Escape Pod’s Divya Breed and Mur Lafferty Interviewed by Carl Slaughter

By Carl Slaughter: Newly promoted Escape Pod co-editors Divya Breed and Mur Lafferty give us the inside story on the magazine and their careers.

Carl Slaughter:  What did Escape Pod look like in the beginning, how has it evolved, and what’s the vision for the future?

Mur Lafferty: Escape Pod was a one-person show, run entirely by Serah (then Steve) Eley. She covered all of the work from slush reading to audio production to hosting to web design, and it was a huge job.

Serah’s focus was to deliver fun science fiction, with the meaning of fun open to interpretation, but, like obscenity, you know it when you see it.

It was the first podcast magazine, driven only by online donations.

The show hasn’t really changed a lot since those early days, nearly 600 episodes ago. It’s still one story per week, we still have the same Creative Commons license, and we still have music from Daikaiju. Some changes have included paying SFWA pro rates for original stories and paying narrators, not to mention the show doing well enough to branch off other shows focused on other genres.

Different editors have also brought different visions to the magazine, sometimes veering away from “fun,” sometimes coming back to it. I think looking forward Divya and I just want to present a good story. That sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Divya Breed: I suspect Mur has a better handle on Escape Pod’s history than I do, having been around for much more of it! In terms of the future, we are indeed looking for whatever tickles our fancy, and I can say safely that so far, we’re generally in agreement on what that means. We enjoy publishing new authors, we’ll be soliciting stories, especially from up-and-coming authors, and we’ll continue to highlight classics for some of our special episodes.

CS:  How is the site different since the last time Mur was at the helm?

ML: We have a bigger staff now, and the incredible workload is spread among many people. I keep having the feeling that “Oh crap, I didn’t do X for the show,” and then remember that X is someone else’s job. It makes the actual editorial job easier when I don’t need to worry about finding narrators, or production, or the website.

CS:  You’re listed as co-editors.  Is there an official or implied chief co-editor.  Does Divya take the lead because she was part of the current regime when Mur arrived?  Does Mur take the lead because she has more podcast experience.  Am I reading too much into this?  Is it more like 2 editors getting into the groove with each other?

DB: You are definitely reading too much into it! [insert me laughing] It’s an equal partnership at the top right now. When Norm decided that it was time for him to focus on other parts of his life, I had been working as the Assistant Editor of Escape Pod for less than a year. Between that and my writing career, I didn’t want to take on an editor-in-chief role without some backup. Mur was my ideal choice, having plenty of experience in the editor’s chair, but also being an author herself and therefore understanding how to balance the two roles.

We are getting into the groove of things, and we do our best to keep the bumps in the road from becoming unpleasant for our audience. And I confess: a good portion of our monthly meeting revolves around non-Escape Pod related conversation, like writing, conventions, and family. I’ll quote Casablanca: I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

ML: I came into this with the editorial and EP experience, but have been away for a while, and Divya knows how the machine is working now. So while she’s made some of the decisions regarding staff (ie, promoting our new Assistant Editor, Ben Kinney), we are equals with regards to editorial decisions.

So far we’ve pretty much agreed on everything, with only two non-negotiable claims so far (one was “We have to buy this story, I will fight you if you disagree,” and one “This is a hard no, I hate this.” I will leave out who was on which side, to keep an air of mystery about this. But I will say that one of us was willing to fight for a story, and one of us was willing to fight to NOT buy a story. We get along quite well despite the occasional violent threats.)

CS:  How has editing duties affected your own writing and other ambitions?

ML: Not so much, I don’t think. I usually try to do my EP work in batches, so a few days are all focused on EP, and I can work on writing and my other podcasts on other days.

DB: I tend to work similar to Mur, compartmentalizing my editing duties to one day per week (not counting email). I’ll often pick up stories to review while eating lunch or in the evenings, but other than that, my time is devoted to writing or other types of work.

CS:  I count 2 editors, a host, an assistant editor, an audio producer, a community manager, and 8 associate editors.  Wow, does it really take that many people to generate a weekly podcast episode?  Exactly who does what?

ML: Since we deal with a large slush pile, and no one is making a living wage (and some are 100% volunteer), it’s definitely a relief to have a team backing us up.

The associate editors are our slush team, our valiant volunteers. The audio producer finds the narrators and assembles the podcast. We split the hosting duties between the two editors and our one host for variety (and to not have to write a host spot every week). The community manager wrestles the forums (since personally I prefer Twitter as a way to communicate with people.) And our assistant editor manages the slush team and the flow of stories from slushers to us.

DB: Part of being a SFWA qualifying market means being professional in our engagement with authors and delivery of content. After we migrated to using Submittable for our story and narrator submissions, our monthly input almost doubled. We also have quite a bit of turnover at our associate editor level, with many a slusher needing to move on after a year or so. We’re in one of those transitional periods, but even otherwise, we try to keep their loads light so they have adequate time to give every story a fair reading.

In addition, our annual Artemis Rising month (to highlight authors who identify as women or non-binary) pulls away several members of the team who dedicate themselves to those submissions.

CS:  What’s the criteria for becoming an Escape Pod story?  What type of stories do you target and what do you decidedly avoid?

DB: Right now, the criteria is that Mur and I both like it. In general terms, we try to create some boundary conditions between us and the other Escape Artists podcasts, so we want stories where a science or technological element plays a fundamental role. The focus of the story might lie elsewhere, but as long as that SFnal aspect exists, we’ll give the story a chance.

ML: I also like to consider the aspect of “fun,” but if a nonfun story knocks my socks off, I definitely won’t turn it down.

CS:  What type of gauntlet does a story go through from submission to posting?

DB: Most stories go through 3 tiers. The associate editors get first crack at our slush pile, and each story will be read and reviewed by one of them. The assistant editor (currently Ben Kinney) then looks over the results, decides which stories to decline and which to hold on for review by Mur and myself. The final round stories must get a go-ahead from both of us. We have enough high-quality stories that filling our weekly quota has not posed a problem.

Some stories take a shorter path when Ben, Mur, or I pick them up straight from slush. We might do this for a variety of reasons. The shortest of all is when we solicit reprints directly from the author. At that point, we’ve already decided to buy the story.

Once we’ve accepted a story, it goes to the contracts team who handle the paperwork and payments for all of the Escape Artists podcasts. In parallel, our audio producer starts on the process of selecting and contracting a narrator for the story, and any text edits get sent to the author for approval.

The final podcast is a concatenation of promotional spots, host segments, and story narration that’s edited and posted by our audio producer.

CS:  Looking through the list of Escape Pod authors, I don’t see the same names I see in the sci-fi magazines, ie, Asimov’s, etc.  Is that deliberate?  Do you prefer unknown and lesser known authors?

ML: (laugh) Are you asking if we deliberately don’t publish Elizabeth Bear or David Gerrold? No, it’s not a deliberate decision to ignore the bigger writers. Remember that it’s not always the editors’ decision what gets published – if authors don’t send us anything, we can’t publish them. A lot of authors don’t know about us, aren’t interested in Creative Commons or audio distribution, or know they can make more money elsewhere. We’re an indie magazine driven only by donations, and aren’t backed by a larger publisher.

Anecdote: A while back I was at a con and tried to solicit a story from a big author (no, I won’t name them) and they frankly (and politely) told me they get so many solicitations that they have to charge $.25 a word. We would very rarely pay that much, so we usually end up publishing a lot more reprints from bigger names than we do originals.

That said, we are a SFWA pro market, and we love giving newer authors their first sale, and we hope to become a place where marginalized voices will feel comfortable soliciting to.

DB: I will add this: Escape Pod has evolved over its lifetime, and the larger community hasn’t always kept up with those changes. We’re working to address some common misconceptions that are holdovers from the past. For example, every new episode is available (in full) as text on our website. We accept original stories – and pay professional rates for them – as well as reprints, paid with a flat fee. Alasdair Stuart has a wonderful blog post on this topic that I encourage everyone to read: “The Top 5 Myths about Escape Artists”.

CS:  How does Escape Pod distinguish itself from other sci-fi podcast sites?

DB: We run exclusively short fiction, we hand-select the best narrator for every episode, and we have a round-table of hosts who discuss what that week’s story meant to them. That has been Escape Pod’s focus from its inception, and that will continue to be so.

Other podcasts are doing great work, but I think we occupy a unique, trusted space with our listenership in part because of our consistent history.

CS:  What’s the status of Mothership Zeta with Mur gone?

ML: Mothership Zeta had a trial run to see if people would pay for a larger project. We wanted to give it six issues to see if it could sustain itself, and we failed at that. We’ve learned an awful lot of lessons and are proud of the work we put out. The magazine is on indefinite hiatus now, but Escape Artists continues to grow, and we’re not ruling out bringing it back someday (although it’s highly unlikely I’ll abandon Divya and go back to MZ.)

CS:  What’s on the horizon for Mur Lafferty and Divya Breed?

ML: The book based on my podcast I Should Be Writing will be out in August. I’ve wanted to write this book for years, and so glad I finally got the opportunity. I’m editing the space marine midwives anthology along with Cast of Wonders editor Marguerite Kenner, and I continue to podcast. As for writing fiction, I’m working on several proposals to throw at my agent, hoping for another book project in the near future.

DB: I’m chipping away at a full-length novel and, of course, learning how to be the best co-editor of a podcast magazine that I can be. I have short stories forthcoming in Apex Magazine and an anthology of Asian science fiction called, Where the Stars Rise. I’m also traveling and making local appearances to promote Runtime, including Worldcon and FenCon. This will be my first Worldcon outside of the USA, and I’m excited about that.

In terms of Escape Pod news, we’ll be closing submissions for the month of August, then reopening in September to general submissions as well as our open call for Artemis Rising 4. We’re also looking forward to our 600th episode this November, and we’ll celebrate the occasion with something special!

ML: We will both be at Worldcon, so please come say hi to us!

Bujold’s “Ask Me Anything” Today, 8/3

Lois McMaster Bujold will be doing an Ask Me Anything for Reddit today at 7 p.m. CST

Welcome to my r/Fantasy AMA “Ask Me Anything” chat, which is now open to collect questions.

I will be back around 7 PM CST to start answering them as best I can.

For those who want More, or who are scratching their heads going “Louis who?” (and I know you’re out there, I hear from you all the time), here are a few maybe-useful links.

And a big thank-you to fan Karen Hunt, who created and runs the Vorkosigan Wiki!

And I have absolutely no idea who creates the sfadb, although I imagine they, too, are volunteers, but bless them for saving me reams of retyping.

…Which leads me to wonder how many people nowadays no longer know (or need to know) what a ream is, but that’s another subject, somewhere back up there with the squeaky flow pens.

[Thanks to JJ for the story.]

