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Interview: David Erik Nelson on “The Traveling Salesman Solution”

- The title of your story is “The Traveling Salesman Solution.” What’s the traveling salesman problem?

The Traveling Salesman Problem is sort of a math puzzle, generally stated something like: “Given a list of cities he must visit, and knowing the distance between any of these points, what’s the shortest round-trip that hits each city only once?” It seems easy: You just figure out each possible route, measure it, and compare it to the others to find the shortest one. But the thing is, the set of all possible routes grows geometrically: If you have four cities in your sales territory, then there are six possible routes. If you have five cities, then there are 24 possible routes. Ten cities? 362,880 routes. And on up.

Brainteasers like the TSP are part of a class of problems mathematicians call “NP-complete.” Here’s the catch: Any NP-Complete problem can be transformed into any other NP-Complete problem, so if you find a solution to one of them, you’ve found the solution to all of them. The full set of NP-Complete problems includes other brainteaserish things (like sudoku puzzles and Minesweeper), as well as a host of nitty-gritty biological, economic, and comp sci situations.

 

- So finding a solution to that problem would be great, right?

Ha! Sorta! On the one hand, it would effectively burst the bonds of what we could make computers figure out, slingshotting our understanding of molecular biology, our capacity to design super-efficient circuits, our ability to analyze really complicated social graphs and food webs, and so on.

On the other hand, we actually rely on the functional unsolvability of NP-Complete problems in order to keep our communications secure and maintain the slim modicum of privacy we still enjoy. In the post-industrial world, it would be incredibly chaotic to abruptly have the Traveling Salesman cease to be a Problem.

 

- One of the things I love about this story is that the protagonist is an Army vet in a wheelchair. It changes the way he interacts with the world, but it doesn’t stop him from saving it. A lot of the details about him are very specific and feel real. Was the character based on someone you know?

I feel like this question is probably about the narrator’s personality, in which case the answer is “not really”–he’s sort of an amalgam of several folks. His perspective on the military and foreign policy is heavily informed by a couple guys I know who served in Afghanistan and Iraq–both of whom, thankfully, completed their service without significant bodily injuries.

But I was at a Whole Foods one time, drinking a coffee, when I noticed this big blue high-clearance dually pickup parked in the handicap space. I was wondering about the jackass who’d go and swipe the handicap space when a legless African-American lady came rolling up to the truck. She hit the keyless, opened the door, grabbed the inside of the door frame, and swung herself in. Then she leaned out, folded her wheelchair in a single motion, and pulled it in after her, where I guess she tucked it into the passenger side. She drove off, and I was left thinking about how we lump everyone in a wheelchair into this single “handicapped” classification, and how that can probably really start to grate on someone who is, in fact, very able-bodied in most senses, she just didn’t have any legs.

 

- Your story “No Sound of Thunder” was published in the June issue of Asimov’s. You’ve said that the two stories are sort of alternate-reality versions of each other. What are the two realities?

One of these stories fully and unapologetically embraces being a “grown-up” and accepting the necessity of doing violence to prevent greater violence. The other is romantically certain that we can always find a way to dodge around violence and destruction provided we stay nimble and are willing to make ourselves ridiculous, if that’s what it takes.

This answer probably seems a touch cryptic, but I want to be as non-spoilerish as possible!

 

- “The Traveling Salesman Solution” is dedicated to Ted Chiang, Michael Hoffman, and Matt Weitzel. What’s the connection between those three?

Well, Ted Chiang is a fantastic fiction writer. I especially love his stories “Exhalation” and “72 Letters.” But he also wrote this great essay that appeared in issue #23 of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet: “The Problem of the Traveling Salesman.” He concludes the article by challenging someone to write a good TSP story–which is something I’d already spent more than a decade complaining was basically impossible. But right on the heels of reading Ted’s essay I read this article in the New Yorker about a Michigan dentist who was infamous for his very anomalous marathon results, and suddenly a “good math story” seemed happy to just about write itself.

As for the other two, Michael Hoffman is a friend who served in Iraq as an infantry captain and linguist; a lot of the narrator’s feelings about war and the boogie dark come from my conversations with Mike and reading his writing. Matt Weitzel is a young guy, a programmer, who was kind enough to have cookies and coffee with me when I’d first started working on this story. He patiently explained why my initial framing of the Traveling Salesman Solution wasn’t really a solution, but rather “escaping the problem,” a phrase I loved enough to steal. The narrator inherited his incredulity from Matt.

