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Interview: Sarah Pinsker on “Today’s Smarthouse in Love”

– What was the inspiration for “Today’s Smarthouse in Love,” or what prompted you to write it?

I’m part of an online writers’ community that occasionally does prompts and contests. As I recall, this story came from a title prompt. I didn’t end up using the title, but it knocked this story into my head. The original title had a list of mundane household items. I think I had also just read an article about a refrigerator that could remind you when a grocery item was running low and I started thinking about what would happen if you came to rely on automated appliances too much. In my experience, the really basic appliances outlast the fancy ones, and I love old houses. From there, I moved to the communication gap between a new house and its older neighbor, and since communication gaps make for good screwball romances, I went that route.


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

Very little. I’ll admit I was less concerned with the actual science in this particular story than with getting the tone right. I watched the Tex Avery “House of Tomorrow” cartoons, which are far more sexist than I remembered. But they’re also interesting because they did predict some things that we do have in our houses today, but they were colored by a 1949 view of what the future would look like. So he imagined automated dishwashers, but depicted them as robot arms scrubbing dishes in the sink. I decided to have fun with some very 2015 predictions, which will very likely look ridiculous in a few years, but that’s okay.


– “Today’s Smarthouse in Love” seems to share themes (the intersection of technology and humanity, for example) with your previous story for us, “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” albeit in a more humorous fashion.  Since that story is up for a Nebula Award this year, I was hoping you could talk about this theme in your work, or any other themes you recognize, and what draws you to explore them.

Oh! I never would have connected those stories, but now that you say it, I can see it. I guess I do come back to the intersection of technology and humanity a lot. That’s where we’re living now, isn’t it? Technologies we think we can’t live without, technologies we literally can’t live without, technologies we didn’t previously need but we’ve come to rely on. I think the easiest story to write on those topics is probably the “WE’VE GONE TOO FAR!” warning cry, but if you approach it head-on like that there’s not a lot of nuance. I like to explore the edges. Technologies that are useful but can lead to unexpected problems. I used to have a lot of phone numbers memorized, and now I have very few in my head, since they’re all in my phone. It’s very convenient – but every time I get a new phone, I find that some of my contacts are missing. It’s not bad or dangerous, but it’s an example of a convenience that can cause inconvenience. And then as SF writers our job is to carry things to the extremes, be they menacing or humorous. It was fun to explore the humorous side with this one.


– What are you working on now?

I have a feeling this will be the same line verbatim that I gave you last time, but I won’t peek to see if that’s true. I’m working on stories, as always. I love the form, and I always have ideas waiting to be explored. I poke at my novel sometimes, then go back to stories. Though now that you call my attention to it, my novel does also explore an aspect of the intersection of technology and humanity.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

By far my favorite part of writing this story was writing the fridge’s arc and dialogue. If any actual refrigerator makers are reading this and need someone to write scripts for their fancy new computerized fridges, I’m available.

“Today’s Smarthouse in Love” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Lisa Mason on “Teardrop”

– Tell us a bit about “Teardrop.”

“Teardrop” is about love versus duty. Personal responsibility to respect a native culture versus official responsibility to carry out the imperatives of an organization.

What I love about science fiction is that SF, of all the genres including mainstream, is the literature of ideas. Science fiction entertains but also speculates, comments, inquires, challenges.

“Teardrop” is told from two points-of-view, that of NanaNini, a native of Bakdoor, and John W. Dixon, an Executive Director sent by the Network to “cultivate” her planet.

But Dixon has fallen in love with NanaNini. He’s encountered “the Sparkle,” a mysterious intelligence that shapes Bakdoor’s culture. He’s had a change of heart and of mind.

When a trio of Networkers arrive, planning to relieve him of his post, Dixon has plans of his own for them.

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

I love it when people ask this. Writers always have a flippant answer. “I got my inspiration in a brown paper bag.” Or, “At the bottom of a wine bottle.”

As for “Teardrop,” I was working in my office one day and listening to an oldies’ radio station. The station played what had become classic surfer tunes, “Teardrop” and “Sleepwalk.”

The strange, whiny sounds struck me as alien. An alien mother singing to her baby. Go figure science fiction writers.

