New story, ready to read!

Back in April, I sold a story to Redstone Science Fiction and it’s now already up and ready to be read. It’s about “sooners” who illegally settle on Mars while terraforming is still only half-finished — or, as a friend of mine succinctly put it: Oregon Trail on Mars.

I’m no good at inventing environments out of whole cloth, so I usually set my stories on Earth (or places that look a lot like it). But I reasoned that if humans were terraforming Mars, they’d likely use familiar ecosystems as their templates. This story draws inspiration from the cold steppes, alpine tundras, and high deserts of our own planet when describing the flora and fauna of a developing Mars.

I’m the rare science-fiction writer who never wanted to be an astronaut as a kid. (A traumatic scene about a lunar disaster from the beginning of Superman II had a lot to do with that.) But it seems to me that living on a half-terraformed planet would be almost like living in an eternal spring: new plants and animals would always be appearing as conditions gradually became more favorable to life. Every year, there would be new surprises.

I don’t know that I’d ever actually sign up to live on a planet like that — I’m no longer afraid of General Zod, but I’m still not keen on space travel. But if any of you end up terraforming Mars someday, I’ll certainly look at all the postcards.


Somebody else’s stories

It’s been too long since I last talked about stories I’ve enjoyed reading, so here are a few memorable ones that recently crossed my eyeballs. And all of them are free to read!

In no particular order…

“Frog/Prince” by Melissa Mead, from Daily Science Fiction. Of all the magazines with “science-fiction” in their names, Daily Science Fiction may be the one that strays most regularly from the traditional boundaries of the genre. This is a fairy tale story, but it is not exactly a retelling of the old Frog Prince tale. Instead it’s something a little bit different and more ambitious.

“Durak” by Anatoly Belilovsky, from Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that Anatoly Belilovsky may very well be my favorite living writer. In part, that’s because I never know what foreign objects he’s going to pull into his stories — history, literature, medicine, language, mathematics. This story recounts a card game and a conversation on the maiden voyage of the Titanic, with a healthy dollop of literature.

“The Woods, Their Hearts, My Blood” by Mari Ness, from Jabberwocky 9. Another fairy tale-inspired story, but with a very different tone. Take the first line of this one as a warning of potential disturbing content. (I didn’t find it particularly gory or gratuitous, but consider yourself warned anyway.) This is a really memorable dissection of the human reality behind some of those otherwise-simple fairy tale elisions, such as: “She had seven daughters.”

“The Children of Main Street” by A.C. Wise, from Clarkesworld. The children of colonists on an alien planet learn how to change their genders at will, and nothing is ever the same again. This reminded me a lot of a Ray Bradbury story — a simple but compelling idea wrapped in an understated, relateable story. It’s speculative fiction as pure speculation.

Full disclosure: I have exchanged occasional friendly tweets with most of these writers, and have submitted or intend to submit to all of these markets. I’ve been published by Daily Science Fiction. Despite all that, I still think these are great stories.


Pittsburgh Comicon, plus some story news

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area and you want to see me, I’ll be at Pittsburgh Comicon on April 20 and 21. (The show is also open on Friday, April 19, but I won’t be there that day.) As is usually the case with these convention appearances, I’ll be holding down a corner of K. Sekelsky’s table — where she will be selling her book The Time Traveler’s Pocket Guide.

We’ll be at Table S-005 in the Small Press area. I should be there all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. I’ll have Machine of Death books for sale, and I’ll also have some samplers to pass out for Vol 2. And if you’ve never gotten your own death prediction, you can stop by for one of those.

I hope to see some of you there… I’ll also be at a convention near Johnstown, PA, in May. So you Pennsylvania folk have two chances to see me this year!

New story now available online
On Monday, April 16, my story “Older, Wiser, Time Traveler” will be posted at Daily Science Fiction. The story went out in the email newsletter last Monday, and now it’s migrating to the web so even non-subscribers can read it. I can’t link directly to it because it’s not up yet… But when Monday comes, be sure to check it out!

As you might have guessed, it’s a time travel story. But that’s all I can say about it without giving away things that shouldn’t be given away.

Some recent sales
I’ve also been getting lots of exciting news lately from various magazines, some of which I can share now.

First, I sold a story to Beneath Ceaseless Skies at the end of March called “After Compline, Silence Falls”. It’s a monster story set in a Trappist monastery in 1890s Manitoba where the monks observe a strict vow of silence from compline to matins — that is, from the last prayers of the day to the first prayers of the following morning. In other words: “In a Trappist monastery, everybody has taken a vow not to scream.”

