Category Archives: short story collections

Not Fan Fiction

Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, is related to Ted Chiang’sHell is the Absence of God.” (I discuss this relationship more extensively in yesterday’s post). Both stories are explorations of faith and atheism, using the concept of angelic visitations to drive the action and the philosophical discussion. To be clear, Liu lists the story’s influences as a note at the end, and got Chiang’s permission before publishing his take.

I enjoyed reading the two pieces as a conversation, and, in many ways, this is what literature is about. The flow of philosophical ideas from Plato to Aristotle to Aquinas, for example, is a part of the Great Conversation that makes it so worthwhile to be a reader of writer. That said, Liu’s piece is hard to classify, and I imagine it was incredibly hard to publish.

I think there is a kind of writing that exists that sits somewhere on the spectrum between fan fiction and an original story (if there truly is such a thing). When I get an idea like this, it’s not exactly that I want to write in another writer’s world, but that I want to use another writer’s premise for my own exploration. Sometimes, strong anthologies get created by giving lots of writers the same premise and putting the results side by side, but, for the most part, I groan when I get one of these ideas because I know it’s not going to be an easy road. For example, I love the premise of Catherynne Valente’s book, Palimpsest, and I want to play with it myself. The difficulties with doing this have stopped me, however. Unless I really, really care about the idea, I won’t write it.

That’s one thing that I love about the Creative Commons license. I think labels like that declare that it’s OK to experiment along those lines (as long as it’s not the non-derivative license, I guess). I think it’s good to create a space that truly allows conversation in literature. There’s a lot of healthy activity along these lines, but, for the most part it deals with older works that are out of copyright.

Take, for example, the many retellings of fairy tales, such as those in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red anthology. Or several stories in Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things anthology (for example, “A Study in Emerald,” which mashes up Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes, and “The Problem of Susan,” which questions the treatment of Susan in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia). There’s also a huge and vital community devoted to developing the ideas of H.P. Lovecraft.

Liu’s story makes me wonder why that conversation doesn’t seem to happen as much around more current literature.

I felt this particularly keenly because I’m currently struggling to find a market for a piece that makes many references to Star Trek (particularly the Klingon language), and yet is not fan fiction and is not a Star Trek story. That limbo is an interesting place, but it’s not an easy place to be.

(Note: I wrote this post and then decided to contact Ken Liu to ask him about marketing his story and about influences. He kindly replied. Look for some thoughts from him in the next couple of days.)

Science Fiction v. Fantasy

This is the first of several posts about Ken Liu’sSingle-Bit Error,” published in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology. The story provides fertile ground for a variety of discussions–on its central questions about faith and rationality, on the nature of science fiction, and on its relationship to the other works that have influenced it. I got in touch with Ken to ask some questions about the story, and I’ll be sharing some quotes from our conversation in future posts.

For now, I want to focus on how the story’s genre affects its treatment of its premise. SPOILERS FOLLOW. One of Liu’s influences was Ted Chiang’s story “Hell is the Absence of God.” Like Chiang’s story, “Single-Bit Error” asks whether someone who does not have faith can somehow work into having it. In both stories, the main character is motivated to try to have faith by the death of a beloved woman who was a believer. Liu’s story explains it this way:

If Tyler were religious, he could have been comforted by the promise of reuniting with Lydia in Heaven. Or he could have been angry with God, and railed against Him until he could come to accept his life the way Job accepted his. But Tyler did not believe in Heaven or God.

But neither could his lack of faith give him comfort, for he loved Lydia for that light in her, and he had no name or explanation for that light except what Lydia told him. Her faith was what he loved.

To continue in his lack of faith would be to assert that Lydia’s joy was an illusion, and that would kill the very heart of his memory of her. But to believe would require him to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality in his mind and embrace as fact what seemed to him a hallucination. While Lydia was alive he could delay that decision for as long as he was in love, but her death meant that he had to choose.

