We Just Got Our ’30s Sci-Fi Plots Back

By now, you’ve heard that seven – count ’em, seven – terrestrial planets have been discovered orbiting the ultra-cool M8 star Trappist-1.  According to the paper that the research team released yesterday, all of them could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, although only three are judged to be good candidates: the authors’ model considers it likely that the three innermost planets have succumbed to a runaway greenhouse effect and that the outermost is too cold.  But that still leaves three potentially habitable planets in a single system.

Those three – Trappist-1e, 1f and 1g – range from .62  to 1.34 estimated Earth masses, and as one would expect from a red-dwarf system, they’re  tidally locked and orbit close to their star with periods of 6 to 12 days.  Their orbits are also very close to each other.  The distance between the orbits of 1e and 1f is .009 AUs – about 830,000 miles – and 1f passes within 750,000 miles of 1g.  This is a system that, even according to its discoverers, shouldn’t exist – their model gives it only an 8.1 percent chance of surviving for a billion years – but as they point out, it obviously does.

There are many more fascinating details about the Trappist-1 system and still more that we have yet to learn.  The discoverers hope that further research, and the launch of the James Webb space telescope next year, will enable them to confirm the details of the planets’ atmospheres and possibly look for biological signatures.  But in the meantime, for those of us who write SF, the discovery of the Trappist-1 system means this: we just got our pulp-era plots back.

We’ve all read stories from the heady days of the 1930s in which the intrepid heroes travel to Mars or Venus in a few days, take off their space suits, breathe the air, encounter exotic life forms and interact with non-human societies.  As we learned more about our solar system, that all got taken away.  The jungles of Venus and the canals of Barsoom have long since been relegated to the realm of nostalgia, and if we want aliens in our stories, we have to cross impossible interstellar distances to find them.

But now, there’s a system where all that can happen!  Three habitable worlds with orbits less than a million miles apart, Hohmann transfers that can be done in a few weeks with inspired 1950s tech – we’ve got the ingredients for interplanetary travel that’s almost as easy as pulp writers imagined it.  And a citizen of Trappist-1f might actually find that Old Venus jungle world one planet in and an arid Old Mars one planet out, and generations of its people could watch their neighbors’ fields and cities grow and dream of one day visiting them.  All we need to do to make pulp stories into hard SF again is move them 40 light years.

All right, we’d need to do a little more than that.  The planets are tidally locked – and with zero eccentricity, they don’t have libration-generated twilight zones – so we’d need to model the day-side and night-side weather.  We’d need to account for the tidal and geological effects of so many worlds so close together, and the atmosphere had better have plenty of ozone to protect against UV and X-ray emissions.  But none of those constraints are deal-breakers, and within them, Weinbaum-punk is suddenly acceptable.

That may not last, of course.  By this time next year, the research team might have found that the Trappist-1 planets have reducing atmospheres or that there’s insufficient protection from stellar radiation or that some other factor makes pulp SF as impossible in that system as in our own.  But right now, it’s wide open to stories of the imagination.  We’ve found one spot in the universe where it’s the Golden Age all over again.

Another year of awards

It’s nomination season again, and this year is an exciting one, because it’s the first in which I’m eligible to nominate for the Nebulas as well as the Hugos. Nevertheless, my nominations this year will be narrower than the last two: I’m planning to nominate in the short fiction categories only. Short fiction is what I write, so I feel more qualified to judge it than to judge novels, and I also didn’t have much time for book reading last year. Many SFF novels were published in 2016 and I have little doubt that some of them are great, but I haven’t had a chance to read enough of them to weigh the field.

I’ll start with novelettes rather than short stories, because that way I can start with my favorite story of 2016: Polyglossia by Tamara Vardomskaya (GigaNotoSaurus, March 2016). GigaNotoSaurus doesn’t usually get much attention from reviewers and critics, but this is a rich, multi-layered story that is well deserving of an award.

Polyglossia is a story of linguistics, cultural survival, family and resistance to oppression – not necessarily in that order – set in a low-magic fantasy world that suggests the early twentieth century. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of good world-building, and the world of this story is intricately detailed and plausible; more than that, the world-building is integrated into the plot and informs the characters’ actions such that no detail is wasted. The linguistics are also tightly integrated into the plot – the author is a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics with an interest in the philosophy of language, and it shows – and the politics of language and cultural preservation come to play a key part in its resolution. At the same time, the story calls into question what we call family, what duties we owe to our ancestors, and how to balance those duties against the exigencies of politics. Polyglossia is rewarding on several levels – thus far, I’ve never failed to get something new out of it with each rereading – and if I had to pick one story that defined speculative fiction for me in 2016, it would be this one.

Second on my novelette list is The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie (Strange Horizons, November 2016), the story of a woman from our world who is swept into another and who must learn to navigate and ultimately preserve its society. I hadn’t expected to like this story – tales of mannered societies usually leave me cold, and the palace world within The Dancer is exquisitely mannered – but here, the reasons underlying the manners and the way in which they shape the protagonist’s life are absorbing, and her slow process of learning, adjusting and ultimately realizing her role in that world are both fascinating and emotionally affecting. Again, my taste for world-building, and the intricate way in which the details of this story unfurl, made it one of my favorites of the year.

Rounding out my novelette short list are A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djeli Clark (Tor, May 2016) and Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, Feb. 2016). The former is a lush, beautifully written mystery set in an early twentieth-century Egypt in which supernatural creatures have helped to throw off the colonial yoke but are dangerous in themselves; the latter, a story of music and discovery (recurring themes of Pinsker’s) set amid a post-apocalyptic landscape and seasoned with longing for companionship.

