Author Archives: Beth Cato

Beth Cato is the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER steampunk fantasy series from Harper Voyager. Her short fiction is in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Daily Science Fiction. She's a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat.

Shut Up! Times When It’s Imperative You DO NOT Share Happy Writing News

Writing is hard. Revising is hard. The submission cycle is downright depressing. Querying agents? It sucks away your soul, email by email.

That means that it’s especially hard to contain yourself when good news comes at last. It’s tempting to scream to the world–in reality and in all caps–that the story finally sold! That an agent wants your full manuscript! That a publisher wants your book!

DON’T. Take your hands off the keyboard. Step away from your phone. Maybe tell a few select people, but don’t you dare announce your good news in the early stages. Speaking out too soon shows that you’re unprofessional and unable to keep a secret. You may very well sabotage the deal you’re so happy about. Google is the biggest tattle-tale in the world, you know. Editors and agents will follow your social media and blog, and not in a creepy way, either. If they are taking the time to look you up, that’s a great thing. They want to know you! You’re establishing an important business relationship.

You want that relationship, too. So here are the moments when you need to sit on your hands.


– A story acceptance
It’s awesome to get that initial acceptance email, but the deal isn’t real until there is a double-signed contract. That makes it legally binding. Even then, sometimes a publisher will ask you to refrain from public mention for a while; for example, this might happen if they are still sending out rejections for that particular issue. Respect that request.

– The contract is signed but the work hasn’t been published after months of wait OR you didn’t get paid when it was published OR your story was revised without your permission, etc.
Sometimes, even after a contract is signed, a deal might fall apart. Maybe the editor pulls a jerk move, or editors change and the new one doesn’t want your work, or the publication dies, or your reminders about payment get no reply. This puts you in a delicate position because you have a valid right to complain. Don’t do that in public as step one, though. You want to build your case. Query the editor, if you can. Query more than once over a period of time. Go onto password-protected writer forums and find out if there are other writers in the same position as you. You want allies! Maybe together, you can make yourselves heard, either through email or as a united front on social media. If you’re a member of SFWA, Griefcom is a valuable resource with professionals who will intercede on your behalf.

– An agent has rejected your manuscript OR requests a partial or full manuscript OR wants to call you
Querying agents is a long, difficult, demoralizing process, but it’s not one to be discussed in public. Why? Agents NEED to check you out online. You don’t want them to know they’re the 73rd agent you’ve queried, or that you’ve been querying this book for three years. More than likely, you’re querying a bunch of agents at the same time (as one should, unless you offered an exclusive; it would take forever to query one by one). You want all of those agents to think they are your top choice. You want to appear professional yet also personable. Throughout various stages of the publishing process, you need to be able to keep a secret. If you’re a blabbermouth, well, will they want to work with you?

You DO need a safe place to vent or celebrate through the querying process, though. Find a password-protected private place to do that. I used Agent Query back in the day, but there are various other writer forums or private Facebook groups where you can safely chronicle your journey.

– An agent offers representation
Again, this is a test of how you can keep a secret, but it’s also a show of respect for other agents who may be considering your work. You likely have queries out with multiple agencies. When you get an offer, don’t say ‘yes’ right away, no matter how tempting; ask for a period of time like a week or two so that you can send notice to other agents to give them a chance to respond. You suddenly look a lot more appealing once you have an offer on the table. Other agents will likely want to push your query/manuscript to the top of their pile so they can find out what the fuss is all about. You might get more requests for the full manuscript or other offers of rep.

Again, share this joy in a private setting online. Don’t liveblog it, or you’ll look tactless and rude to other agents. Again: until the contract is signed with an agent, it’s not a done deal. Don’t sabotage yourself.

– An editor makes an offer for your book
This is the most aggravating secret in the world, but you dare not say a thing until the proper time. And that proper time may be a long time coming. Contract negotiations may take months with a major publisher–maybe even six months or more. If you speak out before the deal is done, you will look very, very bad.

There’s an extra level of aggravation here, too. Even after the paperwork is signed, you still need to keep every mum for a little while longer. Most large-publisher book deals aren’t official-official until they are in Publishers’ Marketplace. Most writers don’t subscribe to that because it’s expensive, but a friend may scream the news to you online (that’s how I knew I could announce my first deal at long last–a friend told me on Twitter!) or your agent can give you the head’s up.

