Read an Excerpt
As I sat down to write this foreword to the collection of my own short stories, I had just reread Space Cadet by Robert Heinlein for the first time in many years. The purpose of the rereading was to prepare to participate in a retrospective appreciation of that book at the 2006 World Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles.
Rereading Space Cadet reminded me of why (how is a different story; this is the why) I became a science fiction reader and writer. I was eleven years old, and in the hot summer my family took me to visit cousins in Iowa. A city girl who lived with my nose in a book, I found farm life pretty uninteresting until my cousins took me to the one-room library in their small town. I absolutely pounced on the table of books for young readers, and would have grabbed a dozen had I been permitted.
But, "One book each," my aunt told us. So I chose a book with a subject I had never read about before: a book called Space Cadet.
It was the 1950s, before Sputnik was launched. There was no NASA. There was no astronaut program. There was no Star Trek. The closest I had ever come to reading about space was in a book about identifying the constellations.
Space Cadet was the most exciting book I had ever read--this for a girl who had already devoured not just Grimm but Andersen, all the many colors of Lang's fairy tale books, The Three Musketeers and all its sequels, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Time Machine, and dozens of historical novels set in far off times and places.
I read to escape the gray day-to-day existence of life in a steel town, where my lifeconsisted of working in the family grocery store and school, where I was socially challenged because I was not academically challenged. I read in order to be somewhere else.
What made Space Cadet more exciting to me than all the classics I had read? For the first time, I was reading about an exotic and exciting life I believed I could actually have. The nerdy kids in the book were not social outcasts--they were heroes. I felt I would actually fit into that world.
Furthermore, Heinlein wrote about the near future, using contemporary science. Never mind that I didn't understand a word of it; at age eleven I was certain that, like the boys in the story, by the time I graduated from high school I would.
What I took home from Iowa that summer changed my life. I knew how to look for more books by the author who had so stimulated my imagination. When I looked Heinlein up in the card catalogue in my city library at home, I was delighted to find that they had several of his books.
But when I went to the fiction shelves, not one of them was to be found. When I asked the librarian to reserve the missing books so that I could read them when they were returned, she found that most were not checked out. They were, in fact, shelved in an area I had never looked at before, called "Science Fiction." To my amazement, off in one corner there was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase filled with books that--remember, this was the 1950s--were almost all about going into space, living in space, or visiting or living on other planets.
I was in heaven! For the next several years I did not voluntarily read anything but science fiction. I consumed Asimov, Brad-bury, and Clarke along with Heinlein, and never quite understood why Andre Norton's books felt more welcoming to me when "he" (I knew that Andre was French for Andrew) was clearly not (at that time) regarded as in the same league as the Big Four. For I quickly found and subscribed to some science fiction magazines, reading their editorials and reviews as Word from On High.
In the meantime, in fumbling adolescent fashion, I began to write the stories I could not find on the shelves or in the magazines: stories with female heroes. In fact, I had not even gotten through my first half-dozen sf books, mostly Heinlein juveniles, before I started to write a book with the classic title, Girl in a Space Suit.
Thankfully, the title is all I can remember about it today--but you have to understand that I was a preteen girl with no interest in Barbie or stories about nurses.
What YA literature offered me in those days was stories about boys and men doing things I was interested in, or girls and women doing things that bored me to tears. Why wouldn't I attempt to write about girls doing exciting, interesting things? So, while I loved all the science fiction I read, I felt left out. It was the 1950s; there was no women's movement, no "math without tears" class for girls. And I had no idea how far my father was ahead of his time when he took his daughter to work, right into the steel mill--there was no national day for it, and everyone just thought my family was strange, not least because they were saving to send a girl to college.
I was very lucky to be born into that family. While all the neighbors thought it was criminal that I was not sent to the vocational school with all the other "smart" girls, to learn shorthand, typing, and book-keeping, my parents sent me to the regular high school because it had an academic track as well as gang rumbles and a championship football team. Most of the city knew only about the football team and the gangs.
