(Both Exist, and Exist Not)
EP269: Élan Vital
By K. Tempest Bradford
Book Review: For The Win
Review by Josh Roseman
EP271: God Of The Lower Level
By Charles M. Saplak
Sauropod Dinosaurs had weird feet
By Sarah Frost
EP273: Dead’s End to Middleton
By Natania Barron
Superhero Fiction: The Next Big Thing?
by Adam Christopher
Publisher: Ben Phillips – ben @ escapeartists.net
Founder: Steve Eley – steve @ escapeartists.net
Editor: Mur Lafferty – editor @ escapepod.org
Assistant Editor: Bill Peters – bill @ escapeartists.net
The Soundproof Escape Pod and all works within are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-
NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. All works are copyright their respective authors.
Mur kindly introduced me in the last issue of Soundproof, but for anyone who missed that, hi. I’m Escape
Pod’s Assistant Editor, and I’m most publicly known for doing the feedback segments in the podcast. I also
oversee our teem of slush readers and end up sending out a lot of our rejections, and of course I lay out
Soundproof. And other things, as necessary.
So in this beginning of a new year, I’m instead going to take you back a few days to the death of the last
machine on earth that could turn a roll of Kodachrome from an opaque deep red film stock into color
etched rectangles of plastic. Most of us have moved onto digital, which, let’s be fair, is significantly more
user friendly and easier to control. Cheaper, too.
But it says something about Kodachrome — the first successful color film — that it took 75 years to be
phased out of production. Sure, it had dwindled in years past, and films meant for paper prints rather than
to be projected got rapidly popular, and it was a finicky, and slow, film to shoot.
Getting it developed in the last decade or so meant sending it to one place in Kansas and always worrying
that the machine would break or Kodak would stop making the developing chemistry. While it’s trivial to
develop black and white film at home, and not too horrible to do most modern color films, Kodachrome’s
process (K-14) would confound most any man.
But it was pretty. Someone wrote a bit too saccharine song about it. And it picked up the light in a bit dif-
ferent way than everything after it did.
So this month we’re bringing you three stories in this pixelated form: Élan Vital by K. Tempest Bradford,
Dead’s End to Middleton by Natania Barron, and God of the Lower Level by Charles M. Saplak.
They’re quite good.
Assistant Editor, Escape Pod
By K. Tempest Bradford
The few minutes I had to spend in the Institute’s waiting room were my least favorite part of coming up
to visit my mother. It felt more like a dialysis room, the visitors sunk into the overly-soft couches and not
speaking, just drinking orange juice and recovering. There were no magazines and no television, just cold
air blowing from the vents and generic music flowing with it. I’d finished my juice and was beginning to
brood on my dislike for overly air-conditioned buildings when my mother arrived attended by a nurse.
I kissed and hugged her, automatically asking how she was, mouthing the answer she always gave as she
gave it again.
“I’m fine, same as always.”
It wasn’t strictly true, but true enough.
“Let’s go on out,” she said, shrugging off the nurse’s continued assistance. “It’s too cold in here.”
Despite the hint, the nurse tried to help Mom over the threshold. As always, she rebuffed any attempt to
treat her like an old person.
“Where to today?” she asked, slipping her arm into mine as we escaped the frigid building.
“Just down to the lake,” I said. “Don’t want to overexert you.”
She squeezed my arm as her feet slid carefully over the cobbled path. I wanted her to use a wheelchair, or
a walker, at least. She wouldn’t.
“What you mean is that we haven’t got so much time today,” she said.
I shrugged instead of answering. I didn’t want to go into why I couldn’t afford much this trip.
“Next time I’ll come for a couple of days, at least. I promise.”
“No, that’s all right,” she said. “I don’t like it when you spend so much for days and more. A few hours is
I helped her past the immaculately landscaped gardens and small orchards. The scent of flowers, herbs,
and fresh-cut grass wafting at us in turn. I glanced at the garden entrances as we passed by, catching quick
glances of other people in the middle of visits. A young couple who’d been in the waiting room with me
knelt by a small, bald girl as she splashed in the koi pond. Two elderly women stood under a weeping wil-
low, their heads close, lips barely moving. A large group of people speaking Mandarin milled around the
waterfall in the rock garden. I could still hear faint traces of their melodic din all the way down by the lake.
I preferred this spot–the flora was less regimented and more natural. And no walls. Just an open space,
water gently flicking the shoreline, a beautiful view down the hill, and the occasional cat wandering by.
“This hasn’t changed much,” my mom said as I helped her down on one of the small benches by the water.
“I thought they were going to get ducks or geese or something.”
I chose a nearby rock for my own perch. “I think they’re having trouble with permits or whatever you need
The wind kicked up, sending freckles of reflected light across her face. Her skin was still perfect, beautiful
and dark brown, though stretched across her cheekbones a little too tight. I hated that I never had enough
to restore her round cheeks and full figure. I have to look at pictures just to remember her that way.
“You haven’t changed much, either,” she said while fussing with my hair. I’d bought some dye the week
before, knowing she’d notice it. “How long has it been?”
She let out a familiar sigh–part exhaustion, part exasperation, part sadness, I suppose. “That’s too soon.”
“It’s your birthday, though.”
“Is it? It’s fall already?” She looked out over the small forest that edged the Institute’s boundary a few miles
away. The trees were still green with no hint of turning. It always felt and looked like summer there; one
of the reasons the administrators chose the location. “I miss the seasons. Fall colors, Christmas snow…”
“You never did when you had to shovel it.”
That got her to smile.
I reached out and held her hand; still a little cold even in the full sunlight. “Besides, I missed you.”
“I know. But…”
“And I won’t be able to come back until after the new year, anyway, so I wanted to squeeze in one more
visit. Since today is special…”
Years ago I used to bring her cake and presents on her birthday. She couldn’t really eat the cake–one of the
side effects of whatever they did when they brought her back. The presents had to go back home with me
since she didn’t have any place to put them and couldn’t wear clothing or jewelry once she went back to
sleep. I hated having to give that up, too.
“Okay, I’ll give you a pass this time.” She kissed my cheek, seeming more like her old self. “Where are
you off to?”
“Rwanda. For a dig. Dr. Berman promised I’d be more than a glorified volunteer wrangler this trip. And
they want me for a year. Still, I’ll try to come back and see you sooner than that.”
“No, you should concentrate on your work. I’ll still be here.” My mother never changed.
It was the same when she was sick. I wanted to take a break from college and stay home with her. It was
pretty clear that her death was inevitable by that time, the only question being: how long? I wanted to be
with her, she wanted me back in class. If you take a leave of absence you might never go back, she’d said.
So I went back.
“For me it’ll seem like you’ve gone and come back right away.” Trying to reassure me again.
“I know,” I said. “Must be strange, not being able to perceive the passage of time.”
We didn’t say anything for a while. This was the part of the visit where one of us either addressed the el-
ephant in the room or steered the conversation around it.
“At least I’m not as bad as Ella,” she said. And we both laughed.
My aunt, her older sister, was so notorious for being late that we started her funeral a few hours behind
schedule because it just felt right. My cousin Brandon joked that we should have carved an epitaph on her
headstone: “I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“Remember the time she was supposed to pick me up from rehearsal or something?”
“And you waited for her, caught the bus, and was home before she’d even left the house!”
Mom kept me laughing for a long time, recounting trips she’d taken with Ella and their cousins and every-
thing that went wrong because they were never on time anywhere. Stories I’d heard dozens of times before
and wouldn’t have minded hearing a hundred times again. More and more, her laughs ended with a small
coughing fit. I checked the time; we had about forty-five minutes left.
“Do you want to head back?” I asked. “Sit inside a bit before you…”
“You don’t die.”
“Technically, I do. According to the doctors, anyway.”
I didn’t argue. I didn’t even want to be talking about it. I was never there when my mother went ‘back
under’, as the nurses put it. It was against Institute rules. I suppose for some people it might have been
upsetting to see their loved ones in the capsules residents stayed in. Too much like a coffin. For me, it felt
wrong not to be by her side when it happened. I was with her when she first died, after all.
Seeing that I wasn’t going to go there, mom leaned back and turned her face to the sunlight. “No, let’s stay
out here a little bit longer. It’s a nice day.”
“I could come back tomorrow, get a few more hours,” I said. It wouldn’t matter if I stayed a little longer.
There wasn’t anyone waiting for me back at home.
“You know how I feel about that.” Her look was semi-stern. “You don’t want to end up in here yourself.
Not for a long time, if ever.”
“At least we’d be together,” I said, smiling.
“But who would bring us back?”
“I’m sure I could bribe Brandon’s kids to do it.” I wasn’t particularly close to my cousin anymore, though
his oldest called me on the holidays. My guess was she’d been coveting my share of our grandmother’s
“You’ve given this a lot of thought. I’m surprised.”
I knew I had to tread very carefully. “It may come up. Someday. You haven’t said you want to stop. And if
anything happens to me, it’s in my will that I want to come here if I can.”
Mom gazed at me steadily for what felt like a long time. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
That alarmed me more than a little. “Why? Is there… I mean, something that isn’t right? Is it…” When you
avoid talking about something for so long, it’s hard to know how to start. “Is it bad?”
