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Interview: Ken Liu on “BookSavr”

Ken LiuWhat was the inspiration for “BookSavr” or what prompted you to write it?

The most direct inspiration for the story was the “Clean Reader” app that generated so much coverage a few years back. It got me thinking about the relationship between readers and texts, and our own cultural ideas about authority and the author’s control over their words.

In some sense, readers have always been free to rewrite the texts they consume. Fiction is a collaborative art between the reader and the writer, wherein texts must be first packed with the reader’s own assumptions about the world and interpretive frameworks before they can be unpacked. Strategies of resistant reading are as old as Plato, and fanfiction can be understood as one specific type of “reading” conducted through re-writing. But we seem to draw the line at explicitly altering the words on the page as a reader.

We don’t apply the same standards to all texts. Few of us have any pride of authorship over business writing or functional texts (like contracts), but fiction feels particularly personal to the author. Do these standards evolve over time? Do advancements in technology change attitudes? New genres and ways of storytelling? I wanted to explore these questions.


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

I don’t know how you can be a fiction writer and not put something of yourself in every story. I am, however, particularly resistant to having others change my words (even contracts).


Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “BookSavr?”

It’s surprising how little machine learning and AI advances have affected the literary arts. Visual artists, game designers, filmmakers, and so on have been collaborating with algorithms for decades (filters, effects, transformations, procedural generation …), but nothing comparable exists in the literary field. I looked into the potential for applying some of these techniques in fiction writing and reading (or re-writing-as-reading).


What aspect of this story was the most fun to write?

Just imagining the sorts of fun you could have as a reader if the technology were available (and the horror you would feel as an author).


In what ways do you think the publishing industry has changed over the past ten years, and how do you see your career within those changes?

I think it takes much longer than ten years to see what are short-term fluctuations and what are signs of long-term, permanent shifts. I’m generally optimistic that economic and technological changes will allow (and are allowing) readers to access a more diverse, inclusive set of voices, to find the narratives in which they feel at home. But optimism alone is not enough to guarantee results.


Why do you write?

To tell stories that I want to read and that no one else is telling.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

Everyone I’ve ever read. Everyone who’s encouraged me. Everyone who’s told me that a story of mine resonated with them. However, I think some of my biggest influences have been books I disliked intensely: because I wanted to do things differently from them.


The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken LiuWhat are you working on now?

I’m working on edits for the conclusion of my silkpunk epic fantasy series, The Dandelion Dynasty. The process is exactly what you’d expect: thinking about cover ideas, writing notes to the copyeditor, refining the text based on suggestions from beta readers and my editor, putting footnotes in the mini-wikipedia for my world, confirming character itineraries and travel times against the map, designing airships from the saga to be 3D-printed, debating with myself the rhyme schemes to be used in constructed languages, revising descriptions of silkmotic machines after engineering trials on prototypes … you know, the usual.

I’m also working on a few short-fiction commissions that I’m excited about. Years of intense focus on the epic fantasy series meant that I wrote very few short stories in the interim, and it’s been fun to rediscover the joy of the short form. I’ll have a new collection, THE HIDDEN GIRL AND OTHER STORIES, come out from Saga Press (US) and Head of Zeus (UK) in 2020, and it’s been fun to wrap up the production on that too.


Author Bio: Ken Liu ( is an author of speculative fiction. A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, he wrote The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic fantasy series (starting with The Grace of Kings) as well as The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories and The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, short story collections. He also authored the Star Wars novel, The Legends of Luke Skywalker.

Prior to becoming a full-time writer, Liu worked as a software engineer, corporate lawyer, and litigation consultant. Liu frequently speaks at conferences and universities on a variety of topics, including futurism, cryptocurrency, history of technology, bookmaking, the mathematics of origami, and other subjects of his expertise.


“BookSavr” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

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Click on Ken Liu’s photo (image by Lisa Tang Liu) to visit his website.

Interview: Maureen McHugh on “Under the Hill”

Tell us a bit about “Under the Hill.”

“Under the Hill” is a fantasy and although I’ve written some I mostly write extrapolation stuff.  Which is a fancy way of describing the particular subgenre of fantasy that we usually call science fiction.  But I love fantasy and read it.  I had been invited to a writer’s workshop run by Walter Jon Williams.  It’s up in Taos, New Mexico and we all sit around and read each other’s stories, workshop them, cook, and gossip.  Some people hike at 9,000 feet.  I admire them.  I love the workshop, do I had to come up with a story.


