Cybermorality: Number Five Is Alive

Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.

In our last installment we toyed around with a classic problem in ethics called “the fat man in the cave.” You can re-read it in full here, but here’s a brief recap: you and a bunch of other people are in a cave that’s filling with water. The only way out is blocked by a portly fellow who’s gotten quite stuck. He can’t be removed by any means short of cutting him out (thereby killing him). The only way to save everyone in the cave is to kill this guy, who, it must be stressed, is an innocent person.

Oh, and he’s facing you, so if you don’t kill him he’ll drown anyway.

We faced four options last time:

Daughter of the Sword1) It’s okay to kill the guy because it’s in self defense. This is nonsense, of course. The guy you’re planning to kill can’t possibly harm you. He’s stuck.

2) It’s okay to kill one innocent person to save a greater number of innocents. This is the most popular choice in my ethics classes, but it has some really horrible implications. (Ask Ozymandias in Watchmen how many innocents it’s okay to murder. It’s kind of a lot.)

3) It’s not okay to kill an innocent person, period. This is the choice pretty much everyone says they believe until they’re confronted with a scenario like the fat man in the cave. Then… well, pretty much everyone sells out.

4) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission. This is a clever loophole: if you can talk the guy into letting you kill him, it’s not murder, it’s just assisted suicide.

#4 is appealing to a lot of people. It lets you maintain the ban on killing innocents and get out of the cave alive. But what if the guy really doesn’t want to give permission? What if he’d rather drown than let you kill him?

This is where we added a bit of sci-fi: the genius pill, which boosts your intelligence to nigh-superhuman levels. (Ted Chiang played with this idea in “Understand,” as did Daniel Keyes in “Flowers for Algernon.”) Let’s say you have one of these pills with you in the cave. You could take it, making yourself far more intelligent than the human drain plug, and persuade him to “take one for the team.” That gives us a variant on #4:

4.1) It’s okay to kill innocent people only if you have their permission, AND it’s okay to use unfair advantages to secure their permission.

Remember, the point of taking the pill is to talk him into something he’s otherwise unwilling to do. The big question is whether or not that’s coercive.

If the bad guys dose James Bond with truth serum to make him give up secrets, clearly that’s coercive. It’s really this simple: if they were to ask his permission, he’d say no. But that’s not quite what’s happening here. There’s a huge difference between giving this guy a drug to make him dumber and giving yourself a drug to get smarter. The former constitutes assault, the latter doesn’t.

But is it relevant that the results are the same? Whether you’re doping him or geniusing yourself, either way you get him to agree to something he wouldn’t have done otherwise. He expressed his will—a firm no—and you said, hey, let’s keep talking (and hang on a sec while I take this pill).

So let me give you an option #5, one that no one has ever raised in my ethics classes:

5) Give the fat man the pill and see if his newfound genius makes him volunteer to die.

If you’re convinced that he ought to volunteer—so convinced, in fact, that you’re willing to pop a pill to seal the deal—then maybe you ought to see if he finds your super-logic persuasive. Give him the pill. Let him weigh the situation with the benefit of a juiced-up brain. If you’re right, he’ll see that. Right?

I can’t tell whether it’s strange that my ethics students never propose #5. On the one hand, it’s got some serious appeal. Essentially you get #2 and #4 wrapped up in one. On the other hand, you’re handing your fate to someone else. The fact that that person is much, much smarter than you is cold comfort. Especially if that person wasn’t polite enough to volunteer to die in the first place.

Reach Steve Bein at @AllBeinMyself or on facebook/philosofiction.


5 Ways the Great British Bake Off Teaches You To Be a Better Writer

I am dedicating my next book to the Great British Bake Off. Why? Because the show is my bliss. It’s a cooking reality show that thrives on niceness and support, where baking is appreciated by technical skill as well as taste. It’s a show that makes me smile. After a long day of writing and revision, it offers me an escape to the verdant, green British countryside, where I can behold amazingly “scrummy” desserts and savory dishes.

Bake Off also has a lot to teach writers about dedication, perseverance, and community. Let’s break it down with the help of some illustrative gifs.


