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Interview: Brian Trent on “The Monsters of Olympus Mons”

Author photo of Brian TrentF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

BT: Three robots fashioned to resemble Martian cryptozoological legends get embroiled in a quest to remove a fascist flag from the cone summit of the largest volcano in the solar system. The story examines questions of consciousness, propaganda, and what a “monster” really is.

F&SF: What inspired or prompted you to write “The Monsters of Olympus Mons”?

BT: Some years back on a trip to Japan, I made a nighttime ascent of Mount Fuji. Once you’re above the tree-line, it’s a completely lifeless terrain of volcanic rock and scree. At certain points, you literally walk through clouds. I was several thousand feet up, stopping for a sip from my canteen, when I was struck with something like an enchantment: the barren volcanic slope illuminated by a pale moon, a lake of silver mist directly below me, and the sight of distant flashlights (from other hikers) slowly zig-zagging up the trail. In that moment, it was easy to imagine I was on another world; I immediately thought of Olympus Mons—itself a volcano—and how one day human colonists will attempt to scale it.

Flash forward to 2015. A conspiracy theory blows through the Internet (because that’s apparently what the Internet exists for) surrounding NASA photos of Mars. The Curiosity rover captured images of what could vaguely resemble a lizard… if you squint really hard and let imagination hijack your eyes. It’s not the first time Martian rocks have caused controversy—from the “face” at Cydonia to the Martian meteorites believed by some to contain fossilized bacteria. But I found the “lizard-or-pareidolia” debate particularly intriguing because it suggested the inception of a new folklore. I mean, here on Earth there are stories of trolls and dragons, which in the modern world became stories of Bigfoot and Ogopogo and the like. We have yet to set a human on the Red Planet, and that tradition is already continuing!

These inspirations fueled “The Monsters of Olympus Mons.” I created a folklore for the colonists of the story, including a Martian lizard-like creature and two other entities. Together, they took control of the story, and steered it into unusual places.

F&SF: How is this story personal for you?

“The Monsters of Olympus Mons” is some of the most fun I’ve had writing a story. It naturally unfurled into a large canvas that let me do a lot: it has a big cast (three main characters who are arguably six main characters, along with a villain) and so required a delicate balancing of narrative threads. It also demanded a careful approach to character development, as is the case with ensemble pieces: you want the reader to identify who is who, not only by descriptors but by language patterns. An additional challenge had to do with the villain, Commander Kleve. He’s a vicious individual and unquestionably the antagonist, but I needed to provide him the depth that all characters deserve.

The most enjoyable part of writing “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” was that I got to tackle a variety of topics: cryptozoology, artificial intelligence, propaganda, war, identity, and the future of myth.

And here’s a confession: when I was about ten-years-old, I wanted to be a cryptozoologist. Seriously. I read every book, article, and eyewitness report like a young Fox Mulder in training. This was before I discovered scientific rationalism, but the result was that I became intimately familiar with the subject, so I peppered “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” with lots of Easter Eggs that anyone with even a passing interest in cryptozoology will pick up on.

F&SF: You’ve published a lot of stories in F&SF (“Death on the Nefertem Express,” “Crash Site,” “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone,” “Last of the Sharkspeakers,” maybe even “The Memorybox Vultures”) that all seem to be part of the same richly imagined future? Can you give us a brief overview of that future and describe where “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” fits in?

BT: Those stories are part of my “War Hero” universe, which chronicle humanity’s gradual ascent to the stars. Even “The Memorybox Vultures”—which is set about twenty years from now—introduces technologies which grow and develop in later tales.

I liked the idea of writing individual stories that highlight different points of a future history. Robert E. Howard did this in a fantasy vein for his Conan stories—each story examines a different time in Conan’s life, so you see him as a hot-headed youth and then as an older, world-weary king, and plenty of times in between.

