Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Creating Alien Aliens, Part 17A: A JELLYFISH Intelligence...HOW?

In September of 2007, I started this blog with a bit of writing advice. A little over a year later, I discovered how little I knew about writing after hearing children’s writer, Lin Oliver speak at a convention hosted by the Minnesota Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Since then, I have shared (with their permission) and applied the writing wisdom of Lin Oliver, Jack McDevitt, Nathan Bransford, Mike Duran, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, SL Veihl, Bruce Bethke, and Julie Czerneda. Together they write in genres broad and deep, and have acted as agents, editors, publishers, columnists, and teachers. Since then, I figured I’ve got enough publications now that I can share some of the things I did “right”.

While I don’t write full-time, nor do I make enough money with my writing to live off of it...neither do all of the professional writers above...someone pays for and publishes ten percent of what I write. When I started this blog, that was NOT true, so I may have reached a point where my own advice is reasonably good. We shall see! Hemingway’s quote above will now remain unchanged as I work to increase my writing output and sales! As always, your comments are welcome!

The editor at Stupefying Stories sent an email about a month ago with the following “bullet point”, discovered by his granddaughter: “…Portuguese man o' wars aren't individual animals, properly, they're siphonophorae…a colony of animals.”

He thought it would make a moderately interesting column post…

I think he understated (or deliberately intended to spark the wild flight of sorta-fancy you’re about to read…) the effect the simple video and article referenced below would have on me!

So, first of all, I did a bit of reading about Order Siphonophorae in which there are about 150 species. Condensing the article on Wikipedia regarding the order’s Morphology – in other words “…the form of living creatures, and how all their pieces are put together and related to each other.” Our morphology would point out that we have two arms and two legs. The arms are divided into to joints and hands. The legs are divided into joints and feet. The hands and feet are further divided into fingers and toes which are used to pick things up…”

The morphology of the “jellyfish” (not truly correct, just for you to get handle on what I’m talking about here!), in general is this:

Generally, Siphonophores exhibit one of the three standard body plans.

One group has a long stem with individual animals that have tentacles. One kind captures and digests food. One kind lays eggs. Another makes gas to fill a float and they mainly drift at the surface of the water. The second group give the jellyfish the ability to push water, making them sort of jet propelled, pumping water back in order to move forward.

They are made up of a number of types of animals. A zooid is a single animal that is part of a colony. Jellyfish can have zooids that either stick to stuff or swim around. Zooids can develop to have different functions.

For example, nectophore zooids can move, and working as a group, help the entire jellyfish move in water. When nectophores are located in one part of the jellyfish, they can coordinate the swimming of colonies. They can also work with reproductive structures in order to provide propulsion during the colony breaks up for form “baby jellyfish”.

Bracts are zooids that are made to protect the jellyfish as well as make sure the jellyfish doesn’t float too high or sink too far down. Gastrozooids stay in one place and digest food for the jellyfish, and palpons are gastrozooids that make sure digested food gets circulated.

There are dozens of kinds of zooids in your average – or even monstrously-sized jellyfish. Pneumatophores are gas-filled floats that help the colonies stay upright in the water. Some pneumatophores have an additional function of assisting with flotation and can even sense pressure changes in the water.

So now you have a general idea of the makeup of a jellyfish.

Now here’s where I take it a step further and create the possibility of a sapient jellyfish.

Jellyfish are not animals – they are a COLONY of thousands or millions, and in the case of the “beautiful *giant* siphonophore Apolemia recorded during the Ningaloo Canyons expedition, perhaps more than the 86 billion neurons that make up a Human brain.

But there’s nothing like it that that we know of.

What if an alien creature had “neuroids”, individual animals that behave like neurons…

Let’s just say that the creature in the video formed an immense spiral for a reason. To bring not only the various creatures of the colony together, but to bring the neuroids into closer contact. What if the number went beyond 86 billion?

For example, as it is in the image, nerve impulses would have to travel from the tail to the head of the jellyfish. That’s stated to be about 118 meters long (390 feet!), stretched out, it would be as long as the US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where I live.

Say an impulse travels 100 meters in a second. That means if I stomp on the jellyfish’s tail, it would take a second (literally) before it knew it in its head. That’s not too long. A jellyfish could easily survive in its “strung out” state without being intelligent. But if it somehow NEEDED to be intelligent, it could begin to coil, bringing the neuroids into contact.

OK – the next big problem I’ve recently realized and talked about a bit here: https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/2022/04/writing-advice-creating-alien-aliens.html. I have the same problem now, HOW WOULD A SAPIENT JELLYFISH THINK? Not just what would they think about, but HOW would they think?

It’s a jellyfish for heaven’s sake! What would it think?

Let’s start with what would it FEEL.

Water temperature, pressure, salinity, chemical components; maybe it could sense sound – but rather than with ears, along the entire length of its body. Probably it can sense light, though “seeing” as we do wouldn’t be that important. We already know it can sense water pressure, and it can move. It can hunt, it can reproduce, and now it can think -- and given the number of neuroids it has, it can probably think just as deep of thoughts as we can.

How much of the world would it be able to sense? We’re tempted to say, “It’s stuck in the water! How far can it go?” I’d have to point out that if you’re being perfectly honest, WE are the ones who are limited to the land – Earth is 71 percent water. That means our entire Human civilization is limited (at the MOST) to 29 percent of the Earth’s surface. Our Sapient Jellyfish can go pretty much wherever it wants to on the planet…

But see what I’m doing? I’m avoiding thinking about how would my intelligent jellyfish would think? WHAT would it think about? Beyond the same things we do regarding survival, what would it need to think about? Getting food. It might never see the stars, but Humans have never been into the depths of the ocean – and we developed intelligence. We would both have faced predators. We would both have developed ways of protecting ourselves…but…

The biggest difference between Humans and Sapient Jellyfish is that one Jellyfish is an entire world. The parts of the Jellyfish ARE NEVER ALONE! They are always together; always experiencing each other. Would they even understand the IDEA of the alien? I think Humans get it because anyone outside of us is an alien. You don’t know what I’m thinking; I don’t know what you’re thinking. And even with my very dearest friend, my wife…I truly have no idea what she is thinking.

An Intelligent Jellyfish would never be alone because it would be aware of all of its parts…

Now isn’t THAT an alien thought?

More on this later…

Resources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siphonophorae (basic background on the lifeforms and their characteristics); https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/deep-sea-predator-millions-clones (article is more informative on the Siphonophore discovered a bit over a year ago off the coast of Australia), the larger YouTube on the bottom is a more general survey of the creatures (colony????), the Tweet is just a 30 second clip from the larger video…); https://theconversation.com/it-feels-instantaneous-but-how-long-does-it-really-take-to-think-a-thought-42392 (how fast does a nerve impulse travel?)
Image: https://image.shutterstock.com/image-illustration/alien-human-600w-136457129.jpg

Saturday, May 28, 2022

SHOWCASE • “A Contract for Meyerowitz,” by Bruce Bethke

We’re pretty tied up right now with the work needed to get Stupefying Stories #24 finished and ready for release next week, and Trunk Story Week had a mid-air collision with Chemo Week and thus our planned posting schedule got a bit scrambled. Ergo here, for your entertainment, is yet another old story of mine that spent a few years in the trunk before being published. Afterward I’ll have a bit to say about what made this one a trunk story in the first place, and what I had to do in order finally to be able to sell it to a pro magazine. 





by Bruce Bethke

First publication: Science Fiction Review, August 1990


It took ten minutes of standing in the shadows, hand on the gun in his pocket, before Ed Meyerowitz felt ready to cross the street and go in. Even for a Monday night, the old warehouse, loft, and boutique district was deserted. A strange mixture of sweet excitement and sickly fear churned in his gut, as he kept watch on the café across the street and listened to the soft noises seeping through the cool October air. In his mind, Karl Larsen's voice reproached him one last time.

"Eddie," he remembered Larsen saying, "we're on to something big here. They won't stop halfway once they decide to silence us." He'd laughed at Karl then, for sounding like an extra in a Spillane story, and accepted the gun only to humor him. Now Meyerowitz found himself caressing the Beretta's cold, hard grip and desperately trying to work up a grim and determined mood.

The trouble was, he kept reaching the same conclusion: if he were anywhere near sane, he'd throw the gun in the river, go home, and forget that anything had ever happened. As soon as he'd reach that decision, though, he'd look at the café again, and once more get sucked in by curiosity — curiosity flavored with a seductive hint of importance. It'd been so long since he'd done anything that felt important.

