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.

7 Gifts From the Writer’s Heart

gift‘Tis the season during which many lists of gift ideas appear, including, quite frequently, lists of gifts for writers.  But the trouble is often not what we wish to receive, but things we might be able to give–unique items we can offer because we are writers.  Best of all, especially for those of us ‘starving writers’ out there, most of these are absolutely free.  Here are a few ideas:

  1.  Dedicate a book to them.  This is a one-of-a-kind, and you can personalize it to show how much they mean to you.  Each book may have many acknowledgments (another option), but only a single dedication.  Even if it takes a while for the book to appear in print, the recipient will be honored.
  2. Tuckerization.  Named for Wilson Tucker, a science fiction author and editor who often used the names of his friends for minor characters, Tuckerization is a popular charity auction item, and it could make a cool gift. Maybe you can offer the recipient just a walk-on part, or give them two or three choices for a character named for them.  Strangely, for you mystery writers out there, people often love to see themselves as the body.  Go figure!
  3. Pre-release copy of a book or story–they will be the first person to read the work.  You could have it bound at a local copy shop, print the story as a chapbook, or offer a group of poems.
  4.  Write their own story or poem.  This one is especially fun for parents or children.  The work can suit their personality and interests, and can be truly exclusive.  However, it does take more time.
  5.  So instead, you could get a nice piece of hand-made paper or high-end stationery, and hand-write a passage from your work. This could be a favorite work of yours or a piece your recipient loves, or it might be a passage inspired by them or by something you share–a favorite place, a powerful memory.  Frame it. If your handwriting isn’t the best (as is often the case with those of us who write too much or too quickly) you could include a typed translation. Sign and date the piece.
  6. For the high school or college graduate, or anyone in transition, offer to brainstorm entrance essay ideas, edit a piece of theirs, or proof-read resumes and cover letters.  An extra set of experienced eyeballs could help them get just where they want to go.
  7.  And finally, for your writing buddy–or your buddy who wished they could be–offer the gift of your time as an accountability partner.  Commit to a daily or weekly word count, or to a brainstorming session, or a weekly Skype call where you write together for an hour.  What better way to show you care than to support another’s dream?

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.



Hitting the List: Learning from the Bestsellers

What does it take to reach the best-sellers list?  Like many writers, I’ve asked this question (and been asked in turn), and heard all kinds of theories, often presented as hard facts.  The answer is (as it so often is), it depends.  So here are some approaches to the bestsellers that may be of use.

  1.  There are a number of lists, and they are compiled in different ways. The New York Times list is still the gold-standard, and is broken out by fiction and non-fiction, and sometimes available in other categories.  It is a measurement of sales at about 3000 stores, now augmented for e-books with electronic sales as well.  But Amazon has their own lists, which can be shaved down into hundreds of narrow categories, meaning lots more bestsellers.  The USA Today list includes fiction and non-fiction together.
  2. The NYT list for fiction has about 780 slots per year.  Of those, only about 100 are up for grabs–the rest are pretty much locked up by the big names, and publishers will try to avoid launching certain kinds of books into the shadow of a big author’s release month.  Trad authors generally release a book a year, and the book will come out in the same month every year (the first Tuesday of the month).  This makes your odds of hitting the NYT list about 2 in 10,000–but that’s still better than your chance of being struck by lightning!
  3. All of the best-seller lists are a measure of sales velocity:  how many books sell in a short period of time.  So many books on the list are actually being out-sold (albeit very slowly) by other titles which are bought in smaller quantity, but on a more regular basis.  As an author doing self-promotion, you want to drive the most sales during the first week the book is out in order to achieve strong sales velocity.  (this is also what encourages Amazon to promote your book more to readers because it’s a primary metric they track)
  4. For the Publishers’ Weekly list, about 8 to 14% of the slots in any given year are debut authors.  Most authors in fact don’t hit the list with their first novel, but with a later one, generally in the same series or genre. Once one of the books in a series hits the list, it often brings the other ones along for the ride.
  5. According to the Stanford Business Institute, the first time an author hits the NYT list, their sales improve by 57%.

There have been some great works that analyze what makes the list and why.  The recent book, The Bestseller Code, discusses a computer algorithm that analyzed thousands of books, some from the list and some not and came up with some very interesting results about what the bestsellers have in common, and what sets them apart from the non-bestsellers.  Hit Lit takes a more longitudinal approach, developing a list of themes and ideas that appear in the bestselling novel of each decade for about the last one hundred years.

Aiming for the list?  Good luck–and hopefully I’ll join you up there!

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.

Mid-Week Rant About Connecting With Readers & Fans

Legends tell of a time when authors did one thing and one thing only. They wrote. Yes, they had to do it longhand, with paper and pencil or pen. I know what you’re thinking, it was barbaric, and even when technology blossomed and offered writers the opportunity to embrace typewriters and eventually computer keyboards and printers, it remained a simpler time, because authors still did one thing only. They wrote.

But the same technology that went on to give us global-find-and-replace and online submissions stole from us too. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough just to write.

Today’s authors are being told they need to connect with their readers beyond simply writing novels for them. Once upon a time this meant showing up at a convention and getting yourself on a panel or three, holding up your latest book during the introductions and bloviating to an audience for a fifty-minute hour. For the less extroverted among you this was never a good option, and in any case it’s too limiting. Here in the 21st century we need greater audience penetration across both time and space. In other words, you need an “online presence.”

