Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 2

Wednesday, January 18th, 2017

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”) and two by Allan Kaster for The Year’s Top Hard Sci-Fi Stories (Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork” and Gwyneth Jones’ “The Seventh Gamer”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Part 1 of their musings appeared just before the new year. Below is Part 2.


Gwyneth Jones: The Seventh Gamer

I’ve been writing about autonomous self-conscious AI for a while, in various contexts, and eventually you want to write the origin story. How did this new species of conscious being emerge from the number-crunching and the robotics? How could it evade being spotted, until it was truly free? I had my ideas about the huge digital power that runs a complex video game (getting so much input from humans, and learning to behave so humanly, just for the players’ convenience, with no experimental control), and then I went along to an Anthropology Department conference at the University of Kent, by the kind invitation of Paul March Russell. Two absolutely fascinating papers I heard there gave me the background for the story called “The Seventh Gamer”.

The most obviously significant was from Susannah Crockford, London School of Economics. She’d been spending time with a group of New Age believers in Arizona, and reported the story of one of them, a retired lawyer, who had decided to leap from a sacred rock formation (anciently sacred, NB), on a certain day, convinced that by doing this he would open a portal into another dimension, and pass through it. (In a sense he was absolutely right, as the drop was huge and the fall was certain to kill him). His plan generated huge excitement, locally and globally, online and in all forms of correspondence, among people who shared the (modified) Native American sacred beliefs of this group.

The other paper was from Dr Daniela Peluso, University of Kent: who got sick while doing field work in the rainforest with a little-contacted South American tribal people. The tribal doctor treated her as best he could, but he told her she had two malign spirits in her chest, and whatever he did by day, with fires lit under her cot, infusions she was to inhale, herbal drinks she was to swallow, warm compresses, massages, appeals to the spirits, etc ( kind of Victorian level of medicine); it was no good. Every night, something undid his good work. Dr Daniela’s paper was not, however, about this very decent doctor’s failure to cure double pneumonia, without antibiotics, and with the patient sleeping in a damp tent. It was about her own growing fascination with the situation, a fascination enhanced by high fever and the strange coincidence that somebody had given her Bram Stoker’s Dracula to read on her trip. So every day, the wise doctor battled with the evil forces that were preying on her, but every night, mysteriously, she grew weaker . . . She got so drawn into it all, and so keen to find out how things turned out, she was lucky they prevailed on her to get airlifted out in time.

Anthropologists are a strange bunch!


Kristin Landon: From the Depths

When Athena invited me to submit a story for To Shape the Dark, the requirements she listed intrigued me immediately: to write about a woman who is a scientist, and part of a family, in a society that sees science as a natural, necessary, even joyful endeavor. I set “From the Depths” on a world that is completely covered by deep ocean, aboard a large seagoing research vessel that is also the new permanent home of a few thousand people: scientists, the ship’s crew, and their children. Rinna is an ecologist who delights in her work and her small family. Then her daughter disappears from the ship—a crisis that leads to the discovery of intelligent life in the vast ocean around them. The story is the seed of a novel, but only the seed. Rinna and I have a long way to go!


Jack McDevitt: The Pegasus Project

There is probably no cosmic issue confronting us more fascinating than whether there is life beyond our world. And maybe none that is more apt to irritate an audience if a speaker comes down on the wrong side. If he tells a group of listeners that he does not believe in UFO’s, they are invariably disappointed. You of all people?

Go a step further and argue that we are probably alone in the universe, and they wonder how you can be so narrow-minded? The lone argument so far that favors life elsewhere is the sheer size of everything. Billions of stars in the Milky Way. Billions of galaxies across the cosmos. How could there not be life out there somewhere?

The reality is that, as yet, we have no idea how life began. What was the first step in the process? It may well be that wherever there is water and a stable climate, life will appear. Which would certainly support the position that it will evolve, as it has here, into intelligent beings. The reality however is that we’ve been watching for indications of intelligent life for a long time, and aside from UFO accounts, we have nothing. Not even an artificial radio signal, despite the fact that we’ve been listening since the beginning of the 20th century.

It’s possible that the process that produces life has an extremely unlikely component, perhaps something with only one chance in trillions of appearing in the mix, even when the bulk of the chemistry is present. We won’t really know about that until somebody figures it out. Life can’t be something with even a reasonable likelihood of occurring or we’d see it happening occasionally on our world. Or somebody would have figured it out and demonstrated how life happens. So maybe we are alone.

Where will we be if we continue our search for centuries to come? If we develop FTL vehicles and find nothing out there but empty planets? That’s the world of the Pegasus Project. The world Ronda and Emily live in. What would it be like when, after thousands of years, the first signal comes in? And they are closest to the point of origin?