At that point, mash down the capslock and scream the news to the world. YOU HAVE A BOOK DEAL!!!!!!!!

Breath of EarthBeth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her newest novel is BREATH OF EARTH. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

“Etymology Is Important,” She Ejaculated

I’m going to start off by telling a story from when I was 13 or 14 years old. I was with my mom and grandma in the car as we drove through the Central California countryside after a Sunday visit to my uncle’s church. As is often the case, then and now, I was reading a new book.

“Mom,” I asked, “What does ‘ejaculate’ mean?”

My Mom and Grandma shared a look in the front seat. “Beth, what are you reading?” There was a strange strain to her voice.

“This book called The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.” I held up the cover so she could see it in the mirror.

Mom and Grandma glanced at each other again. “Read the line to me,” Mom asked.

etymology-littlewhitehorse“‘The coachman is getting down,’ ejaculated Maria.'”

Mom and Grandma both belted out nervous laughs. “Oh. Is it an old book?” she asked. I confirmed that it was a reprint of an old book, and I was informed I’d be told about other definitions for the word once we arrived home.

Yeah, that was a fun conversation. I was both mortified and amused. I had given them quite a fright with my choice of reading material on the way home from church! (I do recommend The Little White Horse–it’s a lovely gothic middle grade book, and apparently has gained new attention in recent years as it’s one of J.K. Rowling’s childhood favorites.)

Etymology is the history of a word, the how, when, and where of its use. I write historical fiction novels, and I find myself very aware of the words I choose. I cannot be 100% accurate to period, nor do I want to be. I will not have my characters ejaculate their speech, no matter how appropriate that word usage may have been in their time!

It’s all about balance. I want my books to be as easy to read as other current books–with contemporary concepts of paragraph size, dialogue tags, etcetera–while still keeping readers in a distant world.

I frequently check word etymologies as I write and revise. My usual go-to is the Online Etymology Dictionary; if that site doesn’t list the word, I usually resort to a Google search of “etymology [word].

There is also the dilemma of a word seeming contemporary, even though it’s not. This is referred to as “The Tiffany Problem”, named so because Tiffany is a legitimate medieval name but it looks too modern to readers of historical fiction and fantasy. For matters like that, it’s great to get feedback from other readers during early revision stages.

Sometimes, I consciously stay with an anachronistic word. For example, the word “kid” for “child” is a very recent development in the English language.

I also use the word “Reiki” to describe a form of magical healing, though Reiki as a modern practice didn’t start in Japan until the 1920s. On an additional note, my copyeditor for Breath of Earth suggested capitalizing Reiki–that’s what it said in their style guide–so I went with that in the final book. It gives it more gravitas in my 1906 setting.

Word choice does determine the tone. Within a sentence, a writer can establish the setting, time, and point of view. Be choosy. Be cautious. And be aware of what “ejaculate” means in various contexts.

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.


Bookish Holiday Gifts for the Middle Grade Boy

I’ve heard many teachers and parents mention how hard it is to get middle grade boys to read. These boys, from age eight to twelve, are enticed by other media like video games, TV, and sports, and reading is (alas) not regarded as cool.

What books can snare reluctant readers? My son’s 6th grade social studies teacher told me that almost everyone has read the Wimpy Kid books. My son has read many of those books, too. I cannot classify him as a reluctant reader–he takes after me in a lot of ways, the poor kid–but he is a picky reader. He loves funny books–illustrations are a perk. He’s autistic and is strongly drawn to nonfiction, too, such as atlases and math books.

Therefore, I’m scanning his shelves for some of his new favorites, as well as revealing some Christmas gifts that will come his way. (Shh! Don’t tell him.)

If you read and love the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, check out Stephan Pastis’s middle grade series about Timmy Failure. These books are fully illustrated and include the same dry wit as his Pearls comics, though tailored for a younger audience. Kids and parents will enjoy this one!

Hilo starts off a graphic novels series about a mysterious boy with superpowers who crash lands on Earth and makes friends with human kids. It contains lots of action, and a fair share of whimsy, too, as Hilo learns about how kids act. Since my son is autistic and struggles with social skills, books like this offer him a great way to be entertained and learn something, too.

