Monthly Archives: November 2015

That moment when maybe your car should kill you

This is the first in a series of classic ethical conundrums I’ll twist into fun new shapes with ideas from science fiction and fantasy. To start off the series let’s look at one that isn’t too far off.

Jack and Jill are cruising along in their driverless cars. Neither of them is paying attention, because neither of them needs to; at this point the cars are that good. Just about everyone is driverless now, and all of the vehicles have transponders that communicate with each other, so we’ve got backups upon backups. Everything is as safe as can be.

So Jack is reading a good novel and Jill is playing Uno with her kids in the back seat. (The front seats turn all the way around to face the back, of course, because why wouldn’t they? Car travel is really more like train travel now, including a little table between the front and back seats for playing Uno.) Everyone’s having a nice little road trip.

Until Jack blows a tire. His car has to make a split-second decision—no problem, because it actually makes dozens of safety decisions per second. It has to choose: swerve left, into Jill’s car in the oncoming lane, or do nothing, and crash into a beautiful and majestic redwood tree. Jack’s car instantly knows:Disciple of the Wind by Steve Bein

• Cars are engineered for crash safety, but that technology is far from perfect, and a head-on collision will almost certainly cause injury to all parties involved.
• Redwoods are not at all engineered for crash safety, and in fact the more beautiful and majestic they are, the worse they are for you to crash into.
• Jill’s car has more people in it than Jack’s car, and also more people in it than the redwood tree.

Whereupon Jack’s car instantly calculates the probable damages from two choices:

1. Do nothing. Jack hits Jill head-on, risking injury to himself, Jill, and her kids.
2. Swerve. Jack hits the tree head-on, risking very serious injury to himself but placing everyone else out of harm’s way.

So what should the car be programmed to do?

If you choose 1, you might be an ethical egoist: that is, you believe “morally right” means “whatever maximizes my own personal well-being,” regardless of anyone else’s interests.

If you choose 2, you might be a utilitarian: that is, you believe “morally right” means “whatever maximizes well-being for everyone involved.”

If you choose 1, you’d also have to recognize that you wouldn’t choose 1 if you were Jill; only Jack is better off in 1. In which case you might have to admit you’re a hypocrite.

If you choose 2, you might put a pretty serious dent in new car sales, inasmuch as the old beater I have to drive myself might look pretty appealing if I know that those shiny new driverless cars might be willing to kill me.

If you choose 1, you might be trading your driver’s license for a bus pass. If what you want to do is maximize your own well-being, the best way to ensure that is for all cars to choose 2—that is, to swerve away from you if they can—and that means you can’t choose 1.

If you choose 2, you might have a hard time answering people who say that their car, which they paid for with their money, ought to maximize their best interests—or in other words, that every car has a greater obligation (if you can call it that) to protect its owner than to protect anyone else.

If you choose 1, you might also be committed to running over motorcyclists more often than necessary, because they’re light and you’ll probably survive the impact.

If you choose 2, you might also be committed to smashing up Volvos more often than necessary, because they’re so good in a crash. In fact, you’re probably committed to driverless cars getting regular software updates on which vehicles are the best to hit. This would shake up the entire economy around cars, car insurance, etc.

Whether you choose 1 or 2, you probably want to call your senator right now and push for a bill to give the National Travel Safety Board jurisdiction over driverless car programming. The NTSB is the organization charged with minimizing risk in air travel, and it mandates that all airlines adhere to the same safety rules. If that universal conformity were not the rule with driverless cars, then some auto manufacturers would make cars that were more selfless than others. Some companies might play a little fast and loose with the rules—I’m looking at you, Volkswagen—and that could be very dangerous indeed. Whether you’re a utilitarian or an egoist, you probably want to know what the rules are and also know that everyone has to follow them.

And in case you think all this philosophy stuff has no practical value, consider this: programmers are weighing all of these considerations right now.

So what’s your answer, 1 or 2? Pop on over to Novelocity’s Facebook page and make your opinion known!

Steve Bein

NaNoWriMo Tips from Twitter

Hi! Beth Cato here. I’m not doing Nanowrimo this year–I have novel edits due by December 1st and a bunch of other stuff–but I fully believe in the power of chomping through 50,000 words in November. Nano is what started me writing again as an adult. I wouldn’t be where I am now without it.

So, it’s made me especially happy to see a supportive Nanowrimo community on Twitter. I’ve tried to do my part, too, doing several posts a day to encourage folks to make their word counts. Here are selected tweets from the start of the month.