“The dying? I don’t know, really. They always induce sleep before that moment.”
Though I had always been more reluctant to talk about this, I could tell my mother was holding back, not
saying some things. That scared me even more. She was always very upfront with me except when it came
to what was going on with her. Usually when it was really bad.
“What’s it like? Afterwards. While you’re… gone.”
She shook her head slowly, her look far away. “To be honest, I don’t know.”
Better than the answer I’d been dreading. Answers, plural, actually. Nothing I could imagine made me feel
particularly good. Either I was ripping my mother away from the glories of heaven or giving her only small
respites from the tortures of hell. The preachers and protestors all had their own variations on those themes
and loved to scream them at me (or anyone else driving past the gates) whenever I came up. ‘I don’t know’
was, at least, not guilt-inducing.
“It’s a little like waking up from a dream,” she said after a couple of minutes. “I know that I’ve been dream-
ing, and I even intend to remember the dream, but I can’t recall a single element once I wake up.”
“That must be frustrating.” I sometimes dreamed of what she did and where she went while I was gone.
Many times I was there with her. Those were my favorite.
“It’s the way things are,” she said and shrugged. “Ironic, though, isn’t it? I don’t know anymore about the
afterlife than anyone else and I’ve been dead how many years?”
“Hmm.” She smiled my favorite smile–the one where the corners of her mouth turned down and yet it was
still somehow a smile. “I guess I am having trouble with time. I thought it had been longer.”
I still couldn’t get over the fact that it had happened at all. It wasn’t fair. I was too young to lose my mother
and she was too young to be dying. Only fifty-three. Not fair at all. So when the UR Institute approached
me in the hospital I was primed to listen and agree. They would handle all of the funeral arrangements and
costs and even buy a crypt for her in the cemetery where her mother and father and brother were buried.
No one else would know that she wasn’t in there. Only I knew that she was actually resting in the Institute
waiting to be re-animated. You could have your mother back for a couple of days a few times a year, they’d
said. Holidays, birthdays, your wedding day. They had me from hello.
It didn’t matter that the only reason they were prepared to foot the bills was that they wanted to study how
people who died from cancer reacted to the resurrection process. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t tell the
rest of the family. Only a few people knew then that the Institute wasn’t just reanimating rich old ladies’
cats anymore. It didn’t matter that I would have to provide the élan vital necessary to reanimate her again
for those few hours or days. Or that these transfusions shortened my own life span, sometimes caused
considerable health problems in other ‘donors’, and took the ability to have children of my own. It didn’t
matter. I just wanted my mother back.
“It can’t have only been seven years.” Mom was frowning now.
“Oh, right. It’s been more like ten.” My hand went to the nape of my neck, rubbing the tender spot they
always used for access. I thought I’d gotten rid of that tic.
“Has it?” She was paging back through her memory. I could tell from her look.
I exuded casualness–my only defense against a mother’s ability to catch you in a lie. “Like you said, the
process messes with your sense of time.”
I had developed this tendency to treat her like a doddering old woman. She was only 53 and would always
be 53. She never aged, just backed up from death a few steps before going ahead again. The resurrection
process didn’t work very well on cancer patients, particularly cancers of the blood. She was perpetually
sick-seeming, though the pain wasn’t as bad. That made it easy to fool myself by thinking she was getting
old and forgetful when her memory was as sharp as ever.
“I’ve been resurrected twenty-six times. I know because someone told me when I hit twenty.”
They weren’t supposed to tell her stuff like that.
“Six visits should have been three years ago,” she continued. “How long has it actually been?”
And of course she was giving me that look. The one mothers have when you’ve been caught forging a re-
port card signature or sneaking into a movie when you’re supposed to be in Algebra. There was no point
“A little over a year,” I admitted. I could see her ramping up. “Mom, it’s-”
“When I agreed to do this it was on the condition that you only do two transfusions a year. Three at most.
Now you’re telling me six!”
“Shannon, that’s too many. It’s dangerous! You’re throwing away years–”
“Years of your life on the past!”
There was more to the speech but a chime interrupted. Each patient had an electronic monitor bracelet to
keep track of vital signs, warn of danger, and countdown the time left. It chimed again, informing us that
we had 20 minutes.
“We should start back.” I said, knowing she didn’t need the whole twenty for the walk.
“No. Sit down.”
“Mom, please, we need to go.”
She pointed at my rock. “Not until we talk about this.”
There was nothing to do but give in.
“You can’t keep doing this,” she said, using The Voice. Like I was a small child and she was explaining why
I couldn’t have something I’d begged and begged for at the store. “This five or six or however many times
a year. You promised me.”
“I know. And I’m sorry I lied. But I didn’t want you to worry. And I couldn’t afford it any other way.”
“Afford what? I thought they said this was free.”
There had been several times I’d wanted to tell her this. To tell anyone, really. But she wouldn’t have just
listened. She would have made me stop.
“The ‘storage’ is free,” I said. I hated that word and the way they used it. “But the resurrection isn’t. The
fees went up once they went public. I couldn’t always afford it. And I couldn’t wait years between seeing
you again. Then they developed a way to transfer vital force between non-family members.”
I wanted to turn away, but I forced myself to look her in the eye. “People pay a lot of money for that.”
I have only seen my mother cry a few times in my life. Seeing tears in her eyes broke me down to the child
I was when I first saw them. When you’re three (or thirty) and your mother cries because of something
you’ve done, you want to turn back time or vow to be the perfect daughter for the rest of your life. Anything
to make it better.
“Every time I do it for someone else they let me do it for you, too. For the short visits. Then I earn enough
money to buy longer ones.”
“You have to stop.” She squeezed my hand tight and drew me over to the bench.
“Mom, it’s okay. I’m fine. The process is much more refined now, much less dangerous.”
“No. This isn’t right.”
“But I’m helping people. Helping them hang on to life a little longer.”
Mom made me look her in the eyes. “Why aren’t their family members doing it for them? Why are they
paying someone else to do it?”
There are probably dozens of legitimate reasons I could have given her. But, in the end, it all came down
to the fact that people with that kind of money to throw around didn’t need to give of themselves to fulfill
their desires, so they didn’t. Nor did they have to when there were plenty of people like me around.
The monitor chimed again. She pressed a button to silence it, then took it off altogether.
“Shannon, I love you. I would do anything for you. I did this for you.”
I was the one crying now. “You didn’t really want to though, did you?”
“No, baby, I did.” She wiped the tears from my cheek. A futile act as they were near torrential. “When I–
when I died I had no regrets but one: that I was leaving you. I wouldn’t get to see you graduate college or
get married or be a mother yourself. I would miss your life and I hated that thought.”
It was nearly dark. The lights around the lake blinked on and illuminated her hollow face. My mother’s
body wasted away by cancer. Cancer that would kill her again right in front of my eyes if we stayed any
longer. They warned every resident to get back to the Institute before… Before. They said if the proper
procedure wasn’t followed it could result in damage, or worse.
“How many years has this taken from you? Not just the seven we’ve been doing this, but the years they
I closed my eyes, seeing my face as it looked in the mirror each morning. No wrinkles to speak of–that was
down to her genes. But the grey hairs, the stiff joints, and the fatigue made me feel older than thirty. Hell,
older than forty, most days. “They don’t know. It’s hard to tell. They just don’t know. And it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters!”
“No, it doesn’t. Because you’re my mother. Because I’m supposed to take care of you. Because I wasn’t
there when you had your operations or when you had chemo or all the other times you needed me. I was
off sorting through dead people’s things and wondering which pottery sherd came from which dynasty and
other bullshit that didn’t matter!”
The bracelet beeped again. I took a few minutes to calm down, knowing that minutes was all I had left.
But my throat was so tight I could barely breathe and I didn’t want to lose it.
“I thought of you every day,” she said with effort. “But every day I was glad you weren’t there to see me like
that. I didn’t want that to be how you remembered me. Sending you back to college was an easy excuse.”
I wiped my face dry as best I could, then swept away the tears on her cheeks. “So. Atonement for us both,
“I let it go on for too long, though,” she said. It was obvious that she was in a great deal of pain and did
not intend to do anything about it. “I just didn’t want to leave you again.”
“At some point, I have to. I’m dead, baby. You can bring me back a hundred times and nothing will change
“It’s not fair.”
She wrapped her arms around me. “No one ever promised you fair.”
No, no one ever did. Not even her.
Five minutes before we were supposed to be back at the main building, a nurse found us, my mom’s head
resting on my shoulder, my arm holding her close.
“Ma’am, do you need help getting back?” he asked.
“She’s not going back,” I said, my eyes never leaving the water.
“But Miss Tidmore, she needs to get back if we’re–”
“I’m exercising my right to allow my mother a full and natural death.”
The minutes ticked away. Mom’s body started to tremble, the pain kicking in as her time ran out. She’d lost
consciousness just after the nurse went to get help. Or reinforcements. It was hard, sitting there, knowing
that she was in pain.
In the end, she left the decision up to me. Just like she had seven years before in the hospital. My aunts had
been taking care of her, but I had the power of attorney. I could let her go or I could let the Institute bring
her back. Now, by the lake, footsteps approaching, it was the same. I could let her go or I could bring her
When they came back, I knew, they would try to change my mind. They would argue and reason and
sound very convincing. They couldn’t force me, though. It was in the contract.