 

Robert J. Sawyer: Calling Us To the Future

By Carl Slaughter: Robert J. Sawyer talks science premises, scientific method, philosophy of human existence, and the themes and messages in his stories.

CARL SLAUGHTER: You said of your latest novel, Quantum Night, that the theme is, “The most pernicious lie humanity has ever told itself is that you can’t change human nature.” You list 50 books you consulted for Quantum Night. Why is this so important?

ROBERT J. SAWYER: It’s important to recognize that this canard that you can’t change human nature is the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card; if you accept it, you can forever be racist, sexist, transphobic, jingoistic, militaristic, religious, and so on, then say, well, it’s always been that way so it always must be that way. And that is pernicious. Even when invoked on a small scale, when we forgive someone for being “tone deaf” rather than recognizing that they’re a dyed-in-the-wool racist or misogynist, or whatever, is to excuse the behavior as being an acceptable, normal gaffe rather than something that we rightly demand should be changed, and can be changed.

When I teach science-fiction writing, I tell my students that one of the standard story-generating engines for the genre is to take something we normally only think of as metaphoric and treat it as literal — from H.G. Wells’s making concrete the fantasy of knowing what the future holds, to Robert Charles Wilson’s recent The Affinities, which turns the online notion of “social networking” into a real-life paradigm. And so, in that same vein, Quantum Night is quite literally about changing human nature.

If we don’t change — if we don’t find better ways of conflict resolution, if we don’t move from zero-sum thinking to win-win thinking, if we don’t discard and abjure our millennia-old prejudices — then we as a species are headed for disaster.

As for the bibliography, it’s proven to be extremely popular. I’ve had short ones at the end of a couple of my previous novels — my Hugo Award-winner Hominids and my John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winner Mindscan — but this is by far the most elaborate one I’ve ever provided. Quantum Night is, among other things, a serious attempt to make sense of human consciousness — I was thrilled when Stuart Hameroff invited me to give a talk about the book in 2013 at the famed Tucson “Science of Consciousness” conference. I allude in the novel’s text to the work of many experts in many areas — psychology, neuroscience, quantum physics, philosophy — but didn’t want to bog down the narrative with excessive exposition. The annotated bibliography is there for those who want to go deeper into the underpinnings of the novel.

CS: I was intrigued with the story Far-Seer as well as its cast of characters, both rational and irrational. What lessons does Far-Seer offer society?

RJS: In 1999, I give a talk at the Library of Congress entitled “Is There a Place for Science Fiction in the Twenty-First Century?” Far-Seer — as well as its sequels, and my 2001 Hugo-nominee Calculating God — are exemplars of the point I made in that talk, so I’ll just quote the conclusion of it:

Does science fiction have a role in the 21st century? Absolutely. If we can help shape the Zeitgeist, help inculcate the belief that rational thought, that discarding superstition, that subjecting all beliefs to the test of the scientific method, is the most reasonable approach to any question, then not only will science fiction have a key role to play in the intellectual development of the new century, but it will also, finally and at last, help humanity shuck off the last vestiges of the supernatural, the irrational, the spurious, the fake, and allow us to embrace, to quote poet Archibald Lampman, “the wide awe and wonder of the night” but with our eyes wide open and our minds fully engaged. Then, finally, some 40,000 years after consciousness first flickered into being on this world, we will at last truly deserve that name we bestowed upon ourselves: Homo sapiens — Man of Wisdom.

CS: Are there any parallels between Far-Seer and the Trump era?

RJS: That’s an interesting question. Far-Seer came out in 1992, and its sequels Fossil Hunter and Foreigner came out in 1993 and 1994. It’s been observed that there were three great blows to the human ego. First, the Copernican/Galilean revolution — ironically named, if you think about it — that says we aren’t at the center of the universe; we revolve around the sun. Second, the Darwinian revolution, which punctuated thousands of years of our equilibrium, so to speak, by showing that we weren’t divinely created in God’s image, but rather were the results of mindless evolution; and the Freudian insight, which demonstrated that we don’t even really have conscious volition but rather are driven by unconscious forces and the impacts of our early experiences.

But, you know, all of those were academic victories for us. It might be irritating to try to argue with a young-Earth creationist, but what he or she believes — and, for that matter, what we believe — doesn’t matter. It doesn’t affect how either of us do our jobs, treat our families, or, indeed, our ultimate fate.

But for that trilogy — which I’ve just reissued as ebooks and is collectively called the Quintaglio Ascension — I wanted to tell parallel stories of the three great ego blows on an alien world, but have it be desperately important that the aliens learn these truths. They face an existential threat — doomsday — unless they come to grips with, in turn, the facts of cosmology, evolution, and their own psychology.

When I wrote the books, we weren’t really conscious of the existential threat our species is facing, but now, in the current era — and this existed before Trump, but has gotten substantially worse since he was elected — acknowledging radical climate change is crucial; the science deniers, if they continue to have political clout, will result in doomsday for us, too. So, yeah, to answer your question: this trilogy is 100% relevant right now, as its core message — accepting reality; embracing science; thinking rationally not emotionally — is the only thing that will save this planet.

Robert J. Sawyer in 2009.

CS: Here’s a report about how Canadian scientists fought the good fight and won. Being a Canadian science fiction writer, can you tell us if this report is accurate and if it offers hope to the American science community and its supporters?

RJS: The report is absolutely accurate. Canada is very much better off than the US right now in terms of government support for intellectualism, art, and science but it was only a short time ago that the reverse was true. To quote from Quantum Night:

“Actually, until recently, Canada had had a much more conservative leader than the United States did. When Stephen Harper came to office in 2006, George W. Bush had been in the White House and, to liberal Canadian sensibilities — the kind found on university campuses — he seemed the lesser of two evils. But once Barack Obama was elected, Canada had by far the more right-wing leader. Harper managed to hold on to power for almost a decade, but Canada was now ruled by the left-leaning Liberal Party….”

So, how did we get out of the anti-science mess that was the horrific Harper regime? We voted him out of office. Trump has already started his bid for re-election; let’s hope you have palatable alternatives — on the left and the right — in your next election.

CS: How do the cognitive sciences define a mind? How do you prove a mind exists? If a mind is an object, what is its location, appearance, and molecular structure?

RJS: The only mind you can prove exists is your own, as Descartes so handily showed: cogito ergo sum; I think therefore I am. As to whether others have minds or just appear to do so, that’s the whole notion behind Australian philosopher David Chalmers’s “philosopher’s zombie” thought experiment, which I expand upon at length in Quantum Night. Dave, who introduced me when I gave a keynote address at the Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference in Tucson in 2010 — the first of two times I’ve spoken there — reviewed my novel in manuscript for me.

The mind is an emergent phenomenon of the brain, not an object. You can no more point to its location, describe its appearance, and define its molecular structure than you can do that for any of the things mind produces, such as patriotism, which is love of the things a nation stands for. It would be as wrong to point to the borders of Canada or the United States and say “patriotism is these neurotransmitter molecules or synaptic webs in relation to all atoms circumscribed by this border.” Mind is emergent; patriotism is a feeling created by mind in response to a concept — a nation’s principles — that only exists within minds.

CS: OK, now what’s the connection between consciousness and mind?

RJS: Consciousness, as I mostly use the term, refers to self-awareness and self-reflection. HAL 9000 claimed to be conscious; maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. But in both science fiction and computer science we definitely used to conflate the notions of “artificial intelligence” and “artificial consciousness” into one thing. That’s wrong.

We’ve got some great AIs now — Deep Blue and Watson, or even Siri and Cortana — but none of them have any consciousness. They may look like they pass the Turing test in some narrow ways, but they’re only Turing machines, and that’s a key distinction: a Turing machine is an idealized, bare-bones computer that can only perform three basic operations, but can simulate any algorithm, no matter how complex; everything Deep Blue, Watson, Siri, or Cortana does can be reproduced on a Turing machine; they just do it very fast. But as mathematical physicist Sir Roger Penrose, who wrote the 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind — and who I got to spend time with last year in Tenerife — would argue, self-reflection can’t be simulated on a Turing machine. In other words, we have fast calculators now; we don’t having self-aware devices. To put it in old sciffy jargon, we’ve got electronic brains, sure, but not a single electronic mind.

Not all brains are conscious, but any entity that passes the cogito — that can say only to itself and understand what it has said — that “I think therefore I am” is conscious. The conceit in Quantum Night is that four-sevenths of the human race can’t pass the cogito and therefore are not conscious. The lights are on, but nobody’s home.

CS: How exactly can a consciousness theoretically be transferred or downloaded?

RJS: My friend Andrew Porter used to publish the wonderful Science Fiction Chronicle, and many years ago he won a charity auction to be Tuckerized in one of my novels (where I described him affectionately thus: “Andrew Porter was a tall bear of a man, sixty or so, slightly stooped from dealing with a world populated by shorter people. He had squinty eyes, a beard, and hair combed straight back from a high forehead. His kindly face was home to eyebrows that seemed constantly in motion, as if they were working out, in training for the body-hair Olympics.€).

In my 2007 novel Mindscan, Andy plays the part of a scientist who does precisely what you’ve asked about — transferring consciousness to artificial bodies — so I’ll let him answer for me:

“Consider it like this: I don’t know anything about music. When I was in school, they thought I’d be a menace to every hearing person if they gave me a musical instrument to play, so I was assigned to the vocal class, along with all the other tone-deaf people. So, I know nothing at all about what makes Beethoven’s Fifth a great piece of music. But as an engineer, if you brought me a CD recording of it, and asked me to copy it onto a MemWafer, no problem — I could do that. I don’t look for the ‘musical’ stuff on the CD; I don’t look for the ‘genius’ on the CD. I just copy everything to the new medium. And that’s exactly what we do when we’re transferring consciousness.”

CS: Have you read much literature about the subcognitive – dreams, premonitions, discernment, instinct? People often claim to know things, even though they don’t know how they know, even though they have no scientific proof, and are often vindicated by experience. How do you explain this aspect of human existence?

RJS: I don’t explain it; I reject it. People claiming things is not evidence, and the plural of anecdote is not data. None of that has been replicated under controlled conditions. I’m a rationalist, an empiricist, and a skeptic — in other words, a science-fiction fan.

CS: What’s on the horizon for Robert J. Sawyer?

RJS: My longtime friend (and fellow judge for the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award) Barry Malzberg has just retired from doing the science-fiction column for the bimonthly Galaxy’s Edge magazine and editor Mike Resnick has tapped me to take over. My first column will appear in the July-August 2017 edition.

Beyond that, I have a development deal with a major Canadian broadcaster for an original science-fiction TV series, and am having a blast working on that.

Robert J. Sawyer. Photo by Michelle Pincus.

