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Interview: Rati Mehrotra on “Knock Knock, Said the Ship”

Author photo of Rati MehrotraF&SF: How do you describe this story to people?

RM: I say it’s a story about how a super cool ship AI and a refugee save their captain and crew from murderous space pirates. If that’s not enough to hook them, I add that there are multiple knock knock jokes, all told by the ship.

F&SF: What made you decide to write “Knock Knock, Said the Ship”?

RM: It’s the child of a story I wrote a few years earlier. That one didn’t quite work, but it gave me the bones to build this one. I had the world and the characters in my mind for a long time. The basic plot developed from Deenu’s refugee background. But mainly, I wrote this story because I couldn’t resist the ship AI’s attempts at humor. Those jokes just demanded to be written. And the ship is someone I would personally love to meet.

F&SF: How was this story personal to you?

RM: Kaalratri, the name of the ship, is one of the nine forms of the Goddess Durga. The name literally means ‘darkest night’. She is regarded as a fierce form of the mother goddess, who chases away evil and destroys fear and ignorance in her devotees. I grew up hearing stories of the mother goddess, and it is this reference which makes the story most personal to me. I like to think of the ship as a protective and powerful, if not wholly understandable, mother figure – much like the goddess herself.

F&SF: Deenu and the ship have a great relationship and it must have been a lot of fun to write their dialogue. But what were the challenges of writing this story?

RM: Yes, I think I’ve had more fun writing this story than any other. My main challenge was giving a satisfying resolution to the plot. I had this great set-up, but it took a while to figure out how I could wrap it up in a way that felt deserved and natural.

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

RM: It varies. I am capable of writing five thousand words in a day when inspiration strikes – or when I have a deadline, which is its own kind of inspiration. I can also go weeks without writing a single word. I don’t like to plan ahead too much. I am definitely a pantser, not a plotter. This means that I often have to go back and revise or delete what I’ve written earlier. It’s not a very efficient way of writing, but it’s the only one that works for me. Once I have a complete draft, I’ll set it aside for a few days, re-read and revise, then request beta reads. Once I have feedback, I’ll revise it again. Only then will I submit the story to a market.

F&SF: What are you working on now?

RM: I’ve just finished the draft of a YA fantasy novel based in medieval India that I’m very excited about. It’s full of monsters and mayhem! Fingers crossed I get to share it with the world one day.

You can find Rati Mehrotra at:

Twitter: @Rati_Mehrotra

“Knock Knock, Said the Ship” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: John Kessel on “Spirit Level”

    John KesselF&SF: How do you describe “Spirit Level” to people?

    JK: A ghost story where the ghosts are not necessarily the spirits of the dead. It’s meant to work within and against the tropes of classic ghost stories. Another way to think of it is as a story about trying to find a way to live beyond the regrets that haunt anyone who lasts into middle age.

    F&SF: What inspired this story?. How is “Spirit Level” personal for you?

    JK: In some ways it’s one of the most personal stories I’ve ever written. I have certain points of biographical contact with Michael, and have felt some of the things he has felt, though Michael is not me and his situation is not mine.

    I started it nine or ten years ago, wrote a lot of words, then put it aside for many years. I had the character’s situation, but did not really know what the consequences after his initial ghostly encounter might be. In a way I wrote it as a warning to and critique of my younger self.

    F&SF: We don’t want to spoil any aspects of the plot, but this takes several unexpected turns for a type of ghost story. What were the challenges of writing this particular story?

    JK: I thought about the kinds of things one usually finds in ghost stories and then about what I might do a little differently. I can’t claim to any grand innovations, but it was fun to try my hand at a kind of story that I had never written. I wanted it to have some of the eeriness of classic ghost stories like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” or “The Jolly Corner,” and like James use the ghosts to explore the character’s psychology.

    F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the years?

