Shetterly Banned by 4th Street Fantasy Convention

Will Shetterly reports he has been banned from Minneapolis’ annual 4th Street Fantasy Convention.

In 2017, a 4th Street board member recruited Shetterly to help with a writing workshop, however, after seeing the info appear on the con’s website, 4th Street’s Safety Coordinator raised concerns. The board overruled the selection and Shetterly was dropped. Shetterly exchanged emails with people to find out what those concerns were and why the decision was made. Today he published that correspondence because the board has notified him he is banned from 4th Street Fantasy, due to his having raised the spectre of legal action when dropped from the 2017 workshop, and also for his public criticism of the convention.

Shetterly quotes the board’s notice about the ban in section three of his post “Positively Fourth Street, or On being banned for … vague reasons about nearly indescribable things?”

  1. I was done with 4th Street, but 4th Street was not done with me

After deciding I was done with Fourth Street, I rarely thought about it. When I did, I remembered it like Minneapolis’s Uptown neighborhood, a place that was fun that has been gentrified. It never occurred to me that Fourth Street was not done with me, but the convention is like a lover I ghosted—she felt obliged to tell me the relationship is over. On March 8, I woke to find this email:

Dear Will:

On April 27, 2017, as part of an email conversation regarding your removal from a programming item at the 2017 4th Street Fantasy Convention, you wrote “Someone has suggested this decision to imply I’m unsafe in public might be actionable.”

We cannot disregard this implied threat of legal action, particularly combined with your lengthy and detailed public criticism of the convention on multiple platforms. Despite your reassurance in correspondence dated April 30, 2017 that “I just want to reassure everyone that Emma and I have less than zero intention of suing anyone”, the Board of Directors has decided that we are unwilling to open ourselves to liability through further association with you.

We are therefore banning you from Fourth Street Fantasy.

We would like to resolve this privately. These are the practical steps we have taken:

• As stated above, you are banned from Fourth Street Fantasy. You will not be allowed to register for the convention or attend convention events. Please do not come to the Doubletree Hotel during the weekend of the convention.

Thank you for your service as a founder, programming participant, and long-time attendee. We wish you well in your further writing career.

Sincerely Yours,

The Fourth Street Fantasy Board of Directors

Brad Roberts
Scott Lynch
Alex Haist
Arkady Martine
Max Gladstone

Shetterly says he was “done with 4th Street” already (partly for the reasons covered last year in “Steven Brust’s Fourth Street Fantasy Remarks Generate Heat”, which Shetterly commented on extensively.) However, he believes a public statement is needed to clear the air, lest people assume he has been banned for the kind of behavior that has gotten other men banned from conventions.

Soon afterward, I realized these things:

1. The only substance in the Board’s letter is the fact that I’m banned because they’re concerned I might sue them for implying I’m unsafe. Their logic is odd. If I was the sort of person who liked using the law, banning me would make me more likely to sue them. By banning me, they are giving me the only reason I might have to sue them—in earlier times, no one would have been banned for polite disagreement, so people will quite reasonably assume there must be more to the charge.

2. Their letter says I criticize the convention without citing examples because there are none. I’ve always supported the convention. I’ve only criticized its current administrators who speak as if they are the convention—L’Etat, c’est moi is the motto of all petty people who fail to see they are only caretakers.

3. The letter says the Board “would like to resolve this privately”, but a ban means nothing if no one knows about it, the idea that five members of this community could keep anything private is hilarious, and there’s nothing offered to resolve: the Board isn’t dangling any hope of rescinding the ban if I promise to keep from criticizing them in the future. Their “privately” may mean they want to keep the story in the realm of gossip instead of making a press release, but the game of telephone began the moment a Board member told a friend I’d been banned or answered an inquiry about whether I’ll be at this year’s 4th Street.

So the Board has given me three choices:

  1. Do nothing, thereby validating the implication that I’m banned for the same reason other men in our community have been banned.
  2. Sue the Board to make them admit that the implications of their ban are false.
  3. Make the historical record public so people may draw their own conclusions.

Shetterly says he has chosen the last option, thus his post.

[Thanks to Mark Hepworth for the story.]

Ready Player One Dreamer Trailer

Ready Player One opens in theaters March 29.

From filmmaker Steven Spielberg comes the action adventure “Ready Player One,” based on Ernest Cline’s bestseller of the same name, which has become a worldwide phenomenon.

The film is set in 2045, with the world on the brink of chaos and collapse. But the people have found salvation in the OASIS, an expansive virtual reality universe created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance). When Halliday dies, he leaves his immense fortune to the first person to find a digital Easter egg he has hidden somewhere in the OASIS, sparking a contest that grips the entire world. When an unlikely young hero named Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) decides to join the contest, he is hurled into a breakneck, reality-bending treasure hunt through a fantastical universe of mystery, discovery and danger.


Like a Sinking Star

By John Hertz:  Speaking of this year’s Retrospective Hugo Awards i.e. for 1942, I realize I should call your attention to that strange masterwork of that strange master, the novelette “To Follow Knowledge” by Frank Belknap Long. We think of him, if at all, as a horror writer, which indeed he was.  He won a Bram Stoker for Lifetime Achievement in 1987.

Ten years earlier we put him in the First Fandom Hall of Fame – that’s how long he’d been with us as of three decades ago – pun intended – and in 1978 the World Fantasy Convention too gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award.

At his death in 1994 he was so impoverished his remains were interred in a potter’s field.  Some of us, including my friend Ben Indick, heard afterward, wouldn’t stand for it, and raised money for a re-interment, which was done in 1995.

The title “To Follow Knowledge” is from Tennyson’s 1842 poem Ulysses.  Right under it Long quotes lines 31-32, possibly our motto,

To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought,

to which the story lives up.

Haunting, extraordinary, full of strangeness, it closes Groff Conklin’s 1953 anthology Science Fiction Adventures in Dimension.  Conklin may still be our best anthologist.

You can, in fact, read it online.

A Hugo for Wallace Stevens?

By John Hertz:  Since the 2018 Worldcon, in addition to the current Hugo Awards i.e. for 2017, is presenting Retro-Hugos i.e. for 1942, I’ve been reviewing that year.  You probably have too.

Details about the Hugos and Retro-Hugos are in Article 3 of the World Science Fiction Society Constitution, printed in Progress Report 2.0, which you can find here. The Retro-Hugo ballot is here. It says who is eligible to nominate.  Nominations must be received by 11:59 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time on Friday March 16, 2018.

There was lots of good work in 1942.

You may have already found helps like Isaac Asimov’s 1980 anthology (novellas, novelettes, short stories), Vincent Di Fate’s 1997 anthology of visual art with commentary and color reproductions (there’s a review by me on the sidebar), Harry Warner’s history of s-f fandom in the 1940s (see the 2004 revision), and the images of 1942 fan-published material which have just recently been produced by volunteers and made available electronically.

Of course these things are neither complete nor conclusive.  Let me add that even if you’re so knowledgeable you could have written them better yourself (hello, Joe, it’s good of you to drop by and read this), they’re worth looking at.

I’ve been struck by the 1942 Wallace Stevens poem “Connoisseur of Chaos”. In fact I’ve nominated it.  That’s somewhat strange (as you might expect of me).  It’s less than 500 words.  I think it’s a wonder.  But is it a story?  Is it a Related Work?  Is it – better I shouldn’t ask the next question; but Theodore Sturgeon (“always ‘Theodore’ in print, please”) in a really excellent pun said “Science fiction is knowledge fiction.”

After all the pretty contrast of life and death
Proves that these opposite things partake of one,
At least that was the theory, when bishops’ books
Resolved the world.  We cannot go back to that.
The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind,
If one may say so.  And yet relation appears,
A small relation expanding like the shade
Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of a hill.

Brother Stevens, I couldn’t have written it better myself.

