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:
I’ll be at Worldcon 76, the World Science Fiction Convention, from August 16 to 20 in San Jose, California. Here’s my official schedule. I’ll also be working as staff of the Worldcon newsletter, The Tower
.Autographs, Friday, August 17, 10:00 to 11:00 a.m., in the Convention Center Autograph Area
Also signing during that hour will be Charlie Jane Anders, Annalee Newitz, Richard Hescox, G. David Nordley, and JY Yang. This is a good time to come say hi, no autograph request necessary. I don’t expect long lines.Exploring a Wider Universe: Beyond the World of Anglophone SFF, a panel on Friday, August 17, 5:00 to 6:00 p.m., in 210B
A tremendous amount of high-quality science fiction and fantasy is being published around the world. In XB-1
in Czechia, in Nowa Fantastyka
in Poland, in Hayakawa SF
in Japan. In countries like Mexico, Spain, Nigeria, France, Italy, Hungary, South Korea, and many more. What is being published? Join us as we chart this universe of stories that English readers may not be familiar with, but should be!
I will be moderating. Panelists: Rani Graff, Yasser Bahjatt, Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, Crystal Huff, Yao Haijun.Beyond The Border II: Borders, Crossings, and The Lands Beyond, a panel on Saturday, August 18, 2:00 to 3:00 p.m., in 210B
Some of the first SF books were written in Spanish. Some of the most prominent speculative films of the last few decades have a Mexican as a director. Speculative fiction has taken many shapes in Spanish throughout history, and now we want to talk beyond the past and the present and into the future. We want to think about the ways SF written in Spanish might be evolving and the routes it is taking. What have the borders done? What are the similarities and differences with English and between Spanish countries? Have geography and language created something different on the other side? Where do we imagine it may be going? Panelists will discuss in Spanish with an English translator for non-Spanish-speaking audience members.
I will be moderating and translating. Panelists: Gabriela Damián Miravete, Gerardo Horacio Porcayo, José Luis Zárate, Andrea Chapela Saavedra.Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Reading, Saturday, August 19, 210G
Broad Universe is a nonprofit international organization of women and men dedicated to celebrating and promoting the work of women writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. In our Rapid-Fire Reading, members will read a few minutes of their works: just enough to whet your appetite. Come see how many genres we can jam into one group reading. I’ll tell you what would happen if I were a plant.
Loren Rhoads moderator, and quite a few of us presenting scrupulously timed four-minute-max readings.Poetry Reading, Sunday, August 19, 11:00 a.m. to Noon, 212C
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) was created in 1978 to bring together poets and readers interested in speculative poetry. Some of its members will share their favorite speculative poems in this reading.
G.O. Clark, moderator, Mary Soon Lee, John Philip Johnson, Sue Burke, Alan Stewart, Denise Clemons, Andrea Blythe.
— Sue Burke
HarperCollins has just published a paperback, ebook, and audiobook edition of Semiosis
in Great Britain
available today, August 9, and in Australia
The cover art, similar to the American cover art, features the leaves of a sundew plant (Drosera
). The dew-like drops on the hairs of its leaves are actually a kind of glue that attracts and traps insects. Then the hairs and tentacle wrap around the victim and excrete digestive fluid. The leaves are also sometimes referred to as “tentacles.” The idea of motile, flesh-eating tentacles on plants is creepy. I’m glad sundews are small, because they grow in many areas of the Earth, including the American Midwest, where I live.
The text hasn’t been adapted to British English, which disappoints me a bit. I would have enjoyed seeing the word “color” with an extra U.
British author Stephen Baxter was given an advance copy, and he said this: “Semiosis
combines the world-building of Avatar
with the alien wonder of Arrival,
and the sheer humanity of Atwood. An essential work for our time.”
I am blushing.
— Sue Burke
If you weighed every living thing on Earth, what kinds of things would weigh the most?