Second, my flash story “Oak Openings” will be appearing in the third issue of Comets and Criminals. This is a quick tale about pioneers in 1830s Ohio who find their new home isn’t quite what they thought it was. The title comes from the name that settlers gave to the oak savannahs of northwestern Ohio. After fighting their way through the thick forests and swamps of the east, they came upon these savannahs where the trees were spaced far enough apart that they could drive their wagons through the openings between them.

Finally, Redstone Science Fiction will be publishing a science-fiction story of mine called “Imagine Cows on Mars”. It’s another tale of settlers — this time on the Red Planet. I wrote the first draft of this story fifteen years ago. It’s been completely rewritten since then, but both the title and the basic premise (“sooners” arrive illegally on Mars and begin to surreptitiously colonize it before terraforming is officially complete) are from that first draft. So, good work on that to my teenaged self!


Some story updates

First off, a reminder that my mystery story “Garrote” is currently available in the ebook version of Issue #2 of Comets & Criminals. The other stories and poems in that issue have been appearing on the website, one each week, so you can read plenty of content for free if you want to. (My story is only available with the ebook download, however.)

I haven’t read all of Issue #2 yet, but I did enjoy Issue #1 immensely. Besides printing tons of stories (they have new content every week!), Comets & Criminals covers an eclectic mix of genres: science fiction, crime, adventure, historical, and western.

I especially appreciate historical fiction being given a place in that list. It’s one of my favorite genres to read when its done well, and is hands down my favorite to write. (I’m no good at making up worlds on my own so I have to steal them from history.) So here’s hoping that Comets & Criminals has a long life and many imitators.

Stories in anthologies
I also have stories in a couple of anthologies that I expect to be published over the next few months. The first is “Honesty”, which will appear in Literary Landmark Press’s Spirit of Poe anthology. The second is “The Fish-Wife’s Tale”, which was sold to Dagan Books’s FISH anthology.

I know the editors are hard at work finishing up the books in both cases. There aren’t firm release dates yet for either, but I know how that goes. We don’t have a firm release date for the second volume of Machine of Death either. (I’ll have a story in that too, by the way. It’s called “Lake Titicaca”.) When I hear the dates from the editors, I’ll make sure to share them here. Frankly, I can’t wait to read both the books!

(By the way, Dagan Books is currently taking submissions for their next anthology — Bibliotheca Fantastica, about unusual books or book culture. Click the Dagan Books link above for more details on how to submit!)

Odds and ends
Finally, I’ve been good about keeping my own submissions flying over the past six months. As a result, I’ve got stories that will be appearing in Daily Science Fiction, Shimmer, and Stupefying Stories sometime in the future. I don’t have dates yet on any of those either, but I’ll say more when I know more.

To be honest, I’d forgotten how long it can take before stories see print. This has been a good lesson in patience for me.


Some history and thoughts on short fiction pay rates

There’s been a little talk lately about professional pay rates for short fiction. Some of this was prompted by a candidate for office of SFWA suggesting in his platform that the minimum rate for a qualifying market be dropped from 5c per word to 3c per word. (These rates, and all other monetary figures in this post, are in U.S. currency.)

In a fundamental way, I don’t have a dog in this hunt. I’ve already sold enough stories at what SFWA considers professional rates to qualify as an Active member. On the other hand, I came to the conclusion long ago that I was never going to make any real money selling short fiction. I still write and sell, but money isn’t the motivation and I don’t see myself on a track that will ever allow me to earn a living at this. Consequently, pay rates are not the primary thing I look at when deciding where to send my work.

I’ll have more to say on that later, but for now that’s enough background. I should also add that, as an occasional publisher and editor myself, I think the idea of fiddling with the SFWA qualifying pay rates in some fashion is not entirely without merit. This isn’t really the place for details, but I could see the value in multiple tiers that give everybody (the market currently paying 1c per word, and the market currently paying 10c per word) some higher but attainable level to shoot for.

Enter Jack London, ca. 1900
But that’s not actually what I wanted to talk about. Mostly, I just wanted to share some history. Because when you look at history, pay rates for short fiction are extremely low today. I know this because of Jack London, who was not shy about talking about money matters (specifically how much money he was able to make).

In his memoirs of alcoholism John Barleycorn, London details the pay he received for various jobs he held or aspired to hold at the turn of the twentieth century:

“Out in the country, at the Belmont Academy, I went to work in a small, perfectly appointed steam laundry. … We sweated our way through long sizzling weeks at a task that was never done; and many a night, while the students snored in bed, my partner and I toiled on under the electric light at steam mangle or ironing board.