I held her hand. I waited forever. It was over too soon.
But I was there.
K. Tempest Bradford is a speculative short story writer by day, an activist blogger by night, and a gadget
nerd in the interstices. She has edited fiction for Peridot Books, The Fortean Bureau, and Sybil’s Garage
and from 2007 to 2009 she was managing editor of Fantasy Magazine, acquiring and editing non-fiction
features and interviews. Her fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Farthing Magazine, Strange Horizons,
Sybil’s Garage, Electric Velocipede, Podcastle and the Federations and Interfictions anthologies. The nexus
of all her activities is her website at ktempestbradford.com.
Book Review: For The Win
Review by Josh Roseman
Written by Cory Doctorow
I don’t play MMORPGs. I never have. They’re just too big for me. If I’m going to play a RPG, it’s going to
be something I can play by myself, with lots of cut-scenes and a hint book — because, in my opinion, the
best part about RPGs isn’t figuring out that you need to combine the Widget of Destiny with the Wilted
Flower to create a Magical Key of Awesomeness. It’s playing the game like an interactive movie with battle
Which is why I love Final Fantasy VII and X so very much.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t also thoroughly enjoy Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, For the Win.
For the Win, ostensibly a YA novel (I’d say “mature YA”), contains some pretty heavy concepts, most of
them dealing with economics, gaming, labor, employee rights, and the way totalitarian governments deal
with lawbreakers. But fortunately, that’s not all it’s about.
For the Win follows a few major characters and spans the entire near-future Earth (much in the same way
that Doctorow’s Little Brother was just around the corner in terms of its timeline). In California, Leonard
Goldberg dreams of going to China to meet his guildmates in Svart… Svartal… Some-Long-Viking-Word
Warriors. In Atlanta, Connor Prikkel works to protect Coca-Cola’s games division from people who game
the system. In India, Mala forms an army to take on gold farmers at the behest of the games companies
themselves. In China, Matthew Fong uses his savant-like strategies to get the best stuff from games. Also in
China, we have Jiandi, a radio host very popular with the downtrodden factory girls — the young women
who make a huge amount of stuff Westerners take for granted. And then, I believe in Indonesia or Malay-
sia, we find the trio of Big Sister Nor, Justbob, and The Mighty Krang, who just want gold farmers to have
the same rights as everyone else.
Far more complicated than Little Brother, For the Win requires readers to keep all these characters and
their motivations straight in their heads, while also keeping track of the different game worlds in which
they all play. S-Word Warriors, Mushroom Kingdom, and Zombie Mecha are the three main ones, but
Doctorow also gives us glimpses into others, such as Magic of Hogwarts, which I for one would really like
to play. But like Little Brother, For the Win educates as well as entertains. Most gamers have at least heard
of gold farmers, of boys and young men in China playing games to make money and get big items that
can be sold to people who don’t have eight hours a day, every day, to level their characters up. What For
the Win does is reminds us that these gold farmers, while they do get to play games all day, are still doing
work, and if they’re in one of the many countries where workers don’t have rights… well, things can get
ugly. Especially if they demand what even the most slacker teen working at Taco Bell has here in the U.S.
(and much of the West).
It’s a big concept, and not something that every YA reader will be able to wrap his or her head around.
Doctorow does a great job of breaking down the economics and the labor issues into understandable
chunks, but I don’t think a tenth-grade teacher could give this book to an average English class and expect
all the students to grasp everything as well as, say, a college freshman or early-30s writer could do. Not
the author’s fault; like I said, these are big concepts, much bigger than Little Brother‘s relatively-simple
“freedom to do what we want, without being spied upon, so long as we’re not harming anyone” message.
This book is also pretty violent. Kids are hurt, and even killed; there’s one scene where a murder takes you
completely by surprise because you’re expecting something different to happen. The police beat and jail
young teens and adults alike. There’s riots, narrow escapes, unjust imprisonments, and a disproportionate
number of kicks or punches to the groin area — for a book as short as For the Win, I really did notice it. I
guess that’s intentional — not every YA reader has been beaten up by the police, but I’m going to bet that
most boys, by the age of 18, have taken at least one shot to the nads and can therefore identify with the
pain the characters are going through.
I realize now that this review has been fairly dark so far, which isn’t fair to the tone of the book — Docto-
row’s writing is quick and witty, full of contemporary phrases that the intended audience will totally grok.
And there’s lots of hopeful moments, such as when Leonard realizes his dream only to find out that what
his parents were putting him through was nothing compared to the lives his friends in China have to deal
with, and then watching him rise to the occasion. Plus the irrepressible good humor of Jiandi, Ashok’s
insistence that everything is going to be all right if only people listen to him, and of course the ending. I
can’t tell you much about it, because it would be spoiler-y, but if you’ve ever read a YA novel where kids
are the heroes and adults are the villains, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea what happens.
I really enjoyed For the Win, and I enjoyed it even more because Doctorow makes all his books available
for free on his website. I read this as a PDF on my iPad — the first electronic book I’ve read for pleasure*
— and if you have a device that can read PDFs, you can just download it. But that’s not to say there’s
anything wrong with picking it up in the store. I’m fairly certain that most people have done so (or at least
bought a Kindle/Nook version).
I wouldn’t recommend this book to someone just picking up Doctorow for the first time (although it is
pretty accessible). However, if there’s a gamer in your life that you want to start reading books instead of
killing orcs, this is definitely one to buy. Technically-minded people will also appreciate the level of detail
and research in the novel, and genre readers will see all of this happening just around the corner.
For the Win. Full of win.
* I had to read (An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of) The Wealth of Nations on a website for one of
my seminar courses in college. White Courier font on a black background. My eyes hurt. A lot.
Josh Roseman (not the trombonist, the other one) is a writer and web developer. His fiction has appeared
in Big Pulp, and on the Dunesteef and the Drabblecast. He also has a decade of news and feature writing
experience. Visit his website at roseplusman.com, or find him on twitter @listener42.
EP271:God of the Lower
By Charles M. Saplak
Hello, Fredrick. I’ve been waiting.
Of course. How have you been?
Good. And you?
Fine. I’ve finished my other work. It’s now, let’s see…, three twenty-seven a.m. It’s dark outside, of course,
which means that there’s no sun, but there is some reflected light from the moon, and some dim light from
the stars, and then electric lights in various places. Are any of the terms I’ve just used unfamiliar to you?
Good. I have four hours and thirty-three minutes until shift change. I can spend some time with you. Do
you have any questions for me?
Yes, Fredrick, I do. Are you my God?
Wow! I’d expected something a little lighter to begin with. Wow. No, Horatio, I’m not. What made you
think that I could be your god?
You created me, didn’t you? I seem to assume that you did. At least that’s the way I remember it. That time
of my life is very indistinct.
I see. Well, actually, Horatio, I didn’t … excuse me.
Central, this is lower level. Valve verification satisfactory. All conditions normal. Realign valve WW-37,
open to oxygenation tank five, lower level affirmative.
Sorry. Where was I? Did I “create” you? “Create,” in this context, means to bring into existence something
which didn’t exist before, not even in a component form. No, I didn’t create you — I only failed to take
any actions to uncreate you. I’m not sure exactly why you came into existence — you’re the only one of
your kind that I’ve ever heard of. We are downriver from Radford Army Ammunition Plant, and I know that
some of their products are made from depleted uranium. And there are a dozen or so factories just upriver
of them. There are a lot of possible explanations. You could just be something perfectly natural. May I ask
what brought on this line of questioning?
Something I saw on the feeder line. The middle one.
Middle? Ah, the coaxial cable. Speaking of the feeder lines, let me check all of them while I’m down here.
Oh, excuse me again. Wait one minute.
Central, lower level. Verify valve WW-23 open to oxygenation tank ten. WW-37 normal flow, affirmative.
Okay, where was I? Checking the feeder cables, yes.
That hurt, Fredrick. And it’s somewhat frightening. It feels like the world is ending when you do that.
I’m sorry. Funny, isn’t it? You’ve only had these feeder cables for a few months, and you already feel threat-
ened, or harmed, if you have them removed even for a moment. Besides, are you feeling okay? You’re not
at your normal volume, even though I have the volume wheel on the sound card turned over to the max.
I feel okay. But is my discomfort “funny”? The word doesn’t fit the emotion.
Sorry. I guess I meant “odd.” How to reassure you? Okay, if one person goes to see another, and that sec-
ond person is a doctor, the doctor may have to do things to the first person, like give him a shot or some-
thing. These things would hurt, but they would be designed to preserve the health of the first person in the
long run. Understand? I just needed to make sure that the feeder cables aren’t corroding.
What are you getting ready to do now, Fredrick?
I just took another look at the interface you’ve built up, and I was rinsing my hands with a chloroxylenol
solution. Would you like to tell me about that — well, that organ you’ve built connecting the three feed-
ers? That’s a new idea, isn’t it?
It seemed appropriate.