In fact, those tunes were not played by Hawaiian surfers with bronzed biceps but by Santo and Johnny Farina, two Brooklyn brothers born in the 1930s and early 1940s. Santo bought a Fender and jerry-rigged the guitar to have three necks and eight strings so that it sounded like a manic steel guitar. Johnny accompanied him on a standard electric guitar.

The Farina brothers became so popular at local proms that the tunes were recorded in 1959. I can just imagine teenagers in New Jersey on the cusp of the 1960s slow-dancing in the school auditorium.

But to me, Teardrop sounds like an ocean beach with the surf pounding on the sand.

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

Yes. In a previous lifetime (so to speak), I was employed as a young lawyer in a one-hundred-male attorney, ten-female attorney law firm. It was a huge honor and an opportunity for a woman and I took my duties very seriously.

One day, a senior partner summoned me to his office and ordered me to cover up evidence in an ugly and contentious class-action lawsuit involving powerful interests.

I sort of feared for my life if I did what he asked. I also feared for the rest of my life if I didn’t get out of that game.

I submitted my resignation. No contest. And then went into law book publishing while I worked on my fiction career.

So John Dixon’s dilemma in “Teardrop” is pretty real to me.

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

After listening to “Teardrop” and “Sleepwalk,” I wanted to write a surfer story.

But this had to be set on an alien world. When you think about the Earth, we’re set upon a planet with two “atmospheres”: air (and land) and water. We human beings can’t breathe water, but we breathe air.

I did some research into planets’ ecosystems and Jupiter leapt immediately into view.

As for the surfing angle, I discovered the wonderful Surf’inary published by Ten Speed Press. I collect slang dictionaries. The Surf’inary was a real find and delight.

– This is your first story for us since 1992; what have you been up to for the past twenty-three years?

Ooh, that’s a long time, isn’t it? The good news is I’ve been writing books, stories, and screenplays.

“Destination,” published in F&SF in 1992, is a part of my 2013 collection, Strange Ladies: 7 Stories. The collection includes stories I published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Unique Magazine, and anthologies such as Universe 2 (Bantam), Fantastic Alice (Ace), and Desire Burn: Women Writing from the Dark Side of Passion (Carrol & Graf).

I also published “The Sixty-third Anniversary of Hysteria” in Full Spectrum (Bantam), “Daughter of the Tao” in Peter S. Beagle’s Immortal Unicorn (HarperPrism), and “Every Mystery Unexplained” in David Copperfield’s Tales of the Impossible (HarperPrism). “Hummers” got chosen for Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (St. Martin’s Press). “Arachne” was published in Omni magazine. I expanded a novelet, published as “Deus Ex Machina,” into a short science fiction thriller, Shaken, about the next great Earthquake to strike the San Francisco Bay Area.

Many writers go through a phase when concentrating on writing books becomes paramount, and so did I.

It took me two-and-a-half years to write Summer of Love, first published by Bantam, which became a Philip K. Dick Award finalist and a San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book. And another two-and-a-half years to write The Gilded Age, also published by Bantam as The Golden Nineties, which became a New York Times Notable Book and New York Public Library Recommended Book.

Four more books in my backlist aren’t yet ebooks, my early cyberpunks Arachne and Cyberweb and my science fiction adventures Pangaea I and Pangaea II. I have plans!

For a slightly different readership, I wrote an historical romantic suspense miniseries, Celestial Girl (A Lily Modjeska Mystery), and an urban fantasy, The Garden of Abracadabra, Book 1 of the Abracadabra Series.

After one of my Omni stories, “Tomorrow’s Child,” optioned for four years and then sold outright to Universal Studios, I set off to learn how to write screenplays and wrote half a dozen. “U F uh-O, A Sci Fi Comedy,” is now a novella but started out as a screenplay for a producer looking for the next “Men in Black” meets “Galaxy Quest.” I spent a fulltime year researching and writing “Tesla: A Worthy of His Time,” an ambitious biopic about the eventful life of Nikola Tesla, the inventor of AC electricity (among many other things). That got read by the producer of “The Abyss” and is still under consideration.

But the truth is, for a prose author, there is nothing like being in print!

In the meantime, I’m committed to keeping fit, cooking healthy meals, and living with my husband, Tom Robinson, an acclaimed artist and studio jeweler in the San Francisco Bay Area.

