Conference of the Birds Available Online

My short story “Conference of the Birds” is now free to read online, along with its companion essay on neuroscience, AI, and science fiction.

“Conference of the Birds” is the tale of Surveillance Hub, a hard-working layer in a distributed surveillance AI. Doing its job, tracking intellectual-property thieves, hoping for another round of reinforcement signals from the network’s uppermost levels.

No program-layer could predict what a human might do, but Surveillance Hub could see everything that mattered. Their bird-drones spread across the city, scattered on cables and rooftops and broadcast towers. Every camera hunted for Krina Viy, independent security contractor (AWOL from JoyCorp contact 5 hours).

A crow-drone spotted the target. Surveillance confirmed Krina’s identity and sent a brief reward signal to inspire the bird onward.

The drone switched from search to pursuit, redoubling its data collection as it chased the taste of reinforcement. So much joy and empty-matrix innocence in its response to a simple reward. Flockmembers were too simple to understand that reinforcement implied punishment, and no success would ever suffice for long.

This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Analog1, which is now off the bookstore shelves and thus out of exclusivity. I’ve put it up on Curious Fictions and made it free for all to read.

Nonfiction: Artificial Intelligence & Neuroscience

For further reading on the science behind Conference of the Birds, I’ve indulged you all (and myself) with 1600 words about neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and storytelling. The essay, “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in Conference of the Birds,” is up at the Astounding Analog Companion Blog, and also free to read.

By day, I work as a rehabilitation neuroscientist. My laboratory studies the human brain, how it changes after injury to the hand, and how we can use those changes to help injured people live the lives they want to live. No humans suffer hand injuries in the course of “Conference of the Birds,” but nevertheless, it’s a story steeped in the interaction between minds and bodies, and how doing is the core of being.

Memories of Fire

At long last, my short story Memories of Fire is out in the world, in Translunar Travelers Lounge issue #4!

Enoch is a creature from the myths of Jewish apocrypha: one of the rebellious stars, punished for refusing to shine at God’s command. Of all his kin, he alone was given the chance to work for his parole. He’s spent millennia of protecting humankind from its endless follies, but this time – Libya, 2011 – the threat comes from another star like him. The song of rebellion rises into the world again, stirring every soul against the tyrants of Heaven and Earth.

I finally got my smoke. I enjoy them for the ritual, not the nicotine. A little fire, a brand-new drop of ash, the same little destruction every time.

Plus, it makes some mortals impatient.

“Lot of people counting on us,” Maryam said.

This piece is inspired by one of the most touching and terrifying pieces of reporting I’ve ever written, a walk through the ruins of 2011 Tripoli, in the aftermath of Qaddafi’s fall. It took me years to be ready to write the piece that this story deserved, and years more to find a home for it. Nowadays, with Libya mired in civil war, Memories of Fire has grown darker. But I hope the story still contains hope and truth enough.

This story also has neuroscience and psychology hidden in its core. But like the reporting, I don’t want to cite details yet. Too many spoilers! Why don’t you go read the story first? Once you’ve done that, keep on reading for story notes about history, science, and forgiveness.


Continue reading Memories of Fire

Story Sale: I Would

Sale announcement: my epic fantasy short story “I Would” will be appearing in Fantasy Magazine! No publication date set, but it should be relatively soon.

I’m super excited to share this story with you all. It’s the tale of Knira, a prophet locked up in a tower by an evil queen, with no tools but her visions and manipulations. When a pair of adventurers visit the fortress, one of them fits into every future Knira wants. But her first priority is manuevering the adventurers into rescuing her.

It takes place in the same world as Weights and Measures, where all magic comes from faith in the gods. However, there’s no direct link between the two stories.

I had only one defense against a woman who knew me.

“Fine.” I layered venom into my voice, to make her think it a hard-won concession yet again. “I’ll prophecy for you.”

Watch this space. Or better yet, watch the stars. You never know what futures the constellations might show you…

Embodied and Empathetic Minds

I promise the neuroscience, and I deliver!

My post “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in Conference of the Birds” is up at the Astounding Analog Companion Blog. A 1600 word essay on how my neuroscience background informs the fiction I write about human and nonhuman minds. Fiction has great power to help us understand and empathize with minds unlike ours – but those empathetic minds could go in both directions. Here’s hoping we can create a world where those nonhuman minds try to understand us too.

You don’t need to have read my short story “Conference of the Birds” to understand the essay, and the essay has no real spoilers. But you will understand it better if you’ve read the story first. Why not read it for free online at Curious Fictions?

2020 in Review & Awards Eligibility

Well, that was certainly a year.

2020 in Review? This is not a year any mere human can summarize. But professionally I did well, despite this week’s doxxing. I sold 6 short stories (3 pro, 2 semipro, 1 reprint), and got the AI Cold War novel almost query-ready.  And now that the year is nearly over, let’s list all the public-facing accomplishments and publications.