 

- There is a lot of math in this story.

I was a crappy math student, but I never had a math teacher I didn’t like. Mathematicians are a sorely underserved community.

 

- Where can readers go to find out more about your writing?

http://www.davideriknelson.com is the best place to start. If they’d like to check out my first time portal story–”The New Guys Always Work Overtime,” which just won the Asimov’s Science Fiction Readers’ Award for Short Story–they can get it for free here: http://davideriknelson.com/NewGuys/

 

- “The Traveling Salesman Solution” appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

Interview: Charlie Jane Anders on “Palm Strike’s Last Case”

- “Palm Strike’s Last Case” is about a vigilante superhero fighting crime in a grim city… until he gets selected for a space colonization mission. By shifting context partway through the story, the character learns important things about himself and solves a problem he could never have solved on Earth. At the same time, the juxtaposition of the two narrative types allows them to comment on each other. What inspired you to do a mash-up of these very different genres?

The thing I love most about superheroes is how adaptable they are, and how many different kinds of stories you can tell about them. And the notion of taking a dark urban vigilante and plunking him down on another planet, where he has to deal with a very different set of challenges, really appealed to me.

Sometimes I come up with a story idea, or the first scene of a story, and then spend weeks or months noodling and trying to figure out where the story should go. But this was one that came out pretty much fully formed — I had the beginning, middle, and end in my head all at once, when I was actually trying to finish some other story. I had to write down the whole outline, in detail, before I could get it out of my head and get back to the story I was supposed to be writing.

Looking back at that original outline now, it’s missing some stuff, and the final resolution is a little vague — but the thing that comes through is the notion of telling a superhero story in which the hero does actually make things better through heroism, but where the challenges are way different.

 

- What was the biggest challenge in combining a superhero story with a space colony story?

Tone was a big challenge — I reallly wanted to have a gritty noirish tone, a bit like Mickey Spillane, Richard Kadrey or Greg Rucka, without ever falling into pastiche. And also, a huge part of the appeal of the Palm Strike character is that he’s obsessed, with the death of his son and with getting justice. When he gets to Newfoundland and discovers that his cryo-capsule failed and there are drug dealers here, he starts falling into a narrative where his arch-enemy set a trap for him and maybe is behind the drug dealers. I wasn’t sure how far to push that — because the more Palm Strike obsesses about drug dealers and hypothetical supervillain plots, the less attention he’s paying to the massive starvation around him. At a certain point, a hero who doesn’t care that everybody is starving to death isn’t much of a hero. I also had to acknowledge the horror of the starving, possibly doomed colony, without breaking the superhero vibe too much.

 

- How is this idea of mixing genres reflected in your other work?

I love the notion of genre mash-ups, partly because I think genres get stronger when they get an injection of “new blood” from other types of stories. And partly because genres tend to get bogged down with tropes, which often consist of unquestioned assumptions, and these assumptions get challenged when new ideas are brought in.

I have a story going up at Tor.com in September, called “As Good As New,” that combines post-apocalyptic fiction and fantasy in a way that I hope will seem new and different. And my novel, coming in late 2015 or 2016, is about the relationship between a mad scientist and a witch, allowing for some really fun genre intersections.

The key with genre mash-ups, again, is avoiding pastiche. Or, really, any sense of throwing tropes into a blender — instead of thinking of it as “Tiffany Aching meets Luke Skywalker,” I try to think of it as two discreet sets of rules and frames on reality, which overlap in some places and stick out in others. If you just think of a genre mash-up as different cliches stuck together, or a conjoined spoof, then you can’t really get at what makes those genres work, or what they’re really saying about the world.

 

- Where can people find more of your writing?

There are some links on my website, charliejane.com.

 

- Wow, that flowchart should win awards for one of the best author website ideas of all time.

Thanks! I need to update that listing soon. Also, I have a bunch of stories at Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Flurb, Apex, the Apocalypse Triptych, Tin House and McSweeney’s, plus in print in Asimov’s, ZYZZYVA, and various Year’s Best anthologies.

 

- “Palm Strike’s Last Case” appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

Editorial: C.C. Finlay for the July/August Issue

This editorial was supposed to appear near the end of the July/August issue, nested between “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis and “Belly” by Haddayr Copley-Woods.

At nearly the last minute, after it was already typeset, F&SF‘s publisher Gordon Van Gelder realized that we could cut the editorial, rearrange some things, and include one more story. I said: “LET’S DO IT.”