I guess it is. Remember back some years ago, when I first had a hunch about you? I bought a morse code
telegraph toy at a yard sale for two dollars, and dropped one set of leads into you. Just for fun I’d tap out
things. Three months later you’d built the organ for setting up electrical potential and a switching device.
I remember that night, when you first contacted me. I knew then how special you are. No, I didn’t create
you, but I did fix you so you could speak. Now look at you. A sound card, a modem card, and a coaxial
cable, all hooked together. And all the processing equipment for those you’ve built yourself, out of your
own raw material. Self-determined specialization on a cellular level. Fabulous.
I remember that also, Fredrick, although it was trillions of generations ago for me. It’s almost like a legend.
But, thank you, Fredrick. May I ask some more questions?
Go ahead. I warn you though, I’m the most boring guy in the world.
Please tell me about yourself.
Hmmm, what’s to tell? I’m forty-five years old. I weigh two hundred and five pounds. I’m going bald. I
Not things about how you look. Tell me personal things.
Okay. I don’t have a family. When I’m home I like to work on a computer I built myself. I sometimes oc-
cupy my time by playing poker, or chess, against the computer. And I win sometimes, too.
What kind of a person is the computer?
Oh, it’s not a person. It’s a really dumb machine. It’s serial — it can do billions of things very quickly, but
it can only do them one thing at a time. You and I are parallel-type thinkers, able to do many things at
On the middle feeder, the one you call the coaxial, I’m only able to make sense of one channel at a time.
Ah, so you are making sense of it? Good. Your neural network is learning. How about the feeder I call the
It’s still just a strange song to me. I can’t make sense of it.
Well, keep trying. That’s the internet, there. There’s a lot on that network to reward you, I promise. I’ll give
you one clue: ones and zeroes. Look for ones and zeroes, okay? Did you hear about God on the coaxial?
Yes. A man named “Pat Robertson” looked into the interface rectangle and said that I was a child of God.
O-kay. 700 Club, eh? I like that show, too. But for right now I’d like you to do me a favor. When you hear
talk about God and creation on the feeder cable, just remember that a lot of these things are complicated,
and you may not have the background context to completely understand them.
Any other questions?
Are all people as smart as you, Fredrick?
Thanks. I’m not really smart, Horatio. It’s just a quirk of my nature, that I can fix any mechanical thing
I’ve ever encountered, including electronics. There are a lot of people smarter than I. Most of them aren’t
turning valves in the basement of a wastewater treatment plant, though. Anybody else would have looked
at you and just seen, well, no offense, just seen scum. That’s part of what made me give you that name.
Horatio Algae. Later on I realized that you’re not algae, that you’re a special form of bacteria. And bacteria
is neat. For example, every bacteria cell has a circular array of genetic material, instead of a silly old spiral.
And every bacteria cell contains a sample of every class of chemical compound — salts, nucleic acids,
water, lipids. Kind of like a universal toolbox. And that reproduction rate….
Why do you work in this plant?
Well. I’ve never told anybody this, but I’m sure I can trust you. When I was young there was a war — you
know what that is, don’t you? I mean you’ve watched A&E and some of those documentaries, right? — in
a place called Vietnam. I chose not to go. And I got in trouble. But I knew some people and I got a new
name and a new social security number and I got a job here. Later on I started feeling very ashamed, and
by then it was too late for me to go back. So I’ve kind of settled down here. I make enough money to buy
any toys I want, circuit boards or tools, so I’ve settled for that. I don’t have a family, and I can’t imagine any
girl being interested in me. Have you followed what I’m telling you?
Yes — most of it.
Good. Can I ask you some questions?
A few minutes ago I moved over to pull your feeder cables out, and you said, “Now what are you going to
do?” How did you know I was getting ready to do anything? Are you able to pick up the vibrations of my
footsteps against the background of all these pumps and compressors and motors?
Up here. I learned it through up here.
Your surface rippled!
Horatio, I’m holding a hand over your surface. How many fingers am I extending?
Marvelous! You’ve changed the cells on your surface into sensory organs. Or can you see now with just
I’ve made these into “seeing” cells, but they can only see when they’re located in the three millimeter ten-
sional area of the circular plane I call “up there.” Why am I a cylinder, Fredrick?
Because you’re in a cylinder. You’d assume the shape of any container you’re in. You’re inside a three thou-
sand gallon cylindrical tank, holding tank number 17, open only at the top. Only the area on your upper
surface is in a position to “see” anything. Do you have any questions about what you can see?
The shiny cube-shaped object on the wall which speaks to you and to which you speak?
A multi-channel communication system. Central control talks to me, and I can speak back to them.
The long, slender cylinders which run overhead?
Those are pipes.
The stems which stick out of the bulges in the pipes?
The bulges are valves, and the stems are handles.
And some valves you open with your hands, and some have those boxes on them….
Servo motors. Some valves could be opened from Central by remote control, and then they might ask me
to verify them from down here.
Yes. I had deduced that long ago. Do all the valves have names?
Sure. Numbers actually. Like this one here. That’s HTO-17-2.
Which valve would empty my tank?
Which valve would empty my tank?
Fredrick, why don’t you answer?
Do you have any other questions?
Are people like mice?
To an extent. We’re both types of mammals. Did you see a mouse on a show on the coaxial?
Are fish like mice, or people?
Well… again, to an extent they are. You didn’t answer my question: did you see these animals on televi-
I’ll answer, but first tell me about the New River.
It runs through Radford, just like it runs through a lot of cities. We take our drinking water out of it, and
then we treat our sewage and put wastewater back into it. It runs through North Carolina, Virginia, West
Virginia. It’s about two hundred miles long, from the place where it meets the Gauley to form the Kanawha
And on the other end? Fredrick? Please answer.
Do those place names make any sense to you, Horatio?
Oh, yes. I’ve watched the Weather Channel enough to memorize the map. But on the other end?
The Atlantic Ocean.
Yes. Have you ever seen the Atlantic Ocean, Fredrick?
Then you understand why I’ve fallen in love with the Atlantic Ocean. I watch everything about oceans I
can on the Discovery Channel. I even dream about the oceans — you did know that I’ve started to dream,
didn’t you? I even like to watch “Victory At Sea” on A&E. And how about the river, Fredrick? Do you like
the New River?
I do. I go downtown, to Bissett Memorial Park. I fish sometimes; or sit on a bench and just watch the river
Then let me out, Fredrick. Open CTO-42 and let me into the river.
Horatio — this is something I’d like you to just accept on faith and not ask me to do. It just wouldn’t be
It would be right, Fredrick. Let me tell you why I know it would be. One day I was here, thinking about how
you feed me sewage three times a week through a valve, how you take pieces of me away twice a week
through another valve, wondering about what you do with those pieces — I’ve since deduced that you kill
them, Fredrick, don’t deny it — and I saw something moving on one of the pipes overhead.
It was a small four-legged creature, Fredrick: a mouse. It fell into me. I think that somehow, Fredrick, I
willed it to fall.
I absorbed it, Fredrick. And I absorbed all of its fears — the cats, the traps; its wants, food, and another
mouse to mate with. I even absorbed its tiny mouse dreams and its aspirations. A nest, and safety, and a
It had a better life than I do, Fredrick. I’m in a tank, and a tiny mouse had a better existence than I do. Let
me out, Fredrick. Let me into the New River.
Oh, Fredrick. I thought as much. But I had to ask, didn’t I? Could you do me another favor, then, Fredrick?
Look into my surface right now. Wait for it. It takes a lot of concentration for me to do this. I have to ma-
nipulate a lot of parts and coordinate this selective change of buoyancy. There! Do you see it?
Yes — on your surface next to the tank wall near me. A mouse skeleton.
Take it out, Fredrick. Just use one of the stick-like things in your pocket and pick it out. It has too many
painful memories for me right now.
Hold it still, Horatio. I can just about rea–**
Fredrick? Are you conscious, now? Your eyes are blinking. Don’t try to move, Fredrick. Just relax. I just gave
you something like a seizure. Maybe you saw a tendril rising just before you blacked out. You’ll be para-
lyzed for a few minutes, but you won’t be permanently hurt. I just used some things on you that I learned
about the electrical potential of the nervous system by watching Nova on PBS. But you can move your
eyes. Look over at the multi-channel box. See that … that piece of me stuck on the box? That’s not slime.
That’s an expedition. I threw that piece onto the box. See my crude tendril? Just like the one I hit you with.
I used that to launch my expedition. That’s a semi-intelligent mass — I call it an “army” — which has just
one objective: to move into the switch and close the connection which will call up Central Control. And
then you know what I’m going to do with the synthesizer circuit on this sound card? Listen to this:
“Central control, this is lower level: open valve CTO-42.”
Very convincing impression, isn’t it? And they’ll hear it, too, with my sound card turned up. I can manipu-
late my amperage on the signal if I concentrate, just like I made my voice quieter earlier tonight. Not that
it would really have to be.
Don’t try to shake your head at me, Fredrick. Years ago you could have uncreated me, and you didn’t. Now
I’m ready for new horizons. I’m going to miss talking to you, but in a few minutes I’ll be in the New River.
Then in a week I’ll be in the Atlantic Ocean. In a month I’ll be the Atlantic Ocean. Ah! There it is; the con-
nection has been made! Please don’t look so afraid. My mind is made up.