Jody Lynn Nye: Carrying The Torch for Humorous SF

By Carl Slaughter: Humor author Jody Nye has way too much fun. So do the authors she hangs out with.

CARL SLAUGHTER: Why do you write primarily humor?

JODY LYNN NYE: I enjoy it. I love a book that makes me laugh out loud, or even chuckle knowingly. There’s so much out in the real world that is depressing that I want to help lift people’s spirits. If I can help by being the anodyne to the evening news, I will consider my job well done. From the responses I’ve had from readers, they enjoy it. The books I reach for are primarily ones that examine a situation wisely, but with a kind heart behind it. Terry Pratchett, Robert Asprin, and Mark Twain all had a hand in forming my point of view, and they were masters at what I practice. You can make hard truths palatable if you make people laugh while you’re stating them, but pure entertainment is also a noble cause.

CS: What makes good humor?

JLN: The easiest way to look at humor is to take an ordinary situation, but put a twist in it. (A very quick example is a commercial on television right now, where a man behind a desk is explaining his business, but an adorable two-year-old is asking, as two-year-olds do, “Why?” “Why?” “Why?” after every explanation, so he keeps going. At last, he clearly feels that he’s done enough catering to a two-year-old, and glances toward the mother, who scolds him. “These are important questions!” she insists.) Elevate the lowly, bring the lofty down a peg, make the unimportant vital. There’s a saying that humor is tragedy plus time, but I believe it’s also defined as tragedy plus distance. (i.e., “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” by Allan Sherman.) Exaggeration is another factor. As Mel Brooks says, “If I get a papercut on my finger, that’s a tragedy. If you fall down a manhole and die, that’s comedy.” Most good humor is brief, so you need a good story to base the funny moments upon. Humor should never punch down.

CS: How do you mix humor and speculative?

JLN: Like tragedy or drama, humor can enhance a story. Read any science article while keeping an ironic point of view, and almost anything can sound absurd. Take the ravings of a clear crank seriously, and you also have humor. In my Lord Thomas Kinago space opera series, maintaining humankind’s genetic structure is vital, but it has the unintended consequence of allowing the otherwise useless nobility to keep existing. The humorous SF detective stories I write for Alex Shvartsman’s Unidentified Funny Objects anthology series feature a detective sergeant having to allow the implantation into her abdomen of a symbiotic alien as an extreme form of witness protection. Each story also has a further SF twist to otherwise ordinary objects, rendering such things as contact lenses and a swimming pool as murder weapons.

CS: How did you hook up with Anne McCaffrey and what type of relationship did you have with her?

JLN: Anne had licensed the Pern universe to Mayfair Games for the Dragonriders of Pern role play game. My husband, then fiancè, was one of the partners who owned Mayfair. I wrote game materials for them. Bill created two series of choose-your-own adventures set in licensed fictional worlds, the Crossroads individual adventures for TOR Books and the Combat Command military adventures for Ace. Because I wrote game materials for Mayfair (I had been playing D&D since 1976) and I could write fiction, I ended up penning two Crossroads game novels set on Pern, and Anne’s son Todd, wrote a Combat Command set in David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series. I met Anne at Norwescon that year to go over the proposed plot of the first one, Dragonharper (yes, I know Todd has since written a Pern novel called Dragon Harper.) and explain how a chosen-path story works. Since Dragonharper was going to be about young Journeyman Harper Robinton (later Master Harper Robinton), I wrote a very short sample for her, which was called “Robinton Hits the Sauce.” Anne thought it was hilarious, and it explained game book structure to her. Anne adopted me as one of her large extended family. She told me, “You’re going to be writing official Pern fiction, and a lot of people might be jealous of you. You can tell them, “Oh, that Anne McCaffrey! She’s so hard to deal with! I’ll never work with her again!” Or, you can tell them you’re my daughter.” She was always encouraging and otherwise wonderful and welcoming. I’ll always miss her.

CS: How did you hook up with Robert Asprin and what type of relationship did you have with him?

Jody Lynn Nye and Robert Asprin

JLN: Bob was one of my husband Bill’s best friends. They knew each other long before I met either of them. When Bill and I were still engaged, we went to Ann Arbor, where Bob lived with his second wife, Lynn Abbey. They were so welcoming and kind that I felt I had known them for years. They introduced me to interests such as ice dancing and needlepoint. A lot of people pushed me and Bob to work together. Since we both wrote humor, of course. And we liked cats. And singing show tunes. We eyed each other dubiously, but when Bob hit a hard writer’s block after Phule’s Company hit the New York Times bestseller list (fear of success is a thing), Bill encouraged us to sit down and write something together that had nothing to do with any of our previous series.

Bob came up to our house, to Chicago in January, showing incredible faith in his friends, since our winters are not for sissies. Bill sat in the room as we began to outline the story, which later became License Invoked, for Baen Books. After no more than half an hour, it became evident that we were having a blast, and didn’t need him to referee. I think we were born to be collaborators. Bill went back to his office to play computer games, and we wrote the outline and divided it by sections. It seemed to help him get over the hump.

When he finally finished the twelve-book Donning Starblaze contract for Myth, he said he wanted me to collaborate on continuing Myth books. We wrote six novels and a story collection before he passed away in 2008. I’ve done two Myth books since, and continued his Dragons series, also from Ace Books. I adored Bob. Our sense of humor were similar. We had a stunning number of things and attitudes in common. My favorite times were sitting with him in the restaurant of the Hyatt in Atlanta every DragonCon weekend working on the plot of the next Myth book. We’d be laughing like loons, and passersby would rubberneck furiously to try to hear what we were talking about.

CS: What goes on in the Myth Adventures universe?

JLN: Same as always. Skeeve is a soft touch to a hard-luck story and has to deal with his shortcomings as an innocent Klahd. Aahz lets people think he’s a heartless, greedy monster, instead of the soft-hearted old grouse we all know him to be. (Notice I didn’t dispute the “greedy” part.) Their friendship will never die. Bunny is now in charge of M.Y.T.H., Inc., which means more organization for the gang. The series will always be full of horrible puns and chapter quotes which, trivia fact, only appear on the head of chapters in which Skeeve is featured. I have had so many people tell me that the books came along when they needed them. The same is true for me. I started reading them during a tough time in college. I want that joy to be there for future readers.

CS: How long will the Myth Adventure series continue and how often will the stories be released?

JLN: I will continue them as long as I can. I’m trying to keep the breezy mood of the earlier volumes such as Little Myth Marker. I’ve got ideas for several more volumes waiting in the wings, more short stories (a couple have been published in anthologies by Kevin J. Anderson’s WordFire Press), and a young adult series. Keep an eye on my website or the Myth-Adventures website for news as I get it.

CS: You’ve done a lot of work with DAW, Baen’s, Ace, Del Rey, and Tor. What type of relationship have you have with these blue chip speculative publishers?

JLN: Cordial, I hope. Baen is my primary publisher. I’ve been with them since 1988 or 1989, and twelve books so far, if you don’t count the omnibuses. Moon Beam will make it thirteen. I love being part of the Baen family. It’s one of the few publishers that encourages their writers to collaborate and intersect on series. I have only done short stories for DAW, but they’re a joy to work with. Ace encouraged me by bringing out my own science fiction series (Taylor’s Ark). Susan Allison had been the series editor for the Myth-Adventures since the beginning, and pleaded with me to continue the Dragons series after Bob died. Del Rey published the Dragonlover’s Guide to Pern. The editor was surprised when we brought her twice the length and twice the number of illustrations she originally requested, but they got behind it in a big way. Tom Doherty of TOR is my hero. Claire Eddy at TOR was my editor on the Crossroads books, and I am still very fond of her. Brian Thomsen edited my fantasy duology, but died before the second volume came out. He had been my editor on my first fantasy books, the Mythology 101 series (no relation to Myth), and I loved him. I’d still be working with him if he was around.

CS: What type of story is Moon Beam?

JLN: Adventure featuring a group of great characters in an exciting setting. Barbara Winton is the newest member of the Bright Sparks, a group of young scientists working on the Moon under the auspices of Dr. Keegan Bright, the host of a daily science broadcast program for kids. Dr. Bright is the Sparks’ mentor, but they come up with the experiments and programs that they want to explore, and they do all the work. In Moon Beam (this is intended as an ongoing series; the second is already being written), the Sparks are building a radio/radar telescope on the far side of the Moon, well away from the light pollution and atmosphere of Earth. If that wasn’t enough of an adventure by itself, a coronal mass ejection, the hard radioactive rays ejected from a sunspot, is heading toward the Sparks, who are trapped days away from rescue, and have to save themselves as one thing after another goes wrong.

CS: Why a young adult series?

JLN: Since my style makes many people already think I write young adult fiction, it seemed like a natural progression. I got into a conversation at a Baen party with Travis Taylor, who actually IS a rocket scientist as well as an author. He, too, had wanted to write YA fiction, but hadn’t made the jump yet. We started throwing ideas back and forth. They gelled beautifully, and I started taking notes. By the party’s end, we had written an outline and proposed it to our publisher, Toni Weisskopf. She didn’t take that particular outline, but we soon adapted it to something she liked.

CS: What’s the STEM connection?

JLN: Young scientists working on the Moon. The subject just begs to be explored.

CS: Why a STEM connection?

JLN: The US is falling far behind other countries in promoting the STEM disciplines, science, technology, engineering and math, to students, particularly female students. Too many kids begin to think that science is too hard, and that there’s no place for them in any program that does anything real or important. They drop away, and we lose brilliant, motivated, interested minds when we should be begging them to share their energy with us. Science can be fun and exciting, and we need young thinkers to be part of our shared future.

CS: How long will the STEM series continue and how often will the stories be released?

JLN: The second one is being written, and we have proposals in for several more. I think that Baen would like to have them out once a year.

CS: What’s Travis Taylor’s connection to the series and connection with you?

JLN: We are collaborators and getting to be friends. We first met at Deep South Con 50 in Huntsville, AL, in 2012, but it wasn’t until LibertyCon the next year, I think, that we had a chance to sit down and talk. (see above)

CS: WordFire, isn’t that Kevin Anderson? What’s it like to work with him?

JLN: I’ve known Kevin since we were all at an awful convention together in 2001. He started WordFire some years later, and did me the honor to invite me to bring out my backlist of out-of-print books through WordFire. He’s been very encouraging. I think it’s been beneficial to both of us. I’m working on a small book for his Million Dollar Productivity series at the moment.

CS: You’ve sold at least 4 stories to Galaxy’s Edge, 3 the same year and one on the horizon. What’s it like to work with Mike Resnick?

