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Tuesday, November 20, 2018

For Discussion

Which is the greater virtue: equality of opportunity or equality of outcome? 

I ask because Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s story, “Harrison Bergeron,” has been much on my mind lately: so much so that I just wasted twenty minutes trying to scan a page of it from my 40-something-year-old copy of Welcome to the Monkey House. My computer and scanner aren’t talking to each other this morning, though, so I’ll have to do this the tedious way.

The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

Some things about living still weren’t quite right, though. April, for instance, still drove people crazy by not being springtime. And it was in that clammy month that the H-G men took George and Hazel Bergeron’s fourteen-year-old son, Harrison, away.

It was tragic, all right, but George and Hazel couldn’t think about it very hard. Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains...

“Harrison Bergeron” was first published in the October 1961 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. The deeper we get into the 21st Century, the more firmly I come to believe that a.) it is the single most genuinely prophetic short story published in the past 60 years, and b.) there is no way this story would be published today—at least, not in F&SF—because there are too many people now who would be profoundly offended by the core premise of the story.

Agree? Disagree? Let the arguments begin.


Monday, November 19, 2018

A View from the Geek

• "Geeking Is Good," By Eric Dontigney 

When I was a kid, geeking was purely the domain of D&D players, fantasy fiction buffs, and hardcore science fiction fans. At least, that was the general perception. Some of this was simply a byproduct of visibility and intensity. By and large, the groups listed above were populated by social outcasts, kids with lots of imagination and poor social skills, or the painfully bright. It was all of those things for some poor, damned souls. When we finally stumbled upon those of our own ilk, we stuck and stuck hard, never to look back. Geeking, which often intensified ostracization by what passed as the social elite, also meant an end to the absolute isolation so many of us experienced as kids and teens.

Of course, to steal borrow from Stephen King, the world “moved on.” Aided in no small part by the Internet, we all discovered that geeking out was, improbably, a hell of a lot more normal and widespread than any of us imagined. Geeking was no longer a scarlet letter of shame but a freaking red badge of courage. Other people liked comic books and science fiction and The Dark Tower and The Lord of the Rings and, praise God it’s not just me, Firefly. There were conventions, communities and, be still my geeky heart, people selling handmade Jayne Hats on Etsy.

This discovery wasn’t just mind-blowing for the poor, beleaguered social misfits. It was a full-on geomagnetic reversal of the social order. Up was down, left was right, and I could love Classic Doctor Who (terrible production values and all) openly.

Of course, to parse some lingo from the net, there will always be haters. You know them well. They’re the trolls and misanthropes and joy-killing anonymous posters that wish to belittle anything they cannot understand or, more likely, who have never loved anything enough to commit. We should pity these people because their biggest problem isn’t that they hate the things we love. I believe that their problem is that they have no passion.

Being a geek about something is all about passion. It’s about finding something that you can connect with on a level deep enough that you no longer care whether it’s “cool.” It’s cool enough for you. It makes your life better in some substantial way, and you want to share that with other people. You want people to be made as happy as you are made by these things. It’s what makes you proselytize about your geeky activity, drag your friends along to events they can’t wrap their heads around, and force your loved ones to watch episodes of Eureka. <---- If you aren’t inflicting the adventures of Sheriff Carter, Fargo, Allison, and Henry on EVERYBODY, for shame!

What I find perplexing is how people can get all the way through a life without ever, even once, finding something that captures their attention so fully that they Must Share It. I find that unhealthy and sad. It suggests to me that their imaginations were brutalized as kids, their willingness not to conform crushed by parents, teachers, and peers. In the end, I think, if you’re not geeking about something, it may be time to check your priorities.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One.  Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally at

Eric’s last appearance in our pages was “Lenses,” in Stupefying Stories #21, and later this year we’ll be releasing his paranormal mystery novel, The Midnight Ground. Watch for it! 


Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Discussion: Input Wanted

I have a problem with prescience: to me, it’s always been useless. There are days it seems as if I’m condemned to live in the future I envisioned, with absolutely no hope of changing its course.

For example, today, I’m going to get all self-referential and—well, reference myself, or more specifically, this interview I did with Lynne Jamneck for Strange Horizons more than 13 years ago.

Lynne Jamneck: What's your opinion on the current state of SF writing?