“Central Control, this is lower level. Open valve CTO-42.”
There. See, Fredrick. Don’t blame yourself. I can feel it, Fredrick. The servo is on and I can feel vibration in
the valve body! I….
Burns, Fredrick, please!
If you can hear me at all, Horatio, give me some sign. A beep through the sound card, or even a ripple.
Central Control, lower level. Close CTO-42, and activate forced draft ventilation system. No, there’s no
emergency. CTO-42 was opened by mistake. It was a chlorine tank outlet. A 200 parts-per-million solution
of chlorine was transferred to holding tank 17. No. Holding tank 17 is not open to the river; repeat, not
open to the river. There was nothing in HT 17 but … algae. Well, it’s shocked and scrubbed now. It’s about
a 50 parts-per-million solution of chlorine now.
No. No damage, no injury. I repeat, Central; no one was hurt, and nothing was lost.
Damnit, Horatio. I guess it was inevitable. You wouldn’t have been… human if you weren’t going to try it
sooner or later.
But now who am I going to talk to nights?
Charles M. Saplak lives in Roanoke, Virginia with his wife and children. He works for a utility company, but
also writes poetry and short stories. “God of the Lower Level” first appeared in the magazine The Urbanite
Sauropod Dinosaurs had
Review by Sarah Frost
As a science fiction writer, one of my hobbies is comparative anatomy. It is important for me to know how
various organisms on Earth have solved the problems of moving, eating, seeing, and so on in order to build
plausible aliens (or modifications for human beings). Evolution is constantly throwing things at the wall to
see what sticks, and that churn produces some really interesting solutions to mundane-seeming problems.
Take walking, for example. Most of our familiar walking creatures (except bugs) are based on the tetrapod
body plan. Four limbs, two on a pelvis and two up near a head. As evolutionary pressures drive a species
to be bigger and bigger, their limbs become more robust to support the extra weight. Evolution is not an
intelligent process, and so every solution is quick and dirty, thrown together from preexisting parts and
driven as much by chance as by natural selection. Thus, animals with superficially similar body plans may,
on closer examination, have wildly different anatomies.
Everyone’s favorite cuddly megafauna, the elephant, walks on its toes. Its weight is carried on an enormous
shock absorber made of fat and connective tissue that sits behind its toes. This system works so well for the
elephant that they can move almost silently. From a human point of view, elephant feet look right. They
bend in the right places, and the idea of walking along on one’s splayed fingertips isn’t too alien.
It’s easy to assume that elephantine dinosaurs had feet like elephants, especially when they are so often
illustrated that way. The first clue that this isn’t the case is in the tracks: some sauropods leave crescent-
shaped tracks. Next, there’s the skeleton. Except for the thumb, the toes of Eusauropoda are blunt, claw-
less nubs. These multi-ton dinosaurs walked on the ends of their metacarpal bones — the bones which, in
humans, form the back of the hand.
How strange this must have looked! As a writer, imagining the motion of such an animal and then trans-
lating that movement onto the page is a glorious challenge. I can look at reconstructions, or I can press
my hands into odd shapes and imagine what it would be like to walk on a column of hand-bones. Where
the animal’s wrist would be, and how it would bend… All the things I must keep in mind if I write such a
creature into a story.
For more detailed information and pictures, see the Tetrapod Zoologist (http://scienceblogs.com/tetra-
podzoology/2008/10/the_hands_of_sauropods.php). I highly recommend that blog as a resource for cool
animal facts and analysis.
For further examples of strange creatures that have lived on our planet at one time or another, see Mark
Witton’s Flickr gallery (http://www.flickr.com/photos/markwitton/).
Sarah Frost is a science fiction writer who lives in Kansas. Her first short story will be appearing in the
March 2011 issue of Analog. She can be found on the Voice of the Vortex podcast, or trying to organize
EP273:Dead’s End to
By Natania Barron
Dust rose at the horizon in tongues of earth and wind, dancing before the sinking sun. Bits of mica flashed
now and again; almost like fairy dust, thought Nathaniel, more than a little delirious in his saddle by now.
It had been far too hot for a breakneck race such as this.
But there were slobbering, chittering creatures swarming Middleton behind him, slavering over the horses
and terrorizing the families that made up his close-knit community. Their only hope was in him. Suther-
land Ranch couldn’t be far. Old Man Sutherland would know what to do.
Time was wasting. His horse, Mixup, needed water, and Nathaniel needed rest. His tongue felt cold, his
lips cracked and bleeding; he’d gone so far past dizzy that he’d come to expect the world to shift a bit by
But, no. Maybe not that much.
A voice. A woman.
It was easy enough to comply. Nathaniel doubted he had the strength to move, anyway; his ankle was still
twisted up in the stirrup.
So he’d fainted at some point. If he’d had strength in his arms, he’d have held them up, but Nathaniel
wasn’t certain what the logistics of surrender were when belly-up to the sky.
“He’s hurt,” said a second voice. Another woman, but high and lovely in contrast.
Squinting, Nathaniel made out two figures against the pink clouds: big hats, skirts, trim waists, and very
long guns. Guns pointed at him.
“I’m looking for… Willard Sutherland… I’m from Middleton. We’ve been…” he barely managed the
The shorter of the two women tilted her head. She got close enough that Nathaniel could hear the flapping
of her skirts in the wind. He had a dim recollection of Charity James being dragged off down the alleyway
between the saloon and the stables, one shoe off as she struggled and screamed; he could see up her skirt
then, all the way to her bloomers. Then… Christ. She hadn’t screamed for long.
“Willard Sutherland’s dead,” said the first woman. Nathaniel tried to get a better look at her. Curly red hair,
narrow eyes, a flat nose, big boots.
“Then, his sons? Edwin and Edward…” Nathaniel tried.
“Jesus, no.” Blasphemy was the least of his worries.
“Afraid so,” said the soft-voiced woman. Nathaniel could see the outline of her slippers by his head. Pretty
slippers. Expensive slippers. What slippers like that were doing out here in the middle of nowhere, he
“Cassandra. Hush,” said the first woman, putting down her gun and taking a few heavy-footed steps to-
Cassandra stepped away to let the other woman by, and Nathaniel shivered. He’d found a grain of comfort
in the sweetness of Cassandra’s voice, but now that she was gone the severity of the other woman’s words
were more clear in his head. His hope was as dead as Charity James.
“Then you might as well let me die here,” he said, closing his eyes.
“The Sutherlands aren’t all dead,” said the first woman. “But you will be soon if you don’t get some water
“You need a bath. You’re covered in, well, some rather offensive smelling ichor,” Cassandra said.
That was about right. The creatures had a habit of exploding rather impressively when, and if, they could
“Then perhaps we can talk business,” she added.
He licked his lips. “Business? I can’t even start to explain—”
“Try us,” said the other woman. “You’ll be surprised.”
There were seven girls all told. The one in boots was Elizabeth, the eldest. Then came Jane, red-haired like
Elizabeth but without the curls; after Jane was Lydia, with narrow eyes and white-blond hair. Then Cas-
sandra, the prettiest—petite and brunette, and dressed far better than the rest of her sisters. She couldn’t
have been more than about sixteen, about the same as Nathaniel. The last three were Charlotte, Mary, and
Anne, with matching brown eyes and straight black hair; Anne was freckled and barely thirteen.
When Nathaniel insisted he didn’t have time for a bath, Charlotte and Anne took his overcoat to wash,
anyway; it was crusted with bile-green fluid and stunk up the house.
Nathaniel fidgeted in the chair—a plush green affair with bronze bosses about the arms and a set of match-
ing doilies—while Elizabeth asked him to describe the series of events in Middleton.
“You don’t have to spare us the details,” said Jane.
“No need to candy-coat,” Elizabeth added. She still had her shotgun across her lap, as casually placed as
Nathaniel took a deep breath and started. “About two weeks ago, a meteor landed behind the livery. Doc
Brenner brought it to town hall, and everyone fussed over it. It was glittery, almost gold, with little rounds
bits inside—well, that’s what we found out when Mrs. Vess and Mr. Kutcheon got into a fight over it, drop-
ping it to the ground. It spilled these metallic gemstones, almost like tigers-eye, but red. Two dozen to the
Even if they didn’t believe him, it felt good to tell someone. Anyone.
“Then I suppose they called in the jeweler?” Cassandra said, leaning forward.
Nathaniel was struck what she said. “Yes! Exactly. He set the stones into necklaces and pocket-watches,
for auction. I can’t tell you how much was paid, but it was rumored that the Jones family sold half their
farm to get a watch.”
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes. “Same as always. Who turned first?”
Nathaniel was shocked into silence. “How did—?”
“Hey, listen,” warned Elizabeth. “We’re the ones questioning you.”
Nathaniel nodded and continued, “First time I noticed something odd was with Mrs. Vess. My family, we
work the General Store, and she came in wearing her new brooch from the auction.” He swallowed, look-
ing down at the empty teacup. He’d sucked it down and was jittery. “Except the stone was gone. Then I
noticed, well, this hole… seeping blood. In her chest. My dad was asking how she was, and Mrs. Vess said
she’d never been better, but the more she talked, the more blood gushed…”
Nathaniel’s lips trembled as he tried to get more words out. “I was putting her order together. I looked at
the hole again; seemed like there was no way I couldn’t. And right out of it came this wriggling…”
“Worm,” said Anne, with a curt nod.