“… And I was receiving thirty dollars a month and board—a slight increase over my coal-shovelling and cannery days, at least to the extent of board, which cost my employer little (we ate in the kitchen), but which was to me the equivalent of twenty dollars a month. My robuster strength of added years, my increased skill, and all I had learned from the books, were responsible for this increase of twenty dollars. Judging by my rate of development, I might hope before I died to be a night watchman for sixty dollars a month, or a policeman actually receiving a hundred dollars with pickings.

Three dollars a day seems to have been the extent of London’s ambition as a working man. During a period of unemployment, London tried his hand at writing. He was able to sell his early stories for five dollars, seven and a half dollars, and one for forty dollars. (Unfortunately, London doesn’t give the length or titles of these stories, but it’s clear he’s talking about short fiction of lengths up to twenty thousand words or so.)

After a few sales like these, London got an offer for a post office job at a rate of sixty-five dollars per month – twice what he had made in most of his other jobs. And yet, with a fair prospect of making it in the writing game, London turned the job down. And why not? Selling a story for forty dollars brought him as much income as three weeks at the post office would. In today’s terms, three weeks pay at minimum wage would be $954. And remember – this post office job paid twice what London was accustomed to making. So that single short story sale brought him something like the equivalent of $1,908 today.

Enter Martin Eden, with more details
The comparison isn’t without complicating factors. There are a great many differences between the world of 1900 that Jack London wrote in and the world of 2012 that we inhabit today. But the fact remains that writing was valued much more highly than it is today when compared to other work. If we turn to London’s novel Martin Eden – practically a fictionalized autobiography in many ways – this becomes even clearer.

In chapter nine, Martin Eden (a stand-in for a young Jack London) writes and submits his first few stories. While researching the marketplace, he is “cheered to read in Book News, in a paragraph on the payment of magazine writers, not that Rudyard Kipling received a dollar per word, but that the minimum rate paid by first-class magazines was two cents a word.  The Youth’s Companion was certainly first class, and at that rate the three thousand words he had written that day would bring him sixty dollars—two months’ wages on the sea!”

Two cents per word – that’s a rate still frequently offered to writers today. To London, it meant two months’ pay on a laborer’s salary. To writers today, it means not quite a day’s pay at minimum wage. (Meanwhile, the dollar per word that Kipling reportedly was paid still seems a fantastic sum, only probable because of Kipling’s unparalleled popularity at the time.)

I suspect that most magazines would earnestly like to pay writers more. We’re no longer in the golden age of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when magazines were cheap, reliable entertainment for the literate working class. The economics of the times were completely different, and most magazines today don’t have anywhere near the circulation or advertising revenue to support the princely rates that Jack London and his contemporaries were paid.

But there’s something depressing about the idea that a “first-rate” publication over a hundred years ago would pay 2c per word, and that a “professional” publication today only pays 5c per word. (To their credit, some professional magazines pay more than that – Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Daily Science Fiction, to name a few.) And this brings me back to my original point about how I fundamentally don’t have a dog in this hunt.

Enter your humble correspondent, ca. 2005
When I received my first checks from professional magazines, I looked at the amounts and knew there was no career for me there. If I had been in Jack London’s shoes – if I had to choose between writing and that post office job – I wouldn’t have hesitated a minute and I’d be a post office man today. At current professional rates, I’d have to write and sell 400,000 words per year to make even a small salary of $20,000. (That works out to less than $10 per hour if we assume forty hour work weeks – somewhat less than the post office pays.) That’s the equivalent of selling a three thousand word story every three days. I like to think I’m a good writer, but I’m not that good.

So in a way, I was faced with the same choice that London was. But the two sides were so unbalanced that I never even really made a conscious decision – it was just obvious that one path wasn’t ever going to work. Today, I work a full-time job in marketing which uses up a lot of time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to writing. That’s why I don’t have a dog in this hunt – because the pay is so low that I didn’t even bother to bring one.

Of course, things are different for me. I don’t work the kind of back-breaking jobs that London was locked into – I don’t shovel coal thirty days a month for ten hours a day, and my job comes with a salary, benefits, and security that London could only dream of. I’m lucky that I can work a job that pays and treats me well during the day, and still have time to write. Compared to the average worker in London’s day, I’m lucky that I have the time and energy to write even as a hobby.

With very few exceptions, short fiction is no longer a winning game for those who want to earn a living at writing. It seems to still be a decent way to break into professional writing, but serious writers soon figure out that novels are necessary to have any shot at a living wage. (And even that’s a heckuva tough racket.) Often the past looks better because we have rose-colored glasses on. But when it comes to pay rates for short fiction, there’s pretty compelling evidence that things really were better once upon a time.