– What are you working on now?

I’m working on Book 2 of the Abracadabra Series, a new suite of stories, and a high-concept science fiction.

When we left “Teardrop,” several major plotlines were brewing. I’m hoping to write more Bakdoor stories, as well.

– Anything else you’d like to add?

I love David Gerrold’s story, “Entanglements,” in the May-June 2015 F&SF issue. So laugh-out-loud funny and poignant at the same time.

By coincidence, I recently read a book that explores the quantum physics concept of “entanglement.” I know a little bit about quantum physics, but I’d never heard of entanglement before.

So I totally appreciated David’s story. But even if a reader isn’t conversant in quantum physics, he or she will surely understand and enjoy David’s wonderful story.

I truly hope everyone will enjoy another great issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction!

“Teardrop” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Amy Sterling Casil on “In the Time of Love”

– Tell us a bit about “In the Time of Love.”

The story is dedicated to Christopher Hull, who is a visionary genius and maker. Among many other important projects he has done, Chris was the original development team leader for the Amazon Kindle. He is part of our publishing venture, Chameleon (mentioned below). In being around Chris and other “makers,” I came to see their different way of perceiving the world. I had been thinking about and researching basic physics questions like “What is time?” and “What is space?” I learned of the amplituhedron – a developing tool used by physicists to explore the as-yet misunderstood nature of space and time on a quantum level.


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

A few years ago when I was living in Playa del Rey, I had a charming neighbor who often grilled at the same time I did. One day we were grilling and I mentioned I was a sci-fi writer. “I’m global personnel director for Northrop,” he said. He averred he loved sci-fi and talked about some of the Northrop-Grumman projects that were in development. “You know ‘beam me up Scotty?'” he said. “We’re working on that.” Yes – an actual “transporter.” I said, “I bet if people actually started using that, they’d use it to make it easier to steal things and get away, and to cheat on their partners.” He laughed and agreed with me.

If you really think about it, such a transporter would be like texting on steroids. “Where are you?”

“Oh, just at the store, honey — be back in a minute.”

Then, I got to know Chris and became close friends with him. I started thinking about the difference between theory and application. When I learned of the amplituhedron (“ampy”) in the story, I pictured Chris making it. If someone actually made something that could alter the progress of time (in the story, it’s portrayed as “stopping time”), chances are – they’d first use it exactly as Brian did in the story. Later, they might feel differently. They would change their perception of how such a thing could be used. If – they were similar to Chris – and the other makers I know.


– Was “In the Time of Love” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

See above. Brian in the story is a “maker.” His emotional intelligence is a poor match for his inventive intelligence and skill. I was interested in writing not just on the topics, but the difference between people like me, and people like Brian.


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

It was an outgrowth of my ongoing interest in theoretical physics, and also my journey in understanding the work process of visionary makers. I guess you could call that “research.” I made friends with Annika O’Brien the roboticist a couple of years ago. One of the first things she said when I got to know her was “I can smelt aluminum and make a swarm of hovercopters!” Well, most mornings I’m lucky to be able to make pancakes. That joy of creation and discovery is part of the story. It runs across every person with these extraordinary abilities that I know.


– What are you working on now?

My partner Bruce White and I are finishing a story for an anthology called Forbidden Thoughts. It’s about an ordinary guy whose life collides with a society of 40,000 year old Amazon women who’ve discovered their impending mortality, and need to reproduce before they die. Most of my time is spent on Chameleon Publishing and our slate of authors and publications. I am also writing an extensive article for Analog about Kalev Leetaru, the visionary creator of the GDELT project (Global Database of Events, Language and Tone). GDELT is the real-world realization of what Asimov called “psychohistory”. It covers every global news event in the majority of world languages and media from 1979 to the present. It’s extraordinary, as is Kalev, whose ambition is to change the world by showing it what it really is, not what it thinks it is. I am halfway through the second book in my series of fantasy novels (Like Fire, Like Light, Like Life). The first book will be published next year by Chameleon Publishing, with illustrations (already complete) by award-winning illustrator Kirbi Fagan.


– You have your own press, Chameleon Publishers – could you tell us about that?