My “War Hero” universe takes a similar approach. The stories are written to stand entirely on their own—you can read “Death on the Nefertem Express” and enjoy it as a playful mystery. But the main character of “Death on the Nefertem Express” (Jolene Fort) is referenced in other stories, and some of her exploits appear as headlines in the newsfeeds we glimpse. For example, the events of “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone” are directly continued in “Crash-Site” and involve many of the same characters. At the end of “Crash-Site,” there’s a passing reference to a “high profile heist of an orbital vault”—it’s just a tiny detail, but the story of that heist is told in “Breaking News Involving Space Pirates,” which features Jolene Fort, and is referenced again in “Death on the Nefertem Express” when a character accuses Fort of “breaking into Bradley Winterfig’s vault.”

Again, a casual reader doesn’t have to be concerned with all that. But the connections are there, and they form a consistent chronology.

In that larger meta-narrative, “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” is a pivotal story. It is set near the end of the Partisan War, which is the very war being fought in “A Thousand Deaths Through Flesh and Stone.”

F&SF: How do you keep track of all the stories in this universe when you’re writing?

BT: In developing the chronology, I outlined some major events. Some of these I’ve already tackled, and some I will get to eventually. But often a story I didn’t plan will grow naturally from this tree. For example, in one story a character mentions that she used to work on Venus but “had to leave.” At the time, I had no idea why she had to leave; it was just a bit of implied backstory. It was only months later when I started wondering, “Why did she have to leave Venus? What the hell was she doing there?” that I came up with the story of what happened on Venus at that time, to that character.

In another instance, a story’s character rattles off a few of the alien races that are known to exist, including “the Cloud Kings on Tempest.” They’re just a name on the list, but their story is told in “Karma Among the Cloud Kings.”

My novel Ten Thousand Thunders and its pending sequel are the central narratives of this universe. Many of the other stories occur before, during, or after. In certain cases, like with “Last of the Sharkspeakers,” it’s set much later.

F&SF: What are you working on now?

BT: I’ve started an entirely new series of fantasy stories, set in an alternate history. I don’t like to get bogged down in one subject or style, and like to mix things up. Since I’ve been spending so much time in a fictional future, I thought it would be fun to write in a fictional past.

And speaking of alternate history, I have a speculative Cold War thriller entitled “Shadow Rook Red” which will be featured in the Weird World War III anthology from Baen Books this October.

You can find Brian Trent’s blog at briantrent.com

“The Monsters of Olympus Mons” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Stephanie Feldman on “The Staircase”

    Stephanie FeldmanF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    SF: A group of teenage best friends visits a staircase that’s rumored to lead to another dimension. When one of the girls walks down—and climbs back up again—their relationships will never be the same. “The Staircase” is about contemporary legends, gossip, paranoia, and friendship.

    F&SF: What made you decide to write this story right now?

    SF: I started this story some time ago. I’m not sure why this idea felt so urgent, but thinking about it now, in the summer of 2020, I’m drawn to its investigation of our most intimate bonds. These friends have thrived on a feeling of “us against the world.” (Today, they would probably be lobbying their parents to be a quarantine pod.) That kind of loyalty is appealing, but it’s also demanding and high-pressure. What happens when it explodes?

    F&SF: Both of your stories for F&SF so far — “The Barrens” and “The Staircase” — feature characters who are young adults, but the stories don’t quite feel like YA stories. It seems to us that part of the tension in both stories comes from the gap that exists between our knowledge as older adults and our memories of what it was like to be that particular age. Are we completely off base?

    SF: I agree. I don’t think of either of these stories as YA. (Though, to be fair, I tend not to think about any labels or genres when I’m writing.) I like writing about young people, but I’m not so interested (at least, right now) in writing for young people. My first audience is myself. So while both stories aim to capture something genuine about that age, they also include insights I’ve gained in my adult life.

    F&SF: What’s the appeal to you of writing characters who are this age?

    SF: I’m obsessed with storytelling and teenagers are such great folklorists! Rumors, urban legends, sub-cultures… “The Staircase” is also about friendship and identity, in-groups and out-groups, and teenagers feel like natural protagonists for exploring those issues.

    Maybe it also just rings true to send a teenager out on an adventure like this. I don’t think I’d be any less excited to discover a mysterious staircase at this stage in my life, but I probably wouldn’t have the time or inclination to explore it, let alone an equally excited friend to accompany me.

