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Interview: Jérôme Cigut on “The Rider”

- Tell us a bit about “The Rider.”

“The Rider” is about what would happen if virtual personal assistants like Siri or Cortana not only answered our questions, but actually ruled our lives. (One might actually argue that they already do…)

It’s also (I hope) a story about friendship.


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

There were several sources of inspiration that coalesced here. For some time, I had wanted to write a story about high-tech artisans. What could be the equivalent of a Swiss watchmaker, but working on semiconductors? If you’ve seen the size and complexity of TSMC’s plants, for example, you’ll know that it’s unlikely anyone could tinker at nano-scales using the equivalent of a soldering iron… But Hideo Tahara is a compelling vision. Who wouldn’t want to go to an artisan to upgrade his or her phone, rather than throw it away after a couple of years? Interestingly, a version of this may not be very far away: here in Asia, it’s very easy to repair and replace parts of smart phones and tablets, when in Europe they would just tell you to buy a new device.

Another inspiration was Michael Moorcock’s Elric. Some people say that modern suits are modeled after medieval armors. In that case, modern swords are computers and smart phones, which now can talk to us. What if they also had souls?

And Some Like It Hot for the comedic elements, and especially for the final line.


- Was “The Rider” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

That’s a personal question… but yes. Unusually for me, I started writing the story without knowing the full plot beforehand: I only had a couple of scenes in mind… and I also wanted to have fun at the main character’s expense. That’s why things he doesn’t expect keep happening to him — most of them bad. (I’ve actually discovered it’s a good way to build suspense — I’m a very inexperienced writer, I learn as I go…)

What I didn’t expect was that real characters would emerge from that. When I wrote the Monopoly game scene in the hotel, I had no idea it would turn this way. It gave me pause, as it rang deep and true to me. I then thought “this is the real story”, and proceeded to rewrite everything else to build up to that scene.


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

The Tahara backstory is based on some research I did to understand the modern semiconductor industry. It’s actually at a very interesting point in time, as we are now very close to scales where traditional silicon-based technologies do not work anymore because of quantum tunneling. Scientists now have to devise completely new materials and geometries, without any guarantee of success. Hence the rising interest for completely different approaches, like quantum computing. Ten years from now, our computers could be incredibly smarter. Or they could be exactly the same we’re using now, only ten times cheaper. Which is it going to be?


- What are you working on now?

I’m working on a near-future thriller, based on recent developments in physics, which I’d like to finish soon because the list of projects I’d like to work on later is starting to grow dangerously tall. (Can someone be crushed under his pile of unwritten novels?) But I also have a few ideas for other short stories in the meantime — possibly in the same universe as “The Rider”.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

Thank you very much for accepting “The Rider” in F&SF. It’s a great honor to be published in the same pages as so many fantastic writers who’ve fed my imagination for the past thirty years. I hope you will enjoy the story…

“The Rider” appears in the September/October 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Tom Underberg on “Sir Pagan’s Gift”

- Tell us a bit about “Sir Pagan’s Gift.”

“Sir Pagan’s Gift” is the story of a naive missionary who comes to a poor fishing village, learns the village secrets, and lands in grave trouble because of those secrets.


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

I started with the opening image of Sir Pagan and a New York Times article about how a few banks were using aluminum market regulations to their benefit. That, bolstered by a lively evening with my writer’s group, somehow cohered into “Sir Pagan’s Gift.” As always, it didn’t end up quite the way I imagined when I began.


- Was “Sir Pagan’s Gift” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I spent many summers in small coastal towns growing up. The village where Sir Pagan lands recalls some of those experiences.


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

Research is one of my favorite things. It’s better than outright procrastination and I learn something at the same time. For this story, though, my research was limited to some quick searching of entomological terminology and Atlantic fishing stock.


- What would you want a reader to take away from “Sir Pagan’s Gift?”

Be careful when signing contracts with institutions. Their agenda is their own.


- What are you working on now?

I’m putting the finishing touches on a short story based on the worst job I ever had. I’ve got a novel in the works too.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that it’s a great pleasure to appear in F&SF.