Chameleon is “making books like oreos and treating writers like Henry Ford.” Only two of our founding team have extensive experience in the publishing industry. The rest are comprised of Fortune 100 executives like Bruce White, top tech recruiters like Laurie DeGange, and creators of the devices upon which e-books are read, like Chris Hull. We are incorporating the legacy imprint of Alan Rodgers Books (4,000 titles in the Ingram catalog) and are not using a traditional publishing model. We are focusing on long-term author partnerships and the business model is based on emerging, successful companies in North America I have worked with as part of my business development practice over the past four years. We are still in proof of concept phase, but have released our first major new book: Is SHE Available? by Igor Goldkind. Igor is one of our partners and a founder. For two decades, he was the top graphic novel publicist in the UK and Europe, and is himself, a visionary creator. I can put Is SHE? into a concise context now thanks to Mal Earl, who is one of the 26 internationally-known artists whose work is featured in the book, which is far more than a single book, but rather an ongoing transmedia project. “There really is nothing quite like it out there. A synthesis of sequential storytelling, beat poetry and visual design… Words are not enough. You have to see it to believe it!”

20 percent of North American adults regularly buy and read books, yet we have nearly 100 percent literacy. It is our belief that the reason more people do not buy and read books regularly is that they are not presented work that interests them, in market channels to which they’d respond. In no other industry in which I, or any other Chameleon partner has worked, is the basic product and worker so-little valued and the work process so unexamined or taken for granted.

The system of publishing, whether traditional publishing, or self-publishing, is broken as far as meeting the needs of a population with near-100 percent literacy, in a world where more women than men have achieved college education for more than a decade (by 2020, more women than men will graduate from college in all but a handful of nations worldwide).

At this point, I believe that our next revolution isn’t the tech or maker revolution, it’s the creativity revolution. Books are the only product yet-known by which complex ideas and feelings may be communicated across time and space. Don Quixote was the first novel, and the first bestseller, in 1605. And it remains a best-seller today. We are working with authors, artists, and designers with this in mind.

“In the Time of Love” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: James Sarafin on “Trapping the Pleistocene”

– Tell us a bit about “Trapping the Pleistocene.”

It’s based on my last trip to the Pleistocene, except the otter scene; I made that up.


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

A few years ago on, some of the people posting there were talking about how interesting it would be to trap the giant furbearers of the Pleistocene. I began playing around with that concept to see if I could make a story out of it. I wasn’t aware of any other SF story focused on trapping furbearers, so I decided to try to write the first. At least I think it’s the first.


– Was “Trapping the Pleistocene” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

I grew up on the edge of farm country on the west side of Columbus, Ohio, so I thought it would be fun to set the story in that part of the country. I always loved the outdoors and spent a lot of time tramping the fields and woods behind my house. When I was in high school a friend showed me how to trap muskrats, and I was amazed that a fur buyer would actually pay you money for the pelts. I thought it beat working at McDonald’s, so I began running my own trapline for muskrats, mink, raccoon, and fox, checking my traps every morning before school. There were no beaver or otter in Ohio in those days, or at least very few. (Individual trappers and trappers’ organizations have been instrumental in restoring these and other fur-bearer populations in the Lower 48.) I should also mention that one of my brothers runs a seventy-mile wilderness trapline here in Alaska. It’s his winter job; summers he works as a fisheries biologist.


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

Beaver behavior and trapping methods I learned from, to the extent they might be applicable to a beaver the size of a bear. Also I researched astronomy (thanks to and tried to figure out where some of the nearer stars might be positioned 25,000 years ago. That latter bit was a toughie; any inaccuracies should be blamed on the vagaries of our galaxy, not on the author.


– What are you working on now?

A mainstream novel. Also have a few science fiction and fantasy short story ideas percolating in my head, where things take a while to develop.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

Trappers get kind of a bum rap in today’s world, and a lot of people don’t even realize they still exist. Trappers tend to have a keen interest and love of the outdoors, and care about the renewable resources they harvest every fall and winter. Will trapping survive the next hundred years? For this story I imagined it might survive on agrarian enclaves that preserve the rural culture.

“Trapping the Pleistocene” appears in the May/June 2015 issue of F&SF.

Interview: Paul Berger on “The Mantis Tattoo”

– Tell us a bit about “The Mantis Tattoo.”

