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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.

Interview: Richard Bowes on “The Queen and the Cambion”

Tell us a bit about “The Queen and the Cambion.” 

TQATC is about two British legends, Queen Victoria who reigned for most of the 19th century and Merlin, said to be the son of a demon and a nun, whose story emerged in the murky centuries after the fall of Roman Britain. One was a creature of history, the other a product of Welsh folklore later embellished by medieval minstrelsy and compiled by Mallory.

 In the story Merlin is obliged to come to the aid of whichever monarch in whatever year invokes the spell that binds him. The spell’s my invention and we get to see the four occasions on which Victoria summons him.

– What was the inspiration for “The Queen and the Cambion,” or what prompted you to write it?

– Why did you choose Queen Victoria as your protagonist as opposed to any other British monarch?

I’m going to answer these questions together:

I was invited to write a story for a themed anthology about magic and  Queen Victoria. At least that’s what I understood it to be about.  It seemed like an interesting change of pace from drugs, dark doings and gay Manhattan which I’d been writing about for the last few years.

My first problem was that Victoria was about as devoid of magic as any monarch who ever lived. But the magic didn’t have to be hers. Apparently, I’d had the Arthurian legend on my mind because out of nowhere I’d written a very short story, “Sir Morgravain Speaks of Night Dragons and Other Things” about a rather disgraceful member of the Round Table. F&SF was nice enough to buy and publish the story last year.

Sometimes with themed anthologies I can take a story that was kicking around in my back brain and twist it to the anthology theme. Sometimes the theme comes easily to hand – it’s something I would have written anyway. Other times it’s a story that never would have been written except for the invitation.

This was one of those last. But I liked the idea of  mixing Merlin and Victoria. The editors seemed to approve. However when I submitted the story the editors wanted something different – darker or lighter or dark in a lighter way. Or something. And editors, of course, are always right.

So I was left with this unsold story. Fortunately F&SF, Help of Writers, took it. This is my twentieth appearance in the magazine over the last twenty years – nineteen stories and one “Curiosities” column.

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

As a young kid I was given a book (I think it was titled “King Arthur and his Knights” – not a well known version of the tales – lines of Tennyson verse were interwoven with the prose and it had lots of vagueness about Lancelot and Guinevere, Morgan La Fey and Arthur and Mordred’s relationship – a book for kids) I’ve never been able to find a copy. The art was not by one of the canonical illustrators. But I remember it well. Especially the last color plate of the last moment of  Arthur’s last Battle – Camlann .Against a setting sun, with piles of dead knights all around, Mordred rushes to stick his lance through Arthur who is about to bring Excalibur down on Mordred’s – great stuff – lots of Merlin’s doings.

The Matter of Britain interested me from then on.

 Alfred Duggan was a British historical novelist of the mid-20th century. His “The Conscience of the King,” which I read in my teens is the story of an unscrupulous princeling, Cedric in post-Roman 6th Century Britain. This is the world in which the Arthur legend begins. Arturus, a fictional Roman cavalry mercenary, and a plausible guess as to the basis for the Arthur legends puts in an appearance.

I read The Once and Future King a year or two after it came out in 1958. My parents thought it would fascinate me and it did. In it along with much else including a clearer idea of the sexual underpinnings of the legends was a Merlin living backwards in time. When the musical Camelot tried out in Boston in late 1960, I skipped school, went to a matinee and got caught doing so.

Those are the ways I found Merlin. Queen Victoria came to me as a figure in history. And history to me is a long twisting tale out of which you make it a story reflecting your own ideas and interests. In truth people around Victoria like her uncle King William and her first Prime Minister Melbourne, fantastical 18th century men surviving into the 19th century interested me more than she did.

Writing the story I spent a few afternoons in NYU’s Bobst Library reading about her life and especially her youth. I found a human side of what had seemed a symbol, a statue. That gave me the story.

Would you say that “The Queen and the Cambion” is a kind of love story, and if so, at what point in the writing did you realize it?

I would. I think it’s the first love story I’ve ever written.

I was looking for a connection between a 19th century girl and woman and a half human cambion from a very dark age. The trick of the tale is that Victoria goes from youth to middle age and old age – the normal track of human life. The Merlin she encounters along the way is at various stages of his life – moments when he is available and she summons him. She’s young, he’s first mature and powerful, then dynamic but still older than she. She falls in love with him.  As a middle aged woman she summons and rescues a very young Merlin. He grows fond of her. Only at the end are their ages and experiences compatible. Love connects them.

What might you want a reader to take away from your story?

Terry Weyna reviewing the story in Fantasy Literature says, “The story is nothing more than a bon bon, but it is a delicious one.”

I kind of like that but I think there’s more here – mythic wonder and historical characters and human need.

What are you working on now?

The story of a 15 year old lesbian telepath in a dystopian New York: it does have some love.

– Anything else you’d like to add?

The two writing groups to which I belong, Altered Fluid and Tabula Rasa were a great help. Especially AF. It was the first thing I showed that group.

“The Queen and the Cambion” appears in the March/April 2012 issue.

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