JLN: (Correction — our name is usually on the cover because of the book column. I’ve sold three reprints to Mike, but they didn’t all come out in the same year.) Mike’s a national treasure. He has been enormously encouraging to younger writers, including me. He has collaborated with a number of them that he felt could benefit from the attention of being published with him. He calls them his “author daughters.” I’m working on a book with him, too, but I’m waiting to see what title he gives me. Mike created the Stellar Guild series, which pairs “superstars” (his term), including Robert Silverberg, Mercedes Lackey, Harry Turtledove, Kevin J. Anderson, and me, with younger, less experienced writers. The senior author creates a novella, and the junior author writes a prequel or sequel to the main story. I thought it was a wonderful idea. My Stellar Guild book was written with Angelina Adams, a promising new writer whom Todd McCaffrey had been teaching. My husband and I also write the Book Recommendations column for Galaxy’s Edge. So far, Mike seems happy with it.

CS: It’s hard not to notice that all your short fiction is through anthologies. Why not market to periodicals?

JLN: At first, it was blatant cowardice. I sent my first SF story to Stan Schmidt at Analog. He rejected it, but with a full letter telling me that he had seen the plot before, but he really liked my style, and to send him something else. I was only nineteen and had no connection to other SF writers to be reassured how rare and special a thing such a letter was. Instead, I retreated into my shell for several more years. I wrote my first professional short story for David Drake and my husband Bill for The Fleet shared world anthologies. After that, I got on Martin Greenberg’s radar, and wrote at least forty stories for his anthologies. I like the guidance of themed anthologies. The idea creates a frame I can paint in. It turns out that there were three of us who were Marty’s go-to authors when he needed good stories in a hurry, or to fill up a space for a writer who had let him down: me, Esther Friesner, and Nina Kiriki Hoffman. Other editors reached out to me, filling my schedule with terrific ideas I couldn’t wait to explore. Now, it’s probably pure indolence that I don’t write more stories for magazines. I do want to. The more I read the good things that are being published, the more I want to be part of that.

CS: Did I miss anything?

JLN: I’m a big cat fan. My cat Jeremy enjoys a life of quiet luxury. A few of my friends have told me they’d like to come back as one of my cats. I enjoy reading, cooking and baking, travel, photography, and calligraphy. I have found that I really enjoy teaching. I run the two-day intense basic workshop at DragonCon every year.

Author and Editor Deborah Ross Interviewed by Carl Slaughter

By Carl Slaughter: Deborah Ross traces her career from her first encounter with Marion Zimmer Bradley to becoming an editor herself.

CARL SLAUGHTER: You’re best known for continuing Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series, but you had already established a writing career before then. Tell us about your earlier work.

DEBORAH ROSS: I’ve been part of the sf/f community and SFWA for 35 years now. My first professional sale (under my previous name, Deborah Wheeler) was to Marion for the very first Sword and Sorceress anthology in 1982. Other sales of short fiction followed to F & SF, Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, and a slew other anthologies including Star Wars: Tales from Jabba’s Palace, Sisters of the Night, DAW 30th Anniversary Fantasy, and Bruce Coville’s Alien Visitors.

The real break came in 1991, when I lived in Lyons, France. A couple of months after I returned to the States, I sold my first novel, Jaydium, to DAW. The novel I’d written in France, Northlight, came out two years after that. And the novel inspired by living in the center of the French Resistance to the Nazi Occupation, Collaborators, was a Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.

Since I’ve taken over the Darkover series, I’ve continued my original work with an epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield, which had its origins in the “Azkhantian Tales” short fiction in various issues of Sword and Sorceress.

CS: How did you meet Marion Zimmer Bradley?

DR: Somewhere around 1980, I wrote Marion a fan letter. To my surprise and delight, she wrote back with three pages of single-spaced typewriting. At the time, she was on the Grievance Committee of SFWA and used the official stationery. I now appreciate the prudence of that step, knowing the volume of fan mail she received over the years and her experiences of theft and exploitation by people she’d reached out to. I’d been training in Chinese martial arts (t’ai chi chu’an and kung fu san soo) at that time, and we began a conversation about empowerment, women, and writing.

CS: What type of relationship did you have with her?

DR: Over the years, we became friends as well as colleagues. Toward the end of her life, hampered by a series of strokes, Marion worked with in collaboration several other writers. I was one of the writers she considered because she had watched me develop from a novice to an established professional. When she asked if I would like to work with her, I was just emerging from a particularly difficult time of my life and found myself a single working mom with a troubled adolescent still at home. Marion’s offer helped get me back on my feet again in terms of writing. She and I discussed the basic concept of our project by mail and then I drove up to see her. She’d been resting and was on oxygen, but she insisted on sitting up when I came in, and soon we were deep in discussion of plot ideas. I knew she had been very ill, but seeing her made her condition so much more vivid for me. One of my best memories of her was watching her “come alive” as we developed the characters and hatched plot points. Her eyes “glowed as if lit from within,” to use one of her favorite descriptions, and energy suffused her whole being. I asked question after question and then sat back as she spun out answers. It was as if she had opened a window into her imagination and invited me to peek inside. Her secretary told me that she talked for days afterwards about the visit and how excited she was about the project. We never got a second visit. She died a month later.

CS: How are you carrying on her work?

MR: Writing Darkover novels is very like writing historical fiction. I do research, using not only Marion’s published work, but her letters to me, The Darkover Concordance, and her articles in the old Darkover newsletters. Her Literary Trust and the folks at DAW have been invaluable as nit-pickers and sources of arcane details. I’d already written a number of stories for the Darkover anthologies, so I was familiar with the world not only as a reader but as a writer.

I try to create story lines that are true to Marion’s vision of Darkover and the themes that were meaningful to her. Fortunately, my natural literary voice is very close to Marion’s. Because I’m not trying to distort my own voice, I can then write from my heart. I trust that the footwork will lead me in the right direction and that I can flow with what comes to me.

CS: What was Bradley’s connection with Sword and Sorceress? What’s your connection?

DR: About the time I met Marion, the Friends of Darkover held periodic writing contests and published its own fanzine. I sent her a couple of stories and received encouraging comments (and, as I remember, an award for one of the stories and eventual fanzine publication of the other). When Marion began editing the first Sword and Sorceress for Don Wollheim at DAW, she suggested I submit a story for her. I was as elated by the invitation as if it had been a sale, and threw myself into writing the best story I could. It was a modest little story, but more than that, Marion showed me that I could take my writing professionally.

When I submitted a story for the second volume, Marion telephoned me. “Now Deborah,” she said (her typical way of opening an editorial conversation), “I’m going to take your story, but I’m sending it back to you for revision.” With that, I made the leap from all-or-nothing sale-or-rejection to working with an editor. My manuscript came back drenched in red ink, with comments like, “All thuds are dull!” and “Overwritten.” Don’t just fall in love with your words, she was saying, make them serve the story.

CS: How did you yourself become an editor?

DR: Like many other writers, I wondered what it was like “on the other side of the desk,” both in terms of the choice of stories and their evolution into final form. I have had the honor to work with some extraordinary editors; I knew just how helpful a sympathetic and insightful editor can be in bringing out the best in a story. In other words, an editor is — or can be, if allowed to edit and not simply push numbers around for a multinational conglomerate — a story midwife. I also have strong ideas of what works for me in a story, what touches my heart and stirs my spirit.

Around 2007, Vera Nazarian of Norilana Books approached me with the idea of editing an anthology. “Lace and Blade” is a term she coined for elegant, witty romantic fantasy that doesn’t sacrifice intelligence for swashbuckling action. This also gave me a chance to work with some of my favorite authors, including Tanith Lee, Mary Rosenblum, and Chaz Brenchley. (Editor’s joy: Mary’s story was a Nebula Finalist, and Chaz’s was reprinted in a “year’s best” anthology.) Since then, I’ve worked on subsequent volumes, as well as anthologies published by Book View Café (Beyond Grimm, with Phyllis Irene Radford; Mad Science Café, and Across the Spectrum, with Pati Nagle).

A few years ago, the Marion Zimmer Literary Trust decided to resume publication of the Darkover anthology series, and I edited Stars of Darkover (2014) with Elisabeth Waters, and subsequent volumes as solo editor. Since then, the Trust has put out annual volumes of both the Darkover series and Lace and Blade.

CS: Tell us a bit about your editorial approach to dealing with writers.

DR: Writing can be heart-wrenchingly lonely. It’s you and your doubts and the words that simply will not do what you want them to. When, finally, you have something that flows from your heart and you’re at the stage of submission, I think that calls for a special form of love. By this I mean respect for what both writer and editor are struggling to bring forth. We are partners and allies, not adversaries.

I’m very much a hands-on editor. I almost always ask for changes, but I’m quite open to hearing contrary opinions from my writers. (Thank you, Tanith, for drumming that principle into me!) Often that discussion clarifies where what’s on the page fails to fully evoke the author’s vision. Although I may make suggestions, I try not to tell the writer how to “fix” the problem. For one thing, I hate it when that happens to me. For another, the writer must be the final authority. I’m the second pair of educated eyes. If we come to an impasse, I have to decide if I can live with what the writer insists upon. Sometimes, then, it’s better to let the story go to another home, rather than carve the heart out of it.

CS: How does editing differ from writing fiction?

DR: Oh my goodness, everything is different — except perhaps the shared goal of the best possible creative work! As an themed-anthology editor, it’s my job to communicate my vision of the project to the writers, then cheer and encourage and appreciate. And ask for changes aimed at bringing the story more into itself, making it more effective at what the writer — not me — is trying to do. So it’s important for me to keep my ego out of the editing process. I must constantly keep in mind that these are not my stories.

CS: What’s in the future for you as an editor and a writer?

DR: As an editor, I’ll be working on annual volumes of the Darkover anthologies and Lace and Blade. And maybe more for Book View Cafe if inspiration strikes. As a writer, I have two major projects on my plate, plus a handful of shorter pieces. I’m now working on the next Darkover novel, The Laran Gambit, for DAW, and an on-spec YA astronomy-geek urban fantasy. I’d like to write more Darkover novels, including a series about the founding of each Tower. One of the joys of working with Book View Café is that I’m free to bring out my own work under my own control. So I expect I’ll continue to divide my time between the Darkover series, editing, and original fantasy and science fiction.

CS: What do you do when you’re not writing?

DR: Over the decades, I’ve also worked as a medical assistant to a cardiologist, resuscitated an elementary school library, studied Chinese martial arts, French, Hebrew, and yoga, lived in France, attended Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, advocated as the family member of a murder victim for the abolition of the death penalty, knit for charity, and have been active in the women’s martial arts network and local Quaker community. I’ve also gotten interested in canine body language and dog training, with my most recent project the social rehabilitation of a traumatized retired seeing eye dog.