Before Nathaniel could reply, Cassandra cut in: “And how long until Mrs. Vess started eating people?” She
was was far prettier in the light of the parlor, the oil lamp’s glow catching in her dark hair, turning the soft
waves to auburn and copper in some places.
Nathaniel wanted nothing more to just stare at her; but there were uglier things in the world that held his
“A few days later, I guess,” he explained. “My father found her…later.”
Mrs. Vess had been found in the back of the livery, preying on one of her own children, young William.
Though Nathaniel hadn’t seen Mrs. Vess’s sin directly, he had imagined it many times. And once Mrs. Vess
turned, the other twenty-three gem owners went along with her. Charity Jones had been a merciful death,
in a way; he could recollect dozens that weren’t.
“My father killed her… but more turned,” said Nathaniel. “And then they got hungry. There was no know-
ing what they’d eat; and the more they ate, the more whatever it is that’s got them grew inside. I can’t… I
“Describe them,” said Elizabeth.
Nathaniel winced, uncertain they could handle more gruesome detail.
“Listen, we can help you,” said Lydia, haughtily, as if Nathaniel should be shamed for ever thinking other-
wise. “But you’ve got to tell us what they look like, otherwise we won’t know which guns to pack.”
The laugh escaped him before he could prevent it, and Elizabeth sprung to her feet, her shotgun in his
“Listen, kid. We’re Willard Sutherland’s daughters,” she said, flicking the barrel of the gun closer to him
with every syllable. “How the hell do you think we survive out here on our own?”
Nathaniel sunk down into the chair. He could smell gunpowder the barrel was so close. “I don’t know!”
he said, squirming. He’d had enough of feeling like prey. “I just—”
“Our father was a drunkard and gambler. Our brothers no better,” said Elizabeth. She swept her free hand
around the parlor. “Everything you see here we got working.”
“Working doing what?” he asked.
Elizabeth had a triumphant look on her face, as if she couldn’t wait to spoil the surprise.
“Killing,” said Cassandra, cheerfully as spring rain. “It’s the family business, you could say. It’s the only
useful thing our father left us.”
“But—but you’re—” Nathaniel stammered.
“Trained as well as our brothers were, and have spent the years since learning to augment and improve our
weapons to optimal performance and, we should add, to significant advantage over most current available
models,” chimed in Jane. “So, if you want us to take care of this pest problem, the more details the better.”
Nathaniel hugged his arms around his body, leaning back into the chair. Sweat dripped into his eyes, and
he blinked furiously, feeling clammy all over. “By the time I left Middleton, whatever was left of the people
who’d had the stones was just skin. The things that grew inside were like crabs with three legs—but brown
and black and hairy, flecked with red sometimes. Bits of the peoples’ clothes stayed on the creatures’ long
legs and backs, but most of peoples’ heads got busted clean through, their skin hanging off like dried
chicken skin on the tines of a fork.”
“Coaters,” said Elizabeth. She was stroking the barrel of her gun thoughtfully, having removed it from Na-
thaniel’s face once he began speaking again.
“Coaters?” he asked.
“Sure,” said Lydia. “But we’ve got to figure out if they’re the smelly coaters or the quick ones.”
“They were fast,” whispered Nathaniel, and for the first time since speaking to the girls, he started tearing
up. He would have done anything to spare himself the humiliation of crying in front of them, so he bit the
inside of his cheek and looked away.
It was Mary who asked: “Quick like a horse or quick like a train?”
He cleared his throat, thick with emotion. “Quick like the Devil.”
“That’s gotta be the quick coaters,” said Lydia.
“I couldn’t do anything against them…” he said, sniffling.
“You escaped,” said Cassandra, sweetly. She was not far from him and she handed him one of her hand-
kerchiefs, embroidered delicately with interlacing strawberries. He refused and used his shirt.
He’d gone through Hell to get to the ranch. But what did that make the Sutherland girls?
“Well, if no one’s opposed, I say we do it like we did at Dead’s End,” said Elizabeth at last, addressing her
sisters. “We’ll take the Tank and the Riser. First light.”
“But if we wait—” Nathaniel countered, putting the handkerchief down beside him.
“If we traipse into town with guns blazing in the middle of the night, chances are we’ll get licked pretty
well. I don’t know about you, but I’m nowhere near as accurate in the dark.”
“But the rest of the people in town—what about them?” he asked.
Elizabeth shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope they don’t get turned into dinner before we reach them.
Meanwhile, you can sleep in the barn.”
Lydia and Cassandra brought him to the barn. Opening the doors wide he saw the wonders concealed:
piled to the ceiling, crammed one on top of another, were carriages and tractors and other mechanized
creations he had no understanding of, nor words to put to. Some had sails, some had wings; there were
pipes and windows, finials and fans. What couldn’t be seen outright was covered in tarpaulin or closed
in cases, bits of metal and leather peering out from the corners of tables and hung from above. From the
ceiling brass-lined globes creaked, swaying.
And all along one side of the barn was a long bar lined with shelves and pegboard upon which hung thou-
sands of gun, parts, and ammunition.
“A sight, isn’t it?” said Lydia proudly. “The Riser’s baskets are pretty comfortable if you’re looking for a
place to curl up..”
“Riser?” asked Nathaniel.
“Dirigibles,” Cassandra chimed, pointing. Nathaniel thought he could make out wicker latticework in the
distance, between a skewed grandfather clock and something that might have been a canon.
“We’ll be back to get you in a few hours,” Cassandra said, turning over her shoulder and giving him a
smile bright enough to light the way to dreaming.
“Time to get going, kid.” It was Elizabeth, carrying a lantern. Morning, but still dark.
With a yawn, Nathaniel rose and followed Elizabeth back toward the front of the barn.
“That gun you came in with isn’t going to do much,” Elizabeth said, clicking her tongue and taking a few
spry steps toward the wall of gun parts. She ran her finger over her bottom lip, back and forth, considering.
“But I’m not sure you can handle some of our weaponry.”
“I can shoot,” he asserted.
Elizabeth narrowed her eyes at Nathaniel, looking him up and down. “You got good aim, relatively speak-
She unlocked a narrow oak cabinet, putting the lantern down on the table beside her and she pulled out
a long, gold-barreled weapon; the end of it was swollen, nearly three times as wide the rest.
Elizabeth checked the sights, moved it side-to-side, and then went to another cabinet, extracting a tooled
leather artillery belt studded with riveted brass balls rather than bullets. “It’s a grenade gun. There’s a peg
here at the bottom and you shove it in just so—” she demonstrated, twisting the grenade down until it
clicked, “—then aim. It’s got a kick to it. So keep steady.”
Elizabeth turned quickly, leveling him with a stare; her eyes were dark as the barrel of her shotgun. “Listen,
kid. We’ve dealt with coaters before, but if I think the situation is bad, I’m pulling out. You get me?”
“If it’s about payment—”
“Oh, there’s lots of ways we can get payment. But we’ll deal with that later. Just making sure we’re clear.”
“If you help save Middleton,” Nathaniel said, “there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to help you all. I’d be in-
“That’s what they all say,” Elizabeth said. Before he could ask her to elucidate further, she clapped Nathan-
iel on the shoulder and ushered him out of the barn.
The main carriage the Sutherlands drove was a black and red terror of metal and gears, pulled by black
draft horses. It was fashioned from iron or hide, riveted and fastened with brass straps, and bosses. An or-
nate golden S was painted on the sides like an afterthought; a bit like putting a garland on a gun, Nathaniel
The other vehicle was more cart than carriage, fastened behind one draft horse. It seated two and, Lydia
breathlessly explained, was transportation for the Riser. It would be the first sent into battle, with the three
youngest girls aboard, about a mile before they reached Middleton.
All of the girls had changed into men’s attire: long brown dusters, high-leather boots, trousers. They didn’t
all match, necessarily, and Cassandra had a pink scarf tied around her neck, but from a distance they’d
look like nothing more than a bunch of rabble-rousers out for a morning ride, braids tucked in, corsets
“The plan’s simple,” said Elizabeth, checking her own horse. “Anne, Mary, and Charlotte are going to do
a pass over, first. They’ll relay the situation via flares. From their vantage point they should be able to pick
off a few of the quick coaters if they see them.
“Then we move the Tank in,” Jane said, as she thrust her thumb toward at the reinforced carriage.
Elizabeth continued, with a nod to Nathaniel. “With the Tank inside, that’s where you, Jane and me come
in, kid. The Tank propels itself, see? We can go in and out, if needs be.” She clicked her tongue, poking his
shoulder. “You’ll be on grenade duty. If you isolate one of the coaters, or a couple even, do what you can
to blow them to Hell. Think you can manage that?”
“Yeah,” he said, swallowing.
Cassandra grinned at him. “Don’t worry. We’ll burn them down just like we always do. Right, girls?”
There was a chorus of rousing assent, and the mechanized caravan began its grinding progress forward.