If you have an absurd system, you’ll probably get absurd suggestions
To be frank, this really leaves me wondering what the existing professional rate of 5c per word is meant to represent. What does “professional” mean in this context if the rate is pegged so low that it’s impossible to even make poverty wages by selling short fiction? And if the current rate is so absurdly low, is it any more absurd to propose that it be 3c per word instead?

No one wants to go backwards. No one wants to give up hard-won progress and see pay for short fiction shrink even more. But there are different constituencies at work here. For a writer who is only interested in short fiction and who never expects to make a living at writing (like me!), the rate is far less important than the prestige. Lowering the qualifying rate means a wider pool of prestigious markets. It means that I get more of what I want – more eyeballs looking at markets where I’m trying to sell my work, and more prestige when I do make a sale.

But for truly professional writers, the money is the thing. If pro magazine rates were 20c per word, would the economics start to change for me? Would I maybe be tempted away from a safe job to try to make it as a full-time writer? Would I put my dog in the hunt after all?

Maybe, maybe not. But the decision wouldn’t be nearly as easy to make. Double that rate and start paying 40c per word, and I’d be seriously stroking my chin. From the view in the trenches, it doesn’t seem likely that rates like that will ever be common, but I do think it’s worthwhile for SFWA to keep pushing in that direction. If short fiction can be made to pay well again, that’s the side SFWA should be on. If the market can’t support those kind of rates, then maybe it’s time to admit that short fiction is not a professional writer’s game.

Because let’s be honest here – when you get right down to it, 3c per word is barely more absurd than 5c per word. The only advantage that 5c per word has is that it’s been ensconced in the rules for a few years. The longer that these bargain basement rates are in place, the more folks there will be who are eligible for SFWA membership but who don’t see money as a significant motivator to write and sell short fiction. (Again: like me.)

With things the way they are, the organization is essentially encouraging folks with different priorities to join the ranks as full-fledged members. It’s certainly not the fault of those folks if they take the organization up on its offer, pay their dues, and then suggest changes that are more in line with those different priorities. In the long term, the qualifying rate either needs to go up substantially to make short fiction a viable money-maker again, or SFWA needs to admit that the day of professional short fiction is sadly over and disallow active membership on those sales alone.


Six years later, everything is better

I’ve been doing this writing and submitting thing for kind of a long time. Off and on, anyway – much more “off” than “on”, if I’m honest. But still, I did it enough to get published five times between 1999 and 2005, both in print and online.

But then I took a long break during which I barely submitted anything. I kept writing, sure, but until August of 2011, I wasn’t really trying to get published anymore. That six year vacation didn’t do much for my writing career, but returning to active duty has been in some ways like stepping out of a cryogenic canister after six years of deep freeze.

Everything is different now – at least for a beginner. (Which is still what I am, even after all these years.) And everything is better. In fact, if things hadn’t changed in the past decade, I probably would have given up again already. As it is, I’ve submitted more in the past six month than I ever have before. Here’s why.

You can submit everything online now
Okay, not everything. But almost everything. I’ve made almost 90 submissions in the past six months and not one of them has involved a manila envelope. My postage scale from the old days does nothing now except gather dust.

I know that printing out a story and stuffing it in an envelope doesn’t sound like a big deal, but for me it was a total drag. I hated it, especially since even minor edits to a story meant printing out a whole new copy. And that darn ink cartridge was never, ever full.

Obviously there are lots of writers who are much better at these postal submissions than I am, just like there are writers who did just fine in the days of typewriters. I recognize that my inability to organize postal submissions was a personal failure, not a systematic one. But I’m sure glad the system changed to something easier.

Twitter lets you eavesdrop on hundreds of other writers
Even back in 1997, when I first started submitting stories, there were online meeting places for writers. Newsgroups, mailing lists, and later forums and message boards. There were also plenty of science-fiction conventions where writers could interact with each other.

I, however, never took advantage of any of this stuff. Partly it was because I didn’t know the full extent of what existed, but partly also because it was intimidating. When I sold a story to Asimov’s Science Fiction in 2005, editor Sheila Williams wrote to tell me that fellow Clevelander (and amazing, successful writer) Geoffrey Landis would be happy to have me join his writing group. I never followed up about that and nothing came of it. I felt too much like an imposter to show up at a writing group that somebody like Landis belonged to.