#Nanowrimo participants! You’re writing. That makes you an author. It’s that easy, & that hard.

As you start #Nanowrimo, remember, everything is better with ninjas.

#Nanowrimo It is totally fine for your 1st draft characters to go by 3+ names every time they are mentioned. #nanotips

When doing #Nanowrimo, try to work ahead early on. A higher word count gives you a safety cushion for later.

There will always be toxic people who are incapable of supporting your writing. Be true to yourself. Write on. #NaNoWriMo #NaNoWriMo2015

I stopped writing for about 10 yrs because of family pressure & teacher scorn of fantasy. #Nanowrimo is what pushed me to write again.

If you’re doing #Nanowrimo & on @LiveJournal, check out They were my support for years of Nano! #NaNoWriMo2015

Meal plan for #Nanowrimo! Use a crock pot for meals; freeze leftovers in packets. Stock up on quick-fix frozen food & healthy snacks.

If you need crock pot recipes for #NaNoWriMo, I have 200+ on a Pinterest board:

In #Nanowrimo, remember that cute critter sidekicks add lots of fun & surprises for you & your characters. #NaNoWriMo2015

Give yourself permission to write a sucky rough draft during #Nanowrimo. Don’t get depressed; laugh! Take notes for revising later.

#Nanowrimo folks: reminder to back-up your story via cloud/email yourself/dark magic ritual/etc! Do it right now! #NaNoWriMo2015

If you’ve written even 100 words for #Nanowrimo, you accomplished something grand. Be proud of yourself!

For #Nanowrimo, some people are plotters. Others pantsers. No wrong way. Do what works for you for this project.

Don’t delete during #Nanowrimo, no matter how awful it seems. Revisions come later. Just keep going.

#Nanowrimo: don’t give up just because you miss a day. A week. Weeks. Life happens. Write on, even outside of Nov.

Don’t listen to people who sneer that #Nanowrimo writers aren’t REAL. I used it to start. So have many pubbed authors.

#Nanowrimo is a great chance to start a project, but don’t stop on Nov 30. Keep writing. Revise. Dream.

If you hate your #Nanowrimo rough draft, that’s normal. Most pubbed authors feel the same about their 1st drafts. Seriously.

Clockwork Dagger
Beth 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 from Harper Voyager.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.


I just got back from World Fantasy (I had a very good time, but like many people, I want to help call attention to the issue of disability and accessibility at ALL cons-read this post from Mari Ness if you haven’t.)

At any rate, I thought I would offer up a cartoon I drew almost exactly 7 years ago, when we had cats instead of kids. The problem with cats is they want to sleep and they want to make you sleep. Writers should really have dogs. I’m told dogs make you get up and go on walks in the morning. Cats make you take naps in the afternoon. You can see why I like cats.

Despite their sleep-making tendencies, I do miss that cat, who was a good cat and lived a good, full cat life. I also miss those pj pants. We still have that futon, though. I think I am currently wearing that shirt.

kitten on the keys



SF Linguistics: Third-Order Symbol Systems

I was away at the World Fantasy Convention this past weekend, and as often happens someone started talking with me about language. We bounced around a variety of topics (some of which I’ll doubtless share with you on another occasion), but the one that stuck in my head this time was about writing systems and how science fiction is missing an opportunity to be, well, science fictional here. So let’s chat a bit about that today.

The first thing you need to know is that a writing system is not what we might call a primary form of a language. Rather, it’s a second-order symbol system. Generally speaking, the languages humans use consist of sounds which we organize into various units (typically consonants and vowels if you’re a speaker of an IndoEuropean language). A writing system is a code in which another form is used to stand in for those sounds. Broadly speaking, writing systems accomplish this with symbols, characters, or glyphs and come in three flavors : 1) alphabetic — each symbol depicts a single speech sound, 2) syllabic — each symbol represents an entire syllable, typically a standalone vowel (V) or a consonant and a vowel (CV), and 3) logographic — each symbol is a concept.

Some languages get by with just one of these, some use two or more. English uses an alphabet. Japanese uses a syllabary (in fact, they have two!) as well as a logographic system. Chinese is also logographic, and really drives the system home when you realize that different dialects of the language can understand the same text but when read aloud they’d sound completely different.

That’s all well and good, but it’s Linguistics 101, and not SF. So let’s take it to the next level. Specifically, the third-order symbol systems referenced in the title. Because just as our alphabet is a second-order symbol system (letters standing in for speech sounds), a third-order symbol system would be yet another set of symbols that are used to represent the alphabet (or, some other second-order system) which in turn represents speech sounds.

