Monthly Archives: August 2016

Cybermorality: The Genius Pill

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

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

Murdering an innocent person is wrong.

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

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

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

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

You’re faced with a couple of competing principles:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

homer to einstein

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…and their patience!

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

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

TSA Pre-Check: Convenience at a Cost

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

Here is what I learned through the process.

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

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

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

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

Read the official FAQ on the program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

The Revision Chronicles: Two Final Pitfalls

shearsAfter teaching a class in revision, these are the last things I like to remind everyone:

  • Don’t write your story by committee.
  • Do send it out!

Let’s look at those in a little more detail.

  • DON’T write a story by committee.

Despite all my invaluable revision tips, in the end, what makes your story idiosyncratically YOURS is important. It is good to listen to your critiquers, but you are the final say. Especially if you and your stories tend to be an outlier (if you have an unusual voice, or subject matter that doesn’t seem to be in vogue) then you may have voices telling you to change. It can be hard to determine when you need to listen to those voices, and when you have to listen to yourself. You often have to KNOW the rules before you can break them (IE, you need to know WHY you’re going against the grain, and understand when that’s the right choice.) As Daniel Tiger sings: Keep trying; you’ll get better!

  • And DO send your story out!

I don’t recommend revising a story or novel for years and years. I look back at my earlier work, and I think: I would write that differently now. But is that always a good thing? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Yes, I have some skills now I didn’t then. But on the flip side, my current obsessions are different than when I was writing ten years ago. I was chewing over different themes. Just because I wouldn’t write something now, doesn’t mean it wasn’t good to be written then, and sent out then. I encourage you to do the same.

Thanks for following along with the Revision Chronicles! Check back next month for a new topic!

Making Alien Languages Alien

Last week I had the privilege of giving a small class as part of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium. The topic was some variation on the title above, and for about an hour’s time I went through just a few of the ways in which a writer could create the feeling of aliens through language (both the one they spoke and the way they managed to utilize ours). While these ideas are still more or less fresh in my head, I thought I’d share a portion of them with you here.

Perhaps the most useful thing to keep in mind in your quest to make your aliens sound alien, is that Language (note the capital letter) can be viewed not simply as a set of rules for communicating to one another (that’s what language without the capital letter is for) but rather as the methodology by which we organize reality and determine what is and is not important in our world. Sit with that idea for a moment, really roll it around inside your head. Because if you do, you’ll quickly discover the trick to it all. Namely:

    the key to having your aliens think and act in a truly alien fashion is to tweak their language and change how they understand reality.

I recommend you attack the problem on two fronts. Select a single difference and examine how it alters the way your aliens view the universe (relative to our own organization of it) and by extension how it influences their comprehension of our own view, and the errors in understanding that result. If you’re writing humor, alien language contains everything you need for farce. If you’re writing a more serious tale, you have the seed for interplanetary conflict and annihilation. Fun either way, right?

So, if you only need to change one or two things, where do you start? Well, I’ll give you a couple gross categories (sadly, I don’t have time or space to do more) and a few examples under each of these.

Let’s start here, because really, once you’ve gone meta, you never go back. Figurative language includes not simply using simile and metaphor (two types which I’m going to assume you already have a passing familiarity with) but other forms of speech including personification, allusion, and puns, to name just three. These are all so commonplace in our language that many of you may not even realize that you’re not speaking literally at all.

Personification effortlessly violates the selection restriction rules of language and so much more. Inanimate objects suddenly possess agency. Abstract concepts acquire base human attributes. But what if your aliens lack this miracle of the nonliteral speech act? Such an alien, presented with a phrase like “opportunity is knocking at your door” would be confused to find no one at the entrance to their space craft and struggle to literally parse these words (and likely go looking for this elusive knocker of doors, who is all the more wondrous if the vessel is in space!).

Likewise, allusion works for native speakers of a language because of common experience, allowing large chunks of knowledge from popular culture to be compacted down into a single word or phrase, evoking more words than a thousand pictures. Alas, none of those words are apt to be contained in the aliens’ literal grammar. While you and I might utilize an allusion like “Darmok and Jelad at Tenagra” to indicate an anticipated success at working with our newly arrived visitors from space, at best they’ll process that reference to mean here are three proper nouns that might as well be X, Y, and Z. Useless.

And don’t get me started on the confusion and error inherent in homophony, ambiguity, and other forms of wordplay that qualify as puns because of multiple interpretations of meaning. You can’t expect your visiting aliens to have mastered all these subtleties, so be wary of the chaos that follows when you unleash even a minor double entendre. The classic example of course involves a book that is less a manual for our enlightenment as a guide to culinary adventure.

