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Interview: Brian Trent on “Last of the Sharkspeakers”

Tell us a bit about “Last of the Sharkspeakers.”

Set in the far future and within a hollowed-out Ceres, “Last of the Sharkspeakers” is the story of a group of mutants who encounter a dominant “human” society. Tacan is the leader of these mutants, trying to do what’s best for his people. When we first meet them, they’re living the life of scavengers with very little knowledge of the larger world. That changes quickly… and ultimately becomes a story about the challenge and costs of survival.

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

I’m intrigued by the probability that expansion into space will result in the literal transformation of humanity. “Last of the Sharkspeakers” isn’t just about culture clash; it’s a clash of species (and more than just two.) The idea began with a setting: I was interested in exploring what life might be like within a hollowed-out asteroid. When I contemplated how mutations might arise from people dwelling nearest to the surface, I wanted to stay strictly away from the “bald psychic mutant” trope. Evolutionary pressures have a way of resurrecting previous developments from genetic history, and so Tacan and his people are — to a certain extent — a return to earlier hominid features. It’s not an exact reset, of course, any more than the Phorusrhacids were a perfect replica of raptor dinosaurs, but I like the idea that our arboreal ancestry experiences something of a return.

What kind of research, if any, did you do for “Last of the Sharkspeakers?”

I reached out to two scientist friends of mine to discuss the dynamics of centrifugal force within a rotating sphere. It makes for a wild new reality, and though the story only skims the surface (so to speak) of those discussions, it was fascinating stuff. How simulated gravity would vary across the asteroid, how oxygen levels are affected, and of course, the mind-bending visuals of such a habitat made for an enthralling thought experiment.


Can you give us some background on your “War Hero” universe, in which this story takes place?

Roughly a third of my stories are set within the same universe, at various points along a very lengthy timeline. I’ve always loved future chronologies, ever since cutting my teeth on Olaf Stapledon’s staggering visions and, to a lesser extent, Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Part of the appeal is that I’m a fan of history; the idea of telling significant events in an unfolding future was very appealing. “War Hero” is the story that kicks it off — it was a winner in the 2013 Writers of the Future contest, and is one of the chronologically closest to our own era. By contrast, “Last of the Sharkspeakers” is on the opposite end of the timeline, occurring long after most of humanity has spread throughout the stars. The Tower People living in Ceres are among the last, defiant vestiges of what we would recognize as modern society and modern human beings.

What would you want a reader to take away from “Last of the Sharkspeakers?”

The plight of Tacan’s people is certainly the central narrative, but the story of the voidsharks is essential. The title is every bit about them as it is about our descendants. I hope readers enjoy the ride; it’s certainly a pleasure seeing “Last of the Sharkspeakers” in the pages of Fantasy & Science Fiction.


“Last of the Sharkspeakers” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: Susan Palwick on “Ash”

Tell us a bit about “Ash.”

I write a lot about people adjusting to various kinds of loss, so this was an experiment in doing in opposite, in thinking about what it would be like if losses began to be reversed.


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

I was looking out a window one day and had a funny mental image of a coffee mug hanging from a tree, like fruit.  That was the genesis of the story.


Was “Ash” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I’m a packrat who has real trouble downsizing.  Perhaps in consequence, I’m fascinated by the Tiny House movement.  What would it take to live comfortably in a space like that?  What would one have to discard, and how would one do so?

Unlike Penny, I’m married, and my parents were nothing like hers.  But a lot of her is based on me:  the university career, the love of cats, many of the possessions. The tree’s first fruit, the pair of turquoise earrings, is actual jewelry I inherited from my mother, and Porridge bears more than a passing resemblance to an especially beloved cat named Harley my husband and I lost in 2010.

Writing the story was an interesting thought experiment.  If I lost everything but could magically recover some objects and relationships, which would I be most eager to regain?


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

I suppose I’d like readers to perform that same thought experiment themselves, and also to ask themselves what they’d do if faced with Penny’s final dilemma.  I’m curious to see if readers find the last line of the story justified or horrific (or both). Is Penny committing a terrible crime, or upholdng the natural order?  Is her unwillingness to tolerate the disruption to her own life monstrous or understandable?

