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Interview: Chris Willrich on “Grand Tour”

– Tell us a bit about “Grand Tour.”

It’s a slice-of-life story set on a future Earth that, while it may not be truly utopian, is peaceful and wealthy, such that it’s not at all crazy for a family to save up for an interstellar cruise. It’s also a future where it’s commonplace — albeit a bit controversial — for parents to choose genetic modifications for their children. Of course, as in any time period, negotiating young adulthood can be tricky, and “Grand Tour” is also about ways of claiming your independence, while staying connected to your roots.

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
Part of it was a strange feeling I’d gotten about time perception many years ago (see the question after next) but the immediate trigger came when I was trying to write a bunch of very short sketches about different planets and/or fantasy cities. I’d wanted to do something in the same vein as Italo Calvino’s _Invisible Cities_ or Benjamin Rosenbaum’s story cycle _Other Cities._ One idea that turned up was of a planet that every so often had a big going-away celebration for starfarers, only it would turn out that the people leaving, and the people saying goodbye, were not the ones you’d expect.

I tried refining that notion into something that looked publishable, but the story wanted to get longer than that initial sketch… Meanwhile I’d been playing around with the idea of a sequence about a very long-lived star-traveling character. At some point I realized “Grand Tour” could be that character’s opening story. The pieces seemed to fit.

– What kind of research, if any did you do for this story?

It was pretty light research. I looked at an atlas when considering I-Chen’s flight plan, and checked the distance to Barnard’s Star. And a former colleague of Chinese descent was gracious enough to lend me her name for my main character.
– Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was “Grand Tour” personal?

In my twenties I first moved a long way from my home town. I’d gone to school a couple of hours away, but this was a much bigger step. It was an open-ended adventure — I got a job copy-editing at a newspaper — though always with the assumption I’d return to my own neck of the woods eventually.

I noticed this awkward difference in how my family and I perceived the passage of time. The cliche situation is that a young person experiences time as passing slowly and an older person sees time passing swiftly. But the opposite happened in this case. My family felt I was off on my adventure for an awfully long time, while I kept feeling as if I’d only just arrived. The disconnect reminded me of the relativistic time dilation that features in science fiction stories about star travel — at least the ones that don’t use faster-than-light travel as a way of getting around General Relativity.

Now, that wasn’t really a story idea, just a metaphor — but it stuck with me, waiting for a story to show up later. Over twenty years later, as it turned out!
– Is there anything in particular you would want a reader to take away from “Grand Tour?”

There is some stuff in there about human relationships, but the story verges on being preachy as it is, so I’ll let it do the talking. I will say I was glad to finally manage a non-violent science fiction story.
– What are you working on now?
I’m revising a novel about my sword-and-sorcery characters Persimmon Gaunt and Imago Bone, who owe their existence to F&SF (they last appeared here in “A Wizard of the Old School,” in the August 2007 issue.)

“Grand Tour” appears in the May/June 2012 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Andy Stewart on “Typhoid Jack”

– Tell us a bit about “Typhoid Jack.”
In a future where society has relinquished most control to cybernetic custodians known as “Farmers,” Jack Lowe, former Chief of Peace, pursues the not-quite-legal profession of a germ peddler. In this future, almost all sicknesses have been eradicated (except for the common cold, of course). But when Bernadette Maude, CEO of a major corporation under house arrest for mysterious reasons, employs Jack for the challenging task of infecting her, he must make further compromises to get the job done. Along with the technical difficulties required of this job, Jack must overcome a more personal obstacle: Seventeen, a Farmer with whom he has a tricky past.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I had a bad cold. I looked in the mirror and asked myself, “Who in the hell would want this?” And bingo, there you have it. A world where germs are a commodity, where people need to be sick sometimes in order to slow down. I was reading a good bit of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at the time for another noir project, and everything sort of came together.

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

I didn’t do as much research on this story as I usually do because I was less interested in the science and more interested in the character development and situation. That being said, I brushed up a bit on virulent disease and bacteria, especially regarding the speed in which germs replicate in the human body.