Pixel Scroll 3/14/18 Scroll Longa, Pixel Brevis

(1) HERSTORY. James Davis Nicoll, in “Fighting Erasure: Women SF Writers of the 1970s, Part III”, continues his series for

…Clarion graduate P. C. Hodgell has been active since the late 1970s. She is the author of the long-running Chronicles of the Kencyrath (nine volumes since 1982). Readers of a certain vintage may have vivid memories of the twelve-year desert between the third book in the series, Seeker’s Mask, and the fourth, To Ride a Rathorn. Currently she has the active support of a publisher whose name escapes me. Since the series is continuity-heavy, you will want to start with the first volume, 1982’s God Stalk, in which an amnesiac woman of a race of staunch monotheists finds herself in a city of a thousand gods—none of whom seem to be particularly helpful gods…

(2) CROWDFUNDING AMAZING: AN UPDATE. The Amazing Stories Kickstarter has accumulated $7,811 of its $30,000 goal, with 23 days remaining. Steve Davidson has begun revealing the authors who will be in the first print issue:

We are pleased to announce the following writers have contributed stories; Kameron Hurley, Paul Levinson, Dave Creek, Shirley Meier, Drew Hayden Taylor, and Allen Steele.

While we’re excited about all our authors, let us tell you a little bit about Kameron Hurley and her story…

(3) ANALOG BLOG. From a Featured Futures’ links post I learned about The Astounding/Analog Companion, “the Official Analog Science Fiction and Fact blog.” Last month they published Gregory Benford’s background notes about a piece he wrote for the magazine: “Thinking About Physics a Century Hence”.

I’ve published over 200 short stories and over 200 scientific papers, reflecting a symmetry of sorts.

My career as a professor of physics at UC Irvine has taken most of my working life, with writing as a hobby that has surprised me by success. So I see SF through a scientific lens, focused on plausible futures. But sometimes I just wing it, and speculating on physics a century hence is a grand leap, indeed.

The mock future news report in the current Analog issue [“Physics Tomorrow: A News Item of the Year 2116,” March/April 2018 Analog, on sale now] came from a contest the journal Physics Today ran in 2016: to devise an entry for that journal in a century. I took the challenge, and produced this “story” because the physics intrigued me.

Physics Today did not select my essay, from 230 others. They published much more pedestrian stuff. Since then, I’ve worked with an old friend and general relativity physicist Al Jackson, to calculate in detail how to in fact make a “gravwave transmitter.”

Then I thought, why not try Analog? As a physicist and SF writer, both avenues are natural. Indeed, maybe writing future news items is a new way to think of SF….

(4) ASIMOV’S TOO. There’s also an Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine Author & Editor Blog called From the Earth to the Stars. They recently conducted a “Q&A with Mary Robinette Kowal” about her Asimov’s story “Artisanal Trucking, LLC.”

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?

Mary Robinette Kowal: I was at a conference in a round table discussion talking about automation and privilege. At some point, we were talking about how knitting, which used to be a necessary thing, became automated with knitting machines and now it is a luxury art. It’s expensive to buy wool. It takes time and leisure to make a garment. I said, “I imagine the hipsters of the future will totally do artisanal trucking.” I had more of a point but stopped talking as Story stampeded through my brain.

(5) USING SOCIAL MEDIA. Dawn Witzke begins a series of posts with  “On Professionalism: Part 1” at Superversive SF. No writer can go wrong following this piece of advice:

Social Media

Writers must be on social media, which means that everything, personal and professional is up for examination. How you present yourself online can affect what impression other authors, editors and publishers make of you.

Stick to arguing ideas, not making personal attacks. Most likely this will not be reciprocated. That’s okay. Let them look like the jerk.

Trolling is a whole other ball game. While it’s not seen as professional, some writers use it as a marketing tool (Milo Yiannopolus), which is all well and good if you publish in hotly debated subjects like politics. But in general, it creates as many enemies online as friends. Use with caution.

(6) HAWKING ON THE AIR. Watch Mojo has assembled the “Top 10 Unforgettable Stephen Hawking Cameos in Pop Culture.”

Renowned scientist Stephen Hawking passed away March 14, 2018. But before Stephen Hawking died, he not only made some incredible scientific breakthroughs; there are also many hilarious Stephen Hawking cameos to remember him by. Whether he was supporting Monty Python, speaking to John Oliver or playing poker on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” Stephen Hawking was a fabulous ambassador for science.

  • #10: “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” (2014)
  • #9: “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” (1993-2009)
  • #8: Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking” (1994) & “Talkin’ Hawkin’” (2014)
  • #7: “Stephen Hawking’s New Voice” (2017)
  • #6: “Anyone Can Quantum” (2016)
  • #5: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (2014-)
  • #4: “Futurama” (1999-2013)
  • #3, #2 & #1???


The downside of my celebrity is that I can’t go anywhere in the world without being recognized. It is not enough for me to wear dark sunglasses and a wig. The wheelchair gives me away.

As the world mourns Prof Stephen Hawking, who has died aged 76, there has been a particular outpouring of emotion in China, where the visionary physicist was revered by scientists, students, the state and even boy band stars.

In 1982, I had responsibility for his third academic book for the Press, Superspace And Supergravity.

This was a messy collection of papers from a technical workshop on how to devise a new theory of gravity.

While that book was in production, I suggested he try something easier: a popular book about the nature of the Universe, suitable for the general market.

Stephen mulled over my suggestion.

(8) FLEISHER OBIT. Michael Fleisher (1942-2018): US comics writer and novelist; died February 2, aged 75. Titles he worked on include The Spectre, Jonah Hex, Shade the Changing Man (created and drawn by Steve Ditko). Famously sued The Comics Journal, publisher Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison over a 1979 interview in which the latter described Fleisher (tongue in cheek, Ellison later claimed) as a “certifiable (..) bugfuck (..) lunatic”; the court found for the defendants. [By Steve Green.]


  • March 14, 1994 Robocop: The Series premiered on television.


  • Born March 14, 1879 – Albert Einstein


  • John King Tarpinian isn’t the only one who remembered this is Pi Day – The Argyle Sweater.
  • Off the Mark also has a subtle play on the day.
  • As a commenter says after reading today’s Lio, “Before buying a book, always check to see if the title is a typo or not.”

(12) THANKS AND PRANKS. answers its own question about the Harlan Ellison references in Hulk comics of the Seventies: “Comic Legends: Did A Hulk Classic Pay Hidden Tribute to a Sci-Fi Great?”

Anyhow, amusingly enough, Thomas was so pumped about having Ellison work on these issues that he actually decided to go a step further and, since the issue came out on April 1st, he would do an April Fool’s prank of sorts by working the name of over 20 Ellison stories into the story!

I won’t list all of them here, but I’ll do a few (the great poster, ruckus24, has all of them here).

Most notably is the title of the story, which is an adaptation of one of Ellison’s most famous story collections…

(13) MAD, YOU SAY. At Galactic Journey, Rosemary Benton reviews the newly released (55 years ago) Vincent Price film Diary of a Madman: “[March 14, 1963] Rising Stars and Unseen Enemies (Reginald Le Borg’s Diary of a Madman)”.

It feels as though, no sooner had the curtain fell and the lights came up on February’s horror/fantasy gem, The Raven, that the film reel snapped to life with another genre-crossing macabre film. While last month’s movie was a light, dry and sardonic comedy with a vaguely medieval setting and a cast of horror movie icons, Diary of a Madman, steps forward with a much more sobering aesthetic.

(14) SEMIPRO AND FAN CATEGORIES. Abigail Nussbaum continues a discussion of her Hugo nominating ballot in “The 2018 Hugo Awards: My Hugo Ballot, Publishing and Fan Categories”. Here’s Nussbaum’s picks to succeed her in a category she won last year.

Best Fan Writer:

(A brief reminder here that I have announced that I would decline a nomination in this category if I received enough votes to qualify this year.)

