Sci-fi-focused Uncanny Magazine takes up residence in Urbana

Sci-fi-focused Uncanny Magazine takes up residence in Urbana

URBANA — An award-winning online science-fiction magazine read by people all over the world has made the move to Urbana.

University of Illinois graduate Lynne M. Thomas is now a top librarian at the UI, but most of the literary world knows her as a five-time winner of the Hugo, the World Science Fiction Society's top award.

Her husband, Michael Damian Thomas, a Parkland College graduate, is a stay-at-home dad who cares for their daughter, Caitlin, who has a rare congenital disorder called Aicardi syndrome. When Michael isn't working as an advocate for children with disabilities, he has also managed to become a two-time Hugo Award winner.

In 2014, the married couple launched their own online periodical, Uncanny Magazine, out of their home in DeKalb, with both of them serving as co-publishers and co-editors in chief.

"Michael has been a lifelong fan of science fiction, and I married into it," Lynne said. "I got a job in 2004 working at Northern Illinois University as the curator of rare books and special collections, and they have a science-fiction collection. It became one of my job responsibilities to learn about science fiction."

She began to go to sci-fi conventions to talk to authors about their literary papers.

"I got working relationships with authors that led to editing opportunities," she said. "The first was a book called 'Chicks Dig Time Lords,' a book of essays about women who like 'Doctor Who.' And that book of essays won my first Hugo."

One of the book's authors, New York Times best-seller Catherynne M. Valente, was editing an online magazine called Apex. When she got a big book contract in 2011, Valente convinced Lynne Thomas to take over as editor, with Michael Thomas, who had been involved with Parkland College's literary journal, becoming her managing editor.

"As Lynne's day job at the library got more demanding, I got more and more work at Apex," Michael said.

In 2014, the couple stepped away from Apex when Caitlin needed major spinal surgery.

"We needed a break from being on two jobs at once," Lynne said.

Later that year, the couple decided to do a Kickstarter campaign and launched Uncanny Magazine.

"We wanted to control everything from soup to nuts — everything from contracts and payments to our own vision for the magazine," Michael Thomas said.

He said Uncanny was created in the spirit of pulp sci-fi mags popular in the 1960s and '70s.

"Many of those magazines are no longer available to buy, but we wanted to create something that sounded like one of those magazines," he said. "So we came up with the name Uncanny."

Their magazine has caught on in the world of fiction, with world-class writers providing science-fiction and fantasy stories for publication within the Thomas' little corner of the internet.

"Each issue contains intricate, experimental stories, poems and essays with verve and imagination that elicit strong emotions and challenge beliefs, from writers of every conceivable background," Lynne Thomas said.

"But we believe there's still plenty of room in the genre for tales that make you feel," added her husband.

After years of laboring in DeKalb, this summer, Lynne got her dream job, becoming the head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the UI.

"Twenty years after serving as a graduate assistant in the RBML, I came back as the head of the department," she said. "It is very exciting."

So, in August, the couple packed their belongings and brought Caitlin and a fuzzy cat named Marie with them to Urbana, along with Uncanny Magazine.

"This is where we met, and this is where we fell in love," Michael Thomas said. "So it makes since that Urbana is the new home to Uncanny Magazine."

The first issue created in Urbana came out in September. The most recent was published Tuesday.

"This town has always had great ties to science fiction," Michael Thomas said. "And, according to Arthur C. Clarke, HAL (from '2001: A Space Odyssey') was created here."

It isn't much of a stretch to say Uncanny Magazine has taken the industry by storm.

The magazine as a whole won Hugo Awards for Best Semiprozine, (a magazine that pays its writers but doesn't make enough money to be a full-time job) in both 2016 and 2017, and a story called "Folding Beijing" by Hao Jingfang beat Stephen King for Best Novelette in 2016.

Lynne, Michael and their team of 10 editors receive between 1,000 and 2,000 submissions every month, with each writer hoping to be selected for a limited number of stories and poems for an upcoming issue.

"We read them, and we argue," Lynne Thomas said.

The submission editors narrow the received stories to about 200 per month, and the Urbana couple then makes the final cut.

"Then we email the author with a contract," Lynne said. "After they sign it and we pay for it, Michael works with the author on ways to improve the story."

A typical issue contains between four and six short stories, one reprinted short story, five essays and four poems, along with an editorial penned by the Urbana couple.

The mag helped now-popular authors Alyssa Wong and Brooke Bolander get their starts by publishing one of both women's early stories.

Uncanny Magazine's website draws 22,000 views a month, and another 4,000 people subscribe to the e-book edition.

"You can either read it as an e-book that is purchased or view it free on the website," Michael Thomas said.

Folks can buy Uncanny on Amazon (to receive the stories on their Kindles) and the website, which does all e-book formats.

In addition, thousands of people listen to one story and one poem per issue on Uncanny's internet podcast.

What is the most fun thing about running a magazine?

"When you read a great short story for the first time and know you can buy it and work with the writer to bring it to the entire world, it's very exciting," Michael Thomas said.

"And the best feeling in the world is becoming the first professional sale for a writer who goes on to success," Lynne Thomas said.

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