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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: Katie Boyer on “Bartleby the Scavenger”

- Tell us a bit about “Bartleby the Scavenger.”

It’s a re-telling in a different context of Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Many elements are the same: the story is narrated by an employer who hires a man named Bartleby who, for reasons unknown, suddenly stops working. My story, though, is set in a future version of Birmingham, Alabama, after an apocalypse event, and the boss is a scavenger of resources from the former city, trying to save his crew from a bloodthirsty, sorority girl mayor.

 

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

As mentioned in the story notes, the idea for the title came from a student of mine who was having trouble with the unfamiliar word “scrivener” and so kept calling the Melville story “Bartleby the Scavenger.” I’d been wanting to write a dystopian tale, and I’d been wanting to write something set in my hometown, so the three things sort of collided—scavenger, dystopia, Birmingham. The rest was mostly working out the details of the world and the voice of the narrator.

 

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

I didn’t do a ton of focused research. I looked into some demographics for Birmingham, checked on how old the buildings are in certain areas, and investigated the kind of government currently in place in the neighborhood The Brook is based on. I did some reading on the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during WWII. A lot of the background, though, comes from what I might call “ambient research.” Much of what interests me about Birmingham in general found its way into the story. Plus, a few years ago, I went on a post-apocalypse spree and read a bunch of novels about the end of the world and/or oppressive government, so I felt familiar with the genre.

 

- Did you use the post-apocalypse, dystopian setting of your story to draw different conclusions about society than Melville did in “Bartleby the Scrivener?”

That’s an interesting question. There really is a lot of tender sadness and pity at the end of Melville’s story—his Bartleby has “preferred not to” engage in life, until he meets his end in jail, his face to the wall, even though the story’s narrator has tried various ways to reach out to him. I think we’re supposed to understand Melville’s Bartleby as a person who has seen the potential emptiness of modern life (the rumor is that his last job was at the “dead letter office”), and his job as basically a human Xerox machine seems to indicate that his personhood is caught up in, and crushed by, the machine of Wall Street. I guess one of the things that really interested me about the character of Bartleby was the question of whether there is any other way to interact with a system that treats people as if they are components in a machine. So, my Bartleby became a person who sort of floats above or outside the system. He definitely “prefers not to” do a lot of things, but it’s because he’s too content or optimistic or “good, man.” My conclusion about society may not be much different from Melville’s—I definitely feel the daily pressure to be part of a machine—but maybe my conclusion about how to react to it is distinct from Melville’s. But, of course, Bartleby still dies at the end, so maybe I’m just as pessimistic as Melville after all.

 

- Was “Bartleby the Scavenger” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I think I have an inner Peighton who gives me a “productivity quota” for every day. Teaching at a community college means there are large classes, and several of them, and there are constant demands on my time. Then there’s writing and life and family and housekeeping to maintain. The feeling that something terrible will happen if I don’t get it all done stays with me. I guess you could say Bartleby’s sense of calm is something I wish I could achieve—but he’s just a little crazy, so maybe not the best role model. The constant battle between productivity and contentment does seem very personal to me.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a short story collection in which I take classic stories and give them a modern, often sci-fi, twist, much like what happens in “Bartleby.” In this collection, for example, I put a James Joyce heroine on a space station. I’m also working on a couple of other non-adapted short stories and am dabbling in screenwriting. A lot of my creative work is being channeled through the MFA work I’m completing with Spalding University’s Brief Residency program.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m very pleased “Bartleby the Scavenger” was included in this issue. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and very much enjoyed the other stories for May / June. It’s great to be in such wonderful company.

“Bartleby the Scavenger” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”

- What was the inspiration for “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’d been reading articles about new prosthetics that interface with the brains of amputees. I took mine a few extra steps. The first line popped into my head fully formed, and the first paragraph, and then the road. I’ve driven through Colorado many times, and I love the way the plains and the farms and ranchland give way to mountain, so I ran with that. The cool thing was that I picked Lori’s name arbitrarily, and didn’t realize what I could do with the tattoo until later.  My process is sort of like driving, too: I set out with a destination in mind, but the place I wind up isn’t always exactly the place I thought I was going.

 

- Was this story personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

When I was fifteen I was part of an exchange that took me to Saskatchewan. I went to a bonfire with my host, where the guys all drank beer and the girls mixed their beer with clamato, which is about the most disgusting mixer I can think of. I’ve been holding onto that detail for a long time waiting to use it in a story. Beyond that? I’ve never thought I was a road, but I’ve spent a lot of time on them. And I definitely know what it’s like to feel split between two places.

 

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

I did some research on prosthetics and occupational therapy, and on modern farm equipment and crops of Saskatchewan. Oh! And now I know how to make a homemade tattoo gun. I know horses and I know roads, and I’m pretty good at capturing the spirit of places that I’ve traveled, so those parts were easier.

 

- Could you speak at all to the juxtaposition in your story of high-tech sci-fi (bionic prosthetics) with a noticeably mundane setting (small-town farming community)?

First off, big farms like Andy’s parents’ are already very high tech. The equipment, the monitoring. I made Andy a more traditional farmer in order to widen the gap between the high-tech and the character. I think a lot of farmers are dealing with it on a non-metaphorical level. Small farmers struggle to make ends meet. Large farmers have to give up the practices that we think of as farming. Animals on commercial farms have it pretty rough, and people who want to farm food crops instead of commodity crops have it pretty rough. Even old-school Andy is farming canola. I guess all that is to say I don’t think it’s such a stretch to put bionic prosthetics onto a near-future farm.

 

- What are you working on now?

I’ve always got a couple of stories going, and I’m working on a novel that also deals with the consequences of small medical strides in the near future.

 

- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been reading F&SF since I could first read. It’s a pleasure to have a story in the magazine.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” appears in the March/April 2014 issue of F&SF.

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