  • Nina Allan – Nina had a great 2017, with her second novel The Rift gaining wide acclaim and attention.  She also continued to do good work as a critic and reviewer, on her personal blog, at Strange Horizons, and in the Shadow Clarke project.
  • Vajra Chandrasekera – We didn’t see as much of Vajra’s nonfiction writing in 2017 as I would have liked–his focus these days seems to be on his own fiction and on being a fiction editor at Strange Horizons.  But his writing at the Shadow Clarke site was some of the most insightful writing that project offered up, in particular this review of Aliya Whitely’s The Arrival of Missives.
  • Erin Horáková – After nominating Erin’s magnum opus for Best Related Work, you’re probably not surprised to find me nominating her in this category.  As well as that magnificent essay, Erin did other writing for Strange Horizons in 2017, covering movies, plays, and board games.
  • Samira Nadkarni – A lot of Samira’s best work is happening on twitter, where in 2017 she made some incisive comments about works like Star Trek: Discovery or Thor: Ragnarok (she had some equally interesting things to say last month about Black Panther).  In longer writing, some standouts include her review of Deserts of Fire, an anthology about “modern war” whose project Samira argues with vociferously, and of the Netflix show Crazyhead, in which she discusses the genre trope of conflating mental health problems and superpowers.

(15) NEWS TO ME. Those who wish to enhance their terminological education can start the thread here –

Just remember – once you know, there’s no going back!

(16) INFOGALATIC. Did you forget about Vox Day’s intended Wikipedia replacement, Infogalactic? Camestros Felapton hasn’t. He gives a status report in “Revisiting Voxopedia”.

Actor Robert Guillaume is alive and well on Voxopedia despite dying in October 2017 in Wikipedia: as is (for all you Swap Shop fans out there) Keith Chegwin who on Wikipedia died in Decemeber 2017. More famous people are more likely to have their deaths recorded but it is hit and miss.

The majority of pages remain as out-of-date Wikipedia pages from 2016 and the basic issue with Voxopedia remains the same: not enough editors and the editors it does have are mainly working on fringe projects. These are supplemented by one-off vanity pages (e.g. )

In comments, Camestros says Paolinelli wrote most of his own entry for Infogalactic. I’m fine with that. Never depend on others to make you famous, as Elst Weinstein and I concluded 40 years ago. (You probably wondered why there’s a copy of Weinstein & Glyer’s Discount Hoaxarama in every hotel room.)

(17) UP IN THE AIR. From the BBC: “Archaeopteryx flew like a pheasant, say scientists”. A synchrotron scan shows that the bones were hollow enough to allow short bursts of flight.

The famous winged dinosaur Archaeopteryx was capable of flying, according to a new study.

An international research team used powerful X-ray beams to peer inside its bones, showing they were almost hollow, as in modern birds.

The creature flew like a pheasant, using short bursts of active flight, say scientists.

Archaeopteryx has been a source of fascination since the first fossils were found in the 1860s.

(18) OFF THE SHELF. Our hero: “‘Boaty McBoatface’ sub survives ice mission”. The popular-choice name was passed on to autonomous submersible operating from the officially-named RSS David Attenborough. Boaty is just back from 48 hours exploring under an ice shelf.

The nation’s favourite yellow submarine swam under a near-600m thick ice shelf in the Antarctic, returning safely to its launch ship after 48 hours away.

It was an important test for the novel autonomous vehicle, which was developed at the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC).

Boaty’s handlers now plan even more arduous expeditions for the sub in the years ahead.

This includes a traverse under the sea-ice that caps the Arctic Ocean.

(19) FANTASTIC DESTINATION. David Doering declares, “This Miyazki-inspired ad for Oregon travel is stupeyfyingly gorgeous!” — “Only Slightly Exaggerated | Travel Oregon”.

[Thanks to Martin Morse Wooster, Chip Hitchcock, John King Tarpinian, Steve Green, JJ, Cat Eldridge, Carl Slaughter, David Doering, and Andrew Porter for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Bill.]

2017 James Tiptree Jr. Award

The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council has selected the winner of the 2017 Tiptree Award — Virginia Bergin for her novel Who Runs the World?  (Macmillan, UK, 2017). (Bergin’s novel is scheduled to be published in the US in September 2018 under the title The XY by Sourcebooks).

The James Tiptree Jr. Award is presented annually to works of science fiction or fantasy that explore and expand the understanding of gender and gender roles.

The 2017 award judges were Alexis Lothian (chair), E.J. Fischer, Kazue Harada, Cheryl Morgan, and Julia Starkey.


About the Winner:

Who Runs the World? is a young adult novel that tells an intricately layered tale of intergenerational struggle and cooperation, the dehumanizing force of gender stereotypes, and the moral courage it takes to challenge cultural and political norms. Bergin invokes a premise familiar in feminist science fiction—a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome. Without relying on biological determinism, Bergin uses this premise to develop a vividly imagined feminist society, and to grapple with that society’s changes and flaws over time.

Born three generations after the plague, into a social order rebuilt around consensus, 14-year-old River views her world as idyllic––until she discovers Mason, a teenage boy who has escaped from one of the “Sanctuaries” where “XYs” are held. As River, along with her mother and grandmother, learns about the violence of Mason’s life, she sees her community’s norms upended and hidden biases exposed. But the story does not end with the exposure of the seeming utopia’s hidden subjugations. For River has been shaped by a society that built itself with purpose and care around principles of justice. Growing up amid those principles has given River the tools to challenge her own culture’s fundamental contradictions. In an ultimately optimistic vision, Bergin dares to depict a future in which principles of transformative justice can have, if not victory over, at least even footing with the incentives of profit and exploitation.

Honor List: In addition to selecting the winners, the jury chooses a Tiptree Award Honor List.

The Honor List is a strong part of the award’s identity and is used by many readers as a recommended reading list.

These notes on each work are excerpted and edited from comments by members of this year’s jury.

  • Charlie Jane Anders, “Don’t Press Charges and I Won’t Sue” (Boston Review, USA, 2017)This graphic and visceral dystopia shows trans people stripped of their legal rights, abducted, and operated on in the name of “curing” their gender identities. Harrowingly portrayed through the viewpoints of both victim and perpetrator, the story describes a medicalized torture resonant with real-world histories of violent “treatment” for gender deviance that were routine only a few decades ago.  Showing how fragile the human rights of marginalized people can be, Anders gives readers a glimpse of what has been a lived nightmare for many, and remains a terrifying possible future.
  • Indra Das, The Devourers (Del Rey, USA, 2016) A fascinating, memorable novel that uses a nested narrative to thread its story through Indian history, from the 17th-century Mughal Empire to contemporary Kolkata. The structure uses multiple points of view to mirror the perspective of the book’s magical characters: a species of predatory shape-shifters who gain access to the memories of the people they consume. Inspired by mythological beings that include werewolves, djinn, and rakshasa, Das’s shape-shifters perceive gendered human behavior in illuminating ways, as the novel’s initial narrator––a queer present-day historian––comes to learn. The novel is beautifully written, using its original speculative framework to explore questions of gender, culture, and identity in new ways.
  • April Daniels, Dreadnought and Sovereign (Diversion, USA, 2017)The first two books of a trilogy, these novels follow Danny, a transgender teenage girl stuck living as a boy. A chance meeting with a dying superhero allows Danny to have her deepest desire granted, with the side effect that she’s now the most powerful superhero on the planet. Daniels’ familiarity with the issues faced by trans people invests these books with a rarely achieved feeling of authenticity. The novels explore the family stress experienced by trans youth and dive headlong into contemporary political controversies surrounding trans rights. That they are excellent superhero fiction as well should see them widely enjoyed, and their message received by a broad audience.
  • Maggie Shen King, An Excess Male (Harper Voyager, USA, 2017)  — A novel of exquisitely deep, nuanced characterization, set in a future China where there are forty million more men than women. This book explores polyandrous marriage, non-neurotypical cognition, state-sanctioned homophobia, and the dynamics of bonding in male-only spaces. It also features an exciting and unusual plot structure, beginning as a contemplative study of family that gradually accelerates to the pace of a techno-thriller.
  • Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties (Gray Wolf, USA, 2017)  — A collection of short stories that explore the cultural treatment of women’s bodies, written with stunning artistry. These formally inventive tales use the speculative to illuminate the interiors of gendered worlds, from a worldwide plague viewed through its last survivor’s erotic connections to a reinterpretation of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit episodes that becomes a meditation on sexual violence. Machado offers a multifaceted view of the insides and undersides of queer kinds of femininity that we mostly never see, brought into the light in all their darkness and brightness, sweetness and ugliness.
  • Rivers Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts (Akashic, USA, 2017)  — A powerful novel of individual and collective survival in the face of generational trauma. On a generation ship, the Black inhabitants of the lower decks live and work under brutal conditions that recall slavery in antebellum America. The story follows lowerdecker Aster as she struggles to survive and make sense of her world. The capacity to maintain culture and possibility within bondage are key to Aster’s story, as is the way that the main characters––none of whom are wholly neurotypical––give one another space for their difference even when they are incomprehensible or even dangerous to one another.
  • JY Yang, “Black Tides of Heaven” and “Red Threads of Fortune” (Tor, USA, 2017)  — Set in a society where children are without gender until they choose to be confirmed into a specific identity, these paired silkpunk novellas follow aristocratic twins from their identical childhoods through increasingly divergent adulthoods. The first is a bildungsroman of Akeha, the male twin, who must learn himself at a young age because he lacks any defined place within his family or culture. The second is a recovery narrative of Mokoya, the female twin, whose relatively frictionless path through life demands of her little introspection, until a traumatic event upends her sense of self, requiring she build a new understanding of her identity to navigate her grief. Both stories explore the process of struggling past expectation to achieve self-definition.