Turning to short stories, my favorite of the year and the first on my nomination list is And Then, One Day, The Air was Full of Voices by Margaret Ronald (Clarkesworld, June 2016). In the near future, Earth has received signals from an advanced and accomplished alien civilization… which then slowly fade, and we realize that the civilization died many years ago and that the records of its decline and death are only now reaching us. The breadth of time and space between Earth and the alien world means that we can do nothing to prevent their demise, and the story is about the spiritual effect that this realization has on humanity. The story is heartbreakingly human, the narration lyrical, and the resolution satisfying to the soul.

Touch Me All Over by Betsy James (F&SF, January-February 2016) is second: the story of a young woman exiled by a magical curse who must learn to turn it into a blessing. This story has been told before, but the way James tells it is intimate, lyrical, and emotionally affecting, and the story is told with a visual richness and an eye for small detail that takes it well above its subject matter.

Life in Stone, Glass and Plastic by Jose Pablo Iriarte (Strange Horizons, June 2016) is a story of memory: how it can be both painful and healing, and how what is lost might be regained at least temporarily. This is another intimate and compassionate story, dealing with dementia on the one hand and horror on the other: the trauma of memory and the trauma of its loss. This isn’t a lyrical story like James’, but it is a forceful one: its dialogue and description are contemporary, gritty and powerful, and its imagery is lasting.

Between Dragons and Their Wrath by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld, February 2016) is an allegory of contemporary West Africa in which a refugee child earns a meager living by harvesting dragon scales, dreams of a better life in the capital city, and is both grateful and resentful toward the foreigners who provide aid. This returns to the lyrical style of storytelling, of which both Owomoyela and Swirsky are masters, and it tells of a haunting that is all too literal in much of the world. And Laws of Night and Silk by Seth Dickinson (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, May 2016) is another lyrical and powerful story of the child of a fair-folk race who is stunted so she can be used as a weapon, and the effect of her awakening on her caretaker and ultimately her society.

Finally, my nominations will include three novellas, all from Tor and all, to some extent, out of character for me to like. Runtime by S.B. Divya (Tor, May 2016) is a cyberpunk story – a genre I usually hate – but Divya gives it humanity through the striving of the protagonist, the tense excitement of a cross-country race, and a satisfying conclusion. The Cthulhu mythos also usually leaves me cold, but The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle (Tor, February 2016), set in 1920s Harlem, is a fortunate exception – the storytelling is a blend of Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance, and the irony of a black protagonist in that particular world isn’t lost on either author or reader. And A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson (Tor, October 2016) is a high fantasy that begins in a royal court – yet another thing that’s usually a turnoff for me – but which is set in a rich African-based world (something I’m a sucker for) and turns into a powerfully told romance. Again, I’m a fan of world-building, and this is what all three novellas on my list have in common: each of them will transport you as they did me.

Hopefully this year, I’ll have time to read a few novels between my writing, my day job and all that’s going on in the world.  But 2016 has still been immensely rewarding and inspirational – we’re living in a golden age of short SFF fiction, and some of the best of it was on display throughout the year – and with stories like those above, I have no regrets about my year in reading.

Saladin at Jerusalem: A Friday story

This is another alternate history vignette, originally posted here and centering on Abdelkader El Djezairi, one of the most fascinating and heroic characters of the nineteenth century.  The story takes place some years after the end of his resistance to French colonization in Algeria, and after an incident in Damascus which ironically made him into a friend of France.  Those who know what happened there might have some idea of where this story will go… or maybe not.


Beit Hanina, 1866

Baudouin rode into camp and found that he was late.

“He’s looking for you,” said the sentry as Baudouin swung down from his horse, pointing to the tent at the center of the camp. “The sayyid needs to see you,” said a Taibeh man who recognized his face. “The emir – he’s been asking for you,” said one of the Syrian officers two tents down. And Raymond, his fellow French lieutenant, put down his bottle long enough to say “get in there, because the king is about to send out a search party.”

The Frenchman needed no more warning, and he ducked into the command tent without stopping for breath. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw that all the staff officers were sitting around the table. They were an even more motley assortment than the last time he’d seen them: some from the great families of Damascus and Aleppo; Bedouin sheikhs who led troops of scouts; mountain Druzes; Algerians; one or two of the other officers who led his five hundred Frenchmen. Men from the local tribes and towns had come to join them: their fathers had rebelled against Mehmet Ali thirty years ago, and now they’d rallied to a new banner in exchange for the promise that they could rule their own affairs.

And at the head of the table was a bearded man in a hooded cloak. He was nearing sixty, but his hair was still black and his features strong; his burnoose was unadorned and he had a bandolier of ammunition over his shoulder. He looked more like the fighting man he still was than the prince he had become, but still, every eye around the table was on him: Abd-el-Kader, these past ten months King of Syria.

Once, in Algeria twenty years ago and more, Baudouin had fought this man. Now, he called him lord.


“Ah, my brave Baudouin, at last you are here,” the king said. “Have you been in the city?”

“I have, lord.” The words came easily, but there was something fearful in them: now that Baudouin had gone to Jerusalem and returned, he realized what a hideous risk he had taken. Pilgrims still came in and out even with Abd-el-Kader’s army approaching, and the garrison still hesitated to molest Europeans, but if anyone had realized why Baudouin was in the city, he’d have died… eventually.

“I suppose it’s too much to expect that the tunnel is still open?”

“It’s closed, and the Turks are guarding its ghost.” The peasant rebels had used the Dung Gate tunnel to break into Jerusalem in ’34, and when Mehmet Ali’s soldiers had retaken the city, closing it had been nearly the first thing they’d done.

“Then what did you see? More than that, what did you hear?”