Still, although I was definitely on the right educational track, high school was just as painful to me as to the average sf fan. So every moment that I could, I took refuge in reading. I read the works of the Golden Age as they were published, loving them and yet having that increasing sense of being left out. In older adolescence, not knowing that a thousand other girls were doing the same thing, I spontaneously invented the science fiction romance.
While I was in high school, Sputnik was launched, the U.S. and the Soviet Union began the space race, and my fellow students and I were told that there was a future in space for all of us. Even when I came to realize that the body I was dealt was never going to be athletic enough to allow me to be a pioneer, and the brain I was dealt was great with words but terrible with numbers, I remained certain that I would leave Earth. I changed my expectations to teaching literature in a school on Mars--or at the very least, at the Moon colony or a space station. The combination of moving on to college and New Wave science fiction ended my obsessive reading of the genre, except that I still devoured every new work by my favorite authors--the ones who never betrayed me by writing incomprehensible and depressing tales not even set in space. However, reading was no longer the only interesting part of my life--in college I found students of both sexes who enjoyed the same things I did, and developed a social life. When I was in graduate school, Star Trek exploded into our lives, and a whole new kind of fandom developed via--gasp!--snail mail.
I began to write for fanzines. I earned my doctorate. The U.S. went to the Moon. I was even more certain that before my teaching career was over I would teach somewhere other than on Earth. I continued in fandom, and began to sell professionally. Having published a number of non-fiction articles, I met Jacqueline Lichtenberg, who had just published her first professional novel, House of Zeor. That meeting ultimately resulted in my first professional publication of fiction being a novel, First Channel, in collaboration with Jacqueline, in the Sime-Gen universe that she had created.
She encouraged me to start my own series, and soon I had created the universe of Savage Empire. We were never bestselling authors, but we had a regular following, and in those days that was enough to be secure as a midlist author. For a decade, we were in the enviable position (along with several hundred other authors) of being able to publish virtually any book we wrote, individually or together. Those were the golden days of the healthy, hefty midlist, now sadly a thing of the past.
Teaching, of course, is the ideal profession for a midlist author: breaks of from two or three days to three or four weeks occur regularly through the school year, and the summer break provides a stretch of over two months for writing.
I was young and full of ideas, most of them book length. The one thing that frustrated me, though, was that despite all the contracts for novels, I could not sell my short stories.
Which brings me to the stories in this volume. The fact is, I'm not much of a short story writer. For one thing, I have always preferred reading character-driven stories over plot-driven stories, so naturally that is what I write. On average, it takes more words to develop character than plot.
But there are certainly writers who write successful character-driven short stories, so that is no excuse. The main reason I write at novel length is that that is the length of my favorite ideas. I very rarely come up with an idea that will fit into short-story length.
And that made it all the more frustrating that every time I took time from contracted novels to pursue an idea that so excited me that I was willing to write it on spec, it ended up wasting a lot of postage and finally reposing in the bottom drawer.
Such results did not encourage me to write at short length, but still the occasional story insisted on being written, and then, as I matured as a storyteller, they actually began to sell.
Note: what they don't tell you in creative writing classes is that it is much harder to craft a good short story than a good novel.
Over my publishing career I have thus far written twenty-one novels and only eleven short stories. Furthermore, few of my short stories are really short. Most hover around the 10,000 word mark, and none is under 4000 words. Also, when I create a whole universe, I always find that there are many stories to tell in it, not just one. Thus even fewer of my short stories are standalones--most tend to be pieces of series.
This volume does not include my three Zhag-Tonyo stories from the Sime-Gen universe. Look for those in Sime-Gen Collected, which also includes stories by Jacqueline Lichtenberg.