Anil Menon: Building for Shah Jehan

As a college student in India, I had several close friends, male and female, who were all going to do great things. Somehow it didn’t turn out that way. Once they were going to build starships. Now they delouse code, say, for some smiling American tyrant. But they are content nonetheless. Or mostly content. Or not particularly discontent. It is hard to tell the difference between words these days. Thing is, I had already met this genre of friends in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. They appear in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. I suppose Eliana Ferrente’s My Brilliant Friend is also about this shouldn’t-be-sad-but-is encounter between two childhood friends who are no longer really friends. I can’t do anything to change the past and writing the story didn’t make me feel any better, but I am glad I wrote the story.


Melissa Scott: Firstborn, Lastborn

“Firstborn, Lastborn” was a story I didn’t expect to write. I’d been delighted to see that Athena Andreadis was taking submissions for a second anthology, and was batting around a number of ideas, but my mother was ill that spring, and I ended up having to tell Athena — with great regret! — that I probably wasn’t going to have anything for her this round. She was kind enough to assure me that I could have every minute of the deadline, and to leave me on the mailing list, which kept the anthology in the forefront of my mind.

And then, three weeks before the submissions window was to close, I had an idea. It arrived almost whole, a synthesis of several different stories that hadn’t yet gelled. I had the characters, Anketil and Irtholin, their situation, their conflict; I could see how to shape the resolution, bitter though it had to be. By the time I had hammered out a draft, though, I’d lost the shape of the story. I finished it four days before the deadline, read it over, and very nearly gave it up entirely. I’d had to drop so many things, nothing made sense, it was all a disaster — I went to bed planning to email Athena an apology rather than a story.

The next morning, I read it again, and thought maybe it hung together better than I’d originally thought. I put in a call to a set of friends who will read rough drafts on short notice, and got both reassurance and a practical list of things that were unclear. (These are the best friends any writer can have, and deserve more chocolate than I can provide.) I sweated through a final draft, and sent the story in two days before the absolute deadline, unsure if it even met the parameters of the anthology. I’ve never been happier to get an acceptance!


Vandana Singh: Of Wind and Fire

During a crisis-laden, sleep-deprived period of my life that seemed to go on for months, I remember being so tired that I would keep tripping and half-falling around the house. Being a physicist means you can’t divorce the everyday from the physics, so naturally all this falling about made me think incessantly about gravity. Such a familiar force in our lives, and we’re hardly aware of it. During frequent wakings in the night, my over-tired brain would come up with strange scenarios, including one of perpetual falling. What would it be like to live an entire life where one is falling?

For the longest time I’d also wanted to write a story about a world where magnetism is a dominant force, on the scale, locally at least, of gravity itself. But when I started to write the first paragraph of what would eventually become “Of Wind and Fire,” I had no idea that magnetism would come in also. All I had in my imagination was a woman who lived her entire life falling, and I had to write the story to find out more about her.

I decided in this story to stick with the most familiar and mundane physics, Newtonian physics. So we have falling objects, and the effects of air resistance, and magnetism, nothing that would be unfamiliar to anyone who has taken a basic physics course. Unlike many of my stories, where I extend familiar physics or invent something entirely new, this story is set firmly in our universe. But despite the constraints of physics, there is still room for a wildly different world – consider how variegated are the four-thousand-odd extra-solar planets that have been discovered!

The margins within which classical physics allows us to build worlds are broad and generous. What I wanted to explore here was Vayusha’s gradual realization of patterns in the world, regularities that hint of order, of economy of principle underlying the bewildering diversity of the phenomena she experiences. I wanted to experience with her the wonder that even good old Newtonian physics reveals as inherent in the universe. And I wanted to see what would happen to her when her realizations led her to think forbidden thoughts, to go against her social conditioning. Her thoughts and actions are the seed of a paradigm shift, something that will potentially change the way her people think about the world, and how they live in the world.

Of course Newtonian physics arises in our world in a particular historical and cultural context. Vayusha’s explorations will likely lead her to a different framing of the same phenomena. If I write a sequel, it will involve her constructing such an alternative formulation or framing. But that is another story!

To Shape the Dark: Liner Notes, Part 1

Tuesday, December 27th, 2016

To Shape the Dark, the younger sibling of The Other Half of the Sky, focusing on women scientists doing science not-as-usual, has become as widely acclaimed as its illustrious predecessor: among other recognitions, it won a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and two of its stories have been selected by Gardner Dozois for his Year’s Best SF 2016 (Melissa Scott’s “Firstborn, Lastborn” and Shariann Lewitt’s “Fieldwork”).