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

I surf tumblr and someone had posted a comic about what it would be like at college if there were elves.  You know, any bands for any functions have to be approved by the university because, well, elves and music.  I have floated around the edge of academia for forty some odd years and I loved the idea of a diverse, liberal arts institution dealing with elves.  I had been thinking about second tense (you do this and you do that) which is usually just a disguised ‘I’.  I mean people use it that way all the time.  ‘You know, when you’ve got no food in the apartment and you need to go to the grocery but you just say screw that and order pizza.’  When someone says that, they aren’t accusing the other person in the conversation of being lazy, they mean themselves.  But it changes the way everything feels.


Was “Under the Hill” personal to you in any way?  If so, how?

Everything is this story is autobiographical except that none of it really happened except the roast beef sandwiches and the gallery show.  I never went to a small private college, I never had a roommate who played lacrosse, and my university didn’t have a elves living under a hill.  I thought the story would be kind of dryly funny.  I don’t do comedy.  I would love to, but comedy is very hard to write.  It’s not just funny lines, it’s a way of structuring and thinking that I’m just not good at.  So it started full of dry observations about the absolutely absurdity of college and then got angsty.  Luckily, the whole elf thing gives me plausible deniability.  I don’t have to admit what’s biographical because, elves!


What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story, and what was the most fun?

I’m not an idea person.  I struggle to come up with ideas and plots.  I wrote this story by kind of flailing around in the idea until I got some traction.  Of course, when I go into writing with no real plan then it’s way too easy to fall back on the students I’ve taught and my own college experiences.  I get really interested in a writing technique and then it’s like a 13-year-old who has figured out sarcasm.  I just use that technique over and over and over.  I mean it’s like all I have is one tool, a hammer, and I treat whole effing word like a nail.  It used to be point of view.  Lately, it’s dramatic tension.  I’m looking at Thomas the Rhymer and it’s about kidnapping.  In retrospect, it would be interesting to think of it in terms of colonization; the elves are using humans as a resource.  They’re powerful and magical.  Colonial powers are powerful and technological in a similar way.  But I wasn’t really thinking (I don’t usually think that way when I write.)  I thought about disappearing/kidnapping and decided that would underlie the story.  That would give it forward momentum.

I live in LA and have worked on the fringes of Hollywood for awhile now and I found myself thinking about the pleasures of procedurals.  Procedurals, if you don’t know, are what Hollywood calls hour long dramas like House or Mind Hunters.  I know at the beginning of the episode or the season that the protagonist is going to cure the sick person or catch the serial killer.  I don’t watch wondering what will happen, but how.  So at the beginning of my story I establish that people have disappeared and that the elves are dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.  At least one editor found it too predictable but the majority of readers have found it effective.  A lot of readers have told me how it felt like their own journey, including a guy who was an athlete who realized in college that he was not going to be professional and that he had to rethink his life.  I hope there are readers for whom this coming of age story is in some metaphorical way enough like their own growing up to resonate.


What are you working on now?

I’m at work on a novel called Hinge, an AU set in 13th Century England.  Well, Wessex, because England didn’t exist in the 13th century.  It’s a pain.  I have access to scholarly journals through my university and it’s so much more fun to plug chunks of some article on medieval veterinary practice into google translate to come to dubious conclusions than it is to actually write.  Next book, I’m making everything up.


“Under the Hill” appears in the 70th Anniversary Issue of F&SF.

You can buy a paper copy of the issue here:

You can buy an electronic copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

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Editor’s Note for the 70th Anniversary Issue

I was reading stories from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction long before I know The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction existed.

Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October, cover by David A. Hardy
There were no other science fiction readers in my family growing up. No parent or aunt or uncle to pass me secondhand copies of pulp magazines or leave them lying around for me to find. Instead, I was introduced to genre fiction in our rural town’s public school, where we read and talked about “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury, “The Fun They Had” by Isaac Asimov, and “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The school library shelves seemed to have an endless supply of copies of A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Flowers for Algeron by Daniel Keyes, and collections of The People stories by Zenna Henderson.

All of these — along with so many other authors, stories, and novels, some with much more adult themes, that I would discover later on my own — originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Even though they were genre fiction, something popular, intended to appeal to students who might be reluctant to crack the spine of any book, much less something “serious,” they also had a literary respectability about them. These were entertaining, fun stories to read, that simultaneously encouraged, even demanded, thought and discussion. So, by the time I was 12, my reading tastes and preferences were already being shaped by the very short list of editors who had helmed a magazine that I would not encounter for another decade.

And now, after a long, anfractuous, journey, I’m part of that very short list.

For the past five years, one of my guiding principles as the editor of F&SF has been to find work that still accomplishes those two goals. I scour the submission queue for stories that are fun to read — entertaining, compelling, and well-crafted — with a narrative that pulls you from paragraph to paragraph, page to page, from the first sentence to the final line. At the same time, I’m also hunting for stories that have at least one additional layer to them beyond the surface, something that makes you think, even if it makes you think by making you laugh, that makes you want to discuss the story, to consider the way it reflects our lives and the world we live in. I believe that it’s this particular combination of qualities that has made the stories in F&SF continually feel fresh and relevant in every decade of its existence.