Additional Recommended Works: In addition to the honor list, this year’s jury also compiled a long list of twenty-six other works they found worthy of attention.

The Tiptree Award winner, along with authors and works on the Honor List will be celebrated during Memorial Day weekend at WisCon in Madison, Wisconsin. The winner will receive $1000 in prize money, a specially commissioned piece of original artwork, and (as always) chocolate.

Help Needed for 2018 Award: Reading for 2018 will soon begin. The panel will be chaired by Margaret McBride.

The Tiptree Award invites everyone to recommend works for the award via the recommendation page of Tiptree Award website. On the website, you can also donate to help fund the award and read more about past winners and works it has honored.

Tiptree Award History: The James Tiptree Jr. Award was created in 1991 to honor Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” Her insightful short stories were notable for their thoughtful examination of the roles of men and women in our society.

Since its inception, the Tiptree Award has been an award with an attitude. As a political statement, as a means of involving people at the grassroots level, as an excuse to eat cookies, and as an attempt to strike the proper ironic note, the award has been financed through bake sales held at science fiction conventions across the United States, as well as in England and Australia. Fundraising efforts have included auctions conducted by Ellen Klages and Sumana Harihareswara, the sale of t-shirts and aprons created by collage artist and silk screener Freddie Baer, and the publication of four anthologies of award winners and honor-listed stories. The anthologies are in print and, along with two cookbooks featuring recipes and anecdotes by science fiction writers and fans, The Tiptree Quilt Story, and other Tiptree-related publications, can be purchased through

In addition to presenting the Tiptree Award annually, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council presents two annual $500 fellowships to provide support and recognition for the new voices who are making visible the forces that are changing our view of gender today. The Council also occasionally presents the Fairy Godmother Award, a special award in honor of Angela Carter. Described as a “mini, mini, mini, mini MacArthur award,” the Fairy Godmother Award strikes without warning, providing a financial boost to a deserving writer in need of assistance to continue creating material that matches the goals of the Tiptree Award.

[Based on the press release.]

A Cambridge Evening

[Introduction: Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s best-known scientific figures, passed away on March 14. Gregory Benford knew him, and wrote two memoirs of their meetings which he has given permission to post here on File 770. “A Cambridge Evening” is the second, written in 2012.]

By Gregory Benford: The invitation was on heavy bond in a delicious oyster color. I opened the Trinity College envelope noting it bore no stamp, apparently placed in my Institute of Astronomy mailbox by hand. Flowing script invited my wife Joan and me to evening meal with Professor Martin Rees.

Very good; the full High Table college show, then. In 1976 I was on sabbatical as a visiting fellow in Cambridge, England. I went there to study pulsars where they’d been discovered, but quickly became more interested in the luminous jet just seen in radio frequency maps of M87, the nearest active galaxy.

Martin Rees was then the Plumian Professor of physics and the director of the Institute of Astronomy, appointed just after the departure of Fred Hoyle.  He had agreed to host my sabbatical, a stay that began my astrophysics career; I’ve spent the decades hence mostly on pulsars and galactic jets. In Cambridge I learned much more than I anticipated.

Precisely on time Joan and I walked through the Great Gate, the main entrance to the college, leading to the yawning Great Court. In the centre of the court stood an ornate fountain, traditionally fed by a pipe from Conduit Head in west Cambridge, not the unreliable Cam River nearby. A solemn porter in a black bowler hat welcomed us, remarking gruffly on the chilly air, and nodding at the invitation as I presented it. “Ah, the Rees room.”

Trinity College undergraduates passed in gowns of dark blue. A statue of the college founder, Henry VIII, greeted us from a shadowy niche above the doorway. Martin Rees stood beside it, a slight man with a hawk nose and incisive gaze, bowing to Joan with a broad smile. I imagined we’d eat at the high table, as I had before for lunch, but instead Martin took us into a private dining room. I walked in with Joan and saw at the table two men and their wives: Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac and Stephen Hawking. Martin had said nothing to alert us.

Newton, Nehru and Maxwell were alumni of Trinity, and Dirac stood in such company; soon, so would Hawking and Rees.

The dining room was small, with room for six at the table. Soft lighting cast glows on the dark wood walls amid the scene of 700 years of academic elitism. The leadened plates stamped with the famed Trinity monogram framed a small salad. The flatware was heavy, dark silver and tall stemmed glasses ranked to the side. The servers wore formal tuxedo styled clothes and professionally disinterested faces. The headwaiter handled all dishes with white gloves and led the two solemn under-waiters.

I said very little through the salad, letting Joan carry our side. She entertained them with stories to adapting to English home appliances and their hieroglyphic instructions, her tinkling laughter softening the atmosphere. I reflected. Dirac had won a Nobel in 1933 for the first relativistic theory of particles, the Dirac equation. “The great papers of the other quantum pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac’s,” my friend Freeman Dyson had said to me when I was in graduate school. Freeman had taken Dirac’s Cambridge quantum mechanics course as a precocious 19-year-old. Of Dirac’s discoveries, Freeman said, “His papers were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.”

This is an evening to keep your mouth shut, I thought, sitting at the centuries-old table and sipping a light Chardonnay (French, of course) served with the salad. Next, a tasty soup arrived, attended in strict silence by the stiff waiters. I noted that the French red wine was older than I was, a 1938 from the Fellows’ Cellar. A Haute Medoc, it was deep and rich with a surprising plum aftertaste.

Famously, Dirac’s wife Manci spoke little, and he even less. His colleagues in Cambridge jokingly defined a conversational unit of a dirac — one word per hour. Dirac was a slight man and autistic, widely known as hard to draw out. He said this concentration proved crucial to his success as a theoretical physicist, for he could remain focused on a problem for a long time. He also could order information about mathematics and physics in a systematic way, employing his visual imagination and determination. (Decades later, I saw medical practice focus on this supposed disorder, “fixing” it with drugs and therapy. How many geniuses have we lost this way?)