“The mutasarrif is in the citadel with the regulars. There are men on the wall, but most of them are conscripts, and they’re complaining that they’ll be the first to die.”

Abd-el-Kader leaned in intently. “They don’t think they can win?”

“The officers promise them victory. The men don’t believe. Even the regular troops – in the coffee-houses, all of them say they want to go home.”

“And the people?”

“They have no love for the Turks. They won’t fight, but they’ll welcome you in: the Muslims know the local tribes are with you, the Christians know what you did in Damascus, and the Jews remember how you treated them in Oran.”

Abd-el-Kader’s face broke into a smile. “Then we’ll sweep the Turks out, Baudouin. You and Raymond and Godfrey will enter Jerusalem with me.” The smile, in turn, became laughter: Abd-el-Kader was endlessly amused that his French officers had the names of Crusader kings, and he lamented that Bohemond had gone out of fashion.

“But there’s the Citadel, sayyid,” said Ibrahim Barghouti: he was from Bani Zeid, the newest of the king’s lieutenants, and he knew the city well. “With forty thousand men, we can sweep the Turks from the walls, but the mutasarrif has cannon and his soldiers are well-armed. We’ll have to lay siege to him, and we don’t have time.”

Baudouin nodded involuntarily. The Sultan was gathering another army, and Abd-el-Kader would soon have to guard his northern marches. If Syria’s borders were to meet Egypt’s as its new king intended, he would have to finish the campaign quickly, and that left no time to besiege David’s Tower.

“You’re right, Ibrahim ustaz. I’ll have to consider this. But Jerusalem will be mine.”


Outside the tent, Baudouin went to find a meal. The rush of his escape from Jerusalem was behind him, as was the staff meeting, and he felt strangely drained.

The smell of cooking came from the Ta’amirah men’s encampment, and the route there took him past the artillery. Godfrey was there, in the uniform of a French captain: unlike Baudouin and Raymond, he was still a serving officer, and the cannon were a gift from the Emperor. He saw Baudouin and gave him the briefest of acknowledgments: he said nothing, but his opinion of Abd-el-Kader and the Frenchmen who followed him was clear.

He may call himself a king, but he will be the Emperor’s man, was written on his face. Baudouin, as he’d done before, shook his head. He knew enough of Abd-el-Kader by now to know that, while the Algerian honored his debts, he was no one’s puppet. He might take Napoleon’s aid, but he would be a king in truth.

Once, the thought might have given Baudouin pause, but his loyalty was no longer to France, whether empire, kingdom or republic.


It had been in Damascus, in 1860… There was fighting between Druze and Maronites in Mount Lebanon, so of course there was fighting in Syria, and Baudouin saw flames and smoke as the mobs rampaged through the Christian quarter. Man, woman and child were put to the sword and driven into the fire, and the air echoed with screams. Baudouin huddled in a small church with his Marie and their six-year-old Thérèse, knowing there was nothing he could do to protect them.

But then Abd-el-Kader and his men had come, driving away the mobs and leading the Christians to shelter. The emir had been exiled by a French government that feared what he would do if he returned to Algeria, but that didn’t deter him: he took French citizens under his wing just as he did the Christian Arabs, and that night, Baudouin’s family had slept in his house protected by his soldiers’ guns.

Baudouin owed Abd-el-Kader three souls, and when the zu’ama of Syria had offered the emir a throne, the Frenchman’s life was his for the asking.


Night had fallen and Baudouin stood at the edge of the camp. The hills of Jerusalem stood in the shadows, and on them, he could see the outline of the city.

There were holy places within. Thérèse had dreamed of coming here: she’d so wanted to visit Jerusalem and the Holy Land. But business, and Baudouin’s diplomatic post, had never allowed…

He felt the touch of a hand on his shoulder. “Are you thinking of them?”

“Yes, lord.”

“I know what it is to miss a wife and child.”

Baudouin nodded but said nothing. The lives Abd-el-Kader had saved, God had taken three years later when the fever came. That was the other reason why there was nothing tying Baudouin to France, and why he had nothing to live for but the man he’d chosen as his king.

“I will make you whole, Baudouin. We will find a Melisende for you. Maybe in Jerusalem, maybe somewhere else, but she will be there.”

There it was, the Crusades again. Abd-el-Kader’s joke grew old sometimes. But Baudouin understood what was behind the words: it was something that neither of them ever said, but that the Algerian was wise enough to know and that the Frenchman admitted to himself in his moments of clarity. Having only one allegiance was a sickness, and a man needed more than a king: he needed a family.

His answer, when it came, was oblique: “We might both die tomorrow.”

“We might, but with God’s will we won’t, not if the Turks do as I hope.”

“You have a plan then, lord?” asked Baudouin. The staff meeting had been inconclusive.

“Yes, I have decided. You will get your orders in the morning. Now find your tent and go to sleep.”

The King of Syria had commanded, and his French lieutenant gratefully obeyed.


Baudouin rode out at dawn, Raymond mounted next to him and his men at his back. His orders, given minutes before, were to advance through the villages west of Jerusalem and invest the city from the south. A Druze cavalry troop rode with him: they, too, were to take the high ground above the Hinnom and Kidron valleys while others garrisoned the western villages themselves. The main body of the army was stirring, and it would soon advance from the north.

“It will be a siege after all,” said Raymond.

“It looks that way.” Baudouin wondered what Abd-el-Kader was thinking. Did he truly think he could reduce the citadel so quickly? Had he decided to use artillery after all, even if it put the holy places at risk? That would go against everything Baudouin knew of the emir’s character, but what other explanation could there be, especially with him leaving a gap in the line to the northeast…

A bullet whistled and cracked past Baudouin’s head, and more gunfire erupted from the Turkish patrol that had hidden itself just south of a village. Men and horses fell, and for a second, Baudouin was paralyzed. But it was only a second, and then he drew his saber and kicked his horse into a gallop.