Bruce Bethke: I believe you've actually asked at least three questions here. In terms of pure writing, the current state is better than it's ever been before. Compare any current issue of any major magazine to the clunky prose produced by the Grand Masters during the Golden Age or the psychotic fugues whipped out by the Young Turks during the New Wave, and I think you'll agree that for sheer literary quality, there are more highly skilled writers working now than ever before.

In terms of the market, on the other hand, things right now are as bad as I've ever seen in my adult life. From what I've read, you'd have to go back to around 1960 to find a time when the paying market for new SF was as tough.

What this means for writers, then, is that there are a lot of very talented people doing a lot of extremely good work, and publishing it in some pretty marginal venues. It's a difficult time to be trying to earn your living as a professional science fiction writer.

Lynne Jamneck: Are you seeing any interesting avenues in which the genre finds itself expanding?

Bruce Bethke: I think it's a mistake to talk about "the genre" as if it were a monolith. There may have been a time when it was possible for a dedicated fan to read a good sampling of all the new SF being published, but that time—if it ever really was—was long ago. What we've been going through for at least the last 30 years has been a sort of literary cladogenesis, with "the genre" fragmenting into dozens of related but distinct daughter-genres and microgenres.

The interesting part of this is that, between print-on-demand publishing, e-publishing, web publishing, and all the other emerging technologies, it's now at least semipractical to publish fiction that has no hope of ever appealing to a mass audience. If you wanted to, say, launch an e-zine devoted exclusively to publishing stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama, you could do it, and do a very professional-looking job of it. Not only that, but thanks to the Internet, you would actually stand a pretty fair chance of reaching the 500 people in the world who want to read nothing but stories about promiscuous centaurs living in trailer parks in Alabama. So there's more fiction being published than ever before.

The downside for the writer, though, is that there's no money in it. The general interest magazines appear to be following the general interest anthologies into extinction, and extreme specialization and small-niche marketing seem to be the shape of things to come. Readers now have unprecedented power to find only exactly the types of fiction they want to read, without risk of accidental exposure to anything else. I suppose they've always had this power—I can think of entire years when I subscribed to Asimov's and only read two or three stories in each issue—but at least with a general interest magazine, there was always the possibility that after you'd read the Michael Swanwick and Lucius Shepard stories, you might take a chance on Karen Joy Fowler.

But this trend towards extreme narrowcasting—it's both fascinating and disturbing. When the reader can exercise such fine control over the input he receives, how does a writer crack through that protective shell?

Well? Your comments, observations, and/or suggestions? The lines are now open. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

BREAKING NEWS: Disney to Remake Outlaw King!

Just kidding. You can resume breathing. Yes, we did watch Outlaw King this weekend: my wife, because she finds Chris Pine to be pleasing eye-candy, and me—actually, she kind of dragged me into watching it. I’m already quite familiar with the story. Robert the Bruce is a distant ancestor, after all. It was not by accident that my Dad named my older brother Robert, and me... Well, you know.

But once I started watching, I did get thoroughly hooked by the story, and I really enjoyed this movie. Most of all, I appreciated the fact that the filmmakers actually made a significant effort to get the history right, and did not make the traditional Hollywood botch of the thing.

Which got me thinking: what if...

Hence today’s gedankenexperiment*: what if, say, Disney had gotten hold of this property? How would it have been different? Obviously, the first place to start would have been by casting Idris Elba as the Black Douglas, and then giving Queen Elizabeth a big boss-fight duel with the Prince of Wales atop the battlements of Berwick Castle. But what other horrible things would they have done to it, in order to make it a proper Hollywood movie?

The lines are open. Let the conversation begin.

* gedankenexperiment: German for, “no funding available”

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Armistice Day 2018

A century ago today, the guns on the Western Front fell silent, and “the war to end all wars” came to an official close. That wasn’t exactly what really happened, of course: on the Eastern Front, the Great War segued into the Russian Revolution, followed by the Polish-Soviet War and then the Russian Civil War. On the Greco-Turkish front, the fighting continued until 1922, and in a sense the world today is still dealing with the fallout from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire then. If you read German sources, you’ll learn that the German military leadership at the time considered the 11/11/18 Armistice merely an opportunity to fall back, rest, reorganize, re-equip, and get ready for the next war with France.