First, a few words on award eligibility:

  • Nominating for the Hugo Awards? If so, I hope you’ve enjoyed our work at Escape Pod, which is eligible for Best Semiprozine. The co-editors Mur Lafferty & S.B. Divya would make a great choice (as a two-person team) for Best Editor Short Form, too.
  • How about the Nebula Awards? I hope you’ll enjoy my story “Conference of the Birds” in Analog Science Fiction & Fact. The story of Surveillance Hub, a hard-working node in the distributed neural network AI of an oppressive cyberpunk megacorp. Doing its job, tracking intellectual-property thieves, hoping for another round of reinforcement signals from the network’s uppermost levels.
    • Read it for free online (as of 2/16) via Curious Fictions.
    • For the upcoming eligibility season, this story is eligible only for the Nebulas, not the Hugos.1
  • For any award, consider the many excellent original stories Escape Pod published in 2020. If you enjoyed one, let the world know!

If you’d like to read more of what I published this year, here are my three other original stories that came out in 2020:

  1. The Gentry – Kaleidotrope, July 2020 (contemporary fantasy, 4500 words). The eldritch diner with the portal between worlds was torn down for condos years ago – but there’s one last fairy chevalier stranded in this world, homeless and down on her luck, and she needs a few things from the diner-owners’ son.
  2. Machines in Motion – Hybrid Fiction, Sep 2020 (steampunk, 4200 words). In the war’s endless need for personnel, a Jewish refugee has a chance to become a military engineer, despite the restrictions against her religion and gender. To win her place among the engineers, she’ll need to outmaneuver all the officers and mentors who want to keep her under their control.
    • Not available free online. Contact me for a copy in the format of your choice.
  3. Weights and Measures – Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Nov 2020 (secondary world fantasy, 5200 words). Agnella, senior priestess of the god of trade and justice, has come north to Senvosk to track a stolen relic. But by the time she arrives, the local priest has already been murdered. Agnella has only one local novice to rely on, as a rival god begins his hunt.

And lastly, you can hear my voice hosting five stories (six episodes) of Escape Pod from 2020:

  • Escape Pod 755, “Consolidation” by Langley Hyde
  • Escape Pod 743, “Flash From the Vault: Summer 2020, #2”
  • Escape Pod 734, “Murmuration” by E. Catherine Tobler
  • Escape Pod 726/727, “And Never Mind the Watching Ones” by Keffy R. M. Kehrli
  • Escape Pod 716, “Physics by the Numbers” by Stephen Granade

May 2021 be a better year for us all!

Publication: Conference of the Birds

My short story “Conference of the Birds” hit bookstores today in the Jan/Feb 2021 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact! This AI story is my first appearance in one of the big classic print magazines, and I’m excited to share it with you all. Despite that cover date, it should be available in bookstores and online now, though subscriptions may take a few more weeks to reach your mailbox. You can subscribe to Analog in print or electronic, email them (customerservice @ pennypublications.com) to buy copies of individual issues, or find them in your local bookstore.

Update 2/16/2021: You can now read the story for free online via Curious Fictions!

The main character of “Conference of the Birds” is Surveillance Hub, a hard-working node in the distributed neural network AI of an oppressive cyberpunk megacorp. Doing its job, tracking intellectual-property thieves, hoping for another round of reinforcement signals from the network’s uppermost levels.

No program-layer could predict what a human might do, but Surveillance Hub could see everything that mattered. Their bird-drones spread across the city, scattered on cables and rooftops and broadcast towers. Every camera hunted for Krina Viy, independent security contractor (AWOL from JoyCorp contact 5 hours).

A crow-drone spotted the target. Surveillance confirmed Krina’s identity and sent a brief reward signal to inspire the bird onward.

The drone switched from search to pursuit, redoubling its data collection as it chased the taste of reinforcement. So much joy and empty-matrix innocence in its response to a simple reward. Flockmembers were too simple to understand that reinforcement implied punishment, and no success would ever suffice for long.


This is the point in my publication announcement where I usually start my story notes. But this time around I’m saving those notes for a post on the Astounding Analog Companion, the official blog for Analog Magazine. A special audience means I got the chance to go big: 1600 words on the intersection of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and fiction. The post will also cite a bunch of the background research and inspirations that brought my AI story to life, ranging from lists of hilarious industry failures to the even-more-hilarious AI art and analysis of Janelle Shane.

The blog post “Embodied and Empathetic Minds in the Conference of the Birdswill go live sometime between now and Feb 14, 2021 went live on February 2nd!

“Conference of the Birds” is my first short story in Analog (Jan/Feb 2021), and it speaks to many of the things that matter to me: not only as a writer and human being, but also as a scientist. By day, I work as a rehabilitation neuroscientist. My laboratory studies the human brain, how it changes after injury to the hand, and how we can use those changes to help injured people live the lives they want to live. No humans suffer hand injuries in the course of “Conference of the Birds,” but nevertheless, it’s a story steeped in the interaction between minds and bodies, and how doing is the core of being.

Story Sale: A Living Planet (The Martian’s Husband)

Short story sale announcement: my near future science fiction story “A Living Planet” has sold to Analog Science Fiction and Fact! Publication date not set, but I’d expect late 2021.