His men followed and the charge went home. Baudouin was face to face with an officer, trading saber strokes: he narrowly parried a cut at his face and pressed forward in a flurry of strikes. The Turkish captain fought back fiercely, shouting curses and battering at Baudouin’s guard, but then he broke off and fled as a Bedouin troop came to the French soldiers’ aid. The rest of the patrol broke off with him, a few turning to shoot backward at their enemy but most fleeing pell-mell up the valley.

Baudouin called a halt to regroup. He counted five of his men dead and several others wounded, and he told off a squad to carry the injured ones to the rear. A troop of townsmen from Jenin rode past him and their officer called out to see if anything was wrong, but he waved them onward.

There was gunfire elsewhere as other troops encountered the enemy, but none of it seemed to be slowing the investment of the city. “We should advance that way,” Raymond said, pointing at Abu Tor and the ill-named Hill of Evil Counsel. There was a small Ottoman garrison there, but if they took it, they would command the heights that guarded Jerusalem from the south.

Baudouin nodded and saw that his troops had regrouped and were ready to ride. He began to shout an order but trailed off as he saw a scout riding up at the gallop.

The man was from the Fawaghrah tribe – the foie gras, as some of the Frenchmen called them – and his horse was lathered. “Stop the advance!” he called. “Stop the advance! The Turks are leaving the city!”

Baudouin looked and saw that it was true: soldiers were evacuating the citadel and the conscripts were leaving their positions on the walls. Suddenly he understood the reason why Abd-el-Kader had left a gap in the northeast. He hadn’t wanted to surround the city: he’d wanted the Turks to see that they were about to be surrounded. Backed into a corner and ordered by their commander, even demoralized soldiers would fight, but if they were left a path home, they might force their officers’ hand, especially if the officers were uncertain themselves…

“Without a battle,” Raymond said, and for the first time since Baudouin had met him, there was something like awe in his voice.

“Does the king want us to pursue?” Baudouin asked.

“No,” said the Fawaghrah man. “He said they won’t come back. We might need to chase them out of Abu Tor if they don’t leave on their own, but that’s for later – he wants you and the other commanders with him when he enters the city.”

“Think of that, Raymond – we Crusaders will ride into Jerusalem at last.” But this wasn’t a Crusade, Baudouin realized: here was Saladin come again, and this time the Franks would be at his side.


The French lieutenant rode north at the command of his Saladin, the king he had chosen. But later, as he passed the gate of Jerusalem, it was Thérèse’s face he seemed to see.

Hugo Ballot: Novel

This year’s short list of novels, like the novella category, is a strong one, and like the novellas, the novels have a clear winner and a clear loser.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

The winner: The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. The Fifth Season is probably the best SFF novel, not of the year, but of the decade. Maybe it’s the best SFF novel of the century, although it’s still early. It’s pitch-perfect in nearly every way: the writing is lyrical in the right places and prosaic where it’s better brought down to earth; the fourth-wall-breaking brushstrokes and the shifts in viewpoint and tense are startling in exactly the right way; the characters are vividly drawn and the injustices of the world portrayed with nuance and moral strength. It’s long enough to do justice to its epic premise but not so long that the story drags. I could go on for days, but others have done so already.

Even more than that, The Fifth Season, like all Jemisin novels but more so, is a master class in world-building. The Fifth Season sits somewhere on the uncertain border between science fiction and fantasy, and manages to build the kind of world that both genres are meant to explore. It takes its unnatural premises – what if the world suffered extinction-level geological catastrophes every few centuries and certain people had inborn power to control the earth’s movements? – and spins them out into history, politics, social organization and material culture that seem natural. The Fifth Season’s world is lived-in and is obviously thought through to the smallest detail; it’s a world in which readers can immerse themselves and from which the hidden stories that lie behind every novel come to mind unbidden. This is a masterpiece, and nothing else on the ballot comes close to it.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

The loser: Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves. This is a book that people seem to love or hate, and I hated it. I’ll give Stephenson credit for ambition, but unlike Jemisin, he couldn’t make it work. The walking-stereotype characters and the overtones of racial essentialism in the final part were enough for me to put it below No Award – the only novel this year to achieve that honor – and the bad science made it worse. A word about bad science: hard SF authors often neglect the “soft sciences” such as sociology and linguistics, and Seveneves is a particularly bad example, all the more so since Anathem proves that Stephenson can extrapolate both hard and soft sciences.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Of the remaining novels, Naomi Novik’s Uprooted easily takes the second-place slot. It’s a familiar fantasy with familiar tropes, but Novik manages to do a few new things with them. The writing is lucid, the setting well-realized, the characters sympathetic and well-drawn, the enemy evil and multi-faceted. The conflict is a genuine contest of will, with an enemy capable of learning from its setbacks; the Eastern European setting complements the overtones of myth and history; the story is unpredictable enough to keep up nearly constant suspense; the resolution is both unexpected and satisfying. In a year without The Fifth Season, I might easily have put Uprooted at the top of my ballot; as things stand, it’s a strong runner-up.