But here, in all their glory, are my thoughts on guest editing this issue.

#

Once, when my kids were small, around the time that I sold my first short story to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, I went to the home improvement store and bought a bunch of lumber to build a rocket ship for them. It was going to match the castle play set I’d already put up in the backyard.

I loaded all the wood into the back of our Ford Explorer. It was a snug fit, with some two-by-fours stretching across the seats and resting on the dashboard. The rear door wouldn’t quite latch, so finally I slammed it shut. And launched the two-by-fours through the front windshield and out onto the hood.

When I was guest editing this issue and trying to cram in all the great stories, I was afraid I would end up doing something similar.

#

You may have noticed that editorials usually go at the beginning of magazines.

Occasionally, they show up at the end as a kind of afterword.

But this one is buried in the middle because, when Gordon Van Gelder asked me if I wanted to guest edit, I understood that what makes Fantasy & Science Fiction such a special magazine starts and ends with the stories. And I wanted to find some way to show that.

It’s the stories that matter.

#

My first short story publication was about a neuropharmaceutical disaster. I wrote it when I was in graduate school studying history, and the story was in the format of footnotes to a history article, and it was titled, imaginatively enough, “Footnotes.”

After years of writing and submitting stories, I would have been excited enough just to get published. But “Footnotes” appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, the magazine that published the writers I had grown up with–Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King. The magazine that was publishing all the writers I admired and wanted to be like.

Nothing since, no story sale, none of the award nominations, not even my books, has ever been as exciting as that first sale to F&SF.

Nothing until now.

Maybe it’s my experience as a resident editor for Online Writing Workshops. Or being a teacher at Clarion and Alpha Writers. Or attending peer workshops like Rio Hondo and Sycamore Hill and Blue Heaven. But I love being one of the first people to read a great new story. I love being able to find ways to make a story better if it needs work. And I love sharing new stories and new writers with people who haven’t read them yet.

So getting the chance to edit F&SF, and be part of that tradition of great editors from Gordon to Kris Rusch on back to Ed Ferman and the rest, that’s a dream come true for me.

I didn’t just say “Yes” when I was asked to edit this issue. I said, “Hell yes.”

#

The one thing I wanted to do differently as guest editor was accept electronic submissions for the first time in the magazine’s history.

I thought it would bring me more submissions to choose from and holy crap I wasn’t wrong. Submissions were only open for two weeks, and I received 751 stories. Choosing the best stories–and the best mix of stories–was a challenge, but a fun challenge.

Electronic submissions also meant, I hoped, that there would be some new voices, writers who hadn’t submitted to F&SF before, and that also proved to be the case. All twelve of the stories in this issue are the first appearances of these writers in these pages. A couple are by old friends (an inevitability when you’ve been in this industry as long as I have been), some are by writers I’ve admired but never met, and some are by writers that I’d never read before. But they all have one thing in common–their stories blew me away.

It’s been an honor to be part of the F&SF tradition and put this issue together for you. Years from now, after you’ve long forgotten this editorial or even that I edited the issue, I’d bet a new windshield that you’ll remember some of these stories.

And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be.

Interview: Alexander Jablokov on “The Comfort of Strangers”

- Tell us a bit about “The Comfort of Strangers.”

OK, so it’s an alien sex story. Or at least it started out that way, though it developed a bit more emotional subtext as it developed. While it seems pretty light and funny, it is also an actual hard SF story that struggles directly with the real fact that the more realistic the far-future hard Sfness of a story, the less likely it is to be emotionally engaging to a reader in 2011. So, like any writer in our genre, I bootleg current-day emotional content back in, and translate the incomprehensible emotional connections of that future into terms we can relate to, even though that translation would make no sense to the actual beings in the story.  That makes the story sounds more complicated than it is.  It’s supposed to be fun to read.

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

I’d read a few recent stories about sex with aliens. I found them too focused on human emotional reactions.  I thought, “well, how different could sexual drives be and still be understandable?” Plus, I just wanted to play the game of creating aliens based on specific biological constraints.

- What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Comfort of Strangers?”

Everything is based on actual reproduction of species here on Earth.

- What would you want a reader to take away from this story? “That was pretty funny! No, wait, there was more to it than that…and how much of my way of relating to the world is derived from my underlying biology? Do I really understand what the other participant is getting out of it?”

- What are you working on now?

