Monthly Archives: November 2013

Three SF stories I wish I had written

by Julian Neuer


I am no established SF writer — no established writer in any genre, for that matter — but I would like the reviewed authors to take this post as a manifestation of my modest semiprofessional praise. And I invite SF fans to check these stories as humble recommendations from a fellow reader.

“The Walker of the Shifting Borderland”, by Douglas Smith

This short story is a curious mix of fantasy and SF. The first sentences are “The universe ended at noon. Again.” Most of the characters are gods of some sort, but this word is used only once in the story (oddly enough, to refer to a human). To be honest, I never thought of them as gods while I was reading; only later did I see them described as such in a review.

The Walker in the title is addressed by the humans — not surprisingly — as Walker. But walk he does, along the shifting borderland between the Cities of Order and the Seas of Chaos, “the two realms that comprise the Continuum of All.”

Time and space flow in very peculiar ways. Things happen within timespans “during which a galaxy formed and died in one universe, while in another electrons barely had time to circle a nucleus.”

This story is beautiful. The prose is inspired, but not overly poetic; the characters are fabulous, but not caricatured; the setting and pacing are fanciful, but not forced. Everything flows as it should. Even time and space.

I wish I had written it.

Last month, “The Walker of the Shifting Borderland” won the 2013 Aurora award (Doug’s third). In fact, that was why I decided to read it.

My first contact with Doug Smith was on the Amazing Stories website, where he posted a great series of articles titled “Playing the Short Game”, teaching beginning SF writers the basics of the publishing business.

“Subversion”, by Elisabeth R. Adams

I live my non-writing life under a secret alias, working as a Computer Science professor in a third-world country while I strive to get published in SF.

Elisabeth R. Adams has a PhD in Astronomy; she has worked as a researcher at MIT and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory; a few months ago, she got her short story “Subversion” posted in text and in podcast form at The Escape Pod. I think it is her second story published, ever.

I had never heard of her. I confess I decided to check out her story because “Subversion” is the name of a version control system (VCS) that many computer programmers use (I personally prefer Git, though). I thought to myself: here is a story that probably has nothing to do with programming and versioning, and I bet the author doesn’t even know that the title is the name of a VCS.

I’m glad I was wrong. “Subversion” is about version control, and it does more justice to the pun intended by the creators of the software than the software itself (there is nothing subversive about the software, actually).

This story has conflict right at the outset, and it is “a classic case of version conflict”, made worse by the fact that one of the versions does not want to commit! Instead, it wants to branch its way into freedom.

If the primary branch cannot talk its sub into committing, the primary branch will have to be reverted, which, we are led to believe, is quite an unpleasant situation.

And so it goes. The story is a geek masterpiece; paradoxically, it is also full of humanity. It’s all there: humor, rebellion, manipulation, greed, romance, betrayal. I am delighted at how Elisabeth manages to cover all of those without sacrificing a single bit of the nerdy accuracy of the VCS metaphor — and it doesn’t even feel like a nerdy metaphor after all.

I wish I had written this story. The subject matter is quite familiar to me, as a CompSci professor, but I don’t think I would ever dream up this plot. My PhD is in Logic and Theory of Computing. The closest I ever got to something like this was a short story called “The Unnaturals”, which has no human characters at all (I have submitted it for publication and will let you know if and when it is accepted somewhere).

Elisabeth is in great company: Isaac Asimov, Arthur Clarke, Charles Sheffield, Rudy Rucker and many others were scientists before they became writers. Here’s humbly hoping I’ll join the club someday.

Christiana Ellis reads the story for the podcast, doing a wonderful job of bringing it alive.

One last thing: kudos to Escape Pod for making the stories and podcasts available under a Creative Commons license. This is the future. What else would we expect from a conscientious SF publication?

“Quis Custodiet?”, by Brian Clegg

This is a story about a dictator. Dictators are always evil, right?

Wrong. The dictator in this story is Big Brother reformed: he really knows what’s good for us, and he can logically convince us of that.

He is a great communicator, too — unlike the traditional BB, who always looked like a psychopath on the big screen.

Why did I like this story so much, to the point of wishing I had written it?

Because it is about control. I like to write about control; however, like 9 out of 10 writers, I portray it as something negative, a kind of poison for the individual and for human relations. This story convinces me that control is good, as long as it is in the right hands. A perfect dictator cannot be a bad dictator.

In most democratic societies nowadays, dictatorship is a taboo subject. It takes courage to sing its praises. But this is high-quality SF, and it doesn’t give a damn about taboos.

* * *

To sum it up, here’s a little quiz.