We have a wonderful collection of those kinds of stories for you in this issue as we celebrate the magazine’s seventy years of publication. In typical F&SF fashion, they span the genre from literary fantasy to wuxia adventure, from the near future on Earth to the far future in outer space, from ridiculous satire to thoughtful speculation, from one of the genre’s Grand Masters and some of its most awarded figures to up-and-coming authors, from the debut story of a brand new writer to the final tale from one of science fiction’s greatest writer/editors.

Once you add in a couple poems, a special essay from Robert Silverberg, our usual columns and features, and some cartoons, you have an issue that is both like every other issue of F&SF and also something special.

We hope you enjoy this one, even more than usual.

C.C. Finlay, Editor
Fantasy & Science Fiction | @fandsf

If you’re looking for a copy of this issue, you can find F&SF in most Barnes & Noble stores, as well as many local independent booksellers. You can also order a single copy from our website or buy an electronic edition from Amazon, AmazonUK, and — now, available worldwide and in every electronic format — through Weightless Books.

September/October 2019
70th Anniversary Issue


“The White Cat’s Divorce” by Kelly Link
“American Gold Mine” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Kabul” by Michael Moorcock
“Erase, Erase, Erase” by Elizabeth Bear


“Little Inn on the Jianghu” by Y.M. Pang
“Under the Hill” by Maureen McHugh
“Madness Afoot” by Amanda Hollander
“The Light on Eldoreth” by Nick Wolven
“Booksavr” by Ken Liu
“The Wrong Badger” by Esther Friesner
“Ghost Ships” by Michael Swanwick
“Homecoming” by Gardner Dozois


“Last Human in the Olympics” by Mary Soon Lee
“Halstead IV” by Jeff Crandall


Three Score and Ten by Robert Silverberg
Books to Look For by Charles de Lint

  • This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone
  • Radicalized by Cory Doctorow
  • Becoming Superman: My Journey from Poverty to Hollywood by J. Michael Straczynski
  • The Golden Age of Science Fiction by John Wade
  • Dracopedia Field Guide by William O’Connor
  • Best Game Ever by R. R. Angell

Books by James Sallis

  • The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Films: Love Death + Some Regression by Karin Lowachee
Science: Net Up or Net Down? by Jerry Oltion
Plumage from Pegasus: A Giraffe Yoked to an Ox: A Review of Flora Columbia: Goddess of a New Age by Paul Di Filippo
Curiosities: Science Fiction: Complete with Everything: Aliens, Giant Ants, Space Cadets, Robots, and One Plucky Girl by No-Frills Entertainment (1981) by Thomas Kaufsek

Cartoons by Mark Heath, Danny Shanahan

David A. Hardy‘s cover art shows Saturn as seen from one of its moons.


We hope you’ll share your thoughts about the issue with us. We can be found on:

Interview: Andrej Kokoulin, and story translator Alex Shvartsman, on “The Slave”

Questions for the author, Andrej Kokoulin (translated by Alex Shvartsman):

Andrej KokoulinWhat was the inspiration for “The Slave,” or what prompted you to write it?

There are several Russian-language platforms online that host science fiction writing contests open to all. I won some and lost some of those. This time around, the declared theme was “Opponents.” I didn’t want to explore some cliched theme of opposition, based in antipathy, competition, revenge, or circumstance. Instead, I came up with the move where the opposition between master and slave came to be almost by accident. It was the protagonist’s transformation that seemed important to me.


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

No, this tale is rather far removed from my personal experience. However, I find the possibility of manipulation, whether of one individual or of the masses, interesting.


What was the most difficult aspect of “The Slave” to write, and what was the most fun?

The most difficult part was the ending. In my opinion, it couldn’t be overly tragic, but also couldn’t feel out of place within the internal logic of the story. The protagonist had to be faced with a difficult choice, in the end. The most fun part was the discussion on the forum following the contest where the subject of whether the story contains a speculative element was passionately argued. Some folks didn’t find anything unusual in the method of enslaving someone by merely placing some spittle onto their forehead. Perhaps they’re used to such a thing happening all around them?


Why do you write?

It seems as though I have something to say. I want to share whatever-it-is collect in my head with others. Occasionally there are worthwhile things in there, among the debris.


Questions for Shvartsman as translator:

Alex ShvartsmanTell us a bit about “The Slave.”

This is a memorable story that exists somewhere on the intersection of psychological horror and magical realism. I thought it was rather unique and would work well for English speaking audiences as well as the original Russian audience, and was thrilled that Charlie and the rest of the F&SF team ultimately agreed.