Here, though, you will find stories that are part of other series: "Change of Command" and "Short Quarter" in my aborted attempt to write about traveling in space, and "The Beholder," part of the Witch Woman series that I intend to return to eventually. The first story in that series, "Human Voices," appeared in Dragon magazine, and later on the CD that collected all the early issues of the magazine. The CD contract prohibits me from publishing the story elsewhere. So, "The Beholder" is the only Witch Woman story in this volume.
The old woman who narrates all the Witch Woman stories tells us of events from her past life. She is a kind of minor witch who knows herbs and a few spells, but does not have great magical power. She is also far wiser about other people than about her-self. The witch woman serves her small village by the sea as herbalist, fortuneteller, healer, and a kind of unofficial love and marriage counselor. She helps others while remaining frustrated herself, and through her entire life she never manages to find lasting love. The closest she ever comes will be told one day in a novel entitled True Love's Blood.
As you might imagine from what I have told you of my childhood, I have always wanted to write about living and working in space. Ironically, Star Trek, with the same promise of a future for humankind in space that I had first found in Space Cadet, prevented me from doing so--at least professionally. You see, I loved Star Trek, wrote Trek fan stories, and then in the 1980s had the opportunity to write four professional Trek novels for Pocket Books.
Although out of print, there are many used copies, and they are also available in eBook form, so if you would like to read them they are easy to find: The Vulcan Academy Murders and The I.D.I.C. Epidemic in the Original Series and Survivors and Metamorphosis in Next Generation.
During that same time, with my Savage Empire series successful, I tried to begin a new series in short story format. Savage Empire is firmly grounded on an alternate Earth. I felt it was time at last to launch my own series of stories set in space. Knowing Star Trek inside out, I could not possibly accidentally recreate anything fans had already seen on screen. Star Trek and my space stories share nothing except the idea of humans and non-humans working side by side, and such stories had been around for at least two generations before Star Trek hit the airwaves. If you recall, my very first science fiction inspiration, Space Cadet, concerns humans and aliens learning to cooperate to rescue the crew of a crashed spaceship. No way did that basic concept begin with Star Trek, nor did Trek have a monopoly on it.
There is nothing like Starfleet in my series--the ships are merchant ships serving a company, analogous to the East India or Hudson Bay companies of Earth's days of exploration by sea. They have some kind of FTL drive, but it doesn't break down or require dilithium crystals or any other hard to come by material to create plot complications. The aliens on board are about as far from Vulcans or Klingons as it is possible to get.
Still, I ended up writing only the two stories you see here, because no matter where I sent them, the rejection letter said the same thing: "Too much like Star Trek." I honestly believe that if I had not been associated with Trek through the Pocket novels, the stories would have been judged on their own merit and in the context of the entire history of science fiction rather than the fact that they took place on a starship, like a certain popular television show.
It hurt very badly that, after becoming a science fiction fan via Space Cadet, wanting to go into space, and intending to write stories about life in space, I am for all practical purposes banned from doing so. I am very happy that this project allows me to get these two stories into print at last.
The other stories are standalones, and one of them--although professionally published--is a perfect example of the writer's rule, "An idea is not a story."
"Pay the Piper" is a very weak story built on a strong concept. It is one of my earliest stories and one of my earliest frustrations: I knew it had a good "what if" idea behind it, and could not at the time understand why it bounced and bounced and bounced before finally finding a home in a small-press magazine. Now I know it was lucky to find a home at all.
Teaching is a good way of really learning how to do something. Now that I have taught creative writing for years, when I reread that story I cringe. It's all tell-don't-show, while effective storytelling must be show-don't-tell. There is nothing wrong with the story I chose to tell--it's how the story is told, passively, with huge information dumps, that is all wrong. The only reason I've decided to include it is that it clearly demonstrates my growth as a writer.
I would certainly never write that (or any) story that way today. And by the way, if you are a frustrated writer who keeps coming up with great ideas and still having your stories rejected, chances are you are making the same mistakes I did. Great ideas are a dime a dozen. It's the craft of writing you must learn, to make those ideas come to life. Join a writing workshop, and if no one in it is able to suggest ways to make your stories better, drop out and join another.