I asked him how he concentrated solely on his research. “Don’t talk,” he said with admirable brevity and a smile. He also said he only stopped work on Sunday, when he took long strolls alone. He had struggled to find the Dirac equation for months, getting nowhere, then took his usual Sunday walk—and the entire solution came to him when he was crossing a small bridge. He hurried to a nearby pub, asked for lunch and wrote the equation on the back of the menu so he would not forget. He seldom looked directly at anyone, but this time he stared me in the eye. “There it was, out of nowhere.”

“Do you still have the menu?” I asked, eyes wide. When I said it would be a charming historical momento, he dismissively waved his hand. He had used it to start a fire in his chilly college rooms.

The Navy bean soup done, talk moved on. Some mention of English politics arose, at a time when Maggie Thatcher was moving to the fore, Martin squelched with, “I’m entirely infra-red,” which meant something like Trotsky. He had no wife then. Hawking’s wife rolled her eyes at this statement, saying nothing.

As the waiters smoothly placed plates of veal ala brochard before us, Hawking changed the tone of the conversation with his halting words. He wanted to talk about science fiction. Martin had told him I wrote it now and then. I’d had the impression that at Cambridge science fiction was something serious scientists never would do, and seldom discuss — especially at a table where Newton changed the world over bowls of steaming lentil soup–and said so. Hawking gave a slanted grin. “Fred Hoyle has left us, but he is not forgotten.”

Hawking talked in slurred tones about what we now call his “chronology protection conjecture”. Why does nature apparently abhor a time machine? He said, as he puts it today, “It seems that there is a Chronology Protection Agency which prevents the appearance of closed timelike curves and so makes the universe safe for historians.”

Martin pointed out that there was strong experimental evidence in favor of the conjecture — from the fact that we have not been invaded by hordes of tourists from the future. All this discussion Hawking eventually included in a book in the 2000s, along with his fears that our TV broadcasts, would bring ravening aliens to our door. He thought about such speculations in the 1970s, but apparently kept them largely to himself during his climb to fame.

Dirac spoke about the walks he took around Cambridge, relating favorite routes in great detail, but otherwise had no small talk. Slowly Hawking turned the conversation around to what books we read, asking each of us. He then announced that since he was thirteen he had never bothered with the assignments in Literature classes, preferring science fiction. Dirac remarked, “In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before.  But in poetry, and I suppose in fiction, it’s the exact opposite.”

To my surprise Rees assented. “But science fiction leads to science,” he said. Dirac was silent and looked puzzled.

Stephen spent a long while relating memories of sf short stories he’d read. Like many fans, Hawking could recall ideas but not authors or titles. He was a big Robert Sheckley fan, I deduced, from what his remembered plots. Rees said he thought science fiction was like a literary dialect. It had its own vernacular and insider terms, its unusual pronunciation patterns and rhythms. A native sf “speaker” uses the argot of an audience, one that knows what Delany later called the sf reader protocols – signals of broader meaning. A good example is, “The door dilated,” implying a changed world. Nods all round, though Dirac said he had read little sf beyond Wells and Brave New World. “Perhaps I should.”

We all agreed that aliens in fiction serve as a distorting mirror to show what humankind is not. Hawking spoke with jerky gestures, fighting the erosions from his Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which I knew as Lou Gehrig’s disease. His speech was slurred, brief and almost unintelligible, his conciseness a skill that later worked well in A Brief History of Time. Hawking’s fame was rising on his striking research ideas–that empty space wasn’t empty after all, and black holes aren’t black.

His wife, with her tight, focused look, scoffed at ideas like aliens, likening them to imaginary beings. Stephen retorted tartly that so were angels. A sudden silence around the table. I sipped the wine, which was excellent and still blossoming with rich new tones. This incident prefigured the issue of her Baptist faith versus his firm atheism, which eventually split them up.

I recalled this evening lately, looking over notes I made that very evening. My wife Joan died of cancer in 2002. In 2005 Rees was elevated to a life peerage, sitting as a crossbencher in the House of Lords as Baron Rees of Ludlow, a seat in the County of Shropshire. By then Astronomer Royal, he told the British Interplanetary Society, ‘”It is better to read first-rate science fiction than second-rate science; it’s no more likely to be wrong and is far more stimulating than second-rate science. And I think it’s good to read the great classics of science fiction.”

Martin Rees and Gregory Benford in 2013.

After a five course meal we had the finishing treat: an English, less sweet, version of crème brûlée, known as “Trinity burnt cream.”

Now Martin is master of Trinity College and the best known astronomer in the world. Recently, in Our Final Hour, he predicted that one of the two following outcomes is inevitable for humanity:

*Extinction from runaway effects of new technology (nanotechnology, robotics) or else from uncontrolled scientific research; terrorist or fundamentalist violence; or destruction of the biosphere; or else

* Our expansion into space, survival through colonization. He now advocates free markets and believes that the wealthy will push back the frontiers of space.

Not infra-red any longer.

I never saw Dirac again, but have kept up with Hawking and Rees through the decades, visiting Cambridge often. They both use science fiction in their popular writing, whereas in the 1970s that was not the sort of thing you mentioned at High Table. Our world has changed, partly because of those men.

What distinguished them the most, I think, was their quiet verve, their wish to grapple with life. They were eager to deal with whatever came at them. Dirac probed our fundamental understanding of the world in his monk-like solitude. Hawking persevered against his crippling disease to become a major cosmologist. Rees cannily wove his way into great power, urging the Institute for Astronomy to the forefront of the field, becoming Astronomer Royal, and a major figure bringing science to the public as well.

The evening left a deep impression on me. On the walk home, I remarked to my wife that I would probably never have a better evening–at least, with my clothes on. She took that as a challenge and made the evening even more so.

From my time there I gathered background that eventually appeared in my 1980 novel Timescape, which explores how scientists confront the unknown. Cambridge is steeped in tradition, but its scientific culture is radical.

© 2012 by Gregory Benford

Leaping the Abyss

[Introduction: Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s best-known scientific figures, passed away on March 14. Gregory Benford knew him, and wrote two memoirs of their meetings which he has given permission to post here on File 770. He wrote the first, “Leaping the Abyss,” in 2001; it was published in Reason, updated in 2005 for Robert Lichtman’s Trapdoor, and is now posted at Benford’s website.]

By Gregory Benford: Stephen Hawking seemed slightly worse, as always. It is a miracle that he has clung to life for over 20 years with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each time I see him I feel that this will be the last, that he cannot hold on to such a thin thread for much longer.

Hawking turned 63 in January 2005. Over the course of his brilliant career, he has worked out many of the basics of black hole physics, including, most strikingly, his prediction that black holes aren’t entirely black. Instead, if they have masses equivalent to a mountain’s, they radiate particles of all kinds. Smaller holes would disappear in a fizz of radiation—a signature that astronomers have searched for but so far not found.

The enormous success of Hawking’s 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has made him a curious kind of cultural icon. He wonders how many of the starlets and rock stars who mentioned the book on talk shows actually read it.

With his latest book, The Universe in a Nutshell (Bantam), he aims to remedy the situation with a plethora of friendly illustrations to help readers decipher such complex topics as superstring theory and the nature of time. The trick is translating equations into sentences, no mean feat. The pictures help enormously, though purists deplore them as oversimplified. I feel that any device is justified to span such an abyss of incomprehension.

When I entered Stephen’s office at the University of Cambridge, his staff was wary of me, plainly suspecting I was a “civilian” harboring a crank theory of the universe. But I’d called beforehand, and then his secretary recognized me from years past. (I am an astrophysicist and have known Stephen since the 1970s.) When I entered the familiar office his shrunken form lolled in his motorized chair as he stared out, rendered goggle-eyed by his thick glasses—but a strong spirit animated all he said.

Hawking lost his vocal cords years ago, to an emergency tracheotomy. His gnarled, feeble hands could not hold a pen. For a while after the operation he was completely cut off from the world, an unsettling parallel to those mathematical observers who plunge into black holes, their signals to the outside red-shifted and slowed by gravity’s grip to dim, whispering oblivion.

