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Interview: Carolyn Ives Gilman on "Arkfall"

Tell us a bit about the story. What’s it about?

“Arkfall” is a story about three inadvertent explorers who find themselves on a journey across the undersea depths of an ice-bound planet. Osaji is a dutiful young woman who secretly rebels against the social demands of her communal society; Jack is a raging individualist haunted by his past; Mota, Osaji’s grandmother, is a gentle old lady slipping into dementia after a lifetime of self-sacrifice. The three of them end up on parallel, but not identical, journeys of discovery.

What’s the genesis of the story—what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Stories never have just one inspiration for me; they need several. In this case, the story evolved from a daisy chain of speculations, starting with the setting. I was reading about Europa, a planet-sized moon covered by a global sea that is capped with ice, and I naturally thought, “What if there are deep sea rift zones there, as on Earth? Couldn’t life evolve there as it did here, based on the heat and minerals from deep-sea vents rather than photosynthesis from sunlight?” This was before we knew about Enceladus, which almost certainly does have volcanic activity under the ice, since it spews out eruptions of water vapor laced with organic compounds.

That first speculation led to: “What would it be like to live in such an environment?” As I thought about it, it seemed like life under an ice-capped sea would be claustrophobic and cautious, so I invented the sort of society that would be needed to cope with such an environment. But it also seemed to me like a failure of imagination to assume that residents of such a world would stick with our mechanistic technologies. So I posited a type of technology that doesn’t start with physics, but with biology. Rather than building habitats and ships inspired by the brittle clockwork mechanism, this society would invent things modeled on the pliable living cell. That is where the idea for the arks came from. They are essentially giant cells in which human beings live like resident mitochondria, drifting on the cyclical currents of the sea.

All of this added up to an interesting setting, but not to a story. The story came from more personal experiences—watching my family members cope with the old age and death of my grandmother a number of years ago. In traditional science fiction adventures, characters are magically isolated from the normal responsibilities of family and community. I wanted to write a story where people still have obligations like caring for elderly relatives—but manage to make discoveries and have adventures all the same. Although, as I think the story makes clear, I don’t think it would be easy.

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Questions about publishing short fiction online

A few months ago, I was at a retirement party for a newspaper editor and the subject of publishing material online for free came up.  “Who ever thought it was a good idea to give away your main product for free?” asked one veteran journalist.  “I remember when I was at Time and we looked at it.  One of the smartest people I know said, ‘If you start giving it away, no one’s going to pay for it.'”

That comment has been echoing in my head a lot lately.  At Readercon, a veteran editor told me, “Even with PayPal, I think it’s going to get harder and harder to get anyone to pay for anything online.  There’s just too much out there for free.”

On August 3, John Scalzi posted in his blog ( that his story “After the Coup” published at has already gotten 49,566 hits, which is close to the combined circulations for Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF.  When I pointed out that he was comparing the number of paying customers with the number of people who took a freebie, he replied, ‘Well, on my end, I’m comparing eyeballs to eyeballs.'”

Here at F&SF, we’re open to experimentation and for the past year or so, we’ve been publishing one reprint a month on our Website.  Last month, the free story was “The Political Officer” by Charles Coleman Finlay.  A few days ago, someone posted on our message board  ( that he wanted to read that story.  I explained that it was no longer on our Website but he could buy a copy of that back issue from us or from Fictionwise.

As I did so, I realized that I was putting a reader in a position where he had to decide if he would pay for something he could have had for free just a few days earlier . . . which doesn’t strike me as a good position.  I know that I don’t like being asked to make such a choice.

So I started to wonder: has short fiction been devalued by the fact that so many places offer it for free online nowadays?

I was thinking of this question in terms of contrast with trilogies.  The format of a trilogy has been around for a long time, but I think it’s accurate to say that in the 1970s and ‘80s, book publishers (especially the team of Lester and Judy-Lynn del Rey) trained readers to expect fantasy fiction to come in series formats, particularly in sets of three.  For instance, Stephen Donaldson’s original Chronicles of Thomas Covenant were one book—the del Reys split it into three volumes and published the trilogy to great success.  Nowadays, it’s noteworthy when someone published a fantasy novel and nothing indicates that the book is the start of a series.

I look at trilogies and the form appears to me to be thriving.  But I don’t see many publishers giving away the books for free.  By contrast, I see publishers posting short fiction for free in many places, but I don’t see many of those publishers reaping rewards for their efforts.  I think short fiction giveaways have been good for individual authors, but are they working for publishers?

Also, I realized that I’ve done something extremely stupid.  I’ve run an experiment without trying to measure the results.  Sure, we’ve looked at the number of hits our online stories and columns get, and we’ve done one or two other things to measure the effects of our online publications, but we’ve never done a survey.

