Monthly Archives: March 2016

Who Put This Message In My Fiction?

A story written to preach a message is usually a bad idea.

When fiction is meant to persuade, story often takes a back seat to the author’s passion for the issue.  Those who agree already might laud it, but those who don’t just feel scolded instead of entertained.  If you want to convince the world of global warming, for instance, don’t write a story with oil magnate villains who just want to make money while the world dies.  If you rage against the ills of capital punishment, don’t write a story where a disreputable prosecutor bends laws and ethics to get the death penalty out of fear and hatred for the accused.  In any of these cases, you will be unlikely to depict the views of the other side with empathy and fairness, and so the tale will ring false, especially to those who don’t agree with you.  You will be unlikely to convince anyone.

And yet, science fiction is a literature of ideas.  One of the true strengths of the genre is how it engages with the serious issues of mankind.  What does it mean to be human?  Are we getting better as a species or worse?  Do our choices make a difference in the stream of time, or are the results the same no matter what we choose?  Why do we go to war?  Can technology solve our problems?  Can civilization?  What happens to us when we die, and what would happen if we could live forever?

Along with these core questions about ourselves, science fiction isn’t afraid of challenging social norms.  Does gender really make us different?  What would happen if there was only one gender?  Or three?  Or people switched genders by day of the week?  What does a family look like if there are more parents, or fewer, of the same gender or different, or the parents take turns, or children aren’t raised by parents at all?  What lines should romantic love be allowed to cross?

It seems like a contradiction.  Messages make for bad fiction, but SF is all about grappling with issues.  How do these two things fit together?

I think the key is in asking questions instead of answering them.  SF readers are intelligent and thoughtful, on the whole, and our literature should encourage them to be more so.  Instead of telling the reader what he ought to think, authors should present the truth about the world in a thought-provoking way and let readers find their own conclusions.  If the side you feel so passionately about is true, then a true representation of the world will lead many toward your views, or at least lead them to question their own.  If you write about an issue, then, show us a true and compassionate view of the thinking on every side.  Don’t let the people who agree with you already get off easy with strawman arguments and one-sided villains; paint people as they really are, with all their complexity and contradictions.  Show how emotions cloud logic on both sides of the argument, and how honest and well-meaning people might take opposing stands.  Ask the questions that make people think instead of trying to force feed them answers.  Your fiction will be richer for it, and just might be more persuasive.

David Walton is a native of Pennsylvania and recipient of the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel, Terminal Mind. His latest books, SUPERPOSITION and SUPERSYMMETRY, are quantum physics thrillers with the same mind-bending feel as films like Inception and Minority Report. He is also the author of QUINTESSENCE, a science fantasy in which the Earth is really flat, and its sequel, QUINTESSENCE SKY.  You can find out more about his books at

Perilous Pauline: Romancing the Stone Age

Perilous PaulineWelcome back, fiction-friends, to another episode of The Armchair Adventures of Perilous Pauline! Hard-pressed heroes have written in, and Novelocity’s veteran ‘protagony aunt’ Pauline is here to dispense her own brand of silver-age wisdom. Add your own advice in the comments below!


Groom of the Tyrannosaur Queen - Daniel BensenDear Pauline,

Okay. Here’s the thing. I’m a soldier from the mid-twenty-first century. Yes, I know that means I’m out of a job. No, I don’t want to talk about it. What’s important is that my current job, body-guarding scientists on trips back in time, has taken a turn for the fucked up.

I’m not going to explain the part about how time travel works. Let’s just say we arrived back in the time of the dinosaurs and we met the natives. They weren’t friendly. Now I’ve been neutralized and kidnapped by a loin-clothing-wearing rage-fueled beefcake named Trals.

Now, Trals dragged me back to his tribe and I’m pretty sure that that ritual he performed was a marriage. But it’s not for the reason you think. He’s not interested in sex. He just wants to use me and my weapons to kill his enemies. I can’t understand his language, but there’s a definite “the rivers will run red with their blood” vibe, you know?