The Aeronaut's Windlass by Jim Butcher
The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher

Jim Butcher’s The Aeronaut’s Windlass comes third. It’s an entertaining read: steampunk, flying ships and talking cats, what’s not to like? There are characters to root for and plenty of action. The single gratuitous political statement (about the Auroran enemy being driven to conquer because it has been bankrupted by its wasteful social-democratic ways) is mercifully short, and I suppose authors are allowed one of those every so often. But The Aeronaut’s Windlass is too long, the story lags in too many places, and in contrast to The Fifth Season, the setting isn’t fully realized and we see far too little of the strange world the characters inhabit. I like Butcher, but this isn’t his best, and I’m not sure I’d read the next book in the series.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

And finally, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy. I’ve never understood the appeal of the Ancillary novels – I’ve seen enough thoughtful rave reviews of them that I’m prepared to believe this is a failing of mine rather than Leckie’s, but I’ve never understood it all the same. Ancillary Mercy and The Fifth Season are both dense, but where Jemisin’s density is lucid, Leckie’s is opaque. Her world doesn’t permit easy entry, and she couldn’t make me care about her characters or about the conflicts running through their society. I can see the novel’s literary merit – no one would dispute that Leckie is a masterful writer – but I can’t sign up for the ride on which she wants to take us.  Leckie can take comfort in the fact that many will no doubt rate Ancillary Mercy higher than I do.

1. The Fifth Season
2. Uprooted
3. The Aeronaut’s Windlass
4. Ancillary Mercy
5. No Award
6. Seveneves

Hugo Ballot: Novella

I wasn’t able to put the best novella of 2015 on the top of my Hugo ballot, because that story, The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman T. Malik, didn’t make the finals.  That said, I can’t complain too much about the choices I had: the novella can be an awkward length, but most of this year’s entries carried it off and some were very good indeed.

There’s a clear winner and a clear loser.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Penric’s Demon is what a fantasy novella should be.  It’s a coming-of-age tale with considerable depth, well-drawn characters and tight, vivid storytelling.  The titular “demon” is a fascinating character in her (their?) own right, and though she’s not very demonic, it’s easy to see how she could be, and one of the best things about the story is that it’s also something of a coming-of-age tale for her.  Penric’s Demon is everything I’ve come to expect from Bujold, and it easily tops my ballot.

Daniel Polansky’s The Builders, on the other hand, is half-baked.  It’s full of narrative that interrupts the flow of action and dialogue, chapter breaks that make no sense, and backstory presented through infodumps rather than flowing naturally into the story.  The author takes much too long to introduce the characters and is too slow to get where he’s going.  There’s the kernel of a good story in there, which puts it above No Award, but the flaws in the writing are too great to ignore.

The other three entries are closer together, which surprises me, because I initially expected Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti to stand out as much as Penric’s Demon did.  I really wanted to like Binti.  It’s an Afrofuturist space opera, which pushes pretty much all my buttons.  There’s a mythic quality to the storytelling, which I also favor, and the author handles the cross-cultural themes very well (an Igbo author writing a Himba character is roughly equivalent to a Spaniard getting into the head of a Ukrainian).  The protagonist’s moral growth through adversity and coming to terms with her aspirations are universal.  In some ways, Binti is a gem.

But it’s a flawed gem.  Too much of the writing, especially in the first part of the story, is clumsy and repetitive: it gets better as the story moves along and the action picks up, but never entirely goes away.  The protagonist’s shift in sympathy toward the alien Meduse happens much too quickly to suspend disbelief, especially given what the Meduse had done to her friends a short time before.  The Meduse’s motivation to attack the ship was weak and not fully realized within their culture.  These flaws weren’t as overwhelming as those of The Builders, but they were enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Brandon Sanderson’s Perfect State, on the other hand, was better than I expected.  It’s a virtual reality story, and I usually hate virtual reality stories.  I’ve never been a cyberpunk fan, and virtual reality is too often used as a device to gloss over the moral implications of the characters’ actions because their victims aren’t real.  When I saw that Perfect State was set in a universe where every “liveborn” human was master of his own mini-universe, Nine Princes in Amber-style, I expected the worst.

Instead, the story addressed the moral implications of virtual reality head-on, and its conflict arose precisely from the protagonist’s belief that “machine-borns” were people whose lives mattered and who were worth fighting for. There’s also some interesting exploration of how “real” the liveborn humans are in comparison to the simulated ones, and how similar are some of the forces acting on them. Unfortunately, the protagonist flinches at taking his beliefs to their logical conclusion, and the moral weight of the story is compromised by the likelihood that the conflict zone’s population were, in fact, robotic constructs. But the writing is tight, the action is exciting, and I don’t regret the time I spent reading.

Binti and Perfect State ended up very close in the rankings: at the moment, I think the Sanderson has a narrow edge over the Okorafor, but I’ll probably change my mind several times over between now and July 31.

That leaves Alastair Reynolds’ Slow Bullets.  I’m not a Reynolds fan: when he’s good, he’s very good, but most of his work falls flat, and he sometimes takes thought experiments well past the point of collapse.  Slow Bullets did nothing to change my opinion. There’s nothing bad about the story – it’s lucid and competently written – but also nothing particularly good.  The reason why military records are kept on “slow bullets” and why the bullets are so important to the story is never satisfactorily explained.  Nor is there any real reason why the enemy torturer chose to become the narrator’s nemesis, why they ended up on the same lost ship, or why, once they encounter one another again, the torturer suddenly loses much of his importance to the story.  And Reynolds does little to make us care about the characters, so when the plotlines are (mostly) resolved, I didn’t care much about that either.  It’s well ahead of The Builders, but behind Binti and Perfect State.

  1. Penric’s Demon
  2. Perfect State
  3. Binti
  4. Slow Bullets
  5. The Builders

Hugo Ballot: Novelette and Short Story

It’s voting time for the Hugo awards, which means that it’s also time for everyone with a Worldcon supporting membership to spam the universe with their opinions on the finalists. I’ll start this year’s ballot with novelettes and short stories, which are what I actually read most often day to day and thus require the least homework.

