Kaleidotrope, ed. Fred Coppersmith. Autumn 2021. Online at kaleidotrope.net or Kindle.
Reviewed by Gwen C. Katz
I know I’m not the only one asking “What’s the deal with Kaleidotrope?”
I say that with the utmost admiration. Kaleidotrope is a small penny-a-word publication; I happen to love reading penny-a-word publications, but most readers (and writers) turn up their noses at them in favor of the splashy pro mags. Yet Kaleidotrope consistently appears alongside the likes of Lightspeed and Strange Horizons in reviews, award nominations, and best-of collections—virtually always the only subpro magazine on the list. Luminaries like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Genevieve Valentine, who could presumably place a story anywhere, still sell their stories to Kaleidotrope for a couple of tenners. What makes it so special?
Kaleidotrope’s website provides few clues. The homepage presents the current issue without preamble or even an About page. Kaleidotrope is a solo project by the inimitable Fred Coppersmith, who reads every submission himself without slush readers, and it hasn’t missed an issue 15 years—and zine years are like dog years. But surely it can’t just be longevity behind Kaleidotrope’s success. Let’s dive into the fall issue for the answer (but mostly for great sci-fi and fantasy).
The stories are a varied bunch, tied together primarily by common themes of death, loss, and remaking, but it doesn’t end up feeling excessively dark, largely because the worlds are so wildly inventive and unusual. We launch right in with “The Antithesis of Virtue” by Aimee Ogden (better known as one of the editors of Translunar Travelers Lounge), a visceral and hallucinatory-feeling exploration of order versus chaos. The closing story, Robert Jeschonek’s “And Miles To Go After I Sleep,” is another creative second-world story; the deliberately rather childish-feeling worldbuilding is all in service of a surprising conclusion.
Between these two bookends we find a lot of solid material. There are a couple of thought-provoking flash pieces, “The Beck Conjecture” by David Barber and “Somewhens” by Mari Ness, both of which deal with mind-bending questions of time and continuity. Another two pieces explore history-inspired themes, which are, of course, one of my favorite things. Timothy Mudie’s “A Heavy Hand, A Heavy Yoke” is a deft and tightly-written exploration of slavery, freedom, and agency. “The Promise of Iron” by Benjamin C. Kinney (better known as one of the editors of Escape Pod… seriously, how does Fred get these people?), set in a steampunky WWI Budapest, pleased me both as a YA piece and as a Jewish story, something I still see much too rarely in SFF. At the opposite of the spectrum, H.L. Fullerton’s banshee story “Courtnée Luvs Rock Stars” feels startlingly fresh and immediate. The only story I didn’t go for was Tarver Nova’s rather Victorian dying-child story, “Sentinel Crows.”
Would I ever have predicted that some of my favorite contributions to this anthology would be the poetry? (Yes, I know I’ve said that I don’t review poetry. Shut up, you. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, etc, etc.) Not that there’s anything wrong with other speculative poetry—I’m just a lousy judge of it. But the short gems in this issue of Kaleidotrope utterly charmed me. I loved the image of a girl collecting lost moments in Jessica Cho’s “Pocket Change” and the mixture of homey and galactic-scale imagery in “Cosmic Cooking” by Gretchen Tessmer. And I’m a little bit wistful that I don’t have a cat as loyal as the one in “Nine Lives” by Brittany Hause, which expands the story of Puss in Boots into a reincarnation epic. The gentle and positive overall tone of the poetry provides a good balance to the darker tone of the prose.
So what is the deal with Kaleidotrope? As to how it initially attained such a reputation, I still have no idea. But it’s certainly well-deserved. The fiction and poetry can go toe-to-toe with anything you’ll find in the pro mags, and there’s a sense of experimentation and risk-taking here that you don’t find in the bigger magazines (you can imagine a lot of editors not bothering to read past “Craw Cancellakra”). Whatever Fred’s secret is, I hope he keeps it up for another 15 years.