I’m pleased to announce that my story “Nexus” will be appearing in HUMANITY 2.0, an anthology scheduled for release in October 2016.
Alex Schvartsman, the anthology’s editor, describes it as a collection of “stories that examine how achieving interstellar flight changes humanity itself. Will we choose to upload our minds into a singularity? Enhance ourselves with alien DNA? Will our bodies remain the same, but our culture and societal norms change considerably to accommodate for effects of time dilation, or become subsumed by the more advanced alien societies? What will it mean to be human in such a future?”
The complete table of contents, including stories by Ken Liu, Mike Resnick, Robert Silverberg, and Robert J. Sawyer, is available at SF Signal.
The Half-life of Chocolate, reprinted below, originally appeared with Fae Publishing in 2011. Since the period of exclusivity long ago expired, I present it to the internet in the spirit of awesome halloweenishness.
The Half-life of Chocolateby Nancy Fulda
“Who’s been eating my chocolate?”
Felipe Delgado stormed into the kitchen and waved a package of ChocoSquares over his head. Manuel glanced up from his comic book. Father lowered his spectacles. Grandma kept clattering in the cupboards, cradling an impressive stack of serving bowls in her left arm. “Felipe, we go through this every single weekend,” she said, bending over to reach the drawer beneath the oven. “If you don’t want people to eat your junk food, put it in your room.”
“I did. This morning there were nine squares left in this package, and now there are only seven. So which of you is eating it?”
Manuel flipped a brightly colored comics page. “Felipe, you’re the only person I know who’s geeky enough to count his ChocoSquares.”
“Hey, I pay good money for these!” Felipe pulled one of the embossed squares from the package. “This,” he said, caressing its beveled edges, “is quality chocolate. Nothing like that cheap, waxy stuff you guys are always gobbling.” He tossed the bag onto the table for emphasis. “And I am tired of the whole family eating ChocoSquares on my paycheck!”
Manuel snagged a tortilla chip from the serving bowl at the edge of the table. “Move out then. You’re old enough.”
Grandma slapped Manuel’s hand. “Those are for the fiesta tonight. They put few enough chips in these packages, you know.” The last few words came out in a grunt as grandma struggled to open a second bag of chips. Her bony fingers tugged at the plastic two, three, four times before it snapped open and sent a spray of chips across the counter.
“Cheating swine,” she muttered as Felipe helped her gather the chips into a ceramic dish. “There’s nothing but air in those packages. These product marketers, these food companies... they’re nothing but crooks and swindlers!”
Father chimed in with his usual counterpoint: “It’s a waste of packaging and a detriment to the environment, that’s what. If they’d stuff those bags the way they ought to be stuffed, the garbage bill in this household would go down by twenty percent.”
Felipe retrieved his ChocoSquares from the table. “Really, Dad, I think that’s stretching the numbers a bit.”
“Maybe,” Father said. He set his coffee mug down with an imperious thump. “But I’ll be hanged if I let that garbage company wrangle one more cent out of me. Just wait until you see what I’m unveiling at Manuel’s fiesta.”
Felipe snatched his ChocoSquares and sidled out of the kitchen before he got cornered listening to Father jabber about yet another Grand New Technological Marvel. Halfway up the stairs he rattled the package, glanced inside, and felt his face pull into a frown. The number of squares had gone from seven to six.
“Cheer up, Felipe,” Grandma’s voice echoed up from the kitchen. “I bought plenty of ChocoSquares for the fiesta tonight.”
Felipe decided that strategic reconnaissance was required.
He hovered near the kitchen until Grandma opened the first package of ChocoSquares. (The patented EasyTear Freshness Seal gave her arthritic fingers no trouble.)
“I’ll take those out for you,” he said, and snatched the bowl from the counter as soon as the last ChocoSquare clinked against its ceramic edge. He carried it to the patio and set it on the most visible of the brightly decorated picnic tables. Paper lanterns shaped like jack-o-lanterns hung from strings overhead; Grandma’s way of celebrating Halloween and Manuel’s birthday in a single stroke.