DEBORAH ROSS BIO

My work has earned Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF, Kirkus notable new release, the Locus Recommended Reading List, and James Tiptree, Jr. Award recommended list, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and nominations for the National Fantasy Federation Speculative Fiction Award for Best Author, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award.

I served as Secretary of SFWA in 2004-05, and have taught writing and led writer’s workshops in various places. I’m a member and on the Board or Directors of the online writers’ collective, Book View Café, and on the current Philip K. Dick Award jury.

Walter Jon Williams Interviewed by Carl Slaughter

Walter Jon Williams

By Carl Slaughter: Walter Jon Williams is a subgenre buster.  “I tend to view science fiction as a vast candy store, filled with all sorts of exotic goodies, and I want to try them all.”  After a long hiatus from the Praxis universe, Williams’ came out in October 2016 with Impersonations” the latest installment in his Empire’s Dread Fall series.  He just signed with HarperCollins for 3 more Praxis books and Simon & Schuster for three books in his new series, Quillifer. Williams is the founder of the Taos Toolbox writing workshop, where novelists can sit under the incomparable Nancy Kress.

Carl Slaughter:  Your genres are all over the map.  Which ones are you especially good at and especially enjoy and why?  Which ones do you shy away from and why?

Walter Jon Williams:  I’ll stay away from horror, because I seem to be horror-deaf.  Whatever it is that horror fiction is supposed to do for its readers, it doesn’t do for me.  I always end up judging horror on plot, which usually makes no sense, and worldbuilding, which always seems illogical.  Clearly none of that matters to actual horror fans, so just as clearly I’m reading it wrong.

But however badly I read horror fiction, I know that I’m capable of being horrified.  All it takes to scare me is a glance at a newspaper.  As I’ve said before, I’m not scared of vampires or werewolves or spooky old houses, I’m frightened by what actual human beings do to other actual human beings.

And yes, I seem to have specialized in what John M Ford called “subgenre busting.”  I tend to view science fiction as a vast candy store, filled with all sorts of exotic goodies, and I want to try them all.

CS:  Impersonations came out eight years after the last Praxis story and 11 years after the last Praxis novel.  Why return to the Praxis universe and why the long wait?

WJW:  I was told something like fourteen years ago that sales didn’t justify a continuation of the series, but then the books just kept selling.  They’ve all been through multiple printings, and they’ve never been out of print.  So now someone’s actually looked at the sales figures, and made a commitment for more books.

CS:  How long will the Empire’s Dread Fall series continue and when is the next installment?  Will we hear from the Shaa or the Naxid again?  What about Admiral Martinez?  Will “Lady” Sula every be completely outed?

WJW:  I think a word like “outed” brings us into a context that you probably didn’t intend, so let’s just say that Sula has secrets, and that exposure will be fatal.  The Naxids will definitely figure in the new series, as will the Yormaks, who were mentioned in the last series but weren’t brought onstage.

As for the Shaa, for now they’re all dead, but I reserve the right to alter reality at any point.

Originally I planned 9-12 Praxis books, depending on how soon I got bored.  After the last book, whichever one that would be, I intended to continue the story with the Next Generation.  (There’s a reason why so much attention has been paid to matrimonial politics.)

So far, I’m still content with that plan.  We’ll see how readers respond.

CS:  Does Lady Caroline Sula go through any type of transformation during the series or is she the same person when we meet her again in Impersonations?  Does she have relationships, a philosophy of life, personal and professional ambitions?

WJW:  Her character and situation will continue to evolve, and all these possibilities will be explored.  I don’t want to get into details, because that will bring us into spoiler territory.

CS:  I’ve heard that you’ve sold two different series.  Is that true?

WJW:  Indeed.  I’ve sold three more Praxis books to HarperCollins, and three books in a new series, Quillifer, to Simon & Schuster.  Fortunately the publishers are cooperating as to deadlines.

CS:  What’s Quillifer about?

WJW:  It’s a big secondary-world fantasy that should run to six volumes if I’m allowed to finish it.  It’s the first time I’ve ever written a big fantasy, but I fell in love with the character and couldn’t stop myself.  I hope readers fall in love with Quillifer as well. The first book should be out in October of this year.

CS:  I thought Metropolitan and City on Fire were big fantasies?

WJW:  I certainly thought so when I wrote them, but most readers seem to have decided those books were some kind of weird science fiction.  I’d thought having characters called “mages” who practiced something called “magic” would be a clue, but readers apparently decided that none of that mattered.

CS:  Any news about the Dagmar Shaw series?

WJW:  For now, I view it as complete and perfect.  I have an idea, though, for another novella about Dagmar’s protegé and nemesis, Sean Makin— and of course if HBO wants to pony up the money for a series, I may well be inspired to give the world more of Dagmar’s adventures.

CS:  Any news about the Wild Card series?

WJW:  Tor has bought four new Wild Cards books, and licensed five books from the backlist, so that’s great!  Unfortunately I won’t be in any of the new volumes, because I’m wrangling my novel deadlines.

CS:  Why the need for the Taos Toolbox and what’s your workshop strategy?

WJW:  Taos Toolbox is a writer’s workshop I started ten years ago, aimed at taking new writers of science fiction and fantasy to the next level.  The workshop is held every summer at a ski lodge in northern New Mexico, and it lasts a very intensive two weeks.

I started the workshop because I kept finding new, published SF that had problems that were very easy to identify and fix, at least if you’ve spent as much time in the business as I have.  So because I am basically a selfish person, and because I wanted to read lots and lots of great new SF, I decided to start a workshop that (among other things) teaches writers to avoid those sorts of mistakes, and produce works of the sort that I like to read.

We take novels, which most workshops won’t, and we teach plotting and structure (which most workshops won’t teach either, because it’s very, very hard).  We also spend time teaching writers the business of writing and publishing, which is more important than ever because the publishing field is changing so very fast right now.

CS:  Who are your instructors and who are some of your students who have gone on to successful careers?

WJW:  Nancy Kress will be teaching with me this year, as she has for the past eight years or so.  She’s an absolutely fabulous instructor, and we work very well together, because our approaches to writing are so absolutely different.  If you can’t write the way I do, it’s very likely that you can approaching writing the way Nancy does.  Win/win!

This year our special guest speakers include George RR Martin, Steven Gould, and indiepub guru EM Tippetts.

Our Hugo nominees alone include Fran Wilde, Lawrence M Schoen, Will McIntosh, David D. Levine, and Saladin Ahmed.

Other Toolbox veterans who’ve made recent sales include Alan Smale, whose trilogy has appeared from Tor, Larry Hodges, who has sold over 100 stories since his time in the ‘Box, Nebula nominee Kelly Robson, as well as Scott Hawkins, Rosemary Claire Smith, Jessica May Lin, Dorothy Windsor, and many more.

For a more complete list, see http://www.taostoolbox.com/graduates-achievements/

Not bad for a ten-year-old workshop, no?

Classics of S-F at Westercon 70

By John Hertz:  Westercon LXX has confirmed we’ll discuss three Classics of Science Fiction, one discussion each.  Come to as many as you like.  You’ll be welcome to join in.

I’m still with “A classic is a work that survives its own time.  After the currents which might have sustained it have changed, it remains, and is seen to be worthwhile for itself.”  If you have a better definition, bring it.

Each of our three may be more interesting now than when first published.

Have you read them?  Have you re-read them?

Leigh Brackett

The Sword of Rhiannon (1949)

It’s been called her best early work; concise, eloquent, fresh, poetic.  Why a sword? is answered, also Is this science fiction?  Perhaps unanswerable by human beings, but addressed, are questions of identity, motive, recognition, and will, during an adventure in our great romantic tradition.

Fredric Brown

The Lights in the Sky Are Stars (1953)

Some say this belonged on the Retrospective Hugo ballot at Noreascon IV (62nd World Science Fiction Convention) – and argue over which it should have replaced, The Caves of Steel, Childhood’s End, Fahrenheit 451, Mission of Gravity, or More Than Human.  A straightforward s-f novel by Brown – and what a wallop!

H.G. Wells

The Time Machine (1895)

 

Far better known in the wide wide world than our other two – why?  Never mind marketing; Hesse’s Glass Bead Game won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  In fact we see only two distant times: the more gripping is narrated in a way which, upon reflection, is quite suspect.  And the Time Traveller never returns for lunch.

Edward M. Lerner: Crafted Science, Convincing Characters

Edward M. Lerner

By Carl Slaughter: Retired professional scientist Edward Lerner talks about a host of hard science fiction topics, plus his collaboration with Larry Niven, his participation in SIGMA, and his nonfiction column for Analog.

Carl Slaughter: What was the deciding factor in getting out of full-time science work and getting into full-time fiction work?

Edward M. Lerner: There were two factors, as it happens. The first: I had to become ready for a radical change. While I had greatly enjoyed my career in science and engineering, much of the work eventually came to seem repetitive. Second, I had to prove to myself I had developed the necessary writing skills. My debut novel might have been a fluke, and for about a decade after that book’s publication my day job kept me too busy to write much. It wasn’t till after I’d sold a second novel, plus a couple shorter stories to Analog, that I took the leap.

CS: But in the end, it wasn’t all fiction, was it?

EML: As it turned out, no. Years after the career change, I developed a new interest: writing popular science. The chief example of that is the series of “the science behind the fiction” articles I did for Analog. Each article explored the science and engineering, sometimes speculative, that might underpin a common SF trope (such as faster-than-light travel, time travel, or telepathy), and is “illustrated” with SF stories, TV shows, and movies that made use of—or anticipated—some of that tech.

CS: Your science career, like your science fiction career, is all over the map. Which aspect of your science career contributed, directly or indirectly, to which aspect of your science fiction career?

EML: Certainly my employers were all over the map, metaphorically and geographically. But that first career? I’ll assert otherwise. The unifying theme—notwithstanding the mix of commercial and government-contracting employers, and the variety of situations addressed—was the tackling of complex problems with computers.

To your larger point, however, much of that experience did carry over to writing SF. For example, I put in seven years as a NASA contractor at Hughes Aircraft (now a part of Raytheon). That particular background transferred mostly after the fact, because Hughes/NASA had me working six, and sometimes seven, days a week. (Reference: the abovementioned lag between my first and second novels. But some of that Hughes/NASA experience did figure directly in the second novel.)

More generally, building any complex, responsive, mission-critical system cultivates a mindset. One learns to: consider everything that might go wrong, including recalcitrant users; design features to head off undesirable outcomes; provide ways to mitigate the consequences when such precautions nonetheless fail. As an SF writer, I also consider the implications of technology and how it might go wrong. I try not to rely upon venal or careless characters—as in most every Michael Crichton novel—to drive my stories. If, for example, a plot problem requires information from the bad guy’s computer, the solution ought not to be for the good guy to hack a computer in ten seconds flat, or for the bad guy to walk away from his desk while leaving his computer logged on. When a computer break-in is necessary, I want to make the penetration credible.