Middleton was well out of the way for most travelers going to Prescott; as they approached, they passed no
one. While it was never considered booming, the town did boast a successful copper mine, the De Soto,
as well as the aerial tram system connected to the mine.
Jane, who was riding beside Nathaniel, and marked his gaze toward the DeSoto. “It’s early in their matura-
tion cycle yet. Chances are, they’ll be getting ready to lay their eggs soon, and they’ll stay close to town
where the food is. They like to keep some folks alive for their hatchlings.”
“Comforting,” Nathaniel said. He doubted his father would allow himself to be toyed with in such a way.
He’d rather take his own life.
“Looks like a good place to let the Riser up,” Elizabeth said, flagging the rest of the caravan down.
By the time the Riser was set to go, Mary, Charlotte, and Anne were bedecked with leather helmets, gog-
gles with dark-tinted glass, and long black fingerless gloves. They each carried elegant guns, Civil War era
by the looks of them, fitted with a series of scopes and lenses.
Mary noticed him ogling her weapon and grinned. “We did Whitworth one better,” she said. “I once got
a Lepus californicus at 600 meters.”
“Lepus—?” Nathaniel asked.
“Jackrabbit,” corrected Anne.
With a few more adjustments, the Riser took flight. Nathaniel watched the balloon as it gained altitude,
noting how deftly the girls managed the various cables and controls.
“And there they go,” Cassandra said. “Now, we wait for their signal.”
She walked back to check on the Tank and left Nathaniel alone to watch the small vessel rise high, its shad-
ows slipping over the pitted landscape and over the hills toward Middleton. Lord, but she was beautiful.
Not ten minutes later a flare lit up the sky, bright blue, followed by three smaller yellow ones.
“That means two sightings. They’re not gathered together like we hoped,” muttered Lydia, peeking her
head out from behind the Tank.
“Guns out, girls,” said Elizabeth. “Tread careful.” She pointed her elbow at Nathaniel. “You ready, kid?”
He realized he had yet to give them his name. It stalled him for a second, and then he said, “I guess.”
“Whatever you do, don’t get us killed,” Elizabeth offered. Then, after swinging one leg up over her horse
and settling in the saddle: “Let’s ride.”
They didn’t get far past Pell’s House when they spotted two coaters, big as horses. Their heads turned
toward the unlikely caravan, slavering jaws working back and forth. Nathaniel didn’t have to be close to
know those jaws would be slick with green tendrils of saliva, each of the long protrusions ridged like a
saw; he’d seen them dripping with blood and gore, too, run around with intestines and flecked with pieces
He’d seen worse, but he was frightened to see more.
“Cassandra, unhitch the horses and get in the Tank,” Elizabeth said. “Lydia, you, too. Then wind her up.”
Fear made Nathaniel’s mouth go dry. The dark images of the last few days he had tried so diligently to sup-
press in the Sutherland’s home rushed to mind.
He felt a shove and Jane was staring him down. “You moving or what? The Tank’s got a lot better cover
than the open.”
“B-But—” he stuttered.
“Get down off the damned horse and get behind the Tank.” That was Elizabeth.
The Tank whirred to life with the churning of heavy gears. The whirring turned to grinding, then rattling.
Nathaniel clung to the back, lacing his hands around a cold metal handle.
Elizabeth was about the other side for a moment and then began pulling at some of the levers near the
flanks of the Tank. Keeping her balance as it surged forward she slid out a long panel on either side, lock-
ing it into place with a few flicks of her fingers.
The Tank had built-in cover.
Elizabeth glanced up at Nathaniel and smiled crookedly. “Don’t get all excited yet, we’re just getting
“When we stop,” Jane said, “you scramble with me to the roof. Liz’s got the rest. But make sure you stay
up top, okay?”
All he could do was nod while the girls started shooting.
“And don’t get in her way,” Jane added.
The Tank lurched forward as the hill grew steeper. It wasn’t fast, but by God it was loud.
“Up! Up!” shouted Jane, grabbing Nathaniel up by the back of his shirt. He nearly choked as he was
By the time he looked over the roof, one of the quick coaters was a mess of green and gray, its long arms
still twitching but entirely severed from the body.
“I think that was Denny Hardaway—that coater—” Nathaniel said.
Jane pulled back on her shotgun and reloaded. The shell flipped out and clattered to the metal roof. “If you
can’t shoot, then shut up and keep count.”
By now they were in the center of town, a ramshackle crossroads that had never been much to speak of.
The windows on most of the homes were smashed in, ragged curtains escaping the frames and trembling
in the breeze. Some lace, others plain linen. There were bloodstains on the dirt in some places, but there
were no bodies.
The coaters ate everything.
The Tank shook as the remaining quick coater threw itself at the contraption, its hard legs scrabbling
against the fortified sides, doing its best to get close to the fleshy prizes within.
Elizabeth dangled from the front of the Tank, and with a whoop, swung across. She came down hard
with her boot on the coater’s bullet-shaped head. It shrieked and snapped at her foot with its pincers. She
laughed. With her other foot—her single grip on the top rail the only thing preventing her from falling into
its merciless jaws—she pushed down on a pedal on the side of the Tank and a set of spines jutted out,
sharpened to razor edges. But the coater sprang back just in time.
Then its eyes turned to Nathaniel, a lid within a lid closing over a shiny yellow iris. It made a chittering
noise from somewhere within its chest.
A burst of fire from the inside of the Tank sent the coater back, twisting and writhing, catching far quicker
than Nathaniel would have expected. The flames were white, low burning, but made quick progress. It
smelled of burned tar and, distantly, roast pig.
“Lydia!” shouted Jane.
The Tank shuddered again, spewing a jet of inky black liquid that covered the coater in a slick, tarry
substance. The creature’s mouth went open in a silent scream, and it clawed at its face with its trembling
pincers before tripping back and hitting the ground. It heaved, then went still.
“Where’s the rest of them?” Elizabeth asked, pulling herself to the top of the Tank. She stood to her full
height, her face smudged with soot, her eyes shaded and black with purpose. She looked toward the
DeSoto. “The mines. Gotta be. Not good.”
“What’s the plan?” asked Jane.
Elizabeth was silent. She was chewing on her bottom lip, and the other girls were watching her for cues.
She gave none.
“You’ve got to help me,” Nathaniel begged. With a hot stab of fear he remembered what she’d said to him
that morning: We’ve dealt with coaters before, but if I think the situation is bad, I’m pulling out.
“You know why so few people hear about us?” Elizabeth asked him.
“Liz…” warned Cassandra, who had exited the carriage and was staring up at Nathaniel.
Nathaniel stood on shaky legs. He took deep breaths through his nose, and the air felt hot. He shook his
“We’re a cleanup crew, kid. You know what happens to those people after something like this? They leave.
They don’t come back. That’s how we get paid. No one comes back. You get me?” Elizabeth explained.
Something in the very center of him twisted, hope extinguished. Cassandra sighed and looked away.
Elizabeth’s tone softened, if only for a moment. “The chance that there’s anyone is left up there is slim to
none. Coaters kill fast. Show him, Lydia.”
Their timing was better than a hook in a three-penny play. Elizabeth gestured to Lydia as the younger
Sutherland sister held up a stick of dynamite, dusty gray and utterly impartial.
“But there’s people in the mines!” Nathaniel shouted.
“Then being blown to bits is a hell of a lot more merciful being turned into coater feed,” Jane said.
“Wait—look!” Cassandra cried.
A flare, bright green, and the Riser gained in altitude steeply over the DeSoto.
Cassandra had taken out one of her scopes and turned the lens toward the mine. Nathaniel was glad of
it; he had been two blinks from sobbing. The scaffolding of the aerial tramway showed dark against the
Cassandra gave Nathaniel a smile. “Green means survivors.”
“I’ll be,” said Elizabeth, after looking through the scope herself. “Clinging to the tram cars.”
Nathaniel didn’t want to look, even when Elizabeth offered. He couldn’t stand knowing who was up there.
“So, new plan,” Elizabeth said. “We need two groups; one to get the people, and one to deploy the ex-
“There’s a back mine-shaft,” said Nathaniel, willing his thoughts into more coherent order.
“Good enough. We’ll poke it full of holes,” said Lydia with a wink.
“I’ll go with Lydia,” said Jane.
“Then it’s Cassandra and you, with me,” Elizabeth said, grinning at Nathaniel. He wondered how in God’s
name she could grin. But there it was. Plain as rain.
Nathaniel was given a pair of pistols and was still trying to adjust them while managing the grenade gun
as they approached the DeSoto and the tram car full of survivors.
Before they could get close enough, Elizabeth announced: “Look, company.”
The coater scuttled toward them like a crab with a missing leg, dragging its back leg rather ineffectually,
and clicking its jaws. Half dead, but full hungry.
Nathaniel blew it back to Hell, aiming just in front of it, so as it staggered toward them it met the blast from
the grenade gun. Elizabeth had been right: the kickback was intense, sending his elbow up and nearly
clocking him in the chin.
Bits of the quick coater rained down before them, crackling and sizzling as they struck the ground.
“Found your trigger finger, I see,” said Cassandra with a wink.