“Check this out, Felipe,” Father said. With a flourish, he tore the shrink-wrap from a stack of paper plates.
Felipe watched his Father spread the plates across the table. “Uh, what am I supposed to be looking at?”
“Bio-degradable, thermo-plastic plates!”
Felipe stared blankly.
“When exposed to anaerobic bacteria, it degrades into compact, harmless materials.”
“So your solution to your garbage bill is to bury your junk in the backyard?”
“Just wait,” Father said. Felipe shrugged and went to help Grandma light the paper lanterns.
True to his plan, Felipe watched the table with the ChocoSquares all evening. If one of his family members had a fetish for ChocoSquares, Felipe reasoned, the guilty party would not be able to stay away from that bowl. And he—or she—would also eat a statistically significant number of them: more than the other guests, certainly.
He watched the bowl from the corner of his eye while greeting a stream of brightly costumed relatives. He watched it as Manuel—perched like a king on the comfiest of the wicker chairs, complete with one leg dangling over the armrest—opened his birthday gifts. He watched it as Father pulled out what looked like a dry-yeast packet and explained that it contained genetically modified anaerobic bacteria keyed to the starch component of the disposable dishware.
Then the unthinkable happened. Manuel picked up the serving bowl and yelled, “Grandma! We need more ChocoSquares!”
Felipe sprinted across the lawn and snatched the bowl from Manuel’s fingers. “That can’t be right,” he said, loudly enough to swivel heads in his direction. But the bowl was indeed empty.
Felipe checked the notes he’d been keeping on the back of his hand. “A fresh package of ChocoSquares contains thirty-five chocolates. You’ve eaten five,” he said, pointing to Manuel, “Grandma’s eaten two, Father’s eaten four, and other guests have eaten—” he paused for a quick tally— “Seventeen. That’s a total of twenty-eight. There should be seven left.”
Felipe found himself the object of several incredulous stares.
“You. Are. Weird,” Manuel said, and headed towards a new table. Felipe stood in a pocket of silence, the empty bowl clutched in both hands. It didn’t add up. He’d watched the ChocoSquares the entire time. They couldn’t be gone. There was no way for anyone to have eaten them.
At the other end of the picnic table, Father sprinkled his anaerobic bacteria packet onto a pile of used plates and was rewarded with a chorus of jubilant squeals from the children clustered nearby.
“Move over, I can’t see.”
Father was clearly pleased to have attracted so much attention. “It’s not gone,” he said. “It’s just been broken down into its basic components, courtesy of these little babies here.” He waved the bacteria packet for emphasis. “Accelerated biodegradation. It’s the latest trend in waste management.”
The adults in the crowd seemed more difficult to impress than the children.
“Is that stuff legal?” Aunt Lisi asked.
Cousin Fernando brushed at his pants. “What keeps it from munching the table? Or us?”
“Relax. The bacteria won’t eat anything except the resins they’ve been gene-spliced for. They’re non-reproductive and they have limited movement capacity, so there’s no chance of them multiplying beyond control.”
Aunt Yselda sniffed so disdainfully that her spectacles jiggled. “It’s probably toxic,” she declared. “These product marketers are always rushing new science onto the public before it’s been properly tested. We’ll all have warts tomorrow from eating off those infernal plates.”
Father was getting annoyed. “The material’s derived from corn starch. Perfectly harmless, and so are the decomposed compounds. You could practically eat this stuff.”
He sprinkled more bacteria powder. Another plate vanished to an accompanying crescendo of ‘Ah’s.
You could practically eat this stuff...
A pit opened at the bottom of Felipe’s stomach. Five seconds later he was back in the kitchen, squinting at the empty ChocoSquares package on the counter.