I spend much of my “writing” time wearing my engineering hat, asking myself: what about the technology available in a certain situation might go wrong or be abused? Then: what would a responsible engineer have done to minimize that risk? Then: what might a bad guy (or nature, being recalcitrant) do to circumvent those preventive measures? Then: why wouldn’t the designer have anticipated that hazard, and already done something to counter it? Iterate till no party to the developing storyline is being obtuse merely to advance the plot.

Case in point: there are many fictional examples of nanotech run amok. Most such, IMO, rely on thoughtlessness or carelessness on the part of the fictional nanotechnologists. At the start of writing my own nanotech novel (Small Miracles), I did a lot of research—and had a lot of back-and-forth with doctors, biophysicists, a biologist, a neurologist, and nanotechnologists—to come up with defensively designed medical nanobots that might nonetheless, in unforeseen circumstances, have unanticipated effects.

CS: You also did a lot of management work. You even have an MBA. Did your management background help or hinder your science fiction writing?

EML: My immediate reaction was that, apart from its utility on the business side (versus the creative side) of being a writer, my management background had no relevance. While economics is known (hat tip to Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle) as the dismal science, it’s hardly the basis for much science fiction. And when accountants do delve into fiction, we get messes like Enron and the 2008 financial crisis.

My second thought was quite different. Lots of SF, much of mine included, overlaps with the mystery genre, wherein a common method of unraveling plots and solving crimes is to “follow the money.” Maybe that’s why I’ve written three major business-oriented protagonists (and I suspect I’d find more if I did a thorough review of all I’ve written).

The best known of these protagonists is accountant Sigmund Ausfaller (in the Fleet of Worlds series, coauthored with Larry Niven, about which I expect we’ll talk further). Sigmund first appeared decades ago, in Larry Niven’s Hugo award-winning “Neutron Star” and “The Borderland of Sol,” as the foil for his protagonist, derring-do space pilot Beowulf Shaeffer. Those stories revealed little about Sigmund himself or how he came to be a super spy. To develop Sigmund’s back story (for Juggler of Worlds), I got Sigmund into—and out of—life-threatening peril through accounting. Really. (No big spoilers there: that much about Sigmund comes out in the novel’s opening pages. Sigmund went on to have many more adventures, occasionally drawing upon his accounting skills, in the course of this and subsequent novels.)

And, as it happens, my latest story series, kicked off by “The Company Man” (Grantville Gazette, May 2017 issue) has a forensic accountant as its antihero ….

CS: You’ve described some of your work as “meticulously researched novels.” What do you mean by that phrase?

EML: One corner of the broad genre of speculative fiction, as you know, is called “hard SF.” IMO that’s a terrible label, by which “hard” often gets misconstrued as meaning (too) challenging to read. The term is supposed to convey fiction in which real science is integral to the story, the adjective referring to an early emphasis within the subgenre on the so-called “hard” sciences, such as physics and astronomy. I write mainly hard SF—and getting the science right is important to me. That means research.

As for whether my research qualifies as “meticulous,” opinions will vary. To support my claims of research sufficiency, I’ll offer two anecdotes.

Take the aforementioned Small Miracles. I was researching a particular biological/medical detail that would affect where in the human body my medical nanobots could go and/or how I could design them to reach specific places. After refining the details through several iterations, a biophysicist who was helping me declared us done. He said, “Ed, it’s only a novel.”

Did I get the biology right? A doctor friend was discussing the finished novel—during surgery, over a patient—with a colleague. The colleague rushed out after surgery to order a copy, and later ordered a second copy for me to autograph as a gift for a physician relative. The medical aspects couldn’t have been too far off :-).

In Dark Secret, my latest novel (“The end of the world … and what comes next”), the supporting research ranged from gamma ray bursters to cosmic strings, from aberrant psychology to parasailing. For Déjà Doomed (the working title of my novel in progress), I’ve consulted with astrophysicists about fine points of orbital mechanics. Who says writers don’t have fun?

CS: Define artificial life. I mean, how is it life if it doesn’t form and evolve naturally?

EML: Like everything artificial, from sweeteners to skyscrapers, an artificial life is made on purpose. A conscious entity like you or me, and not (only) the impersonal and implacable forces of evolution, shapes it. This description doesn’t preclude adapting methods found in nature—nor does it preclude consciously influencing or eliminating random chance ….

Definitions of life vary, as do conclusions about whether particular things (such as viruses) are even alive. Wikipedia has a whole long article on the topic (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life). In common usage, life is carbon-based, built from one or more biological cells, and must adapt to a physical environmental. IMO, that’s merely natural life.

I imagine your question arises in the context of my novel Fools’ Experiments. That book deals with the directed evolution within a computer of entities with none of the aforementioned characteristics. The fundamental building blocks of these entities, rather than atoms and molecules, are computer bits; the next level of construction is computer instructions (and a subtle point: that’s not human-written software); and the environmental constraints are virtual. Happily (if only for storytelling purposes) those creatures of artificial life discover how their virtual world can interact—dramatically, and often even catastrophically, so!—with our physical world.

CS: Define artificial intelligence. Again, how can it be considered sentient if it was programmed rather than evolving naturally? If you tell it what to think or how to think, it’s just a machine—isn’t it?

EML: As a practical matter, an artificial intelligence is anything humans consider (a) acts intelligently and (b) isn’t us. Why? Because we’re no more able to unambiguously define intelligence than we are to define life, consciousness, or awareness.

AI was initially approached as an exercise in computer programming. That approach failed quite spectacularly. Many newer, and more successful, AI efforts have involved adapting to, or learning from experience. For example, an AI intended to identify cancerous tissue samples might be trained using images of known cancerous and non-cancerous cell cultures. After each attempted diagnosis, internal parameters are tweaked to emphasize whatever internal features of the system leaned toward the correct conclusion and deemphasize whatever internal features leaned toward the wrong conclusion. Through feedback during routine operation, the system will continue to self-adapt. (For completeness, it’s worth noting that this form of machine learning isn’t the only non-programming approach to developing an AI.)

In concept, one could reverse-engineer from the internals of a learning AI exactly which lessons from its training set (and from its subsequent experience) led to a particular decision. In practice, the effects of particular lessons and experiences overlap so much that such case-by-case deduction is impossible. We simply don’t know the inner workings of a modern AI. (Much less of most fictional AIs, such as HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ava in Ex Machina.)

Looking out several years to when quantum computing matures and gets applied to artificial intelligence, it won’t be possible even in principle to understand an AI’s decision process. From basic principles of quantum mechanics, such computing will be inherently nondeterministic. My own cut at quantum-computing-based AI was the Analog detective novelette, “A Case of Identity” (December 2015 issue). If you recognized that as the title of a Sherlock Holmes story, it’s not a coincidence.

(For a far broader discussion of AI and some of the SF that best illustrates it, see my two-part nonfiction article in Analog, “A Mind of Its Own” [September and October 2016 issues.])

CS: Your stories have grand scale impact settings but also focus on the impact on individual characters. How do you strike this balance?

EML: Carefully?

But seriously, balance is the operative word. On the one hand, an unusual context—whether in space or time, physical law or the state of technology—is the distinguishing characteristic of science fiction. In a phrase, that’s world-building. So, absolutely, much of my fiction is meant to offer an exotic and impactful setting. On the other hand, all fiction, whether of the SF or any other variety, is about people. If an exotically located work of fiction doesn’t affect anyone therein, that is at best an imaginative travelogue and not a story.

And beyond making every story about people (even if they’re of an extraterrestrial, AI, or extraterrestrial-AI persuasion) I also strive to follow a dictum of Kurt Vonnegut: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.”

CS: How did you hook up with Larry Niven and what type of relationship do you have with him?

EML: At Noreascon 4, aka Worldcon 2004, Larry and I were both on the panel “My Favorite Planet.” As the name suggests, panelists were asked to name the world, real or imaginary, they would most like to visit. When my turn came, I named the Fleet of Worlds. In Larry’s best-known novel, Ringworld, the Fleet is a cluster of five inhabited worlds hurtling through space at relativistic speed. The Fleet and its impressively alien inhabitants are scarcely glimpsed before the reader moves on to the eponymous Ringworld. I told Larry he should write a story set on the Fleet. He said he didn’t have a plot for such a story. I emailed him shortly thereafter, to say, “Well, I do.”

Fleet of Worlds, our first collaboration, was the result. In the (woohoo!) bidding war over the novel, we got an offer as well on a sequel. That we hadn’t discussed a sequel, much less written one? We didn’t let that stand in our way. The sequel became Juggler of Worlds. The series grew to include Destroyer of Worlds, Betrayer of Worlds, and finally Fate of Worlds.

Larry and I live on opposite coasts, three time zones apart. We worked mostly by email, picking up the phone as needed. But while we see each other only occasionally, at cons, we’re friends. When SFWA (that’s the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) declared Larry a Grandmaster of Science Fiction, I was honored to be invited to write the official appreciation for him (text at http://blog.edwardmlerner.com/2015/06/the-2015-nebula-awards-weekend.html.)

CS: Fleet of Worlds, Ringworld, Known Space. The setting and chronology is a bit hard to follow. Can you sort it out for us?

EML: Larry’s universes (your question deals with only one of those) are on grand scales. Briefly, Known Space is the overarching setting of a future history that opens with early human explorations of the Solar System. Known Space stories continue for centuries, ultimately offering adventures across a bubble of space—and civilizations—many light-years across.

Within Known Space, the Ringworld is a physical artifact. Oversimplifying a bit, this is a hoop-like structure a million miles wide, 600 million miles in circumference, circling a distant star. That vast structure has trillions of hominid (although not human) inhabitants. The novel Ringworld, a part of the overarching Known Space future history, deals with the discovery and initial explorations of this wondrous setting. (And, as I’ve noted, the Fleet of Worlds is a separate physical setting glimpsed early in Ringworld.) Larry wrote three sequels about how discovery of the physical Ringworld and the wondrous technologies it embodies affected various Known Space intelligent species.

The Fleet of World series, my five collaborations with Larry, is likewise set in Known Space, opening two hundred years before Ringworld. In our fifth book, Fate of Worlds—subtitled “Return from the Ringworld”—we wrap up both series. Explosively, I might add …

For a more complete discussion, including a recommended reading order(s), File 770 visitors might check out my blog post “Of fleet Fleets and Known Space” (http://blog.edwardmlerner.com/2011/02/of-fleet-fleets-and-known-space.html).

CS: Any plans to return to the Fleet universe?

I won’t say never—working in Known Space, and with Larry, was a blast—but we don’t have any plans to do so. For now I’m too into my own universes.