But never mind that now. Let’s accept that on November 11, 1918, “the war to end all wars” officially came to an end. The older I get, the more poignant this anniversary seems to become to me, while at the same time the more horribly sardonic H. G. Wells’ 1914 propaganda phrase—yes, H. G. Wells, not Woodrow Wilson, coined the expression, “the war to end war”—becomes as well.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Friday Challenge: 11/09/2018 Edition

Posting on Saturday morning, because to be honest, by the time I got done with all the work that absolutely needed to be done by E.O.B. Friday, I just wanted to relax, enjoy dinner, and then kick back with a glass of wine and watch Incredibles 2.

Good movie, by the way. If you enjoyed The Incredibles, this is one of those rare sequels that picks up from where the first one left off and actually improves on it. If you’re overloaded on Marvel superhero movies, then you really need to watch Incredibles 2, to remind yourself that superhero movies can actually still be fun once in a while.

Right. This column is supposed to be about the new Friday Challenge. Back on topic, then.

Being capable of learning from experience, we’ve decided to change things up a bit this time out. First off, the challenge this time is to write a funny flash-fiction story—longer, this time; you can go up to 500 words if you must, although you should probably try to keep it under 250, and if you can do it in 100 words, that’s fantastic—about something Thanksgiving holiday related.*

Friday, November 9, 2018

Bad Imitation Lovecraft Contest: AND THE WINNER IS...

After taking an entire week longer than originally planned to reach a decision, and after doing my best to pawn the responsibility off on someone else recruit celebrity judges to help guide our decision-making, I am delighted to announce two things:

1. That after a surprising amount of debate, we finally have settled on a clear winner for the Bad Imitation Lovecraft Friday Challenge, and

2. That doing the Friday Challenge one more time turned out to be fun, so we’re going to repeat it and issue a new challenge later today.

Before we do so, though, I’d like to direct your attention one more time to the entries we received and the readers’ comments thereon: contest entries and comments. As you consider the entries and read the comments, please remember that the Friday Challenge is both a penny-ante writing contest and an audience participation feature. You need not have submitted an entry in order to read and comment on the entries.

Are we all clear on that? Good. Then, in the thoughtful, considered, and unappealable decision of the judges, the top entries are, in win, place, and show order:

Thursday, November 8, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Nights Over Ganymede,” by Victoria Feistner

Three days of riots.

Three days of burning, coughing gutter-smoke, air-hoarding. Watching gauges on tanks like it’s a bartender pouring your first legal drink. Three days of gunfire, leaping at shadows, holding your breath while the god Jupiter stares down on us.

Jupiter doesn’t care.

Half the time I want to be out there with them, shouting and throwing trash from the barricades. Half the time I’m holed up in my cube, table against the door. Half the time it’s just normal life, and the three halves make as much sense as anything else these days.

The king has to die before the new king can rise; I’ve read history and seen the movie, but living it is another thing all together.

SHOWCASE: “The Last Interview,” by Chris Dean

The man’s face is gone, shredded and pasted into white mosaic. His eyes are blue-pink with despair as he strolls with arms jouncing into my office. He has on the ugliest affable smile I have ever witnessed. It is a puerile, disturbing act, this bravado. “May I?” His tone is perfectly suited. He may, I gesture, and he is careful to place himself into the chair in the most correct manner possible.

He portrays himself as outgoing, dependable, forthright, and many things. Unctuous, sycophantic, and obsequious, that’s what I’m hearing. A talker, this one. The chatter becomes a buzz and his hopping pink mouth a blur. His voice begins slicing and whining like mad. He knows I’m not listening. The festering desperation inside him is starting to spill out.

We both know that he’s begging for his life. For independence. That’s what a job is in the 22nd century and you can’t drive, get credit, or have children without one. I quite literally hold this young man’s future in my palm.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Night Shift,” by David Hann

Rick Clayton wiped the sweat off his brow. It was after eight in the evening, the factory doors were open to the night air, but it was still in the mid 90s. Rick hated July. Rick, to be fair, hated a lot of things. Right now it was humidity, heat, and the weight of the boxes he was shifting that dominated his thoughts, but given time he could think of a great many other things he hated.

“I hate this job,” he said.