A Silicon Valley firm came to the rescue. Engineers devised tailored, user-friendly software and a special keyboard for Hawking. Now his frail hand moved across it with crablike speed. The software is deft, and he could build sentences quickly. I watched him flit through the menu of often-used words on his liquid crystal display, which hung before him in his wheelchair. The invention has been such a success that the Silicon Valley folk now supply units to similarly afflicted people worldwide.

“Please excuse my American accent,” the speaker mounted behind the wheelchair said with a California inflection. He coded this entire remark with two keystrokes.

Although I had been here before, I was again struck that a man who had suffered such an agonizing physical decline had on his walls several large posters of a person very nearly his opposite: Marilyn Monroe. I mentioned her, and Stephen responded instantly, tapping one-handed on his keyboard, so that soon his transduced voice replied, “Yes, she’s wonderful. Cosmological. I wanted to put a picture of her in my latest book, as a celestial object.” I remarked that to me the book was like a French Impressionist painting of a cow, meant to give a glancing essence, not the real, smelly animal. Few would care to savor the details. Stephen took off from this to discuss some ideas currently booting around the physics community about the origin of the universe, the moment just after the Big Bang.

Stephen’s great politeness paradoxically made me ill at ease; I was acutely aware of the many demands on his time, and, after all, I had just stopped by to talk shop.

“For years my early work with Roger Penrose seemed to be a disaster for science,” Stephen said. “It showed that the universe must have begun with a singularity, if Einstein’s general theory of relativity is correct. That appeared to indicate that science could not predict how the universe would begin. The laws would break down at the point of singularity, of infinite density.” Mathematics cannot handle physical quantities like density that literally go to infinity. Indeed, the history of 20th century physics was in large measure about how to avoid the infinities that crop up in particle theory and cosmology. The idea of point particles is convenient but leads to profound, puzzling troubles.

I recalled that I had spoken to Stephen about mathematical methods of getting around this problem one evening at a party in King’s College. There were analogies to methods in elementary quantum mechanics, methods he was trying to carry over into this surrealistic terrain.

“It now appears that the way the universe began can indeed be determined, using imaginary time,” Stephen said. We discussed this a bit. Stephen had been using a mathematical device in which time is replaced, as a notational convenience, by something called imaginary time. This changes the nature of the equations, so he could use some ideas from the tiny quantum world. In the new equations, a kind of tunneling occurs in which the universe, before the Big Bang, has many different ways to pass through the singularity. With imaginary time, one can calculate the chances for a given tunneling path into our early universe after the beginning of time as we know it.

“Sure, the equations can be interpreted that way,” I argued, “but it’s really a trick, isn’t it?”

Stephen said, “Yes, but perhaps an insightful trick.”

“We don’t have a truly deep understanding of time,” I replied, “so replacing real time with imaginary time doesn’t mean much to us.”

“Imaginary time is a new dimension, at right angles to ordinary, real time,” Stephen explained. “Along this axis, if the universe satisfies the ‘no boundary’ condition, we can do our calculations. This condition says that the universe has no singularities or boundaries in the imaginary direction of time. With the ‘no boundary’ condition, there will be no beginning or end to imaginary time, just as there is no beginning or end to a path on the surface of the Earth.”

“If the path goes all the way around the Earth,” I said. “But of course, we don’t know that in imaginary time there won’t be a boundary.”

“My intuition says there will be no blocking in that special coordinate, so our calculations make sense.”

“Sense is just the problem, isn’t it? Imaginary time is just a mathematical convenience.” I shrugged in exasperation at the span between cool mathematical spaces and the immediacy of the raw world; this is a common tension in doing physics. “It’s unrelated to how we feel time. The seconds sliding by. Birth and death.”

“True. Our minds work in real time, which begins at the Big Bang and will end, if there is a Big Crunch—which seems unlikely, now, from the latest data showing accelerating expansion. Consciousness would come to an end at a singularity.”

“Not a great consolation,” I said.

He grinned. “No, but I like the ‘no boundary’ condition. It seems to imply that the universe will be in a state of high order at one end of real time but will be disordered at the other end of time, so that disorder increases in one direction of time. We define this to be the direction of increasing time. When we record something in our memory, the disorder of the universe will increase. This explains why we remember events only in what we call the past, and not in the future.”

“Remember what you predicted in 1980 about final theories like this?” I chided him.

“I suggested we might find a complete unified theory by the end of the century.” Stephen made the transponder laugh dryly. “OK, I was wrong. At that time, the best candidate seemed to be N=8 supergravity. Now it appears that this theory may be an approximation to a more fundamental theory, of superstrings. I was a bit optimistic to hope that we would have solved the problem by the end of the century. But I still think there’s a 50-50 chance that we will find a complete unified theory in the next 20 years.”

“I’ve always suspected that the structure never ends as we look to smaller and smaller scales—and neither will the theories,” I offered.

“It is possible that there is no ultimate theory of physics at all. Instead, we will keep on discovering new layers of structure. But it seems that physics gets simpler, and more unified, the smaller the scale on which we look. There is an ultimate length scale, the Planck length, below which space-time may just not be defined. So I think there will be a limit to the number of layers of structure, and there will be some ultimate theory, which we will discover if we are smart enough.”

“Does it seem likely that we are smart enough?” I asked.

Another grin. “You will have to get your faith elsewhere.”

“I can’t keep up with the torrent of work on superstrings.” Mathematical physics is like music, which a young and zesty spirit can best seize and use, as did Mozart.

“I try,” he said modestly.

We began discussing recent work on “baby universes”—bubbles in space-time. To us large creatures, space-time is like the sea seen from an ocean liner, smooth and serene. Up close, though, on tiny scales, it’s waves and bubbles. At extremely fine scales, pockets and bubbles of space-time can form at random, sputtering into being, then dissolving. Arcane details of particle physics suggest that sometimes—rarely, but inevitably—these bubbles could grow into a full-fledged universe.

This might have happened a lot at the instant just immediately after the Big Bang. Indeed, some properties of our universe may have been created by the space-time foam that roiled through those infinitesimally split seconds. Studying this possibility uses the “wormhole calculus,” which samples the myriad possible frothing bubbles (and their connections, called wormholes).

Averaging over this foam in a mathematical sense, smoothing its properties a bit, Hawking and others have tried to find out whether a final, rather benign universe like ours was an inevitable outcome of that early turbulence. The jury isn’t in on this point, and it may be out forever—the calculations are tough, guided by intuition rather than facts. Deciding whether they meaningfully predict anything is a matter of taste. This recalls Oscar Wilde’s aphorism that in matters of great import, style is always more important than substance.

If this picture of the first split second is remotely right, much depends on the energy content of the foam. The energy to blow up these bubbles would be countered by an opposite, negative energy, which comes from the gravitational attraction of all the matter in the bubble. If the outward pressure just balances the inward attraction (a pressure, really) of the mass, then you could get a universe much like ours: rather mild, with space-time not suffering any severe curvature—what astronomers call “flat.” This seems to be so on such relatively tiny scales as our solar system, and flatness prevails even on the size range of our galaxy. Indeed, flatness holds on immense scales, as far as we can yet see.

It turns out that such bubbles could even form right now. An entirely separate space-time could pop into existence in your living room, say. It would start unimaginably small, then balloon to the size of a cantaloupe—but not before your very eyes, because, for quite fundamental reasons, you couldn’t see it.

“They don’t form in space, of course,” Stephen said. “It doesn’t mean anything to ask where in space these things occur.” They don’t take up room in our universe but rather are their own universes, expanding into spaces that did not exist before.

“They’re cut off from us after we make them,” I said. “No relics, no fossil?”

“I do not think there could be.”

“Like an ungrateful child who doesn’t write home.” When talking about immensities, I sometimes grasp for something human.

“It would not form in our space, but rather as another space-time.”