– This sci-fi story is your first sale to F&SF.  What have you written in the past, and what draws you to the science fiction genre?

I’ve always loved science fiction. I remember reading F&SF and Asimov’s as a young teen. I especially loved Bradbury (R.I.P., good sir), and later Le Guin and Delaney. Even in my undergraduate and graduate experiences, I gravitated toward sci-fi, surreal, and slipstream. My first publications, which appear in Big Bridge (an online literary journal), are in these styles.
“Typhoid Jack” is my first short story in print, and is obviously very sci-fi. I also have a slipsteam short story, “Synesthesia,” forthcoming in the west coast literary journal ZYZZYVA. I wrote “Synesthesia” in my last week at Clarion 2011, which was a key experience for my writing. I wrote “Typhoid Jack” before Clarion, but polished it up after.  

– What might you want someone reading “Typhoid Jack” to take away from the story?
It’s tough to look objectively at my work in this way, but I do know that “Typhoid Jack” deals primarily with the balance between self-interest and the good of the community. It’s a complex equilibrium, and pervasive in our own society. I mean, look at the dichotomy between Democratic and Republican ideals (or, how they are perceived by the talking heads on the 24 hour news networks). Self-preservation may be our strongest drive, but what about our fellow man? It’s all very tricky. But I like to write about tricky things, and sci-fi is a great genre for exploring them.

– What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m polishing up an alternative history sci-fi novella that focuses on events in and around Chernobyl in the early 90s. I’ve recently finished a speculative fiction novel tentatively titled All the Night a Song, represented by Jason Yarn with the Paradigm Agency. It’s getting shopped later in July, so wish me luck!

“Typhoid Jack” appears in the May/June 2012 issue.

Interview: Matthew Corradi on “City League”

– Tell us a bit about “City League.”
“City League” is a story about memories, baseball, and being shy.  The
setting is a near future in which memories can be isolated and
manipulated as commodities, sometimes for personal use, sometimes for
commercial use.  The story vehicle is a father/son relationship that
revolves around baseball.  In some ways it is a mystery, as the son
tries to find out why one of his baseball memories doesn’t match the
history books.  But ultimately the story is an exploration of how the
son’s outlook on life is influenced not just indirectly, but with
complete, pre-meditated intent, by the father.

– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?
The idea for this story came from some of my experiences as a father
to my three children.  My own taste in music was greatly influenced by
my father, and we shared a bond because of that.  When my kids were
young, I found myself intentionally trying to play the same music for
my kids in an attempt to get them to like it as well, hoping to create
the same bond.  (This has achieved varying degrees of success and
non-success so far, of course).  The same thing applied to science
fiction–I gave them the science fiction and fantasy books I read as a
kid, and we watched my favorite sci-fi movies and tv shows, and I
brought out all my posters and old toys, etc., all in an attempt to
pass along my own personal fascination with the genre.  Sometimes I
felt extremely guilty, however, for trying to influence them so

At the same time I also saw some of my own personality weaknesses
(such as shyness) beginning to manifest themselves in my kids.  On the
one hand I felt bad and somewhat responsible for that, but on the
other hand, I also felt a heightened connection to them because of
it–I could understand exactly what they were feeling, even if other
people couldn’t.

The question that came to my mind, then, was–if I could wave a magic
wand and simply get rid of that weakness for my child, would I do it,
even if it meant losing that bond we shared because of it?  And I
wasn’t sure how I would answer that question.  I’m all for sparing my
kids heartache, but on the other hand, adversity is how we learn best,
and what shapes us the most.

Those questions led to other questions–what if that magic wand
allowed me to carry those changes to an extreme?  And at what point
would I cross the line from gentle influence to unethical,
manipulative plotting?  “City League” was the story that came out of
those questions.  Memories just happened to be the plot tool, and I
used baseball as the connecting thread simply because I love baseball
and have always wanted to use it as a framework for a story.  But the
core inspiration was always that father/child relationship.

– Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for
you, in what way was “City League” personal?
Some stories that I write I call “throw-away” stories.  In other
words, a story  might have some good ideas, but the personal
connection is minimal, and it is written with external, business needs
in mind–i.e., better to keep this under 7500 words, or this type of
fantasy will be tough to sell, so maybe change it to this, or I love
this character but he’s not essential, so best to cut him out, and so

“City League”, however, was a story I wrote for myself.  The main
characters (both father and son) are me in many ways, and their
journey (in all of 6500 words) has been my journey to a large degree.
Encapsulating it in this story has allowed me to understand myself a
little bit better.  I was fully prepared for it not to sell, or take a
few knocks as being overly sentimental.  But this was one story where
I was okay with that.  Luckily Mr. Van Gelder was kind enough to buy
it anyway.

– What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?
Most of the research I did centered around the science of memories and
memory recall.  When I initially envisioned the story I did not
realize how many different kinds of memories there are, not just in
abstract classification but in the different ways the brain processes
memory information.  Different areas of the brain are used for
different kinds of memory (short term, long term, conscious,
unconscious, visual, sensory, motor skills, etc.) and for different
stages of recall (encoding, storage, retrieval, etc.)  While I took
some liberties in extrapolating the future science of memory recall
for the story, I hope the fact that it is all rooted in a small degree
of true science lends it some sense of believability.

– What would you want someone to take away from reading “City League?”
We are all dealt a hand in the game of life.  Some very few lucky
people are dealt a wining hand right off the top.  Others are dealt
crap and fold without ever playing.  Most of the rest of us are dealt
something in the middle.  We often wish we had a different set of
cards, or somebody else’s cards.  But all we can do is play the hand
we have, and in most cases we put in endless blood, sweat and tears to
still win the game with it.  In “City League” the main character
struggles with the knowledge that the deck was stacked against him by
his own father.  And yet, in the end, does it really matter?

Ultimately I’m not trying to send any profound message with “City
League” but rather trying to create a universal struggle that the
reader can relate to.  We all have our demons.  If it’s not shyness
it’s something else, and my hope is that the sense of survival the
main character achieves in the end can inspire others.

Of course, as much as “City League” is the son’s story, and is told
from the son’s POV, it is also very much the dad’s story.  And though
what he did was reprehensible, I’d like to think that readers can
still sympathize with some of his motivations as a father–and also
perhaps sympathize with the fine line parents sometimes have to walk
with their children.
– What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on remembering which kid has what dance recital
on what day, who finished their math homework and who just “pretended”
to, and why are they asking for allowance again when I coulda swore I
just paid them yesterday?   Aside from that I’m revising my next short
story, a rather abstract/experimental piece for me, and pecking away
at the background for a potential novel set in the same venue as “The
Ghiling Blade” (from the Jan./Feb. 2011 F&SF).

On a side note, as I write this my 10 year old daughter is sitting
right next to me reading “The Fellowship of the Ring.”  So screw it
all, I’m stacking the deck anyway!  My dastardly plan is working, ha,

“City League” appears in the May/June 2012 issue.

Interview: Sean McMullen on “Electrica”

Tell us a bit about “Electrica.”

The idea behind Electrica is that an intelligence from the geologically distant past has been preserved in amber. While experimenting with a form of electrostatic semaphore using amber, the eccentric Sir Charles Calder realizes that the signals he is detecting are not coming from a distant transmitter, but from within the block of amber in his receiver. He manages to communicate with the time-travelling mind. Meantime, Lieutenant Fletcher, a young code breaker from Lord Wellington’s staff, is called back from the war against Napoleon in Spain to check the military potential of Sir Charles’s semaphore. Fletcher soon gets drawn into some very murky intrigues involving sex, jealousy and obsession between Sir Charles and his wife. Electrica is set against the real scientific arms race during the Napoleonic Wars. The opposing sides had almost uncrackable secret codes, semaphore signaling systems stretching over hundreds of miles, observation balloons, and plans for steamships and submarines. There was even a scheme to invade England by digging a tunnel under the English Channel. In more general science, Luigi Galvini had established the link between electricity and biology with his famous twitching frogs’ legs in 1771, and by 1802 Giovani Aldini was applying electricity to dismembered human body parts and getting similar effects. While in London in 1803, Aldini even tried to bring the corpse of an executed man back to life, although without success.  

