Nebula Novelettes: Lawrence M Schoen – The Rule of Three (Future Science Fiction Digest)

An American-Chinese man receives a tantalising video — evidence of an alien visitor near his grandmother’s village in China.

“My mother had called me at noon. She passed along surprisingly good video shot by a local child on the blind neighbor’s cell phone. I could hear the kid’s laughing commentary as he panned back and forth capturing some trees along the riverbank before moving on to show the water and what looked like an enormous pearl floating there. The trees provided perspective. The pearl had to be at least two stories tall. It looked like nothing on Earth, and certainly nothing that had any business being in my grandmother’s backward village. Except that’s where it was. Not the place where an alien visitor, or an alien invader, would set down. There was nothing significant there, nothing of value, just a handful of people who—a lone cell phone notwithstanding—had never joined the modern world. Nothing but my grandmother.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The narrator’s grandmother is part of the Miao ethnic minorities in China and lives a simple agrarian life in the hills. The narrator’s initial puzzlement about why an alien would choose his grandmother’s village for first contact is answered as he discovers the alien has its own intriguing philosophy.

“It nodded at me and smiled. “If I make a thing, I am one and the thing is full of the life that I gave it. If I pass that thing to you, you are two, and the thing still feels its connection to me and so retains that life. If you give the thing to another, that person is three. The thing still holds the link to me, my life still resonates within it. The distance does not matter, but the number does. Three is the limit. Pass the thing I made on to a fourth person and it can no longer detect me. The connection is broken. Unlife rushes in to fill the void. As a result it cannot be easily perceived. It is dark, inert.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

The alien’s “Rule of Three” is not simply a preference against mass manufactured goods or modern consumerism but something that literally shapes its* powers of perception. It can barely perceive the narrator when they first meet and only then because a bout of food poisoning had meant the narrator had only eaten his grandmother’s food recently.

As well as limiting the alien’s powers of perception (rendering things ‘dark’ that hadn’t been made within the rule of three) the rule also is at the root of the alien’s power. Coming from a society where all things must have small personal chains of creation, the aliens have developed fantastical powers of creation. Even the alien’s pearl-like spaceship was personally crafted by the alien itself.

“There was no falling back on the classic trope of taking Foom to meet with world leaders. It wouldn’t be able to perceive them. Whether it was foie gras or prime rib, a fast-food cheeseburger or a cup of insta-noodles, antibiotics or cholesterol-lowering meds, there wasn’t a president or king or diplomat on the planet that wouldn’t appear dark to the alien. And even if they deliberately purged themselves as I had unwittingly done, if they ate my grandmother’s soup or dined on fish caught and cooked by their own hand, still the things they placed the most value on, computers and air conditioning and cars and smartphones and hospitals and organ transplants and electrical grids and highway infrastructure and missile defense systems, all the things we’d accomplished as we moved from the agrarian world through the Industrial Age, past the Atomic Age and into the current Information Age, all of it was dark. Unlife.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 2018

Instead, the connection between the alien and human worlds is made by the narrator’s grandmother who teaches the alien her traditional skill of batik dyeing of cloth using the distinctive indigo dye of her people. This craft and art form is sublime to the alien who is entranced by how the patterns made by the wax are retained in the patterns of the dyed cloth even as the wax is lost.

Unfortunately, the alien has other plans for humanity as whole, who it regards as being largely consumed by unlife.

According to Schoen, his story was inspired by a sponsored visit to China in 2018.

“In June of 2018, the Future Affairs Administration** flew me and three Canadian authors to participate in a workshop co-funded by the Wanda Group*** which was running a poverty abatement program in Guizhou Province, traditionally one of the poorest and most ethnically diverse regions in the country. We picked tea, made paper, learned batik, visited historic sites, and spoke with many people. I don’t have enough superlatives to describe the trip. When it was over, FAA asked us to write novelettes inspired by our experiences there. “The Rule of Three” was my result, the words coming to me without effort as I daydreamed about the places I’d seen.”

The Rule of Three By Lawrence M. Schoen Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 1 December 15, 201

There’s a vague genre of alien contact where the alien provides broader spiritual wisdom to humanity. Stranger in a Strange Land technically has a human in the alien prophet role but is effectively the holotype for the genre. By using the perspective of an alien, the reader is given a radically different view of their own world and society. In addition, the alien is granted a privileged perspective by virtue of either technological or spiritual powers (or both or they are the same thing). So it is not simply an outsider commenting on modern society but an outsider who is framed unarguably by the story as being from a more advanced state.