    F&SF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process?

    SF: I always start with freewriting and brainstorming. I try to sketch out a central conflict, one that works on both a plot and emotional level. What is this character trying to do and why? What matters to them? How do they need to grow or heal?

    Next, I write a super messy draft from beginning to end. I have to think about a story holistically. Then I go back and start revising. And, of course, I can’t get anywhere without feedback from writer friends and critique partners.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    SF: It’s been hard to find time to write during the pandemic, but I’m slowly adding words to a ghost story novella. It’s another piece that draws on folklore and my local environment—well, the Poconcos, so kind of local—but it’s also a love story, which I don’t write too many of. Usually, my characters are behaving badly toward each other, so I’m enjoying some good, old-fashioned true love and compassion.

    I’m also preparing to teach two online writing classes this fall, one for Blue Stoop on the foundations of fiction and another for Catapult on developing the novel. Both classes are open to both beginning and experienced writers. I’ll be sharing more on my website (see below).

    You can find Stephanie Feldman at…

    Website: stephaniefeldman.com/
    Twitter: @sbfeldman

    “The Staircase” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Bennett North on “A Bridge from Sea to Sky”

    Author photo of Bennett NorthF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    BN: Other than as “my space elevator story,” I tend to describe it as a story about a woman trying to prove, both to other people and to herself, that she has earned the right to belong somewhere.

    F&SF: We live in a country with a lot of neglected infrastructure, and here we have a story about the future where, instead of shiny new engineering triumphs, we have neglected infrastructure. Is that one of the things that inspired you to write this story right now?

    BN: The last ten years have been full of exciting things happening in space—the Curiosity rover, the InSight lander, and SpaceX, to name just three. That’s the environment that inspired this story—the feeling of community that comes from being able to observe these things happening in real time. Astronauts posting their shots from the ISS on Instagram. Live-streamed space walks. Seeing pictures of Pluto for the first time.

    Yet at the same time, the idea of the world coming together to fund the construction of a space elevator today seems far-fetched, especially when we look at the massive amounts of deferred maintenance we have on infrastructure that’s a lot closer to home. We’re not in the place we were when the ISS was constructed in the late ’90s and early ’00s. This is the world that I was exploring with “A Bridge from Sea to Sky”—one that had, at one point, made huge advances into space, but was now finding itself with shifting priorities.

    F&SF: How is this story personal for you?

    BN: As someone who works in the humanities, I’ve seen my fair share of promising projects losing funding due to budget cuts, so that was certainly part of it. But beyond that, I feel that science and the pursuit of knowledge is extremely important for the human race. It’s essential that, as a species, we look beyond the short-term considerations of profit and politics in order to ensure that we develop, advance, and, frankly, exist in the long-term.

    F&SF: What were the challenges of writing this story?

    BN: It took a bunch of research! I based the majority of my story on a report by NASA published in 2000 titled “Space Elevators: An Advanced Earth-Space Infrastructure for the New Millennium,” but I also read a lot about space elevator concepts through the decades—notably by Yuri Artsutanov, who proposed the idea of getting into space via an “electric locomotive” in 1959, and Arthur C. Clarke, who addressed the XXXth International Astronautical Congress about the topic in 1979 and endorsed the idea of calling it a “space elevator.”

    F&SF: Your first story for us, several years ago, was a beautiful and heart-wrenching piece of fantasy called “Smooth Stones and Empty Bones.” It’s completely different from this story in so many ways. Can you talk a bit about your writing process, and whether it varies depending on what you’re writing?

    BN: The main difference in writing the two stories was that the first draft of “Smooth Stones” was written in one sitting with no outline, while “Bridge” took a lot longer and had a lot more planning. These stories represent two extremes of my writing method—most of the time, I have a general idea of where the story starts, and very little idea of where it ends, and I feel my way from there.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    BN: I just recently finished writing a sci-fi novel about space bounty hunters that I’m really excited about. I also co-edit the biannual speculative fiction magazine Translunar Travelers Lounge. Our third issue just came out on August 15.

