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Interview: Jérôme Cigut on “The Rider”

- Tell us a bit about “The Rider.”

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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


- What are you working on now?

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


- Anything else you’d like to add?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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


- What are you working on now?

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


- Anything else you’d like to add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- What are you working on now?

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

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

- Anything else you’d like to add?

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

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

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

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

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

Interview: Ian Tregillis on “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams”

- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” is about the supernatural events witnessed by an impressed sailor on a scientific voyage. What inspired this story?

The seed for this story was planted when a friend, knowing of my fascination with giant squid, sent me a magazine article about the (then) current state of efforts around the world to observe a living specimen in its environment. This is difficult because they live at great depths (although they have been observed in the wild since that article was published). The piece contained a fascinating aside about the history of deep ocean exploration, and it was there that I first learned about the famous Challenger expedition.

H.M.S. Challenger under sail, 1874The HMS Challenger was a 226′ warship outfitted with all the latest state-of-the-art scientific and oceanographic gear to become a vessel of first-rate science. It set sail in 1872 with the mandate to chart the oceans of the world. This was a monumental undertaking that took over three years. But it did produce the world’s first comprehensive soundings of the sea floor. (The “challenger deep” location recently visited by James Cameron owes its name to the HMS Challenger, as did the space shuttle Challenger.) In addition, it collected thousands of biological specimens, many from the deep ocean, and virtually all things that nobody had ever seen before. They identified thousands of new species. The chief scientist, C. Wyville Thomson, really did proclaim that living beings “exist over the whole floor of the ocean.”

But dredging the ocean floor for those specimens was extremely demanding and backbreaking work. Over the course of the expedition, two sailors drowned, two more went mad, and another committed suicide. As a speculative fiction writer, I can’t read a historical footnote like that without immediately wondering if there was a connection between the onset of madness and something they pulled from the depths. (After all, doesn’t dread Cthulhu sleep in sunken R’lyeh?) So my imagination was off to the races. But I thought it would be more fun if the story was set closer to the Napoleonic Age of Sail, so I exercised a bit of artistic license to stage the fictional Confidence expedition almost 60 years earlier.

It wasn’t until after I’d written the first draft of this story that others pointed me to the nautical mythos of William Hope Hodgson. I was more familiar with Hodgson through his novel THE NIGHT LAND and works inspired by that. I’ve been asked if Frobisher’s story is a deliberate homage to Hodgson. I wish.


- Sounds complex. How much research did you do?

I know absolutely nothing about ships, sailing, or sailors. And I know even less about the Age of Sail. Fortunately, I know people who do. So I appealed to my friend and mentor Walter Jon Williams (who started his career writing the Privateers and Gentlemen series) for advice. He recommended several reference works, including Dudley Pope’s excellent LIFE IN NELSON’S NAVY, which I read cover to cover for the sake of this particular story. (It’s a fascinating read, and quite accessible for a landlubber like me.) I read with particular attention to vocabulary, the procedures and practices on a ship of that era, and the actual duties of a sailor like Samuel Frobisher.

Since Frobisher is essentially writing a long confession, I also had to look up the Royal Navy’s Articles of War relevant to that period, since these would have governed his life at sea. I thought it would be fun if he sort of went down the list and said, “Yeah, I violated this one. And then I violated that one. And then…”


- Is that how you capture Frobisher’s voice so perfectly?

The reference works gave me the vocabulary, which of course was essential for a nautical tale. Sailors of every era practically have their own language. I admit to a lot of guesswork and trial and error when trying to develop Frobisher’s manner of speaking, but historical documents from that period gave me the “flavor,” if that makes sense. Mostly I just tried to accumulate a body of examples that I could attempt to emulate. Although the conceit of the story forced me to play some games with issues of voice and class. I plead artistic license… I wouldn’t make any claims about the authenticity of poor Frobisher’s voice, but I tried to make it distinctive.


- As a writer, you’re well known for having a great ear for period language, whether it’s the sailor’s cadence in this story, the World War II characters in the Milkweed Triptych, or the hard-boiled detective narrator in your most recent novel, Something More Than Night. What is the secret to getting those different voices right?

Well, first, thank you for saying that. I never feel confident that I’ve hit the mark, which is depressing because I do have a perverse tendency to tackle projects that force me to think carefully about character voice. For the most part, it boils down to reading widely (or listening, where historical recordings are available) and trying to absorb the “flavor” of the language until the cadence and vocabulary become familiar enough to emulate.