Can you tell us about the FantLab contest and how this story won it?

FantLab is among the largest (if not the largest) Russian SF/F fandom websites. It contains Wiki-style information about authors, translators, and works of fiction, as well as a very active forum. One of the many things they do is host themed science fiction contests where a number of editors, critics, and prominent writers judge the final selections. I was asked to provide the theme and was one of the judges in late 2017, and when “The Slave” came across my desk it was a clear winner in my eyes. Even though the speculative element in the story is a bit subdued, it was the most compelling of the bunch — and other judges, ranking the stories independently, agreed.


What can you tell us about the author, Andrej Kokoulin?

Andrej is the author of the novel The Northern Lot and has had short stories published in some of the most prestigious Russian magazines, such as Esli and Mir Fantastiki. This is his first English language publication but I hope that more of his work will eventually be available to the anglophone readers.


What can you tell us about the state of the Russian sf scene, and if it is any different from American sf?

SF/F (or fantastika as it’s called in Russian) fandom is vibrant in Russia and former Soviet republics. Much of the popular genre fiction published there is reminiscent of the golden age American and British SF — many staple books from that era have been translated and some authors like Robert Sheckley or Clifford Simak, for example, are better-known to Russian SF fans than they are to their American counterparts at this point. However, the younger generation of authors are exploring themes and styles of writing that diverge from the classics, often resulting in fascinating and somewhat experimental pieces. Although short fiction scene is not as well-supported with a variety of pro venues (at any given time there are only a couple serious paying ‘zines in Russian) this doesn’t stop talented authors from writing at this length and sharing their stories online, often via a series of contests similar to the one Andrej has won.


How often do you translate Russian sf into English, and how does translation work influence your own work as an author?

Every once in a while I read a story I find fascinating, and when that happens I consider whether this story would work in translation. If so, I reach out to the author and ask if I may translate that piece. To date, nearly a dozen such translations have been published in various pro zines and anthologies. Literary translation involves a combination of writing and editorial skills, and it most certainly helps me keep those writing muscles exercised regularly, but also it’s a great way to share stories with fellow anglophone fans who wouldn’t have been able to enjoy them otherwise. I especially seek out stories that are a little different, that probably wouldn’t have or maybe even couldn’t have been written in English.


Eridani's CrownWhat are you working on now?

My primary focus at the moment is the launch of my debut novel, Eridani’s Crown. This epic fantasy standalone novel launches on October 22, 2019 and is already available for preorder (hint, hint!) I’m also working on more translations whenever I can; in addition to F&SF, I’ve had translations published in Samovar, Amazing Stories, and Future SF this summer.


“The Slave” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):

Andrej Kokoulin’s FantLab page: 

Alex Shvartsman’s website:

Interview: Alex Irvine on “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller”

Tell us a bit about “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller.”

Giant robots of unknown origin have devastated cities all over the world, killing people by the millions and hunting them through the rubble. From that cheery premise, we follow a group of survivors as they scavenge in the ruins and tell each other stories about the mythical Wolfgang Robotkiller, who supposedly roams the US destroying robots. He gives the survivors hope…but is he real?


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

I was working from the cover art, which I’ve done a few times before for F&SF (“Shambhala” and “Number Nine Moon”). It’s always fun to have a visual prompt like that, and in this case, I mean, who can’t get creative with an image of rampaging giant robots?

The story really coalesced around Wolfgang Robotkiller’s name, which has its own history. My friend (and excellent illustrator) Thom Davidsohn coined it as an in-utero nickname for my third child, and when it popped into my head while I was looking at the cover art one day, the whole story fell right into place.


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

Other than Wolfgang’s name, what’s personal about the story to me is the questions it raises about why we need to believe things that aren’t true. Choosing belief in a myth or legend is comforting. It gives us hope. Sometimes it takes a dark turn into fanaticism. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I also know I believe some things that may not be true because they make me feel better. Is it always better to know the truth? The near-universal love of tall tales would suggest otherwise.


What aspect of “The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller” was the most fun to write?

Inventing stories of Wolfgang’s exploits for the characters to tell each other. Those were a fun and hopeful contrast to the brutal reality the characters in the story are forced to live. We all need to indulge flights of fancy once in a while, and that’s what the main character in the story decides to protect at the end.


What are you working on now?

Still writing various games, including Marvel Battle Lines and The Walking Dead: Road to Survival. I’ve got novellas coming out next year in F&SF and from Working on a new novel, several stories, a few developing TV and film projects, getting my two oldest kids off to college…I’m staying busy.


“The Legend of Wolfgang Robotkiller” appears in the July/August 2019 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here:

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here:

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle):

Amazon US (Kindle edition):

Amazon UK (Kindle edition):

Visit Alex Irvine’s website:

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