On one level, the story’s pretty obviously a comment on mortality.  If the dead returned, there would very quickly be no space for the living.  We all know that, and setting the story in a tiny house was a way of exaggerating the point.  But the piece is also a comment on increasing surveillance and bureaucracy, which creates complications even with Porridge’s return and would cause much bigger ones if Penny’s parents came back.  Her inability to figure out any simple way to handle those issues is at least part of what informs her final decision.


What are you working on now?

I’ve never been a fast or prolific writer, but I always have at least half a dozen projects simmering on back burners.  I’m trying to find a publisher for a second story collection; I’m puttering with some new stories; I’m thinking about several uncompleted novels.  The one that has my attention at the moment is a kind of alternate family history narrative where hospitals are the branching points, the gateways to other timestreams.  That makes sense, when you think about what happens in hospitals.  People are born and die.  They’re treated for serious conditions and either recover or don’t.  They undergo procedures that change them forever. So hospitals are especially rich focal points of possibility.


“Ash” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

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F&SF, May 1996

Over the past year, 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.

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Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1996, cover by Bob Eggleton#TBT twenty years to the May 1996 F&SF and this Bob Eggleton cover illustrating “Airborn” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman.

“Airborn” is a novella in Hoffman’s very popular Spores Ferry young adult series, featuring Nathan the Ghost and twins Tasha and Terry. The series continued with novels A Red Heart of Memories (1999), Past the Size of Dreaming (2001) and ALA Best Book A Stir of Bones (2003).

Other stories in the issue include “Blowup” by Astrid Julian, a hard sf moon colony story. Julian went on to work and write for NASA. “Lady Lazarus” by Kathe Koja is, if not horror, then a thoughtful and unsettling story about poetry, death, and Sylvia Plath. “Chasing Butterfly Shadow” by Nancy Stringer is literary fantasy about an old woman and her dog, and also about age and the perception of reality. “Blood Harp” by Laurel Winter is a second world fantasy about music and sacrifice. It was a finalist for Compuserve’s 1996 HOMer Award. “Camping in the Biosphere Reserve” by Robert Onopa is near future sf about Hawaii, the environment, and finding love.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s editorial introduces new book reviewer Michelle West, whose column was originally called “Guilty Pleasures.” West still reviews for F&SF, but her column changed names to “Musing on Books” in 1997. Her next review will appear in the Sept/Oct issue. There are additional book reviews by Charles de Lint, Kathi Maio’s film review of “Strange Days,” and Janet Asimov’s science column.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, May 1996, back cover ad for the X-Files Perfectly capturing the spirit of the mid-90s is the back cover ad for the X-Files videos. In tiny print it reads “Incredible on Laserdisc!” Indeed.

Interview: William Ledbetter on “The Long Fall Up”

Tell us a bit about “The Long Fall Up.”

In this version of our future, we have already built a huge Bernal type space habitat called “The Golden Mountain” that houses twenty-seven thousand people in space. Also being an economic powerhouse it not only physically controls access to space, but even most space related politics. We also have robust medical nano-technology and very advanced computer software that borders on being artificially intelligent. These three technologies come together when a young woman decides to personally break the space station’s monopoly on human expansion and the Mountain sends a man to stop her. Their ensuing conflict snapshots an event that will have far reaching implications for humans living in and expanding through our solar system.


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

I’ve long been interested in issues like human reproduction in micro gravity. Barring some unexpected technological breakthrough, humanity will settle the solar system long before we colonize other star systems and that will require us to “relearn” how to make babies. Not so much their conception–I trust the participants will manage that just fine–but growing healthy fetuses in high radiation environments and null gravity will be difficult. It brings up many interesting questions. How much gravity will be enough? Will spin gravity be a suitable substitute? Or will space born humans evolve into something new? I knew I had the beginnings of an interesting story when I realized that controlling access to the only artificial gravity in space might also give control over of all reproductive rights in space.


What kind of research, if any, did you do for “The Long Fall Up?”

Since I’d been batting the idea around for a long time, I actually read a lot on this topic. Though I tried to mostly find articles and papers written at a laymen’s level I did a fair amount of head scratching over medical and biology terminology. What I found is that with our current levels of technology, tying to grow human babies in zero or micro-gravity is a really bad idea. As far as we know, no studies have been made using human embryos or fetuses, but there have been quite a few attempts to grow animal fetuses; including frogs, salamanders, sea urchins and even mice in both space and altered gravity induced by clinostats. Not only is there evidence of skeletal, nerve, muscular and organ malformation, but there are some indications that even the shape of cells can be affected. To date, none of the animal fetuses were able to develop fully. That said, studies also indicate that centrifugal induced gravity at as little as one third Earth normal might be enough to prevent most zero gravity problems, so at this point that sounds like the only viable way to reproduce in space.