For the Milkweed books, I spent a lot of time reading things written by people who had lived through the Blitz, as well as listening to old BBC recordings. I also had a British beta reader who did a frankly heroic job trying to excise all the Americanisms from the manuscript. (Nobody could have caught them all, though, so I take sole responsibility for the errors that slipped through.) Even so, I’d say that trying to capture the voice of Londoners in 1940 was the most difficult task I’ve set myself; I wouldn’t have attempted it if my editor hadn’t (wisely) insisted the story required it.

Something More Than Night by Ian TregillisFor SOMETHING MORE THAN NIGHT, I read piles of Chandler and Hammett, along with a few other authors of the period. I kept a pencil on hand while reading, and every single piece of noir slang I encountered got a mark. Then I transcribed each new piece of vocabulary into a glossary file on my laptop. The glossary eventually grew to 80 pages, because I realized I had to include contextual examples and bibliographic references so that I could go back later and double-check my interpretations. (Some phrases are so obscure I simply had to guess at their meaning.) It was a huge amount of work but essential, because I was able to organize the reference for “reverse lookups” — rather than a tool for clarifying unfamiliar noir terms, I needed something that would give me period-appropriate expressions for anything that arose over the course of the story.

I’ve found that frequently a character doesn’t really come together for me until his or her voice congeals. The way a person talks tells you so much about them: their upbringing, their environment, how they see the world and describe it to themselves… All of this sits at the bedrock of who a person is. Once I have that, then I start to get a sense of how they think and how they might react to particular situations, and in that way they make their mark on the plot.


- I hate to point this out, but – SPOILER ALERT – there aren’t actually any diagrams in the story. Were you ever tempted to draw some?

Hmmm. I prefer to believe the story is rife will diagrams! Or, as I like to call them, “word pictures.” Actual visual diagrams appropriate for this story require scrimshaw, but I couldn’t figure out how to include a narwhal tusk with my submission. (Something for you to consider for your next guest editing gig?)


- So you’re saying readers shouldn’t feel cheated?

There’s no denying that readers of this particular story probably have a case for false advertising. In my defense, an early draft of this story was titled “Testimony… Without Any Diagrams Whatsoever.”


- If people want to read more of your books and stories, where should they start?

Definitely my website, It has links to all of my novels and short fiction publications. I try to keep it updated with the latest news; sometimes I even succeed. I’m also @ITregillis on Twitter. I’m currently writing a clockpunk fantasy alt-history trilogy tentatively titled The Alchemy War. The first novel of that series, The Mechanical, will be out from Orbit next March. I also have a story appearing in the Clockwork Universe anthology that will be out later this summer.


- “Testimony of Samuel Frobisher Regarding Events Upon His Majesty’s Ship Confidence, 14-22 June, 1818, With Diagrams” by Ian Tregillis appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

Interview: William Alexander on “The Only Known Law”

- “The Only Known Law” is a hard SF story about alien contact, but it’s also a story about two scientists who love each other. What inspired you to juxtapose those two things against each other?

I read somewhere that Ursula K. Le Guin’s single-word summary of her whole oeuvre is “marriage.” Her novels don’t all end in weddings like Shakespearean comedies, but over and over again, in different worlds and contexts, very different characters come to understand each other.

“The Only Known Law” is about a literal and fairly heteronormative marriage between two human people, but I also had Le Guin’s expansive sense of the word rolling around in my head. A story of successful First Contact is a kind of romance, a struggle for connection and understanding.


- I understand that you wrote “The Only Known Law” while you were a student at Clarion. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Clarion was a messy and magnificent experience. I wrote this story — my first science fiction story — because I felt challenged to do so. My brain usually defaults to fantasy, but I noticed a slight, affectionate snobbery from dedicated SF writers. They implied that fantasy was fluff, and that SF requires the real chops. Untrue. I don’t believe it. But that goading still worked on my sense of pride. So I set out to prove I could write the stuff myself.

My first SF novel comes out later this year, so maybe I’m still responding to that dare.


- Did the story change at all between the version you wrote at Clarion and the one that appears in F&SF?

Not very much. I trunked the story for several years. Then I found it, gave it a new polish, and tried to make Nicolao a bit less of a douche. But the bones of the story are all the same.

Goblin Secrets - National Book Award Winner 

- You’re perhaps best known for writing Goblin Secrets, a children’s book which won the National Book Award in 2012. What kind of differences are there between writing books for children and writing stories like this one for adults?

Know thy audience. The difference isn’t censorship, or a readjustment of sophistication. You just keep in mind the kinds of things your audience is likely to care about.

I cut my teeth writing short stories for grownups, but most of my favorites had very young protagonists. I was already drifting toward writing for children before I became consciously aware of the fact.


- Where can readers go to find more of your fiction?

A few short stories are floating around online, archived at Apex and Zahir. For more about my books, visit


- “The Only Known Law” by William Alexander appears in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It’s available in both print and electronic formats.

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