The two categories are a study in contrasting quality. Despite the second year of Rabid Puppy interference (I still can’t believe I just wrote that), the novelette shortlist is quite credible. Folding Beijing is easily one of the best stories of 2015 and would no doubt have made it onto the ballot without Theodore Beale’s help. And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead belongs on the ballot too – yeah, gratuitous foul language and dated cyberpunk plot, but it’s a hell of a story. Obits isn’t Stephen King’s best work, but even bad King is better than most of what’s out there. Even the two Castalia entries aren’t terrible – What Price Humanity is a tightly written and suspenseful story of war veterans being trained in virtual reality for one last mission, and Flashpoint Titan is no worse than ordinary missile porn. Granted, in a year where the eligible works included Ian McDonald’s Botanica Veneris and Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds, I’m sorry to see the Castalia stories there instead, but the top of the shortlist is very good indeed and none of it is bad enough to get No Awarded.

The short stories, on the other hand, piss me off.

The top two aren’t bad. Both Cat Pictures Please (the only non-Puppy entry to make the shortlist) and Asymmetrical Warfare are entertaining. There’s an idea or two in Asymmetrical Warfare, in which starfish-like aliens learn the folly of judging a book by its cover or a lifeform by its shape, and Cat Pictures Please is a nice portrayal of a self-aware artificial intelligence and its attempts to understand humanity’s self-destructive side. But though both are entertaining light reading, neither is really more than that, and in a year that featured (for instance) Ursula Vernon’s Wooden Feathers, Mary Robinette Kowal’s Midnight Hour, and Megan O’Keefe’s Of Blood and Brine, neither really stands out.

And the other three… well. There’s Space Raptor Butt Invasion, the Chuck Tingle dinosaur-porn story that Beale pushed onto the ballot as an exercise in pure trolling, and Tingle’s successful counter-trolling, while funny as hell, doesn’t cure the waste of a ballot slot. From there, it goes even further downhill. If You Were an Award, My Love has no literary merit that I can see, and is quite possibly the most spiteful story ever to be nominated for a significant literary award. And Seven Kill Tiger – even aside from the bad science, what can I say about a story that portrays Africans as subhuman and in which the hero, a Chinese mining exec in Zambia, successfully unleashes a genocidal plague against them so that Han Chinese can take over the continent? His inner monologue includes – I’m not paraphrasing – “Africa would be a glorious place were it not for the Africans” and “African men thought of themselves as lions, and they lived like kings of beasts, entirely content to lounge about living off the labor of one or more of his lionesses,” and he’s the good guy.  He’s talking about Chewa people too – I know some Chewa people personally, and the story’s portrayal of them doesn’t amuse me.

I understand perfectly why Beale and Jerry Pournelle thought that Seven Kill Tiger was a good story. I disagree.

Bottom line: all the novelettes are going above No Award, three short stories are going below it, and I’d like to announce to the world at large that two of the items on the short-story ballot belong there less than Space Raptor Butt Invasion does.


1. Folding Beijing
2. And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead
3. Obits
4. What Price Humanity
5. Flashpoint Titan

Short Story:

1. Cat Pictures Please
2. Asymmetric Warfare
3. No Award
4. Space Raptor Butt Invasion
5. If You Were an Award, My Love
6. Seven Kill Tiger

Homecoming: A Monday story

On occasion, when I write a story I don’t plan to submit, I’ll post it here for your reading pleasure (or otherwise). I particularly welcome comments and criticism on these posts – I mean it about the criticism, because I’m always looking to improve my craft. I’ll respond to any comment on a story posted here.

Anyway, this story takes place in South Carolina, but not our South Carolina: it’s the South Carolina of this world. The story stands alone, and you should be able to tell some of what makes its world different from ours – if not, I’m not doing my job.


Lobeco, SC
September 1961

Caroline began cooking at three, and she put up the flag at five thirty.

The first car pulled up outside at a quarter to six and a couple of tourists got out. Caroline sized them up as they climbed the steps to the veranda: forties or fifties, office job somewhere, Northeastern from the look of them. She opened the door a minute before they would have rung the bell, and said “Come on in, I’m Caroline.”

“I’m Fred and this is Nora,” the man said – definitely New York or New Jersey. “Dinner’s on?”

“Sure is.” The flag was up, and that had meant one thing ever since tourists started coming this way by automobile: that anyone who cared to stop by and pay could have a seat at the table.

“Your family here?” asked Nora, handing over a five-dollar bill.

“No, just you and me. Dining room’s that way.” Caroline led them in to where the table was already set: a sweetgrass basket in the center with napkins and utensils; peanut stew with chicken and okra; fish fry with rice; cornbread and greens; a salad from the kitchen garden. There was no menu – people who came to house restaurants ate what the family ate – but she liked to make more than one thing so no one would get up hungry.

“Let me get you something to drink. Lemonade? Sweet tea? Beer?”

“Lemonade for me, beer for him.”

Caroline went to the kitchen, brought back the pitchers and poured, and then she took a helping of stew herself and sat down at the table. “What’s bringing y’all here?”

“The festival.” Fred looked surprised that it could be anything else, and in truth it was the answer Caroline had expected. St. Helena Island always threw a party to celebrate the Sea Island Republic’s declaration of independence back in the Civil War, and with the hundredth anniversary this year, they were doing something special. The Sea Islands’ independence had been brief, but it was heroic, and here in Gullah country, people still felt it.

“You’ll have a good time, trust me. Make sure you try…” But the doorbell cut the conversation short, and Caroline got up to bring two more tourists to the table.