We discussed for a while some speculations about this that I had put into two novels, Cosm and Timescape. I had used Cambridge and the British scientific style in Timescape, published in 1980, before these ideas became current. I had arrived at them in part from some wide-ranging talks I had enjoyed with Stephen—all suitably disguised in the books, of course. Such enclosed space-times I had termed “onion universes,” since in principle they could have further locked-away space-times inside them, and so on. It is an odd sensation when a guess turns out to have some substance—as much as anything as gossamer as these ideas can be said to be substantial.

“So they form and go,” I mused. “Vanish. Between us and these other universes lies absolute nothingness, in the exact sense—no space or time, no matter, no energy.”

“There can be no way to reach them,” his flat voice said. “The gulf between us and them is unbridgeable. It is beyond physics because it is truly nothing, not physical at all.”

The mechanical laugh resounded. Stephen likes the tug of the philosophical, and he seemed amused by the notion that universes are simply one of those things that happen from time to time.

His nurse appeared for a bit of physical cleanup, and I left him. Inert confinement to a wheelchair exacts a demeaning toll on one’s dignity, but he showed no reaction to the daily round of being cared for by another in the most intimate way. Perhaps for him, it even helps the mind to slip free of the world’s rub.

I sat in the common room outside his office, having tea and talking to some of his post-doctoral students. They were working on similarly wild ideas and were quick, witty, and keenly observant as they sipped their strong, dark Ceylonese tea. A sharp crew, perhaps a bit jealous of Stephen’s time. They were no doubt wondering who this guy was, nobody they had ever heard of, a Californian with an accent tainted by Southern nuances, somebody who worked in astrophysics and plasma physics—which, in our age of remorseless specialization, is a province quite remote from theirs. I didn’t explain; after all, I really had no formal reason to be there, except that Stephen and I were friends.

Stephen’s secretary quietly came out and asked if I would join Stephen for dinner at Caius College. I had intended to eat in my favorite Indian restaurant, where the chicken vindaloo is a purging experience, and then simply rove the walks of Cambridge alone, because I love the atmosphere—but I instantly assented. Dinner at college high table is one of the legendary experiences of England. I could remember keenly each one I had attended; the repartee is sharper than the cutlery.

We made our way through the cool, atmospheric turns of the colleges, the worn wood and gray stones reflecting the piping of voices and squeaks of rusty bicycles. In misty twilight, student shouts echoing, Stephen’s wheelchair jouncing over cobbled streets. He insisted on steering it himself, though his nurse hovered rather nervously. It had never occurred to me just how much of a strain on everyone there can be in round-the-clock care. A few people drifted along behind us, just watching him. “Take no notice,” his mechanical voice said. “Many of them come here just to stare at me.”

We wound among the ancient stone and manicured gardens, into Caius College. Students entering the dining hall made an eager rumpus. Stephen took the elevator, and I ascended the creaking stairs. The faculty entered after the students, me following with the nurse.

The high table is literally so. They carefully placed Stephen with his back to the long, broad tables of undergraduates. I soon realized that this is because watching him eat, with virtually no lip control, is not appetizing. He follows a set diet that requires no chewing. His nurse must chop up his food and spoon-feed him.

The dinner was noisy, with the year’s new undergraduates staring at the famous Hawking’s back. Stephen carried on a matter-of-fact, steady flow of conversation through his keyboard.

He had concerns about the physicists’ Holy Grail, a unified theory of everything. Even if we could thrash our way through a thicket of mathematics to glimpse its outlines, it might not be specific enough—that is, we would still have a range of choices. Physics could end up dithering over arcane points, undecided, perhaps far from our particular primate experience. Here is where aesthetics might enter.

“If such a theory is not unique,” he said, “one would have to appeal to some outside principle, which one might call God.”

I frowned. “Not as the Creator, but as a referee?”

“He would decide which theory was more than just a set of equations, but described a universe that actually exists.”

“This one.”

“Or maybe all possible theories describe universes that exist!” he said with glee. “It is unclear what it means to say that something exists. In questions like, ‘Does there exist a man with two left feet in Cambridge?,’ one can answer this by examining every man in Cambridge. But there is no way that one can decide if a universe exists, if one is not inside it.”

“The space-time Catch-22.”

“So it is not easy to see what meaning can be given to the question, ‘Why does the universe exist?’ But it is a question that one can’t help asking.”

As usual, the ability to pose a question simply and clearly in no way implied a similar answer—or that an answer even existed.

After the dining hall, high table moved to the senior common room upstairs. We relaxed along a long, polished table in comfortable padded chairs, enjoying the traditional crisp walnuts and ancient aromatic port, Cuban cigars, and arch conversation, occasionally skewered by a witty interjection from Stephen.

Someone mentioned American physicist Stephen Weinberg’s statement, in The First Three Minutes, that the more we comprehend the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Stephen doesn’t agree, and neither do I, but he has a better reason. “I think it is not meaningful in the first place to say that the universe is pointless, or that it is designed for some purpose.”

I asked, “No meaning, then, to the pursuit of meaning?”

“To do that would require one to stand outside the universe, which is not possible.”

Again the image of the gulf between the observer and the object of study. “Still,” I persisted, “there is amazing structure we can see from inside.”

“The overwhelming impression is of order. The more we discover about the universe, the more we find that it is governed by rational laws. If one liked, one could say that this order was the work of God. Einstein thought so.”

One of the college fellows asked, “Rational faith?”

Stephen tapped quickly. “We shouldn’t be surprised that conditions in the universe are suitable for life, but this is not evidence that the universe was designed to allow for life. We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics.”

Walnuts eaten, port drunk, cigars smoked, it was time to go. When we left, Stephen guided his wheelchair through the shadowy reaches of the college, indulging my curiosity about a time-honored undergraduate sport: climbing Cambridge.

At night, young men sometimes scramble among the upper reaches of the steepled old buildings, scaling the most difficult points. They risk their necks for the glory of it. Quite out of bounds, of course. Part of the thrill is eluding the proctors who scan the rooftops late at night, listening for the scrape of heels. There is even a booklet about roof climbing, describing its triumphs and centuries-long history.

Stephen took me to a passageway I had been through many times, a shortcut to the Cam River between high, peaked buildings of undergraduate rooms. He said that it was one of the tough events, jumping across that and then scaling a steep, often slick roof beyond.

The passage looked to be about three meters across. I couldn’t imagine leaping that gap from the slate-dark roofs. And at night, too. “All that distance?” I asked. My voice echoed in the fog.

“Yes,” he said.

“Anybody ever miss?”





His eyes twinkled and he gave us a broad smile. “Yes.” These Cambridge sorts have the real stuff, all right.

In the cool night Stephen recalled some of his favorite science fiction stories. He rarely read any fiction other than science fiction past the age of 12, he said. “It’s really the only fiction that is realistic about our true position in the universe as a whole.”

And how much stranger the universe was turning out than even those writers had imagined. Even when they discussed the next billion years, they could not guess the odd theories that would spring up within the next generation of physicists. Now there are speculations that our universe might have 11 dimensions, all told, all but three of space and one of time rolled up to tiny sizes. Will this change cosmology? So far, nobody knows. But the ideas are fun in and of themselves.

A week after my evening at Cambridge, I got from Stephen’s secretary a transcript of all his remarks. I have used it here to reproduce his style of conversation. Printed out on his wheelchair computer, his sole link with us, the lines seem to come from a great distance. Across an abyss.

Portraying the flinty faces of science—daunting complexity twinned with numbing wonder—demands both craft and art. Some of us paint with fiction. Stephen paints with his impressionistic views of vast, cool mathematical landscapes. To knit together our fraying times, to span the cultural abyss, demands all these approaches—and more, if we can but invent them.

Stephen has faced daunting physical constrictions with a renewed attack on the large issues, on great sweeps of space and time. Daily he struggles without much fuss against the narrowing that is perhaps the worst element of infirmity. I recalled him rapt with Marilyn, still deeply engaged with life, holding firmly against tides of entropy.