– The Power of a Deadline
More than once, I’ve had people tell me, “I wish I had time to write. Maybe I’ll do it once my kids are in school/I change jobs/I retire.” Guess what? Life will always get in the way. Plus, writing itself can be a slog due to sheer procrastination (hello, internet), plot snarls, endless research, and so on.

Deadlines are powerful. Deadlines make you grimace, plant your hind end in a chair, and churn out the words. Deadlines make you take risks in your writing.

Bake Off operates within deadlines, too. Two hours to make an elaborate cake that you’d normally spend a day on! Four hours to make this obscure European pastry you’ve never heard of or seen before in your life! And the bakers are in. Like a writer, they may only have a vague idea of the end result, but the clock is ticking. They need to have something to present to the judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.


– Constructive Criticism
Baking Show presents the absolute ideal of constructive feedback: the negative balanced with the positive. This is something every writer needs to learn, and it is not easy. It requires tact, both in giving this feedback and responding to it in regards to your own work.

If you need a visual on how it is done, watch Paul and Mary. They might be presented with a cake that is an absolute disaster as far as presentation, but they still cut it open. They judge the texture and the taste. With a gracious smile, they say, “Yes, it looks terrible–you know that–but the taste is spot-on. You know your flavors.”

That’s the very thing writers need to hear, too. It’s how we improve–and how we learn to build on our strengths. “Yes, it’s a messy draft and there are some major info dumps, but your characters are amazing. The dialogue sparkles.”


– Innovation
Writers are often told, “Write what you know.” Cooks intrinsically do this, too; we learn family recipes, our cultural and ethnic lore through food, and the recipes of where we live. Writers and bakers also know that we can’t be confined by what we have directly known and experienced. There are infinite realities we can experience through taste and imagination.

The bakers in the tent often look to their roots for inspiration and add those flavors to the traditional British or European fare they are challenged to create. They mix, match, and defy traditional pairings, and something magical happens (whether or not that magic fully works is up to Mary and Paul). This is what writers must do, too. We twist around tropes and develop fresh stories.


– Reinforce Knowledge of the Basics
A writer doesn’t have to know how to fully diagram a sentence to be a real writer, but it is necessary to grasp the basics, the flow, that makes a story work. Writers also need to read. We need to understand what is expected in certain genres, or how to submit to markets, or query agents. There is a huge learning curve involved.

Bakers need those same skills. This is highlighted in the technical round that takes place during each Baking Show episode. The bakers are surprised by a new recipe from Mary or Paul–a recipe that has incomplete directions. “Make fondant.” “Make 1-inch diameter macarons.” “Bake”–with no temperature or time listed. The ingredients are all there, but the bakers need to understand the roles of fats and acids and rise times to make this new recipe come to a delicious result.

These basics are not static, either. There are always new skills to learn, whether you’re making a new cake recipe or a story.


– Supportive Community
Writing is hard. Editing is hard. A support network is vital. The encouragement of family and friends means a lot, but unless they are writers as well, they won’t completely get what we go through. You need other writers at your level who are willing to share updates on a new magazine, willing to critique, willing to listen on those days when the rejections flow and the words don’t.

That kind of community is what makes Great British Baking Show so extraordinary. American reality shows are petty and mean; they relish in someone’s downfall, and add sound effects for good measure. Baking Show eschews that manufactured drama. The contestants become friends. They bond as they work on stations near each other, weekend after weekend. They are competitors, yes, but they are willing to share ingredients at times, or help get a cake out of a pan. There are no sly camera angles to show sabotage–that’s not even a thought.

When a baker has a bad weekend and must leave the tent, it’s a moment of sadness. They gather for a group hug. Tears are shed. The survivors are saying farewell to a friend.

This is something writers must keep in mind, too. We each endure travails in our lives. We each want to make it as a writer. And yes, we are also vying for those few available slots in a magazine or anthology. It doesn’t need to be a cruel kind of competition, though. The publishing world is small, and we need companions for the long journey.

Breath of EarthBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.


Autumn is just around the corner which means new opportunities for holiday stalking visits with some of your favorite authors. Here’s a list of where you can find us during these hectic times:


* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 7th – signing at New York Comic Con in New York, NY.
* Oct 7th – signing at Books of Wonder in New York, NY, 6pm.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.