More people drifted in over the next hour: the next-door neighbors and the widower from up the street, a lone tourist all the way from Wisconsin, a family from Virginia. Caroline sat and chatted when she could and got up and served when she had to. It was a good mix and they all seemed to get along: once they got talking about the festival, she hardly needed to put a word in to keep the conversation going.

At seven, when the Virginians came in, she thought about taking the flag down. Twelve people was all that would fit in the dining room. It was a nice night and she could sit a few more on the veranda, but she’d have to cook more and she liked to have everyone in one place when she brought out the pecan pie and the banjo.

She considered a bit – another few dollars wouldn’t hurt – but it didn’t take long to decide. She got up to take the flag down, or at least she was about to get up when she heard a man’s voice in the door, saying “I’ll have the roast loblolly, please.”

Caroline knew that voice, and when she looked up, she knew that face.

“King of Mali, Sam, what the hell are you doing here?” She gave the guests an embarrassed smile – she never cussed in front of other people if she could help it – but then she turned back to the man standing in the door, and her look would have left him for dead if he’d had any shame.

“The flag’s up, ain’t it?”

“It’s up for everyone but you, Sam. Beaufort’s about twelve miles that way – someone there’ll feed you.”

“Can’t use some more company?”

“I could have used your company a lot of times the past seventeen years,” said Caroline, but suddenly, the heat of anger turned to something cooler. “Tell you what, Sam, I cooked dinner for you that day you never came home, so I reckon you’ve got one meal waiting. I don’t want to make a scene in company, so if you sit in the kitchen I’ll serve it to you. And then you get gone.”

For a second, Sam looked like he wanted to say something else, but then he shut up and let Caroline lead him to the kitchen. She sat him under the militia rifle and Arabic calligraphy and across from the Freedmen’s Circle calendar, dished him out some stew and rice, and went back to take care of the customers.

She was in the kitchen a couple more times before the guests left, and each time, Sam didn’t say a word and paid attention to his meal. She hurried the guests out faster than she’d planned – pie, yes, but no banjo playing tonight – and when the last one was gone, she walked in again and found him still there.

She stood for a moment, hands on her hips, and finally sighed. “All right, Sam,” she said, “if you won’t leave like a decent soul, you can at least help do the dishes.”

“At your command, ma’am,” said Sam, and he disappeared into the dining room to clear the table. After, he scraped off the dishes, washed them in the sink, and handed them to Caroline to dry: it became a rhythm, and after a while it was almost like old times.

“The kids gone?” he asked a few minutes later.

“You’d know if you’d stayed,” Caroline answered. “But Yusuf married that Camara girl and he’s working at the drugstore, and Sharon’s in college in Freetown.”

“Sierra Leone?”

“Yes, studying to be a teacher. These days, she calls the speech Afro-Atlantic instead of Gullah.”

“They do get ideas over there, don’t they? And you, Carol? You doing all right? Cookin’ for money…”

“Oh, I’m fine, Sam. I just do this weekends. I like cooking for a crowd, that’s all, and with the children grown, this way I have someone at the table.” She gave him a very pointed look. “Tell me. Why the hell did you come back? What did you think you’d find?”

“I came for the festival, like everyone else.”

“You know exactly what I mean. Why’d you come here? Plenty of hotels in Beaufort where you could have stayed, if all you wanted was to join the party on St. Helena.”

Sam started to answer, then stopped, then started again. He was holding a dish, and he put it back into the suds. He stood there, and Caroline looked deep into his face: it was older now, with both of them in their forties, but it was still the one she remembered, with dark expressive eyes and the Rice Coast written on its features.

“I don’t know, Carol,” he said at last. “I really don’t know. Just that I drove up here from Mobile, and all the way, I kept seeing your face. I haven’t been back to South Carolina all this time, and I still can’t think of it without remembering you. No place is ever home like the first home, I guess.”

“There was a time when you were happy enough to take off to a second one,” answered Caroline, but her voice had gone from harsh to resigned. “Khadija – that was her name, wasn’t it? You still with her?”

Sam shook his head and laughed – it was painful laughter, but a laugh all the same. “That lasted about five years, and one night I came home and she wasn’t there. After, there was a woman or two, but never for very long.” He handed Caroline the last spoon and sank into a chair beside the recipe books. “You?”

“For a while, I was too busy raising the kids alone. But after… same thing. A man here, a man there. I thought about getting married again once, but it didn’t happen.”

“Aren’t we supposed to get better at this when we grow up?”

Caroline couldn’t help it – she laughed. “That’s what I keep telling Sharon.” She took a chair across from his. “Beer?”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He got up and found the beer himself. “You going to the festival too?”

“I already been. I’ll go again, but not tomorrow – I’ve got things to do.”

“Circle things?”

“That’s what the plans were. I was supposed to teach a French class down at the Circle hall. But that’s canceled now that there’s gonna be a shout for Anne Marie.”

A shock came over Sam’s face. “Anne Marie’s dead?”

“She’s been fighting Congo fever for years. It’s been coming for a long time.”

“I can’t believe it. Anne Marie.”

“I know what you mean,” said Caroline – Anne Marie had been the life of the Lobeco Circle even when they were in school, and she’d seemed indestructible. “I don’t know who’ll keep things together now – I’m surprised the shout got arranged without her to organize it.” They both laughed again, the laughter of two people who’d grown up and who knew that life sometimes tasted bitter.

Sam got up suddenly and disappeared down the hall – Caroline knew what for. She started putting the cups and utensils away, and with her mind on the task, it came as a surprise to see him standing in the doorway again. He was smiling, and it looked like he’d been there a while.

“You still can stop a clock, Carol,” he said.