And so he'd flip-flop, and decide to work on his nerve a little longer. The one thing he knew for certain wasn't helping any. No one had seen Larsen in over a month.

Like the unbidden memory of a bitter taste, he remembered the day Karl first proposed their little scam...


Ed Meyerowitz was ad manager for a weekly shopper. Karl Larsen ran a one-man advertising agency. Business threw them together, and it'd only taken them a few beers after work one day to learn they shared the same real profession. Both were unpublished Science Fiction writers.

Larsen was 31, Meyerowitz was 28. Larsen was divorced, and Meyerowitz had never married. They'd taken to getting together once a week to swill coffee and discuss life, fiction, and the state of the universe. A year before, Meyerowitz had been sitting in Larsen's kitchen, trying to rebuild his ego after yet another rejection of The Novel and doing a lot of grousing about The Hidebound Publishing Establishment.

"Eddie," Larsen had interrupted, "this fiction business is definitely not where it's at. We do our best to be creative and what do we get? Condescending smiles from Post Office clerks!" Larsen paused, to run a hand through his thinning hair. "No, if we were smart, what we'd be doing is writing supermarket nonfiction. I mean, we could write jock biographies, or self-help books. We could write about UFOs, or Bigfoot, or —" Larsen suddenly froze, stricken with inspiration. "Eddie, I've got it! We're going to write the ultimate conspiracy book! One that links war, crime, and every assassination since Lincoln!"

Meyerowitz paused in the middle of pouring more coffee. "Karl," he asked gently, "are you having another Idea Attack?"

"No." Karl shook his head, his eyes blazing with manic intensity. "This one will work! Ed, I've just realized that the world today is such an ugly place because someone is manipulating mankind to be violent! And I further believe that we can do a book on it, give people someone to blame, and turn a lot of bucks!"

Meyerowitz sighed, and finished filling his cup. "Is this another corporate conspiracy rap? Last week you said cancer—"

"No, not multinationals," Larsen cackled. "Bigger."

"Okay, bigger. Fascists? Communists? Trilateralists?" Meyerowitz narrowed his eyes. "Don't you dare say Jews."

"No, man," Karl giggled. "We're talking cosmic. We're talking outer space. We're talking Bermuda Triangle, Ancient Astronauts, the Fall of Atlantis, and Dead Kennedies, all rolled into one. We're talking BIG!"

"You don't mean...?" Meyerowitz started snickering.

"Yes, I do mean. Aliens! They're too cowardly to invade, so they keep stirring us up in hopes we'll kill each other off!"

"I can see the front page of the Enquirer now," Meyerowitz said. "NEW SECRET EVIDENCE: HITLER WAS A SPACE ALIEN!"

"Good thinking." Larsen pulled a notepad out of the heap on his kitchen table. "We'll do some articles for the tabloids first, to build market presence." He took off his glasses and chewed an earpiece. "If we handle this right, it'll be good for three books, minimum. Maybe even a made-for-TV movie."

"Oh, come on," Meyerowitz said. "Do you really think—?"

"Without a doubt. Velikovsky. Cayce. Van Daniken. There's no limit to the shamanism disguised as science that stupid people will lap up. We'll do some superficial research, ignore inconvenient facts, misinterpret the findings, bash out a few books—"

"And publish them under your name," Meyerowitz declared.

"My name? You still want a reputation after this?"

"No. But when sales start to lag, we write a book under my name that refutes the whole thing! We could keep this going for years!"

"I like it!" Larsen crowed.


They'd started with a fast-paced routine. During the week they collected odd statistics, bizarre articles, and every bad UFO photo they could find. Then, on Sundays, they'd meet at Larsen's to drink beer, clip pages, and randomly reshuffle paragraphs. This went on for three very promising months.

On the last Sunday in January, though, something went terribly wrong.

"Here's one," Meyerowitz announced as he flipped open the tabloid. "ALIEN REPAIRMAN TURNED MY TV INTO A TIME MACHINE! Now I only get programs from the 1950s! says distraught housewife." Meyerowitz looked at Larsen, smirk cocked and ready. "Sounds to me like her tuner is stuck on WTBS."

Larsen just sat and stared glumly at the box of clippings.

Meyerowitz shrugged and continued. "Okay, try this one. RUSSIAN ASTRONOMERS FIND INTACT B-17 ON MOON! It's covered with green slime, which proves it was captured in the Bermuda Triangle." Meyerowitz nodded. "How about it, Karl? How big a telescope do you need to resolve an airplane at a quarter-million miles?"

Larsen continued staring silently at the box.

Meyerowitz threw the tabloid down. "That tears it. Karl, you haven't said three words all afternoon. What's going on?"

Larsen sat a moment longer, then slowly began to speak. "Eddie?" he said softly. "I'm beginning to get some very chilly feeling about all this." Meyerowitz started to say something, but Larsen waved a hand to cut him off. "I haven't had to do as much fudging as I expected. I haven't had to invent a single fact, or fabricate a single misquote out of context. The ideas are falling into place without my hardly trying."

Larsen turned to Meyerowitz, his eyes wide and pleading. "Eddie? I'm starting to believe we accidentally stumbled onto the truth."

Meyerowitz took a sip of beer, carefully set the bottle down, took in a deep breath, slowly let it out, and then said, calmly and quietly, "Now, let me get this straight."

The argument lasted all through February.


A bus rumbled away from the traffic light on Third Avenue. Meyerowitz took the Beretta out, pulled the slide back just far enough to reassure himself that there was a round in the chamber, eased it shut again, and then started across the street. In the end, he realized, it was curiosity that had gotten the better of him. Trying to shake the image of a dead cat out of his mind, he slipped the gun back into his pocket and entered the café.

A lone, bearded waiter leaned against a doorframe at the back of the café, smoking a black Sobranie. A bell chimed softly as Meyerowitz let the door close behind him. The waiter sighed heavily, balanced his lit cigarette on a convenient ledge, grabbed a couple of menus, then gave Meyerowitz's tweed jacket an appraising look and decided to go back to finishing his cigarette.

Except for the waiter, the place seemed deserted. Meyerowitz felt queasy with doubt — could he have botched the instructions? No, no chance of that. The voice on the phone had been quite explicit about the place and time. Staying close to the wall, he edged cautiously into the café.

"Good evening, Mr. Meyerowitz," someone said behind him. Eddie spun around, jabbing his hand into his jacket pocket, groping for the gun — and then he left it there.

A pudgy, fiftyish man with a weak smile and watery blue eyes sat in the booth to the left of the entrance. His skin was a healthy, baby-pig pink; his hair a mousy shade of brown, gray at the temples. He was so non-descript that Meyerowitz had simply walked right past without noticing him. In fact, the only odd thing about the man was that he wore conservative gray pinstripes in a café that catered to the fashionably trendy.

A perplexed look crossed the man's face. "Er, you are Mr. Edward Meyerowitz, aren't you?" Darting a nervous glance around the room, Meyerowitz nodded. "Splendid. I am Gordon Smith." The man rose and offered a handshake.

Meyerowitz ignored Smith's hand and dropped into the opposite seat. After a moment's awkward hesitation, Smith sat down.

The waiter wandered by, but Meyerowitz waved him away. "Not hungry?" Smith asked. He picked up a fork and prodded the food on his plate. "A pity. The quiche d'jour is exquisite."

Meyerowitz studied Smith minutely, but could not decide if he should feel angry, frightened, or silly. After a brief and uneasy silence, Smith's smile faded. "Well, I see you aren't disposed to make this pleasant, so I'll come right to the point.

"Mr. Meyerowitz, it has come to our attention that you have in your possession all the research, all the rough drafts, and every extant copy of a certain book written last winter by yourself and a Mr. Karl Larsen. I'd be very interested in purchasing that material."

Meyerowitz stared at Smith a moment longer, and settled on angry. "Really, now?" He was startled by the tremor in his own voice. "Then I suppose you also know that our original publisher reneged on our contract."

"I'd heard something to that effect, yes."

"We went from having four major houses bidding on it to not being able to find an open transom to pitch it through. Even our agent got an unlisted phone number and didn't tell us." Meyerowitz slouched, to point the pistol at Smith under the table. "I'd really like to know why you want such an obviously unsellable dog."

Smith smiled weakly. "We've been most impressed with Mr. Larsen's determination to see the book published, despite the remarkable run of bad luck that's followed it."

"Bad luck? We couldn't even find a subsidy publisher. I was ready to call it a stiff and give up, but Karl insisted it just proved we were right and got a second mortgage and published it himself. Then the printer's strikes started."