So here’s the problem. Waging war in some crazy bronze-age dinosaur timeline is not what I signed up for. I need to secure those scientists and the time machine and get the hell out of here. But here’s the bigger problem: I don’t want to. All I want to do is to get with Trals. And by “with” I mean “into the loin-cloth of.” Yes, I know there are a thousand reasons not to fall in lust with this guy. But I guess what I’m asking for is a reason why I should? Because I already have.


About to do Something Stupid in the Mesozoic

Wait, wait. Let’s review. You’ve been sent back in time, taken prisoner and forcibly married to a homicidal Neanderthal, and your biggest problem is that he’s gay?

Or maybe straight. (Throw me a bone here – Stupid doesn’t have a gender, but presumably you do.)

Well, far be it from me to act the prude – you know I’ve never been averse to a little primitive behavior – but how much do you actually know about this guy? Like, what’s going on behind that alluringly sloped brow of his? Is he a career warlord? Does he want a family? Where does he see himself in five million years?

Look, I’m not saying a Flintstones/Jetsons relationship can’t work. But before you sweet-talk Captain Caveman into a night of prehistoric passion, you need to figure out who he’s going to be in the morning. Get to know him. Learn his language. Find out what you have in common. And who knows? Crushing his enemies with raptor-mounted laser cannons could make for a great couples’ activity!


Alex Livingston - Glitch RainDear Pauline,

It’s not too late to write, is it? I’m on a self-driving rickshaw in a neighborhood built from shipping containers and the BoozeNGo drone hasn’t buzzed by with another bottle yet so I’ve got a minute. You see, I owe a LOT of kiz to this guy I used to know who just happens to have made a name for himself as an international crimelord, and all I’ve got going for me is my hacking skills and my irresistible charm.  Rich folks pay me to keep their seedier activities from showing up on the social feeds, which means I need to fit in at the best parties in the city. Which means looking damn good. Which means money. Which I’m supposed to be sending to the guy I owe so he doesn’t kill me. I could really use some advice here. Or some more top-shelf liquor. Prolly both.

Badass But Broke

All right. Listen, kid. I don’t have to know what social feedings and hack-skills and booze-drones you’re on about to know an excuse when I hear one. You screwed up. You spent somebody else’s money, and now you’re on the hook, right?

Well, I’ll tell you something: parties aren’t a real job unless you’re serving hors d’oeuvres or jumping out of a cake. So if you don’t want to end up in a pair of concrete future-boots, go take a cold shower and a hot cup of coffee, pull on a clean shirt, and get yourself a job. And I mean an honest trade for an honest wage – no more of this fiddling with cyber-widgets, you hear?

And good lord – auto-rickshaw your way to an AA meeting, will you? Life’s too short to spend it swilling Courvoisier in a shipping container, even if you are God’s gift to happy hour.


Pilgrim of the Storm - Russ LintonThank you for seeing me, Mistress Pauline. I hope to not take too much of your time so I will get straight to the reason for my visit.

My Master, Cloud Born Izhar, has chosen this Deep Night Festival to begin our pilgrimage, a ritual of which I am sure you are probably deep in preparations for. It marks my chance to walk in the footsteps of the Savior of Humanity, ascend to the rank of Cloud Born, and complete my training under my most illustrious mentor.
I only pray I am equal to the task.

I have many concerns regarding this but I would inquire to you about one of a more personal nature. My peers have seemed distant since the announcement I would be accompanying them. Truthfully, there have always been barriers with the other acolytes which I cannot clearly understand.

Like family, I assist them in their chores, help them to memorize the twelve thousand, one hundred and sixty-two mantras. And like a family, we work together toward a common goal. No fields to tend, no trade to perfect, but a Temple to grace and venerate and a Mighty Dragon of Storm and Fire to appease. And though I pursue these tasks tirelessly, I sense my efforts are not often respected.

I am starting to think it may be because I am different. As you can see, I am an Ek’kiru, or bugman.