But today we have Twitter. Through Twitter, I can follow hundreds of writers, editors, agents, publishers, whoever. And since Twitter actually encourages folks to tweet about relatively inconsequential things – their momentary frustrations, their tiny joys, their random musings – it turns all these people into bona fide human beings. Most writers feel like imposters at some point, and Twitter is great antidote to that. We don’t all have to act or look or feel like geniuses all the time.

You can read everything online now
In the old days, I used to find new markets partly by paging through Writer’s Market and reading the entries. This was okay, but it was a little like trying to find your soulmate in the newspaper personal ads. He or she might very well be among the listings, but the listings themselves don’t really have enough information to help you sort out the best prospects.

As to getting sample issues to review – you had to send away real money and wait for a real magazine to come back in the mail. I never had the patience to do that or the audacity to send a manuscript blind. So I submitted to the online markets and the few print magazines I knew well enough to know I was at least in the right ballpark.

These days, the lists of magazines are all online – but, more importantly, so are the magazines themselves. You can get a sample issue of just about anything online in one format or another – even if it’s just a PDF – and usually for no more than a few bucks. I can now instantly research dozens of markets to find out which ones particular stories might be a good fit for.

The Internet is just that much bigger
When I started submitting in 1997, there was no such thing as Wikipedia. The limits of home research were whatever was in the encyclopedia. Admittedly, I spent much of the next four years in college, so I wasn’t necessarily deprived of convenient access to huge research facilities. But it’s incredible to me how the Internet now makes a lot of research (especially the early stages) so much easier.

By 2005, Wikipedia had 750,000 articles. Today, there are over 20 million. And the rest of the Internet has grown in similar ways. There are new resources, new publications, and new archives going up online every day – not to mention even richer information sources like videos, photographs, scanned documents, audio files, and searchable databases. There is still plenty of stuff that’s not available, but it’s getting harder and harder to find a topic where Internet research doesn’t yield at least a few pages of information. For a short story writer like me, often that’s all I need. And when I do need more, the Internet helps me rule out potential dead ends quickly.

There are dangers to this, particularly if mistaken information on an obscure topic gets repeated across the web. (This is why I still consult actual books on some topics – though books are by no means authoritative either.) But it wasn’t so long ago when Internet research used to lead quickly to dead ends. Now I’m finding that information online is both much broader and deeper, that it’s more authoritatively sourced and better footnoted, and that it takes into account more points of view than it did six years ago.

Also, I guess I’m six years older now
I don’t think I was really ready to be a published writer in 2005. I was twenty-five years old, I didn’t know any other writers, I wasn’t part of science-fiction fandom, and I barely even knew what I wanted to write about. (I spent a lot of those missing six years figuring that last one out.)

Being published didn’t help me feel any more connected or better guided either. That wouldn’t necessarily have been the case if I’d taken some steps to engage with others in the field. But I was shy, I wasn’t sure of myself, and I didn’t know what I wanted out of writing. One of the shocks of being published in Asimov’s and Strange Horizons was the realization that short story sales were never likely to contribute meaningfully to my income.

I don’t really regret spending six years away from submitting. I read a lot of books and started to get a solid idea of what I loved most. I tried out some critique partners and writing groups. I took a stab at a few novels, I edited an anthology with two friends, I joined SFWA, and I applied for an MFA creative writing program. (Regarding that last one, I eventually decided not to go.) And, in August 2011, I went to Reno to the World Science Fiction Convention.

When I came home from Reno, I immediately submitted the first stories I’d sent out in years. But cause and effect is rarely as simple as that. I suspect that all the things I’d done over the previous six years (and before that, too) were building to a point where I could finally handle being a published writer without repeatedly losing confidence in myself. All the changes in technology helped too by making it easier to fit researching, writing, submitting, reading, and networking into my life.

It no longer takes a sledgehammer to squeeze the submissions process into my life. I’m really glad about that, and in the last six months I’ve made seven new sales – more than I’d managed in the first fourteen years of my writing career. I’m having fun these days, and I honestly can’t think of a single thing that was better for a beginner in this field six years ago that it is today.


Setting the record straight on the canals of Mars

There’s an old story that I’ve heard several times about how Mars came to be associated with its famous canal imagery that goes something like this:

During Mars’s “Great Opposition” of 1877, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaperelli observed a dense network of linear structures on the surface of Mars which he called “canali” in Italian, meaning “channels” but the term was mistranslated into English as “canals”.