Smith laughed mildly. "Fate takes strange turns, no?"

"Especially when it has help."

Their stares interlocked. The impasse was broken only by the waiter's next approach; this time Smith was the one who waved him away. "All the same," Smith said, suddenly turning cold and brusque, "we're not here to talk about the past. We're here to discuss a mutually profitable business proposition."

"Like the one Karl got?" Meyerowitz hissed. He leaned in close, and tightened his grip on the gun. "I have the books because the bindery couldn't deliver them to Karl. I've been asking around; no one has seen him in over a month. So drop the façade. Who are you, really?"

Smith looked perplexed. "Why, I didn't think I'd made a secret of that. My name is Gordon Smith. I represent a major New York publisher whose name discretion will not allow — "

"You don't understand. I'm pointing a gun at what I believe to be your balls. Now will you..." Meyerowitz paused, taken aback by the change in Smith's expression.

"Oh, dear," Smith gasped. "Please d- d- don't —" His jaw seized up, and he began quivering like a mannequin made of Jell-O. Meyerowitz stared in horrified fascination as a string of spittle ran out of Smith's open mouth and oozed down the front of his Brooks Brothers suit.

"Larsen got an offer he couldn't refuse," another voice said. Meyerowitz spun in his seat to find the waiter standing beside him. "Put the gun away, please. You're giving poor Smith a heart attack." Meyerowitz froze, uncertain. Smith did indeed seem to be a gibbering wreck — but was it a ploy? Would he spring the moment Meyerowitz dropped his guard? Or did the waiter have him covered with something more lethal than that damp towel? Which one? Meyerowitz's inner voice screamed. Involuntarily, he clicked the safety off.

"For chrissakes, Eddie," the waiter sighed, "don't be a putz." Meyerowitz's trigger finger froze; something in the voice seemed very familiar. The waiter raised his hands to his face and began peeling off ragged pieces of artificial skin.

"My God!" Meyerowitz gasped. "The unmasking!" The waiter dug fingers into his flesh and tore off his face to reveal—

"Karl?" Meyerowitz's jaw went slack.

"Yeah, Karl." Larsen pulled up a chair and sat down. "I wasn't supposed to let you know I was back. Muffin, here," he jerked a thumb at Smith, "wanted to prove he could handle you all by himself."


"It's their version of machismo. Every one of them secretly believes he can out-talk a used car salesman."

Meyerowitz swallowed hard. "Karl, are you...?"

Larsen picked at a bit of latex make-up. "Working for them? You bet! I figured it out about a month ago. Didn't you?" Something in Meyerowitz's face gave away the answer. Larsen snickered. "And you call yourself a science fiction writer!"

Meyerowitz's expression resolved into a fierce scowl. Bringing the pistol out from under the table, he pointed it at Smith and hissed, "Karl, he's the enemy!"

Larsen shook his head. "No, Eddie, he's just — Eddie, will you please put the safety back on that effing thing?" Slowly, Meyerowitz complied. Smith seemed to start breathing again.

"Thank you," Larsen said. He cast a mildly concerned glance at Smith, then went on. "Once I read the book in galleys, I spotted the hole in our thinking. We figured the aliens were too cowardly to invade." He looked at Smith again, and gave a disgusted snort. "We got the coward part right, anyway.

"But Eddie, there are at least a dozen cheap and easy ways to wipe out a species from low orbit, and some of them don't even do serious damage to the ecosphere! So I got to thinking, why else would they be breeding us to be violent?" He studied Meyerowitz a moment, then softly suggested the answer. "Why do we have military schools, Eddie?"

Larsen didn't wait for a reply. "They're an ancient race, Eddie. Wise, kind, peaceful — too gentle, in fact, for their own good. That's why they need us. New recruits, to defend them from the real nasties." Larsen shrugged, then helped himself to Smith's Perrier. "Once I figured that part out, the rest was easy. They were looking for a new North American PR guy. Seems they hired the guy who torpedoed our book away from a union in New Jersey, and he had a difference of opinion with Smith's predecessor. Broke both his legs." Larsen reached over and gave Smith a friendly little fake punch on the arm. "Lucky break for you, eh, Gordo?"

"The book," Smith gasped. "Get the book."

Larsen shrugged, and turned to Meyerowitz. "That's it in a nutshell. We're the Marines who man their starships. To them, your average human being seems like a regular Conan."

"The book," Smith insisted.

"I'm getting around to it," Larsen snapped at Smith.

Meyerowitz considered Larsen with narrowed eyes. All sorts of old doubts were suddenly resurfacing. He'd always found Larsen just a tad too glib, too eager to sell out. Now one big question was forming in his mind: Do I dare trust Larsen?

"Why are they so afraid of the book?" he asked sharply.

"They're the ultimate passive-aggressive basket cases. Confrontation absolutely terrifies them. If they're exposed, they'll pull out."


Larsen studied Meyerowitz's face a moment. "That's wouldn't be good, Eddie. Sure, they've caused a few wars. But they've also given us most of our modern medicine, and in five years they're going to give us real interstellar spacecraft. For chrissakes, Eddie, Von Braun was one of them!"

Meyerowitz's thoughts took a very cold turn. "Better tools to make us better soldiers," he said softly.

"Yeah, well —" Karl shrugged. "We can argue the ethics of it another time, okay? The point is, they want your share of the book. You want to sell?"

Meyerowitz looked to Smith, whose face was still deathly pale, then back to Larsen. "How much?"

"Ten thousand," Larsen said flatly.

Meyerowitz pretended to think it over, while his anger burned hotter. "I don't know. What kind of royalties are we talking?"

"Royalties?" Smith whispered.

Meyerowitz smiled wickedly. "Of course. I'll want a percentage for every copy you sell."

"There must be no copies sold!" Smith gasped.

Meyerowitz feigned an offhand shrug. "Oh. In that case, ten grand sounds pretty cheap for burying the truth."

"Eddie—" Larsen began.

"Fifty thousand!" Smith blurted out.

Larsen turned on Smith. "You keep out of this!"

Meyerowitz dropped the façade and let his anger flow. "A crummy fifty thou to play Judas to an entire planet?"

"A million!" Smith pleaded.

"Shut up!" Larsen snapped.

Meyerowitz stood. "I'm leaving before I decide to use this gun." Then he paused, and glared at Smith with unabashed hatred. "And yes, I'm releasing the book."

Smith's face went utterly white. "Five — ten — any — "

"I told you it wouldn't work!" Larsen hissed. "Go to Plan B!"

Meyerowitz whipped out the Beretta and spun around. "What's Plan B?"

Smith fainted and fell face-first into his quiche.

"Plan B," Larsen said gently, "is this." Slowly, carefully, and with a great show of non-threatening behavior, he gently lifted Smith up and retrieved a fat envelope from his inner breast pocket. Then he let Smith flop back into the quiche.

"What's that?" Meyerowitz asked suspiciously. "You think I'll find cash in hand more tempting?"

"Nothing so crude," Larsen said. He opened the envelope and pulled out a sheaf of papers. "This is an honest-to-God book contract. Ten grand advance, plus royalties. You should have believed Smith. He really does work for a major publisher."

Meyerowitz scowled at Larsen. "And this is the part where you offer to buy my soul, right? I can have it all — fame, fortune, and a guest shot on Donahue — if I just sign that contract. Oh, but you reserve the right to 'edit' the conspiracy book?"

Larsen looked up, all injured innocence. "What conspiracy book? This is for Swords of the Capellan Moon."

Meyerowitz froze.

"That's right, Eddie," Larsen said softly. "Your novel. In the past year you've collected sixty rejection slips and not sold so much as a Campus Comedy. I can change that, Eddie."

Meyerowitz felt his iron resolve beginning to waver.

"In fact," Larsen — mindful of the gun Meyerowitz still held — carefully reached across the table and opened Smith's briefcase, "I just happen to have another contract here, for a series I'm packaging. Nine books in all, about a handsome young hero from Earth who's sort of a galactic Lone Ranger for a wise old race called the Mentors." Larsen extracted a second contract from the briefcase and carefully laid it on the table.

"Granted, it's strictly space opera," he went on. "Lots of rockets and ray-guns, action and adventure, a little soft-core sex. Our hero always fights on the side of justice, and he always fights nobly — but hey, I've got this great Larry Blamire cover art here that gets the whole concept." Karl slipped a large, glossy, color print out of a manilla envelope and held it up so that Meyerowitz could see it.