    You can find Bennett North at…

    Website: bennettnorth.com/
    Twitter: @BennettNorth
    Translunar Travelers Lounge: translunartravelerslounge.com/

    “A Bridge from Sea to Sky” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Ana Hurtado on “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo”

    Ana HurtadoF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    AH: It’s a short story about redemption, about an unlikely hero, and about how pagan it seems that some Catholics pray to the souls of purgatory. Yesenia, the main character, has failed at her job and at her marriage. She is forced to move back home with her parents. Yesenia fails to move forward with her adult and is now doing what she used to do as a teenager—all of the chores. In the end, she ends up saving her grandmother’s life; the souls Abuela Juana prayed to have come back for her, and Yesenia fights them off.

    F&SF: What inspired this story?

    AH: According to my aunt who still resides back in Venezuela, my great-grandmother Juana used to pray to the souls stuck in purgatory. I liked imagining these souls manifesting in real life as zombies. The Caribbean is extremely magical, from its environment to its deep colonial history. There’s an unacknowledged wicked side to Catholicism that is brought out with magical realism, and I loved highlighting this in my story. The souls Abuela Juana constantly prayed to are now preying on her; they are monsters who have come back to haunt her. I often think of this religion as monstrous, the way that it was used as a veil for imperialism in Latin America.

    F&SF: How is this story personal for you?

    AH: The characters of these stories are named after my family back in Venezuela: Matilde after my maternal grandmother, Joaquin after my maternal grandfather from Portugal, and Juana, my maternal great-grandmother. The main character is named Yesenia, after my neighbor in Maracaibo, Venezuela. We are the same age and used to hang out a lot during summers.

    It’s a personal story, too, because it’s my way of honoring those little stories that get told while we’re having lunch, or prepping lunch, or washing dishes after lunch—we’re definitely a food-centered culture—and that can be easily glanced over. But the second I heard that my great-grandmother prayed to the dead, I knew there was a story to tell. Like, how creepy and wonderful is that?!

    F&SF: We’ve heard that you’ve recently finished a novel based on this story. How did that come about and what does it expand on?

    AH: Yes — I have finished now the second draft of my young adult magical realism novel! I’m looking forward to wrapping up the third, and hopefully final draft, and sending it out on queries soon. After finishing this short story, I knew there was so much more I could do with the elements of the Caribbean and the purgatory souls turned zombies. I also wanted to write a book that my little sister, Francis, could’ve enjoyed back when she was in high school.

    My novel tells the story of Yesenia (I love that name), a teenage immigrant from Venezuela who now resides in Ecuador, and her first love: a girl named Maria Jose, a ghost who has been roaming around Quito since 1662. The novel interweaves the history of an oppressive hacienda in Ecuador and Caribbean tales of magic to tell the story of a young and impossible first love set in 2007 Quito, Ecuador.

    F&SF: Does your writing process vary between short stories and novels?

    AH: My MFA thesis was a collection of short stories that explore the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial history of Ecuador, so I’ve always thought of short stories as a way to encapsulate multiple narratives. It just never occurred to me that I could make the big leap from short story writer to novelist. To be honest, I was petrified. How do people do this.

    F&SF: What are you working on right now?

    AH: Revising, revising, revising. This is such a colossal project to take on. And the craziest thing is I’m drawing out plans for a retelling of a Greek myth that has been on my mind over the course of the summer; I’m thinking it could be a young adult fantasy novel as well.

    You can find Ana Hurtado at these places…

    Website: https://anahurtadoro.wixsite.com/anahurtado
    Twitter: @ponciovicario

    “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: James Morrow on “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone”

    Author photo of James MorrowF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

    JM: Samson and Delilah, Cecil B. DeMille’s loopy and somewhat disingenuous 1949 movie adaptation of the famous Bible story, will always enjoy a warm spot in my heart and a soft spot in my head. With “The Jawbone” I tried to give readers something like the opposite of a guilty pleasure—call it a rollicking discomfort. It’s all about the depressing historical continuity between Samson’s consecrated jawbone and Wayne LaPierre’s sanctified assault rifles.