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I knew that electrostatics was quite well developed by the late Eighteenth Century, and about Galvani’s experiments with electricity and frogs legs, but Mary Shelley had beaten me to the most obvious theme by a couple of hundred years. Then I came across a book on code breaking in the Napoleonic Wars, and it reminded me that science and mathematics were valued very highly by the military authorities of the time. Where you have advanced science, you can have advanced science fiction. The idea of sending an intelligence across space as data had been used in A for Andromeda, but I had an idea to send the data for an intelligence through time. I thought about setting it in the modern world, but then I realized that I could make it a lot more interesting with an historical setting. I considered World War II, then World War I, then Victorian England, and finally I realized that Regency England had all the technology that the story needed. It was about now that a story idea for code breaking in 1812 merged with the story of Electrica’s trip through time. All I needed to do was a little research into a few details. This turned out to be a very large amount of research into nearly everything.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for this story?

As I have said, quite a lot. I had already studied the late Eighteenth Century semaphore towers for my 1999 novel Souls in the Great Machine, but I also needed a background in Regency electrostatics, steam engines, and suchlike. I have already mentioned reading Mark Urban’s The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, and I also re-read selected bits of Mary Shelley and Jane Austin, re-watched the Sharpe television series, checked with Trench’s A History of Marksmanship and Holland’s Gentlemen’s Blood to get the dueling scene right, and read some general history books like Richard Holmes’s Redcoats. At a practical level I did a few basic experiments with electrostatics and amber, and discovered that harpsichord wire is annoyingly awkward to use in electronic devices.   It was also very important to get the meals and clothing right. Apparently the British were very patriotic about their food during the Napoleonic Wars. They excluded French dishes from their tables and had theme dishes like desserts with the Union Jack’s colours and every possible variation on roast beef. Thanks to Beau Brummel and others, clothing was undergoing major changes at this time, so fashions were pretty volatile for both sexes. I did the best I could to cope with this, but the experts will probably point out what I got wrong. Then there was work on ravens, scalp electrodes, and even anatomy (where to get shot and seriously wounded without getting killed).  By now you probably think I wrote Electrica while mapping out the scenario for a novel (which I am now writing), but I started writing the story without having a novel in mind. In general I think science fiction has a greater impact if the reader thinks “Wow, this sounds like it could actually work”, so I take a lot of trouble to get the science and history as right as I can before taking a leap into the unknown. 

Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, then in what way was “Electrica” personal?

The duel scene was highly personal. Many years ago I was in a fencing tournament, and found myself facing an opponent with whom I had a girlfriend in common. What followed was the most ugly and hard fought bout of my three decades in martial arts! I like to think I got the general feeling into the Electrica duel. Weaving my computer career into a Regency story was another personal touch. Soon after I graduated and joined the workforce, I actually did some work on decoding data strings. In my case it was checking aviation weather reports for formatting errors, but in a sense I was – like Lieutenant Fletcher in Electrica – looking for hidden words and figures in strings of characters. This allowed me to develop him as a character who was a sort of fellow professional. The rather highly charged dinner scenes go all the way back to my undergraduate years. A girl who I was dating invited me home for dinner, and she turned out to come from a very, very rich family that had ties to the English aristocracy. My relatively poor family had rather more distant ties to the English aristocracy, so the conversation was not quite as awkward as it might have been, but I had a strong feeling that I was being treated as an amusing novelty rather than a prospective son-in-law. Memories of that night are certainly in Electrica.

What are you working on now?