Here, the alien rejects the loss of personal connection in modern society with the things we own and use. The alien rejects our own alienation from our possessions and our lack of personal connection with what we own and consume even down to our clothes and food.

It’s a clever critique and you could pull it apart or point at Schoen and say that he hasn’t retreated to a pastoral life weaving his own clothes but that would be misunderstanding the role of fiction. This story isn’t a polemic or a manifesto but rather a way of turning our perception of what an alien society might make of us. The narrator explicitly points to the tropes of first contact and rejects them and instead the story asks us to imagine what if the aliens we meet are an extrapolation not of of current late-stage capitalism but rather an extrapolation of one of the many (but dwindling) other ways of living in the world.

On the other hand it is necessarily a shallow perspective on the lives of ethnic minorities in China. Nor is the critique of mass production done in any depth — it is simply granted by the alien as being not merely ethically wrong but also inimical to life and a danger to the rest of the universe. Yet, within the confines of a novelette there are obvious limits in how deeply such things can be explored.

Personally, I didn’t warm to the story, perhaps because of my pro-technology biases (and despite the interesting idea of being able to sweat beer) but it is hard not to be impressed with the consummate skill of the story. I was worried by the initial exposition of the character’s background that the story would follow a similar tone as the first couple of paragraphs but overall it is a deftly done and original tale.

*[“it” is the pronoun used for the alien in the story]

**[The ‘Future Affairs Administration’ is apparently a Chinese media group who co-published the magazine this story appears in. There is a Pixel Scroll entry on the venture here: ]

***[The Wanda Group is a major private company in China and internationally (e.g. they own the Hoyts cinema chain in Australia. ]

Nebula Novelettes

Time is ticking and Bob the Panic Blob is getting twitchy in his box. Hugo nomination deadline is nearly upon us and what am I doing? Still talking about the Nebulas, an award I don’t vote in? Well, I still have some novelette spaces to fill and there are some tiny doll’s house sized novels to read. Will I read and review them all before the Hugo deadline? Seems unlikely.

One review was done a long time ago Complete with the adjective reversal in the URL that I keep doing when I write the title.

That leaves:

The biggest issue I have with novelettes is that they are published as little tiny books for fairy folk and my giant hands cannot hold them and so I have tried a mouse to turn the pages for me as I read through a magnifying glass.

[Links from JJ’s super useful ]

An anthology map

This is a second attempt at something. I’ve playing with Gephi, a tool for visualising network topology such as social networks. I’d originally attempted a kind of social network of authors in the wider Hugo related kefuffles based on book collaborations, writing in the same series and anthologies (e.g. John Scalzi has written with John Ringo who has written with Larry Correia who has written with Sarah Hoyt etc). However, I hadn’t thought through how to get the data together in a sensible way or in a way that would help me keep track.

With some lessons learned, I’ve started a more sustainable mapping. This time I’ve stuck with anthologies and kept the anthologies as nodes along with authors. For data this time, I’ve used some anthologies connected with recent discussion about 20booksto50K and related authors. I should add this is NOT a map of authors in that group! It is just a few anthologies that either some of the works we discussed appeared or had some authors in common. There’s no deeper message here as it’s just a bunch of anthologies I picked out without any real methodology. I also didn’t distinguish between authors of a story, editors of an anthology, illustrators or other contributors. The names are just what Amazon gave me with a bit of tidying up for name variations. Just proof of concept stuff but I thought people might be interested.

Elite commentary provides an Elite style star map

Nebula Shorts: Summing Up

Six short stories which together were entertaining and some of which were exceptional. ‘Exceptional’ though, is the more relevant word for an award. A story can have many positive qualities, entertaining, engaging, readable but if it isn’t in some way exceptional why single that story out for special recognition from all the other stories that are entertaining, engaging, and readable.

There really isn’t a way past this point. There are some excellent arguments against exceptionality as a quality of works but those arguments all point to rejecting the idea of literary awards. There are excellent arguments against literary awards and the recent emotional pain generated around the Nebulas can’t be ignored when considering if awards do more harm than good. However, EVERY literary award by necessity divides works into two camps: a huge camp of works that don’t get recognised and a proportionally tiny camp of works that do. Rationally, every award nomination and finalist is making a claim of some degree of exceptionality about the nominated work. So every award finalist raises a question ‘why this one and not that one?’ There are many legitimate answers to that question but the validity of the answer depends on the nature of the award.

