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Wednesday, April 14, 2021

How Ray Bradbury has driven my writing without me even knowing about it • by Guy Stewart

When Bruce emailed me with the announcement that this week was going to be “Ray Bradbury Week,” he asked, “How about a review of Fahrenheit 451, or something about the incredible impact of ‘A Sound of Thunder’?”

To tell you the truth, I couldn’t remember that particular short story, and it’s been like…a zillion years since I read Fahrenheit 451. I asked if could write something about a story that did leave a profound mark on me as a young person: “There Will Come Soft Rains.”

In the post-nuclear-attack 1970s, us littles still had memories of “duck and cover,” the sadly inappropriate policy that, when the nuclear attack sirens sounded and you were at school, you should get under your desk, cover your face, and close your eyes real tight…

When I was thirteen and reading every word of science fiction I could get my hands on in the school library and the public library—and without a single wise mentor or parent to guide me—I eventually ran across “There Will Come Soft Rains,” the second-to-last story in The Martian Chronicles. I read it, and to this day, the end of the story will flash into mind: the images, burned into the paint of the house, from a nuclear flash…as the house burns down and the home computer talks to itself.

Flash-forward to sometime at the end of the second decade of the 21st Century. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and being the closest child to where he lived, I was tasked with the job of making sure everything was going OK with him at the care center he lived at, in the Memory Care Unit. I began to wonder if there was a better way of caring for our rapidly fading parents and wrote a story that reflected the ultimate, pathetic (in the original sense) end of Human civilization as my own “world” ended, with Dad’s eventual death due to complications of Alzheimer’s. It was never published, but if you’d like to read it, the link below will lead you to the story on my blog site.

I chronicled my parents’ gradual deterioration (mom’s diagnosis was “age-related dementia”) on a blog you can find if you Google “Guy’s Gotta Talk About…”

In unconscious echo, I had returned to a Bradbury story I had read decades prior; and to this day, his poetic rendering of nuclear destruction is both chilling and oddly calming. Calming in that he puts into words that mimic prose, poetry that reflects deeper feelings of grief at the inevitability of something over which we—I—had no control.

Bradbury’s most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, was required reading in high school, and I did my duty but haven’t read it since. I have it next to me on my desk, so there’s a good chance I’ll be picking it up soon to read it again.

But what I found startling was that I had written an echo of another piece of Bradbury’s work. “Invoking Fire” opens with a private library in the main character’s home being burned in toto. His Great Uncle is dead and he is charged with bringing a backpack full of books of increasing value to a mysterious library in the Erg of Bilma. (

So, why does the boy even try to do this? Because when I wrote it, it seemed inevitable that most books would become electronically stored. It seemed inevitable that given the editable nature of Wikipedia, anything online could be altered by anyone with the right skills. Certainly some of the altering was for puerile adolescent amusement. But what if someone altered the copy for political correctness? What if certain things became unacceptable in fiction? (And can anyone find a new or library copy of And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street? I don’t know. I’m just asking for a friend.)

Na’Rodeny’s Great Uncle collects hard copies of books. In this scene of the story, he and his non-girlfriend compare a passage from Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie:

“Read the first paragraph of your online copy of CARRIE,” said Angelique.

“What?” said Na’Rodney.

“Just do it!” she snarled, waving the hardcover book. He looked down at the screen. “Shut your mouth and follow along while I read from the original. ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She slapped Carrie smartly across the face. She hardly would have admitted the pleasure the act gave her, and she certainly would have denied that she regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, she still believed that she thought all children were good.’”

“Mine doesn’t say that,” said Na’Rodney softly, looking at his cellphone. “This is what mine says, ‘When the girls were gone to their Period Two classes and the bell had been silenced (several of them had slipped quietly out the back door before Miss Desjardin could begin to take names), Miss Desjardin employed the standard tactic for hysterics: She knelt down and touched Carrie gently on the shoulder. She hardly would have admitted how much this poor girl needed a guiding hand in her life. The daughter of a religion-crazed bigot, her mother regarded Carrie as a fat, whiny bag of lard. A first-year teacher, Miss Desjardin believed that all children were good.’”

Na’Rodney blinked and said, “Again.” He read his passage, eyes on his phone as she read the paper copy out loud. He looked up, “They’re different.”

“That’s what your great uncle and the rest of the Papers are worried about. If someone, somewhere went to the trouble of changing an electronic work of fiction, how many works of nonfiction will be changed?”

You can read the entire story if you follow the link below. But rereading parts of Fahrenheit 451 and my own story, I can see a reflection of Bradbury’s book in my own story. In particular, the theme, which is a fear of the written word and what it can do to us.

“In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury said that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy Era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.”

I didn’t realize until I took up the challenge of reviewing something Bradbury, that my own writing has been affected by Ray Bradbury. My writing has been so deeply affected that I didn’t even realize that it had until now. Reflecting just now, I realize that my first Stupefying Stories fiction was written using more of a poetic style than I usually use—again, this was a reflection of Bradbury’s prose, which is written as if it were poetry. It evokes rather than illuminates. Reading a Bradbury novel or story isn’t like reading a Lois McMaster Bujold novel or story—nor should it be! There are times when I just want to read a good story well told.