(Small disclaimer: I received a free Advanced Reader Copy of the second Hilo book at Book Expo America in Chicago. My son loved it and asked for the first book.)

The Vordak series is among my son’s favorites! Vordak is a villain plotting world domination from his parents’ basement, but as you might imagine, things do not go as he deviously plans.

If your kid-in-need-of-gift loves video games, look for manga series from Japan that have been translated and released in English. This Mega Man Megamix series is a favorite in my household, along with graphic novels for Pokemon and Kingdom Hearts.

Shh. We’re in gift territory now. I was really excited to find out the Super Mario comics series from Nintendo Power Magazine from 1992-1993 had just been released in book form. I LOVED these comics when I was his age, and I bet he’ll get a kick out of them, too.

I saw a lot of buzz about this Everything You Need to Ace series when they debuted earlier this year, and I have my eye on a couple of them. Take a look at the preview mode on Amazon–these books break down information with lots of illustrations and notes. There’s a friendly feel to it. This might not be a book for a child to sit down and casually read through (though my son will likely do that), but it may prove to be a good reference during the school year.

Happy holidays!

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.



Choice 2016 Novels & Collections for Holiday Gifts

Fran Wilde posted a detailed list of some 2016 works she deemed worthy of award consideration in the coming year. You can read the full list here.

Below is an excerpt featuring her recommendations for indie book stores, novels, and collections. Perhaps you’ll find an ideal gift for someone–or for yourself!

Amazing Indies, aka great places to support during the season…:


books(note: this list doesn’t include YA or Middle Grade because I’m on a jury, but please be aware there’s so much exceptional, diverse, reading to do in those categories, this year and always.)

  • Certain Dark Things – Silvia Moreno-Garcia (Thomas Dunne)
    Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…
    Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.
  • Infomocracy – Malka Older (
    It’s been twenty years and two election cycles since Information, a powerful search engine monopoly, pioneered the switch from warring nation-states to global micro-democracy. The corporate coalition party Heritage has won the last two elections. With another election on the horizon, the Supermajority is in tight contention, and everything’s on the line.
  • Ghost Talkers – Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
    Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.
  • Breath of Earth – Beth Cato (Harper Voyager)
    In an alternate 1906, the United States and Japan have forged a powerful confederation—the Unified Pacific—in an attempt to dominate the world. Their first target is a vulnerable China. In San Francisco, headstrong Ingrid Carmichael is assisting a group of powerful geomancer Wardens who have no idea of the depth of her power—or that she is the only woman to possess such skills.
  • Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer (Tor)
    Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer–a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.
  • Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
    To win an impossible war Captain Kel Cheris must awaken an ancient weapon and a despised traitor general.
  • Everfair – Nisi Shawl (Tor)
    An alternate history / historical fantasy / steampunk novel set in the Belgian Congo, from noted short story writer Nisi Shawl.
    Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier.
  • The Family Plot – Cherie Priest (Tor)
    Chuck Dutton built Music City Salvage with patience and expertise, stripping historic properties and reselling their bones. Inventory is running low, so he’s thrilled when Augusta Withrow appears in his office offering salvage rights to her entire property. This could be a gold mine, so he assigns his daughter Dahlia to personally oversee the project.
  • Roses and Rot – Kat Howard (Saga)
    Imogen and her sister Marin have escaped their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, be it art or love.
    What would you sacrifice in the name of success? How much does an artist need to give up to create great art?
  • Wall of Storms – Ken Liu (Saga)
    Kuni Garu, now known as Emperor Ragin, runs the archipelago kingdom of Dara, but struggles to maintain progress while serving the demands of the people and his vision. Then an unexpected invading force from the Lyucu empire in the far distant west comes to the shores of Dara—and chaos results.
  • All the Birds in the Sky – Charlie Jane Anders (Tor)
    Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.
  • Borderline – Mishell Baker (Saga)
    A year ago, Millie lost her legs and her filmmaking career in a failed suicide attempt. Just when she’s sure the credits have rolled on her life story, she gets a second chance with the Arcadia Project: a secret organization that polices the traffic to and from a parallel reality filled with creatures straight out of myth and fairy tales.
  • Jane Steele – Lindsay Faye (Putnam)
    Reader, I murdered him.”