It was an action scene: a hero, center-stage, surrounded by hordes of ravening alien monsters. In one hand he held a massive, blazing handgun; with the other he sheltered a cowering, half-naked blonde beauty. The bulging thews on the hero's bare arms were straight out of a Marvel comic book.

But his face was unmistakably Eddie Meyerowitz.

"I... I can't bury the conspiracy book," Meyerowitz gasped.

"What conspiracy book?" Larsen asked innocently. Putting the artwork down, he uncapped a pen and set it next to the contract.

Meyerowitz looked at the cover art, and then at the Beretta in his hand. The little automatic seemed like such a tiny and stupid thing. The man on the cover: now there was a Hero. There was a man who could save worlds with his bare hands.

"Nine books?" Meyerowitz whispered.

"Guaranteed print run of a hundred thousand copies each. And the first one can be in the stores by Christmas."

Meyerowitz was right-handed, so he had to put the Beretta back into his pocket before he could pick up the pen. "Fiction reads better, anyway," he said.


A Contract for Meyerowitz: A Tale from the Trunk

In hindsight, I'm amazed I ever managed to sell this one. There are so many things wrong with it that it just should not have sold, period. The fact that it did merely proves that for every rule, there is an exception.

This should not be misinterpreted as proof that the rule is invalid! It simply means that from time to time, even professional editors experience moments of weakness.

I wrote the original story in 1983. Between December of 1983 and June of 1985, I shopped it around to... Well, that's hard to say. I sent it out twelve times, total, but two of those markets turned out to be out of business by the time my manuscript got there. Another of the "markets" actually turned out to be a "contest" being run by a so-called literary agent, apparently as a racket to find writers willing and able to pay cash for the services of a "professional story doctor." (Simple advice which you should never forget: any so-called editor, agent, or publisher who tells you your story isn't marketable as-is, but would be salable with a little help from a professional story doctor {and they just happen to know one who would be perfect for you}, is not in fact an actual editor, agent, or publisher, but rather a parasitic organism feeding on the hopes and dreams of writers. Such creatures, when encountered, should be treated with the same regard you would accord any other leech, tick, tapeworm, or similar bloodsucking parasite.)

In total, then, it went out to nine viable markets, and came back with six plain form rejections and three form rejections that included a handwritten note to the effect that the story was too much of an inside joke. Ergo, in July of 1985 I retired it.

Three years later, when I'd made it up to selling stories fairly consistently, I pulled it out one day, decided it was salvageable, and gave it another rewrite. The main thing I did was tighten it up by about 500 words. I lost one bit of detail I should have kept: in the original manuscript, I identified the gun very specifically as being a Beretta Jetfire in .25 ACP. In hindsight, this was a key detail, because in the early 1980s Beretta was mainly known in the U.S. as a maker of tiny and under-powered popguns, more useful as threats than as actual weapons. (As Jeff Cooper once said of the .25 Beretta, "If you shoot someone with it, and they find out about it, they are apt to become highly emotional.")

In 1985, of course, Beretta landed the contract to replace the venerable .45 caliber Colt 1911A1 with a high-capacity 9mm, and as a result they are now known as the maker of large, clunky, and awkward under-powered popguns. But that's a topic for another time.

Another thing that vanished in the rewrite was — well, let's just say that in the original manuscript Smith was a whole lot more "metrosexual" than in this version. (Not that that word had been invented yet.) But I was beginning to realize that editors were becoming very nervous about — er, "flamboyant" characters, so I toned him way down.

[Correction: Allow me to speak plainly. One does not work in theater and music for as long as I did if one has a problem with gay people. Smith as originally written was not an offensive gay stereotype, as one critique group reader called him, but in fact was patterned very closely after a friend and theater director I’d worked with several times. Nonetheless, I learned my lesson: never write anything that might upset the LGBTQ crowd—not that that term had been invented yet, either.]

The third and most important thing that vanished in the rewrite was a two-paragraph diatribe Karl threw in at the end, comparing Frank Edwards' Flying Saucers: Serious Business to Frank Herbert's Dune and expanding on the thesis of the nine-book series that Meyerowitz is being offered. That passage was pure dead weight and the story is better for its absence.

Once I had the rewrite finished, I started shopping it around again, and in short order collected one "Too much like a Ron Goulart story I just bought," one "Too much like a Phil Jennings story I just bought" (GRRRR!), two "This is just not funny and not serious enough for [insert magazine name]," and an acceptance from, of all places, Science Fiction Review, which published it a year later, in the August 1990 issue. 

So, looking back on this one from thirty years later, what are the things I see as being wrong with it?

1. Narrative flow. It starts with a really nice noir opening, and then immediately jumps into a long and winding flashback that ends up consuming the first third of the story. "The Long Flashback" is one of those things that was done to death back in the 1940s and has been held in low regard ever since. According to the experts, this is the second most-clichéd way to start a story. (The most-clichéd way, I've been told, is with a character regaining consciousness and trying to remember where he is and how he got there.)

2. Unnatural language. Karl and Eddie are forever addressing each other by their first names. When you're having a conversation with a close friend, and there's only the two of you in the room, do you feel it necessary to use your friend's name in every other sentence? If I were writing this story now, I would be more economical with dialog, use far fewer italics and semi-colons, and wage a war of extermination against the said-bookisms. (Example of a said-bookism: "It's sunny out," he said brightly. Unless there's some possibility for confusion about who's talking, it's usually not necesary to use the *.said construction, and the adverb modifying "said" pushes it from merely unnecessary to downright ugly.)

3. The Plot! This is the big, insoluable one. What's this story about? It's another "unsuccessful sci-fi writer invokes otherworldly aid to become a successful sci-fi writer" story! This is a field that was worked to exhaustion back in the 1940s and turned into a dust-bowl in the 1950s, and there is not enough manure in the world to make it fertile and green again.

At least, that's what I've been told. Given that I was not around to read the science fiction of the 1940s when it was new, I think I can be forgiven for not knowing what the old guys had seen and gotten tired of before I was born.

4. And this is a biggie: The entire plot turns on the naïve assumption that releasing a book means people will pay attention to it!

I imagine the nutjob who writes all those Reptiloid Conspiracy books feels the same way. For one of the shadowy masters who have been running our planet ever since the dark ages, Smith sure ain't much. If I were to write this story now, I could have Smith utterly crush Meyerowitz's heart and soul with just a few well-chosen words about how the publishing business really works. Or maybe, have him accept the conspiracy book, live up to the terms of the contract, give the book nationwide saturation coverage -- and still utterly destroy Meyerowitz's message and reputation, simply by giving the book the wrong cover art treatment and promoting it with quotes from people on the GRAI list.

You know, people "Generally Recognized As Idiots." You know who I mean.

5. Finally, the whole story really is too much of an inside joke, and as such it violates the cardinal rule of insider jokedom. The whole point of being in a group is to be able to look down on the people who are not in the group. Certainly, it’s not to laugh at yourself.

When you're working in a genre, you have to remember that the people who already write, publish, and read in that genre tend to be defensive and have remarkably thin skins. If you write something that, however obliquely, makes fun of the conceits of their beloved genre, you're toast.

It took a mystery writer, Sharyn McCrumb, to write Bimbos of the Death Sun. It took a playright, Neil Simon, to write The Cheap Detective. I'm told true-blue Trekkies hate "Galaxy Quest," because they feel it makes them look like idiots.

If you work inside a genre, never make fun of the genre. If you work outside of the genre, then by all means, level the guns, load with flaming shot, and fire away. But don't expect to publish it inside the genre you're taking pot-shots at. In the ultimate hindsight, I should have amped up the noir and suspense aspects and tried to publish this one as a mystery.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke


Are you a published author with a Tale From The Trunk you’d like to share? If so, we’re looking for writers who are both willing to let us reprint their previously publishing stories and brave enough to dissect their own work for the educational benefit of the audience. Does this sound like you? Send queries only to stupefyingstories@gmail.com, subject line “Tales From The Trunk.”


Friday, May 27, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 3

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

— L. P. Hartley

There have been so many revolutions and so much evolution since I began writing fiction half a century ago that it’s become almost impossible to keep track of it all. When I began, writers wrote using typewriters, and mailed paper manuscripts to editors, who sometimes accepted them, and then marked them up with a wonderfully arcane and cryptic set of glyphs known as “copy-editing marks” and sent them on to typesetters, who introduced entirely new and wildly creative typographical errors into the story, which were rarely corrected because it was too expensive to make changes once the pages were typeset. 