But Bradbury’s work doesn’t seem to be that kind of story. His work evokes feelings, and while it entertains, it doesn’t feel like its main intent was entertainment. When I was a young teenager, I read The Martian Chronicles as science fiction. Reading it as an adult, it’s very much not just a bunch of science fiction stories…and I won’t say anything more because I haven’t read them for some time, and Bruce is going to be doing or did do a piece about them.

I’m sure everyone has an opinion of Bradbury’s work, but my discovery that I have unconsciously picked up his themes and style was genuine surprise.

—Guy Stewart



Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS ( where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.


“A Sound of Thunder”:

“There Will Come Soft Rains”:

Source Poem for the title:

“Invoking Fire”:

“And After Soft Rains, Daisies”:

Wikipedia article on his novel:

Write and Wrung Out • by Beth DeVore


Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Bradbury Problem • by Bruce Bethke

Oh yeah, I’ve read a little Ray Bradbury. Even met the man once, and had a nice conversation with him. When Pete Wood proposed doing a series of posts on Bradbury and his work, I went to my bookshelf and pulled down some books for research. This heap is by no means complete; for example, I have at least three different editions of The Martian Chronicles around here … somewhere. Nor do I know where my copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes disappeared to. I must have loaned it to someone who never returned it.

Bet you didn’t even know that Green Shadows, White Whale existed, did you? Perhaps it’s better you don’t.

But when Pete proposed the topic, I wasn’t too enthused about it. My never-finished thesis was to be a hatchet job on the man, taking issue with Bantam’s recurring promotional shtick, “The world’s greatest living science-fiction writer.” In hindsight it’s a far better thing that I never finished it, as it would have been the sort of cranky rant that only a 20-something with an enormous chip on his shoulder could believe the world needed.

Forty years later, after most of a lifetime spent in the SF publishing racket, I really didn’t think that there was anything left to be said about the subject. Ray Bradbury was. His works exist. He put a dent in the zeitgeist you just can’t ignore.

So what could I write about Bradbury and his work that hasn’t been written a hundred times before? I tried to interest Pete in writing about two stories that I consider especially problematic, “Way Up in the Middle of the Air” and “The Other Foot,” but Pete wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot cattle prod. I gave some thought to writing about the prescience of Fahrenheit 451, but didn’t have time to develop the topic. I got close to settling on writing about The Martian Chronicles, and the problems it has created for every writer and editor who has come afterward. 

Then, as I was giving one last thought to writing about Fahrenheit 451, a work more people seem to know from François Truffaut’s 1966 film than from the actual book, Ray saved me again, as he so often has before, with his “Coda” to the 1979 edition. If you’ve never read it before, here is what Bradbury had to say about the problems with Bradbury’s stories.

About two years ago, a letter arrived from a solemn young Vassar lady telling me how much she enjoyed reading my experiment in space mythology, The Martian Chronicles.

But, she added, wouldn’t it be a good idea, this late in time, to rewrite the book inserting more women’s characters and roles?

A few years before that I got a certain amount of mail concerning the same Martian book complaining that the blacks in the book were Uncle Toms and why didn’t I “do them over”?

Along about then came a note from a Southern white suggesting that I was prejudiced in favor of the blacks and the entire story [~brb: the aforementioned “Way Up in the Middle of the Air”] should be dropped.

Two weeks ago my mountain of mail delivered forth a pipsqueak mouse of a letter from a well-known publishing house that wanted to reprint my story “The Fog Horn” in a high school reader.

In my story, I had described a lighthouse as having, late at night, an illumination coming from it that was a “God-Light.” Looking up at it from the viewpoint of any sea-creature one would have felt that one was in “the Presence.”

The editors had deleted “God-Light” and “in the Presence.” 

Some five years back, the editors of yet another another anthology for school readers put together a volume with some 400 (count ‘em) short stories in it. How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book?

Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weight more than a mosquito—out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch—gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer—lost!

Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepenciled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like—in the finale—Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention—shot dead.

Do you begin to get the damned and incredible picture?

How did I react to all of the above?

By “firing” the whole lot.

By sending rejection slips to each and every one.

By ticketing the assembly of idiots to the far reaches of hell.

The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octagenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist / Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib / Republican, Mattachine / Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dare to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme… 

There’s more; much more. If you don’t have a copy of Fahrenheit 451 you owe it to yourself to get one and read it. Look for an edition published in 1979 or later, as it will include Bradbury’s Coda. Avoid the special October 1953 “fireproof” edition, as the cover is printed on asbestos and probably violates Amazon’s hazardous materials handling policy now. But for me, now, reading the Coda Bradbury wrote for the 1979 edition:

As Truffaut might say, “Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”

—Bruce Bethke

Monday, April 12, 2021

Of Prose, Poetry, and Ray Bradbury • by Pete Wood


My wife and I have watched a California folk singer’s weekly acoustic concert every Saturday night since the pandemic began. Last week somebody asked him to name his writing influences. No songwriters for him. Nope. He talked for five minutes about Ray Bradbury.