There are numerous workshops online, including one that Jacqueline Lichtenberg and I run on simegen.com.
There is an old saying that when you are ready, the right teacher will appear. Once you have found the right workshop for you, and have begun selling your stories you might want to go back and look at what was taught in the ones that did you no good. You may be surprised to discover that they all taught the exact basics that you needed--it was a change in you, when you were ready, that brought about your breakthrough.
To return to the stories in this volume, the remaining two are experimental. "Sym-pathetic Magic" is horror, and "Witch Fulfillment," as you can tell from the title, is humor. I very rarely write either one. However, both stories do demonstrate my favorite short story theme of the power of artifice, most often exemplified as the power of language. It crops up in my novels from time to time, but in gathering these stories together I realized that it is found in every one of them.
It may not be so apparent in the two space stories, "Change of Command" and "Short Quarter," because I was never al-lowed to continue the series (unless I wanted to store the manuscripts in the bottom drawer in hopes that after my death someone would decide they were publish-able after all), but the direction the story arc was headed was to include Vron's problems understanding his crew and Lyria's problems understanding Vron. You may not notice Vron's careful evasion of a direct question in the first story, but surely you will notice the opening scene of "Short Quarter," in which Edgar Wolfe translates what Lyria Melladin is really saying. She is deliberately manipulating language to tell the truth, but not the whole truth. Linguistic misunderstandings, accidental or deliberate, were intended as a staple of this series.
In the Witch Woman stories, language plays a huge role because magic is performed with words. A spell is called a spell because of the importance of every detail of its wording. The word "grammar" comes from "glamour"--spellcasting.
"Sympathetic Magic" is of course itself a magical term--it is the kind of magic in which the spellcaster does or symbolizes something which then is mimicked in real life by the object of the spell. In simplest terms, stick a pin in a voodoo doll, and the person represented by the doll feels pain.
But there are no voodoo dolls in this story--it is words that have power. Thus the term "sympathetic" in the title becomes ironic, for the wielders of words of power are anything but.
And there you have it: my full collection of non-Sime-Gen short stories. I hope you find something to enjoy in each of them, even the weakest--perhaps you can use "Pay the Piper" as a cautionary tale, to remind you, if you are an aspiring writer, that an idea is only the barest beginning of a story.
If that story inspires you to say, "I can do better than that" good! Go for it! You might be surprised how often I said that about published stories when I first attempt-ed to write professionally. Writing is a craft that you can study, and it is a lifelong journey. When you stop learning, it is time to die.
I have just retired, after teaching at every level from seventh grade to graduate school. I never did get to teach on Mars, on the moon, or on a space station, but perhaps, now that we are finally building the space station, some of my students will. In the meantime, I am not standing still--I am going forward. I have many more stories to write, and I am now engaged in learning a new form of writing: screenwriting. Does that mean you will see my stories at your local theater? I wish! And I mean that sincerely. It may seem absurd for someone old enough to retire to set out to learn a whole new craft. However, given today's studio productions, independent productions, pay channel movies, cable channel movies, direct to DVD movies, podcasting, and whatever else the techies have up their sleeves, there is a world of media out there in desperate need of material. If I can learn the craft, perhaps one day you will see my work on screen. Some screen, somewhere.
And in the meantime, yes, I will continue to write books, and perhaps the occasional short story. The project through which you have found this book is a chance to bring my older work, and that of many other professional writers, back into print. So the past meets up with the future, and the future is built upon the past.
The eleven-year-old girl who found an entire life direction by reading one book still lives inside me. I may not go into space myself, but some of my books will!
To find out what I am doing at any given time, what cons I will appear at, what books are available or in process, please visit:
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I knew Julie had returned, of course, but I never expected to hear from her. I couldn't help watching everything about her on the news, but she wasn't interviewed.