While the term “canals” indicates an artificial construction, the term “channels” connotes that the observed features were natural configurations of the planetary surface. From the incorrect translation into the term “canals”, various assumptions were made about life on Mars; as these assumptions were popularized, the “canals” of Mars became famous, giving rise to waves of hypotheses, speculation, and folklore about the possibility of intelligent life on Mars, the Martians. Among the most fervent supporters of the artificial-canal hypothesis was the American astronomer Percival Lowell, who spent much of his life trying to prove the existence of intelligent life on the red planet.

That quote above is (with minor edits) taken from Schiaperelli’s Wikipedia page, but I’ve seen the story told more or less in this form in lots of other places. But there are big problems with this telling, and primary among them is this idea that a simple mistranslation is entirely or even largely responsible for popularizing the Martian canals.

Today, we know there are no canals on Mars. Their existence had been doubted by some scientists for decades, and the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars in 1965 put the matter conclusively to rest.

But here’s a stumper for you: What did Schiaperelli see on the Martian surface that warranted the name “canali”? And what did Lowell see to make him so certain that man-made canals existed that he wrote three books on the subject between 1895 and 1908?

Because let’s face it — Lowell was no second-hand scientist. The idea of a habitable Mars criss-crossed by canals got Lowell so excited that he built an observatory in the high desert near Flagstaff, Arizona, precisely so he could get better views of the red planet and confirm those observations. And he did confirm them.

Lowell spent years recording his observations of Mars, even going so far as to classify the canals into different types and to draw maps of their position on the planet’s surface. At times, Lowell even claimed that he saw measurable differences in their lengths between observations, clear evidence in his mind of ongoing construction by the inhabitants of Mars.

In other words, Lowell’s certitude about the artificial nature of the Martian canals was based on his own direct observation — not on some sloppy Italian-to-English translation. If his Flagstaff observatory hadn’t yielded ample canal-related observations, then the issue very well would have been dead back in 1895.

This is doubly the case since Lowell’s fascination with Mars began after reading the works of Camille Flammarion, a French astronomer who wouldn’t have been tripped up by the fabled translation error that supposedly hoodwinked the English-speaking world.

Flammarion’s ideas about the planets were extremely influential during the end of the 19th century, and are still fascinating to read today as works of free-wheeling speculation and flights of fanciful logic. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to read the particular book that fired Lowell’s imagination (La planète Mars et ses conditions d’habitabilité, 1892), since much of Flammarion’s work isn’t freely available in English.

But suffice to say that Flammarion believed that planets all went through more or less the same stages of development, but at different rates depending on their sizes. Thus, the small Moon was a dead Earth — its water evaporated, its atmosphere scoured away, and its inhabitants long expired (unless they survived in deep valleys). Jupiter, on the other hand, was a collapsing sun and an “Earth-to-be” — a world that would condense itself down to a rocky core and attain an Earth-like state favorable to life thousands or millions of years in the future.

In Flammarion’s view, Mars lay on this developmental axis somewhere between the Moon and Earth. Mars was drying up, losing its water and atmosphere, but was perhaps not quite dead yet. In this context, it only made sense that the canals observed by Schiaperelli might be the last gasp of a dying civilization, attempting to shift water from the shrinking poles and oceans to the habitable zones where their cities were built.

If you’re getting shades of Barsoom from all of this, that’s because Flammarion’s ideas heavily influenced Edgar Rice Burroughs’s concept of Mars. Other early science-fiction writers were equally inspired in other ways. George Griffith refers to Flammarion constantly in his round-the-solar-system planetary romance A Honeymoon in Space (1901) and William Hope Hodgson’s vision of a dying Earth in The Night Land (1912) has a lot in common with some of the astronomer’s ideas. Flammarion himself even wrote science-fiction, such as the end-of-the-world story La Fin du Monde (1893), which is available in English from the University of Nebraska Press under the title Omega.

The point of all this is that Percival Lowell was not alone in his beliefs and that his beliefs were not based on a mistranslation. Schiaperelli’s word choice probably didn’t help things, but if a translation error was at the root of all this, then the mistake would have been definitively corrected sometime in the forty years between the original observations and Lowell’s death in 1916.

So what were all those astronomers seeing on the surface of Mars? What were the canals after all? Multiple reliable observers working from different observatories reported perfectly straight channels that were up to thousands of miles long. Not everyone believed the channels were man-made (or Martian-made), but their existence wasn’t controversial.

In fact, an astronomer named Alfred Russel Wallace published a point-by-point book-length takedown of Lowell’s theories of artificial construction in 1907. To Wallace, the sheer size and impracticality of the canals (as well as the speed with which some of them were apparently constructed) argued against any intelligent agency being behind them. But Wallace didn’t dispute the existence of the channels, or even the physical features that Lowell and others described. He simply didn’t buy their theories of how they came to be, and instead believed they were the result of natural forces.