And why not? Bradbury’s prose is almost poetry.

I love Bradbury. I struggle a bit with the sexism, but that is part and parcel of most 20th century science fiction. Bradbury doesn’t push the uber tough guy, like Heinlein. He just doesn’t have many female characters.

Last year I reread The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and they hold up pretty well. They ain’t got nothing on A Sound of Thunder.  His 1952 short story stands head and shoulders above everything he’s written as far as I’m concerned. It is also the best time travel story of all time.

Second place falls to Robert Heinlein’s All you Zombies. Ah, to be a fly on the wall at any therapy sessions Heinlein may have had where he explained the Oedipal nightmares that inspired that story. In Zombies Heinlein not only disses women, he dispenses with them altogether. Zombie’s protagonist doesn’t need no stinkin’ women. He can be his own mother.  Hell yeah! The only true love is the love a man has for himself. It’s a better use of time travel than Heinlein’s A Door into Summer, a breezy novel for the most part except for the unsettling notion that time travel could be employed to have a legal relationship with that little girl down the street you’ve been pining away for.

My favorite time travel novel might be The Man Who Folded Himself by David Gerrold. Or perhaps A Christmas Carol. For movies, it’s hard to beat the Terminator.

Then there’s Needle in a Time Stack by Robert Silverberg. The greatest short story title I’ve ever seen and a really fun story to boot. I liked its theory of time travel so much that I lifted it for Academic Circles (Asimov’s, September 2016). If we’re talking stuff I’ve written, my favorite time travel story is The Old Man and the Safe, published by Every Day Fiction on February 26, 2013.

Anyhow, back to Bradbury. He is one of the rare authors whose distinct style has not been  emulated. It’s a short list. I’d include William Faulkner and a handful of others. A good argument could be made that Bradbury isn’t a speculative writer. He’s literary. Colliers first published A Sound of Thunder, not one of the pulps. But Bradbury felt at home in the pulps too. EC comics—of Tales of the Crypt fame—adapted the story in 1954 for issue 25 of Weird Science Fantasy.

In a sense many of Bradbury’s tales are about time travel. Like Jack Finney, he has a deep nostalgia for his childhood. When we travel to Mars in Mars in Heaven, we don’t find Martians, we find early 20th century small town America. Novels like Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine are a celebration of Bradbury’s youth in Ohio.

Bradbury sees change often as ugly and unnecessary. You get the feeling he’d like nothing better than to go back to the simpler days of his childhood. Fahrenheit 451 presents a nightmarish future dominated by corporations, advertising, and dolts who don’t read.

In The Martian Chronicles, when the Americans settle Mars, they accidentally kill off almost all of the Martians with chicken pox and then systemically start steamrolling over the joint. They reinvent the Red Planet as the  1950s postwar United States. They tear down the gossamer towers and crystal palaces of the Martians. They rename everything after American icons and lay down highways and set up hamburger stands and drug stores. God bless the USA!

As Alfred the janitor muses to Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street, “here's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world, but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck. Make a buck.”

Bradbury’s disdain for big business and corporate greed is front and center in A Sound of Thunder where in 2055 time travel is a business. No government control. No academic study. Nope. Just salesmen who take you back in time to kill dinosaurs. The companies lay down boardwalks to keep the past safe from change and spray paint dinosaurs who are going to die anyway so yokel tourists can kill them safely.

I’m reminded of that Minnesota dentist who flew to Africa to gun down poor docile Cecil the Lion for his trophy case. I have no doubt that Bradbury’s commercialization of time travel might be the most prescient view. John Kessel certainly thought so in Corrupting Doctor Nice, where the crucifixion of Jesus had become a tourist destination and the apostles are reduced to selling souvenirs. John Kessel told me, “The past in DR NICE is exploited mercilessly, and the lives of historical people drastically changed, often for the worse. But because of the multi-universe time tracks, the future doesn’t pay a price. Like the first world exploiting the third world, a metaphor for colonialism.”

The plot of A Sound of Thunder is simple. I don’t want to summarize it, because, if somehow you haven’t read the short story, I don’t want to take away that pleasure from you. Suffice it to say that when you finish the story, you’ll never think of the term “the butterfly effect” in the same way again.

The Ray Bradbury Theater did a good, not great, adaption of the short story in 1989 for television. Barely adequate acting and poor production values about sink the episode. The 2005 movie is just a travesty. It has nothing in common with the story aside from the name. Stretching out the story, inserting endless special effects, and creating a truly incomprehensible theory of time travel doesn’t make it better. It’s like thinking you can improve on Robert Frost by adding a love interest and a gun fight to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

I can heartily endorse the Simpsons segment “Time and Punishment” from Treehouse of Horror V. The episode is funny, with Homer as the world’s worst time traveler, and it gets the short story, unlike the movie.



Pete Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his kind and very patient wife. His first appearance in our pages was “Mission Accomplished” in the now out-of-print August 2012 issue. After publishing a lot of stories with us he graduated to being a regular contributor to Asimov’s, but he’s still kind enough to send us things we can publish from time to time, and we’re always happy to get them

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Clash of the Schlockmeisters!