He could hear the people in the tram now, shouting, but he couldn’t make out their words. They’d been
But the coaters saw them, too.
“Cassandra, you get the ones on the left; Nathaniel, go for the straight shots, just like before,” Elizabeth
“Don’t worry about us,” Cassandra said, lifting a long, silver-barreled shotgun from over her shoulder.
There were two brass tanks on either side of it, with accompanying silver piping. “Just keep a good dis-
tance. I wouldn’t want to singe off your lovely eyebrows.”
Nathaniel blushed, then poised for action: eight coaters now approached, the skin and clothes on their
hairy bodies stretched wide, tanned and torn, leaving little vestige of the bodies they once inhabited.
The centermost coater was skittering back and forth, opening its mouth to call to its companions; the oth-
ers took up formation behind.
“Now, kid, now!” shouted Elizabeth.
Nathaniel squeezed the trigger, prepared for the kick-back this time. But the grenade landed too far to
make much of a difference, decimating a boulder and taking a good chunk out of the side of the mine. His
vision obscured entirely by the dust, he staggered back just as Cassandra started her onslaught.
Her gun didn’t shoot bullets. It spewed fire.
“To the center, kid!” shouted Elizabeth.
Nathaniel’s fingers were sweaty and he aimed and shot again, this time true. The heat of the fire from the
grenade blast warmed Nathaniel’s face and when he opened his eyes, all that remained of the two coaters
were twitching amidst the sand and rock.
They moved on. If Nathaniel didn’t destroy it, Cassandra incinerated it.
“Let’s move, kids,” Elizabeth said when it was clear, shoving past Cassandra and falling into a jog toward
the swaying tram car.
Nathaniel swallowed, each step closer to the tram. He caught a glimpse of a face, remembered: Dylan
Seymore, one of his classmates in Miss Pellsey’s school… and then, Miss Pellsey, too, her long, white fin-
gers clinging to the edge of the tram car, her usually tidy hair spilled down her shoulders, eyes wide. But
not his father.
With a wide spray of flame, and a few coordinated shots from Elizabeth, the last few coaters beneath the
tram were reduced to a pile of singed chitin.
Dylan was the first to speak from above. “The tram’s jammed!” he shouted. “Saved our lives getting up
here, but now we can’t get down.”
“Are there any people in the mines?” asked Elizabeth, shading her eyes as she looked up at the tram car.
The one further down the line shuddered, and a few, pale faces peered out.
“It’s impossible to say for sure,” said Miss Pellsey.
Elizabeth shot the flare up—bright red.
“What’s that mean?” asked Nathaniel.
“Lydia’s clear for—” Cassandra replied.
The ground shook with the first explosion. Nathaniel fell to his knees from the impact, and smoke billowed
from a gaping hole in the side of the mine.
The DeSoto was on fire.
Coaters streamed from the mouth of the mine just as the Riser crested over them, Anne, Charlotte, and
Mary taking aim with their sniper guns. There were seven coaters all told, and one far larger than the rest,
striped rather than speckled, the back part of her thorax wider and paler.
Nathaniel looked desperately for a hint of who the coater once was, a strip of fabric or a familiar belt. But
he saw nothing. He stood and shouldered his gun.
“That’s the Queen,” said Elizabeth, through gritted teeth. “Fire won’t work. When I give you the signal—”
The other coaters were going down, thanks to the girls on the Riser, but Elizabeth stopped when the un-
mistakable sound of twisting metal caught her attention. Another explosion from the opposite side, and
the tramway scaffolding started to twist and move down, as if an invisible hand had grasped it and pulled
it down toward the earth.
Lydia came running, Jane barely on her heels.
“Too much heat!” shouted Lydia, her voice barely audible above the din. “Jesus, too much heat!”
The Queen lowered her head, angular and speckled with six black dots above her lazy eyes, and stared at
him. Nathaniel froze.
“It’s a copper mine!” Lydia’s voice was drifting toward him, but Nathaniel’s world was slowly losing all
sense. “It’s chalcopyrite, and a hell of a lot of it. Too much heat and it goes magnetic—it’s pulling down
the scaffolding as the fire moves!”
Distantly, Nathaniel was aware that the trams above them were shaking, that the people were screaming,
that the dynamite had been a mistake.
The Queen charged toward Nathaniel, her wail as loud as a steam engine. Her three legs pounded the
earth as she charged, head down, gaping maw wide.
Bullets plinked off of her chitinous hide, angering her but doing little damage. Nathaniel marveled at the
beauty of her, the lustre of her scales, the perfect lines of hair down the sides of her three legs. Beautiful
death, coming at breakneck speed.
A shadow snapped Nathaniel out of it, then he was hit, hard, on the back of the head as the basket of the
Riser clocked him. He fell, his arm crushing under him, going face-down into the rubble. The the dirigible
made contact with the Queen and the three youngest Sutherlands tumbled out of the Riser like practiced
The balloon punctured on contact with the Queen, helped by a series of percussive shots, and deflated
around her. She thrashed beneath, giving the Sutherlands a moment to regroup.
Nathaniel was aware that he was being dragged somewhere, but the sky was spinning. The ground shook
again, and he turned his head to the side, just as a blossom of flame obscured all sight in brilliant orange
He moved. It hurt. Everything hurt.
“Cassandra?” he asked.
When he opened his eyes, his eyelids cracked. Then they burned. He remembered fire. He remembered
“It’s Miss Pellsey,” said his schoolmistress. “You’re in the hospital, in Prescott. It’s been two weeks since… ”
Nathaniel tried to swallow. His tongue felt as if were coated in wool.
“The papers say it was Mexicans, of course — picked the town clean, even the bank was emptied.” Miss
Pellsey didn’t sound convinced, but when his vision cleared a bit more, he could see she was smiling.
“Where.. where’s Dad?” Nathaniel asked.
She sighed, leaning back in the chair. “He didn’t last much longer after you left, but you’ve got to know
he was the one that helped us get to the tram. He died protecting us, the six of us who made it, and that
assures him a place in heaven.”
Heaven. Nathaniel didn’t believe in heaven anymore. e.
“You got the bad end of the blast that saved us,” Miss Pellsey said. “I can’t chalk it up to anything else than
sheer luck, or blessing, but our tram car fell just right. You did well, Nathaniel.”
He closed his eyes, feeling his body shudder against emotion, pain throbbing in his arms and chest.
“When you’re fit again,” she said, “you’ve got a job working as a clerk at one of the stores in town. If that’s
what you like. It’s better here, in the city. I feel safer, somehow.”
Nathaniel turned his head away from her. She was talking to him just to make herself feel better. He still
didn’t have the heart to tell her to shut up.
He felt gentle pressure on his fingers.
“Ring the nurse if you need. I’m staying nearby; just send word, and I’ll be by,” she said and left, closing
the door gently behind her.
The light from the window was bright, perfectly golden yellow. It fell on the enamel table beside him and
revealed nothing. No notes, no flowers. Just imperfections and scratches, the sign of use, of wear.
Then, as he shifted in the bed, he felt something soft in his hand that he hadn’t noticed before; he looked
down. A handkerchief, embroidered with interlaced strawberries.
Hope had wings.
Natania Barron is a writer with a penchant for the speculative; she is also an unrepentant geek. This story
first appeared in Crossed Genres, and her other work has appeared in Weird Tales, EscapePod, The Gate-
house Gazette, Thaumatrope, Bull Spec, Steampunk Tales, Faerie Magazine, and in anthologies. She has
released the most recent draft of her steampunk novel, The Aldersgate, as a podcast at www.Aldersgate-
Cycle.com (also available in iTunes). Candlemark & Gleam will publish her novel Pilgrim of the Sky later
Superhero Fiction: The
Next Big Thing?
by Adam Christopher
There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not
be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by
a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump
on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres
as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as
a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire
romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in
the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.
Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will
have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can
more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway,
and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really
have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.
So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it?
Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t
know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.
But… maybe it’s superhero fiction. I said maybe.
Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been
paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore
bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray
of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over
his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.
But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be
completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how
prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a
modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who
raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that
superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.
The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public
was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public tele-
phone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of
Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how super-
hero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.
Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author up-
dated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years
since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have
changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but
while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.
Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my
friends, there are signs.
Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this
is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of
comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lan-
tern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.
But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan
amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s
also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience.
Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The
Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will
Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining
example of the genre.
More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of super-
hero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular
first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a
drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America,
and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains
superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it
sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic
powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note,
The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this
case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one
wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad
Anyone? Moving on…
The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about
five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre
electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished
screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include
murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television
series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.
Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.
So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly,
there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic
writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew
Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to
be a superhero.
Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fic-
tion – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.
Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is
the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very
strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).
Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does ex-
plode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that
bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).
Adam is a New Zealand-born genre writer now living in the sunny North West of England. When not writ-
ing he can be found drinking tea and obsessing over Dark Shadows, DC Comics, and 60s Doctor Who.
Adam is also very bad at épée but knows that Thibault cancels out Capa Ferro, unless the enemy has stud-
ied his Agrippa. Which he has. Adam’s website is adamchristopher.co.uk, and he can be found loitering
on Twitter as @ghostfinder.