“Sir Pagan’s Gift” appears in the September/October 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Jay O’Connell on “Other People’s Things”

- What was the inspiration for “Other People’s Things,” or what prompted you to write it?

If you’re a genre person of a certain age you will have engaged in long–perhaps endless— conversations with close friends with dating problems.

This experience is universal, but even in an era in which everyone claims to be some kind of geek, we seem to suffer more than the average person. We’re outliers in many respects. Finding each other even now can be difficult.

If you are an alpha-geek, (a geek who dates) you end up playing this role, of therapist, of confidant, wing-man and cheerleader.

The story was pure wish fulfillment, creating this character, Peebles, who could be utterly, brutally honest, this character who could cut to the core of these issues and find solutions.

It’s another wearable computing story, oddly, written a good while ago, before wearables were a thing. Both my wearable stories are seeing print within a months of my Google Glass review in the September 2014 issue of Asimov’s. Another wearable short story will come out in the December issue of Asimov’s.

- Was “Other People’s Things” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

All my stories are personal or I wouldn’t write them; mixtures of life experience with fantasy life, interior stuff rotated through the fourth dimension of genre tropery; memoir pushed through a fun-house mirror.

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

Decades of listening to friends kvetch combined with perfectly ordinary techno-lust extrapolation.

- What are you working on now?

I’m writing novelettes and novellas for Asimov’s and F&SF (hopefully!) with an eye towards working on projects that could expand into novels or serials.

I want to try my hand at YA, like everyone else in the universe. I read out loud to my kids, a ton of YA, and I love it.

- Anything else you’d like to add?

Being published in F&SF is a dream come true; the magazine was part of my primordial landscape, along with Analog, stacks of SF paperbacks from the 50s and 60s, and of course, Playboy magazine.

We grew up with print, my generation, created by it, reflected in it; TV was a one size fits all affair, we all watched but there wasn’t enough variety to define yourself that way. There was no public internet to speak of.

My generation didn’t go to war; we went to Narnia, then Middle Earth; into Galactic Empire, Known Space, and beyond, and the SF magazines were a big part of all that.

I’m delighted to finally find myself in these pages. Though really, I’ve been here all along.

“Other People’s Things” appears in the September/October 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Katie Boyer on “Bartleby the Scavenger”

- Tell us a bit about “Bartleby the Scavenger.”

It’s a re-telling in a different context of Herman Melville’s novella “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Many elements are the same: the story is narrated by an employer who hires a man named Bartleby who, for reasons unknown, suddenly stops working. My story, though, is set in a future version of Birmingham, Alabama, after an apocalypse event, and the boss is a scavenger of resources from the former city, trying to save his crew from a bloodthirsty, sorority girl mayor.


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

As mentioned in the story notes, the idea for the title came from a student of mine who was having trouble with the unfamiliar word “scrivener” and so kept calling the Melville story “Bartleby the Scavenger.” I’d been wanting to write a dystopian tale, and I’d been wanting to write something set in my hometown, so the three things sort of collided—scavenger, dystopia, Birmingham. The rest was mostly working out the details of the world and the voice of the narrator.


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

I didn’t do a ton of focused research. I looked into some demographics for Birmingham, checked on how old the buildings are in certain areas, and investigated the kind of government currently in place in the neighborhood The Brook is based on. I did some reading on the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during WWII. A lot of the background, though, comes from what I might call “ambient research.” Much of what interests me about Birmingham in general found its way into the story. Plus, a few years ago, I went on a post-apocalypse spree and read a bunch of novels about the end of the world and/or oppressive government, so I felt familiar with the genre.


- Did you use the post-apocalypse, dystopian setting of your story to draw different conclusions about society than Melville did in “Bartleby the Scrivener?”