I’d contend that there are three clearly exceptional short stories in the Nebula short story finalists. There is a fourth I can see an argument for, there is another that I don’t get but others clearly did and there’s a sixth which, while having many positive qualities, probably shouldn’t be a finalist.

The top three, I think are clear (in order I reviewed them):

Of those three I enjoyed the first one the most but if I had to rank them we’d be getting much deeper into how I felt at the time or about personal quirks (e.g. I love structural play in prose but its not everybody’s cup of tea).

Looking at the others:

This didn’t really work for me but I can see how others found it notable. It has an interesting premise and the use of contrasting genre conventions is clever.

Then we have:

Technically a movie trailer is a short film but it would have to be a particularly special trailer to win a generic short film award. Going Dark is essentially a taster for Fox’s novel series. That’s a more than legitimate and reasonable reason to write an enjoyable story and it’s also a reason why a story may have fans. It’s hard to see how this story stands out on its own though. Having said that, the story was picked out for the notable Baen anthology The Year’s Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 5. So within that space, it did stand out from the crowd for some people. I’m not seeing it though, and it didn’t strike me as being as good as some of the other stories in the anthology it was published in. I’m not infallible, I miss stuff.

I know the standard advice would be for authors not to comment on reviews (e.g. see ‘Going Dark’ comments…) but Rhett Bruno gave me some useful insights into his story that I had missed or misunderstood. In the end though, this story just doesn’t work in isolation. I get why fans of Bruno’s other books would enjoy a glimpse into the back story of a longer narrative but for an award a story needs to be able to stand in isolation. Again, I don’t see how this story is particularly notable or exceptional.


I’m sorry to post a link to the Federalist of all things and to an article by Timothy’s erstwhile client and infamous litigant Jon Del Arroz but this is just way to funny not have here:

“The establishment became angry. Several of the elite commentator class posted blogs, such as one by Hugo Award-nominated Camestros Felapton—a left wing troll known for antagonizing right-wing authors—who criticized 20Books for alleged rigging of the awards. His evidence was a post by one of the members in the Facebook group listing dozens of works by the group that were eligible for the current year. He calls it a “slate”—a term the establishment used to rile up their ranks against the Sad Puppies with the Hugo Awards controversy, where right-leaning authors tried to break the lockstep nominations of extreme political works.

The Sad Puppies produced slates of recommended nominations to make it more likely for readers to coalesce around certain books, which would then have better odds of succeeding. Martelle takes exception to the claim applying here, however, saying, “There was no slate or violation of the rules.”

The targeted blogs and social media posts are a coordinated effort by traditional publishing’s elites to diminish 20BooksTo50K’s credibility among establishment publishing and brand them as a political organization to fight. In 2019, being apolitical has become akin to declaring your politics to the extreme left. Much of the left has taken an “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude to try to harm people who don’t want to take sides in the culture war. It’s a dangerous view to take, as writers have been blacklisted and banned, and now even worse.”

Archived version

As you can imagine, this is causing some tension in the house as Timothy has always wanted a column in the Federalist and now I’m there before him.

When people who keep revising their own history make 1984 references…

Our erstwhile friends, the Sad Puppies, have largely been quite during the recent fuss around the Nebula awards. This is less than surprising given many (most? all?) had flounced off from the SWFA some years ago and even attempted their own alternate versions…that didn’t go very far.

Added to this was an awkward fact about the opposition to the 20booksto50K list – it was very definitely not about politics. A key argument from the Sad Puppies was that opposition to their far more flagrant slate tactics was somehow just a cover for anti-conservative sentiment among Hugo voters. To further add issues for the Sads was a key voice in raising concern about the list was Annie Bellet — an author who was unwillingly dragooned into Sad Puppies 3 by Brad Torgersen. Brad still, despite the obvious objections of Bellet, thinks he was doing her a favour by volunteering her for his culture war.

Brad has finally joined in and as always it is a mix of a narrative that wanders far from the facts, a revised version of history in which he is the hero and a list of how terribly persecuted he has been.