When I first began blogging sixteen years ago, I set a rule for myself that Sundays were reserved for my family. It seems like a good idea to reinstate this rule now, but since the Internet abhors a vacuum, I had to come up with something to post today. 


The rules are simple: the two contestants in this head-to-head battle of the losers must be big-budget productions, released by major studios, made by experienced directors and producers, and starring recognizable movie stars. And there are just two questions to be discussed:

1. Which of these two movies is the most cringe-inducing one to watch now? 

2. Do either of these movies have any redeeming values? 

The challenge has been presented. The clock is ticking. Have at them, hammer and tongs, and always remember: 

Have fun!

See you tomorrow,

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Rejoinder: Liturgical Music in Science Fiction? I think so!

by Jeanne Van Slyke Evans

Before I was confirmed in the Anglican Church, I had no idea what liturgy was. As a church musician most of my life, that may seem impossible, but thrust into the roles of Music Director, Cantor, Choir Member, Pianist, and Organist (yes, all at once in a very small church), one learns to sink or swim.

Research into actual liturgical music in sci-fi leaves a cold trail so far. That parameter is a little too narrow, when viewed through the lens of Christian and religious liturgy. However, I can think of several instances of quasi-liturgical, almost communion-esque scenes in sci-fi films.

According to Wikipedia:

Liturgy is the customary public worship performed by a religious group. As a religious phenomenon, liturgy represents a communal response to and participation in the sacred through activities reflecting praise, thanksgiving, remembrance, supplication, or repentance. 

In my personal experience liturgy is a pattern of prayers and actions that lead up to a sermon, and usually the taking of communion—or a similar blessing that brings together the people who gather and agree on their set of beliefs. The sections of the liturgical service are prefaced with a short song the choir leads for the congregants to sing, followed by a reading of a passage in unison. Sections of the Anglican service include the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and the vicar directs the congregation along the way.

I have to wonder: what was the background music in various films when characters were gathering and agreeing on common beliefs? In Dune, Paul Atreides becomes the Messiah who will make the waters cover the deserts of Arrakis and harness the former nemesis of the planet, the worms, to defeat the slave-mafia of the Spice Guild. Well, everyone who likes sci-fi knows that—but can some of the music be considered liturgical? Brian Eno wrote more music for the 1984 film than actually made it into the final cut. Eno’s three-hour “Prophecy Theme” on YouTube illustrates my idea:

When Paul—Muad’Dib—stands with his hand in a pose of blessing, in front of a large army of Fremen who intend to conquer the Guild, the tall standards form a cross and there are choristers/monks lining the sides of the elongated cave.


Wordless music, calming a crowd, bringing in the spirit of solidarity: devotional music and hymns can do the same thing, and each has its own purpose within a worship service, but I think the ‘Prophecy Theme’ comes closest to being liturgical in truest form.

Then, we have the Book People of Fahrenheit 451, wandering the forest like monks, nuns, and other devoted believers—of books. They speak their memorized books like a liturgy, each one a part of the larger whole of mankind’s intellectual and artistic history. Have you ever paused to listen to the music there, in the background? I may have heard it countless times viewing this wonderful film, but here is yet another wordless song of worship.

Bernard Hermann, “The Road and the Finale”

This is what I preach to my music students all the time.  Music is everywhere, and in everything. It creates tension in scary movies, sets the moods required for any emotions required of the audience, and makes great sound effects. In this sense, it would be hard to have music in books or stories.  It’s not always liturgical, but watch and listen—especially listen. Music permeates everything from ball games, to commercials, to funerals. Music is often part of any event, organized or not. So, who’s to say that “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” wouldn’t be ‘liturgical,’ since it leads up to a group of people there for a purpose? Expanding liturgy into the universe, and at the risk of being sacrilegious, one could say that this was once a sacred song!

Jeanne Van Slyke Evans holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and both a BA and MFA in English. A native Minnesotan, she now lives and gardens in Zone 8, and teaches voice and piano lessons and occasionally watercolor painting workshops. Most of her reading is in poetry and non-fiction, but she also loves historical fiction, especially anything related to the Arthurian legends.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Twelve Notes in Search of a Theme


Spring returns to the North Country, traveling in the company of soft rains and the occasional thundershower. The sudden transformation seems nearly miraculous. In a week the grass has gone from brown and apparently dead to lush, green, and growing. The crocuses have already finished their warm-up act and the puschkinias are wrapping up their run. The tulips are full of the promise of blossoms, the bloodroot is all set to go for its big opening number, and a few of the more eager daffodils have already popped into full bloom. One lonely sandhill crane struts around the cow pasture, wondering why all the rest are late. The air is full of the songs of birds, just returned from their winter homes down south.

Yes, I’m sure the geese think the racket with which they salute the dawn is the most beautiful singing in all the world, too.


If you’ve written to me in the past two weeks or so, my apologies for the tardiness of my reply. Things here have gone just a bit wobbly on the rails again. We don’t know yet whether this is some new symptom or just another pharmaceutical misadventure, but suffice to say we’re back on the diagnostic roller-coaster. Rather than publish speculation and supposition, we’ll share the news when we have actual news to share.

