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Interview: Gregor Hartmann on “What the Hands Know”

Hartmann - Punching Bag - May 2017Tell us a bit about “What the Hands Know.”

Franden’s literary aspirations are on hold while he works as a writer at a long-running dramatic series. His boss is bugging him to introduce a new character. Looking for lowlife inspiration, he goes to an underground fight club and gets more than he bargained for.


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

You’ve asked me that question before. I should start keeping notes about where ideas come from. In retrospect it’s hard to recall a precise trigger. Things fly around in my head. Asteroid miners. Purple flowers. Lawyers wearing body armor. When enough elements clump together, voila! A story.


Could you talk about the research and science that underlies “What the Hands Know”?

My day job is translating Japanese patents into English, so I spend a lot of time reading about technology. Materials science isn’t as sexy as cosmology or AI research, but I think it’s neat what a clever person can do with ordinary matter. Real-life examples of shear-thickening non-Newtonian fluids are Silly Putty, flubber, and oobleck.  The key feature is that the molecules are loosely bound, so the material can flex, but if a strong external force is applied the molecules lock together, resist the force, and diffuse the energy. The US Army Research Lab is trying to use this stuff to create liquid body armor.


Are fight scenes something you typically write, and do you find them to be a challenge to get correct?

I’ve never written a story this “physical” before. I prefer to have characters solve problems with their wits, not their fists. So it was an interesting writerly challenge to myself to describe intense, realistic, violent action and make each punch reveal character and illuminate the society in which the fight occurred.

A writer pal of mine independently came up with a futuristic fight story at about the same time as I did. We joked we’re starting a new subgenre, to be known as “cyberpunch.”


Anything else you’d like to add?

Take time to smell the flowers. Sometimes they bear encoded messages.


“What the Hands Know” appears in the May/June 2017 issue of F&SF.

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