*Nov 5th – Book Tour – appearing on programming at Wordstock in Portland, OR
*Nov 7th – Book Tour –  Seriously Shifted at Powell’s Cedar Hills in Beaverton, OR, 7pm
*Nov 14th –  Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at U Books in Seattle, WA, 7pm
*Nov 15th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at the Corvallis Library in Corvallis, OR, 4pm
*Nov 16th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, CA, 7:30pm
*Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Orycon in Portland, OR.

* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.

* Nov 11th – reading at Mighty Writers West in Philadelphia, PA, 7pm.
* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.


* Dec 10th – appearing on programming at LibCon in Glendale, AZ.

* DEC 6th – guest lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

* Dec 3rd – appearing at Another Read Through in Portland, OR, time TBD.

Beyond the Farthest Con

The day after this posts, I’ll be boarding a plane for Lithuania where I get to be the Guest of Honor at Lituanicon XXVIII, a one day convention in historic Vilnius. It’s not the farthest I’ve traveled for a con (that would be Best of Both Worlds in Sydney, Australia, where I shared billing with William Shatner!), but it got me to wondering how far other authors had traveled.

On the off chance that you might be curious too, I reached out and asked a bunch of them. Here’s what they had to say:

David Mack was the first to respond. His most distant trip was to Düsseldorf, Germany for FedCon XX. His next convention will be New York Comic Con in his city of residence.

Ada Palmer‘s farthest bit of convention travel took her to Boston, MA. Mind you, she started out in Florence, Italy, where she’d been spending the year for research. Her next event will be in Worthington, OH.

Recent first time novelist (Arabella of Mars) and red planet pseudo-resident, David D. Levine has been to Melbourne, Australia, but reports that Yokohama, Japan — or maybe Champaign-Urbana, Illinois — was his strangest convention. His next con will probably be OryCon, right there in his home town of Portland, OR.

David Brin went all the way to Chengdu, China in 2007. He tells me that since he was bringing his family along to the Yokohama Worldcon (where he was Guest of Honor) anyway he suggested the Chinese SF community they should hold their events in the preceding week.

Adam Rakunas also claims Chengdu, China as his most distant convention. His next con is Confusion in Detroit, Michigan, possibly the only convention that touts an Indian restaurant tucked inside a gas station across the street.

Winner of more Ursa Major awards than any other anthropomorphic author, Kyell Gold points out that the furthest he’s gone for a convention was Melbourne, Australia, but the oddest was a hotel in former East Germany atop a hill over the small town of Suhl. Next month will find him attending Gaylaxicon in Minneapolis, MN.

L. E. Modesitt Jr., one of the most prolific writers in the business, says his farthest convention trip was a dual visit to Dublin, Ireland for OctoCon before going on to attend World Fantasy in London. And speaking of World Fantasy, that’s his next stop, where he’s also the Guest of Honor, in Columbus, OH.

And speaking of Dublin, Todd McCaffrey admits that generally speaking he hasn’t traveled all that far from his home base. Of course, home base for many years was Ireland. Nowadays he’s in Los Angeles. He points to Stucon in Stuttgart Germany as the furthest afield he’s been.

Canadian resident Claire McCague‘s most distant convention was MediaWest*Con in East Lansing, MI, but since she’s coming from Vancouver it’s a bit of a trek (and don’t get her started on traveling east to an event in a town with “East” in its name for a convention that has “West” in its name). Sensibly, her next con is VCON, right there in Vancouver.

Michael Jan Friedman didn’t have to travel far for his oddest convention location. He reports that the 2015 Long Island Geek Con occurred at Long Island’s MacArthur Airport, where he had table in the baggage claim area, some fifty feet from the carousels. His next convention will be in Albany, NY.

Marie Brennan recently visited the French town of Épinal, near the Swiss border, for Les Imaginales, which she describes as “somebody ran a convention into a Renaissance festival at high speed.”

That’s all I have for you this month (I still have to pack!), but for those of you thinking a Helsinki Worldcon is too far to go, now you know better!