When one is living with cancer, one tends to either clam up or overshare. Other people overshare much better than I do. I think I’ll leave that field to them.


ASK DR. CYBERPUNK is giving it a miss this week. I had begun to write the whole sordid story of how my original c-word novel began as something—well, something pretty darn cyberpunky—but mutated into a military boarding school bildungsroman. I will get back to that topic, but not this week.

The short version is that a) it was my fault, and b) it’s a cautionary tale for aspiring writers. Sometimes, even when you have a four-book deal in hand and both your editor and your agent agree that you need to make “just a few small changes” to make the finished novel a more commercial property, the right thing to do is still to tell them both to get stuffed and walk away from the deal.


If you have noticed, I have been taking a Facebook holiday for the past week or so. This was not intentional. A bit over a week ago I found myself locked out of my Facebook account, not because I had committed Thoughtcrime (as I had at first thought), but because of a Javascript bug in the Facebook login routine. Eventually I figured out how to solve the problem and get back into Facebook—and I’ll be happy to share my workaround with anyone who’s interested—but by the time I did get back into Facebook again I’d gone cold turkey long enough that the urgent need to check Facebook had abated, so I decided to treat this as an experiment. Is there a significant observable correlation between my level of Facebook activity and RLP book sales? A week’s worth of data suggests that no, there is not.

If you have not noticed that I have been off Facebook, see the previous paragraph.

As an aside: interesting that when I found myself locked out of Facebook, my first assumption was that I had violated some unwritten and capriciously enforced social media speech policy. If I ever teach a class in science fiction, writing, futurism, or anything like that, remind me to put 1984 on the required reading list.


While we’re on the subject of writing science fiction and predicting the future and such, quite a few people have asked how I do it. The answer is surprisingly simple. Beyond obvious cause and effect—e.g., “If you don’t show up for work consistently, I predict that you will lose your job”—it is impossible to predict the future accurately on a micro scale, and anyone who claims to be able to do so is either a liar, a charlatan, or an astrologer. Fortunately, you, being a paid professional liar—that is, a science fiction writer—can join their company without any qualms at all, so go ahead: pants it. Make up stuff on the fly just because it sounds cool. If it turns out later that you guessed right: great! Bask in the glory!

If you feel compelled to try to predict the future on a macro scale and to do it somewhat accurately, though, understand that before you can do so, you must first know the answer to this ancient riddle:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?


For the past few weeks, until things went off the rails about two weeks ago, we had been doing ad hoc “theme weeks” here on, with most of the posts in any given week having something to do with some specific topic. Question for the readers: are theme weeks worth continuing, or would you rather see a broader spectrum of topics every week?

I ask because Pete Wood has proposed doing Ray Bradbury Week. I will cheerfully publish Pete’s column on the subject but don’t know that I myself have anything left to say about Bradbury. I wrote a lot of Bad Imitation Bradbury stories when I was in junior high and high school. My never-finished thesis was to be a hatchet-job on Bradbury, written from that arrogant P.O.V. that is only accessible to those in their mid-20s who believe they are really hot [stuff]. A few years later I had the good fortune to meet Bradbury, and the experience absolutely floored me, because he recognized my name and started talking to me about a story of mine that had just been published in Amazing. But...

Ray Bradbury Week? Is this a theme that interests you?


I am slightly disappointed that Music in Science Fiction / Science Fiction in Music Week fizzled out as quickly as it did, as I have many more questions I would like to see explored. For example, in the spacefaring planet-hopping science fictional future, where’s the liturgical music? If you go traveling around the Pacific Ocean today it seems impossible to find any place, no matter how remote, where you are not following in the footsteps of some 18th or 19th century Christian missionary who went there before you, schlepping along his Bible, his hymnal, his long-suffering assistant, and a portable pump organ. Are we to believe that in the future there will not be missionaries out there in the stars, spreading the good news of the gospel and teaching the natives to sing “Amazing Grace” in their native language?

Or what about all these oppressive theocracies that science fiction writers seem to like to imagine? Don’t they have any music besides pounding kettle drums and choirs of the damned to go with their hideous and arcane rituals?


Okay, maybe they’ll have pipe organs. Pipe organs have been with us for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks had hydraulically powered pipe organs. The ancient Romans had pipe organs in their coliseums, and some yutz was at the console playing the Roman equivalent of “Charge!” and “We are the Champions” as the score went Lions 6, Christians 0. We don’t know exactly what they played, as no known written record of their music survives, but archaelogists have unearthed enough fragments of their instruments that we know how they would have sounded. The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras worked out the details of “pure” diatonic tuning sometime before 500 BCE, the Romans adopted it for their pipe organs, and we’ve been living with it ever since—although to modern ears* true Pythagorean intonation sounds a little off, as we are more used to tempered intonation, which only came into fashion about 300 years ago.

[*Excluding clarinet and saxophone players, of course, who insist that they are correct and everyone else is slightly out-of-tune.]