How has your career in the aerospace industry shaped you as a writer?

I’ve been fascinated by aircraft and spacecraft since I was a kid, so I don’t think it surprised anyone that I ended up in this line of work. And of course many of the stories I write reflect that love of all things space. Oddly enough, I also approach writing projects like I do engineering projects. I get a good understanding of the main elements needed to make it work and then try to pull them all together into a well-functioning, tightly packaged whole. And like most engineering projects, there are a lot of dead ends, head scratching, false starts, adjustments, testing and sometimes even flat out total redesigns.


Anything else you’d like to add?

For the last ten years I’ve run a contest for Baen Books and the National Space Society that publishes and gives an award for stories like this one, that show humanity’s exciting near future in space.  For details about the rest of my writing or this contest please visit my website at


“The Long Fall Up” appears in the May/June 2016 issue of F&SF.

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You can subscribe to F&SF here:

F&SF, March 1972

Over the past year, 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, March 1972, cover by Chesley BonestellIn memory of Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree Jr., who died on this date in 1987, ‪#‎TBT‬ to the March 1972 F&SF.

Chesley Bonestell’s cover shows “a globular cluster 500-light years distant from an airless planet.” Although it doesn’t illustrate any story inside, on p. 67 it was offered as a full color print for just $1.

Tiptree’s contribution to this issue was her human/alien exogamy sex trap story “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side.” The story contains many of the key themes of Tiptree’s work, including the tension between reason and sexuality, and gender fluidity. It was published several years before Alice Sheldon’s identity was revealed and the introduction refers to her as “Mr. Tiptree.” “And I Awoke…” was a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 1973, and has been reprinted dozens of times.

Alice Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, Jr., author photoAlso worth noting: Tiptree (author picture to the left courtesy of Wikipedia) didn’t publish her first sf story until she was 52 years old. It’s never too late to start a new career!

The rest of the issue contains the usual mix of style and tone that you expect from an issue of F&SF, while leaning toward sf stories. It leads with “Love Is A Dragonfly” by Thomas Burnett Swan, a fantasy novella in the world of his award-nominated Latium Trilogy. Swann was a professor and poet who died tragically of cancer at the age of 48, providing a counterpoint to Tiptree’s tale: start now!

“The Hippie-Dip File” by Robert Thurston is an if-this-goes-on story about drug use and drug laws in the near future. “Venus, Mars, and Baker Street” by Manly Wade Wellman and Wade Wellman is another entry in their Sherlock Holmes/War of the Worlds mash-up series. “Grasshopper Time” by Gordon Eklund is a quiet alien contact story that was included in Terry Carr’s Year’s Best Science Fiction 1973. “Pater Familias” by Barry N. Malzberg and Kris Neville is a short, sharp sf tale about memory and family and moving on.

The issue closes with “Is It the End of the World?” about a family facing doomsday, by the unjustly forgotten Wilma Shore. Shore doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia page (most of these facts about her come from the Jewish Women’s Archive), but her very second published story, “The Butcher,” was reprinted in The Best Short Stories 1941. Shore published in The New Yorker (, Cosmopolitan, Story, The Saturday Evening Post, and almost every other prominent magazine of the 1940s and 50s. She also wrote for television and radio before being blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for her political beliefs during the McCarthy era. During the 1960s and 70s, Shore published 4 science fiction stories, 3 of them appearing in F&SF. All of them were translated or reprinted. The only collection of her short fiction – Women Should Be Allowed: A Verbatim Report on the Imbroglio Between the Sexes – appeared in 1965. Shore lived in NY and taught writing, continuing to work until her death ten years ago last week, in May 2006, at the age of 92.

Plus the issue includes book reviews by Alexei and Cory Panshin, a Searles film column, Asimov’s science column, a Gahan Wilson cartoon, and the winning results for F&SF Competition #1, “absolutely mad inventions.”

Which reminds us – Competition #92, “Updated,” is underway right now:

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