Lawrence M. SchoenLawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology; has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula, WSFS awards; recently won the Cóyotl award for Best Novel of 2015; is a world authority on the Klingon language; operates the small press Paper Golem; and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.

You can follow him at his website at and on Twitter at @klingonguy, or you can even subscribe to his quarterly Newsletter.


The fourth quarter listing of when and where you can find Novelocitists will post in a couple days. But before that, here are a couple items that weren’t locked in place when the previous quarter’s listing went live.


* Sep 17th – will be the Guest of Honor for Lituanicon XXVII in Vilnius, Lithuania

* Sep 27th – is launching her new novel, Cloudbound at 7pm at Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square Barne’s & Noble (1805 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19103). Fran will read and sign copies of her new book.

Recipe Fiction: Let’s Fire the Formula

In another of my writing circles, once again the dreaded specter of “formula fiction” has been conjured.  The idea is that many genres–at least in commercial fiction, and (so the rumor goes) especially romance and fantasy (the target tends to move to a different genre based on whichever you are writing in)–are dominated by a formula which is required in order to sell.  And if a book sells well, that is usually taken as evidence that it was, indeed, written to formula.  It’s a tautology, but one you’ll often find repeated, whether in a derisive review or grumbled by less successful peers in the same genre. Of course that work succeeded–the author just relied on the formula!

Some people outside the genres will even sniff that the publishers demand the said formula, and that it’s laid out by page count:  kiss on page three, quest engagement in chapter two, or what have you.

First of all, if the publishers are requiring certain page counts and formulas, they haven’t informed the authors, much less provided us with a template for stamping out successful novels.  But wait, points out the nay-sayer, so many books in X genre are so similar!  That’s clear evidence that authors are just filling in the blanks.  Or is it?

I think part of the problem lies in the origins of this term “formula.”  Formula is associated with science, more precisely, with chemistry.  The idea is that you take certain items in very specific ratios, blended according to strict guidelines, and you will achieve a very specific result.  One third adventure, one third sexual tension, one third Strunk and White, voila! a bestseller.  Boy, if I could buy that formula, I’d use it.  The trouble is, it doesn’t exist.

In fiction, what we have are not formulas–rigid lists of pure chemicals to be compounded by following strict rules–what we have are recipes.  A recipe gives you a list of ingredients and the steps to follow–isn’t that the same as the dreaded formula?  Here’s the thing, recipes vary.  The same recipe produced by different cooks gets a different result because the cook knows they can add a little more spice, or bake for less time and create their own variation on what their diners enjoy.

Like cooks, authors have an audience to please.  Sure, we want to pursue our own artistic goals for our careers and for any given work, but writing is a collaboration between the author and the reader, who will receive and interpret the result.  Readers can be grouped in many different ways.  Some love fantasy no matter what, and some prefer contemporary or epic fantasy, fantasy about women or about dragons.

There are certain elements of story-telling that are more likely to appeal to a wider audience.  Adventure, love, character growth, a moment when much can be won or lost, the moment when a character is redeemed and the audience cheers.  That’s not a formula–it’s a list of ingredients, and each cook, each writer, can play with them to create their individual work.  A quick google search shows me 3.8 million recipes for chocolate cake, 3.8 million variations, some subtle and some vast, all resulting in a dessert that some people felt was tasty and worth sharing.  There are at least 3.8 million recipes for a fantasy novel as well.  Beginning with a basic set of ingredients, and an image of that desired result, the author creates their own recipe.

Rather than dismissing the work of an author or a complete genre as driven by formula, let’s think of them as being guided by a recipe–and if one author’s chocolate cake doesn’t please, there’s probably another one that will.  Or maybe you’re looking for lemon cake, or custard tart, or. . . okay, now I’m just making myself hungry.

The same basic ingredients combine to create a thousand different experiences–as if by magic.


The War of the Adverbs

We’re delighted to feature a guest post today from Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, author of the new book Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg. Take it away, Alvaro!


Traveler of WorldsIt’s a pleasure to be on Novelocity—thanks so much for having me!