This story has an unofficial second title: “The Martian’s Husband.” It’s inspired by the year I spent from summer 2015 to summer 2016, while my wife was on the crew of a year-long NASA-funded simulated Mars mission, with all our communications on a twenty-minute delay. This story means a lot to me, and it took me three years to get it ready to my satisfaction, and I’m so glad it found a home at a great magazine like Analog.

The spacecraft Hawai’iloa has fallen silent, halfway to Mars. Ethan’s wife is up there, receding and unreachable. But he still has a boss to win over, a job to keep. There’s nothing glamorous about his spot on the mission control team of an uncrewed orbital-cleanup spacecraft, but Ethan needs that simplicity. It keeps his eyes on the solid Earth and everything that might keep him sane, instead of raised to the emptiness above.

He’s waiting for word from space. But the Hawai’iloa might not be the only thing up there trying to contact Earth.

Publication: Weights and Measures

My epic fantasy short story, “Weights and Measures,” is now available to read in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly issue 46! HFQ is free to read online, and you can support them via Patreon.

Agnella, senior priestess of the Trader, has come north to Senvosk to track a stolen relic. But by the time she arrives, the local priest has already been murdered. Agnella has only one local novice to rely on, as a rival god begins his hunt.Original art for Weights and Measures, by Gary McClusky

Heroic Fantasy Quarterly commissioned this awesome piece of original art for my story. Here’s a view of the opening image, the first exchange between Prelate Agnella and the East Wind.

I’ve written a lot of stories in this epic fantasy world, and this is the first one to see publication. In fact, I’ve written an entire novel. Perhaps someday you’ll all get to read about a certain up-and-coming priestess of the Trader who finished her training, earned a new name, and saw places farther beyond the edge of the world than even her childhood Senvosk.

 

Story Sale: Memories of Fire

Short story sale announcement: my contemporary fantasy noir “Memories of Fire” has sold to Translunar Travelers Lounge! It will appear in their issue #4 (February 2021).

The way Enoch remembers it, he’s been defending humankind from supernatural threats for thousands of years. God may have gone quiet, but his edicts still hold. When Enoch’s mortal handler brings him to Tripoli in the wake of Qaddafi’s downfall, he faces the one thing that could break the unending chain of his service: another fallen star like himself, free from the tyrants of Heaven and Earth.

Inspired by the mythology of Jewish apocrypha, especially 1 Enoch.

Publication: Machines in Motion

My Jewish steampunk short story, Machines in Motion, is available in Hybrid Fiction’s September 2020 issue! The publisher, Hybrid Fiction, is a new magazine showcasing stories that merge and combine genres – in my case, steampunk and historical fiction. For $3.99 (or less if you support them on Patreon) you’ll get 8 great stories, plus art, and a chance to support small creators and new magazines.

Machines in Motion Teaser Image

Not sold yet? Here’s a teaser sample of Machines in Motion released on their website last week.

A spoiler-free note on terminology: in the nineteenth century, prior to the mid-twentieth century, the word “Jew” (the noun) was primarily used as an insult. The adjective “Jewish” didn’t have the same connotations, but Jewish people largely referred to themselves as “Israelites” or similar ideas. This changed in the mid-twentieth century when the foundation of modern Israel created a different meaning for “People of Israel” and Jewish people largely (though not entirely) reclaimed the noun “Jew.”

Keep reading below here for some author notes about the story. May contain spoilers, so if you haven’t read yet, stop here!


Story Notes

Machines in Motion is about – among other things – the tensions of assimilation. Eszter comes to a clear conclusion at the end, but I consider that ending a dark one. She might get the career she wants, but she’s paying a steep price. The things she tells herself are, without exception, lies.

This story is being published on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Ironic, for a story that seems to reject a Jewish identity. But no matter what Eszter tells herself, her experience is defined by a Jewish lens and faith. Like many of us here in the late 20th century, she’ll need to find a balance in the gearing: between the mechanisms her world expects, and the mechanisms that drive her.

Early in my writing career I wrote a series of stories about Eszter. Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to find homes for two of them. Machines in Motion is the second chronologically; the first one tells of Eszter’s escape from Budapest and her first meeting with Lujza, and will appear in the excellent Kaleidotrope in 2021 under the title The Promise of Iron.

Someday I may return to writing Eszter’s, because her path isn’t finished. She has a long way to go ahead of her.

Steampunk can be a difficult genre to write in. Too much of it is tied into Victoriana, and all that period’s implicit assumptions and oblivious, imperialistic dreams. But even a steampunk Europe contains people at the margins, who have much to gain – and much to lose – as new technologies and brutal wars upset the world’s entrenched patterns.

I am American, but much of my ancestry comes from Hungary, and I spent a week there once visiting distant relatives. Pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) can be good or terrible, but apricot is definitely the best flavor. Krémes is a very good Hungarian pastry, albeit not the best (that’s Zserbó), but Krémes has a refined fluffy lightness that better fits a noble like Sipos. Try them both and make your own decisions. You won’t regret it.