Here’s got two lengthy responses. One is in the comments to Yudhanjaya Wijeratne’s interesting account of his experience of the fuss (here ) and the other is in a Facebook post here

The second piece (on his author site titled Brad R. Torgersen: author, essayist, veteran) is full of 1984 references and recasts the Sad Puppies as brave Indies versus the evil Trad-Pubs, because that’s the story that fits nicely with the 20books issue. That most of the authors directly involved in Sad Puppies were more traditionally published than 20booksto50K and that much of the opposition to the Sad Puppies came from people who were more independently published than the Sads is ignored.

The political dimension to the Sad Puppies is flicked to the ‘off switch’ again because the Sads have always been at war with Eurasia. The its-all-about-SJWs will get switched back on again at some point when Brad recalls that the Sads were always at war with Eastasia…

Let’s do a hypothetical about the Nebulas

I’m glad that a lot of the heat around the Nebulas, LMBPN and 20booksto50K has abated (Cora has an extensive round-up of events here ) Aside from the odd more trollish reaction, many of the authors involved have taken a step back and looked around at the circumstance and dialled back the rhetoric. Even so, the surrounding conflict clearly caused some emotional pain and some harsh words were said that escalated conflict.

I’m not interested in throwing fuel on the fire but I don’t think we can make this a taboo subject either. Craig Martelle who runs 20bboksto50K posted a response to the conflict on the group’s Facebook page. He also has a slightly shorter (it omits an anecdote about golf) on his public page here.

Martelle’s post is very much about his integrity and his positive intent and his code of honour (so to speak, he doesn’t use that term.) A snippet:

“This is a long-term game, and the emotions that people feel right now will recede. I will be able to look back and know that I did nothing wrong. I violated no rules, no terms of service, and no laws. “

Craig Martelle Facebook post

All fair enough but missing the point. A lot of the post on this topic have been about what happened from a factual perspective accompanied with some people explaining their own anger on the subject. I thought I’d take a different tack.

Torblit workshop

Imagine a popular publisher of science fiction. For want of a better name we’ll call it Torblit. For the record I don’t think the following is something either Tor or Orbit would do exactly but as Tor in particular are often cast as the villains in wider fandom, I’ll be lazy and make use of that.

Torblit publishes lots of novels and novellas and short fiction in anthologies and they’ve made a big push into ebooks and Kindle Unlimited etc. They are doing rather well but are hungry to do better. In particular, Torblit see that there’s a vast market in less than traditionally published authors and they want to tap into that. Fair enough, you might say, business is business.

Torblit starts a new business called “Torblit Workshops”. They present this as them giving back to the writing community. It’s a great idea. They run, at cost, writing workshops. They use their existing writing connections to bring indie authors together with more experienced professionals. Sure, the workshops aren’t cheap but they are run at cost and Torblit execs often have to fight their finance department about the unnecessary work involved. “It’s investing in the future!” says the exec in charge and it’s hard to argue with that. The workshops foster new talent — sure not all of that talent ends up writing for Torblit but some do and the ones that don’t help foster a growing market for SF by producing good work. It’s a virtuous circle! Who can argue with that!

Sure, some of the usual naysayers call the Torblit Workshops a ‘cult’ and others may roll their eyes about the gushing praise wannabe authors give about Torblit on the Workshop community page. There’s always some people who are jealous of success.

The community page is well run and carefully moderated. ‘No self-promotion without permission!’ a smart rule! You know how hungry authors can be! Sure, there’s cross promotion within many Torblit books but why not?

Oh and the SWFA? Torblit Workshops quite rightly points out the virtues of membership. If you are serious about being a SF author then the SWFA is an organisation that will help protect your interests.

Look above. There are no obvious serious ethical issues here so far (I mean aside from capitalism in general) beyond a vague sense of a conflict of interest (there’s actually a huge conflict but it’s not obvious).

OK, now add a list of recommended works on the Torblit Workshop community page for Nebula nomination. Add a touch of how indie authors (like most members of the community page) are under represented in the Nebulas. Now add that much of the list is Torblit published works or by authors who have been published in Torblit anthologies.

Ouch! A vague conflict of interest (a company involved in two different aspects of publishing) becomes a deep and apparent conflict of interest NO MATTER WHAT THE INTENTION WAS.

Conflicts of interest are classified into three groups:

  • Apparent
  • Potential
  • Actual

Here’s Columbia Universities definition of it.

