If you’re here because I wrote the novel Semiosis, welcome!
You might also enjoy the website devoted entirely to the novel with scenes and information that didn’t make it into the book, associated fiction and essays, the full Constitution, and a blog.
You can find it here:
In front of Spain's National Library in Madrid, a statue of Miguel de Cervantes stands with one foot resting on a pair of books. One of them is spine-out, and we can read its title: Amadís de Gaula
(Amadis of Gaul).
That book tells the story of Amadis, from the fictional kingdom of Gaul, who was the greatest knight in the world. This Spanish novel of chivalry, written by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo and published in 1508, became Europe's first best-seller. It was reprinted nineteen times, translated into seven languages, spawned forty-four direct sequels in several languages, and fueled an entire genre that lasted a century. (I also translated it into English
.) Most notably, around 1600, it inspired Don Quixote of La Mancha.
The second half of Don Quixote
was published 400 years ago in 1615.
In many ways, Cervantes satirizes (or pays homage to) that tale, including a characteristic element of novels of chivalry that began with Amadis of Gaul.
An earlier version of Amadis
had existed since the 1300s in the form of a three-book novel, but Montalvo's edition was different, as he explains in his prologue:
“I corrected these three books of Amadis,
such as they could be read, due to poor writers or very corrupt and dissolute scribes, and I translated and added a fourth book and a sequel, Exploits of Esplandián,
which until now no one has seen. By great good fortune, a manuscript was discovered in a stone tomb beneath a hermitage near Constantinople, and it was brought by a Hungarian merchant to eastern Spain in such ancient script and old parchment that it could only be read with much difficulty by those who knew the language.”
Of course, Montalvo himself wrote the fourth book and Exploits de Esplandián
(Sergas de Esplandián). Why lie about it? Because, as he himself put it, the novel “had been considered rank fiction rather than chronicles.” By proclaiming it an ancient story and perhaps even forgotten history rather than fiction, it could obtain the status of works by Homer and Cicero.
He doesn’t seem to have fooled anyone, but he did set a pattern. Supposedly, the manuscript for the sequel Lisuarte de Grecia
(Lisuarte of Greece) by Juan Díaz (1514) had been written in Greek in Constantinople and taken to Rhodes when the city fell to the Ottomans. Amadis de Grecia
(Amadis of Greece) by Feliciano de Silva (1530) had been found in a wooden box behind a wall in a cave in Spain, hidden during the Moslem invasion in 711. Silves de la Selva
(Silves of the Jungle) by Pedro de Luján (1546) was encountered in the magical sepulcher of Amadis himself, written in Arabic.
And so on. Manuscripts were discovered in distant castles and during voyages to far-off lands. Some were written in Hungarian, Latin, Tuscan, German, Chaldean, and "Indian" (Sanskrit, perhaps). A few were even supposedly written by characters from earlier novels.
Among the many jokes in Don Quixote
whose punchline we have forgotten today is the one in Chapter IX. It recounts how, in a market in Toledo, a boy was selling some old paper to be reused. Cervantes looked at one of the pieces of paper, a pamphlet, and it turned out to be part of the History of Don Quixote of La Mancha,
written in Arabic by Cide Hamete Benengeli. He purchased a translation of the pamphlets for two pecks of raisins and two bushels of wheat. This discovered manuscript, Cervantes claimed, became the basis of the rest of the first part of his novel.
Rather than being found in some exotic place after a search filled with drama, difficulty, and great cost, Don Quixote
was rescued from the garbage and translated on the cheap.
Besides that satire in Quixote,
there's another joke based on one of Montalvo's books that we’ve forgotten to laugh at. An imaginary island described in Exploits of Esplandian
overflowed with gold and was ruled by a califa. Spanish conquistadors had read many novels of chivalry and sometimes compared the wonders of the New World to the marvels in those books, but when they sailed up the western coast of what we now call Mexico, they found a place that offered little besides rocks and condors. To entertain themselves, they started calling that barren land after the fabulously rich island in the book: “California.”
— Sue Burke
This article was also published in the Fall 2015 issue (pdf)
of The Source,
a quarterly publication of the American Translators Association Literary Division.
I’ve read all the short stories nominated for this year’s Nebula Awards
, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The awards, which include novels, novellas, novelettes, game writing, dramatic presentation (television, movies, etc.), and young adult books, will be presented May 18 in Los Angeles.
