Fiction Quarterly</title>
<!-- InstanceEndEditable -->

Don’t worry, the train wreck doesn’t stop here either.

Why Good Contracts Are Important

July 16th: William Sanders declares that now no one can pull their stories from Helix whatsoever:

All right, that’s it. It’s been long enough; there’s been ample opportunity
for anyone else who felt soiled by the contact with Helix to step up and speak
up and pay up.

I don’t believe there are going to be any others (the imposition of cash charges
seems to have had a distinctly damping effect) but if there are, tough shit.
You had your chance and you didn’t take it

Nasgi fucking nusdi.

If he wasn’t running scared that most of Helix would soon evaporate, why suddenly block anyone from removing their stories from the archives?

This seem unfair to you? Well, yes, it is unfair. Unfortunately, the Helix contract gives Helix a non-exclusive right to host the story in perpetuity.

You ever wonder why so many online magazines explicitly give you the right to pull your story from their archives, and make it seem so important?

Helixgate is just one reason why.

Even More Links

The Helix Speculative Fiction Magazine scandal did escape from the smaller SF community and into the wilds of teh Internets in general:

Oh, SF. Sometimes you make my head hurt.

Got to Be More Careful

There are a few morals to this tale. One obvious one is to stay professional in your business correspondence. The other is to stay professional through scads of scandal, whether really caused by your actions or not.

For writers: beware of contracts you haven’t read all the way through.

As Nick Mamatas has pointed out elsewhere, the proper thing to do is to point and laugh. Sometimes that’s the best thing you can do against wank in general, as people who visit Fandom Wank well know. Widgets

7 thoughts on “Summary of a Train Wreck: Helix Speculative Fiction Magazine’s Sordid Bigotry and Blunders

  1. Oh bloody hell. No, I hadn’t heard about it until now. I’m flabbergasted that someone could behave with such immaturity, bigotry, and idiocy. I know it happens, but it still surprises me. Ack!

    Thanks for the warning.

  2. Hi Laurie! Yes, it was (is) quite amazing.

    I myself was not aware of Sanders’ idiocies even prior to all the ones listed here; apparently he has a history of insanity, and this is merely a recent gem.

  3. The basic story here is that it’s no longer possible for even a semi-public figure to be an ass in private and not get outed and laughed at, particularly if he or she then misbehaves publicly, in a counterproductive attempt to contain the damage. It’s the inability to recognize that one has been (and probably still is) an idiot that makes such displays to entertai… I mean, uh, tragic. Yeah, that’s the word. Tragic. Look at all the hubris floating around!

  4. Hi Karen! Yup, teh Internets provide a lot of fun in that way.

    Hopefully this will stick in people’s memories. Because Helix, for whatever else it is, until its policies change, is not a safe place to submit.

Comments are closed.