My point is, music is inextricably linked to acoustic physics, and therefore to mathematics, so where is the science fiction that even thinks about the sci-fi implications? Music is intrinsic to what we are as human beings: we love to sing, we love to dance; yes, even your brother-in-law with two left feet who can’t carry a tune in a bucket and whose voice sounds like geese farts on a muggy day. We take our music with us wherever we go; we make music with whatever we have at hand, even if it's only pounding out a rhythm on a teak log while someone else blows a solo on the conch shell. We love music, and the how, why, and what of the music we make is constantly evolving.

So why is music in science fiction so very much like science fictional “magic gravity?” (You know, the principle that in the future, no matter where you go or what sort of spaceship you might be on, you will still be able to move about just exactly as if you were walking around a soundstage on the Paramount lot.) I mean, consider what just a small increase in the amount of helium in the atmosphere does to the sound of the human voice. Now imagine what effect that would have on a singer, or someone trying to play a clarinet.

I know, I know: they’d still insist that they were the only ones properly in tune.

As far as the future of music is concerned, only one thing is certain: that the future of music is a recipriversexclusion. The moment someone announces that they know the future of music—or worse, that they are the future of music—that becomes the one future that absolutely cannot possibly happen.


Tomas G. asks:

Hi Mr. Bethke, I would absolutely love to purchase several issues of Stupefying Stories, but the only thing holding me back is that they are only available on Kindle, which is inconvenient as an overseas owner of a Kobo E-Reader... Is there any way I could buy an issue in a DRM-protected EPUB format? Is there a specific reason that you choose to publish in this way?

We’ve gone back and forth several times on this one. When we first launched we went wide, with distribution on every possible e-book reader we could support. That quickly proved to be more cumbersome than advantageous, as it entailed a lot of extra work for very little increase in sales. As we discovered at the time, a great month’s sales on Nook or iTunes was a slow day’s sales on Kindle.

Since then the tools have improved, so that the production overhead is no longer a problem, but Amazon has upped their game and offered us a lot of incentives to put titles exclusively on Kindle, most notably the Kindle Unlimited program. We keep experimenting with it, but so far the results have been the same. The Kindle Unlimited program sells novels. When we pull novels off KU—as we have to do if we want to distribute to non-Kindle users—sales drop dramatically. 

The interesting part is that KU sells novels but appears to inhibit sales of short story collections. With novels, KU subscribers seem to read enough to decide to buy the entire book, but with short stories, they seem to read just the one or two stories that catch their interest and ignore the rest of the book.

Right now we’re just trying to solve our production problems and get issues #24 and #25 out the door. Once we do that, we’ll revisit the issue and decide whether we want to keep Stupefying Stories as a Kindle-only title or give it wider distribution. 


Dark and Gritty Week also got short shrift. I was working with my wife on an article about the female perspective on darkness in storytelling when we first realized that something was, if not wrong, at least not right, and we may yet complete that article. But for now, I want to close out the topic with one bit of the exchange, in which my wife was making the point that it’s very tightly tied in with the whole Good Guy/Bad Boy dichotomy and the evolutionary advantages of seeking a mate from further away in the gene pool. “Yes,” she said, “we want to marry the Good Guy.

“But only after we’ve had a wild fling with the Bad Boy.”

In response to my arched eyebrow, she added, “Remember our first date? How my Dad was sitting there at the kitchen table, in full uniform, cleaning his service revolver, and grilling you on where we were going, what we were going to do, and when you were going to bring me back?

“Did you think he did that for boys he approved of my dating? You were everything he’d warned me against bringing home: a long-haired liberal college-boy intellectual.

“That made you like catnip. How could I resist?”


Finally, item #12—and I’ll confess, I had to stretch it a bit to make it to twelve, but I did so for a reason. It’s a self-conscious nod to Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which yes, I did study, and even used to some extent, although I was never any good at it. I always found it too sterile, mechanistic, and pretentiously academic and intellectual. These days I could probably write a computer program to auto-generate twelve-tone compositions…

Although come to think of it, I already did something like that, about 40 years ago. I wrote a piece for computer-controlled sequencer tracks and marimba, and I remember the percussionist complaining afterward that I’d given all the tricky and technically challenging parts to the computer.

Of course I did. That’s what computers are good at: things that require great technical precision but no soul. What he was there for was to provide the human element; the warmth and slight randomness. But he didn’t see it that way.

Maybe there’s a story in that… 

—Bruce Bethke

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Talking Shop: Avoiding Panic Quit • By Eric Dontigney

In a recent Ask Dr. Cyberpunk, Bruce dropped this nugget of wisdom:

“Hence my one piece of enduring advice to aspiring novelists: write the ending first. Then figure out what you need to write to set up that ending, and write it. In the process you may wind up throwing out your original ending as the characters hijack the story and demand that it head off in a different direction, but at least you will have some idea of where you intended to go.”

I happen to agree, in part, with this piece of advice. It’s especially useful for those non-linear writers. What about linear writers, though? If you’re a pantser who does write from beginning to end, like I often do, does this still apply? Can you still be a pantser if you know the ending? In short, I think it does apply and that you can still be a pantser if you know how it ends. 