So I’m posting now to ask for feedback on a few things:

  •  When you read a story online that you like, do you feel inclined to support the publisher of the piece?
  • Have you ever subscribed to a print magazine on account of a story you read on their site?
  • Most magazine publishers post their Hugo- and Nebula-nominated stories online for free.  If F&SF started charging the cost of an issue to read these stories, would you do so?
  • Do you think the prevalence of free short fiction online has made you less inclined to pay for short fiction?

Please note that I’m trying to keep the discussion just to fiction (not articles).

If you would care to do so, I’d be grateful if you’d include your age with your post.  No need to get specific—I just want to know if you’re in your teens or if you’re in your eighties.

And finally, please be aware that I plan to convert this post into an editorial for the print magazine, so don’t post anything here that you wouldn’t want me to reprint.  If you’d like to comment but don’t want to do so in public, you can use the Contact Us form on our Website (here:  Write “DNQ” on your email if you don’t want to be quoted.

Thanks for your feedback.


Interview: Jim Aikin, on "Run! Run!"

Tell us a bit about the story. What’s it about?

I suppose I could say “Run! Run!” is about unicorns, but that would be simplistic. I could say it’s also about family dynamics and religious oppression, but that would make it sound terrifically pedantic.

Ultimately, it’s about the opportunities you missed in life. Things happen, and you can never go back and choose differently.

The other thing, and I don’t know if this will make sense until you’ve read the story, is that in the final paragraph Mary doesn’t even know what she has missed. The culture in which she lives has so impoverished her that she only has a dim, flickering sense that maybe things could have been different. That dim, flickering sense — those are the unicorns.

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Interview: Marc Laidlaw on "Childrun"

Marc Laidlaw–author of “Childrun,” which appears in our August 2008 issue–said in an interview that the story is about Gorlen Vizenfirthe, your typical wandering bard, who finds himself in a bit of a Pied Piper pickle.  “Perhaps a peck of Pied Pickled Piper?  Gorlen is forever on the trail of a rogue gargoyle, and this time the trail leads him into a gloomy mountain town haunted by the laughter of children who are nowhere to be seen,” Laidlaw said. “Gorlen hopes that by playing a bit of music, he can call the children out to play.  But this is a village that has perhaps seen one or two Pied Pipers too many in its time.”

Laidlaw came up with Gorlen Vizenfirthe in his teens, when he was under the spell of Jack Vance. “Originally, I wrote a full Gorlen novel, a clumsy picaresque ‘Cugel the Clever’ pastiche entitled Mistress of Shadows,” he said. “This went through several iterations until, in my mid 20s, it struck me as too adolescent and derivative to deserve even a shadow life; instead of trying to fix it, I destroyed it.”

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World Fantasy Award ballot

This year’s World Fantasy Award ballot is out:

Congrats to Ian MacLeod and to Lucius Shepard.

Regarding my own nomination, well, the first time I was nominated (back in ’96, before I got the job editing F&SF), I asked one of the judges, “Is this a case where you couldn’t nominate all the players so you nominated the manager?”

She stopped, thought, and said, “Well, yeah, that’s about right.”

I suspect that my nomination this year is the same sort of thing.  So this manager wants to take a moment to point out the fantasy stories we published in 2007:

“Two Weeks After” by M. Ramsey Chapman

“Dance of Shadows” and “The Diamond Shadow” by Fred Chappell

“The Recreation Room” by Albert E. Cowdrey

“Car 17” by P. E. Cunningham

“The Bone Man” by Frederic S. Durbin

“The Mole Cure” by Nancy Farmer

“Elegy” by Melanie Fazi

“At These Prices” by Esther M. Friesner

“The Devil Bats Will Be a Little Late This Year” by Ron Goulart

“Unpossible” by Daryl Gregory

“Requirements for the Mythology Merit Badge” by Kevin Haw

“The Helper and His Hero” by Matthew Hughes

“Wizard’s Six” by Alex Irvine

“Wrong Number” by Alexander Jablokov

“Episode Seven” by John Langan

“Atalanta Loses at the Interpantheonic Trivia Bee” by Heather Lindsley

“A Thing Forbidden” by Donald Mead

“Fool” by John Morressy

“Fragrant Goddess” by Paul Park

“The Dark Boy” by Marta Randall

“Magic with Thirteen-Year-Old Boys” by Robert Reed

“Memoir of a Deer Woman” and “Don’t Ask” by M. Rickert

“Against the Current” by Robert Silverberg

“Stone and the Librarian” by William Browning Spencer

“Urdumheim” by Michael Swanwick

“Cold Comfort” by Ray Vukcevich

“The Great White Bed” by Don Webb

“Kaleidoscope” by K. D. Wentworth

“Onocentaur” by Sophie White

“A Wizard of the Old School” by Chris Willrich

Thank you all (and anyone I might have accidentally missed) for letting F&SF publish your work

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