“A conflict of interest involves the abuse — actual, apparent, or potential — of the trust that people have in professionals. The simplest working definition states: A conflict of interest is a situation in which financial or other personal considerations have the potential to compromise or bias professional judgment and objectivity. An apparent conflict of interest is one in which a reasonable person would think that the professionals judgment is likely to be compromised. A potential conflict of interest involves a situation that may develop into an actual conflict of interest. It is important to note that a conflict of interest exists whether or not decisions are affected by a personal interest; a conflict of interest implies only the potential for bias, not a likelihood.”

Other institutions and businesses have different definitions. Note that the issue isn’t just whether the list is or is not a slate. There’s other ethical questions about slates. The issue here is were competing roles and interests place people in a position were they are compromised.

Indeed, with this lens, even the (sensible and good) advice from the Torblit Workshop to its members to join the SWFA is a conflict of interest. The workshops aren’t the publisher but the connection with the publisher creates a conflict when coupled with the perceived loyalty gained from workshop members.

Note also that this has ZERO to do with whether anybody is unethical in themselves. Apparent, perceived and actual conflicts of interest are NOT a function of the personal integrity of the individual.

If you’ve ever been in the position as a manager of having to explain to person Z why activity Y is an apparent conflict of interest with their duties then you may have experienced the subsequent reactions:

  • “I’d never let that influence my judgement!” – not the point, the conflict exists whether you act on it or not.
  • “There’s no specific rule against Y!” -true, the rules from HR tend to only cover the most obvious cases. That doesn’t mean your cases isn’t a conflict.
  • “I’ve done nothing wrong!” – great, lets keep it that way.
  • “You are attacking my integrity!” – no, I’m protecting your reputation.
  • “You are stopping me from helping people!” – you’ll have to find a different way of helping people because this puts you in a vulnerable position.

Back to 20booksto50K and LMBPN

LMBPN isn’t Tor books. It’s got a lot of books out and according to its spokes people it is doing well. Good for it.

20booksto50K isn’t some messianic cult nor are it’s members unthinking minions. Members appreciate the help and advice the group gives.

That one is closely connected to the other, is something of an issue but such is life. I think it is the kind of unintended, done for the best reasons kind of conflict of interest that good people often wander into. In some ways those are the worst kind because when they shift from apparent to potential to actual all of a sudden, nice people suddenly find themselves in positions where people are pointing fingers and implying that they are not good people.

Add in something even vaguely like a slate and some ‘us v them’ rhetoric then I’m astonished this didn’t blow up last year.

Nebula Shorts: “Going Dark” by Richard Fox

Third on our list is Going Dark by Richard Fox. Appearing in the Backblast Area Clear Anthology edited by JR Handley, Going Dark is a MilSF story that connects with Fox’s Ember War series (currently being adapted into a graphic novel format by Jon Del Arroz for Arkhaven Comics see )

The story starts on the war torn streets of Utica City:

“Naroosha saucers zipped overhead, shooting rapid bolts of energy at the Terran Union fighters flying low over the horizon. The snap of Union gauss weapons mingled with the crack of alien weapons; stray bolts cast quick shadows as they vanished into the high cloud cover. Just outside the school, the dark polymer cover on the road bulged out, then flattened with a creak. The road cracked as something beat against the underside, like a hatchling trying to break from its egg.

Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

Out from under that road bursts a set of soldiers. Led by human Sergeant Hoffman (dressed in genre-requisite power armour) is a group of big artificial soldiers, colloquially known as “doughboys”. These soldiers are big and if not necessarily stupid, verbally limited.

“Opal tried to duck into the hole, bumped a shoulder against the bricks, then slapped a hand against the front of the crumpled fender and wrenched the car aside with a grunt. He hurried through the new opening, weapon ready at his shoulder. “Trying not to get noticed, Opal,” Hoffman sighed. “Opal sorry. No shoot until order,” the big soldier trotted past a wall of lockers and went bounding up a stairwell.”

Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

They are each named after precious/semi-precious stones, sometimes with numbers. They also all talk in that same style shown with “Opal sorry. No shoot until order,” Mel Brooks fans will be disappointed to learn that at no point do we get the line “Opal only pawn in game of life,” even though there’s at least one scene where it would have worked.

Hoffman’s Battle Construct Auxiliary Company 117 continue their mission contacting a group of rangers pinned down by enemy fire. In the course of the fight the doughboy Diamond rescues two rangers by physically picking them both up but is wounded in the process.