I believe that Chiang’s story is fantasy, and Liu’s is science fiction, and that this difference influences how the stories play out from here.

In Chiang’s story, the angelic visitations are treated as fact, and the main character must come to terms with them. His problem of faith isn’t exactly that he can’t believe in God, but that he can’t bring himself to love God. He goes on a quest to ensure that his soul will go to heaven, and so he exists entirely within the frame of reference of the religious setting. When he comes to a point of resolution, it is a definite resolution. There is a sense of transcendent mystery in Chiang’s ending–God is ineffable, and his ways are poorly understood. There is no sense of uncertainty about God’s existence.

LOTS OF SPOILERS NOW:

In Liu’s story, the main character would like to believe in the angelic visitations, but suspects that they might be caused by a “single-bit error” in the brain. The story sets up plenty of justification for Tyler’s suspicion. Early in life, Tyler learns that human memory is unreliable when he realizes that a shameful incident that he remembers vividly could not possibly have occurred. Later, the death of his beloved, Lydia, is caused by a strange error in his car’s cruise-control system. Tyler comes to believe that a similar error could occur in the brain, and he sets out to use that to feel closer to Lydia:

If a single-bit error on a circuit board could breach the mathematically perfect type system of a programming language, Tyler reasoned, wasn’t it conceivable that a single-bit error in the brain could break down the system of distinctions between nurses and angels? All it would take was for one neural connection to be broken and randomly reattached somewhere else, somewhere it had no business to be connected to, and all the walls between the types of memories would come crumbling down.

Lydia’s vision of Ambriel, and indeed her faith, was then simply the consequence of a misfiring of the neurons, a misfiring that could have been triggered by fatigue, by stress, by a stray elementary particle, indeed, by anything at all, on that long ago day in the clinic in Boston. It was really the same process that had conjured up his memory of making his grandmother cry.

In order to reason your way to faith, Tyler thought, all you needed was a single-bit error.

Contrary to what you might expect, this theory did not cheapen or degrade Lydia’s faith in Tyler’s mind. For this explanation allowed Tyler to understand, rationally, Lydia’s life. Calling Lydia’s faith an error was a level of indirection that bridged the gap between their worlds.

Moreover, errors, once understood, could be induced. The technically proficient could breach the best software security systems by deliberately inducing errors in the hardware. Couldn’t the rational induce faith in themselves the same way?

Liu’s story ends on a note of uncertainty. Tyler experiences an angelic visitation, but ends up deciding that it was a single-bit error. The story doesn’t reveal what the “truth” of the matter was.

The sense of mystery in Liu’s story isn’t just in Tyler’s questions about God and angels. It also lies in his recognition of the mystery that’s still contained in systems designed to be predictable–such as cruise-control systems. To me, that’s deeply rooted in the traditions of science fiction.

A True Thoughtcrime Experiment

Therese Arkenberg’s “Goldenseed” is the story in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology that best fits the project’s name. Xan, a recognizable, though altered, Johnny Appleseed, wanders the countryside engaged in a political experiment:

“Mostly because they’re beautiful. But also for the gold.”

“No, I don’t want to become rich in the least. But I want more gold in the world.”

“You want to become rich?”

“Not at all.” Xan shook his head grimly. “No, I don’t want to become rich in the least. But I want more gold in the world. Look.” He gestured at the trees. “I’ve planted orchards like this all across the West. They’re all open, unguarded. I don’t care if people take golden fruit by the bucketful. In fact, I want them to take it.”

“So everyone can have gold?”

His head bobbed. “Yes. Free for all.”

“But…” I frowned. “Say someone was poor, with no money, and picked one of these—” I hefted the Orel—“and took it to the store in town. But why should the shopkeeper give him anything, when he can walk out here and pick a fruit himself?”

“There’s no reason he should,” Xan said. “No reason at all. By putting out gold like this, I’m making it utterly worthless. Oh, it’ll still be pretty, good for jewelry, but no path to wealth. That’s what I’m hoping for—though I pity the poor man in your example.”