But I have kept my wings mostly to myself. My hands, the extras, have found their way into the lower sleeves Master Izhar sewed for me, but this has only been for efficiency’s sake. I realize my eyes, quite large in comparison, and my antennae, can be a distraction for my peers (and myself), so I do my best to keep these tucked beneath my hood.
Despite this, my fellow acolytes’ indifference taunts me.

I am being silly, I know. We are all brothers under the Undying Storm as the Attarah’s wisdom says. However, I would like to hear your advice. Commoner’s tales, the riddles of trolls, and all the murkiness of thought outside the Temple notwithstanding, I hear you are most wise and as my Master reminds me (over and over) Wisdom shall chose the house in which it dwells. May it grace yours until the Timeless Age has begun.


My goodness. That is a whole lot of words to say “I’m a lonely bug-monk without any friends.” Are you sure they’re not just cold-shouldering you because you never stop talking?

Well, listen. Relationships are hard, and coworkers can be damned annoying. Here’s a funny thing about people, though: we don’t respect someone who isn’t genuine – no matter how many mantras they’ve memorized. Yes, it’s hard to be the diversity hire. But if you want to be taken seriously, you can’t go around sweeping yourself under the rug. Own your bugness, man! Put those extra arms to some use. Be the giant click-beetle everyone at work can agree on!

And while we’re at it, let’s see what we can do to work on your banter. I know you have a Temple to grace and a Mighty Dragon to appease, but visiting a Party of Cocktails would do you a world of good.


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!

New Book = BFF

There is something magical about holding an advance release galley of your book. IT IS YOURS. You created this during an extended gestation period of pain and woe and tears, and now it is SHINY (though it will be even shinier when the final version comes out).

This book becomes your new Best Friend Forever. You carry it with you. You frolic. You pet it. You take it on zany adventures.


My ARCs (advance release copies) of Breath of Earth arrived last week. We are bonding.


Porom the Cat was rather confused by her role in this bonding ritual. To translate her reaction: “Why is this thing on me? Why aren’t you petting me? I am purring! I am pianoing the couch! SET DOWN THAT PHONE AND PET MEEEEE.”


We left Porom to her sunbeams and went outside to take in more direct sunlight. The glories of an Arizona spring! My book enjoyed the warm rock and yellow lantanas.


From there, we played Hide-and-Go-Seek. Oh, silly book! You climbed a tree! Wait. You’re a book. HOW DID YOU DO THAT.


Since my book is clearly magical, I decided to appease it with an offering of the last slice of Voltron Pie. The book was most pleased. For now.


The day ended with Breath of Earth hanging out with like-minded buddies. I daresay, this is one of those pictures I could beam back to my past self and say, “See?! You did it!”

I’ll have to figure out how to make a time machine later, though. My book is muttering something about a new offering. I better take heed.

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. Her new series starts with BREATH OF EARTH this August.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Cybermorality: From Driverless Cars to Soldierless Warfare

Steve Bein continues his fascinating series on the intersection of philosophy and SFF. Previous installments include:
when your car should kill you
if genocide is always wrong
and making moral decisions in a vacuum

Cybermorality: From Driverless Cars to Soldierless Warfare

Steve BeinA couple of weeks ago on this site we looked at the ethics of the driverless car. This week’s Rolling Stone addresses the same issue in an article called “The Ride of Intelligent Machines,” starting with Google’s car and moving on to military robots in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The selling points of robot warfare are pretty obvious. Human soldiers can bleed, they can die, and these days they’re increasingly able to survive what used to be unsurvivable, then come home to cope with the consequences. Soldiers are expensive to train, house, mobilize, and feed. They have feelings, families, and—seldom mentioned in these discussions—moral values, which are sometimes at odds with the orders they’re given or the causes they’re sent to fight for, especially in modern theaters of war. That has real psychological repercussions, and the mental trauma of modern warfare can be worse than the physical trauma.