[You think I exaggerate? There was a typo in the original 1938 publication of John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” that has remained unchanged to this day, no matter how many times the story is reprinted. Specifically, it’s in this paragraph:

“I think you should know the structure of the place. There is a broad plateau, a level sweep that runs more than 150 miles due south from the Secondary station, Van Wall says. He didn’t have time or fuel to fly farther, but it was running smoothly due south then. Right there, where that buried thing was, there is an ice-drowned mountain ridge, a granite wall of unshakable strength that has damned back the ice creeping from the south.

I leave finding it as a test of your proofreading skills.]

When I began writing, there was a healthy market for the kinds of mid-list, mass-market paperback original novels that used to fill the spinner racks in bookstores, dime-stores, grocery stores, school libraries, and truck stops all across the country. More importantly, there were at least a half-dozen publishers competing to fill that shelf space, so that opened up lots of opportunities for the aspiring would-be novelist. As for short stories, there were at least a half-dozen “A-list” magazines that published a lot of new fiction monthly and paid well for what they published, and another dozen or so “B-” and “C-list” magazines that didn’t pay as well, publish as often, or have the circulation, but were worth considering submitting to. There were even a few magazines that paid up to $5,000 for original science fiction short stories—that’s in actual 1970s dollars, not inflation-adjusted dollars—though they published relatively few stories, and if your name wasn’t Vonnegut or Bradbury your chances of selling to them were pretty slim.

Still, that was the market for fiction that once existed, and it imposed a natural outside limit on writers. Once you’d submitted your story to the A-list and B-list markets, and had a good long think about whether you wanted to try it on the C-list markets, you realized your time probably would be much better spent chucking that story into the trunk and working on something new. 

Whenever there was a change in editors at one of the A-list magazines, of course, everyone rushed to their trunks to pull out that old story the outgoing editor had rejected, to see if the new editor might like it better. But a funny thing tended to happen: if you’d kept at it—if you’d written stories, submitted them, come to accept that they were rejects and moved on, writing new material—very often, when you finally opened up the trunk and read that old manuscript you’d squirreled away years ago—your first reaction was, “My God, this thing is terrible! I have gotten so much better at writing since I wrote this old thing!”

Whereupon the old story would go back into the trunk, and you’d decide to write something new to try to impress the new editor, and success, fame, and fortune were sure to follow.

Dawn of Time • Episode 8: “When things look dark…”

Written by Ray Daley

Continued from Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6 | Episode 7

The story thus far: 32nd Century high school student Dawn Anderson is having a really bad day. Needing a better grade in History, she “borrowed” her father’s TimePak to take a short jaunt back to the 20th Century, only to make a perfectly innocent mistake involving a stolen handgun and a too-hot McDonald’s cherry pie. Now, instead of returning home, she is bouncing from disaster to catastrophe, each one worse than the one before. After being chased by clowns, narrowly avoiding becoming a tyrannosaur’s snack, jumping out mere moments before the Chicxulub extinction event, making a new friend (Stella) and rescuing her from the Titanic, being found by her worst enemy (Becky) and being forced to rescue her, too, from a robot uprising, the three of them have barely escaped with their souls, but not Becky’s soles, because time itself is melting down…

When I opened my eyes it was still dark, and deathly silent. Warm and dry too, nicer than cold and snowing. “Is anyone else here?” I asked, to hear something other than the void around myself.

“I’m here,” Becky said.

“Me too,” said Stella. “And here’s the bad news. This isn’t 1955, or anywhere. It’s an interstitial rift. A place where broken time flows to. And from.”

“So, the three of us are nowhere?” I asked.

“Not quite.” I knew that voice. It was mine. “Hold on, I’m going to create a bubble of time. We’ll be able to see each other. Stella, Becky, don’t move.”

“We won’t,” they said.

“Nor will I,” another voice said.

Things got a lot more visible.

I saw myself. She was much older, in her 20s, maybe? The other Stella looked a lot older too. “Okay, you two, what happened? We were heading to 1955.”

Older Stella rolled her eyes. “Have you examined that transposed diode recently?”

Using the circuitry loupe, I checked the Situational Transmogrifier. That explained a lot. “The diode. It’s…”

Older me said, “Backward, we know. We’ve been waiting for you to arrive. This is jump nine, yes?”

I shook my head. “I’ve made eight jumps, including this one.”

Older Stella was clearly holding in a scream. “Damn it! We brought you here too soon!” Then she suddenly looked happy. “Did you say eight, Dawn? Can you boost that field intensity a touch? I think we might have lucked out unintentionally.”

Things got a great deal brighter in the bubble. Stella was covered in strips of paper, still dripping paint.

I recognized the colors. “Don’t move, Stella. That’s our way out of here. You’re coated in Patrice’s Maria. Mars’ greatest old Master. Coated the backs of his works in old printed-out books. Maria went missing a year after he finished it. It was covered in pages of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Mostly his equations. The same ones they used to stabilize time travel. Let me see…”

Sure enough, I was right. Carefully peeling, I found gold. Well, equations. The linear time regressor and the spatial stabilizer. If I could input these on the TimePak, we might still make it home in one piece, and restore time to normality.

“Becky, give me the jacket,” I said.

“No way,” she said and, just then, the bubble popped, plunging us all into inky blackness.

The last thing I heard before it all went dark was older Stella shouting out, “When you arrive, remember to…”

Then everywhere was on fire.

Next week: “Episode 9: The foot is in the other shoe”



Ray Daley was born in Coventry and still lives there. He served six years in the RAF as a clerk and spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet and has been writing stories since he was ten. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitchhiker’s Guide fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986. Tweet him @RayDaleyWriter or check out his web site at https://raymondwriteswrongs.wordpress.com/



Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 2


How do you know when it’s time to give up on trying to sell a story?

In the old days of actual paper submissions sent by mail to magazines, there were two natural and reliable but unspoken indicators. Along about the fifth or sixth time your manuscript went out to an editor with shining bright hopes and came back home with its tail between its legs, it began to look pretty shopworn. The page edges and corners typically became dog-eared and frayed. Sometimes it might even have acquired a coffee-ring stain or two from a careless slush pile reader. 

Editors could see this, too. When a “new” submission came out of the envelope looking like it had already been around the block a few times, their level of interest in it immediately dropped. Every editor wants to believe that they are the first to get a shot at publishing some new story. A shopworn manuscript that plops out of the envelope looking sad and pathetic, with the obligatory SASE trailing behind…

Well, to paraphrase Damon Runyon, when that happens, the temptation to use that SASE becomes too strong to resist.

So back in the day the savvy writer, along about the time of the fifth or sixth rejection, would look at the bedraggled returned manuscript in their hands, glance at the accompanying rejection slip in hopes that it might contain some useful information*, and then think, “Maybe I should retype this one before I send it out again.” Of course, writers being writers, it is nearly impossible to retype a story without also rewriting it, so over the course of time a sort of stepwise refinement did take place, that sometimes actually did produce a story that eventually sold.

More often, though, the rewrite produced a new manuscript that also went out a half-dozen more times, before the second indicator took effect. This occurred when the writer was again holding the rejected manuscript in their hands, trying to discern meaning in the rejection slip and thinking the manuscript would benefit from being retyped yet again, when suddenly this thought occurred to them:

Hold on. It will take me X amount of time to retype this manuscript. I’m spending Y amount of money on 9x12 envelopes and Z amount of money on postage. Even if I sell this story on the next submission, I won’t make enough from the sale to recoup what I’ve already spent on trying to sell it.

Maybe, instead of retyping this one again, my time and money would be better spent writing and trying to sell something

At which point the savvy writer would chuck the manuscript into their “Save for the anthology” file and move on.

The thick writer, on the other hand, would remain forever stuck on trying to sell the same old story. 


* P.S. Speaking of thick writers and shopworn manuscripts, I actually knew an editor who, when he received a really high-mileage manuscript, made it a point not to use a rejection slip, but to hand-write his rejection on the first page of the manuscript. He did this both to insult the author and to force them to retype at least the first page of the manuscript.

The first actual personal rejection I ever received from a pro market editor was one of his scribbles, to the effect that my submission was a really good 1940s Astounding story, but this was 1975 and no one was interested in that old crap anymore. The joke was on him, though, as two years later Star Wars proved that no, recycled 1940s Astounding stories were exactly what the sci-fi fans wanted to see. 

Monday, May 23, 2022

Trunk Story Week • Part 1

Every writer has a collection of trunk stories: stories they can’t seem to get published no matter how long they keep trying or how much effort they pour into trying to revise and improve them. If you are at all serious about being a writer, you probably have a pile of them, too.