“The hell,” she began, but she never got the words out of her mouth. She wasn’t sure if she should be angry, especially since she’d been thinking that Sam didn’t look half-bad himself for forty-two.

“Don’t think you can buy my forgiveness with lies,” she finally said.

“It’s no lie, Carol, but I do wish you’d forgive me anyway. I did wrong.”

“I forgave you long ago. We all make our mistakes.”

“No, Carol, that’s not it. You weren’t a mistake for me. You were the one right decision I made. But we were what – eighteen, nineteen when we got married? Everyone says to get married young so the Congo fever won’t get you, and the Circle practically marched us to the altar when they saw we were together, but I wasn’t man enough yet to handle being married to anyone. Then there was Yusuf and Sharon, and…”

“I know. Not like I handled things much better. But like you said, we’re supposed to get better at this when we grow up – I wish you’d given it that chance.”

Sam sat down again and the silence lengthened, but it had become a companionable rather than a hostile silence. “I’d like to go to Anne Marie’s shout tomorrow,” he said.

“You’ll be welcome, I’m sure.”

“Allah carry her soul up high,” he said. It was the first line of a spiritual, and he sang the second: Caroline took her banjo down as she’d been planning to do hours before and finished it with him. She couldn’t sing worth a damn, so she played a harmony to his voice: her fingers found the strings naturally as they’d done at Circle dances a long time ago.

“If you’re staying for the shout,” she said, “you shouldn’t go to Beaufort this late. I’ll get you a blanket and pillow and you can sleep downstairs. Downstairs, mind you – if you come knocking at my door, out on the street you go.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and saluted. She laughed again and showed him where the linens were.

“We’ll go to the shout together?” he said.

Her lips started to form a no, but she turned around instead and was halfway up the stairs before she looked down.

“Ask me tomorrow.”

Sidewise in learning

Somebody – maybe Bradbury, maybe Heinlein, maybe John D. MacDonald – said that you need to write a million words before you’ve learned the craft. I’ve never kept count, but I wrote for forty years before I sold my first story to a pro market, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I hit the million mark somewhere. And if I did, about half those million words were alternate history.

History has fascinated me since I was a child, and the unknowable ifs of history – what might have happened if the past had played out differently – have appealed to my imagination for nearly as long. I was about ten years old when I read Murray Leinster’s Sidewise in Time, and from then on I was hooked. I read alternate history stories anywhere I could find them, and when I discovered an Internet discussion group on alternate history in 1995, I became a participant. I’ve played with historical what-ifs in one forum or another ever since.

The magic of alternate history, like that of all speculative fiction, is that it’s open to nearly anything. What if Spinoza had gone into exile in the Ottoman Empire after the Dutch rabbinate excommunicated him? What if the Malê Revolt in Brazil had gone a bit better – not much better, but a bit – leading to a Jacobin Islam taking root in West Africa? What if the early split between the Kingdom and Republic of Haiti had become permanent? What if the kenbut (local justice courts) of ancient Egypt had assumed power by default during one of the periods of collapse, leading to the formation of quasi-republics? What if the Iron Age Nok culture of Nigeria had developed steel, or if African rice had been domesticated in Mali before 3000 BC?

(And yes, in case you haven’t guessed, all of those are my scenarios.)

But while alternate history has been wonderful exercise for the imagination, have my half-million words of it helped to teach me the craft of writing? In some ways I’m not entirely sure. Bulletin-board alternate history is different from published alternate history, with intellectual rigor and historical plausibility prized above storytelling. There’s a reason why the scenarios explored on alternate-history forums are usually called “timelines” rather than stories or novels: their object is more to build a different world rather than to tell the stories of its people.

World-building is of course part of all speculative fiction, but on alternate history forums, it becomes the whole. Timelines often use more of the tropes of academic writing and popular history books than those of fiction, and the interactive nature of Internet forums turns them into something like seminars. There isn’t really an equivalent in published literature: Robert Sobel came close with For Want of a Nail, but that was a one-time tour de force that has never been, and possibly never should be, duplicated. For that matter, Sobel was an economic historian rather than a novelist by training, and while his writing was interesting to those of a historical bent, it violated most of the rules of good storytelling. I’d go so far as to say that bulletin-board alternate history is a different genre from the works of authors such as Turtledove or Stirling, and as such, it isn’t necessarily good training for literary writing.

On the other hand, it isn’t entirely bad training. World-building is important, and participation in an alternate history forum is a master class in how to do it right and (just as critically) how to do it wrong. Bad alternate history is wish-fulfillment fantasy, in which the author picks an event and then proceeds from unspoken premises to paint the map his or her favorite color. Good alternate history is all about discovering the premises: taking a pivotal event and applying principles of historical cause and effect both to posit how the event might turn out differently and project the long-term outcome. Good alternate history is more science fiction than fantasy, and requires the author to develop an understanding of the political, economic, social, intellectual and environmental factors that drive human development. The research that I’ve done for my bulletin-board scenarios has improved my general knowledge and sense of plausible world-building as well as my knowledge of the specific cultures and personalities that have found their way into my writing.

And even in bulletin-board alternate history, there’s plenty of room for storytelling. As I became more confident in writing timelines, I shifted more and more from the macroscale to the microscale, and began focusing on one-shot vignettes and the story arcs of historical characters. Of the works linked above, the Haitian one consists entirely of short stories (after some preliminary discussion) and I’m quite proud of a couple of them. Most of the others also intersperse short fiction with the general historical discussion: Malê Rising even includes literary selections “written” by authors living in the alternate universe, and aside from being good exercise in writing from different voices, one of those selections led directly to my first professionally-published story.

So, yes, playing with history is part of my million words – not to mention that it’s been a lot of fun, and fun, at least, is never wasted.