Robots aren’t subject to any of that. They don’t get funerals. They rarely make headlines. They’re cheap and getting cheaper. (This, incidentally, should make global superpowers nervous; state-of-the-art combat drones are affordable even for the tiniest nations.) Most importantly, though, their destruction counts as collateral damage, not casualties. Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell sums it up this way: “Robots can go into situations where soldiers can’t, potentially saving lives of troops on the ground. […] Since robots don’t come home in caskets, use of smart machines allows military leaders to undertake difficult missions that would be unthinkable otherwise.”

As an ethicist, it seems to me that this misses the most important point: right now, in the active war zones of 2016, robotic warfare only reduces the human cost on one side of the conflict. No doubt the day will come when robots and drones fight one another, but we’re not there yet. Today when we speak of robots taking the place of soldiers, we ought to remember that they only save lives on the side that owns the robots.Daughter of the Sword

Reducing the human cost of warfare seems like a good thing, and in some very important respects it is, but we must keep in mind that the human cost of warfare is our primary incentive for pursuing peace. A war without casualties, a war that only costs money, is a war you can fight until you go broke. It follows that the cheaper your robots become, the longer you can wage such a war—if you’re the one with the robots.

If you’re a human combatant, though, it’s a very different war. That war might not look so different from a Terminator movie.

I say this without political judgment. I’m not suggesting that the coalition forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are Skynet or that the Taliban and ISIS are John Connor’s resistance fighters. That’s nonsense. What I’m saying is this: it doesn’t matter who the good guys and bad guys are. When one side fights with robots, that side doesn’t have as much skin in the game. The moral calculations are different.

I think that’s a move in the wrong direction. I think anything that makes it easier to go to war is a colossal mistake. I think war is bad, period, and I think the less of it we have, the better.

I’m not a radical pacifist. I believe in self-defense and proportional response. What concerns me is the possibility that nations could be actively engaged in conflict in which only one side suffers all the casualties. In that scenario—the one we’re moving toward all too quickly—the winning side has little reason to stop fighting. Peace has never been the easiest solution. Anything that makes warfare easier places peace that much further out of reach.

Steve Bein

The Revision Chronicles: “Didn’t Push it Far Enough”

shearsThis month I’m going to talk about one of the most frustrating pieces of feedback I regularly got when I was first starting to write stories.

“Didn’t Push it Far Enough.”

Because, what does it mean? Hey, I came up with this nice little 1,800 word story, and it had all the story pieces there (I mean, gee, there were characters and they did things and there was, like, a resolution, what more did you want?) And editorial feedback would be, this is nice and all, but you “didn’t push it far enough.” (A similar critique is “underdeveloped.”)

The good news is that if you get this feedback you’re probably have a good kernel of a story. Maybe you have a good structure, or a neat idea, and the critiquer or editor can see the potential. But it’s frustrating, because how do you “push” a story, right? I mean, if it were a rock and a hill, there’d be some place to start.

Here are some things I look at when I’m trying to think of how to push a story farther.


  1. First off, does your protagonist hurt? Can you hurt her a whole bunch more? Turn up the volume. In general, as readers, we get attached to stories because we care about the characters. We remember tough decisions protags had to make.
  2. Now that you’ve “pushed” your protag into some more uncomfortable situations, step back and look at her again. Does she change? Does she change enough? Does she learn and grow?


  1. Part of the joy of SF is coming up with new worlds. Have you “pushed” your world far enough? And by this I mean, have you really thought through all the larger ripples that would come from whatever changes you’ve introduced? If you just say hey, in this world all kindergarten teachers are vampires and walk away, I mean, look. There would surely be more changes from that. First off, night school.


  1. Can your outcome have larger consequences than it currently does? Not every story can or should be about saving the world, but again, think about the ripple effect. How has your story changed the world it’s set in?


I looked back through my rejection logs for an example to share with you. One of my earliest (unpublished) stories frequently got this feedback. Thinking back, it was because I had a reasonably interesting SFnal idea (vaguely like a super-accurate OKCupid, written before there was OKCupid), but I chose to explore it through a series of vignettes.