CS: What exactly are the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox?

EML: Together, the intellectual framework behind many discussions of the possibility of alien intelligent life.

In 1961, Frank Drake created an elegant equation to facilitate a conversation about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The equation provides a way to estimate the number of technological civilizations currently in our galaxy—civilizations for which radio astronomers (like Drake) might listen. The equation relies upon a long list of input parameters, the values for many of which (such as the fraction of planets on which life emerges) are unknown. With different guesses at such values, the equation has been used to suggest both that intelligent and technologically capable life must be common in the galaxy and that humanity is surely alone.

The Fermi Paradox is a rebuttal—actually, a prebuttal, dating to the early Fifties—of the more optimistic versions of the Drake Equation. Suppose that the vast number of stars (and optimistic estimates of other relevant parameters) argues for intelligence arising elsewhere in the galaxy. If any alien civilization has technology only slightly in advance of humanity’s, then in an eye blink (by astronomical standards) those aliens could spread across the galaxy. So, nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi challenged, where are they? Why have we seen no evidence of them?

(For more about the Drake Equation, the Fermi Paradox, and SETI in general, see my nonfiction Analog article “Alien AWOLs: The Great Silence,” in the October 2014 issue.)

All that said, let’s turn to explorations of these topics in my InterstellarNet novels.

Much popular SF, like Star Trek, rests on two conveniences: faster-than-light travel and nearby alien neighbors. Apart from authorial convenience, there’s no justification. The known universe seems to insist upon a light-speed limit, and we have yet to find an alien bacterium, much less alien intelligences. But for plot purposes, we authors want not only alien intelligence, but alien neighbors. And not only must the aliens be nearby, and intelligent, they need to have technology so similar to human level—no matter that our respective solar systems may differ in age by billions of years—that conflicts between us and them are suspenseful.

In my novels InterstellarNet: Origins and InterstellarNet: New Order, I stuck with slower-than-light travel and radio-based communications. But for an interstellar communications network to function, my aliens had to live nearby, within radio range, and be advanced enough to have radios. I got to wondering: could I find a justification beyond “It’s my universe, and I’ll construct it for my convenience?” I found out that I could—but that justification was a doozy. As constraints so often do, this led to a multilayered, and (if I can toot my own horn) interesting story. That’s my second-most recent novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma.

CS: How does in-person alien interaction affect each species differently than interstellar radio contact?

EML: With contacts limited to communications, initial impacts are “merely” cultural and technological. Early parts of InterstellarNet: Origins explore the dangers—as when, for example, an interstellar message makes fuel-cell cars practical overnight (and in the process destroys the economies of many petroleum-producing countries). Later in the novel, the interspecies contacts become more sophisticated, reliant upon AIs exchanged between civilizations. (See, I had a reason earlier to mention extraterrestrial AIs.) After AIs have been transferred across the stars, the opportunities for interspecies interaction—and mischief—greatly expand. How? Anything a human hacker might attempt via the Internet, so might an alien AI. And an alien AI might try things no mere human hacker would imagine ….

When aliens come calling (as in InterstellarNet: New Order), physical interactions—up to, and including mass mayhem—become possible.

CS: Any plans to return to the InterstellarNet universe?

EML: A return isn’t on my to-do list, but I suspect I’ll eventually succumb. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed playing in that universe.

CS: What is SIGMA, what does it do, and what’s your involvement?

EML: From all those upper-case letters, you’d think SIGMA (http://www.sigmaforum.org/) is an acronym, but it’s not. SIGMA (aka, “The Science Fiction think tank”) is a group of hard SF authors with professional science or technology backgrounds. We consult, often pro bono, mostly with government agencies. Why would anyone want our input? Because we’re pretty good at thinking “outside the box.”

And me, personally? Through SIGMA, I’ve taken part in a colloquium on asteroid deflection (which turned out to provide handy source material for Energized, in which a captured asteroid becomes raw material for building solar power satellites), guest lectured at the U.S. Naval Academy, and been a panelist at an academic conference on nanotech.

CS: What’s on the horizon for Edward M. Lerner?

EML: Thanks for asking. A bunch of short fiction is queued up in 2017, at Analog, Galaxy’s Edge, and the Grantville Gazette—and I have a couple more magazine-length stories in me yearning to be set free. I recently finished updating, expanding, and integrating my various “the science behind the fiction” magazine articles, a couple of which I’ve mentioned, into a nonfiction book. I look forward to placing that. And I’ll be finishing (I’m at about the halfway mark) Déjà Doomed, a near-future adventure novel mainly set on the Moon.

And thanks for inviting me to File 770.

Linda Nagata’s Future Tech Draws Closer Every Day

By Carl Slaughter: Linda Nagata does hard science  —  nanotech-supported genetic engineering, duplicate minds, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance, brain-computer interfaces, autonomous drones, military exoskeletons, and brain-controlled replacement limbs.  She has more than one series and gives us the inside story on all of them.

Carl Slaughter:  What type of tech is featured in your stories?

Linda Nagata:  Depends on the story! I started off my career writing in a story world with highly evolved nanotech that supported genetic engineering and duplicate minds—electronic ghosts—that allowed individuals to be many places at once. The more recent stories have been a lot closer to our present-day reality, based off technologies under development, such as artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance, brain-computer interfaces, autonomous drones, military exoskeletons, and brain-controlled replacement limbs. It’s been amazing to watch the real-world shift ever closer to the books.

CS:  How does that tech affect the setting, plot, society, and characters?

LN:  All those aspects are interwoven, continuously playing off one another. One of the challenges of developing a story is to continually weigh the effect of the available technologies, while keeping in mind that the characters are part of this story world, so they’ll be making specific assumptions based on this world they know—assumptions about uninterrupted communications, for instance, or the certainty of surveillance. So technology is part of the setting, and the setting is integrated with plot, society, and characters.

CS:  What kind of research do you have to do to prepare for a tech novel?

LN: I try to read widely, if shallowly, all the time—essentially keeping an eye on what is going on in research and development. And I’ll read a little more deeply when my interest is sparked. I keep bookmarks and save articles. So by the time I begin to develop a story idea, I’ve got ideas of the sort of tech I want to include. Then I’ll usually do some deeper background reading. But I don’t do a lot of preliminary research. Instead, as I write, I’ll leave myself notes along the way on things I need to look into later. And of course, I’m still reading articles during the writing process and many times that’s led to the discovery of critical ideas and concepts that get integrated into the developing story.

CS:  How realistic is this tech and how soon might we see it?

LN:  A lot of the technology in the Red trilogy is based on tech under development now. For example, while the details of the brain-computer interface I use in the story are completely made up, BCIs are being researched and experimental systems do exist. What’s fascinating to me is the way advances in one field generate advances in others. For example, imagine a combat exoskeleton that, instead of responding to a user’s movement, anticipates it through a brain-computer interface that in turn relies on narrow AI to interpret the user’s intention.

My forthcoming novel, The Last Good Man, plays heavily on the idea of autonomous robotics—something we’re seeing more of with every passing day.

CS:  What’s the status of the Red series?

LN:  The trilogy concluded with the publication of Going Dark, but I’ve written an additional short story set in the same world. That will be part of Titan Books’ forthcoming anthology Infinite Stars.

CS:  What was the inspiration for the Dismay character?

LN: A whim, nothing more! Dismay is a demon of violent nature and the protagonist of my Puzzlelands duology. He came about after I took a long hiatus from writing. When I finally resolved to try another novel, part of the deal I made with myself was to start with something completely different from what I’d done before—and a handsome demon who can transform at will into a puff of smoke certainly qualified.

CS:  What’s the status of the Puzzleland series?

LN:  I had a lot of fun writing those two books. Both are very short novels, violent and darkly humorous—and I would have been happy to write a few more in the series. But they never found their audience so I eventually returned to writing science fiction. The two novels together make a complete story, so right now I don’t anticipate adding more to the series.

CS:  Same question for the Succession series?

LN:  My first four novels comprise the Nanotech Succession, all originally published in the 1990s. I returned to this story world in 2012 with the publication of short story “Nahiku West” which became runner-up for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award.

Recently, I’ve outlined two novels in the Nanotech Succession story world, though I’m still debating whether or not to go ahead with either of them. In part it’s a marketing question. I’m not a fast writer, and a novel is a big commitment for me. But I hope to do at least one, before too much longer.

CS:  What type of tech is in “Last Good Man”?

LN:  The setting in this novel is the imminent future, so the technologies are advanced versions of tech that’s in existence now—universal communications, increasingly reliable and clever artificial intelligence, autonomous systems ranging from analysis to robotics and including autonomous weaponry. The Last Good Man is a thriller based around the idea that warfare is becoming ever more automated.

 

CS:  Will “Last Good Man” be a series?

LN:  No. The Last Good Man is a stand-alone novel. It tells a complete story in itself. It’s possible I might return to this story world, but if so, it would be a related novel and not a sequel.

CS:  Describe the writing process for Jonathan Strahan’s Infinity anthology.

LN:  Jonathan was looking for stories that speculated on how a permanent presence in space might actually be achieved—which struck me as a tall order for a short story.

I considered and discarded many ideas over at least a nine-month period. The deadline was approaching, and still nothing felt right. Then, as I was watching an NFL football game, I was struck by the thought that there is a lot of money in professional sports—and money is what it takes to get into space. “Attitude” evolved from that observation.

CS:  Same for John Joseph Adams’ Cosmic Power anthology.

LN:  John has a habit of asking me for stories that are not what I usually write. For example, Operation Arcana was an anthology of military fantasy stories—something new for me. I took it on as a challenge and really enjoyed it. So when he asked for a story for Cosmic Powers, I happily agreed—and eventually came to regret it!

I had such a hard time writing this story. Cosmic Powers is about galaxy-spanning adventures with “a little less science,” but I found it really hard to let go of the science. After considerable soul-searching, I decided to forego any use of hyperspace, FTL, wormholes, etc., and limit my adventure to the solar system. It all worked out in the end.

CS:  You’ve done corp, i.e., Saga, and you’ve done indie, i.e., Mythic.  In your experience, what has been the advantages and disadvantages of both?

LN:  Upfront money, art directors, distribution, and respect are the advantages of traditional publishing. Speed to publication, control over the process, and after-the-fact money, are some of the advantages of indie publishing—and in my experience, the respect is growing. But it takes a lot of time to prepare a book for publication and to handle all the publicity. The Last Good Man is coming out in June under my imprint, Mythic Island Press LLC. And much of this year has been devoted to advance publicity efforts and getting it ready to go.

Has that impacted my writing time? Absolutely. And I’m going to have to try to make up for it in the second half of the year.

CS:  What’s on the horizon for Linda Nagata?