I’m sorry to say I loved only two of them. As a member, I must vote for one (ranked voting is for the Hugos, not the Nebulas), and here’s my vote:“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex 2/6/18)
My heart was in my throat, hoping the witch librarian would help the troubled boy find the book he needed to escape his life, and the boy would accept the magic that the book had to offer him. I read this slowly, knowing it was a short story and would end soon, trying to give myself more time to enjoy it. Magic, indeed.
My opinions of the other stories, ranked in order of preference:Second place: “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark (Fireside 2/18)
The story encompasses nine short biographies of the slaves whose teeth came to be part of Washington’s dentures. (True story: Washington had dentures made of human teeth.) Since they form an alternate history of a world in which there are various kinds of magic, I kept expecting the consequences of this magic to change the sweep of history, but they did not. Still, well worth reading.Third place: “And Yet” by A. T. Greenblatt (Uncanny 3–4/18)
A visit to a haunted house led to disaster for a boy. Now an adult, he returns. The house is still haunted, but he might be able to beat its time-space mutations. The real story is the protagonist’s personal history of his unhappy family, shortcomings, and childhood disasters. This is done well, yet it feels familiar, resembling quite a few other literary short stories I’ve read. Perhaps unhappy families can be alike, too.Fourth place: “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed 1/18)
A boy discovers the cost of magic, and he learns that good intentions do not overrule cold cause and effect. The fable-like telling feels too distant, and the story seems familiar. There are no new stories, true, but perhaps a more detailed, close-up telling could have revealed new contours of yearning within an old idea.Nope: “Going Dark” by Richard Fox (Backblast Area Clear)
A military commander must turn off a humanoid robot that was badly injured in the line of duty. Up until that moment, the commander has shown the emotional response of a turnip, yet he suddenly sinks into bathos. This story got on the ballot through the not-a-slate 20BooksTo50K® slate. It has some merit, but it’s not ready for prime time and is not one of the year’s five best short stories. It shouldn’t be on the ballot.Nope: “Interview for the End of the World” by Rhett C. Bruno (Bridge Across the Stars)
An asteroid is about to destroy the Earth, and a rich man with a rocket must pick the three thousand people who will escape death and perpetuate humanity. This is a cliché within a cliché, and poorly told at that. The story is another on the not-a-slate 20BooksTo50K® slate, and it doesn’t deserve to be on the ballot.
— Sue Burke
I’ll be reading “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons” as part of the Writers Aloud
series at Prop Theater on Sunday, April 7. The event, from 3 to 5 p.m., will also feature Johanna Drew reading “Ask Me for My Photo (my life in online dating).”
Free and open to the public, with refreshments, at 3502 N. Elston Ave.
If you can’t come, you can read my story at Clarkesworld
. It’s about battle between robots on Mars!
— Sue Burke
Here’s the cover for Interference,
the sequel to Semiosis.
The Verge interviewed
me about the book:
Burke picks up the story a century after the end of Semiosis
as a new expedition from Earth arrives on the planet, which threatens to upset the balance between Stevland, the Glassmakers, and humanity. The novel is out on October 22nd, and The Verge spoke with Burke about the novel, colonization, and why you should be nice to your house plants....”
As I said earlier this month, my husband and I were moving. We stayed in the same neighborhood in Chicago, we just relocated to a nicer apartment. Here’s the view from my new home office at two different times in the morning. I’ve been here less than a week, and so far I love it. You can probably guess why.
— Sue Burke
On Saturday, March 23, I’ll be at C2E2
, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, at the McCormick Place. It’s famous for its huge “Artist’s Alley” where you can meet famous and up-and-coming comic book artists, for its amazing
cosplay — and there’s plenty more to do involving games, anime, and family fun. It really is a good time.
I’ll be on a couple of panels as a literary guest. My schedule
:The Future Is Now
Science fiction and fantasy authors discuss their predictions of near-future SF: what has come true, and what might be coming to pass? What will Chicago look like 50 years or more from now? Featuring: Sue Burke, Cory Doctorow, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Alison Wilgus.
12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Panel in Room S405a
1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.: Autographing at Tables 41 and 42Magic and Mayhem in Science Fiction and Fantasy
How do fantasy and science fiction overlap and inform one another, and what constitutes magic and mayhem in both genres? How are authors breaking traditional rules of the genres and finding new ways to explore other worlds, or putting some extra magic in our own world? Featuring: Cory Doctorow, Mary Robinette Kowal, Alison Wilgus, Mirah Bolender, Sue Burke, and S. A. Chakraborty.