I don’t think you absolutely need to physically write out the ending. I do think that you need a clear idea of how things will wrap up. Here are some basic questions you should be able to answer after the first 25-50 pages (generally the easiest part of the novel to write for most pantsers):

  1. Who will live?
  2. Who (if anyone) will die?
  3. What is the major conflict that will be resolved?
  4. How will the protagonist resolve it?
  5. How (if applicable) will you set up a sequel?

Without answers to those basic questions, you will likely start flailing about once your pass the halfway mark in your book. Why? Because that’s when you need to start resolving plot threads. You can’t resolve those threads if you don’t know (or at least have some general idea) where the story is heading. I don’t know it’s true, but strongly suspect that a lot of novels stop dead right around there because the writers never considered how they’d wrap things up. I call this as the panic quit. You don’t know what to do, so you just stop.

Neil Gaiman even talks about this in somewhat oblique terms, though I can’t find the specific reference. To paraphrase, he says something like:

“Around two-thirds of the way through writing a book, I become convinced that the book is terrible and no one will want to read it. I call my editor to tell her these things. Then, she says: ‘Oh, you’re at that part of the book.’”

That paraphrased snippet should tell you a couple of things. Even seasoned, professional novelists who adopt the pantser approach struggle with this problem. It’s not an insoluble problem. You can tell by the way Gaiman has written or co-written about a dozen novels, half a dozen short fiction collections, and 15-20 children’s books. 

Knowing the ending in advance is one way to resolve the problem.

The other way main you can resolve the problem is by reviewing what you wrote and noting the key plot points you’ve set up so far. Then ask yourself:

“Where does/can the story logically go from here?”

Before you start that process, your brain will likely tell you that the story can go anywhere. Your brain is lying to you. By the time you get to the halfway or two-thirds mark in your book, you’re going to discover during your review that you’ve probably only left yourself a handful of plausible endings. It’s been my experience that I’ve unconsciously laid out a whole set of hints and clues about where the story is going. Then, you just need to pick one of the available endings and write toward it.

Now, how can you still call yourself a pantser if you know the ending? I can hear it now:

“You know the ending? Isn’t that plotting you pantser-fraud?!”

It is plotting, sort of. But knowing the ending you plan for your book has the same relationship to plotting as a concept drawing has to the blueprints for a building. If you’re really plotting a novel, you figure out every step that gets you from point A to point Z in advance. If you’re just writing with an end in mind, you’re inventing all the steps along the way. That, to me, is pantser writing.

So, here are the key takeaways:

  1. Decide from the get-go or very early in the writing process how it will end
  2. If you didn’t do that and you’re halfway done or better, don’t panic quit because you don’t know the ending
  3. Review what you wrote and note the major plot points
  4. Ask yourself what plausible endings you can get from those plot points (there won’t be that many)
  5. Pick one of the plausible endings
  6. Write the rest of the book aiming at that ending

This can feel a little inorganic to the dyed-in-the-wool pantser. For my part, though, I find settling for something a little inorganic far preferable to the prospect of having 50,000-70,000 words of a novel sitting on my computer with no hope of ever finishing it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A View from the Geek: Why Do People Like Space Opera and Urban Fantasy? • By Eric Dontigney

I’ve been reading a lot of space opera and urban fantasy lately. This, in turn, has made me think a lot about why so many people like space opera and urban fantasy. Let’s be honest, these aren’t subgenres that are reputed to specialize in deep thinking. Sure, you can work in some reflections on society, maybe have a bit of introspection, but that’s not why people show up and read them. It’s certainly not why people show up and read 3 or 5 or 14 books in a series. At least, that seems to be the assumption from the outside looking in.  

It would be exceedingly easy to chalk up people’s interest in these subgenres as lazy thinking. They just show up for popcorn entertainment and that’s it. It’d be really easy to chalk the subgenres themselves up as the Marvel films of speculative literature. For some people, that might even be true. For specific examples of the subgenres, that might even be true. But it doesn’t hold water as a blanket explanation. 

Let’s take the Honor Harrington series as an example of space opera. At a surface reading, it’s just Horatio Hornblower in space…with an empathic cat. And, let’s be honest, that’s actually a really good pitch. You get exciting space battles. Naval shenanigans. A central character who is, all too often, more honorable than almost everyone around her. Hell, Harrington even fights a duel in one of the books. It certainly seems to tick all the boxes of popcorn fiction space opera.

Except, it’s not. David Weber isn’t shy about working some dense politics into the books. He’s also not shy about knocking political positions he doesn’t appreciate in the books (a hallmark of Baen books). He doesn’t shy away from complexity in his plots. The first book in the series depends on a conspiracy that takes most of the book to become obvious. He’s put a ridiculous amount of thought into the science of those space battles. Now, granted, the Honor Harrington series is widely acclaimed space opera. So, let’s look a little closer to home at something that’s received a little less critical examination.

Rampant Loon’s very own Henry Vogel is a space opera writing machine. So, let’s take a look at one of his recent books, The Lost Planet. What do we get there? Big space battles. Honorable heroes. Galactic politics. Interplanetary mystery. Hmmmm…this also ticks the right boxes, except it doesn’t really fit the bill of science fiction lite, either. In fact, it’s fairly complex in terms of plotting and character development for a standalone space adventure tale. All of which brings me around to my point.

