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Interview: Bennett North on “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones”

– Tell us a bit about “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones.”

“Smooth Stones” is the story of a teenage girl, Helena, who has fallen in love with another girl and is facing a dilemma. Her girlfriend’s younger brother has been missing in the woods for several days and it’s becoming less and less likely that he’ll be found alive. Helena’s mother is a witch and Helena knows that, should it come down to it, she can raise the little boy from the dead, but that power comes at a cost that she’s not sure she’s willing to pay.

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

This was one of those stories that came to me fully formed. I actually wanted to write a horror story, although it edged more toward fantasy as I wrote it. Combining necromancy with mundane real life appealed to me. The image of the skeleton in the chicken coop came to me first, with the idea of it being something normal and a little inconvenient rather than horrifying. When you can “fix” death, how do you use that power? You can’t use it every time someone dies, so what are your personal limits? And then how do you justify those limits to yourself?

– This is your first published story.  How long have you been writing, and what did it take for you to get to this point?

I’ve been writing for most of my life, although only seriously in the last ten years. Honestly the hardest part of writing, for me, has been figuring out when to stop editing and just accept that the story is finished. “Smooth Stones” is one of the first stories I’ve had the courage to send out, and I’m really delighted that C.C. Finlay saw something in it.


“Smooth Stones and Empty Bones” appears in the January/February 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy that issue here:

You can subscribe to F&SF here:

F&SF, January 1993

For the past six or seven months, we’ve been doing a #TBT (Throw Back Thursday) feature on the F&SF Twitter account and Facebook page. For the new year, we thought it might be good to add them here where they can be easily found under the “F&SF History” tag.

* * *

Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan 1993, cover by Kent Bash#TBT to the January 1993 issue of F&SF and this Kent Bash cover for “The Night We Buried Road Dog” by Jack Cady.

“The Night We Buried Road Dog” won the Stoker and Nebula awards, and was a finalist for the Hugo and World Fantasy Award. Former editor Kristine Kathryn Rusch, writing an intro to F&SF’s 2009 classic reprint of Cady’s novella, wrote that she didn’t ask for a single revision. She added: “I’m not even sure the manuscript received much copyediting.”

Cady’s novella filled half the issue, but still left room for stories by Esther Friesner, Ben Bova, Diane Mapes, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, and Marina Fitch. Rusch’s editorial marked the occasion of Algis Budrys’ last books column for F&SF, which ran from September 1975 to January 1993. The issue also offered a science column by Gregory Benford, book reviews by Orson Scott Card, an F&SF Competition, and cartoons.

Cody’s novella alone makes this one of the classic issues of F&SF. With everything else inside, it must have been a pleasure for subscribers to find this one in their mailbox.

Interview: Alex Irvine on “Number Nine Moon”

– Tell us a bit about “Number Nine Moon.”

Every once in a while I get an urge to write an old-fashioned problem-solving SF story. Also I love Mars and fiction about Mars. So “Number Nine Moon” puts those two things together. It follows a couple of good-natured looters who decide they’re going to take advantage of the failure of Earth’s Mars colony by digging around in the abandoned settlements before they catch the space elevator up to the last transport. Then something goes wrong and they’re stuck on the other side of the planet while the bus is leaving. How do they get off? That’s where the problem-solving comes in.


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

Gordon sent me the cover image (of the issue that this story appeared in) and two things struck me about it right away. One, I loved the retro look of the rocket. Two, I saw the number 9 up in the sky well before I figured out that it was actually Phobos. So right there the title popped into my head, and the next thing I thought was that I didn’t want to write an alternate-past-future kind of story, so how was I going to work that rocket into a story set on Mars in a near future that made sense for our current situation? The story came together from there, especially once I figured out that Steuby was in it.

I’d been tinkering with another story involving Steuby, and when I saw the cover I realized that actually he should be in this one. I’m still writing the other one, which is about his time on the Moon working at a tourist trap.


– What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Number Nine Moon?”

I like to get as many of the details right as possible when I’m writing a science fiction story, unless it involves something like teleportation or FTL. Even then I tend to pick a likely sounding theory and work with it. So for this story I caught up on Mars developments, did some general reading about the Martian environment, and also researched different kinds of rocket fuels. That turned out to be pretty interesting, and I developed a love for the word hypergolic.


– Most stories of Mars revolve around its colonization, not its abandonment.  Why did you decide to write about a less hopeful idea of Mars?