Confused? Maybe, but only because you’ve probably never thought about this before (and neither have most SF authors). But a couple examples will lock it in for you.

Morse Code

Morse code is a third-order symbol set. Dots and dashes are compiled in different orders and frequencies to stand in for the letters of the alphabet (see the figure to the right). Originally developed in 1836, Morse Code is most known for its use in telegraphy, but other applications have emerged. It’s particularly nifty because while it’s still a visual system, its application in telegraphy is audible (and I can tap them out on your arm if you want a third-order system that relies on touch!). Many a SF plot has involved using this “old tech” code to communicate when more modern (or futuristic) methodologies were unavailable.

Another and likely familiar example of a third-order symbol system is Flag Sempahore, a visual system in which a pair of flags are held in different relative positions to represent letters of the alphabet.

So now that you know what I’m talking about when I say third-order symbol system, you should be say to yourself, “Okay, Lawrence, how do you tie this back around to SF?”

To which I’ll happily respond with a question of my own: Where are they? With respect to the vast array of science fiction stories, where are the alien equivalences of Morse Code and Semaphore? If you’re the sort of reader who wants your aliens to sound, well, alien (and I am!), and to have alien writing systems — funky alphabetic glyphs, bizarro syllabaries of fluidic shapes, and/or textured and impenetrable pictures that make your head ache — then it’s my contention that you should be yearning for alien third-order symbol systems too.

What would this look (and I’m using look here in the colloquial sense, because even if our alien languages use speech sounds and their writing systems are visually-based, there’s no reason their third-order symbol systems need to be) like? I don’t know or care. I’m waiting for some clever SF author to dazzle me.

Here are a couple possible examples of what I’m talking about:

I want a novel that introduces me to a group of aboriginal Venusians who though they typically write with a rather ordinary syllabary, have a third-order symbol system used exclusively for religious purposes in which words of prayer offerings are meals, the recipes of which use patterns of ingredients to stand in for the syllable characters. Show me a first-contact story where the diplomats from Aldebaran give up trying to teach us their ten thousand glyph logographic system, but instead introduce us to the shorthand third-order system used by their elderly, an olfactory/auditory system that uses flatulence combinations of both duration and stench.

And so on. Is that really asking so much?

Tweet twice about regional politics for “N” and post seven cat photos to Facebook for “O” if you agree with me.

6 Comics for SF/F Prose Readers

I spend a lot of time reading not only SF/F prose books, but comics in the genre as well. But there are a lot of prose readers who have a hard time figuring out where to start, or where to find jumping-on point with comics.

Worry no more. Here are six SF/F comics that I think prose readers will really enjoy.

Continue reading

Introducing Perilous Pauline!

Let’s be real, people: being a hero is hard work. And sometimes heroes need a little help – a little advice from someone who can relate. Not us, of course (we’re writers, the source of all misery!) But we’re absolutely delighted to introduce Novelocity’s resident advice columnist, a distinguished silver-age heroine who’s been there, done that, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a T-shirt. Let’s have a big round of virtual applause for our very own protagony aunt: Perilous Pauline!

Perilous Pauline

Boldly protagging since you-better-not-ask-when.

Dusk, by David DoubDear Pauline,

I am much more mature and sophisticated than these silly little girls you see on TV and movies, pining away for aloof and uncharismatic vampires. I’ve been swimming in the deep end of the supernatural world for so long, I am painfully too familiar with what true darkness looks like. That’s why I am so frustrated with working with my current Vampire Lord – because I know he is nothing like the others. True, he does things many would find quite unsavory, but it’s out of the necessity of compassion that he makes those hard choices. He keeps using that same compassion against me, saying I would be better off back in the light with my own mortal kind. He states rather too eloquently that I am free from the shackles cruel fate had bound me with, yet he will refuse me the most important decision of my life?

Or more simply put, how do I get my Vampire Lord go to out with me?

Bitter Thanks,
Desperate for Darkness

Vampires! Bah! You kids today, with your bloodsucking underwear models – back in my day, vampires were the grotesque product of Victorian sexual repression, and that was that! Really, DD, what are you thinking? Is he going to take you out for a nice dinner, wow you in the sack? He eats under a bridge, probably dresses like a widowed backup-dancer, and hasn’t been able to get it up since Cleopatra was in pigtails. Slap some sense into yourself, DD – and if you really can’t shake the death-fetish, go find yourself a nice consumptive young man, dump some glitter on him, and get hitched before he knocks off. I’m sure you’ve got your little black dress already picked out.