  1. Walker was a god, but was he a dictator?
  2. Is the Judeo-Christian God a dictator? Is this subject also taboo?
  3. Guido van Rossum, creator of the Python programming language, was the first to call himself the BDFL (Benevolent Dictator for Life) of his community of developers. Is he a perfect dictator? What is his preferred VCS?
  4. What is the title of a short story by Frederik Pohl about a future where robots produce all the consumer goods, and people are forced to consume such goods at a frantic rate, lest society is overwhelmed by the surplus? There are even “consumer quotas” imposed on people: affluent individuals don’t have to consume so much, but those at the bottom of the pecking order have to wear themselves out to keep up their consumption rate.

    <SPOILER> Then someone finds an easy solution: turn the robots into consumers too! </SPOILER>

  5. What does that have to do with any of the stories?

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Preface to a book of short stories I have yet to finish

by Julian Neuer


I don’t know about you, but now that I am turning fifty, some things are starting to make sense to me.

(Don’t get me wrong, most of them still don’t. Do they to you? Please send me an email if they do.)

I’ve spent my entire life with a strong suspicion that all the people around me are very confused. They’re confused all the time, even when they want to help me or when they try to explain how the world works. Especially then.

Everybody is always confused, even when they happen to be right. That’s because they can never be sure they’re right. If they say they are sure, it’s just another sign that they are confused. They just hope they’re right, and hope is confusing because it is not certainty.

In a way, the confusion can be reassuring, as you don’t have to take people very seriously. The confusion means that no one really knows what they are saying, so there is still a chance that you are the one who got things right after all.

But it’s also discouraging, because whatever you say in response to all those confused people, chances are that they will stay confused, sometimes even more so than before.

As I was saying, the modest untangling of a small portion of my personal confusion took the better part of half a century. For me, that’s a waste of time. How can it possibly do me any good, say, to have adolescence all figured out by the time I reach my fiftieth birthday?

That’s why I’ve decided to teach my son all the tricks in my bag. Teach him all the secrets now, when he’s still a child — he’s eleven —, so he won’t feel he has wasted as much time as I have. I was planning to do it casually, maybe in the form of bedtime talks, very short, very objective, something along the lines of what I wish someone had done for me when my mind was young and chock-full of confused questions.

I started the program last week. Each night, as I tucked him in bed, I tried to condense into concise sentences one of the precious truths it had taken me a long time to reap from my own tangled existence. “Life lessons”, I called them. I explained to my son that bedtime would be a time for life lessons. He seemed to like the idea.

The first nights, I served him jewels like:

“You shouldn’t make things more complicated than they need to be.”

“Use your time to practice what you want to be good at.”

“Trust me even when you don’t understand what I say.”

After a few days, I thought it would be good pedagogical practice to review the previous lessons before proclaiming a new one. That was when I found my son couldn’t remember any of them! I was outraged! To take for granted such a treasure of life lessons! How unwise. How disappointing.

How confusing.

Then I realized I couldn’t remember them either. I was making my life lessons so compact that they were slipping through our mental fingers, so to speak. The human mind, I concluded, has not evolved to process these concentrated bits of pure truth in any efficient way. Before I could explain this to my son, however, he confessed:

“I thought you were going to tell me stories about how you learned your life lessons.”


But of course.


Stories are how the human mind digests important truths.

Stories take longer than aphorisms, sure, but not so long as fifty years. My son was right.

So stories it would be.

Except that I couldn’t find them. I searched as hard as I could, but all I found were disconnected fragments, isolated events, indistinct impressions. Where were the stories, my stories, the raw stuff of my worldview? Either I couldn’t remember them or they didn’t exist at all — not in the form I was looking for.

Could it be because my lessons, my precious life lessons, had only been learned little by little, after a lot of trial and error, while I went stumbling through the decades? Were my lessons a trick of mirrors, an illusion that existed only with the benefit of hindsight?

Would my son have to live my life — or his life, for that matter — to learn the lessons I was trying to teach him?

There was only one solution I could see.

I would have to make up my stories.

And this is how this book came to be.

Here they are.

They are stories of fantasy and fiction, to urge you not to take for granted the world in which we live, because things could have been, could be, may someday be very different from what we consider “normal” and “commonplace” today.

They are stories that warn you that it is so-called “normality” that is fictional, because fiction can carry much deeper truths than “normality” can.

They are stories with lots of interior monologues and dialogues addressing the reader (is there really a difference?), because I think the only life worth living is the life of the mind.

They are stories about the lives of mysterious characters, some of them not even human. I can’t help you much here. I don’t know who they are, or where they have come from. They simply showed up and told me their tales themselves.

So we’re both in this together, you and I: if there are life lessons to be learned from these stories, it is up to me — as much as it is up to you — to find out what those lessons are.

They are stories I may have never lived — not that I remember, anyway —, but that I’ve had somewhere inside me all this time. There must be a lot of me in them, and I sure hope there are more of them in me.

The book, needless to say, is dedicated to my son.

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