I looked down at my Orel and felt a sudden urge to throw it away. It wasn’t that I hated Xan’s idea, not exactly, it was just so strange. “But without using gold, how will people buy anything?”

The story is about the reactions others have to Xan’s radical ideas about money–their lack of understanding, their fear, and their greed. It’s a poignant look at how an idea and a person can have attractive vision, and yet ultimately repel and alienate others because that vision asks people to risk too much of the status quo.

A Sweet Golem

Daisy,” by Andrew Willett, seems to have been the inspiration for the entire Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology (according to the intro note the editors gave it), and it seems fitting that a classic golem story would inspire the editors to build a creation of labor, love and words.

Most people are familiar with derivatives of the classic Jewish golem story–Frankenstein and similar. These are too far removed from the original legends to preserve some of the coolest parts. One version of the classic instructions for making a golem call for the creator to form the creature out of clay, then write the letters aleph, mem, tav on its forehead, spelling “emet,” the Hebrew word for “truth.” To deactivate the golem, erase the aleph, leaving the word “met,” the Hebrew word for “death.” Traditional golems aren’t necessarily considered terrifying monsters–there are stories of them serving great spiritual masters.

Judaism is an attractive tradition to a writer, since it places so much power in the printed word. The Jewish people are sometimes known as “the people of the book,” and in Jewish mystical traditions, the letters of the alphabet are considered to have spiritual power. This is powerful creative ground–fruitful for any writer to explore.

In my own potentially flawed understanding, I think of golems as an extension of the idea of man made in God’s image–man can create, just as God can create, but the life-giving power that a human can invest in an object is far more limited than what God can do. A man can take clay and transform it into a golem, while God took clay and transformed it into a man.

After such a mystical buildup, you’re going to be surprised by how lighthearted Willett’s story is. I wanted to give it good context, in fact, so that I could point this out. Here is Willett’s golem:

There are things I never knew you could buy on the Lower East Side. Schoenfein’s Useful Goods was full of them, and what we brought home was definitely one of them, but from what we could tell it had a devoted following in its obscurity. It was a rectangle of pale sunny yellow, like a stiff piece of thickish cardboard, wrapped in an eighth-generation photocopy of a set of instructions.

“Okay,” I said, opening a container of kosher salt we’d bought on the way home. “Salt, check; dish, check; one cup of warm water, check. Where’s the Sharpie?”

“I’ve got it here,” Jenna said, holding up a sheet of paper she’d covered with black squiggles. “Just practicing.”

I made a circle of salt in the bottom of the dish. Jenna placed the yellow cardboardy thing in the circle, then carefully inked the Hebrew letters from the instruction sheet onto its back in small, neat forms. We held hands and dumped the water into the dish.

Remember those stove-top popcorn dishes? The ones where all of the sudden the little flat tinfoil skillet would mushroom up into this huge thing and it was like watching magic happen? It was like that. Only instead of a big tinfoil balloon, we stood in our living room watching a piece of cardboardy stuff in a Pyrex dish expand into a big yellow kitchen sponge about eight inches tall and shaped like a dainty cat. It had neat Hebrew letters across its back in black ink. It blinked its eyes at us.

“Coool,” I said.

“Mao,” the cat said.

“I think we’ll call you Daisy,” Jenna said.

The boring way to describe “Daisy” would be to say it is the story of a modern couple’s struggles with pest control. Willett invests this plot with mysticism, imagination, and, ultimately, a sense of sweetness and humor. It’s a great example of forging a new path with old (and therefore rich) material.

One quibble I had was that the second-to-last section of the story ends with the sentence, “And that was the end.” It feels complete. It makes sense to me as a stopping point for the story. It’s followed by an additional section, a mini-epilogue, that I thought served only to weaken the story. I have an entire rant about epilogues, actually (hint: I tend to find them unnecessary), which I may try to translate from dinner conversation into blog post at some point. In this case, I think chopping out the last two paragraphs would have given Willett a stronger, neater finish. His subconscious even told him so when he wrote the final sentence of the section that should have been the end.