Given that this forum is intended for the discussion of books and their creation, I feel comfortable invoking a writer whose life—over the course of a career now spanning a staggering six decades!—has been largely dedicated to the creation of hundreds of books: Robert Silverberg. I had the pleasure of conducting interviews with Bob over the course of 2015, and we talked about all sorts of things. The edited, organized result of these candid conversations may be found in my just-published book, Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg.

Of course, despite the wide range of subjects we cover, writing was never far from Bob’s mind. We talked about many writers (within genre and without), the meaning of awards, the writing process itself (schedule, etc.), the difference between artistic writing and hack work, and even word usage and grammatical constructions.

In Chapter 6, specifically, Bob and I spend some time investigating the first and last lines of famous novels by Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Hardy and Graham Greene.

At one point in the conversation I ask Bob the following:

“AZA: I want to go back to the end of The Sun Also Rises for a moment, to this line:

The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.” It seems that some writers are very sensitive to adverbs these days, in particular something like “suddenly.” The idea is that if you want to convey suddenness, you can do so by picking a better verb that does it for you, without then having to modify it. To be more elegant in the word choice and make the adverb unnecessary.”

I was curious what Bob thought of this dictum, which I often see given as advice to starting writers (avoid “suddenly” at all costs, etc.).

Here is his response:

“RS: I don’t see anything wrong with “suddenly.” I object to finding different ways to say, “he said.” But “suddenly”? Look, there’s some people who’ll tell you that you shouldn’t use adverbs at all. Or that you shouldn’t use adjectives at all. Whatever works.”

Whatever works. Those words have stayed with me.

Of course, an argument can be made that “suddenly,” and some of its adverbial brethren, are overused, and may indicate laziness on the part of the writer. But that doesn’t mean they may not sometimes be appropriate. They appear in many of the great works of literature, after all, and I don’t think that striking them out would visibly improve such works. They appear in science fiction classics, too.

Ever since I first heard of the admonition to avoid “suddenly,” there was a particular science fiction novel that kept whispering skepticism in my mind. Its opening paragraph contains what I consider one of the finest lines in all of science fiction:

“Yet, across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us.”

This is H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. And it confronts us with that double adverbial offender, “slowly and surely.” Re-writing that sentence without that phrase is possible, sure, but I’m doubtful that it would make it better.

You may say, “Alvaro, ‘slowly and surely’ is not the same as ‘suddenly.’” True. But the word “suddenly” itself appears many times, too, in the same novel: for example in “Suddenly the monster vanished” or “Suddenly there was a flash of light,” and dozens of others.

Historical distance, then? Times change, and today’s readers may not enjoy Wells’ style in the same way the readers of his day might have. Over a century later, we may have become more sensitive to such word choices and repetitions, more canny and sophisticated as readers.

But modern writers like Joyce Carol Oates use “suddenly” quite freely, and I don’t think it’s harmed their careers any, or caused them to be considered poorer writers. Open a novel by Doris Lessing and you may find it strewn with suddenness! They still gave her the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m reading The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville right now, and the first “suddenly” explodes into being on page 8. Are we to take China Miéville to task for this?

So ultimately, I’m going to take refuge in “Whatever works.”

It’s a freeing thought.

Not “whatever goes,” but “whatever works.”

Our words as writers, whatever their taxonomy, need to work together to produce an overall effect. Maybe some writers feel that “suddenly” is more appropriate for a first-person narrative than one written from a third-person perspective; or that it should be used only under specific circumstances. Fine. But arguing that specific word choices should be avoided on principle, I think, unduly restricts us in our enjoyment of the English language, and in conveying its expressive wonders to our readers.


Alvaro Zinos-AmaroAlvaro started publishing around 2008, and has had more than thirty stories appear in magazines like AnalogNatureGalaxy’s EdgeThe Journal of Unlikely EntomologyLackington’sMothership Zeta, Farrago’s Wainscot and Neon, as well as anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of MoriartyThe Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper TalesThe 2015 Young Explorer’s Adventure GuideCyber WorldThis Way to the End Times [edited by R. Silverberg], Humanity 2.0 and An Alphabet of Embers. Alvaro’s essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe First LineAsimov’sStrange HorizonsClarkesworldSF SignalFoundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Intergalactic Medicine Show; he also edits the roundtable blog for Locus.