    JK: I don’t plan everything out quite as much as I used to before I start. This means I sometimes wander off into blind alleys and don’t always know what the story is about until I am well into it. It’s not as efficient a way to write, but the results are interesting to me; I eventually figure out all that I need and then can pull the pieces together. The shape of the story emerges more organically than it used to. This involves a lot more rewriting, but I enjoy rewriting until I get a story right.

    Lately I have been returning to stories I started in the past but could not finish—something I almost never did earlier in my career—and have discovered that I see them better now. It goes a lot slower, but I’m okay with that.

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

    JK: I’m writing a novella, a prequel of sorts to the novella you have already from me, “The Dark Ride.” “The Dark Ride” takes place at a world’s fair, the Pan-American Exposition, that took place in Buffalo, NY in 1901. In that story one plot thread deals with a “Trip to the Moon” fair ride that was inspired by H.G. Wells’s novel “First Men in the Moon.”

    This new story takes place a year earlier, in England, during the period when Wells wrote “First Men in the Moon.” It involves other writers such as Stephen Crane and Henry James, with whom Wells was friends, and with Wells switching from writing scientific romances to becoming a public advocate for socialism and what some have called the first futurist.

    I hope to write a third novella, set a year after “The Dark Ride,” in 1902, about the French film pioneer Georges Méliès creating his famous movie, “A Trip to the Moon,” which draws elements from both Wells’s novel and from the Pan-Am Expo fair ride.

    I hope this tryptich of novellas will eventually make a book.

    You can find John Kessel at these places:

    Simon & Schuster:
    John Kessel’s website:
    His Facebook page:

    “Spirit Level” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Interview: Madeleine E. Robins on “‘Omunculus”

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

    MER: A Pygmalion/RUR mashup with no romance. I think George Bernard Shaw would approve.

    F&SF: What inspired you to mix Pygmalion with R.U.R., and how did you bring those pieces together to write this story?

    MER: I think it began after having a discussion with one of my daughters about the shared responsibility of teachers to teach and learners to learn. Teaching isn’t just a matter of opening a student’s head and pouring the information in—but that appealingly robotic image may have been what started me thinking about the story. After all, Henry Higgins, egoist that he is, believes that all the effort is his; even the flesh and blood Eliza in Pygmalion is a prop in his experiment, rather than a partner in learning. Henry Higgins does not do partners (Col. Pickering, in the original, and Rossum, in “’Omunculus,” are merely higher-status props in Higgins’ story). So I’ve got Henry Higgins and an automaton, which meant, me being me, that I would have to hook Higgins up with Rossum (a character who doesn’t exist in Câpek’s play). Pygmalion debuted in 1913; R.U.R. in 1920, so I figured my story takes place before Rossum improved his automata and sold the business to the characters in R.U.R. With the two of them—and Eliza—in place, the rest while not precisely easy, was pretty much laid out for me by the structure of GBS’ play.

    The other thing that appealed to me was that there is no possibility of a Higgins-Eliza pairing if Eliza is a robot (it’s not that kind of story). I could go back to Shaw’s original material with a clear conscience (I yield to none in my fondness for My Fair Lady, but GBS was adamant that Higgins and Eliza did not wind up together). Since there’s no chance of a Freddie Eynsford-Hill and Eliza romance either (really not that kind of story) that left me free to come up with an ending that also made use of those two redoubtables, Mrs. Higgins and Mrs. Pearce. I have a serious soft spot for tough old broads, no matter how well mannered.

    F&SF: Besides the soft spot for tough old broads, is there anything in this story that’s personal for you?

    MER: I’m sure there is… I suspect that most women have had the experience of being underestimated and undervalued by a man who saw them as a prop in his story. I would not say this is revenge—I am not the vengeful sort. But I am human, and writing the scene in the theatre where Eliza breaks down—intentionally? Not intentionally?—was very satisfying.

    F&SF: How has your writing process changed over the years?

    MER: I’m still either glacially slow or fairly rapid—it doesn’t seem to matter what the text is: some pieces just drag me along and some require unearthing. What hasn’t changed is that while I know the emotional destination I’m heading for I often have no idea how I’m going to get there until I look around and Hey! Presto! there I am.