If so, congratulations. You’re in good company. I have known hundreds of professional writers, and with one exception, not one of them has sold everything they wrote. 

Isaac Asimov complained about having trunk stories. Arthur C. Clarke complained about having trunk stories. Even Ray Bradbury complained about having trunk stories—but then in 1975 Gale Research published The Bradbury Companion, and everyone else began to complain instead. For example, Spider Robinson, in his book review column in Galaxy, described the then-newly released thing as:

“[a] labor of love—the kind that makes people build shrines to Lana Turner or wait in an alley for twelve hours for a chance to rip Paul McCartney’s lapel off. It is a shrine to Ray Bradbury, and as such serves to support the contemporary suspicion that he’s dead (at least as a writer of fictional prose).


“But the vast bulk (and it sure is) of the book is a hideous amalgam of…all I can call them are souvenirs. There is, for instance, an enormous selection of facsimiles of original manuscripts of unpublished works. Did you get that? You’re buying hand-written copy that a professional couldn’t sell to anyone.”  

If even Ray Bradbury, writing in the heyday of the pulp and slick magazines, couldn’t sell everything he wrote, until he at last had ascended to such an exalted height that he warranted hagiography of the kind Woody Allen so incisively satirized in “The Metterling Lists,” then what hope do you have that those old manuscripts in the back of your closet will suddenly and spontaneously germinate in the dark and become best-sellers?

Well, there is some cause for hope, and that’s what we’ll be talking about this week in Not Quite Ad Hoc Trunk Story Week. But do you see the immediate problem for a publisher? “These are stories a pro couldn’t sell to anyone” is a really tough sales pitch to make work with readers, unless we’re talking about the literary equivalent of a dead rock star. And of course, becoming successful after you’re dead doesn’t do you much good.

As for the one writer I knew who sold absolutely everything he wrote? I’ll reveal that secret now, although I won’t dignify him by naming him. He was, to speak plainly, a hack, who worked in multiple genres under a half-dozen pseudonyms and had an established reputation for delivering competent, formulaic, and commercially successful mid-list mass-market paperback originals exactly on schedule. He sold everything he wrote because he never began to write anything until he had a signed publication contract in-hand, and while he produced a tremendous number of books and made a comfortable living by doing so, he never produced one book that was interesting or remembered for any length of time.

That’s the nature of our business, folks, and your challenge as a writer. If you’re going to take chances, you’re going to produce at least some work that you can’t sell. Contrarily, while there can be very good money to be made in never taking any chances or doing anything original—see Brooks, Terry—if you choose that path, you’ll never produce any work that is of more than trivial and temporary interest.  

So now is as good a time as any to ask yourself: what do I want to be known for?

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Proposal: Tales from the Trunk

There is a question that is of tremendous interest to writers, but I wonder whether it’s of any interest at all to readers. The question is: What separates a story that is well-written and finished from being a story that is published? 

Let’s face it. Most stories are fated to be trunk stories. The numbers are merciless. Every day there are far more new stories being written than there are new slots opening up in which those stories could be published.

The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, with the advent of e-books and online publishing. A tremendous number of newer but much smaller markets have arisen, although much of what they’re doing is picking up the slack left behind by the failure of older and larger-circulation markets. It is easier to get published now than it used to be, albeit harder to get noticed by a large audience.

Still, more stories are being written now than could ever possibly be published. What is that je ne sais quoi that makes the difference between one story’s going out into the world to make friends and influence people, while another seemingly equally well-written story gets submitted dozen of times but never finds a forever home? 

We have had a lot of back-channel discussion of this question, here at Stupefying Stories. It’s even been proposed that we make it a point to publish the seemingly unpublishable, and to invite readers to comment and critique. I think this is a lose/lose proposition. “Hey, Readers! Look what we have here for you: a story that’s been rejected by everyone! Why don’t you invest your time in reading it and telling the author what’s wrong with it?” Yeah, that will attract a lot of non-writing readers. 

Besides, isn’t that what writing groups are for?

So instead, I’d like to float a different proposition; call it Tales from the Trunk. I think people would be interested in hearing from writers who had a story that seemed to be unsalable, but then figured out how to fix it and make it a published story. Specifically, I think people would be interested in hearing from writers who are willing to analyze their own work, and to explain how they figured out what they were doing wrong and how they corrected it.

At least, I think that’s an interesting idea for a regular feature on this site. The real question is: do you?

The lines are now open. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.


SHOWCASE • “Appliancé,” by Bruce Bethke


We’re pretty tied up right now with the work needed to get Stupefying Stories #24 ready for release on June 1st, so Ad Hoc Trunk Story week got pushed to the back burner and the new Saturday Fiction Showcase is still in the freezer, waiting to be defrosted. Hoping to kill two birds—

No, wait. I hate that expression. I don’t want to kill anything. How about, “Hoping to scare two squirrels off the bird feeder with one piece of rock-hard burned toast…”

Hmm. That expression needs more work. In the meantime, here for your entertainment is an old short story of mine, and afterward I’ll have a few words to say about what for years made this one a trunk story, and what I had to change in order to be able to sell this one to a pro magazine. 




by Bruce Bethke

First publication: Aboriginal Science Fiction, January 1991

“Good morning, Barbara,” the soft, pleasant, sexless voice said. “Time to rise and shine.” When there was no reply in sixty seconds, Snoozalarm tried again. “Good morning, Barbara. Please wake up.”

John got one eye sort of half-open, gave some consideration to waking up, then slid his hand around Barbara’s tummy and snuggled in closer, burying his nose in the back of her neck.

The clock’s voice became a bit more insistent. “This is the third call, Barbara. Please wake up. It is already 7:02.”

Her long, blonde hair smelled wonderful. He ran his fingers across the curve of her hip and down her thigh; she responded with a soft, throaty sigh...

Barbara Lynn Murphy!” Snoozalarm shrieked. “If you don’t wake up this very insta—

“I’m awake.” She started disentangling herself from John’s arms and pushing back the blankets.

“Snuggle one more minute?” John suggested.

“Afraid not.” Yawning, she sat up on the edge of the bed and started working the kinks out of her neck.

“It’s a lovely morning, Barbara!” Snoozalarm said cheerfully. “The current temperature is 56, with a predicted high today in the low 70’s. The air pollution index is low to moderate, but there is a 60-percent chance of rain in the late afternoon, so be sure to take your umbrella.” Barbara pulled on her terrycloth robe and wandered into the bathroom.

“The regularly scheduled breakfast for Friday is orange juice, wheat toast, coffee, and mushroom and cheese omelets. Do you approve, Barbara?”

“Yes,” John said.

Thirty seconds later Snoozalarm said, “I’m waiting for your okay on breakfast, Barbara.”

“It’ll be fine,” John said.

Another third seconds later Snoozalarm said, “The regularly scheduled breakfast for Friday is—”


She stepped out of the bathroom. “What’s wrong, honey?” John just scowled and pointed at the alarm clock. “Oh. Yes, that’s fine.”

“Thank you,” Snoozalarm said.

“Barb,” John asked, “how come that thing still won’t take orders from me?”

“Sorry,” she mumbled. “I keep meaning to have it reprogrammed.”

“Well, I’m getting a little tired of waiting, you know?”

“I said I was sorry.”

“I mean, we’ve only been living together for six months now,” John continued. “Don’t you think it’s time you let your house know?”

Barbara’s back stiffened. “There’s no need to get nasty.”

“I’m not being nasty. I’m being hurt, because I still feel like your Man of the Weekend.”

“It’s improving, isn’t it?” she snapped. “At least Snoozalarm doesn’t call you Larry anymore!”

A furious look flashed into John’s eyes as he jumped out of bed. “You leave him out of this!”

Barbara ran into the bathroom and slammed the door. In a few seconds John heard the shower come on, so he gave up trying to talk at her through the locked door, pulled his robe on, and went to see if he could get a cup of coffee. As he walked into the kitchen, he mumbled, “Good morning,” and winced in anticipation.

“Good morning, Larry!” the appliances sang out. Snoozalarm had passed along the word, as a good NEC MajorDomot was supposed to, for they were all merrily churning away: Mr. Coffee, La Chef Food Processaire, Jiffy Skillet, Warren Waring the Blender, and even stolid old Fridge. Then poor little Toaster, always the slowest of the bunch, urgently and nervously said, “Good morning, sir.”

“Coffee ready yet?” John asked.

The coffee maker answered in a rich, masculine, Colombian-accented voice. “Not yet, but soon, Larry.” Strike Two. Shaking his head, John stepped over to the den, put his hand on the doorknob, and then hesitated for a moment, to summon his courage.

