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Interview: Monica Byrne on “Alexandria”

Monica ByrneTell us a bit about “Alexandria.”

It’s a story about the power of grief. But not—I hope—in a sad or depressing way. More like: my God, what a force grief is! What a natural resource!


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

I think I had the original idea from reading The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, in which a husband builds a stone tower on top of his dead wife’s grave. And then I thought, “What if the monument is even bigger, like the entire freakin Lighthouse of Alexandria.” And I’ve always been obsessed with Alexander the Great and his enormous, public displays of grief, so it seemed a natural fit.

The other puzzle piece came from a prompt by Mary Anne Mohanraj at Clarion. She asked us to write a story about the “other,” something outside our comfort zone, whether that be in terms of class, race, ability, gender, and so on. So the love story at the center of the narrative became between Beth, a white woman, and Keiji, a man of Japanese descent, at a time when interracial marriages were not common—especially in Kansas.


You completed “Alexandria” because of encouragement from the great Ursula K. Le Guin. Could you please tell us about the encouragement she provided, and how it helped you write the story?

I was amazed she wrote me back. It was very kind of her. I’d just started writing fiction and it felt right to reach out to the authors who’d shaped me most. In my letter, I told her I had an idea for a story about a woman who builds the Lighthouse of Alexandria in her backyard. She wrote back, “I expect to see it standing on the Kansas plain!” I’d never written a story before in my life, but she had no doubt I could, and would. Her expression of faith gave me faith in myself.


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

A lot of my work deals with grief, probably because I lost my mother young. But I’m not interested in wallowing—I’m more interested in the incredible variety of shapes that grief can take, including constructive, proactive, and creative shapes. For Beth, rebuilding the Lighthouse of Alexandria and carving her husband’s poems into the walls. For me, writing a story about a woman who does so.


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

At Clarion, one reader was angry that Beth betrayed her husband’s wishes never to reveal his poems! And it’s true, she did. Should she have? Did she have a right to?


The Girl in the Road by Monica ByrneWhat are you working on now?

My second novel, The Actual Star, which describes the rise of a new religion in the wake of global climate change. Writing it is thrilling in and of itself, but also because its writing is entirely supported by “micro-patrons”—526 at last count—on Patreon. I think economics shape a work of art as much any other constraint, and it’s deeply satisfying to be writing about the future while using an economic system that is (in my opinion) the future of how art will be funded. The ends and the means are in sync.




“Alexandria” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Monica Byrne has a Patreon and a website where you can buy her first novel The Girl in the Road, and learn more about her other creative pursuits: she is also a playwright. Click on her author photo to reach her Patreon and the book image to reach her website.

Interview: Rick Norwood on “One Way”

I wrote “One Way” because I like to explore the ramifications of an sf idea.  What if?  What if you had a screen that would only pass matter through in one direction, the way a semiconductor only passes electricity through in one direction.  Much of my favorite science fiction starts with an idea, and rings the changes on that basic idea.  Of course, a story is nothing without characters, and as a college professor I have plenty of colorful characters to draw on for my stories.

I’m currently working on my first novel, titled The Map, set on Mars in a distant future where mankind has rejected science, and only allows the most basic technology necessary to keep civilization going.  My protagonist, Nathan Lombard, is a charismatic revolutionary who has defied the ban against interstellar travel and brought back a map of the alien civilizations nearest our own.

I’ve also written a book titled How To Think.  The US has the best colleges and universities in the world, and the worst K through 12 education in the developed world.  College students are taught how to think, people who do not go to college never are.  I hope at least some people want to learn to think more clearly, and my book is an easy way to learn.  (Though there are obviously people who are perfectly happy with what passes for “thinking” in the political discourse of the day: memorizing half-a-dozen sound bites and repeating them mindlessly and endlessly.)  The book is available from, and for download on the Kindle.

Comics RevueI also edit a magazine of comic strip reprints.  Fans of Tarzan, Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Buz Sawyer can find out more at


“One Way” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: Gregor Hartmann on “A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore”

Gregor HartmannTell us a bit about “A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore.”

Creepy alien plants, a tense high-society party, revolution in the air, an enigmatic woman–what could go wrong?


What inspired you to write this series of sf stories following Franden’s adventures on Zephyr, beginning with your story in the Jan/Feb 2015 of F&SF, “The Man from X”?

The first one was a fluke. I had been writing much longer works, and I wanted to cool off with an extremely short story. Two characters. One scene. A story that played out in ten minutes. “The Man from X” was intended as a one-off.