Find him at: his website, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Linkedin, and Goodreads.

Cybermorality: The Genius Pill

Steve Bein continues his series on philosophy and science fiction. Read past articles here.

Here’s the sentence I write on the board to kick off one of my Ethics classes:

Murdering an innocent person is wrong.

Then I ask people if they think the statement is true or false. We bat it around a while. We make it clear that the person is innocent in any sense you wish them to be: they’re not hurting you or anyone else, they’re not committing any “victimless crimes,” they really are standing around minding their own business.

In the last installment of Cybermorality, I told you almost all of my students say the sentence is true. Then I give them one scenario and almost all of them recant. It’s called “the fat man in the cave.” (It’s an old problem, created long before we started approaching things like obesity and self-image with sensitivity. Bear with me.)

You’re following a heavyset fellow who is leading a group of people out of a cave near the coast. The tide is rising, the cave is filling with water, and he gets stuck in your only viable exit. He seals it completely. Don’t worry: he’ll be fine. He’s facing upward, out of the cave, so he won’t drown. Unfortunately, the rest of you are not so lucky. All of you will drown—unless, of course, you do something to remove him.

In the original scenario (from the philosopher Philippa Foot) you’re given a stick of dynamite. (Why she picked dynamite I don’t know. A knife seems more plausible for a bunch of spelunkers.) Either way, it matters that this guy is innocent. He didn’t force you in here, and in fact he was trying to get you out. But now he is well and truly stuck. The only way you can save yourself and everyone else in the group is to remove him from the hole. Cut him out or blow him up, either way he dies.

You’re faced with a couple of competing principles:

1) It’s not wrong to kill in self defense. I’m not letting you off that easy. Yes, you’ll die unless you kill this guy, but he’s not the one who’s going to kill you. The water is.

2) It’s not wrong to kill innocents in order to save a greater number of innocents. This is the usual reason people give me when they say it’s okay to kill the poor guy. But let’s be perfectly clear: you’re taking an innocent life and you benefit from his death directly. In any other circumstance that looks a lot like murder.

3) Murdering an innocent person is wrong. Like, always. No matter what. Sounded pretty good a minute ago, didn’t it? The thing is, faced with this scenario about 90% of my students abandon #3 in favor of #2.

For the holdouts we can a little more pressure: turn the guy around so he’s facing the water. Now he’s going to die no matter what. If you don’t kill him, he’ll drown with the rest of you. But his innocence hasn’t changed one bit.

I find that about one in thirty students will say #3 is true even in that final scenario, where the innocent person dies no matter what. But once I turn the poor guy around, some crafty people come up with a fourth option:

4) Murdering an innocent person is wrong, but assisting in suicide isn’t. This allows one morally sound way out of the cave: the guy stuck in the hole has to give you permission to kill him. If he can’t do it himself—maybe because his arms are stuck—then you’re just helping him complete a noble suicide.

People tend to like #4, but only if the guy gives you permission to kill him. If you ask him and he says no, then for a lot of people he becomes not only innocent but also vulnerable. It’s not his fault that his only defense against you is words, while it’s totally your fault that you’re standing there with a murder weapon in hand.

Now maybe you don’t agree with those people. Maybe you want to say he’s being a selfish jerk. He’s going to die anyway, so why not go out a hero? (I can think of some good reasons, like how painful it is to be knifed or dynamited to death. I’m told drowning isn’t that bad.) But presumably it’s just as wrong to kill selfish innocents as selfless ones, so I don’t think that gets you anywhere.

AlgernonYou’ve still got one recourse left to you: you can try to talk him into the noble suicide. And this gives us a nice opportunity to see how much weight #4 can bear.

Let’s get science-fictional about this. Maybe you’ve read Daniel Keyes’s beautiful story, “Flowers for Algernon,” and maybe you’ve read Ted Chiang’s chilling story, “Understand.” At the center of both of them is a medical treatment that dramatically increases the patient’s intelligence. So let’s pose a new scenario in which, in addition to the knife or the dynamite, you also get a performance-enhancing drug: the genius pill.