Quantum Computers and Hard SF

William Highsmith’s “Qubit Slip” is the hardest story in the Thoughtcrime Experiments anthology, according to the editors, and I buy that. It’s hard enough to satisfy my own pretty stringent definition of hard SF (without the science, there is no story; the story extrapolates current science in a reasonable way; the story makes a reasonable effort to explain the technical details of the science).

The premise is that, after quantum computers have been installed in critical infrastructure such as air traffic control and waste management, they suddenly and inexplicably stop working correctly. The main character (and his love interest) have to solve the problem:

Bob noticed the news feed video screen. “Look, it’s that guy again, that jackass from GWU.”

“Oh, him,” said Sal. “He prances around at every news service in town that will give him ten seconds to trash us.”

“He trashes well. Hey, who’s that guy in the back?” Bob planted a finger on the screen on a figure in a ball cap, trench coat and sunglasses. “See his sign? ’Are Zeilenger bit spaces clumpy?’”

“What if they are?” said Sal. “Whatever they are.”

“Um, if quantum bit spaces are clumpy then we’re screwed. Our quantum microprocessors assume bit spaces are nice and regular. Get him for me, Sal.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. That’s why he’s hanging on the news hog’s coattails.” Bob peeked out the window. “Never mind, crowd’s gone. It’s a ten-minute bike ride. See ya.”

This is a classic SF plotline, but I don’t get tired of it. If you’re a writer and you’ve never tried a story like this, I highly recommend it. The rigor needed for good classic hard SF will serve you well no matter what else you’re writing. My own experiment with this is still in progress (it’s that painful edit I’ve mentioned periodically). I find, however, that it’s changed the way I look at anything I write. It’s important to build a coherent world and make coherent claims about it. Nothing has made me more sensitive to this principle than writing and reading hard SF. Since I’ve had this thought, I’ve been really attracted to fantasy stories written with this sort of rigorous world-building sensibility.

Incidentally, I noticed that Thoughtcrime Experiments now has a link up for ordering a printed copy of the anthology, for about $5. I’ve ordered mine, and you should, too. I think it’s important to support efforts like this, and I’d like to see these editors take on a project like this again in the future.

Not Your Old-Fashioned Mrs. Claus

Betty Claus from Alex Wilson’sThe Last Christmas of Mrs. Claus” in Thoughtcrime Experiments is no round-cheeked old woman:

It was six o’clock. Santa had said he needed to leave at eight. So Betty had made Christmas Eve dinner while listening to—instead of participating in—the big special ops campaign game online. She’d garlic-salted the yams to the tune of Gomez unloading his Glock into a drug dealer. She’d painted the ham with maple glaze while Williams punctuated Patty Smyth’s “Goodbye to You” with bursts from his assault rifle. “Her boys,” as she called them, didn’t take a lot of eggnog in their rum.

Indeed, she is one of the most badass characters I have ever read.

Betty used to love the cold. The first thing she did when she finished her two years at Camp Doha outside of Kuwait City was go off camping solo in the Pennsylvania mountains for the holidays. She was thankful then for the solitude and chilly nights. She ate corn pasta and fruit leather and thought not-quite-seriously about scaring a college admissions officer for fucking with her financial aid, ho ho ho.

But somewhere between midnight and dawn, Betty had heard a rustle outside her tent. Her bear bag was strung up from a tree a few yards from camp. She caught her future husband pawing at it.

She shot Santa twice in the belly with her .22. It would have been more if she hadn’t needed to reload after each one. But before she got her third round into the chamber, Santa convinced her he was no animal. He was just a hairy, hungry old man, as unthreatening to Betty as her practice rifle was to him.

