Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is a busy man. The 33-year-old spends his days working as a software engineer for IBM. Upon returning to his Durham apartment, he spends the evening with his wife, Kendra, and their two young children. Then he retreats to a spare room to work on Bull Spec, the quarterly magazine he edits, designs and publishes with the help of a few friends.
Bull Spec celebrates its first birthday with the release of its fourth number on Jan. 12, with a launch party at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham. But chances are good you've never heard of it, perhaps because of its evasive purview. It represents a world where music can raise the dead, humans have colonized space and time travel is possible—and that's all just in the first issue.
Bull Spec features short fiction, essays, interviews, reviews, comics and even poetry, all of a fantastical bent. There's nothing quite like it in the Triangle—or even, by Montgomery-Blinn's reckoning, in the whole country. Many similar underground publications focus exclusively on one microgenre, honoring their roots in the specialized pulp magazines of the early 20th century. But Bull Spec encompasses them all under the modern rubric "speculative fiction," a catchall term for sci-fi, horror, epic fantasy, superheroes, sword-and-sorcery and alternate history.
The term, abbreviated as "spec-fic," finds a common thread in the diverse interests that comprise the tapestry of "fandom," as the culture is internally defined. Montgomery-Blinn identifies this commonality as a resistance to historical or modern veracity. "There has to be something fantastic," he explains, "either magic- or technology-based." Spec-fic also strives to escape the baggage of easily stereotyped genre fiction.
Upon its coining, spec-fic immediately began trying to gobble up works from history as well as recent ones. It includes unabashed pulp fiction, pulp fiction with delusions of grandeur and mainstream fiction whose themes resonate with fandom. It closely abuts magical realism, and can make a bid for literary works from David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Nicholson Baker's The Fermata to Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake.
"We would definitely claim Borges for our own," says Montgomery-Blinn—though Borges, were he alive today, might be less willing to reciprocate. Spec-fic occupies an ambiguous space between genre fiction and general fiction—between "low" and "high" culture—and can get lost between bookstore sections.
"I'm glad you're using scare quotes around 'low' and 'high,'" Montgomery-Blinn said. "For me, speculative fiction is about carving out that middle ground."
He says the term was originated by Robert Heinlein "to distinguish himself from the old pulpy science fiction," and that unilateral aspiration toward upward mobility can still be inferred in the culture. But Montgomery-Blinn is not among the spec-fic proponents burdened with culture envy—his interest is in making it broader, not more elite.
"Some people use the term explicitly to mean more literary sci-fi and fantasy," he says. "Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was one of those crossover hits that broke the genre demarcation that says, 'Don't go in here, serious readers.' While I'm publishing stuff that is more literary than the pulpier magazines would, I'm not looking for that next crossover smash—only good stories."
Montgomery-Blinn seems an unlikely avatar for fandom, breaking most of its stereotypes. A family man and a professional, he's affable and warm, with fully functioning social graces. He worked as a sports reporter for city papers in Indiana, where he grew up on a farm, enjoying fantasy by Tolkien, sci-fi by Heinlein and playing Dungeons & Dragons with his father, siblings and cousins. He did two years of pre-med at Purdue, but switched to computer science after he got into writing text and code for the online text-based fantasy worlds called MUDs. He's a far cry from the Slurpee-sucking Comic Book Guy of The Simpsons, fandom's enduring straw man.
In college, Montgomery-Blinn had written lots of "straight literary" stories and poems in creative writing workshops. Once his kids got a little older, he found time to read and write again. In early 2009, he began to attend local author events and was delighted to discover a secret community of kindred spirits in the Triangle.
"I really didn't know much about fandom," he says. "I'd never even heard of Filk music."
He decided to start a website to publish four spec-fic stories per year. Blogging a call for submissions, he received more than 200—evidence of demand—and his one-story website became a 60-plus page magazine, printed in runs of 400 copies per issue. It's distributed on consignment at local comic shops and indie bookstores, as well as the few Barnes & Nobles that are empowered to work locally. Beyond the Triangle, it can be found in far-flung spots like Oakland and Portland.
Montgomery-Blinn started delving into local spec-fic and discovered a wealth of nationally renowned talent.
"There's David Drake in Pittsboro," he says, "up-and-comer Natania Barron, and John Kessel in Raleigh," all of whom have been featured in Bull Spec. The magazine publishes a healthy selection of local authors alongside national ones, including big gets like Katherine Sparrow and Lavie Tidhar. It pays a fee for published submissions. The fourth issue will feature a story by Nick Mamatas, who's received nods for most of spec-fic's major awards, while the fifth features Tim Pratt, a North Carolina expatriate whose work has appeared in both Asimov's Science Fiction and Best American Short Stories.
Eclecticism is Bull Spec's strength—you never know what you'll find on the next page. But some stories in the first two issues come off as immature, relying on thin, belabored premises at the expense of characterization and plotting. The magazine hit its stride with its third issue. It grew critical teeth with a substantive and balanced review of David Drake's latest book. There were robust features on area appearances by William Gibson and Brandon Sanderson. And there were high-quality stories, like Melinda Thielbar's social-media-gone-wild fantasia "You're Almost Here," which fully embraces the uncharted potential of spec-fic with imaginative brio.
"I took more chances with the third issue," Montgomery-Blinn acknowledges. "The fourth is going to have some stories that really push the envelope. Its feature story is by Andy Magowan, who founded the Piedmont and is now starting a new restaurant in Durham. It's about dealing with pedophilia in the future. I'll catch a lot of flak for it. But it's not an attempt to sell via controversy—for me, the story earns the right to this theme because it's good enough."
With the remarkable volume of submissions it's received and the high-profile authors it has landed, Bull Spec is starting to look like more than a hobby. Still, for its publisher, it's chiefly about community broadening.
"Durham's David Halperin has a novel coming out called Journal of a UFO Investigator," he says by way of example, "that's being marketed by Viking as general fiction. I'm trying to get people who wouldn't read a non-genre book to read it, while trying to get people who read it from a mainstream perspective to realize that maybe there's something worthwhile along the same lines that's just a notch more speculative." For those curious mainstream readers, Bull Spec is a great place to start.