The first scientist to noodle out the correct explanation was another Italian astronomer named Vincenzo Cerulli, who proposed that the “canali” — whether “canals” or “channels” — were optical illusions. That theory was finally confirmed when the Mariner probes of the 1960s returned close-up pictures of Mars that showed no trace of the channels.

For me, the mystery that remains is why this fixation on the mistranslation of Schiaperelli’s word persists. It’s true that Schiaperelli didn’t necessarily intend for his “canali” to be considered the work of intelligent beings. But do people who repeat this story imagine that Flammarion, Lowell, Wallace, and others were such dupes that they never stopped to question the implications of this single word? If the translation of Schiaperelli’s work had read “railroad tracks” instead of “canals”, do these people imagine that the scientific community would have blithely accepted that claim without checking it?

These men were scientists, given to asking questions and seeking truth, and all of them were wrong in different ways. Schiaperelli, through no fault except the inadequacy of his instruments, saw something that wasn’t there. Meanwhile, Flammarion’s desire for a unified planetary theory led him to extrapolate some truly majestic errors from the scant information available to him.

Later, Lowell and Wallace found themselves lobbing whole books at each other from opposite sides of a scientific debate that was founded on an optical illusion. In hindsight, it seems like the awesome scope and weirdness of the features they were arguing about should have been some kind of tip-off. But for those two, it wasn’t. They were too wrapped up in the details of the debate to see the novel solution that solved everything.

This story, to me, is way more interesting than the story about the mistranslation. It’s a cautionary tale about believing what you see even when it doesn’t make sense, about letting a desire for elegance run away with you, and about being so blinded by preconceptions that your better judgment takes a permanent vacation.

Of course, science sometimes needs crazy theories to shake new ideas loose. I suspect there were those who considered Cerulli’s optical illusion theory pretty crazy. So if anyone is at fault here, it’s not because they were thinking up bold new theories in a fact-poor environment. Instead, the fault comes with failing to adequately differentiate between facts and hypotheses, and in becoming so attached to a pre-existing theory that it can’t be shaken loose even when excellent arguments are made against it.


Three fine stories from 2011

This is the time of year when writers and editors put up posts detailing their award-eligible work from the year now passed. And although I wrote about twenty stories in 2011, I didn’t submit anything until near the end of the year, so there’s nothing of my own that’s eligible for anything.

(I did contribute to K. Sekelsky‘s wonderful book The Time Traveler’s Pocket Guide, which was published in 2011. Don’t let the fact that she’s my fiancee dissuade you from checking out the book. It’s a funny illustrated guide to time travel and a perfect gift for science-fiction fans.)

But despite my own paucity of publications, I can at least recommend some fine stories that I read in 2011. I’d be very surprised if these didn’t end up on some of ballots I’m filling out this year.

Novelette: “Sauerkraut Station” by Ferrett Steinmetz. I can’t always make time to read the long stories at GigaNotoSaurus. But this was a recommendation that I saw elsewhere, and I’m really glad I made the time for this one. Somewhere, I saw Ferrett describe this story as “Little House on the Prairie on a space station”, which is such a perfect tagline that I can’t add anything else to it.

Short Story: “Chrestomathy” by Anatoly Belilovsky. This was the first of Anatoly’s stories that I read, and it blew me away. It’s an alternate history of a world where Pushkin didn’t die in his fateful duel, and is told via a collection of excerpts from others he influenced. After reading this, I went and read as much of Anatoly’s work as I could get my hands on (in addition to Ideomancer, you’ll find his name in Stupefying Stories and Kasma SF), and I’ve loved it all.

Flash fiction: “Like Origami in Water” by Damien Walters Grintalis. I don’t know of any major awards that have a separate category for flash fiction, and I’m not going to argue right now that they should. (But maybe?) But the weekday flash stories from Daily Science Fiction have become almost a morning ritual for me. As soon as I read this one, I immediately wished that I thought of the idea — but if I had, I doubt I could have executed it half so well.

Not that this really matters, but I didn’t know Ferrett, Anatoly, or Damien before I read these stories. I have talked (electronically) to each of them since then — mostly just to say “Your story is awesome!” — but you can be sure these are the recommendations of a fan with no ulterior motives.

I should also add that I read plenty of other worthy stories in 2011 that will be rounding out the rest of my nominations for the Nebulas and Hugos. But in the interest of keeping this list manageable, I decided to stick with these three, which now rank among my favorite stories of any year. Let me know in the comments what other great stories I may have missed!