Scientists Yinon M. Bar-On, Rob Phillips, and Ron Milo tried to answer that question. They estimated the amount of carbon stored in organisms — that is, our planet’s biomass: wild birds, viruses, fish, plants, fungi, etc. Overall, it amounts to roughly 550 gigatons of carbon. Their paper, “The biomass distribution on Earth,” was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America
on May 21, 2018.
The numbers are rough but revealing. The authors come to several conclusions, including “the mass of humans is an order of magnitude higher than that of all wild mammals combined.”
You can see it in the chart. Humans amount to 0.06 gigatons. We outweigh wild mammals, which are a mere 0.007 gigatons; our livestock outweighs us both together at 0.11 gigatons. Wild birds amount to 0.002 gigatons, while domesticated poultry weigh three times more.
Plants rule the planet at 450 gigatons of life, but the authors of the study estimate that since the start of human civilization, the total biomass of plants has fallen to half its previous level.
You can read the six-page article at PNAS
or reports about the article at The Economist
Vox has created an especially easy-to-understand chart. The Economist explains briefly but carefully the enormous impact that human beings have had on the planet.
We rule the Earth and have changed it in ways we don’t notice day to day. The big picture is instructive. It tells us how a single species can entirely reshape the structure of life on a planet.
— Sue Burke
P.S. On a related note, this article at Bloomberg
shows how land in the United States is used: pastures, forests, crops, urbanizations, and special uses like parks, roads, and golf courses. Most land is used as livestock pasture/range. Considering the weight of livestock, this comes as no surprise.
The Hugo Best Novella Award goes to a work of science fiction or fantasy between 17,500 and 40,000 words — a fine length for speculative fiction. I’ve read all the nominees, and these are my votes. The Hugo Award uses instant run-off voting, so voters can rank their preferences: it’s all explained here
I’m a little harsh because I have to rank these. They’re all good stories and well worth reading, no matter what else I say.6. Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com)
This is #2
in the Binti
series. A young woman named Binti, who in novella #1
had gone off to study at a university and in the process ended a war and became a hero, must now return home. As in the first novella, there are complications with her family, with her culture, and with the larger galaxy — and she must also find out more about her identity. It’s a coming-of-age story with interesting details, but the narration rambles and the plot twists are few and not always surprising. The novella is also clearly part of a series and doesn’t quite stand alone. Although Binti is charming, the storytelling about her is a bit less so. Binti #1
won the Hugo and Nebula Awards.5. The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang (Tor.com Publishing)
In a Asian-like culture with two moons and fluid genders, twins are driven apart as children by their tyrannical mother, the country’s dictator, who rules with a bloodstained iron hand. Technology is managed by those gifted with the control of a sort of elements-based magic, and the tyrant and her family are among those gifted. But a rebellion against the dictator, using mechanical technology, brings the twins, now adults, back together. At times, the writing seems a little cliche and approaches purple prose, and some characters, including the evil mother, get little development. The story doesn’t quite end, either, instead setting up a sequel. This novella was a finalist for a Nebula Award.4. River of Teeth, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com Publishing)The Wild, Wild West
with hippos. A man of few scruples and a thirst for revenge assembles a crew with even fewer scruples and a variety of essential skills to clear the fierce, feral hippos out of a Louisiana swamp. (The prologue explains how they got there.) Repeatedly, the man denies that his plan is a caper, but it is: a predictable story right down to the many reversals, much like a matinee movie except that this story has a lot of savage murders. Despite the bloodshed, this is a fun farce of an old-fashioned Western — with hippos! — but I was hoping for something a little more solid and original. A Nebula Award finalist.3. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com)
At age 12, twin sisters, Jacqueline and Jillian, or Jack and Jill, find a portal in the attic that leads to a fantasyland. They’re glad to go. Their parents aren’t abusive, just self-centered and clueless in a way that makes both girls miserable and emotionally stunted, one a tomboy and the other a princess. In fantasyland, their roles are reversed, and they change. After a few years, they have to escape back to reality, which is where the story ends. I wish it had gone on just a bit longer. I would have loved to see how the parents reacted to their now older, wiser, and different daughters, one of them blood-spattered upon her arrival (not her own blood, either). Although the story was in some ways predictable, the plot twists sometimes felt more like knife twists and kept the story surprising. A worthy contender for a Hugo, and it’s already won the 2018 ALA Alex Award.2. “And Then There Were (N-One),” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Sarah Pinsker (not the author) gets an invitation to a Sarah Pinsker convention being organized by Sarah Pinsker, the quantologist, who has found a way to connect alternate realities. More than two hundred Sarahs come from a wide variety of divergence points, some very similar to other Sarahs, a few quite different, and from similar or different Earths. In one, for example, Seattle has been destroyed by an earthquake. Then a Sarah Pinsker is murdered. Which one? By which one? Why? Sarah (the author) does a good job of showing the weirdness of being surrounded by people almost just like yourself. This novella was also nominated for the Nebula, Locus, and Sturgeon Awards.1. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells (Tor.com Publishing)