History is full of abandoned colonies, right? Vinland, Roanoke, Santa Elena…those are just the ones in the New World. They’re all fascinating stories because they start out with optimism and striving, and then reality sets in. That’s a pretty common process in many areas of human endeavor, I think, and bears some exploring in fiction. At the end of “Number Nine Moon,” the characters haven’t given up on Mars permanently. They know they’ll come back someday. They’re just going to have to keep trying, like the rest of us in real life.

Plus the idea of the abandoned colony is a powerful figure for the broader idea of reach exceeding grasp. We have dreams and ambitions, and we try to make them come true…but sometimes they don’t work out and we have to take a look at how we might handle those failures and use them to succeed (or at least fail better) next time.

I have all kinds of hope for establishing colonies on other planets, but I also wonder if maybe the real problem with colonies isn’t going to be the Martian environment, but upheavals back here at home that make it impossible to support the colonies. So “Number Nine Moon” touches on that idea.


– What are you working on now?

All kinds of things. I’m about to finish my first original novel in a long time, which is sort of about HG Wells but also involves World War I, the Partition of India, and some other stuff that I don’t want to jinx myself by talking about too much.

I recently finished a book tied into the new Ubisoft game Tom Clancy’s The Division, called New York Collapse. It’s a little different than your average tie-in, because it takes the form of a survival guide that is also full of marginalia and doodles written by the woman who has it during the actual collapse of civilization that forms the game’s backstory. Then there are puzzles both in the main text and the survivor’s notes. That was a really fun project to work on.

Other stuff: I’m still writing the Marvel games Avengers Alliance, War of Heroes, and Marvel Puzzle Quest. Also a series of Deus Ex comics and a couple of other things I can’t talk about yet. You know. Staying busy. Plus we just added a new baby to the family, so there’s a lot going on.

Alex Irvine is on Twitter at @alexirvine and easy to find on Facebook, so he says.

“Number Nine Moon” appears in the January/February 2016 issue.  You can buy that issue here:

You can subscribe to F&SF here:

F&SF, January 1976

For the past six or seven months, we’ve been doing a #TBT (Throw Back Thursday) feature on the F&SF Twitter account and Facebook page. For the new year, we thought it might be good to add them here where they can be easily found under the “F&SF History” tag.

* * *

Fantasy & Science Fiction, Jan 1976, cover by David Hardy#TBT to the January 1976 issue of F&SF. David Hardy’s cover illustrates “Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal” by Gary K. Wolf. This issue contains science fiction, mystery, horror, and humor, and a couple stories ahead of their time.

The issue leads with “My Boat” by Joanna Russ, a story that starts out in a 1950s high school and ends by chasing Cthulhu. Any time you pick up a new Joanna Russ story, you’re stunned all over again by just how brilliant and deft she can be. Reading Russ’s treatment of the Mythos and the young woman central to her story calls to mind a recent anthology, She Walks In Shadows, a collection of Lovecraft-inspired stories by women edited by Sylvia Moreno Garcia and Paula R. Stiles.

The other stories in the issue show the usual variety. “Friday the Thirteenth” by Isaac Asimov is one of his Black Widowers mysteries, this time involving leap years and attempted assassination. “Horror Movie” by Stuart Dybek is both cinematic and horrific, starting with a room full of blood and ending with a hand full of knife. “Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel” by Michael G. Coney is the first of his Peninsula series about a Pacific Northwest spaceport. Coney’s story was reprinted in Wolheim’s and Saha’s sixth annual World’s Best SF anthology in 1977. Like a 1950s sci-fi movie, “The Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed cheerfully delivers everything the title promises and more.

The issue’s main story is “Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal” by Gary K. Wolf, a fun story about two grifters on a space mining colony. Like Russ’s story, Wolf’s novella feels ahead of its time and in this case could easily be the plot of a Futurama episode. Which is no surprise. Wolf went on to create Roger Rabbit, and has had a huge influence on adult cartoons.

The last story in the issue is “Time is Money” by Haskell Barkin, a comedy about advertising. Barkin was primarily a tv writer, penning episodes for Scooby Doo, The Love Boat, The Jetsons, 1980’s Twilight Zone, and Darkwing Duck. The prophetic final line of his story is: “Well, I have seen the future, gentlemen. And it pays.”