3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.: Panel in Room S405a
4:15 p.m. to 5:15 p.m.: Autographing at Tables 41 and 42
That one-word secret to decluttering: move.
You pick up a possession, hold it in your hands, then stuff it into a box. Or chuck it.
That’s what I’m doing. My husband and I aren’t moving far, only four blocks away into a different apartment here in Chicago. It’s bigger and has a nicer view; our current apartment is crammed between two other buildings and a train embankment.
This won’t be an especially complicated move. Some of you may recall that in summer of 2016, we moved from Madrid, Spain, to Chicago, Illinois. That was complicated.
In Illinois, you pay your movers by the hour of labor. In overseas moves, you pay by the bulk and weight of the shipment, and that price was about ten times what this upcoming move will cost. As you can imagine, the transatlantic move inspired extreme decluttering. We haven’t accumulated much since, so very little will be chucked or given away this time, and the process will be simple: shovel everything into boxes, and then, in the new place, dump the boxes out. This includes about a thousand books (not counting e-books). They’re our dearest possessions.
If you don’t hear a lot from me during March, that’s because I’m elbow-deep in cardboard boxes. I expect everything to go well and, in the end, I’m sure it will spark joy.
— Sue Burke
has been nominated for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award. I am honored — and awed by the other nominees. Perhaps it will impress the judges that the cover art of my book features genuine tentacles.The Kitschies
, a British award, describes itself as a way to reward “the year’s most progressive, intelligent and entertaining fiction that contain elements of the speculative or fantastic.” The Golden Tentacle Award is for debut authors, and the full list of nominees are:Children Of Blood and Bone
by Tomi Adeyemi (Pan MacMillan)Frankenstein In Baghdad
by Ahmed Saadawi (Oneworld)Semiosis
by Sue Burke (Harper Voyager)Sweet Fruit, Sour Land
by Rebecca Ley (Sandstone Press)The Poppy Way
by R.F. Kuang (Harper Voyager)
Other Kitschies award categories are Red Tentacle for the best novel, Inky Tentacle for the best cover art, Invisible Tentacle for the best natively digital fiction, and Black Tentacle awarded at the judges' discretion.
The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony in London on April 15.
Don Quixote de la Mancha
, by Miguel de Cervantes, changed the way Spain thought about itself. It also made Spain reject any sort of non-realism in fiction, such as science fiction and fantasy, for centuries to come.
Published in 1605, the novel Don Quixote
tells the story of a poor, elderly nobleman driven mad by the fantasy novels of his day, which depicted brave knights and their dazzling deeds. The nobleman adopts the name Don Quixote and sets off on quests. In chapter VIII he famously mistakes windmills for terrible giants and attacks them. In chapter XLI, he is tricked into believing that an enchanted wooden horse has the power to carry him and his squire Sancho Panza through the sky.
Cervantes’s novel appeared when Spain was in a period of desengaño
or “disillusionment” after imperial losses, government bankruptcy, a deadly plague, failed harvests, economic disaster, and the defeat of the Invincible Armada. The nation had attempted to fulfill grand ambitions only to discover that it had been tilting at windmills. The novels that Cervantes’s fictional character read were real books that had, a generation earlier, inspired the conquistadors in their exploits: the state of California is named after an imaginary caliphate in one of those books, The Exploits of Espandian,
which was the sequel to Amadis of Gaul
. Ambition was not enough, though, and eventually fantasy gave way to sad reality.Don Quixote
changed the way Spain thought about itself — and about literature.
“The problem with Spanish science fiction starts with Quixote
,” the editor of a Spanish science fiction ‘zine told me. “Of course, it was a satire of the fantasy adventure novels of its day, and ever since then, perhaps because the satire was so biting, Spain has been the home of realism in fiction.”
School children were taught to scorn those novels of chivalric quests, speculation, and mysterious unknown lands, if they were taught about them at all. Still, a few writers always experimented with science fiction and fantasy, and in the 20th century, books from outside Spain began to inspire a generation.
“Fantastic” literature — science fiction, fantasy, and horror — was slow to gain acceptance as worthy literature, but in the 1980s and 1990s a growing number of authors encouraged each other and carved out a niche. In the 21st century, books like the Harry Potter
series appealed to massive numbers of young readers, to the surprise of established publishers and to the delight of the small publishers who had taken a chance on those novels and cashed in.
Just as in the English-speaking world, Spanish “mainstream” literature still remains leery of too much imagination. But it can no longer bar the door to respectability. Readers have had their say.
— Sue Burke