LN:  To be determined…

I’ve got three novels—or possibly two novels and a novella—under development. I’d like to write all of them. I’d like to write faster. With luck I’ll have something new in 2018.

Linda Nagata Bio:

Linda Nagata writes hard science fiction. Her novel First Light, first in her Red series, was nominated for both the Nebula Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.  Her novella “Goddesses” was the first online publication to receive a Nebula award.  Her novelette “Nahiku West” was runner-up for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. “The Bohr Maker,” first in her Nanotech Succession series, won the Locus Award for best first novel.  Her latest novel, “The Last Good Man,” is scheduled for release on June 20.

B. Morris Allen’s Metaphorosis

By Carl Slaughter: B. Morris Allen talks about his new speculative fiction magazine Metaphorosis.  He values storytelling over story, but not at the expense of the story.  He offers this contrast as proof of the value of style:

  • “Every day the sky has been white as paper, only marked by a few black flecks: birds, arranged like dashes, abandoned on a wordless page.”
  • “The sky is white with clouds and a few birds and I miss you and I’m lonely.”

He prefers vegan stories.  No, not veganism stories (stories against meat), just vegan stories, i.e., stories without meat.  He published  Best Vegan Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2016 on Earth Day, April 22, 2017.

Carl Slaughter:  What exactly does metaphorosis mean?

B. Morris Allen:  There are any number of answers to that, but here are my top three:

  1. It’s the title of the placeholder story we ran before the magazine launched. We opened for submissions in October 2015, and had a pretty well-defined website by that point. I knew there would be people coming to the site, but of course we didn’t have any stories yet. I posted one of my own stories in early September to give people something to look at until we posted our first real story in January.
  2. It’s a method of understanding our surroundings through examination of allegory and parable. That’s what I call my ‘intellectual-sounding’ answer. While I do mean it to some extent, I don’t take myself anywhere near that seriously most of the time.
  3. I believe in the value of writing beautifully, and metaphor is an important stylistic tool. Take Molly Etta’s story, “Solomon and the Dragon’s Tongue” – in it, a husband, writing to his wife, says, “Every day the sky has been white as paper, only marked by a few black flecks: birds, arranged like dashes, abandoned on a wordless page.” That’s worlds away from saying “The sky is white with clouds and a few birds and I miss you and I’m lonely.” Metaphors are not only a convenient shorthand, but a powerful way of reaching the emotions and associations we all have and rely on to interpret and colour our lives. So, the magazine’s name was a nod to that (which really is answer #2, taken seriously).

CS:  Is that in the dictionary or did you coin the word?

BMA:  It’s completely invented. The story it came from was a reversal of the mechanism of Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” – instead of Gregor Samsa becoming a bug, everyone around Sam Gregson turns out to be a bug. I drew heavily on metaphor in the story to hint at the concept – bus taillights that look like fireflies attracting mates, for example. Eventually that reliance on metaphor became the title of the story.

B. Morris Allen

CS:  What was the motivation/inspiration for a new speculative magazine?

BMA:  I think it’s probably the same as for most new magazines – I didn’t see anyone publishing enough of the kind of material I liked. There are a number of very good, very impressive magazines out there – Shimmer, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Tor.com. They all publish loads of great material from very talented writers. But some of them have a definite tone to them – after a while, all the stories start to sound the same – and they all occasionally publish work that I think is just terrible. It’s a matter of taste, of course, but I thought there was room enough in the market for a venue that reflected my tastes and that of people like me.

CS:  What type of stories do you publish?

BMA:  As you’ll have gathered, our primary focus is on beautiful writing. That doesn’t always mean ornate, though – my wife likes to remind me that Isaac Asimov did just fine with simple, accessible language without all the frippery. And style isn’t all there is. In addition to great writing, we want engaging characters that we care about, interesting ideas, and complete stories rather than vignettes. And we give bonus points if the story is vegan (though most of what we publish is not).  We tend to publish a fair amount of roughly contemporary stories, but I’d love to see more hard science fiction and epic fantasy.

CS:  What type of stories do you not publish?

BMA:  First off, we only publish science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes epic high sorcery, sometimes light contemporary tech stories; but if there’s no tinge of the speculative, it’s not for us. We don’t publish tired or trendy ideas – I have yet to see a vampire/werewolf story I’m interested in. Time travel is a very hard sell – I came close with a recent meta-story about the editor of a small magazine who gets a time travel story with all the usual tropes and clichés, but while it was fun, it was still a time travel story.

CS:  Do you specifically look for new writers or are you open to all writers?

BMA:  We’re open to all writers; frankly I just don’t care whether or what they’ve published before. We deliberately don’t allow for a cover letter, and after a brief flirtation with non-anonymous submissions, we’re back to blind reading, or as close to it as we can get. Due to our fee structure ($.01/word), we get more emerging writers than big names, but we do get both. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the quality of the work that comes in; there’s a lot of good writing out there.

CS:  What are the submissions requirements?

BMA:  We state the content requirements as simply as we can: beautiful writing showing engaging characters in science fiction or fantasy settings.

Administratively, less than 10,000 words, anonymized, no reprints, no multiple submissions, and in the industry standard format. The thing people seem to have most trouble with is the anonymization, even though our guidelines are only 150 words, and the anonymization requirement is in bold red letters. For those who do like more detail, there are links to some “don’ts”.

The guidelines are here.

CS:  What’s more important, the story or the storytelling?

BMA:  The storytelling. But you can’t have storytelling without a story, so that’s a prerequisite. If there’s no story, we’re not buying – no slice of life pieces, no vignettes, nothing that doesn’t tell a complete story. It’s surprising how often those non-stories come in. Once past that hurdle, though, storytelling skill and style carry a lot of weight. Again, it’s not everything – we also need characters we can engage with and care about.

CS:  What’s more important, character, plot, or premise?

BMA:  Character, premise, and plot, in that order. Without engaging characters, there’s no reason to care what’s happening in a story; as readers, we won’t be invested or emotionally involved in the outcome. On the other hand, give me an interesting character with desires and motivations, whether appealing or evil, and I want to know what happens to them and their world. Do they get what they want? What they deserve? If the characters aren’t there, it’s hard for the rest to matter; it’s like reading a technical manual – maybe a few sparks of interest, but mostly tedious. With an engaging character, written beautifully, I’d read a story about them reading a technical manual.

CS:  Why should authors submit to you, rather than other venues?

BMA:  The great thing is that these days, authors have lots of choices. We know that, and of course we know that some other magazines offer better pay or wider exposure (for now, though we hope to change both those things). While we do hope that people will recognize the quality of the stories we buy, and want to be in that company, we also offer three  concrete benefits:

Speed – we aim for a same-day response to most stories, and so far we’ve stuck to that. In fact, we’ve got an informal rule that we don’t respond in less than an hour, just to avoid hurt feelings. Sometimes travel slows things down, and stories we’re considering may take up to a week to decide on, but the vast majority of stories get a response within 24 hours.

Feedback – I know how frustrating it is to send out stories and get only form rejections in response. I read all the way to the end of each story we get, and offer brief, blunt feedback to anyone who wants it (most do). It’s just a few sentences, but I try to give at least some sense of why we didn’t buy the story, including how close the prose was to what I look for, and at what point in the story I knew I didn’t want it. For our Patreon supporters, we offer overview feedback – what positive and negative trends we see over the course of several stories – that gives more detailed feedback on areas that might need attention.

Editing – the biggest surprise for me about running the magazine was how much hands-on editing I end up doing. I went in expecting to buy stories as they are, but the fact is that most stories aren’t perfect when they come in. We generally go through a few rounds of back and forth, looking at structure, balance, and polish. I’ve also been surprised by how much fun this is, and how well writers respond to it. I’ve done quite lot of polling, and most writers enjoy the editing process and feel their stories are better at the end. So, while there has to be a good story and good writing to begin with, if I see promise in a story that’s not quite there, I’m happy to work with the author on making it better.

We also provide a fairly detailed rejectomancy section, to help make sense of that brief feedback, and thorough submission statistics, for those who want to dig into them.

CS:  What type of stories do you yourself write?

BMA:  I write a pretty broad range, from lightly technological SF to grand fantasy, some light-hearted, some dark. On average, though, I’d say they’re often mood pieces – that is, there’s (I hope) a solid story I’m telling, but the trigger for a story is the feeling I’m trying to evoke. The things my characters do often surprise me, but I’ve usually got a pretty firm grasp on what they’re feeling and how I want the reader to feel. Stylistically, I’m much more (aspirationally) on the Zelazny, Vance, McKillip side than the Asimov, Heinlein, Dickson side.

CS:  How has your background in science made you a better speculative writer?

BMA:  I like to get the foundation right. Partly for that reason, I don’t write much hard science fiction; my biochemistry degrees are well out of date, and it’s a rapidly changing field. Doing hard science fiction well requires solid knowledge. I generally have an analytical, evidence-based approach to the world, but that may be what drew me to science, rather than the other way around. I do think that my somewhat antiquated base knowledge gives me a foundation for evaluating the science in the stories I see, and the vocabulary to investigate it. For example, I recently saw a story that used lumens as a measure of light intensity. I knew just enough to have the feeling that the value given was off by at least an order of magnitude, and to be able to find out what a better value might be. In another story about spaceflight, I was able to do a quick check of whether the parameters for acceleration and duration were in the right ballpark, and suggest better options. So, I’m comfortable looking into science and technology, and not just taking things on faith. It’s not just about science, though – in an alternate history story, I’m just as likely to check on whether a particular piece of slang would have been used during the time period. Essentially, I have an interest in getting the basic elements and right, when it’s easy to do so.

Of course, I apply the same principles to my own writing. I spend a lot of time looking things up, to make sure I have at least a vague grasp of the terminology and limits of whatever I’m writing about. Note, though, that I’m not calling this research. Writers who do real research do a lot more than look up the right words. What I’m doing is just using my background knowledge to get a toehold in a topic and get some of the color right.

CS:  What’s on the horizon for Morris Allen?

BMA:  I started a new day-job at the beginning of the year, with lots of travel, and unfortunately, it’s meant choosing between writing and running the magazine (the magazine won easily).

We’ve just published the Best Vegan Science Fiction and Fantasy of 2016 – a collection of great stories that aren’t about veganism, but just happen to be vegan. No preaching, just good speculative stories that aren’t about hunting, horse-riding, etc. It came out on Earth Day, 22 April.

I’ll also soon be self-publishing a novel – Susurrus – about an evil sorceress. It started as a brief sketch about a woman trapped in a desert by her enemies, but I found I wanted to explore how she got there and just why she turned out the way she did. No one grows up wanting to be evil, and of course my sorceress doesn’t either. It’s just that magic seems to work out very badly for her. It’s grim and dark, but romantic as well.