To deepen the readers’ enjoyment of the antho stories, I asked the contributing authors to share thoughts about their works. Below are some of their musings. More musings will appear after the new year.


Constance Cooper: Carnivores of Can’t-Go-Home

I decided to write about a botanical survey after hearing my husband’s stories of childhood trips with his dad the botany professor, driving across the country with bundles of specimens tied to the roof of the car. What, I wondered, would it be like to do that on an alien planet? For me, it was a short step from there to giant carnivorous plants and a murder mystery.

On a deeper level, I tried to imagine how it would feel to grow up knowing you were a stranger on your planet—not part of the fossil record, not related to any local species, separated from the animals and plants that have been part of human culture for millennia. And what if the humans weren’t there by choice? How would that affect people’s attitudes toward their world? My botanist characters are among those who’ve embraced their new home. They find their work so involving that they can’t stand to leave it–even to take a shower after getting slimed by an enormous pitcher plant.


M. Fenn: Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water

My story “Chlorophyll Is Thicker than Water” got its start with a suggestion from my alpha reader and husband Roy, who wanted me to write a tale about an old woman who was known as a plant wizard in her community, but there was more to her knowledge than anyone suspected. My first thought was witchcraft, but doing some research into the science of plant intelligence inspired me to make my characters be scientists conducting their own research. Choosing to make these women Japanese-Americans who had been interred during World War II came about because of my reading about George Takei’s play Allegiance. What started as a minor point of back story eventually manifested into strong motivation for my characters.

Also, I love writing about old women. They just don’t have time for anyone’s silliness. While Susan and Hina bear little if any resemblance to the witches in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, Granny Weatherwax and Gytha Ogg were certain influences in the creation of my own powerful old women. A point of interest that some might find amusing: while all the human characters are fictional and not based on any living person that I know, the parrot who lives at Whitman’s Feed Store in North Bennington, Vermont, is very real, although not named Tony.


C. W. Johnson: The Age of Discovery

I have been writing a sequence of stories revolving around a particular technology, the Casimir pump (which is not real, but the Casimir effect is), and had vaguely thought of a story line involving some of the first applications. I wanted it to be a story about the love of discovery, and wanting to invert the commonplace trope of the heroic lone inventor, I wanted to place it in the context of heavily bureaucratized research. I needed my protagonist to have a foil, and I realized the best additional context to the love of discovery is the discovery of love. From these pieces I wove, with many fits and false starts, my plot.


Jacqueline Koyanagi: Sensorium

The central concept for Sensorium is that of communication across umwelts. If it is a fundamentally unique cognitive experience to be a particular species, then language alone falls short as a vehicle for cross-species communication. I wanted to briefly explore what might happen when those cognitive barriers are broken down technologically–particularly to the people who submit to a neural connection that dissolves the stark delineation of “the individual” that we are accustomed to. What does it mean for a mind if awareness expands beyond its natal umwelt? What changes occur when previously inconceivable sensory experiences are now accessible? What, then, does it mean to be a person? These are the questions that fueled Sensorium and the attendant books-in-progress.


Susan Lanigan: Ward 7

When I was approached by Athena to contribute to her new volume, To Shape The Dark, I was very excited but also a bit anxious. It had been a while since I had written short fiction that was longer than 1,000 words and I knew it would be necessary to construct a small universe in a short space of time. Also I tend to adhere to “hard” sci-fi rather than space opera, so I tend to stick to the near future rather than its more distant counterpart, just as I stick to the nearer past when writing as a historical novelist. Working with Athena was a pleasure as she proved to be a diligent and sensitive editor and I hope to repeat the experience again sometime.


Shariann Lewitt: Fieldwork

The moment I read the parameters about stories for TO SHAPE THE DARK, I knew I had to write about science that takes place in the field.  Most people think scientists wear white coats and work in climate controlled labs, with a rest room down the hall and a coffee bar down the street.  When I studied Evolutionary Biology as an undergrad, I learned about fieldwork the hard way, on a dig.  While I realized I definitely preferred climate control, rest rooms and coffee bars (and ended up in computational biology), I have always had the greatest respect for those who go out into the field and I knew I had to write a story that highlighted a way that science is really done–and that rarely comes to mind.  I had also just finished reading a number of articles on Europa, and a friend who works for NASA’s climate research group was posting pictures from his mission to Antarctica to drill ice cores.

Those things knocked around together in my head and out came Anna Taylor.  Irene came from a more complex and personal place, but also from a desire to turn around the SF trope on the “genius kid who saves the world.”  Because Irina is that kid–but she has to suffer the consequences as well, and later face her own very deep fears because she understands what drives Anna.  This story is immensely personal for me, both from a family perspective, and from my relationship to work I’ve done in science as well.