Then I heard a lecture on the mythologies that influenced Tolkien. That started me wondering what new mythologies would evolve on an isolated frontier planet with a “cultural cringe” toward more civilized worlds. Since Franden was a writer, he was a useful tool for exploring those ideas. Thus “Into the Fiery Planet.”

Sometimes I feel as if I’m a journalist who met an intriguing character, so I hang with Franden because he’s good material and has a knack for making interesting friends. I don’t approve of everything he does, but hey, he’s young; I hope he learns from his mistakes. Charlie has bought a fourth story in this series, “What the Hands Know,” in which Franden gets in trouble in a lowlife venue that’s the opposite of Crestwood Gardens.


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

To design the Vado-Zephyr system I read papers by astrophysicists (and corresponded with two regarding certain points). I assigned Vado a realistic mass, decided what Zephyr’s orbital radius would be, based on how moons form around gas giants, and used an equation to work out the orbital period to two decimal places. I’m not going to “show my work” because stories are about emotion, not numbers, but I hope this preparation contributes to verisimilitude.


Do you have any more Mainline/Spur society stories planned?

Oh yes. I’m fond of Franden, but there are things happening on Zephyr that are better told from other points of view. I’m working on stories featuring a police detective investigating a suspicious death at a Fragrant Gate mansion. Two young marine biologists trying to become savos. A hermit priest, on a volcanic island in the Heller Sea, who has a thing for angels. Zephyr is an Earth-sized world orbiting a super Jovian. There’s a lot going on.


“A Gathering on Gravity’s Shore” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

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Interview: “The Regression Test” by Wole Talabi

Wole TalabiTell us a bit about “The Regression Test.”

“The Regression Test” is set in a future Lagos, Nigeria where there’s been a sort of technology revolution led by a handful of visionary companies. In the story, a grumpy 116-year-old woman has been asked by her grandson who runs the family technology business to help test an artificial intelligence that was made from the brain of her genius mother—Olusola Ajimobi—who founded the company. The test is performed to try to establish if the A.I. remains recognizable as Olusola, both to previous versions of itself and to the humans who knew her, even as the A.I. continuously improves. But of course, nothing is ever simple and things don’t go as expected. There are other agendas that come into play, since the company’s future depends on the results of the test.


In the header notes to this story, it’s mentioned that the Sorites Paradox is an inspiration for your story.  Can you explain the Sorites Paradox and how it relates to “The Regression Test”?

The Sorites Paradox, sometimes called a “little-by-little” paradoxical argument, is a series of statements that highlights how difficult it is to determine when a thing changes its nature when there is no sharp boundary between one state and the other. It can also highlight the vagueness inherent in the language used to describe the identity of a thing. Many scholars say the paradox originated from the logician Eubulides of Miletus who used to present puzzles which go something like this:

Given that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it follows that two do not, and three do not, and so on. But continuing like this, it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. This is a paradox since we know there will be a heap eventually. And even if so, when does the change happen? From an apparently true premise we arrive at a false conclusion.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a great chapter on the Sorites paradox, its variants and the many mathematical, linguistic and philosophical responses to it. The Sorites Paradox is also very similar to the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox in that they both describe the possible vagueness associated with identity and change, and I personally think of The Sorites Paradox as a more ‘quantized’ version of that paradox.

So how is the Sorites Paradox related to my story? Well, in the story, the brain of the protagonist’s mother has been recorded and used to make an A.I. Let’s call this is ‘Her.’ But the A.I. will be constantly presented with new information and updated. So it will also be changing. At some point it will stop being ‘Her.’ As with the paradox, the central question becomes, at what point does that happen? When does ‘Her’ become something else?


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

Not really. It was just one of those ideas that got stuck in my head until I had to exorcise it.

Come to think of it, maybe it is, a bit. The protagonist is a sort of syncretized version of many older Yoruba women I’ve met including some of my aunts: clever, sometimes harsh, tough, honest and always willing to help family members – even the ones they don’t like.


What are you working on now?

Well, I have several short stories in the pipeline now.  Two of them have been sold and will be published in 2017, and there are five others in different states of submission and revision so I’m not sure when or where they will make an appearance, if ever. But I keep a list of what I’ve written, along with links to read, on my blog for anyone interested. It is updated as new stuff is published.


“The Regression Test” appears in the January/February 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

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Clicking on Mr. Talabi’s picture at the top of the interview will also take you to his website.

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