The columns are also notable in this issue. Algis Budrys’s book column describes how bad editing screwed up John Brunner’s proto-cyberpunk novel The Shockwave Rider. The novel contained two brothers, Josh and Jake, with different backstories, personalities, and roles. The US editor, seeing similar names, assumed Brunner wanted one character, changed them all to Josh, and published without sending proofs. Budyrs: “The result is a single character who is either a liar, a multiple personality, or a figure of mystery…” It provides an entertaining glimpse into publishing in the 1970s, a cautionary lesson for editors and writers, and an apology to readers. Baird Searles’s film column discusses Michael Moorcock’s script for the movie version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel The Land That Time Forgot. His verdict: one of the great pulp writers of the ‘70s could not salvage a terrible idea by of one the great pulp writers of the ‘10s. Isaac Asimov’s second appearance in the issue is a science column devoted to lawyer jokes and the ozone layer.

The issue ends with the letters column, where reader and prolific letter writer Cy Chauvin asks “Do sf readers prefer trash?” The answer then, and now, is still “No.” But readers do like to be entertained, and this issue does that.

Interview: Nick Wolven on “Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?”

– Tell us a bit about “Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?”

Let me start by saying a little about myself. I’ve lived a long time in the orbit of Columbia University, and one persistent feature of the area, along with student joggers and visiting high school groups, is a regular crop of sidewalk canvassers–young men and women with clipboards and a cheery demeanor, asking passersby if they’d like to lend help to democrats or women or the Earth. I’ve always wondered about the effectiveness of that kind of scattershot fundraising, and about the dynamics of awareness-raising in general. What happens when appeals to our deepest concerns–the plight of the unfortunate, the despoliation of the environment–become just another set of distractions in a so-called attention economy?

It’s an issue that goes back to the fifties at least, when cultural commentators worried about the combination of an emerging “affluent society” with the machinations and manipulations of television-empowered admen. The media critic Neil Postman used to complain about TV news programs, for instance, in which disasters and deaths and puppies and toothpaste commercials would follow one another in rapid succession. In the internet age, this postmodern blending of the monstrous and the mundane has become less linear (now this, now this, now this) than omnipresent (all this, all the time).

Anyway, that explains a bit of the thinking behind the piece.


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

This story has been floating around for many, many years. I’m hard-pressed to remember what originally inspired me to write it.

Way back, I had a friend who was something of a recovering Catholic. She used to talk about different kinds of good deeds, different reasons for helping people. It’s been a while, but I seem to remember her positing a set of distinctions between charity, compassion, and guilt.

The thinking goes like this. Say you want to help the poor. Well, what motivates you? Why bother?

Perhaps you do it because you feel guilty about your own comparative good fortune. If that’s the case, you’re really helping the poor to help yourself–to relieve the pain of feeling guilty. The problem is that once you stop feeling guilty, you stop helping. So distracting or consoling yourself becomes a tempting alternative to actually doing something useful.

Or let’s say you help the poor out of genuine pity, because you empathize with their hard luck. You’re not just doing it to get out of feeling guilty, but acting through real compassion. The problem here is that this ends up putting pressure on the poor to inspire compassion, to arouse our empathy and prove that they’re worthy of sympathy–like the sort of beggar who is compelled to reassure everyone that he doesn’t drink or do drugs. What if he does? This can end up holding the less fortunate to a higher moral standard.

And so we come to the concept of charity, which leaves human dessert out of the question (we’re all miserable sinners anyway, in the Christian formulation) and says we should just give what we can to others, period. Do it not for yourself, or even for those less fortunate, but for God, or for society, or just because. The problem with charity is that it depends on obedience to some higher power or institution–a church, a society, a government that gives tax breaks.

I seem to remember that my recovering-Catholic friend thought that her Christian-influenced culture was too wrapped up in questions of pity and guilt, and overly neglectful of charity–unlike Islam, say, which is a little more explicit about the centrality of almsgiving.

Anyway, I think back to those conversations often. Questions of guilt have become very troubling to me. To what extent should Americans feel personally guilty, say, about our government’s actions? Or about structural privilege? Is guilt the proper response to those things, or is it just another way to be histrionic and self-involved?


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

Nothing substantial.


– What would you want a reader to take away from this story?

Well, having dished out all this stuff about politics and theology, I’m not sure what to say about the actual story. When I brought a much earlier draft to my Clarion workshop, Jeff VanderMeer busted my chops for writing a piece that was too political, while Karen Fowler thought it was a great idea with callow execution. What can I say? When I reread the piece, I usually chuckle a few times. Maybe it all goes back Richie Tozier’s outlook on life. If nothing else, you can read this story for the chucks.


– What are you working on now?

Oh, I’m still grinding away at a novel I’ve been working on. Slow going.


“Caspar D. Luckinbill, What Are You Going To Do?” appears in the January/February 2016 issue of F&SF.

You can buy that issue here:

You can subscribe to F&SF here:

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