“Are you still obsessing about your junk food?” Manuel asked as he crossed the kitchen on his way to the bathroom. “I swear, man, I’m not the one who’s eating it. Maybe it’s gremlins.”
Felipe ignored him and kept examining the package. Not to his surprise, but much to his dismay, he saw that the EasyTear Freshness Seal included a hidden sub-compartment that ruptured when the seal was broken. If the bag was held erect, the contents of the compartment would drop directly onto the chocolate inside it.
“I had no idea these things were so popular,” Grandma said as she trundled toward the patio with a fresh bowl of ChocoSquares. “I think I’ll run buy some more. They vanish like hot cakes.”
Felipe opened the last pack of ChocoSquares. Sure enough, a fine brown powder dropped from the hidden compartment and settled onto the chocolate. Biting his lip in anxiety, Felipe ripped the package all the way open and spread the ChocoSquares across a white table cloth. He crossed his arms on the table, rested his chin on his hands, and waited. Manuel gave him an odd look on the way back from the bathroom.
After ten minutes, one of the ChocoSquares vanished. It happened in the space of a second: the embossed chocolate steamed, bubbled, and faded away with a barely audible hiss. Felipe’s hand struck the table with a thump loud enough to rattle the shutters. “I knew it!”
He ran to the patio, snatched the garbage-eating bacteria packet out of his Father’s hand, and compared it to the ingredients listing of the ChocoSquares package. Sure enough, slipped in between the glucose and the emulgator was a corn starch derivative called ‘anaerobic product XII-A’.
Felipe stared at the packages held side-by-side in his hands, appalled by the conniving schemes of commercial manufacturers.
The mechanism was so simple it was almost beautiful. The waxy coating on the chocolate squares inhibited the bacteria for a randomized time period. When the bacteria finally broke through, accelerated biodegradation made the chocolate seem to evaporate into thin air. If the manufacturers had done their job well, the reaction would also only take place at temperatures that indicated the chocolate was not currently being held in someone’s hand.
“So much work,” Felipe muttered, “just to scam people out of a few squares of chocolate. Do they really think they can make money that way?”
Grandmother swept through the kitchen with her car keys in hand. “I’m off to buy more ChocoSquares, darling. Is there anything else you want me to pick up?”
Father’s voice floated in from the patio. “I need more socks! I can never find a matched pair in my drawer!”
Grandma huffed. “Really. I swear, I only ever put matched sets in the washing machine. I wonder how they always manage to vanish before they get to the drier.”
Felipe’s stomach lurched. “Let me see the package for your laundry detergent.”
Basically, it's a branding thing. I usually write hard science fiction and secondary-world fantasy. This time I wrote a cutesy halloween book with interior drawings. The overlap in those two audiences isn't very big. (Well, ok, it's bigger than, say, the overlap between historical romance and near-future military SF. Because even hard science fiction readers have kids.)
But on a broad scale, people who buy my Asimov's reprints aren't going to be the same people who fall in love with Arthur and Genevieve. If I publish them all under the same byline, they're going to show up all jumbled together anytime someone does a web search for "Nancy Fulda". In other words, it makes it harder for people to find the books they're actually looking for, and the last thing you want to do as an author is make it harder for people to buy your books.
So. Universe: Meet Sherrida Pope. She's me. Only cutesy.
Humor as a Plot Adhesive – SFWA.org
Writing for Kids – David Walton's web site
Interview with Sherrida Pope – Darusha Wehm's blog
Also, my longtime writerly acquaintance Beth Cato is releasing a novella set in the same world as her Clockword Dagger series. Published by Harper Voyager Impuse, Wings of Sorrow and Bone is about a girl, some gremlins, and a plot involving Arena game Warriors.
The pre-order is $0.99. Seriously, one dollar. That’s a lot of awesome fiction for really not very much money.
So approximately three weeks ago (I know because I checked the timestamp on the concept art) I got this horrible urge to write a children's book. I was supposed working on novel outlines. (Have I mentioned that I sometimes have trouble focusing?)