“Hoffman slid down the rubble and found Diamond kneeling between two Rangers at the base of the wreckage. Diamond’s chest heaved, a smoking patch on his back. “Medical… attention. For-for-for them,” Diamond’s cyborg hand twitched with some sort of palsy. Hoffman slid to a stop next to the Rangers. One had lost an arm, her flank blown open, and ribs stuck out from the wound. He didn’t have to check to know she was dead. The other Ranger moaned weakly. Hoffman tried to open a channel to sector command, but his IR wouldn’t connect. The Ranger’s visor popped open and a man looked to the gray sky, one eye purple and swollen shut. “Heard doughboys were ugly,” Lieutenant Ford said. “Looked… damn beautiful when he picked us up. You—you look familiar.”

Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

Hoffman looks familiar to the ranger because each of the human leaders of the doughboys has exactly the same face. The doughboys imprint on the face of their leader so they know who to take commands from. Speaking of which, Hoffman discovers he can’t contact the other doughboy leader he is with.

On further investigation, Hoffman’s fellow human leader has ben killed in the fighting and Hoffman transfers command of a set of orphaned doughboys to himself.

“Realignment protocol seven Charlie. Imprint to Hoffman. My face. My voice. Confirm?” Hoffman asked. “Imprint to Vaccaro. Con-con-con—” Zircon’s head snapped from side to side. “Imprint to Hoffman. Confirmed.” Hoffman took his hand away and repeated the procedure with the other survivors. “You guys are twitchy,” Hoffman said. “Zircon 2-2, what lot number are you and your squadmates?” “Lot Alpha. Construction date—” “Alphas? I didn’t know any of you were still around,”

Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

Later, back at base, these older model Lot Alpha doughboys malfunction and start attacking recovered wreckage of the enemy alien ships. When Hoffman is sent to intervene, the malfunctioning doughboys deactivate, effectively dying on the spot. If that wasn’t traumatic enough for poor Hoffman, he’s immediately called back to the maintenance bay where the injured Diamond is not in a good way. With Opal standing guard, Hoffman tries to reassure the dying doughboy, when a stranger arrives:

“Look… there must be some bad code in there,” he said and put a hand to Diamond’s jaw. “We’ll get the techs in here and do a reboot. It’s nothing. You’ll see.” “That’s not what it is, son,” came from behind him. A man in Ranger armor stepped into the room and shut the door. The uniform bore no unit patches, rank insignia, or even a name stenciled on the chest. “Piss off, grunt, this is doughboy business,” Hoffman said. “I’m no grunt,” the Ranger took his helmet off and the cold grew worse. There wasn’t a human inside, but a silver being with a man’s features. Hoffman reached for his rifle, but stopped when Opal made no move against the newcomer. “What are you? Why isn’t Opal crushing your skull?” Hoffman asked. “Smart,” the silver man jerked a thumb at the doughboy. “They’re hostile to all non-humans, but I put a few exceptions into their programming.” “You? But you can’t be—” “Marc Ibarra. Pleased to meet you. The doughboys are my creation. Let’s not get into this,” he waved a hand around his metal face. “Neither here nor there for the issues at hand.”

Richard Fox, Going Dark (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

It turns out the doughboys have a built-in obsolescence. Diamond cannot be fixed and despite Hoffman’s pleas, Marc Ibarra refuses to prevent Diamond’s death. Instead, after some reflection, he offers Hoffman something else: a deactivation code that will end a doughboy’s suffering.

With tears in his eyes, Hoffman shares some final words with Diamond and then activates the kill code. Diamond dies in his arms.

The story mixes a sentimental ending with a more conventional MilSF story of future troops fighting aliens. I don’t know if the doughboys are meant to come over as an attempt at a comical trope but the shift to the “Old Yeller” ending didn’t work for me. The silvery Marc Ibrra character popping up to explain the plot made little sense out of context but I assume followers of Fox’s novel series might be more aware of the context.

At the level of basic wordsmithing this is substantially better than “Interview for the End of World”. Where the Rhett Bruno story had sentences which trip you up, Fox’s story has a stronger and more readable style. However, there’s nothing new here and there’s nothing notable. “Not terrible writing” is a low bar to cross and it managed that but nothing further.