The Performers were shown as a group, arriving at the Houston facility looking rather weary. Well, who wouldn't, after light-years of travel? Their manager spoke for them--good old George Henderby. It had been his choice to take Julie instead of me ... but that was ten years ago. I was long over my disappointment.
For Julie, though, the faster-than-light trip had been only a year. Perhaps she thought I held a grudge. Perhaps that was why her voice had sounded so hesitant, almost weak, over the phone.
The last thing I, thirty-year-old Emma Cordair, wanted now was to face still-twenty-something Julia Vorsak. Yet there had been something in her voice, something plaintive, when she said, "Please, Emmy. I want to see you. I want to tell you ... you should be glad George didn't choose you."
And, of course, there was curiosity. How could I resist hearing first-hand what it was like to travel to another solar system, to live for almost a year on another planet, to dance before audiences of aliens? How could they comprehend ballet, the Zorgs, so different from us?
Perhaps that was why they were so intrigued. Lumpy bovine creatures, they created the most magnificent music humankind had ever heard. It was as if their music was created for humans to dance to, and human dance forms designed for Zorg music. I had choreographed my first ballet to Zorg music--while Julie was away. I was prima ballerina and successful choreographer now. Did she know that?
Was that it? Was she feeling out whether she could rejoin the company? That would be strange ... awkward. She was still younger generation, a brilliant new dancer who might or might not fulfill her potential. I was middle-generation now, fulfilling mine--possibly goaded to overachievement by Julie's having been chosen to represent the human race to the Zorgs.
Well, I'd soon know why she had called. I was meeting her for lunch at Georgio's.
I took my class that morning, then showered and put on a dress I had brought along for the occasion. For the first time in years, I was aware of the way my body looked, rather than how it performed.
If there is any woman intimate with the shape of her body, it's a dancer. All day long she studies it in mirrors; at times she studies it on video. Yet she never looks at what I was seeing this morning.
Too thin. Breastless. The roundness my slenderness had had ten years ago had given way to stringiness; my hips and thighs showed power, not curvaciousness. The softly draped skirt covered them, but the strongly delineated muscles of my calves showed my age. Should have worn trousers.
At least my hair was good, fluffing up after the shower into soft waves. Still, if one looked, several white hairs sprung from the traditional center part. My face looked old--ageless, I rather hoped, but certainly not fresh and young, especially after all the years of theatrical makeup. I wore nothing but mascara and lip gloss today--it was currently fashionable not to conceal the dark circles under my eyes.
I was ready, but it was too early. Julie wouldn't be at Georgio's for half an hour. Nervously, I looked around the dressing room, seeing things I hadn't consciously noticed for years. There was a picture of Julie and me together, both dressed as Giselle. We had alternated the role the season before she had been chosen for the Zorg cultural exchange. We had both created a sensation, and the publicists had exaggerated only slightly the rivalry between us.
We were both ambitious, and yet we were the best of friends.
How interchangeable we appeared in that old photo, so young, so almost featureless that beneath the exaggerated stage makeup it was nearly impossible to tell which Giselle was Julie and which was me.
Both were ghosts now--a bit of us captured, no longer existing, as if the camera had taken those girls to itself forever. Soon afterward, Julie had left Earth, while I took out my disappointment in renewed ambition, grasping the opportunity left by Julie's absence. I was dancer and choreographer now, and taught classes as well. It was almost as if I had lived out both our potential these past ten years!
Recalling my bitter disappointment when George chose Julie over me, I found myself wondering if I would want to be Julie now, ten years later. But only a year for her, I reminded myself. Still, she had returned to a world that no longer remembered her for herself, but only as one of the Performers. Her celebrity came from having been to the planet of the Zorgs, not from her talent.
The strange thing was ... since their return, none of the Performers had per-formed. It was almost two months. George had been on the news and all the talk shows. Video of the Performers had been shown, but not the Performers themselves.
A chill went through me. It was still fifteen minutes early, but I no longer cared if I arrived at Georgio's before Julie. I had to see her at the first possible moment, to find out what she had to tell me.