I don’t think people respond to space opera or urban fantasy because they’re simplistic or easy. I think people show up and read them for a very different reason. Most space opera and urban fantasy novels take a hard pass on delving into the “big issues.” Sure, environmental concerns might show up in a space opera, but only as a means of forwarding the plot, not as a central conceit. Poverty might show up in an urban fantasy, but it’s never the major thrust of the novel. While these issues are crucially important for societies in big picture terms, it’s very easy for people to get burned out on them.

I think of it as issue fatigue. It’s the point where you know, intellectually, that you should care about something, but you don’t have enough bandwidth to engage with the topic. The non-stop news cycle hasn’t made this any better. We’re constantly bombarded by images and stories that try to scare us, tug on our heartstrings, or some demonic combination of the two. What’s worse is that we know we should be having some kind of visceral reaction to these things, except, after a while, we don’t.

When you’re exposed to things that trigger strong emotions, it’s not just mental. It’s physical as well. Your body goes through something called the stress cycle. You see the emotional trigger, which trips responses in your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and hypes your autonomic nervous system. That, in turn, triggers your sympathetic nervous system and sets off a hormone cascade that releases adrenaline into your system. Then, when your body decides there is no actual threat or no immediate reason for emotional arousal, it turns off the process by releasing more hormones.

When this happens a few times a month, it’s no big deal. In fact, that’s what your body is supposed to do. Your body isn’t wired to endure that process multiple times a day, every day. One of the theories is that you experience adrenal fatigue. Basically, your adrenal glands can’t keep up production of stress hormones. So, despite knowing you should be reacting to things you hear or see, you don’t get the visceral response you expect. That creates a disconnect between your physical experience and your emotional experience or expected emotional experience. It can quite literally feel like you don’t care that much.  

Assuming the adrenal fatigue theory holds up, you need time away from things that trigger that response. My theory is that people in that state (which probably makes up a lot of the saner adult population these days) don’t want to engage with the “big issues” that don’t have clear solutions in their recreational reading. It’s not that they fear complexity or want something simple. It’s that want things that are direct. They want problems where there are clear sides. They want a story where you’ve got a protagonist you more or less accept as the good guy, who tackles people who are the bad guys.

That hero can operate in the gray, as long as the people on the other side are demonstrably worse. That way, we can root for the protagonist and feel a kind of vicarious victory. We can take sides and know we’re in the right. In some way, it serves a basic need in our psychology for fairness or justice to win out in the end. That describes the reading experience of space opera and urban fantasy pretty well. It’s not universally the case, but it’s a fair expectation about 90% of the time.

I think, if there is such a thing as a simple explanation for why people read the things they do, these are the reasons why people respond to space opera and urban fantasy. It’s a way to escape the apparent expectation that we’ll engage, all the damn time, with the “big issues.” An escape that gives our poor fatigued adrenal glands a break. It’s an opportunity for us to deal vicariously with a direct problem that has clear sides. It’s a rare opportunity that lets us find basic fairness in a world that so rarely provides it.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Ask Dr. Cyberpunk • with your host, Bruce Bethke

Funny how quickly a week gets behind you when you’re just busy busy busy, scampering like a squirrel from one urgent priority to the next. We have a lot going on behind the scenes here right now at Casa Calamari. One of those things is this book, which I’m really hoping to have ready for release soon. 

As I was digging down through the midden in my office and trying to extract order from chaos, I came across the following notes, scribbled on a string of Post-It notes stuck to a manuscript page. Given the strata in which I found it I wrote this sometime in 2017 or 2018, but even then it was a recapitulation of something I’d found while on an earlier dig for my original notes and manuscript fragments from 1988~1989. For your amusement, then:

Colonizing the Digital Frontier

It will go like this.

1st wave - the cyberpunk phase, primarily kids, anarchists, hackers, wild cards

2nd wave - early adopter capitalists, moving in to figure out how to make money off what the kids have pioneered

3rd wave - organized crime and malignant political actors, moving in to exploit the trust the 2nd wave built and to make real money

4th wave - government, first in the form of military and intelligence agencies trying to figure out what the hell is going on here, followed by regulatory and taxing authorities trying to control it and get the government a piece of the 2nd wave action

Thereafter it settles down into the usual corporatist/fascist unholy alliance between the 4th wave and the successful survivors of the 2nd wave. The 2nd/4th wave alliance will do a great job of getting rid of all that pesky free speech, driving out or putting in prison whoever’s left from the 1st wave, and strangling their nascent competitors in their cribs.

After that things settle into a state of wobbly equilibrium with the 3rd wave. The 3rd wave has the edge in imagination and thus in finding new and creative ways to be evil, but the 2nd/4th wave has the edge in money and raw power and thus is always one close step behind the 3rd wave. 

The 1st wave people, if there are any left or any new ones coming along, will be irrelevant, except insofar as they can be co-oped to join the 3rd or 4th waves. 


Gee, it’s a shame I never wrote that book. 

—Bruce Bethke