Let’s say you believe #4 is true, so you try to talk the guy into allowing you to kill him. He isn’t having it. He’s as smart as you are, and for every argument you offer he’s got a counterargument. But if you take the pill—and only if you take the pill—you’ll be able to outsmart him.

If you take the pill and convince him to commit suicide, is that any different from an adult convincing a child to run out into traffic? By taking the pill you make a vulnerable person even more vulnerable. On the other hand, you save a lot of lives. But does that offset the cost?

There’s one more alternative no one ever mentions, and I can’t know whether it’s because no one thinks of it or no one who thinks of it wants to say it. Should I tell you what it is?

homer to einstein

How about this: I’ll tell you next time. Until then, mull it over, and if you think of anything cool you can reach me @AllBeinMyself, or pop over to facebook/philosofiction or facebook/novelocity and let me know!

Why Does It Take So Long for the Next Book???

One thing that readers often ask is why the gap between books is so long, and I thought I’d address some of the reasons for that here…

When an author is being published by a traditional publisher (like the members of Novelocity have been), there’s an awful lot that goes into the process, every step of which slows down publication. I’ll put some of these below:

  • The publisher has to find a place in their schedule for the book. Publishers don’t want to release too many books at once, and therefore they tend to spread them out throughout the year. That schedule can be set up as far as 18 months in advance, so Book X might be ready to go on January 1, but they don’t have room to schedule it until April 17…so that’s when it comes out.
  • The publishing process has a gazillion steps (edits, copyedits, proofs), and a delay at any of those levels can cause the above schedule to become problematic. I’ve known authors whose books, due to some issue—not necessarily the author’s doing—along the line has caused their book to miss its scheduled slot…and end up being shunted back 18 months. A small delay can turn into a huge one.
  • The publisher wants to wait on results before giving the green light to a later project. (My example would be my editors waiting for Dreaming Death to actually come out before greenlighting a sequel—which they did not do after all—but that would have meant at least 18 months between the book and its sequel.)


Of course, there can also be slow downs on the writers’ side. For example:

  • Some writers do not write quickly, no matter how much their publishers want them to finish that next book. In fact, you will see books scheduled that are pushed back several months for this very reason. *
  • Some writers have multiple projects going on, sometimes with multiple publishers. Necessary prioritization means that they may not be working on the book -you- want them to work on.
  • Some writers will have a series dropped by a publisher. This creates a whole new set of problems, as the writer has to figure out some way to get the rest of those books out there. There are a limited number of presses who will pick up an abandoned series (this is a complex problem), or the writer can self-publish the remaining books (far more common these days).

All of those reasons will cause slow downs. In most cases, authors probably wish things would go faster. I certainly do.

However, this also causes an issue for readers who want everything now…which in turn causes its own problems for the writers.

I’ve seen a lot of people say “I’ll wait until the whole series is out and buy it then so I can read it all.”

Unfortunately, this is really deadly for writers because the publishers are looking at initial sales of books when they determine whether to buy more from that writer. If people are waiting to buy the book until the whole series is out, then the publishers see that as a lack of interest in the series…and cancel it.

The publisher can’t know that people actually do intend to buy the book one day…and even if they did, the publishers won’t take that gamble unless the writer is someone super-famous (G.R.R.M., for example.) I’ve seen a lot of writers with good reviews and decent sales get cut mid-series because….well, they’re selling, but not -enough-.

So the slow pace of the industry might be frustrating, but it’s not the author’s doing. Hang in there with us! We need readers’ support…

…and their patience!

TL:DR version
To the publisher,
readers waiting to buy until the series is complete = lack of interest in the series

*It’s very hard to know why books are pushed back, but most authors who have social media presences are usually happy to explain that. Check their blog/webpage/social media if you want to know why.

TSA Pre-Check: Convenience at a Cost

In recent years as I have become more involved with SFF conventions, I have become a frequent flier. I had heard about TSA Pre-check but was rather appalled at the idea of providing the government with money so that they could treat me like a law-abiding citizen. However, recent events caused me to grit my teeth and pay out the funds.