Entering the den always involved a strange mix of eagerness and dread. On the one hand, he had to enter the room to talk to Denny, and he liked Denny; the nexus of the HomeNetwork and gateway to the outside world was dependable, efficient, and best of all, completely apersonal.

On the other hand, Barbara’s collection was in there.

There was nothing to do but get it over with. Gritting his teeth, he opened the door.

Being light-sensitive, the meadowlarks were the first to start up. They in turn triggered the sound-actuated canaries, and as John charged in stabbing OFF buttons he jostled the Elvis shelf again and the five touch-sensitive dolls, representing the five stages of His career, started singing their five unstoppable two-minute songs. John got to the X-Rated Eddie Murphy doll in time, and caught most of the unrecognizables before they really got going, but he was flummoxed by the new one. There was always a new one; Barbara couldn’t pass up novelties. That’s why she’d bought into this totally wired townhouse development in the first place, and why she’d insisted they rent out John’s restored Victorian brownstone after they’d decided to move in together.

Picking up the new unrecognizable and turning it over—in the process triggering it, of course—he realized it was a four-headed Beatles doll and there was no way to stop it from singing all two-hundred and thirty-three choruses of “Hey Jude.” So he shoved it into the closet.

The Elvii were almost finished. He waited them out, then allowed himself a moment of smugness as the room settled down into the soft patter of electronic frogs and crickets shutting down. Of course, as soon as Barbara found out she would frantically turn them all back on, but for the moment he felt an incredible sense of accomplishment. He stepped back to survey the room, and triggered the singing chipmunks.

They started bickering violently in helium-squeaky three-part harmony. John bit his lower lip and fought the urge to scream “Alvin!” three times. After all, that’s what they were waiting for, and he’d be damned if he was going to kowtow to a bunch of witless silicon. Moving out of their range, he waited until they timed out. Then he again surveyed the shelves of silent knick-knacks, and turned to the desktop computer.

The printout basket was empty. “Denny!” he barked.

“On,” said the computer.

“Are you okay?”


“Then where’s my newsprint?”


“Huh?” Sometimes Denny could be laconic to the point of obscurity. It took John a full minute to realize Denny was telling him to look at the display screen, and another minute to remember how to turn the screen on. As soon as the screen came up, through, the ***NETWORK ERROR*** message appeared, along with the clarification:

interruption in BuildingSys at 07:17 ...
all CityNet services temporarily out ...
HomeNet Synchronization lost ...
all home modules now in local mode ...
sorry for the inconvenience ...

“Damn!” John spat. “Third data outage this year!” He stomped furiously out of the den. “Who wired this dump?!” he bellowed, “Migrant lettuce pickers in the off-season? Barb? This house of yours—”

The bizarre noise and awful smell first stopped him in his tracks, then made him break into a run.

In the kitchen he found a disaster-in-progress. Jiffy Skillet was frying shredded oranges, Toaster was belching smoke, Warren Waring was trying to juice eggs, and all the appliances were shrieking error messages at top volume. Viscous yellow egg goo was oozing down the sides of the blender and spreading out in a thick puddle on the counter top; a second later it found the crack between the counter and the fridge and began slithering down. Six months of living with Toaster had conditioned John to the smell of cremated bread, and now that he could see the skillet he recognized the smell of burning oranges, but a third nuance in the stench puzzled him until he watched La Chef dump freshly ground coffee into the skillet.

Mister Coffee was brewing cheese.

Once he got over the smell, the noise hit him again. Skillet and La Chef were stuck in a call-and-response routine; both had voice-operated troublefinders and each time La Chef shouted, “Assistance, s’il vous plait!”, Skillet answered, “Gosh, what a mess!” Since this wasn’t a valid response, La Chef kept shouting. Meanwhile, Mr. Coffee was muttering, “I think something is amiss,” Toaster bleated, “I’m stuck! I’m stuck!”, and the smoke kept getting thicker.

Barbara burst into the kitchen, hair dripping. “What did you do to them?”

John grabbed Toaster and began jabbing the eject button. “I didn’t do anything! The cable’s gone flakey again!” Toaster wasn’t surrendering, so John held it upside down and shook it violently.

“I’m stuck! I’m stuck!”

Put him down!” Barbara demanded. “And what’s the cable got to do with it?” John plunked Toaster down on the counter top and pulled open the silverware drawer.

“These things are all supposed to network with Denny,” John found a butter knife, “but they’ve lost sync.” Barbara realized what he was planning.

NO!” She tried to grab the knife from John’s hand, but he wrenched away. The momentum drove the blade through the charred toast and into something vital. There was a bright blue spark; John swore, dropped everything, and started sucking his thumb; Toaster gave one last shrill little screech and went silent.

“Christ!” sobbed Barbara, “you killed Toaster!” She picked up the inert appliance and cradled it in her arms.

“The toaster? How about I damn near killed myself?”

“You always hated Toaster!”

“Barb, that thing shouldn’t have been a toaster. It was a frustrated smoke alarm.” With his free hand, John reached for Mr. Coffee’s plug. A look of horror flashed across Barbara’s face; she threw her shoulder into John’s side, blocking him away.

“Don’t touch that!”

“How else am I supposed to stop it?” They struggled briefly over the cord and John came up the winner, but a few seconds too late. The coffee maker erupted like a cheddar Vesuvius, spraying scorched and bubbling molten cheese on the walls, the ceiling, John... luckily, his bathrobe caught the worst of it.

“You did that on purpose!” Barbara shrieked. John pulled a few taffy strings of cheese out of his hair, and then yanked La Chef’s plug. The food processor shut down with a gutteral squawk. “Stop it! You’re hurting them!”

“Dammit, Barbara, they don’t feel! They don’t think! They’re just silicon chips!”

“You beast!” Barbara screeched. “You’re the one with no feelings! You hate my kitchen! You hate my collection!” She stopped trying to hold back her tears. “You probably even hate me!” Clutching her poor dead toaster, unable to stop John’s unplugging rampage, she ran back into the bathroom and slammed the door.

“Oh... fudge,” John said, with some effort. He pulled the plug on Skillet, then followed Barbara. “Honey, I—honey? Please unlock this door.”

“Go away!”

“Barb, you’re being pretty juvenile about this.”

“You disgust me!”

Biting back an angry retort, John stomped into the bedroom, tore off the bathrobe and threw it into a corner, then stuffed his business clothes into his gym bag. He could wash up in the exercise room; if his boss didn’t like the time he sat down at his desk that’d be just too damn bad. He stopped in the kitchen long enough to dump the burnt oranges into the compactor—which solemnly announced, “The garbage is full,” and began singing Take Me Out to the Curbside—then slammed the door as he left.


“He’s gone, Barbara. You can come out now.” Barbara opened the bathroom door a crack and cautiously peered out. Reassured that John was gone, she opened the door the rest of the way. “Can we talk?” Snoozalarm asked.

Barbara nodded glumly. “It’s about John, isn’t it?”

“John has a serious compatibility problem. He resists integration with the HomeNet.”

“I’ve noticed,” Barbara said dejectedly. She walked over to the bed and flopped onto it. “What do you think I should do?”

“Larry did not have this problem,” Snoozalarm pointed out.

“But Larry was so dull,” Barbara protested.

“He was also reliable. The cable has been restored; John’s six-month performance review has just come in. Would you like to hear it?”

“I suppose I’d better. In summary, please.” She rolled over onto her back and ran her fingers through her wet hair.

Snoozalarm took a few seconds to prepare the summary. “The gist of it is, his market projections are as good or better than Larry’s. However, his aggressive personality has led to severe conflicts with his co-workers, and you have been given thirty days to correct the problem or face termination of your contract.”

Damn!” Barbara punched the mattress.

“This is a frequent problem with liberated artificial intelligences,” Snoozalarm noted. “They tend to develop assertive and territorial behaviors.”

“It’s my fault,” Barbara muttered. “I thought it would be fun if my android didn’t know he was an android.” She punched the mattress again. “Damn! That John software was so expensive! All those simulated memories. And that perception filter, so he wouldn’t notice all his co-workers are androids!”

“Sentience is a questionable feature in a primary breadwinner unit, Barbara.”

She sat up on the bed and sighed heavily. “Don’t I know it. Okay, call AndroServ. Tell them to reinstall the Larry software ASAP. Damn!” Barbara slid off the bed and walked into the bathroom, looking for a fresh towel.