I am just finishing a young adult novel with the tentative title Timeslip. It is about a teenager whose father gets shanghaied into an alternate universe, and has to travel across various realities to figure out what happened to him.

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Sex is more complicated than it seems.

“The Comfort of Strangers” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue.

Interview: Naomi Kritzer on “Scrap Dragon”

-Tell us a bit about “Scrap Dragon.”

Back in the spring of 2010, there was an online fundraising auction to raise money to defray the expenses of a liver transplant for a woman I know through fandom. My contribution to the auction was the offer of a short story, written about the winning bidder or the person of their choice.  I would make them the hero (or the villain) of the story, I’d work in their interests and do my best to fulfill requests about storyline and genre. (So, for instance, if someone had a child who was obsessed with both unicorns and rocket ships, and they wanted a story in which their child was the captain of a rocket ship that discovered the Unicorn Planet, I’d do my best to write them a satisfying story with that premise.)

The auction was won by a college friend of mine, Fillard, who wanted me to write about his fiancee, Heather.  (They’ve since gotten married.)  He requested a number of themes, including dragons and scrapbooking, while leaving the actual plot and setting basically up to me.

I should note that I felt reasonably confident I could pull this off because I did something like this once before — as an 80th birthday present to my grandmother, I wrote a story in which she was the heroine.  That story, “Honest Man,” was published in Realms of Fantasy and turned into a podcast by PodCastle.  (The podcast is still available, if people are interested.)

 

- One of the most interesting aspects of this story is the interplay between the narrator and the child listening to the story.  How did you conceive of this narrative choice, and how difficult or easy was it for you to write?

The interplay came out of the dialogue I had with Fillard as I was trying to come up with a framework that satisfied him and that I thought I’d be able to write.  I tossed out the idea of making Heather a princess in a fairy tale and he immediately shot down the idea of a princess.  I imagined telling a bedtime story to someone really detail-oriented and exacting (like Fillard), and came up with the first two lines.  And those two lines hooked ME — I made myself laugh, and I knew instantly that THIS was a story I could write.  It’s partly a story about Heather and a dragon, and it’s partly a story about telling a story to someone with very strong opinions.

(The second voice in the story is not Fillard’s voice; it’s much more childlike and less analytical than Fillard is in real life, while also being a little more adult than a typical ten-year-old.)

 

- As it was an auction prize for someone to be written into a story of yours as either the protagonist or the villain, how did you find writing “Scrap Dragon” under these unusual circumstances?  Interesting or a challenge?

I found it interesting AND a challenge.  This auction prize was sort of a literary blank check; I wanted the winner to be satisfied with what they got, but there are subgenres I’ve never even read much of, and others I don’t know if I could re-create, so I was relieved that the auction was not won by someone who wanted, say, a comedy of manners starring themselves and Cthulhu.

It took me some time to come up with a framework, but once I came up with the two voices, the whole story basically clicked into place, and “Scrap Dragon” became really easy and fun to write.

 

- Most authors say their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal?

Part the challenge of writing this story was that I was trying to write something intensely personal — for someone else.  The personal element for ME was the two voices: I have two daughters, who are currently 11 and 8 years old.  Both my girls are intensely curious and opinionated, so the experience of trying to tell a story while someone repeatedly interrupts to demand more detail about a tangential topic is DEFINITELY something I drew on while working on this.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m working on a series of short stories (that may turn into a novel) about a teenage girl living on a seastead. Seasteading is a real thing, or at least real-ish — there are people trying to build sort of a do-it-yourself island out in the ocean somewhere so they can found their own country.  Many of these people are libertarians of the “all taxation is theft and should be illegal!” variety.  The stories are set about 50 years after the establishment of the seastead, and the protagonist, Rebecca, lives there with her father.  In the first story, “Liberty’s Daughter,” Rebecca gets asked to find a missing bond-worker (sort of an indentured servant) and it’s sort of a mystery with a dystopic setting.  This story will also be appearing in a future issue of F&SF, possibly this spring or summer, which I’m really excited about.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I did some experimentation with self-publishing last year: I put together two short story collections and made them available for both Kindle and Nook.  They’re cheap!  If people liked my story, they might check them out.  (Most of the stories in them were previously published but there are also a couple of never-before-published stories in both.)  “Honest Man,” which is the story I wrote about my grandmother, is in the one called “Comrade Grandmother and Other Stories.”

“Scrap Dragon” appears in the Jan./Feb. 2012 issue of F&SF.

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