Now if you slice a 3500 word story into 3 smaller stories, you’d better make sure they’re building to a greater story. (Read Caroline M. Yoachim’s Five Stages of Grief after the Alien Invasion for an example of how to link flash stories and make them build to one big story.)

Anyway, mine didn’t. Each story explored a little problem with different characters getting “perfectly” matched up, so A) I didn’t spend those 3500 words fully delving into one character and watching them change and grow. Then B, I didn’t fully explore all the ripples my software would make in society. And C, no, there were no larger consequences.

So yeah, I pretty much failed every suggestion above. Hmm, maybe it’s time to pull that story back out and see if I could do something with it now…

Till next time! This has been (dum dum dum) The Revision Chronicles.

A Good Book, Ruined: Reading Like a Writer

I have a couple of writer-friends who cannot critique a manuscript to save their lives, nor can they analyze what they are responding to in a work they admire.  Why?  Because they have not yet learned how to read like a writer.  Instead, they tend to plunge right in and get involved in the story, no matter what (even if the prose is uneven and the work doesn’t hang together).  They often describe this experience as being like watching the movie unfold inside their minds.

In order to hone the craft of writing, it’s important to learn to stop enjoying books. Or perhaps I should say, when to stop merely enjoying the reading experience, and start understanding it, and analyzing why you respond to a work the way that you do.  This will help you improve your own work, deliver better critiques for your writing buddies, and appreciate how the authors you admire craft their prose to best effect.

So, how do you ruin your reading experience?  Don’t worry, I’m here to help.  And I find, ultimately, that reading like a writer provides a different, but no less enjoyable experience.  The goal is to bifurcate your reading brain, so that, as you react to the work, you are also aware of the reasons for that reaction–in essence, you are observing yourself reading.  The approach is similar to techniques used in counseling or meditation, when you make note of your behaviors and responses, so that you can modify them later as needed.

A work of fiction exists on several levels: the one we tend to focus on is the macro level (the story, the characters, the plot overall), but the micro level is where the action really happens (the words, sentences, paragraphs and structures that create the on-going movie of the prose).

In order to understand the macro level of a work, one thing that helps me to break the movie is listening to the audio book, especially while I am engaged in some other activity–driving, house-painting, or what-have-you.  The physical activity means you can’t fully invest in the “reading”, and the fact that you are listening tends to blur the focus on individual scenes or moments, and instead give an overview of the work, the rhythm of scenes and sequels, the structure of the plot.

But when you want to understand what’s really going on, you’ll need to dig deeper–and this is what will also make you a great critique partner.  Reader reaction, especially to character, is often based on small word choices that build into the complete image.  If the wrong word or phrasing choices are made, the impression the reader receives could be completely different from what the author intended.  Placing two ideas close to each other in the text leads the reader to link them, regardless of what the author had in mind.  As the reader in this scenario, you need to be able to articulate what you are responding to in the text, as the writer, you need to act as a sleuth and discover the small details that are triggering your reader’s response.

Sometimes, it can come down to a single word.  The word “sneer” for instance is overwhelmingly negative.  If you intend for a character to be sympathetic, use of that single word could undercut the entire effect.

To hone this kind of close reading, I recommend re-typing passages from published works.  Sit with the book open in front of you, and simply type out what you see.  If you are simply reading the words, you may not pay attention to the sentence structure, word order, or accumulation of detail that creates scene and character.  Typing the words forces you to slow down–to freeze-frame the movie–and look at each comma, each word choice, and think about how they work together.  This can be a great way to learn from the authors you wish you could be.  The idea isn’t to copy them into your own prose, the idea is to understand how they do what they do, and think about how you can better use your own small choices as a result.  Learn from the masters–and also from the not-so-masterful.  If a book isn’t working for you, analyzing *why* it doesn’t work can be just as important.  While re-typing passages, I have found which authors are master of metaphor, and which are making lazy verb choices.

When you return to your own manuscript (or to your friend’s), apply the same kind of macro and micro analysis.  What is the overall effect of the prose?  What small choices add up to create that effect?