    I never used to outline, but these days on most projects I almost always get to a point about two thirds in, where I realize I need at the very least to make notes on what has to happen and in what order. I’m also a lot more comfortable writing what I’d call placeholder text when I cannot nail down the exact phrase or word I want. Making myself crazy trying to nail the mot juste for a first draft is a form of procrastination; better to plough ahead and come back and fix things in the edit, as my recording-engineer partner says. I’m also much more aware of the sensory surroundings of my characters than I was as a younger writer—I think that came, in part, from a work-for-hire gig writing a Marvel novel staring Daredevil, who is blind but whose other senses are heightened. Since I couldn’t describe anything visually, I had to think of what the smells, and textures, and tastes were. It was a great experience.

    Oh: and in the very beginning I wrote sitting crosslegged with my typewriter on my knees (it was a Selectric, and weighed the earth). Nowadays I write on a laptop and while I still sit crosslegged, my knees are happier.

    F&SF: What are you and your happier knees working on now?

    MER: A fourth in my Sarah Tolerance alternate-Regency detective series (Point of Honor, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner—all three can be found here), with a fifth beginning to distract me, which is not helpful. Also a fantasy novel set in contemporary San Francisco. And a challenge short story for my writing workshop. Sewing cloth masks for donation. And just at the moment, a loaf of sourdough bread. I am a Covid-cliche.

    I have nothing coming out right now (see “glacially slow” above), but I am blogging at, as well as at my own website,

    “‘Omunculus” appears in the July/August 2020 issue of F&SF.

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    Editor’s Note for the July/August Issue

    An editor’s note for the July/August issue seems almost redundant because this includes one of my rare editorials, just the third since I took over the magazine. (There’s a link to it down in the Table of Contents below.) On the other hand, some things have changed so much since I wrote it just over two months ago that rereading it today feels almost like traveling in a time machine to the distant past.

    So I’ll let that stand on its own and tell you about the rest of the new issue instead! Starting with where you can find it. Here in the U.S., many bookstores and newsstands are still closed, so if you can’t find us where you live, come find us where we live online.

    If you’re not a subscriber and you’d like to subscribe right now, here are some links!

    * Paper subscriptions here:
    * Electronic subscriptions via Weightless Books anywhere in the world here:
    * Electronic subscriptions for Kindle US:
    * Electronic subsriptions for Kindle UK:

    You can also buy single copies of this issue:

    * Paper copies from our website
    * Electronic copies, available worldwide and in every electronic format, from Weightless Books, starting July 1.

    Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August, cover by Alan M. Clark


    Alan M. Clark‘s disturbing cover art (because, let’s face it, who wants stanky demon feet treading on the stones where your pizza’s going to cook?) illustrates “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal,” a new novelet by David Erik Nelson.

    Three years ago, in our July/August 2017 issue, David Erik Nelson also had the cover story, that time with his novella “There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House,” which readers are still sending us messages to tell us how much they loved it. His other stories for us include “The Traveling Salesman Solution” and “Whatever Comes After Calcutta.” Like any good pizza place, this new story delivers.


    Let’s talk about fantasy. M. Rickert is here to escort us to “Last Night at the Fair.” James Morrow shares one of his “Bible Stories for Adults, No. 37: The Jawbone.” John Kessel explores being haunted and finding balance with “Spirit Level.” And Stephanie Feldman leads us to an unusual portal at the end of “The Staircase.”

    Or we can talk about science fiction. Bennet North returns to our pages after a long absence with her space elevator story, “A Bridge from Sea to Sky.” Madeleine Robins mixes Pygmalion with R.U.R. to present us with “‘Omunculus.” And Brian Trent takes us to Mars to introduce us to “The Monsters of Olympus Mons.”