I was among those who nominated this, a straight-up science fiction adventure. The narrator’s mordant attitude makes the story outstanding: a robot who has killed in the past, who is sure everyone hates it because of that, and who hates itself, too. It’s possibly clinically depressed and spends its time trying to lose itself in its favorite video series, secretly dreaming of not being a slave to a brutal, profiteering corporation. But it does its job to protect people on a dangerous mission, even risking its own life, in a way that those people didn’t expect. This story won the ALA Alex Award and the Nebula, and it was also my vote for the Nebula.
— Sue Burke
What a fine choice! This year all the Hugo nominees in all the categories seem pretty strong. This includes the novelettes.
, of course, are the awards presented at Worldcon — this year in San Jose on Sunday evening, August 19. I’ll be at Worldcon, ready to cheer the winner.
Many of the Hugo nominations were also Nebula nominations, so I’ve repeated what I had to say about them. In order from sixth to first place, these are my votes. If my comments sometimes seem harsh, remember that I’m looking for reasons not to rank them all as number one, and I’m ranking them all above “No Award.” That means that whoever wins, I’ll be satisfied.6. “Extracurricular Activities,” Yoon Ha Lee (Tor.com, 2/15/17)
A special ops agent gets sent on a secret mission to rescue a fellow agent. Our agent is supremely confident, and the story tries to be both tense and humorous. It felt like a caper, and obviously some people liked it more than I did. Apparently it’s part of a larger series, and it might have helped to know that setting. Still, to me the jokes seemed tired and the violence was not funny. I also don’t see what’s cute about sexual harassment just because it’s between two men. #MeToo5. “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A man in the process of transitioning from female to male gets turned into a vampire. The difficulties of his human-to-vampire transition become more complex due to his gender transition, and he struggles. There are hot sex scenes. Beyond the transitional complications, which echo the transition from human to vampire, though, there’s not much of a new take on vampirism in this story.4. “The Secret Life of Bots,” by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, 9/17)
A brave little robot, Bot 9, must exterminate a sort of rat through the bowels of a spaceship. As it happens, the future of humanity depends on the success of Bot 9, which in turn needs the help of other robots to catch the ratbug, and a few protocols are broken in the making of that improvised rescue. This story is very cute. I’m not a big fan of cute, but I will give recognition to a job well done. If you like cute, read this story. You’ll be glad you did.3. “Children of Thorns,” Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny 7-8/17)
In disguise, a pair of spies from the dragon kingdom under the Seine try to infiltrate the House of the Fallen Angels. The setting is a magically dystopic Paris, and the House is about to have its own magical crisis. It meets Bodard’s usual standards of tight writing, characterization, and plotting, with wonderful details slipped in. My only problem is that it feels like an opening chapter to a novel — a fine opening chapter, but there should be more. For me, that diminishes what is in every other way an excellent work.2. “Wind Will Rove,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
On a multi-generational ship, the older generations cling to what they recall from Earth or have learned about it. For the narrator, this means music. Younger generations grow rebellious, eager to create their own music and arts or to forget Earth’s culture and history altogether. These children know they will grow up in a static society on a voyage that seemed romantic to their elders but is confining to them. Despite the skill in storytelling, the focus seemed a bit off to me. I learned a lot about the narrator’s family and music, especially one particular song, but not as much about what is going on in the ship. The need to change and adapt became symbolized by that song, but the story got stuck on the symbol rather than a resolution of the on-board problems.1. “A Series of Steaks,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
This was one of five finalists for Clarkesworld magazine’s Reader’s Poll
. My story “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” was also a finalist. As soon as I read “A Series of Steaks,” I knew I was likely to lose. A woman in China agrees to make counterfeit beefsteaks for a client, then the deal starts to go sour. Three things impressed me: the quiet desperation of the main character, the philosophical musings about the art of forgery, and the thoroughly satisfying ending.