Collections, Anthologies, Serials:


Award-winning author (and technology consultant) Fran Wilde’s next novel, CLOUDBOUND, is available NOW! Her first novel, UPDRAFT debuted from Tor in 2015. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Nature,, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Cybermorality: Should we aspire to live forever?

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

When I became a real grownup and got a real grownup job, I got my first life insurance policy. I took the test you have to take and my insurance company predicted I’d live to the age of 121. I was speechless, but then I thought about it. Medicine has changed so radically in the last 40 years that it’s fair to say it’s almost a completely new science. When I was a kid, getting your tonsils out involved two days in the hospital. Now they actually shoot them out of your throat with a laser gun. Science fiction has not only become real, it’s become routine.

All estimates indicate that medicine will advance far more radically in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40. And 40 years from now I’ll only be 83.

keep-calm-and-live-foreverA common criticism of Western medicine writ large is that it sees mortality as a curable condition. Rest assured, there are thousands of researchers working on immortality right this minute. So in all probability my insurance company underestimated my life expectancy. In fact, it’s fair to say that 80 years from now, no one has the slightest idea what medical technology will be capable of, nor how long the average human life span will be. It’s not unreasonable to predict that we’ll be able to keep a human body alive more or less indefinitely.

To this we must add a caveat: alive and thriving are not the same thing. This is why that estimate of 121 left me speechless: I’m not sure it’s good news. Give me 119 good years and 2 bad ones and I’ll say sign me up. Give me 81 good years and 40 bad ones—which is what our current medical practices would promise me—and I’ll say thanks but no thanks.

And we should add one more observation: while medical technology has drastically expanded the average number of thriving years in a human lifespan, it hasn’t actually extended human lifespan itself all that much. The world’s oldest person today and the world’s oldest person of 100 years ago and 200 years ago are all about the same age. So it’s possible—doubtful, I think, but possible—that we really do cap out as hundred-and-teenagers, and that the only question is whether we can make all of our years good years.

But let’s be optimistic. Let’s say that in the year 2094 I’m the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. My mountaineering years are long behind me, but I can still write books and hang out with friends and have a basically comfortable, more or less self-sufficient existence.

The question is, is such a world morally good?

There are some reasons to think it might not be. For one thing, just being 100 years old is expensive, so probably only millionaires can be hundred-and-teenagers. That will exacerbate certain kinds of economic inequality and contribute measurably to certain ecological problems. But even if we could somehow make it just as cheap to be 121 as it is to be 21, we’d have other, larger social justice questions.

As people age they tend to get set in their ways, and so an aging but undying demographic would tend to retain its current political beliefs. The unfortunate truth is that much of the political progress in the world only happens when the old guard dies out.

Maybe some conservatives will bristle at that, but consider the following sentence: “I know my grandma is racist, but she’s a really nice person.” That is a completely coherent sentence in modern American society. We tend to forgive older people for old-fashioned beliefs. Why? There are many reasons, but only one is inevitable: even if these geezers never surrender their ideas, in a couple of decades they’ll kick the bucket.

Suppose that stopped being true. Suppose the old guard gets another eighty years before passing the torch. If we all lived to 121, some of the lawmakers to vote against the 19th Amendment—you know, the one that allows women to vote—would still be alive and voting. Some of those guys would have parents old enough to be slave owners. That’s right: we’d only be one generation removed from the Civil War.

We can’t even imagine what the hot-button issues will be in 2094, when I am the world’s sexiest 121-year-old man. If interracial marriage was the big Supreme Court decision in 1960, and if same-sex marriage was the big one in 2015, maybe the one I’ll be upset about is the case way back in 2050 where humans gained the right to marry robots. Maybe my great-great-grandnieces will blush as they make excuses for me: “I know Uncle Steve-o is a human supremacist but he’s a really nice person.”


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


4 Ways to Affordably Acquire Historical Research Books

When you’re engaged in historical research, web pages often are not the best sources: old-fashioned books are. But how do you find the right books? How do you acquire them? How do you afford them?