It’s a fantasy and a trickster story, set in the very first days of the human race, when Homo sapiens is just a few scattered, struggling tribes.  The trickster god, Mantis, chooses a very reluctant young man, Nudur, as his representative and pawn, and sends him out on a quest that could save his people.


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

I think it started with the desire to write an epic-ish fantasy tale, with magic and warring gods and mortals caught between them.  I didn’t want to set it in the contemporary world, and then I tried on the idea of setting it in a medieval world but I didn’t think I’d have much that was new to say about that, so I kept pushing back it into older and older eras, until I tried fitting it into the very beginning of humanity, and that suddenly felt like a nice rich vein.

Likewise, I knew I wanted to avoid the trickster as a coyote or a spider. This world really started to come together when I chose the culture of the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari as the starting point for Nudur’s people, since it’s one of the oldest on the planet. And, they have a trickster god named Mantis. And, they hunt big game with little poisoned arrows.

I’m a tour guide in the American Museum of Natural History. The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, which discusses what the fossil record shows us about human evolution, is one of my favorite places to take visitors.  Pretty much everything in there is a writing prompt for a great story, and I felt like it’s been demanding to be used for a long while now.


– What kind of research did you do for “The Mantis Tattoo?”

The AMNH’s Hall of Human Origins was my single greatest source, and it provided the idea for the story’s main conflict.

The center of the hall is dedicated to dramatic dioramas of various hominids recreated from the fossil record, but what I think is one of the most important exhibits is off to the side and very easy to miss.

When human evolution comes up in popular culture, it tends to get abbreviated so that we imagine it as a straight linear progression towards our own familiar form – we start with something ape-like, and then we picture some developments like standing more and more upright, and getting progressively weaker and smarter and less hairy, so that every change is something that moves one step closer to ourselves, until we get to modern humans and we’ve reached the goal and we’re done.  (Or, maybe since humanity is fated to continue to get weaker and smarter, we’ll go on to become hairless stick figures with giant pulsating brains.)  But that’s not the way it happens at all.

On the wall of an alcove in the Hall of Human Origins there are seventeen or eighteen skulls representing various hominid species that lived over the last seven million years.  It’s a timeline, though it doesn’t look like one. It looks more like a twisty, confusing family tree, with many different branches and lots of dead ends.  What it shows us is that over the last seven million years or so, there have almost always been multiple hominid species living on Earth at any given time.  We know there have been long stretches where there were more than four types of hominids at a time, each evolving in different directions and developing different traits and strengths.  (This went on until surprisingly recently – for example, Homo floresiensis, which is nicknamed the Hobbit, is a distinct species that lived in Indonesia less than 18,000 years ago.)  We have evidence that in some cases they met and interacted with each other.

The primary conflict in “The Mantis Tattoo” is about an encounter between two of these species.  They have a lot of things in common; unfortunately, one of them is that neither species plays well with others, and they’re both competent enough to do something about it.

The Fathers in this story are based on Homo heidelbergensis. They are a species that originated in Africa and dispersed into several populations, some of which were much taller and broader than modern man.  It’s thought that some of them migrated out of Africa and a branch of their descendants evolved into Neanderthals.  The descendants of the ones who remained in Africa eventually evolved into Homo sapiens.


– What are you working on now?

Various short stories.  There’s enough material in the world of Mantis and Nudur that I would like to revisit it, though I expect that will turn out to be a very different type of story than this one.


– Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, sort of – I just took a snapshot of that wall in the Hall of Human Origins so you can picture what I’m talking about.  Here it is:


Hominid Family Tree at the American Museum of Natural History, Hall of Human Origins, photo by Paul M. Berger 2015


The timeline starts at the bottom of the wall, and the top represents present day. Those yellow bars represent how long the species existed. Homo sapiens, at the top right, has a yellow bar representing 170,000 years, and it’s so short it’s hidden behind the skull. (The Homo heidelbergensis skull is just to the left of it, and you can see how much more bony and robust it is – put muscles on top of that, and they must have been massive.)  Homo erectus, by comparison, has that giant yellow bar that says it was around for 1.8 million years.  So if you judge the success of a species by how long it survived…

“The Mantis Tattoo” appears in the March/April 2015 issue of F&SF.

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