— Sue Burke
In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup soccer (football) competition, and before the games, the World Cup trophy went on tour across the country to try to whip up enthusiasm for the sport.
I was living in Milwaukee at the time, and a friend and I happened to go to a shopping mall where it was on display, so we paused to look at it. We weren’t big soccer fans, but how often would we get to see something that famous?
So we stood there admiring it on a stand near the central garden. A man in a suit who was obviously a security guard observed us impassively. I felt a little disappointed that we were the only shoppers who seemed interested. So much for whipping up enthusiasm. If it were on display in much of the world, a long line would be waiting just to get close. But back then Milwaukee wasn’t a big soccer town. Things might be different now.
The trophy itself is a big chunk of solid gold with a pair of green malachite rings around the bottom. I didn’t like the design much, which seemed a little knobby to me, but it was big and shiny – about 36 cm/14 inches tall, weighing 5 kilos/11 pounds. That much gold is worth around US$200,000.
To help with perspective, here’s a detail of a photo that shows the trophy being presented by then Vice President Al Gore to the Brazilian team, which won the 1994 World Cup. That’s what $200,000 looks like, to say nothing of the cost of everything else surrounding the tournament, which would be a number with a metric shit-load of zeros.
After we had stood enraptured for long enough, we went on to buy whatever it was that had brought us to the mall, and later stopped for lunch at a fast food restaurant. As we sat down, the trophy’s guard came in with a trophy-sized briefcase handcuffed to one of his wrists, and we guessed what was inside. He bought lunch and sat at a nearby table.
My friend and I speculated about the security. There couldn’t be just one guy protecting that much gold, right? Without a doubt, we decided, someone was guarding the guard, but we couldn’t figure out who.
And that’s as close as I’ll ever get to the World Cup trophy. I sort of ate lunch with it once.
— Sue Burke
I’ll be taking part in the 2U Salon, an open mic, on Saturday, July 7, from 7 to 9 p.m., at Second Unitarian Church, 656 W. Barry Ave., Chicago.
I’ll read a short essay about how much money Miguel de Cervantes made from Don Quixote.
It’s free and open to all, with light snacks provided. BYOB. Expect readings, music, spoken word, and dance. Visual or other artists are invited to do a “show and tell” and display their works. Drop in, enjoy, and share your talent. No registration necessary. It’s the church I attend, and we welcome everyone.
— Sue Burke
It’s Hugo Award
voting time, and I’ve read and weighed the short stories. This year there are no incursions from Puppies of any kind, and while for aesthetic reasons I’m not fond of every nominee, they all deserve to be considered the year’s best. In fact, many of the Hugo short story nominations were also Nebula nominations.