Another approach is to take a look at the requirements we have for a system to even qualify as a language. Decades ago, the linguist Charles Hockett put forth a list of likely requirements (mind you, this list was not met with complete agreement by other linguists, but then we can’t get everyone to agree on climate change even as the waters rise around our ankles). It’s a long list but sharing even a few will make the point that any of them can give you a truly alien language; all you have to do is posit that your aliens don’t have that particular feature in their language and don’t see the need for it in ours. Consider just three of them: prevarication, traditional transmission, and displacement.

Prevarication means lying. Languages allow us not only to communicate with one another, but to communicate untruths. A popular conceit for telepathy is that it lacks the ability to prevaricate (though I’ve never really understood why, when self-deception is such a popular thing). Several authors have had a lot of fun with aliens who lack any understanding of lying (C.J. Cherryh’s amazing Faded Sun trilogy immediately comes to mind), and having human beings lie to aliens creates everything from comic scenarios of selling them bridges to propaganda that incites wars. Too easy!

The idea of traditional transmission is just as simple. It refers to the notion that language is passed down from parent to child. That’s all well and good for humans who typically rear children one at a time and have years to teach them about nouns and verbs, but what if your aliens spawn by distributing thousands of fertilized eggs and moving on, leaving their potential young to be born and fend for themselves (and presumably acquire language). What does this do to their world view, or their appreciation of ours?

And last of the three I have time to share here, displacement, is the ability to speak of things that are not in front of you. It allows you to invoke referents that are not at hand. Displacement is what lets us get beyond the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ But what if your aliens cannot? What if they require the thing in front of them (or at least a symbol standing in for it) to talk about it? How will we manage to speak to the aliens if at its most basic level, their language strikes us as one big game of ‘peekaboo’?

I could go on and on (and maybe in a future post I will) but my point here is a simple one: you don’t need to be Tolkien or Okrand and create an entire language to make your aliens sound alien. You just need to pick one aspect of language — out of the thousands that exist and which we take for granted every day — and turn it on its head or just turn it off. The results will contradict much of what you know about how language is supposed to work, and just like that the aliens will have arrived.

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

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

Follow him at and on Twitter at @klingonguy.

Ten Tiny Tips to Improve your Fiction

      1. Suddenly, the author removed all occurrences of the word “suddenly.” Why?  Because once you have said it, nothing sudden can happen—the reader already knows it’s coming.


      2. “Well,” the author ejaculated, “I think fancy dialog tags are cool!” Er. . .dialog tags are meant to indicate who is speaking, and not to call attention to themselves.  “Said” and “asked” disappear into the text for a smoother read.  I’ll let you get away with a few words per manuscript that express something otherwise non-obvious about how the quote is being said, like “whisper” or “murmur.”  Otherwise, use action tags that show us the character as they speak.


      3. Eliminate words that slow the text. Like helping verbs, “seems,” “very,” “really,” and anything “beginning to” or “starting to.”  These rarely add anything to our experience of the scene.


      4. Use strong action verbs. Usually, we just say avoid be-verbs, which is still good advice. But what we mean is, look for a verb with a clear, direct impression for the reader of what’s actually happening.


      5. Don’t jump POV for no reason, especially to say things like “she never noticed the shadow in the corner of the room.” If she didn’t notice it, who did?  Every time this happens, the reader gets tugged in the wrong direction—away from the character.


      6. Begin as close as possible to the moment when all Hell breaks out. This goes for books, stories, scenes, chapters. Readers don’t need nearly as much scene-setting as we often think—and many of them have little patience for it.


      7. When you’re in a deep POV, you don’t need phrases like “she felt,” “they saw,” “we heard,” “he thought,” “I knew.” We are already inside the character’s head, this stuff just gets in the way (see point 3).


      8. Don’t dismember your characters.  “Her eyes flew around the room.”  Doesn’t that dry them out?  “He lifted up his hoary head.”  (and threw it across the clearing. . .)


      9. “Lay” is a transitive verb which requires an object: The hen lay an egg. It laid one yesterday, it has laid one every day this week.  “Lie” is an in-transitive verb:  I lie on the grass.  I lay there yesterday.  I have lain there every day this week.  Yeah, I know, the past tense forms look alike.  You’ll figure it out.


        10. And perhaps this is just for the fantasy writers. . . a rider, literal or metaphorical, takes up the reins. A member of the royal family reigns.  No, it’s not just for fantasy– I’ve seen this confused in a few non-fiction articles lately.