Currently a short film is pretty high on my agenda. I have working in script writing for some years alongside my books and stories, and companies have taken out options taken out on several works. On the other hand, options are cheap, and actually getting anything on screen is super hard. Even a low-budget movie costs a thousand times more to produce than a book, so getting a book published and getting a movie shot is like the difference between a Viking longship and the Titanic. Still, the screen version of my soon-to-be published story Hard Cases looks like being shot within a couple of months, so that is extremely exciting. My daughter and I are also planning my first two e-book collections, both for later this year. Measuring Eternity is due to be released around August, and the other about four months later. The latter will contain a couple of stories set before my novel Souls in the Great Machine, and chronicles the building of the huge, human-powered computer, the Calculor by the dynamic and deadly Dragon Librarian Zarvora. For the fans of the ne’er do well and lecherous John Glasken, he does indeed make an appearance. Aside from all that, there is the novel based on the events in Electrica, but that will definitely not be coming out this year.

“Electrica” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

Interview: Michael Blumlein on “Twenty-Two and You”

– Tell us a bit about “Twenty-Two and You.”


It’s a tale about genetic engineering and a young couple head over heels in love and faced with a Mephistophelean decision.  Their genetic future (and ours) is full of promise, but not only promise.  As another character tells them, “progress is a god.  A great god.  God of the impossible, but not, alas, a god of mercy.”

The title is a riff on one of our wonderful new biotech companies, whose name, to my ears, is even more apt and beautiful than the one in the story.


– What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?


In the near term, my inspiration grew out of two events.  The first was a dinner I attended with friends and new acquaintances, one of whom was a young woman with a PhD in molecular biology who’d recently been hired by a prominent startup in the now mushrooming and highly competitive business of marketing personal genetic information.  You know, getting your genome sequenced for a song.  We had a lively conversation.  The technology is truly amazing and growing by leaps and bounds.  The future couldn’t be more exciting, but as a doctor, and more specifically, a clinician, I feel that it needs to be approached with discretion and care.

The second event was actually seeing my first patient who’d had his genome sequenced, and dealing with the real-life issues and consequences of that.  As it turned out, for him it was no big deal.  He was healthy, and all was well.   But that won’t be the case for everyone.   There are some thorny issues and questions.  For example, how do we interpret all the information we get?  What does it mean?  What, if anything, do we do with it?  What CAN we do with it?  It’s an area of intense discussion and debate.   Like atomic energy in the early days.  (Come to think of it, like atomic energy now.)  We can make it, we can provide it, now what?   Genetic diagnosis and engineering is another instance where our technological know-how is running way ahead of our ethical, moral and practical brains.

Another answer to the question of inspiration:  I’ve been interested in genetics my whole life.  I worked in one of the earliest genetics labs in the sixties, and I’ve been writing and speculating about the field for nearly forty years.


– What kind of research did you do for this story?


I thought deeply about marriage and what it meant to be in love.  And to love, which is slightly different.  I read Science, Nature, and various trusty on-line resources.   Talked to a few colleagues.  This, I should add, is something I do regularly.


– Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was “Twenty-Two and You” personal?


I’m a scientist.  I’m a doctor.  I’ve been a patient.  I’ve been in and out of love.  I like sex.  I find the human body both astounding and wonderful.  I think about the outcomes of my actions.  I love kids.


– Is there anything you might want a reader to take away from your story?


 As a doctor I’d probably say yes.  As a writer, no.  That is, as a writer I have no agenda, which is not the same as having no opinions.  I have many of those.


– What are you working on now?


I recently finished a novel called THE DOMINO MASTER, and I’m re-working an older one called THE CURE.  But what has me, arguably, most excited is my second story collection.  It’s titled WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED:  Tales of the Bizarre and the Magnificent.  It’s the follow-up to my award-winning first collection, THE BRAINS OF RATS, and is scheduled for release this fall.  Keep an eye out for it!


– Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for having me.

“Twenty-Two and You” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

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