Also like Rhett Bruno’s story, I note that some of the surrounding stories in the anthology this story appears in, are better. The very next story in the anthology after Fox’s isn’t brilliant but it starts like this:

“Do you know how many fantasies begin with two soldiers stepping out of their freezers, wearing just their boxers?” asked the vampire.

THE BATTLE OF PURPLE BY NAVIN WEERARATNE (in Handley, J.R.. Backblast Area Clear: Anthology Vol. 1 (p. 1). Bayonet Books. Kindle Edition. )

That’s a start to a story that invites the reader in and shows some awareness that short form fiction has its own demands. Both the Bruno and Fox stories are written in the style of standalone chapters of bigger novels (or series of novels). That doesn’t make them bad stories but in the context of a set of awards where they are being judged against other stories by people who aren’t familiar with the broader context. For example, it’s hard for me to judge how well the novella Artificial Condition by Martha Wells works as a thing in itself rather than as the next Murderbot instalment.

In short, Going Dark is competent writing but an unexceptional story. It’s hard to see what, if anything, sets it apart from any one of many MilSF stories written last year.

It’s worth talking about LMBPN publishing when talking about the Nebula nominees

Over the past few days the conversation has been focused on the author self-help group 20booksto50K in connection with some interesting Nebula Award finalists (if you are a late arrival just read Cora’s round-up here: ). However, there’s a different way of looking at the 20booksto50K related finalists — by common publisher.

LMBPN Publishing ( ) is a publisher run by Michael Anderle and which publisher Craig Martelle, the two names most associated with 20booksto50K.

“LMBPN is the publishing company for the Kurtherian Gambit, Oriceran, Protected by the Damned and other Universes. In addition to Michael Anderle, we have published in ebook, book, and audio format collaborations with Justin Sloan, Craig Martelle, TS Paul, CM Raymond, and LE Barbant, Paul C. Middleton, Amy Hopkins, Ell Leigh Clarke, PT Hylton, Candy Crum, Martha Carr, Sarah Boyce, A. L. Knorr, Sarah Knoffke, and many others.”

Of the 20booksto50K listed finalists:

  • Fire Ant** by Jonathan Brazee (Nebula Finalist) Brazee was published in the LMBPN anthology The Expanding Universe 4: Space Adventure, Alien Contact, & Military Science Fiction. “Checkmate by Jonathan P. Brazee: Winning is everything, especially in war.”
  • Messenger** R.R. Virdi and Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (Nebula Finalist) This story also appeared in the LMBPN anthology The Expanding Universe 4: Space Adventure, Alien Contact, & Military Science Fiction.
  • A Light in the Dark, AK DuBoff (Nebula Finalist) DuBoff co-writes with Anderle the “Uprise Sage” for LMBPN
  • (ETA) Going Dark Richard Fox (Nebula Finalist) Fox had a story in “The Expanding Universe 3: Space Opera, Military SciFi, Space Adventure, & Alien Contact!” the previous volume to the one listed above. Amazon lists this as published by CreateSpace (i.e Amazon) but it’s a LMBPN series.

Of the six works listed on the 20booksto50K not-a-slate, half two-thirds were by authors that had been published by LMBPN. That’s not a claim that LMBPN engaged in any shenanigans but given the 20booksto50K is a trademark owned by LMBPN which is also owned by Anderle, the not-a-slate looks increasingly like not a good idea.

(a tip of the hat for help given with this post)

Nebula Shorts: Rhett C. Bruno – “Interview for the End of the World”

First cab off the rank for the Nebula finalist short stories is “Interview for the End of the World”. The story is a spin off from Bruno’s “Titan’s Children” book series and acts as a kind of origin/backstory to the setting of those stories, describing events that led to establishment of a human colony on Titan.

The first person narrator, Director Darian Trass, is a brilliant billionaire inventor who hasn’t met a problem he couldn’t solve, including the end of the world. A huge asteroid is heading towards Earth and Trass has built a spaceship to get a select three thousand survivors off Earth to establish a colony on Titan. Having built the ship, he is left with two other problems, picking the candidates to put aboard the ship and how to cope with the rejected candidates and other desperate people surrounding his desert compound.