How an iPad made me a more productive writer

I’ve never been a really gadgety guy. I’ve been using the same computer for the past six years and still don’t carry a cell phone with me unless I’m traveling. And before I bought an ebook reader, I spent at least a year slowly coming to the decision.

But I did buy a Kindle a while ago, and I wasn’t too surprised to find that I really like it. It’s simple, useful, unobtrusive. It does exactly what I wanted it to do and no more. (Sure, there’s a web browser, but the experience of surfing the web on a Kindle is so terrible that I never repeated it after my first attempt.) It’s a gadget that knows its limitations.

Then, about nine months ago, I got an iPad 2 from work. This is a gadget I never would have bought for myself — partly because of the price tag, but partly because it seemed too much like a computer. And it is. Or, more accurately, it’s a lot like the hypothetical device I have always treated my computer as.

Here, for instance, is a complete list of things I have historically used my home computer for:

  • Checking and replying to email
  • Browsing the Internet
  • Interacting with social networking sites
  • Watching streaming movies and TV shows
  • Listening to music
  • Occasionally playing games
  • Writing and editing stories


And here’s a complete list of things I have used my iPad for:

  • Checking and replying to email
  • Browsing the Internet
  • Interacting with social networking sites
  • Watching streaming movies and TV shows
  • Occasionally playing games
  • Reading books and magazines


I haven’t used the iPad to listen to music yet, but that’s largely because I haven’t been listening to much music at all over the past year. Otherwise, the iPad had essentially become the device I use for fun, steam-venting, time-wasting things. The iPad is just more convenient than my computer for most of that stuff — it’s portable, it’s faster, it’s seemingly not as vulnerable to viruses. So color me surprised: I actually really enjoy using my iPad as well.

But there’s another benefit too. Now that I’ve moved all the fun stuff to the iPad, I’m less distracted when I sit down at my computer to work. A pretty common piece of advice for people who work at home is to make their workspace a real dedicated workspace — to set aside a whole room if possible that acts as the home office where the only thing that happens is work.

It makes sense, but I live in a one-bedroom apartment. The only rooms I have that are dedicated single-use rooms are the kitchen and the bathroom. (And even the bathroom is really dual use, since I use my toilet and shower in remarkably different ways.) But now I have, more or less, a dedicated single-use computer. It’s probably not as good as having a whole home office, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.

I don’t think I’m going to turn into a gadget lover because of this. I don’t see myself carrying a cell phone or buying a GPS anytime soon, and I still need my fiancee to troubleshoot my home network when things go wrong. But I’m starting to see the benefit in having different devices for different uses.

In fact, I had almost this same thought about ten years ago, but in reverse. Back then, I actually went looking for a dedicated word processor — a device I could use only for writing, with no distractions or extraneous bells or whistles. But such a thing didn’t really exist anymore, even at that time, and the inability to edit on the fly made a typewriter a no-go.

So, ten years ago, I went back to using my multi-purpose computer for writing and everything else. I’m still writing on the computer today — but the everything else has moved. That’s a solution I wouldn’t have predicted back in 2002, but it seems to work nevertheless.


A published story to start 2012

The second ebook issue of Comets and Criminals is available to buy now, including my short story “Garrote”. Most of the stories in the issue will be posted on their website between now and the end of March to read for free, but “Garrote” is an ebook exclusive.

This is a story that I originally wrote for the first Machine of Death anthology, but which was too long for that book. (The early drafts were something like 13,000 words.) The version which Comets and Criminals published is a somewhat trimmer 9,000 words — but it’s still the longest story I’ve ever sold by a fair margin.

I have other reasons to be pleased to see “Garrote” in print besides the usual ones. The story is set in my hometown of Cleveland, and I’m pleased to add my own small effort to the canon of literature about the Great Lakes region. “Garrote” is also a crime story — a police procedural with some mystery to it. Mystery plotting doesn’t exactly come natural to me, but I’m always happy when I try something different and am not totally embarrassed by the results.

That brings me to one of the very neat things about Comets and Criminals. It’s not just a speculative fiction magazine. Instead, it’s looking for stories from a wider range of genres: science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, historical, adventure, western. Most of what I write falls into some category of speculative fiction, but that’s at least partly because those are the easiest kind of stories to sell. It’s great to see new markets that provide opportunities for some different kinds of fiction as well.

The second issue of Comets and Criminals contains the work of eighteen writers. I’m not sure how many pieces are poetry and how many are stories, but either way it’s a remarkable amount of material for a very reasonable price. Personally, I hope to read many more issues over the years to come!