I had learned a good deal from those few days, I realized, and most of it was not at all about cosmology.

Copyright © 2005 by Gregory Benford

Pixel Scroll 3/13/18 “Use The Porgs, Luke!”

(1) DON’T PAY TO PLAY. Jason Sanford has a twitter thread about another dodgy publisher – start here:

(2) TERMS AND CONDITIONS. Amanda S. Green has a very sensible take about the disappearing Amazon review kerfuffle: “On Reviews” at Mad Genius Club.

But, before you start all this take a step back and then take a deep breath and ask yourself if you or the reader who left the review might have fallen afoul of the rules. I know how easy it is to tell your other writer friends that you’ll review their work if they review yours. You might not even do it in so many words. The problem is, in this day and age of technology, Amazon’s computers will start seeing patterns and will pull reviews that fit those patterns. Is it fair? Waggles hands. It is, however, in the rules and we agree to those rules when we open our Amazon accounts and when we then open our KDP accounts. This is why you need to be sure you read those ToS agreements before completing your account setup.

Reviews are the best advertising we have for our books. They are a way of telling potential readers we’ve put something out that is worth not only their time but their money as well. Amazon recognizes that. It also recognizes the fact the system is easily gamed and that is what these rules are designed to prevent. The rules aren’t perfect but they are the best we have right now. None of us want to return to the days of rampant sock puppet reviews — or at least we shouldn’t. After all, most readers will look askance at a book by an indie author with hundreds of reviews and not a one under 4-star. You need those lower level reviews to give legitimacy to your work.

So, if you are one of those authors who found reviews suddenly missing, contact Amazon and ask what happened. Review the ToS about reviews and move forward. Yes, it’s hard losing reviews but you’ll do yourself more good writing your next book than spending hours on the internet whinging about how evil Amazon is.

(3) DEMISE OF STEAMPUNK WORLD’S FAIR. Airship Ambassador reports “Steampunk World’s Fair – Cancelled”.  The former management was deposed after sexual abuse allegations, but the group trying to pull off  rescue has decided the task is impossible

After several weeks of discussions, and publicized business changes, following posts in late January revealing sexual abuse allegations,

Sexual abuse allegations crawling out of steampunk community (TW)

Time to Name Drop and Protect Newbies

the Silver Phoenix Society announced On February 20,2018, it was taking over the production of Steampunk World’s Fair.

…However, it was announced tonight, March 13, 2018, on the Steampunk World’s Fair Facebook page that Silver Phoenix Society’s involvement in the event was ending, effectively cancelling the May 2018 festival.

Screencaps of relevant Facebook posts and links to background articles can be found at Airship Ambassador.

(4) THOR FX. A BBC video about “The visual effects behind Thor 3” relates the fun of having to be able to redo everything at the last minute, and the skinny on mixes of CGI and live action — sometimes keeping just the face so the body could interact with (e.g.) lightning.

Al Moloney talks to Alexis Wajsbrot, the visual effects supervisor for Thor: Ragnarok. He explains how characters like the Hulk and Korg were brought to life.

(5) HAWKING OBIT. Dr. Stephen Hawking died March 14. The New York Times reports: “Stephen Hawking, Who Examined the Universe and Explained Black Holes, Dies at 76”.

…“Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world,” Michio Kaku, a professor of theoretical physics at the City University of New York, said in an interview.

Dr. Hawking did that largely through his book “A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes,” published in 1988. It has sold more than 10 million copies and inspired a documentary film by Errol Morris. The 2014 film about his life, “The Theory of Everything,” was nominated for several Academy Awards and Eddie Redmayne, who played Dr. Hawking, won the best-actor Oscar.

Scientifically, Dr. Hawking will be best remembered for a discovery so strange that it might be expressed in the form of a Zen koan: When is a black hole not black? When it explodes.

What is equally amazing is that he had a career at all. As a graduate student in 1963, he learned he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neuromuscular wasting disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was given only a few years to live.

The disease reduced his bodily control to the flexing of a finger and voluntary eye movements but left his mental faculties untouched.

(6) DOWN TO THE WIRE. With the Hugo nominating deadline upon us, Doctor Science shares a longlist: “Brainstorming my Hugo nominations: Best Novel and Best Series”.

Hugo nominations have to be in by Friday, so I’m going to put up my longlist and hope the process of writing helps me make up my mind. I’m resurrecting my goodreads account to better keep track of what I’ve read (and what I started but did not finish, and why).

I thought I had already written and posted reviews of most of these, but apparently I wrote many only in my head….

(7) ISHER AND TRANTOR. Meanwhile, Edmonton’s Hugo Award Book Club tackles “Retro Hugos 1943 — Short Stories” and tries to put the contenders in the context of the time.

If there had never been another story published in the Foundation universe, The Encyclopedists would

have stood on its own – it encapsulates essentially all of the big ideas of the series: the mathematics of history, the decline and fall of an empire, and the ennobling positivist view of the ability of humanity to alter its destiny. While later stories built on this foundational story, everything that makes the Foundation series great was right there in this initial blueprint.

In this story, Asimov offers us the series’ most unforgettable – and quotable – protagonist Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Trantor. In the context of when this story was published, just five months after Pearl Harbor, his famous quote “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent,” might be seen as an surprising anti-war exhortation.

(8) WHEN NO MAN PURSUETH. Just to make sure there’d be some drama, before he went to FOGcon, Jon Del Arroz ran this twitter poll:

Broadcasting what, you might ask? You weren’t the only one. Jon gives his version in: “Someone Tried To Get Me Kicked Out Of A Sci-Fi Convention… And You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next!” [Internet Archive]

…The man proceeded to grill me, rattling off questions in a challenging manner. “What are you doing here? Why? Are you intending on broadcasting here? Are you going to be bothering anyone?” They came in rapid succession, challenging…. I finally told him “this tone is getting pretty hostile,” as I wasn’t sure what he was getting at at all.

This is where things changed. His eyes widened a little and he said, “Oh!” The man dropped to his knees and smiled. “I’m 6’8? I guess that can be a little intimidating. Is this better?” His tone changed to something a little more humorous. Almost expertly, this man diffused the situation and the tension that had been escalating evaporated.

We started talking at length, and I learned this man was from the convention security, and that someone had complained about my presence there…

JDA was allowed to stay, and even buy a membership the next day after being vetted by the chair:

I showed up the next morning, migrated down stairs and asked to buy a ticket for the day. …I was just about to wrap up paying, when convention chairman Steven Schwartz asked me to step aside and chat with him.

It was frightening again. What was going to happen? Was this the “you need to vacate the premises” I was afraid of?

Just like the security fellow from the night before, Schwartz asked a couple of questions, his tone was pleasant, he had genuine concern — not only for the safety of others, but what blew me away was he was concerned for my safety as well. He asked some questions based on the absurd rumors propagated by Worldcon that I was some boogeyman, I let him know I never intended anything of the sort at any con nor even implied it — for FOGCon or Worldcon, and Schwartz took me as a man of my word (which I am), and told me if anyone tried to attack or harm me, he would defend me as surely as anyone else.


(10) VIDEO OF THE DAY. In “Bug Gaits for Animators” on Vimeo, Stephen Cunnane provides tips animators need to make sure bugs crawl properly.

[Thanks to JJ, Chip Hitchcock, Cat Eldridge, Carl Slaughter, Martin Morse Wooster, and Andrew Porter for some of these stories. Title credit goes to File 770 contributing editor of the day Daniel Dern.]

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – Official Teaser Trailer

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is due in theaters November 16.

Warner Bros. Pictures’ “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is the second of five all new adventures in J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World™.

At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings.

In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

The film features an ensemble cast led by Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, with Jude Law and Johnny Depp. The cast also includes, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Kevin Guthrie, Carmen Ejogo, and Poppy Corby-Tuech.