“You always say that,” replied Paul Matthew, hefting another box onto the pallet, and sliding it into the correct position. “Next time I’ll let you take the pallet and cling-wrap it. Just for the variety.”

“Why do we have to do this crap anyway?” Rick asked. “Surely machines could do this.”

“Maybe,” said Kari Morris, the other worker packing the pallet with them, “but machines cost more than we do. Besides, folks like us, what sort of job are we going to get if not in a factory? How are we gonna get the money to buy stuff?”

“She’s got you there, man,” said Paul, easing the pallet truck under the pallet before flicking the switch to raise it. “I’m taking this outside to the wrapper. At least it’s a little cooler out there.”

He gently eased the pallet out the door.

“Bet he stops for a smoke,” growled Rick, grabbing a pallet and placing it beside the packing line as Kari picked up the next box and started the bottom layer of the pallet.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Re the Bad Imitation Lovecraft Challenge

As of the Saturday deadline, we’d received six viable entries for the Bad Imitation Lovecraft challenge. Another entry was disqualified for exceeding the 100-word limit—by a factor of 40X, which in itself is impressive overachievement—and as for the Lovecraft limerick we received...

Sunday, November 4, 2018

SHOWCASE: “Hunter’s Moon,” by Edward Ahern

“You headed out tonight, Otis?”

“Got to. Clear sky, full moon. None better.”

“Maybe not. Tom Sizemore went out two year ago, never come back.”

“Tommy was a drunk.”

Otis reached up to the gun rack and lifted off a Savage lever action .308. He was forty years old, and the gun was a lot older than he was. As he mounted a flashlight atop the barrel, he talked to it. “All right, buddy, let’s go jack a deer.”

Marlou knew better but tried again. “Pond’s froze over already, Otis. Wait till it warms up tomorrow morning.”

“And the wardens have finished their coffee. You know better. Deer moving now, enough light to spot ‘em. I’ll hunt from my perch, they’ll never see me till they get shined.”

Otis pulled on insulated hunting boots, lined black pants, an insulated camo jacket and a black stocking cap. He stuffed insulated gloves into his pockets. Bulkier than he liked, but sitting still for hours he’d chill down bad, and if he was shivering he’d be apt to miss. He put a drag harness over his shoulder, grabbed the gun, and looked over at Marlou. They didn’t talk much anymore, just screwed some.

“Be going out the back cellar door, in case somebody’s watching. Don’t turn on no lights unless the wardens show up. If they do, turn on the back door light so I can sheer off.”

“It ain’t worth it, Otis. We’ll get by.”

“Hell we will. We don’t get deer meat we starve sweetie. I’m off.”

Otis went down to the basement and out the ground-mounted cellar door. Despite stepping gently, the autumn leaves rustled as he moved, the only sound in the night still. It was just after midnight, and in the cold, clear winter air the moon drowned out the stars.

Friday, November 2, 2018

One More Bad Imitation Lovecraft Contest Update

Just a quick reminder: the Bad Imitation Lovecraft contest is still open for submissions. The official deadline for submissions is midnight Central time tonight, but as usual, the Snowdog Rule* applies. See this post for more information.

[* Briefly stated, the Snowdog Rule holds that while the official deadline may be midnight tonight, the practical deadline is whenever I wake up and check my email tomorrow, as there ain’t no way I’m staying up to watch for submissions and standing ready to enforce a hard cutoff.]

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Talking Shop

re pseudonyms (cont’d)

One argument in favor of using a pseudonym is that life can get very weird when you become a public figure; even as minor a public figure as a published writer. There is a small but determined subset of the species who seem to believe that because they’ve read and liked something you’ve written, you’re their new best friend, and you would be just absolutely delighted if they were to phone you up at two in the morning to tell you that, or show up on your doorstep one day expecting to be invited in for tea and biscuits, or in one particularly memorable incident, to walk right into your house, in the delusional belief that you would be thrilled to see them and eager to drop everything and start talking about whichever story of yours it was they wanted to talk about.
[Luckily, that particular incident happened many years ago. I wouldn’t try it now. The current Mrs. Bethke is the daughter of a Marine Corps combat veteran who in subsequent civilian life became a career cop, and he taught his daughters to apply .357 Magnum first and ask questions later.]