That’s an interesting question. There really is a lot of tender sadness and pity at the end of Melville’s story—his Bartleby has “preferred not to” engage in life, until he meets his end in jail, his face to the wall, even though the story’s narrator has tried various ways to reach out to him. I think we’re supposed to understand Melville’s Bartleby as a person who has seen the potential emptiness of modern life (the rumor is that his last job was at the “dead letter office”), and his job as basically a human Xerox machine seems to indicate that his personhood is caught up in, and crushed by, the machine of Wall Street. I guess one of the things that really interested me about the character of Bartleby was the question of whether there is any other way to interact with a system that treats people as if they are components in a machine. So, my Bartleby became a person who sort of floats above or outside the system. He definitely “prefers not to” do a lot of things, but it’s because he’s too content or optimistic or “good, man.” My conclusion about society may not be much different from Melville’s—I definitely feel the daily pressure to be part of a machine—but maybe my conclusion about how to react to it is distinct from Melville’s. But, of course, Bartleby still dies at the end, so maybe I’m just as pessimistic as Melville after all.


- Was “Bartleby the Scavenger” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I think I have an inner Peighton who gives me a “productivity quota” for every day. Teaching at a community college means there are large classes, and several of them, and there are constant demands on my time. Then there’s writing and life and family and housekeeping to maintain. The feeling that something terrible will happen if I don’t get it all done stays with me. I guess you could say Bartleby’s sense of calm is something I wish I could achieve—but he’s just a little crazy, so maybe not the best role model. The constant battle between productivity and contentment does seem very personal to me.


- What are you working on now?

I’m actually working on a short story collection in which I take classic stories and give them a modern, often sci-fi, twist, much like what happens in “Bartleby.” In this collection, for example, I put a James Joyce heroine on a space station. I’m also working on a couple of other non-adapted short stories and am dabbling in screenwriting. A lot of my creative work is being channeled through the MFA work I’m completing with Spalding University’s Brief Residency program.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

Just that I’m very pleased “Bartleby the Scavenger” was included in this issue. I’ve long been a fan of the magazine and very much enjoyed the other stories for May / June. It’s great to be in such wonderful company.

“Bartleby the Scavenger” appears in the May/June 2014 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”

- What was the inspiration for “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’d been reading articles about new prosthetics that interface with the brains of amputees. I took mine a few extra steps. The first line popped into my head fully formed, and the first paragraph, and then the road. I’ve driven through Colorado many times, and I love the way the plains and the farms and ranchland give way to mountain, so I ran with that. The cool thing was that I picked Lori’s name arbitrarily, and didn’t realize what I could do with the tattoo until later.  My process is sort of like driving, too: I set out with a destination in mind, but the place I wind up isn’t always exactly the place I thought I was going.


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

When I was fifteen I was part of an exchange that took me to Saskatchewan. I went to a bonfire with my host, where the guys all drank beer and the girls mixed their beer with clamato, which is about the most disgusting mixer I can think of. I’ve been holding onto that detail for a long time waiting to use it in a story. Beyond that? I’ve never thought I was a road, but I’ve spent a lot of time on them. And I definitely know what it’s like to feel split between two places.


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

I did some research on prosthetics and occupational therapy, and on modern farm equipment and crops of Saskatchewan. Oh! And now I know how to make a homemade tattoo gun. I know horses and I know roads, and I’m pretty good at capturing the spirit of places that I’ve traveled, so those parts were easier.


- Could you speak at all to the juxtaposition in your story of high-tech sci-fi (bionic prosthetics) with a noticeably mundane setting (small-town farming community)?

First off, big farms like Andy’s parents’ are already very high tech. The equipment, the monitoring. I made Andy a more traditional farmer in order to widen the gap between the high-tech and the character. I think a lot of farmers are dealing with it on a non-metaphorical level. Small farmers struggle to make ends meet. Large farmers have to give up the practices that we think of as farming. Animals on commercial farms have it pretty rough, and people who want to farm food crops instead of commodity crops have it pretty rough. Even old-school Andy is farming canola. I guess all that is to say I don’t think it’s such a stretch to put bionic prosthetics onto a near-future farm.


- What are you working on now?

I’ve always got a couple of stories going, and I’m working on a novel that also deals with the consequences of small medical strides in the near future.


- Anything else you’d like to add?

I’ve been reading F&SF since I could first read. It’s a pleasure to have a story in the magazine.

“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” appears in the March/April 2014 issue of F&SF.

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