So I made cover mock-ups and got my kids to tell me which ones they liked, and asked my daughter what she thought would happen if a little speckled owl decided to go Trick-or-Treating.
Her answer was that his cat friend who belonged to a girl named Lisa who lived in the house next door would help him out. (Obviously.) This was exactly the story prompt I needed to turn my vague ideas into a concrete narrative. So during the day I wrote novel chapters, and at night before bed I propped up my pillow and snuggled under the covers and wrote about shy little screech owls who fall into candy bowls.
No, because everybody said a chapter book needs interior art. Fine, ok, so I did interior art.
And at this point the entire project had taken far more time than I'd budgeted and had also turned out way cuter than I'd expected and so instead of this quickie little fun family project that I slap up on kindle and forget about, I find myself formatting and reformatting the stupid PDF files so we can make a print copy too, and by now I'm so invested in the dang thing that my stupid writer brain insists that we should promote it and by the way there really ought to be a sequel because the cat deserves a story of her own and...
So that was probably way too many details. But, yeah. Itty bitty easy reader. Five chapters, medium vocabulary, happy ending. This is what my subconscious does when I'm trying to avoid writing.
Dead Men Don't Cry is now on Audible!
This collection has been out in paperback and on kindle for over a year, so I suppose one could consider it outdated. But one would only make such considerations if one wasn't familiar with Joe Zieja's incredible voice talent. Joe's subtle narration brought a life to the stories - and in some cases, a new level of meaning - that isn't present in the text-only version. I'm extremely pleased that he was able to narrate my work.
This book is exclusive to Audible. I understand they're in the habit of offering a free trial membership for those who haven't quite decided if audio books are their thing. They have listening apps for smartphones, tablets, kindles, or those old-fashioned computer thingies, and Audible members who continue beyond the trial period are eligible for one free book each month.
So, you know... if you want to listen to some awesomely mindbending fiction, but don't want to spend any money on it, sign up for a free trial and listen to Dead Men Don't Cry.
This morning I asked my son what a cyborg was. He answered, as I suspect most people would, "A person with robot body parts." Then he cocked his head and added, "Well, technically a cyborg used to mean a person who's half-man, half-machine."
He's hit on something important there.
The public conception of a cyborg is changing. Where we once thought of cyborgs as overtly mechanical, like the Borg or the Bionic Woman, most people would now consider a pacemaker, an auditory implant, or a motorized prosthesis as qualifying factors. The prosthesis is particularly interesting. Although it is overtly mechanical, it does not interface directly with the wearer's body. In a similar vein, online articles about cyborgs have cited mobile phones and bluetooth headsets as qualifying cyborg technology.
The trend is clear. In in our modern parlance, you can become a cyborg just by wearing something.
I'm fascinated by this cultural shift, particularly in contrast to analogous trends regarding AI. Whereas artificial intelligence seems to be a receding target - defined almost exclusively as "things computers can't yet do" - the definition of cyborg is advancing at a phenomenal rate. Is everyone with a bluetooth headset a cyborg? What about wristwatches? What about pencils? They are all, in a sense, technological augmentations of our natural abilities. And we have interfaced with modern wireless tech so effectively that we are arguably unable to function effectively without it. (I dare you: Take away GPS, and watch modern society crumble.)
I first explored these ideas while writing The Cyborg and the Cemetery. Barry Bradfield is a cyborg by the old-fashioned definition, complete with neural implants and an artificially intelligent leg. But he's also dying, and it's made him a bit of a philosopher. He holds to the view that artificial augmentation is artificial augmentation, no matter whether it's a crutch, a walking stick, or a hunk of high-tech electronic polymer that does the augmenting.
I like Barry. I think I would have enjoyed having lunch with him in real life.