    But we’d really like to talk about four writers making their F&SF debuts. Rati Mehrotra shows us that even spaceships can have a sense of humor, or at least try to, with “Knock, Knock Said the Ship.” Ana Hurtado invites us to Venezuela with “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo.” Mel Kassel brings us along to a family’s summer outing at the lake so we can see “Crawfather” for ourselves. And World Fantasy Award winner Natalia Theodoridou joins us with a story about climate change and “The Shape of Gifts.”

    We also don’t want to forget Mary Soon Lee, who offers up a sparkling bit of poetry with “A Quartet of Alphabetic Bubbles.”

    Plus we have all our usual columns and features, which you can find linked in the Table of Contents below.


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

    71st Year of Publication


    “Spirit Level” – John Kessel
    “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal” – David Erik Nelson
    “‘Omunculus” – Madeleine Robins
    “The Monsters of Olympus Mons” – Brian Trent


    “Knock, Knock Said the Ship” – Rati Mehrotra
    “Last Night at the Fair” – M. Rickert
    “Bible Stories for Adults No. 37: The Jawbone” – James Morrow
    “Madre Nuestra, Que Estás en Maracaibo” – Ana Hurtado
    “A Bridge from Sea to Sky” – Bennett North
    “Crawfather” – Mel Kassel
    “The Staircase” – Stephanie Feldman
    “The Shape of Gifts” – Natalia Theodoridou


    “A Quartet of Alphabetic Babbles” – Mary Soon Lee


    Editorial by C.C. Finlay
    Books to Look For by Charles de Lint
    Musing on Books by Michelle West
    Film: Darkness Visible by David J. Skal
    Science: What the Heck is an Analemma by Jerry Oltion
    Curiosities: The Contaminant by Leonard Reiffel (1978) by Thomas Kaufsek

    Cartoons by Arthur Masear, Arthur Masear, Danny Shanahan, Kendra Allenby, Nick Downes, Nick Downes

    Cover: By Alan M. Clark for “All Hail the Pizza King and Bless His Reign Eternal”


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

    A Change at the Magazine

    Today’s interview with Richard Bowes marks Stephen Mazur’s last official act as Assistant Editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

    After the writers and contributors to the magazine, the editor and publisher tend to get most of the credit for making it happen. But the truth is we couldn’t complete any of our work without the constant effort of a whole team of people.

    Stephen Mazur has been a key part of that team since December of 2009, or just over ten and a half years. During his first five years on the job, he was the first line of contact for writers submitting to the magazine. Back in those days — it’s just a decade, but surely it feels much longer — F&SF only accepted paper submissions. Stephen opened the mail and read all those stories, writing thousands of rejection letters and helping to discover some new writers along the way.

    When I became editor in 2015 and we switched over to electronic submissions, Stephen’s role gradually changed until he became my second reader, providing thoughtful and detailed notes on anything we were seriously considering for the magazine. If you ever got a rewrite request or a rejection with more detailed comments in it, chances are that Stephen’s hand was in that process somewhere along the way. In that role, he became an even stronger advocate for new writers and specific stories, sometimes arguing with me to give something he loved another look. He often ended up being right and I bought several stories only because of his intervention. He brought a sharp eye for great storytelling to his work, and there are many writers who will never know how much he did for them.

    He was also one of the magazine’s main points of contact for the writers we did publish, primarily by conducting our blog interviews with them. Although he was based in F&SF‘s business office on the other side of the country and was responsible for many things in that of the operation, which consumed the majority of his work time by the end, I could not have been as effective in my role as editor without him, especially early on when I was still learning the ropes. He did a lot to help me build up F&SF‘s social media presence, acted as a sounding board for me when I was thinking about upcoming issues, was always eager to generate ideas to promote and develop the magazine, and served as an excellent ambassador for F&SF at conventions and in other venues.

    Stephen is moving on to a writing-related job outside of publishing. His new employers will find themselves very lucky to have him. I suspect that he will come to think himself lucky too, as he can go back to reading fiction just for pleasure again. But the magazine, and I, in particular, will miss him. Please join us in wishing him good luck in his future ventures. Thanks, Stephen.

    C.C. Finlay, Editor
    The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

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