– Use Wikipedia, but scroll down.
Sure, Wikipedia can provide a decent synopsis of a subject, but the most useful information is in the footnotes at the bottom of the page. That’s where you find cited data, such as book titles and theses. Follow the links and you might even find the materials online for free!

– Libraries still exist.
Shocking, isn’t it? You can go to physical libraries and get books for merely flashing a library card. Look into inter-library loans or see if you can access college libraries nearby. Librarians are available to help you out, too.

– Buy used books.
This is my preferred method of research, simply because I like to hold onto content for future reference. My favorite shop is Better World Books because the shipping is free, the selection is great, and my purchases benefit charities. I also look for used books on Amazon and

– Find free ebook archives.
Most people know about places like Project Gutenberg and its efforts to digitize old books, but it’s not the only such resource. State and city governments and museums are also creating more online archives. For example, check out the California Digital Newspaper Collection created by UC Riverside, or Washington State’s Online Library of classical state literature ranging from pioneer biographies to native tales, or the San Francisco Library’s 1906 earthquake photograph collection. Savoring the Past has digitized a numerous 18th and early 19th century cookbooks. Don’t forget Amazon, either. Look up classic books and check their availability for Kindle; sometimes you can find them for zero dollars or for almost nothing.

Trust me. When you’re deep in the word mines and require dozens and dozens of books to world-build an alternate history, those free and almost-free books are worth a whole lot.

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.



5 Big Reasons Literary Agents are Important Beyond the Book Deal

If you’re working on a book and aiming at the traditional publication route, acquiring a literary agent feels like the key to make all your dreams come true. An agent can submit the Big 5 Publishers, after all, and from there your book can be made available anywhere and everywhere around the world.

The thing is, real life isn’t like a book. After you sign the book deal and work to make your novel all shiny, your life is not emblazoned with a bold THE END. (At least, I sure hope not!) Life goes on. As you write more books and develop more of a relationship with your publisher–or publishers–it means a lot to have a staunch advocate working to better your career. Here’s what an agent might do beyond reading the fine print on your contract.

Clockwork Dagger– Know the trends.
The publishing world is small. As readers and authors, we hear some news about deals and see the new releases, but agents follow the pulse of the industry and know about the books that will be out in a year, two, three years. That’s why an agent might love a manuscript that lands in their slush pile, but they might not pick it up–there might be a glut of similar books that are already signed and in the publication process.

– Edit.
Not all agents edit. Not all authors want an agent who edits. My agent edits and I love her for it, even though her feedback is brutal at times. Not only is she great at critiquing, but–to return to the first point–she knows the industry and what makes a book strong or weak in this particular market. That’s insight beyond what I can get from my fellow authors.

– Act as mediator.
When you establish a relationship with a publisher, agents become this wonderful buffer between author and editor. They get to nag on your behalf. They get to email/phone and pester about late manuscript edits or financial statements or book cover progress. That doesn’t mean agents handle ALL interactions with your editor. A lot of day-to-day interactions are directly between editor and author, but agents are there to call on when things get awkward.

– Career guidance.
Some agents work with authors on a book by book basis. Others make a pact for the full career of the author, and that’s the kind of relationship I have. Here’s the thing: the book industry is weird. Your book might not sell. Editors come and go. Imprints fail. Publishers are bought-out. A supportive agent looks beyond the book you’re working on now, and on to the next series, or a new series. Again, they see the trends. They see what is selling–or not. I rely on my agent’s business savvy to guide me along.

– Cheerleader/superhero.
Writing is my happiness, my joy. Sometimes, it is also a particular kind of hell. My agent is there to talk me off the ledge. She’s not just a cheerleader, she’s a superhero, cape and all. Agents are there for the good times (book deal, whoo hoo!) and also the bad times: when rough drafts stay particularly rough, when deadlines are zooming by, when the publisher is supporting about as well as a ten-year-old bra.

So sure, an agent will help you get a book deal and make sure the contract is fair, but they do so much more. They are there to help you along, book after book, and during those lulls in between books, too. A supportive agent is there to do whatever they possibly can to ensure that your writing career consists of more “TO BE CONTINUEDS” than “THE ENDS.”

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.

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.

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!