Here is what I learned through the process.

[Everyone in this picture is moving like a sloth.]Why I Decided to Do It
May 16th, 2016. That was the day that caused Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to feature prominently in international news for the rest of the week. It was one of those “I was there, man” kind of moments for me. I was flying home from Nebula Weekend and had to stand in a security line of epic proportions. It took me a full hour and twenty minutes to makes it through that morning, but news reports stated that later in the day, the waits extended for three and four hours, causing hundreds of people to miss their flights.

What Pre-Check is
It’s the fast lane through security. You pay $85 (or $100 for the global version) and undergo a complete security screening. As a writer using this to attend conferences, that expense is a tax write-off; also note that if you have a fancy business-level credit card from places like American Express, they might refund the cost entirely. Check with your credit card for details.

If you meet with FBI approval, you are provided with a KTN code that you input into travel reservations. That causes Pre-Check to be printed on your boarding pass (most of the time). The Pre-Check line means that you:
– do not need to remove your shoes
– do not need to pull out your liquid toiletries
– can leave laptops stowed in luggage
– have a much shorter wait in line
– have a kid 12 or under with you, they can also use Pre-check

This benefit is good for five years. The general consensus is that you fly more than a couple times a year, the service is worthwhile because of the amount of time it will save you.

Read the official FAQ on the program.

The Online Application Process
If you go to the link above, you will find the online form to sign-up. It is surprisingly short and straightforward. However, this is the first stage. Once that is submitted, you must also attend an in-person interview.

The In-Person Interview
I live on the far western edge of Phoenix, Arizona. The interview locations were quite far from me: Sky Harbor Airport, and downtown Glendale. In mid-May as I looked at appointment times, Sky Harbor was booked out about two weeks, while Glendale was booked for a solid month. That latter location was much more convenient with me, so I decided to endure the wait. Locations also accept walk-in appointments, but I heard from friends that those involved extensive wait times in the office. I didn’t want to mess with that.

The TSA site had detailed instructions on my interview location and its address, but as I researched, I found it also omitted some important details. The business is listed as Identogo. People were missing their appointments because they couldn’t find it. That’s because Identogo is inside of an H&R Block, and the H&R Block is what has prominent signs along the street and on the building. I don’t know if Identogo is partnered with other businesses, but keep this issue in mind if you are not going to an airport for your interview.

I ended up spending a full hour and a half of driving to attend my 8-minute interview session. I was among the first appointments of the day, and found a sterile lobby area with many chairs and a coffee pot. More and more people arrived during my 15-minute wait; it seemed 95% of the business there was for TSA Pre-check, not for H&R Block’s tax services.

NebSloth1I was called back at my exact appointment time. A monitor screen was set up so that I could review the details I submitted via the online form, and I added in some facts along the way, like my maiden name. I presented my passport, which he scanned. My fingerprints were preserved digitally (punny yet true). The gentleman told me that it could be a few weeks until I was approved, and if I hadn’t heard anything for 30 days, I could query TSA about my status. I had a receipt printed as well as emailed to me that included the link where I could log-in and check my status at any time.

The Non-Wait for Approval
I knew from research online that some people had results very fast. Even so, I was stunned when I checked online the next day and found I was already approved! I then logged into an existing airline reservation to add the KTN.

Using Pre-Check, and a Nice Surprise
One annoying thing is that even though you pay for Pre-check, the benefit might not show up 100% of the time. Therefore, I was pretty nervous about if I would get to use it on my flight the next week. It turned out that not only did I have Pre-check, but so did my husband and 11-year-old son! My entire party seemed to be included within my security umbrella.

Is It Worth It?
Having used it for one trip, I am happy with it so far. I have found the security theatre to be very stressful in the past as I try to track all my belongings, and it’s wonderful to keep everything stowed away, my shoes on my feet, and just endure a check by the guards. To have this benefit extend to my other family members was especially nice.

Breath of EarthBeth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN (an RT Reviewers’ Choice Finalist) from Harper Voyager. Her novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE was a 2016 Nebula nominee. BREATH OF EARTH begins a new steampunk series set in an alternate history 1906 San Francisco.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.