The story starts with Trass interviewing a potential candidate about 5 days before the asteroid is due to impact:

“…Frank Drayton. Twenty-seven years old and already a world-renowned horticulturalist. Not the most exciting job, but a necessary addition for a colony on a hostile world. He was marked for possible acceptance, but nobody got a spot in the Titan Project without me looking them in the eyes first.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”

The surname is significant to readers of Bruno’s book series. Drayton explains he has no family connections and that he thinks he would be useful to the project.

The story then skips 120 hours later, with less than a day to go before the asteroid hits. Drayton has been caught trying to smuggle somebody into the compound. It turns out that Drayton had hidden the fact that he had a young duaghter. The crowd outside the compound are aware of this and are angry because they feel cheated. As matters escalate, Trass nobly decides to not board the ship and gives his place up for Drayton’s daughter. He stays behind to help launch the ship and then runs from the angry mob who have broken into the compound once Trass’s soldiers had boarded the ship. He drinks a last glass of whisky and raises a glass to the departing ship.

This is not a particularly good story in any sense. It has a plot and it has some clear stakes but aside from that it is hard to pick out much positive to say about it. The central character is presented as heroic but comes across as an arsehole — maybe that was the intent, in which case that’s an interesting aspect of the story but I don’t think it is intentional.

The actual prose is clunky and full of pointless explanation. It’s a struggle to wade through the words.

“My office door creaked open. Sgt. Hale, my head of security, ushered in the Titan Project’s next candidate. I quickly downed the remnants of a glass of lukewarm whiskey in my liver-spotted hand to calm my mind, then placed it down behind my computer screen. Sgt. Hale and I exchanged a nod before he exited, leaving myself and the candidate alone.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”

It reads like a how-to-write example, as in rather than say that Trass is old mention his liver spotted hands! Except in a first person narrative and surrounded by a whole bunch of other scene setting aspects. Not every story written like a description of what you might see on a TV screen is bad but it is hard to write well this way. Visual media allow you to take in lots of small details quickly but also skip over what you don’t focus on. An episode of a TV show where this story was the plot may well show where Trass places his whisky glass or that Sgt Hale exchanges a nod but fill a short story with these quasi stage directions and you end up with a lot of verbiage.

In an intentionally slow scene like the initial interview, the effect isn’t too terrible. With action scenes, it’s even worse. For example, at the end of the story Trass has helped launch the ship and has distracted the invading mob who are now chasing him instead of besieging the ship.

“I wasn’t far enough ahead of the mob to take the elevator, so I entered the emergency stairwell. My legs felt like jelly by the time I reached the hallway six stories up. My office glowed at the other end of it like a beacon. Apparently, I’d left my lights on. The rest of the floor was dark.
I sprinted toward my office, locking the door as soon as I made it inside. A few seconds later, the mob pounded on it. I wasn’t worried. The door was installed by the company that I’d started from nothing, and our products always worked. It would hold long enough.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”

“our products always worked” in this case the creaking door from the first paragraph was also, what? A mob proof office door? It’s not just that the additional details, instead of adding colour or depth to the story just hinder the prose, they also make very little sense. The author wants Trass to have time to have a last drink of whisky and also wants him chased by a mob, so his office door needs to be strong enough to stop somebody kicking it down and so that needs explaining etc.

Or take this section from the first part of the story which tries to pack in as much backstory as possible:

“I grabbed a half-empty bottle of whiskey from under my desk and refilled the glass sitting by my keyboard. It was the only thing that quieted the voices bouncing around in my head of everyone I already had or was planning to reject. I was inches away from a much-needed sip when my door swung open.
Kara, my assistant, froze in the entrance. Her expression soured when she noticed the glass I held. She’d been with me since her parents died in a car accident, leaving her an orphan at only ten years old. My company was working on implementing the automated vehicle network at the time, so I legally adopted her. At first, it was admittedly a publicity stunt, and then I fell in love with her. I always found myself shocked upon realizing what a beautiful, intelligent young woman she’d grown into. She had the brains to take over Trass Industries from me one day… if not for the end of the known world.”

Excerpt From: Rhett Bruno. “Interview for the End of the World.”

So what do we have? The best thing about the story is the plot and that’s thin. I’ve read worse prose but this is not in any sense great writing. Maybe fans of the books which the story connects with may enjoy the insights and backstory provided but as a stand-alone story this is very weak. I struggle to see why amid many other stories somebody would pick this one out as particularly notable. The title is good? I’m at a loss to find any feature here that amounts to more than ‘not terrible’ and can’t help but notice multiple features that need substantial work.