And quite unconsciously, I seem to have handed Barry the logical extrapolation of today's views on cyborgs. I thought I was creating an intellectual rebel, someone who pushed a logical argument to ridiculous extremes. Instead, I now wonder whether readers thirty years down the line will look at Barry's line of reasoning and think, "Well, duh."
I'm not too worried about becoming outdated, though. The Oxford online dictionary still declares cyborgs to be fictional. By my reckoning, that means I've got at least a decade before anyone dares call me trite.
Sometimes I get the feeling that aspiring writers -- and especially writers who aspire to write awards caliber fiction -- feel like they need to have a deep and meaningful premise from the very start. They agonize, they search their souls, they try to find a story that "means something". (Or at least, I know I did.)
And it can be done that way. But I've found that, like the cat who will curl up on your lap if you just ignore it long enough, theme often works its way into a story on its own. The Cyborg and the Cemetery is arguably one of my most thematic works, tackling everything from mortality to technological ethics within 3500 words -- and yet I didn't start out with a particular theme in mind.
I started out with an old guy in a graveyard, and a prosthetic leg that whirred on every other step.
Stephen King once described stories as artifacts, something which the author does not create so much as unearth. I've found that to be so. Little pieces of theme tend to emerge on their own as I write a story. I suppose I could leave them along, as little white bits of bone in an otherwise sandy landscape, but I can never manage to leave them along. I find them fascinating, so as soon as I notice one poking through the edges of my story I starting digging around it, trying to see where it goes. Usually, that ends up being pretty deep.
So... yeah. I don't so much build stories around theme as dig up the themes surrounding each story. It's more fun that way. And in my experience, the final product is at least as good.
The Cyborg and the Cemetery grew out of a simple premise. What happens if you hook a guy to a prosthetic leg, then require the leg to interpret, from his past actions and current behavior, whether it’s supposed to step, jump, stand quietly, or kick a soccer ball?
The answer is it can’t. There’s not enough information. In order for an artificially intelligent prosthesis to correctly predict how it ought to behave, you’ve got to piggyback it directly on the host’s neural system. It has to hear what the host hears, see what the host sees, and understand how the host thinks in order to predict the host’s actions. (This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Click over to google to find out about some of the truly creepy things that have been done with cats and thalamus implants.)
However, even that might not be enough. The Cyborg and the Cemetery takes the thought experiment a step further. What if the prosthesis was also hooked to the host’s endocrine system; that complex system of chemical messengers that so often gets overlooked when people try to replicate human sentience. And what if the prosthesis, after getting access to all this information, began to do some thinking and feeling of its own?
It’s a fascinating question that enfolds in unexpected ways.
Of course, none of that is what The Cyborg and the Cemetery is actually about. Smart prosthetics are backstory. The actual plotline involves questions about death, the scope of our humanity, and whether using technological gadgets as extensions of ourselves is unethical.
Originally published in Technology Review, the story is now entering a pledge cycle on Moozvine. That’s a somewhat risky proposition for an author to make. In exchange for a one-time payment from a subset of backers, I’m releasing this story into the wild. Once funding completes, I will no longer have the right to deny access to this story to anyone. It becomes the property of the public under a Creative Commons License. People can copy it, share it, put it on their web site and distribute it on billboards as long as they (a) don’t change the text and (b) provide appropriate attribution.
Am I nervous about this?
A little. But I’m also excited. Out of my current body of work, The Cyborg and the Cemetery includes some of the most fascinating ideas – ideas about who we are, and who we ought to be, and where humanity ought to go from here. Those seem like ideas worth sharing.
If you’d like to back The Cyborg and the Cemetery, you can find it at http://www.moozvine.com.
This made me do happy dances. Bryan and Jennifer worked really hard on that anthology, and I'm thrilled to see them getting respect and attention in return. Also, it's fun to have written one of the stories they chose for the book under discussion.
The Hugo winners will be announced at the World Science Fiction Convention in Spokane, Washington on August 22.