Thanks, E. C., for ruining reading for me. . .well, as I said, I find this kind of reading to have its own joys, including the thrill of discovery when you can see the mechanics of the magic–you can be inside the secrets of prose.  And if I do find myself sinking through the words, into the movie, then I know I have found a true master.  What techniques do you use to separate writer’s mind and reader’s?

In the meantime, you’re welcome.

7 Reasons why Readers Should Check Out Hamilton

Hello, internet! Last week I had the absurd luck and pleasure to win lottery tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway. I was already a big fan, and getting to be In The Room Where It Happens took my appreciation to  whole new level. I’ve already been spreading the love of Hamilton, so here are 7 reasons why Readers should check out Hamilton:


1. It’s all about passion

Wait for It - The One Thing I Life I Can Control

So many readers I know, myself included, respond to passionate leads, to characters who push the story forward. Hamilton is all about Alexander Hamilton’s ambition to raise above his station, to make a difference, to leave a Legacy. He makes enemies every step of the way, and the show highlights several crisis points for Hamilton, as well as the other leads (Aaron Burr, Eliza Hamilton, Angelica Schuyler), expressing their conflict through music.


2. Hamilton is a wordsmith of the first order

Hip-hop and especially rap, as musical genres, are all about the writing and the lyrics. Flow, imagery, rhyming. The rap and hip-hop of Hamilton is generally incredibly easy to follow, especially when you bring in the fantastic resource that is the Genius Annotations for the show. As the creator of the show Lin-Manuel Miranda says,

“It’s a story of someone who rises and falls on the strength of their facility with words,” says Miranda. “So to me, this was a hip-hop story.”


3. Repetition and Emphasis

My Shot

If you like reading for theme, if you get chills when someone says “Winter is coming” or “Orlando the Axe was following the fox,” or like how phrases come back several times in a book, taking on new meanings, then Hamilton is the show for you. Hamilton and the other leads have lines they come back to, lines they live by, lines they die by. Many of the songs reprise in full songs or as themes in later shows, and “Non-Stop,” the Act One finale, folds basically the entire first act back in, while hinting at the danger that is coming.


4. You Want character arc? We got character arcs.


Wait for It

Hamilton and Burr, the two male leads of the show, have truly impressive and complicated character arcs throughout the show, as they pursue their ambitions, as their friendly rivalry becomes enmity and more. It’s the story of Hamilton’s rise, his fall, and of his lasting legacy. Hamilton in his death scene is miles from the boy of 19 he is in the first number.


5. Hilarious comedy

Fully-amred battalion

Jonathan Groff (of GLEE fame) plays King George, who appears several times throughout the show, is utterly hilarious, even just on the soundtrack. It’s even better in person (Groff is a great physical comedian), but even in the soundtrack, you get the King’s warnings and exhortations to the colonies framed in terms of poppy breakup songs, and it is hilarious.

In addition, Daveed Diggs as Marquis du Lafayette and then Thomas Jefferson is a whirlwind of awesomeness. His reactions and fills enhance every scene he’s a part of.


6. It’s an AP History unit in 2 amazing hours

Hamilton was created in part to serve as as an education in the history of the revolution and the founding of our democracy, and it does a more than adequate job, especially for people whose history classes were boring, or even if they were just a number of years ago. Reading can be a great education, and this show is just as informative as any number of books. It’s inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, so if you want to go directly to the source, you can immerse yourself in the 800+ page tome.


7. Share the squee

One of the best things about reading, for me, is getting to talk about the books I love with people. And it’s no different with Hamilton. Sharing in excitement about the show online has been one of the best things about getting in on the Hamilton phenomenon.



So if I’ve piqued your interest, there are few better places to start than this YouTube video of Lin-Manuel Miranda in 2009 performing an early version of the first number at a White House poetry event.




Michael R. Underwood is the author of eight books, including Geekomancy, Shield and Crocus, and Genrenauts. His latest work is The Absconded Ambassador: Genrenauts Episode 2.

Absconded Ambassador cover