    F&SF: You wrote several Bible Stories for Adults back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. What made you decide to return to the series now, more than twenty-five years later?

    JM: During the interval since I published my last adult Bible story, “The Soap Opera” of 1992 (the subject was Job’s ordeal), the world’s power elites exploited the planet’s sacred texts as never before. Their slogan seems to be “better living through theocracy.”

    I’m thinking of the ascent of Islamic fundamentalism, Vladimir Putin’s exploitation of the Orthodox Church’s proclivity for bigotry, and, of course, the enthusiasm of American evangelicals for the Republican Party’s bottomless malice. So I decided to reboot my Bible stories project. It can’t be said too often: our holy books are wholly human, and it’s utter folly to privilege them in our efforts to forge a more just society. You can’t argue with revelation, of course, but I’m going to try anyway

    Also, there were certain Bible stories that I couldn’t get an angle on 28 years ago, but now I think I have.

    F&SF: Calling these “Bible Stories for Adults” is deliberately provocative. What kind of reaction are you trying to provoke in readers?

    JM: There must be a thousand books out there that employ bowdlerization and mendacity in the name of making Bible stories accessible to children. The joke is that, when it comes to issues of morality, decency, and knowledge, many of these narratives are already about as childish as you can imagine.

    It’s worth remembering, for example, that the run-up to the Good Samaritan (which certainly has a noble sentiment at its core) finds Jesus pronouncing a fiery and murderous curse on the supposedly irredeemable towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum. While the Gospels have much to offer, I would argue that the personality of their protagonist seems pretty unstable.

    It occurs to me that all of my adult Bible stories turn on a challenge to myself. Show me a narrative from Scripture, and I’ll retell it in a way that either foregrounds its puerility or maps it onto some contemporary fashion in cruelty.

    F&SF: What were the challenges of writing “The Jawbone”?

    JM: The same challenges that confront me whenever I start grinding my ax on the theme of reason versus revelation. How do I stay ahead of an audience that already more-or-less agrees with me? How can I get this thought experiment to yield genuine surprises, as opposed to the superficial satisfactions of watching straw men disintegrate? How do I keep the reader from saying, “Hey, Jim, maybe it’s time to leave God alone”?

    When I sat down to write “The Jawbone,” all I had in mind was deconstructing the Samson story, drawing largely on the nonfictional comeuppance he receives in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality. I assumed I would simply foreground the atrocities and absurdities in which Samson indulges.

    But then I realized the hero’s cudgel could be used to satirize America’s gun fetish, and I was home free. The challenge was to keep the thing from becoming on the nose, as they say in Hollywood. Whenever I hit on a conceit like “the National Retailers of Assbones,” I made a point of throwing the gag away and not repeating it.

    F&SF: Can you talk a bit about your writing process in general?

    JM: For all the unsavory dimensions of Western civilization, I’m always prepared to celebrate the 18th-century Enlightenment’s insistence on unfettered, open-ended discussion when it comes to religious, political, and scientific matters. As a philosopher remarks in my as-yet-unpublished novel, Lazarus is Waiting, “I never met an idea I didn’t like.” She hastens to add that she’s met many ideas she detested—but each nevertheless helped her to hone her intellect.

    I feel privileged that the gods have let me work within the medium of science fiction, the literature of ideas. I love taking grand philosophical and scientific speculations and reimagining them as fictive thought experiments.

    F&SF: What are you working on now?

    JM: A new Bible story, of course!

    I’ve always been bothered by the incoherence of the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. Yahweh in his generosity has promised Abraham that the presence of only ten righteous people in Sodom would deter him from exterminating the entire population. But we never see the deity or the patriarch actually performing the calculation.

    Instead, the rest of the negotiations happen offstage, if they happen at all, and a great opportunity for suspense is wasted. My version, I hope, will give the situation its due. My working title is “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 24: the Twin Cities.”

    You can find James Morrow at these places…

    Website: http://www.jamesmorrow.info/
    Twitter: @jimmorrow11

    “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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