This story is a lot of fun to read, and, like the rest of what I’ve seen so far in Thoughtcrime Experiments, it comes at speculative fiction from an unusual direction, writing from the point of view of an unusual, and unusually well-realized character. Awesome.

Human Science Fiction

I’m starting to get a sense for Thoughtcrime Experiments, and I’m liking it. I think the anthology is trying to explore a wider variety of human elements and viewpoints than are seen in the typical science fiction anthology.

Mary Anne Mohanraj’sJump Space” has some of the most fully realized relationships that I’ve seen in science fiction. The plot is a family drama, really, set against a science fiction background. Like “Welcome to the Federation,” which I also blogged about, I don’t think this story had to be science fiction. I could see it rewritten as a story of plain old Earthbound foreign travel. It’s really about the strains the main character places on her children and polyamorous marriage when she finds a new lover. Also like in “Welcome to the Federation,” the story’s genre emphasizes the theme of strangeness (foreigners aren’t just foreign–they’re alien).

Sarita, the main character, is very well drawn:

“You say culture like there’s just one,” Sarita said sharply. “What about the engineered species and their cultures?”

“Sarita, c’mon,” Joshua said. “The engineered species and their treatment here are her point.”

“Exactly,” Kate snapped. “The dominant culture on this world is disgusting.”

Sarita said primly, “We’re supposed to avoid value judgments.”

“Kate’s right. It is appalling, really,” Joshua said. He tried to keep his tone mild, though Sarita in uppity mode would make a saint want to slap her.

Sarita deflated, flopping down into the co-pilot’s chair. She reached out an apologetic hand to Kate, who, after a moment, took it. Joshua breathed a covert sigh of relief.

“I know,” Sarita said, “they’re awful — but it’s not as if I want to take the girls down there. You can all stay up here; I just need one more vocal grouping — and no one’s ever studied any of the genetically engineered serf-species here.”

“Because no one civilized can stand to be around them. Poor things,” Kate said.

Joshua knew Kate was right, but he also knew that Sarita would get her way. She almost always did. She wanted things so passionately, so intensely, that it became impossible to say no to her. She wasn’t even saying anything now — just looking at Kate with those big dark eyes steady, silently pleading.

The other characters are a little more uneven. Mohanraj gives details about each of the other three characters, but I felt that both the male characters were a little bland. Joshua, Sarita’s husband, doesn’t seem to have come from anywhere, and I’m conscious of this because Mohanraj makes a great effort to show us where Sarita came from. Cho, the unwelcome new love interest, seems like a typical “hot guy”–though he does have fur.

Despite that complaint, I really enjoyed reading a science fiction story that explored an unusual source of tension. And the theme of love’s simultaneous strength and fragility was emphasized against the backdrop of space. Love and family seem even more accidental and precarious when the universe is so large.

Because I recently read an essay by Mohanraj on writing about race, I was very conscious of how she handled this:

“Try this,” Sarita said, bringing over a bowl to Kate’s bunk. “My mother sent the recipe; she swears by it for nursing mothers. Of course, she’s not happy that I’m not the one nursing Ini, but still — can’t let her only granddaughter starve, can she? It’s a white curry, full of coconut milk. Milk to bring in the milk, they say. Although it’s actually the fenugreek that does the trick; stimulates milk production.”

“Can’t I just take some pills?” Kate asked. “I’m not hungry.” She lay sideways on the bunk, eyes closed, Iniya curled naked against her chest.

Sarita poked her arm gently. “That’s just the exhaustion talking. Who would have thought the tough freighter captain would be laid low by a little baby! C’mon, try a bite. For me? It took me hours to find all the ingredients on that last planet we stopped at, and they cost a fortune.”

Kate opened her eyes, sighed, and then opened her mouth and let Sarita spoon the curry in. She chewed wearily and swallowed. “You’d think after all these years they’d have found some better way to feed babies.”

Mohanraj mentioned on her blog that she’s working on a sequel to “Jump Space.” I’d read it. I hope she finishes soon.