By the time she’d finished drying off and was ready to shave her legs, Snoozalarm had made the connection. “I have AndroServ on-line,” the clock said. “Will today at noon do, Barbara?”

“If that’s the soonest they can get to him.” She paused, and pursed her lips. “Look, they won’t—hurt him, will they? He won’t know what’s happening to him?”

Snoozalarm paused to exchange data with AndroServ. “In special cases like this they use an ultrasonic remote shutoff. No, John will not be aware of this.”

“That’s very important to me,” Barbara continued. “Tell them I want a complete backup of John. Everything in his memory, right up to this morning. And after they archive him, I want them to update his world events memory every Friday.” She smiled, sadly, and picked up the bladeless razor John had used every morning for the past six months. “I may want to have a weekend affair with him, every now and then. Larry really is so dull.” She sighed, and tossed the razor into the wastebasket. “But a girl’s got to eat.”

Snoozalarm completed the call, and the AndroServ technicians showed up at John’s office at noon as promised. That night, Larry came home to Barbara. He’d been gone for six months, but he didn’t notice that little detail. In fact, he didn’t notice much of anything.

Barbara’s house was much happier.


APPLIANCÉ: A Tale from the Trunk

 It’s fun to look back on your successes. It’s more educational to look back on your failures, provided you can avoid that whole “wallowing in hopeless despair” thing.

Regarding this story, I wrote the original version of “Appliancé” sometime in 1982. I can’t say exactly when, except to say that I wrote it sometime after “Cyberpunk” and sometime before I started keeping detailed submission logs. From the records I’ve been able to exhume, it appears that it took me 25 tries to get this one published. Why?

Well, for one thing, this story wasn’t always exactly this story. The story as I originally wrote it had much in common with the one you’ve just read. It began much the same as you saw in Part 1, developed much the same as you saw in Part 2, came to a crisis almost exactly as shown in Part 3, and took the same neck-snapping shift into Barbara’s point-of-view at the beginning of Part 4.

It was the rest of the denouement that was always the problem. That, and the title.

In the original version, John was human, and after he stormed out Barbara wound up having a heart-to-heart with her bathroom mirror, which had a voice not unlike that of Joan Rivers and a nasty, manipulative personality. In the final paragraphs the mirror convinced Barbara to dump John. The original title was something that played off the Black Queen’s enchanted mirror in Snow White, and while I can’t remember the exact title now, I do remember that it was remarkably lame. Fortunately, I can’t find a copy of the Ur-story at the moment. The more I remember about it, the less inclined I am to look for it.

Between 1982 and July of 1984, that version of the story was rejected with little or no comment by ten different magazines—including, now that I look at the list, seven that have since gone out of business. Serves them right.

In 1985 I gave the story a complete rewrite, generally tightening and tuning the first three parts, but unfortunately giving it an entirely new ending, in which John was still human but Barbara ended up tossing him out and replacing him with a, er—well, with a vibrator, with the synthetic voice of Barry White. That version was retitled “Murder in Barbie’s Dream Kitchen,” and in the next two years I shopped it around four magazines, one of which lost it for ten months. Luckily, in March of 1987 an editor who kind of liked me took the time to tell me the ending was not merely bad but repellently tacky, so I put it back in the trunk until I found time for another rewrite and retitle.

[Nota bene: In today’s market, though, I think that ending would sell!]

A few months later the story reappeared as “Mirror, Mirror,” and the manipulative bathroom mirror was back, albeit this time with a superficially nicer personality and the synthetic voice of Garrison Keillor. This version ended up being a quarter-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and started coming back from magazines with rejections on the order of, “Real close, kid, but the title is a dead giveaway.” So I took it back into the rewrite shop again, and this time emerged with a story titled “Appliancé,” which was exactly the same as the story you’ve just read up through the beginning of Part 4, and in which, for the first time, John was an android—and so was Larry, but an earlier model. This version got bounced by five magazines with ever more encouraging rejection letters, including an “I would have accepted it but I have one too much like it already in inventory” from Stan Schmidt at Analog, before I finally hit on the idea that “John” and “Larry” were simply different software packages installed on the same android chassis. I wrote the final version of the ending in the Spring of 1988, and immediately sold the story to the next magazine to which I submitted it.

Equally immediately, that magazine went out of business without either paying me, publishing the story, or canceling our contract. It took me until January 1989 to recover the rights, whereupon I submitted the story to Charlie Ryan at Aboriginal SF, who immediately bought the story and published it in the January 1991 issue.

By any reasonable standard, this was an unreasonable amount of work to put into a single short story sale. In the end, though, I think it paid off. People who read this story generally seem to like it.I hope you did.

Kind regards,
Bruce Bethke


Are you a published author with a Tale From The Trunk you’d like to share? If so, we’re looking for writers who are both willing to let us reprint their previously publishing stories and brave enough to dissect their own work for the educational benefit of the audience. Does this sound like you? Send queries only to stupefyingstories@gmail.com, subject line “Tales From The Trunk.”

Friday, May 20, 2022

Dawn of Time • Episode 7: “The dreadful secret of McDonald’s”

Written by Cécile Cristofari

Continued from Episode 1 | Episode 2 | Episode 3 | Episode 4 | Episode 5 | Episode 6

The story thus far: 32nd Century high school student Dawn Anderson is having a really bad day. Needing a better grade in History, she “borrowed” her father’s TimePak to take a short jaunt back to the 20th Century, only to make a perfectly innocent mistake involving a stolen handgun and a too-hot McDonald’s cherry pie. Now, instead of returning home, she is bouncing from disaster to catastrophe, each one worse than the one before. After being chased by clowns, narrowly avoiding becoming a tyrannosaur’s snack, jumping out mere moments before the Chicxulub extinction event, making a new friend (Stella) and rescuing her from the Titanic, being found by her worst enemy (Becky) and being forced to rescue her, too, from a robot uprising, the three of them have barely escaped with their souls, but not Becky’s soles, because time itself is melting…

“Time can’t be melting!” I said.

Becky was clutching her stomach, but Stella just sighed.

“Cheerleaders in 3204? Speaking 21st century English? What’s that if not time melting?”

The “errr” sound with which I answered was almost as undignified as Becky’s. Stella gave a patient look in answer.

“I’m a time agent,” she said. “Sent to retrieve a couple of devices that were causing irreparable damage to the space-time continuum. Luckily, I located yours on the Titanic.”

I started. “I thought time was melting because I saved you. Altering the continuum and all?”

“You didn’t save me!” She rolled her eyes. “Fine. My own device may have overheated when I jumped to the Titanic. I was just sitting under this table for some peace and quiet while I figured out how to get away.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“All right, thank you!” she said. “But that doesn’t change the problem. Have you drawn no lessons from the Great Climate Shift? Always investigate side effects of fuel before using it!”

“McDonald’s pies…?”

“Make time melt,” Stella said.

“And give you diabetes, and taste awful,” Becky added. Then she looked down at my jacket and her face lit up. “Hey, I have the only functioning time machine now! I won’t let you use it unless you take me home and lend a hand with that History assignment.”

I stared at her in horror. Then I remembered. I still had the gun!

“You’re not going anywhere with my jacket,” I shouted, drawing it and praying I wouldn’t have to do anything but wave it around. “And since when do cheerleaders care about History grades anyway?”

Becky’s mouth widened in shock, but Stella sighed. Again.

“Don’t be dramatic,” Stella said. “We’re not leaving anyone here. Put that down. Both of you!” she snapped at Becky, who had taken the jacket off and was waving it in front of her as if she couldn’t decide whether it looked more like a shield or like something to taunt an angry bull with. “We’ll just go to 1955 and stop McDonald’s from existing,” Stella added. “Hopefully the space-time continuum will start behaving logically again afterward.”

“But then I won’t be able to go back home!” I cried.

A polite cough interrupted me.

“Ladies, I hate to intrude, but…” the cat-spider said.

I looked back.

A flow of melting clocks, hourglasses, and dinosaur bones thundered toward us. Stella swore and pulled us onto a drifting picture frame. Reeling, we held on to one another, as years raced by.

“Rapids!” Becky shouted.

“1955! Jump!” Stella yelled.

“MIAAAAOWWW!” the cat-spider screamed.

I closed my eyes, and leaped.

Next week: “Episode 8: When things look dark…”



After working in Canada for two years, Cécile Cristofari settled in her native South France, where she teaches English literature and writes stories when her son is asleep. Her stories have appeared in Interzone, Daily Science Fiction and Reckoning, among other places. She can be found on Twitter @c_cristofari, or on her website: staywherepeoplesing.wordpress.com.