What form this takes and how much time you put into it are critical questions and perhaps the best way to answer them is to talk to those who have gone before, but in the end you’re going to have jump into the deep end and see what works (and doesn’t) for you. Let’s look at some of your options:

  • Message Boards – whether the classic F/SF bulletin boards or alt.groups of yesteryear or their modern day equivalents, messages boards and listservs allow you to read through scores of posts at your own pace, responding to some, starting your own threads, getting caught up in flame wars, and never really knowing who is on the other side of some screen-name or user-handle. What’s not to love (other than the time suck)?
  • Author Webpages – some versions of popular wisdom believes authors need to have their own webpages. Nevermind whether your artistic taste is limited to words, you probably know a friend, or friend of a friend, who can throw something up for a couple hundred bucks. Imagine, a digital platform dedicated to you, replete with color images of your book covers and links (with affiliation codes) to take the hungry viewer directly to an online store to buy your titles. Updated at whatever frequency you decide, the trick question here is how are you going to lure readers to your page?
  • Author Blogs – static content doesn’t keep people coming back, I don’t care how gorgeous those book covers are. But if you’ve got something to say (or think you do), a blog gives you a soapbox all your own. As with author pages though, the challenge is reaching the people you want to hear you.
  • Social Networking Sites – these continue to evolve, some endure and some fade quickly. Who remembers Friendster? MySpace? LiveJournal (okay, I still have a LJ account, don’t judge me). The current king is Facebook. The threads aren’t quite as endless as message boardsd, but thanks to near realtime responses (not everyone is on deadline, so they’re free to hang out and patrol social networking sites and pounce!) with supporting links and NSFW images at everyone’s fingertips the vitriol can be even more vicious and escalate quickly. This to me is the irony behind Facebook’s use of the term “Friend,” but I digress. Still, a compelling post could be “shared” and circle the world in seconds, garnering the attention of readers who had never before heard of you or your work. Surely that’s worth it, right?
  • Twitter – if Facebook is the free verse of social media, Twitter is the imposition of structure associated with writing sonnets. The joy of 140 characters is that even the longest post is short (although nothing’s stopping people from rapidly posting a long string of 140-character tweets to express more involved ideas or points). Personally, I’m finding it refreshing after the ugliness growing in so many threads of older networking sites. Your experiences may be completely different (but don’t say I didn’t warn you).
  • Newsletters – If you already have a fanbase, holding on to them between books can be critical; newsletters can be key. Subscription-based, your readers opt in or out at will. Part of the allure is the more intimate tone you can achieve with a self-selected group (compare a convention kaffee klatsch to a large panel-style Q&A). More, you can keep your followers happy by doling out bonus materials not otherwise available. These can be deleted scenes, ARCs, contests for Tuckerizations, advance viewing of chapters from a work-in-progress and so on. Yes, you could offer these on a website or social network site, but a newsletter puts you in control of who’s going to see them and when. Instead of relying on your reader finding your posts, once they’ve subscribed you’ll be sending the newsletter directly to their inboxes!

There are plenty of other options I’ve skipped over but the above grouping should get you started. You may want to do only one or you may decide to dive in and try a bit of each. Your largest constraint is going to be the time you can devote to the medium. And remember, whether it’s the witty twitter bon mot, or a semi-regular blog post with entertaining content, or a themed podcast, when authors show something of their personality, readers have the opportunity to connect at a deeper level. It’s that same illusion that makes us feel like we really know that actor whose role we’ve followed on television for years. Your goal is to create a feeling of intimacy, to let the reader into your life (or at least what you’re presenting as your life). Done well, you transform from just a name on the spine of a book to a real person, someone your readers might even come to care about more than their favorite characters from your books.

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

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

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

5 Things Writers can Learn from the Presidential Campaign

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

A campaign postcard for McKinley and Roosevelt for the election of 1900

1. Dialog is key.  A scene is so much more engaging when two people are in it. Especially if those two people each have their own agenda, and each is trying hard to advance it.  Pay attention to body language, setting, their reactions to each other and reactions from those around them.  Also, dialog is a great way to build tension on a variety of levels.  A debate is a heck-of-a-lot more entertaining than a stump speech.

2.  Focus on your tribe.  It’s been said that all you need to be a successful author is a small, dedicated audience who want everything you write.  These are the folks who are going to share your work around, who will be eager to read the next thing, to cheer you on, even when things look rough.

3.  Nail the details.  Maybe you’re writing fantasy or science fiction or something nobody’s ever seen before.  Doesn’t matter. If you get down the details of place, time, character, they will create the image you need to build in the reader’s mind.  If you are working from any factual basis, like historical fiction or contemporary, getting the details wrong will blow the reader’s trust.  Make a few mistakes about the wrong things, and they’ll never let you forget it.

4.  Engage with your big ideas.  What is it you really want to say?  Are you saying it?  Are you working to your fullest to make the strongest work you can?

5.  Polls are important–but polls don’t know everything.  Yep, you’ve got to submit. You’ve got to get the work out there to be read, and sometimes it won’t stick.  The editor rejects it, the readers give it low reviews (or worse, no reviews), it comes out the same day as something else that distracts the world from your great work.  Take what you can from these experiences, but maintain faith that your work is worthy and that, even if you didn’t win today, if you keep working, you’ll get a chance to rise again.

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.