In order from sixth to first place (the Hugo uses a ranked ballot), these are my votes for the short stories, but reasonable people might vote otherwise.6. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand,” by Fran Wilde (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A visitor is led through an exhibition of what might have once cruelly been called a freak show. Beautifully written, the story effectively evokes the bitter anger of those on display, and perhaps it’s meant as horror reflecting the way society treats those who are different, but I don’t think it quite fulfills the noble goals of horror. Horror stories are modern tragedies, and a tragedy requires the protagonists to suffer for some fault within themselves. The visitor is tortured apparently to avenge the general cruelty of society, but the visitor’s participation in this cruelty is never established. As Aristotle argued in Poetics,
unmerited misfortune merely shocks us: it isn’t tragedy. I see this story as torture for torture’s sake, and there’s no merit in sadism. The quality of the writing, though, deserves to be ranked above “No Vote.”5. “Carnival Nine,” Caroline M. Yoachim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/11/17)
A wind-up toy robot mother makes great sacrifices to care for her robot son who has mechanical problems. The tale is obviously a analogy to what happens in real life to families with children with disabilities — a bit too obvious an analogy, perhaps, almost a parable, and the story never explains who does the winding up or why some toys live in a closet. Heart-strings are tugged, but logic is stretched, and that weakened the overall effect for me. Also a Locus Award nominee.4. “Moon, Sun, Dust,” by Ursula Vernon (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A farmer is bequeathed a magic sword by his grandmother on her deathbed. He has no use for a sword, magic or otherwise, however, and is quite content to go on growing potatoes. His humble candor carries the story, which is gently and delightfully charming. I rank it fourth only due to stiff competition. It’s well worth reading.3. “The Martian Obelisk,” by Linda Nagata (Tor.com 7/19/17)
As Earth is dying from a long series of natural and human-made disasters, an old woman is directing robots on Mars to create a monument to outlast humanity. It may be a futile gesture, but there’s not much else to do — then something seems to be stirring on Mars. This quiet story depends on largely unstated emotions to carry it, and those emotions lurk like leviathans: sorrow, defeat, anger, pain, despair … and defiance. Despite its brevity, it made a long journey across my heart to do battle with dystopia. It won the 2018 Locus Award for Short Story.2. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse (Apex 8/17)
An Indian guide for cyberspace tourists offers Native American “Vision Quests” that are as authentically Indian as the Lucky Charms leprechaun is authentically Irish, but white people seem fine with that. Then a customer wants too much. Unrelenting cynicism about commercialization and stereotypes underlies this story’s muted fury. It’s already won an Apex Reader’s Choice Award, a Locus Award nomination, and this year’s Nebula Award. Well deserved.1. “Fandom for Robots,” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny 9-10/17)
A sentient robot discovers an anime series about another sentient robot, Hyperwarp,
and becomes a “hyper-big fan.” Then it discovers fanfiction and makes friends. This is as funny as it sounds but also touching as the robot, which has no emotions, responds in a pseudo-emotional way and becomes accepted as a human on the internet. Both fandom and technology are efficiently dissected with a loving, razor-sharp knife. It was a Locus Award nominee and got my vote for the Nebula Award.
Good luck and congratulations to all the authors!
— Sue Burke
In 1996, when I was at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Workshop
, each class traditionally made a commemorative T-shirt. (This may still be the case. I hope so.)
Ours featured a design on the front evoking a video game. The boy mannikin in the illustration had certain sentimental significance.
The back, in keeping with tradition, listed remarks taken out of context from critiques. Critiquing stories was a main activity at the workshop, and we tried to be kind and helpful, but context is everything. One of these remarks was mine by the way, and I’m not going to own up to it. One of them was about a story I wrote, and it was actually good advice.
• I would really like to say something nice about your story.
• You should use a lighter shade of foreshadowing.
• The story was dances with wolves, bears, deer, and thunderclouds.
• Spirals down into madness and incompetence in a lighthearted sort of way.
• This story is about Emily Dickinson’s pivotal role in the space program.
• What do we want? THE PRESENT! When do we want it? NOW!
• You have everything you need; it all just needs to be changed.
• I also like gratuitous incineration.
• This story is Waiting for Godot,
but without all the action.
• I'm not sure that this story needs to have exactly what you want to say in there.
• What we need are some Zombie rules.
• This story is so well-written I bet you've written something I’d like.
— Sue Burke