Tarbox Station, by Rhonda EudalyDear Pauline,

Sometimes a girl just wants to have some fun, you know? But as a diplomat on a long-term mission with an alien delegation , it’s really hard to find a nice young man of my own species to have a drink with! I mean, really, when your job is bouncing from one exploding space station to another trying to keep alien diplomats alive, you just don’t have time for online dating! What’s a girl to do? Get a plague just to spend a few days in an infirmary? Cause an international incident? Please help me!


Lovelorn in Deep Space
Oh, I know your type, LiDS. The up-and-comer. The career girl. I could solve your problem in one sentence: you find yourself a nice pair of train tracks and get yourself tied to them toot-de-sweet, and I guarantee the man of your dreams will show up right before the 4:19 to Peoria. But that’s not good enough, is it? “Oh, Pauline – I’m not that kind of girl! I’m a big, strong, empowered woman who doesn’t need a man to save me!” Well, if you don’t need him, is it any wonder he isn’t beating down your airlock to buy you a drink? Expand your event horizons and practice a little strategic helplessness, LiDS. Let your hair down – spruce yourself up a little – let somebody else keep YOU alive for a change!

And if all else fails, you can always buy yourself a space-cat.

Undead Rising, by M.E. KinkadeDear Pauline:

Life is never easy, but it seems un-life isn’t really any better. In addition to my ongoing identity crisis (who am I, really? I’m you? You’re me? I’m screwed…), I’m pretty sure my coworkers are turning into zombies. Like, for serious. And maybe everyone else in New York—the barista just tried to bite me, which seems out of character even on a rough day around here. Everything just went from normal to insane in about an hour and I don’t know what to do. I need guidance at practically every chapter in my life. I need someone to choose my destiny for me. Where should I turn?

Undead Rising in New York

That’s a tricky one, URiNY (did you really think that acronym through?) The way I see it, there are two possibilities: if you’re a lady, just sit tight and the hero should show up any minute now with guns blazing. If you’re a man (or a woman in one of those newfangled TV serials), you’re either going to die in the time it takes me to reply, or else you’re in for a whole heap of unlikely heroism, which will forge your wishy-washy milquetoastery into a resolve and/or abdominals of steel. So if you’re still alive to read this, congratulations! Now hitch up your britches, roll the dice, and go save that day!

Do you have a SFF book out in the world? Does your hero need a little help? Have them write to Perilous Pauline, c/o tex at!

5 Mistakes New Writers Don’t Know They’re Making

Hey–it’s NANOWRIMO!  For those of you taking part in the annual National Novel Writers’ Month, you should already be at least 1667 words into your new project. And you probably shouldn’t be browsing the blogs.  But if, like me, you are close to your word goal for the day, and you’re kind of hung up on how to write the next scene, then feel free to browse away.  Otherwise–get back to work.


I read a lot of manuscripts by new authors, either because they seek me out for blurbs, agent advice, or marketing ideas, or through events like the WorldCon Writers’ Workshop.  I see the same kinds of mistakes over and over, so I’d like to give you a run-down on five of them.

  1.  They don’t know where to begin.  This usually means they start weeks, months, even years before anything actually happens in the story.  Begin as close as possible to the moment when all hell breaks loose.  That’s when it gets exciting–when the character is about to encounter the conflict.

2.  They include too much back-story up front.  This can be a subset of mistake #1, by starting in the pre-history of the story, but often it manifests as the author trying to squeeze all kinds of character commentary or inner monologue in the first few pages.  Let the reader get to know the characters first by seeing them in action, then when they want to know more, give it to them.

3.  They write in summary rather than in scenes.  Scenes include action taking place surrounded by details that bring the reader into a particular moment in space and time.  All five senses, forward momentum, dialog and revelation.  Let the reader be a witness to the scene, not merely an accessory after the fact.

4.  They write scenes that don’t add to the work.  These scenes are often transitional:  scenes where someone has to go somewhere, or wait for something, or listen to a version of something that already happened.  This is what summary is for–when we need to know something happened, but we don’t need any details or investment in the process.  Unless something happens on that long ride through the forest, you can just say, “Four days later, they arrived at the castle.”

5.  They lose track of characters in dialog.  The dialog consists entirely of the quotations, without any sense of characters being present in a place.  Instead, use your dialog tags judiciously to show how characters react to what’s being said, and reveal themselves through small actions, expressions, and interactions with the scene around them.

Hope this helps as you dive into or revise your project–happy writing!