Four modern myths about Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote de la Mancha among many other works, supposedly died on April 23, 1616. Here are four myths to clear up before you observe the anniversary — and before you celebrate World Book Day on April 23.

Myth 1: Cervantes died on April 23

No. Cervantes probably died on April 22. Church records say he was interred on April 23, 1616, and in Spain people are generally laid to rest on the day after their death. There is no doubt, however, that he was interred at the church of the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in central Madrid, a few blocks from his home.

Myth 2: Cervantes died on the same day as Shakespeare

No, for two reasons. Number 1: William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, not April 22. Number 2: Spain was using the Gregorian calendar (just as we do now worldwide), while England was still using the old Julian calendar. The Gregorian equivalent of April 23, 1616, is May 3, 1616. Shakespeare died ten days after Cervantes was interred.

In spite of that, UNESCO has established April 23 as World Book Day to honor the two authors’ (more or less) simultaneous deaths and their unquestionable status as giants of literature.

Myth 3: Cervantes’ remains were found in 2015

Maybe. A team of 36 experts in history, archeology, and anthropology spent more than a year investigating Cervantes’ interment at the Trinitarian church. They knew his remains had been “consolidated” around 1730 after the church was rebuilt. That means the remains from several crypts were combined to free up space for more interments.

CervantesRemainsEventually, these experts located a grave from the right time, judging from fragments of clothing and a coin found in it. But what they discovered was in fact a mixture of casket hardware, pieces of wood, some rocks, and quite a few deteriorated bone fragments. (Photo by the Municipality of Madrid.) The fragments were sorted out and corresponded to six children and at least ten adults, including men and women.

One of those bones was a jaw whose owner had lost most of his teeth. We know that Cervantes had very few teeth when he died. Some rib and arm bones showed signs of injuries like the ones Cervantes suffered in the Battle of Lepanto. The director of the investigation announced that “it is possible” that “some fragments” were from Cervantes. “We can’t resolve that question with absolute certainty, and that’s why we’re prudent. We’re convinced we have something.”

Corroborating that “something” with DNA would help, but it’s going to be tough to get DNA from family members, since their remains aren’t in any better shape, if they can even be found.

In spite of that, you can go on guided tours of the church and view a five-foot-tall granite headstone that rests a floor above what are possibly Cervantes’ remains. The tour guide tells visitors, “It doesn’t matter if they’re here, over there, or somewhere else. The author hasn’t left this place.” And that’s for certain. What’s left of him, though it might not be much, is definitely in that church. Somewhere.

Myth 4: We writers should honor his remains with a visit

Maybe. Madrid is a great place to visit. These aren’t saintly relics, however, so they won’t radiate any sort of blessing to improve our souls. Even if they did, remember that while we now celebrate Cervantes’ genius, during his lifetime he was always poor and overlooked. That’s why his remains were “consolidated.” Only those rich enough to pay for the privilege got to rest in peace and solitude for all time to come. Everyone else was moved to joint burials if their space was needed for a new interment.

If we make a solemn pilgrimage to his resting place, we might be blessed by genius — or we might be cursed by poverty and obscurity. We don’t need Cervantes’ help to achieve that.


Turning a nuisance into a money-maker

I want to open a business: a spy agency. Detectives, if you prefer.

Learn your competitor’s business secrets! Find out if your spouse is cheating! Think there’s a conspiracy? We can find out!

Here’s how it will work. My agents will (discretely, of course) follow around the target individual(s) in public areas, such as restaurants, airplanes, and stores. They will (discretely) eavesdrop when the target individual is talking on the phone.

It’s just that easy. People talk way too loud, and we all know how often we’ve heard people say things in public that we weren’t meant to hear. If my agents listened persistently, think how much they could learn.

Espionage. Perfectly legal.

Easy money. Because people with phones make it just that easy.

I’ll be at C2E2 on Sunday, April 8

c2e2-header-logoI’ll be at C2E2, the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, on Sunday afternoon, April 8. I’ll appear on a panel called The End of the World As we Know It: Dystopian & Utopian Futures in Fiction, from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in Room S405b.

“From 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale and everything in between, the best science fiction pulls from current events to create terrifying alternate futures and shine a light on the political and social issues of today. Could these realities come true? Join Sue Burke (Semiosis), Kristen Simmons (Metaltown, The Glass Arrow, the Article 5 Series), Ada Palmer (The Will to Battle, Terra Ignota Series) and Sam J. Miller (Blackfish City) as they gaze into dystopian worlds eerily similar to our own.”

Then we’ll be at an autographing session from 2:45 to 3:45 p.m. at tables 33 and 34 in the Autographing Area. Books will be available for purchase, but the autographs will be free, and we’ll be glad to talk to people. (For some celebrities, free autographs isn’t the case. I’m definitely not a celebrity.)

C2E2 will be held April 6 to 8 at the South Building at McCormick Place, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive. It’s a Chicago convention for fans dedicated to comics, pop culture, books, graphic novels, anime, manga, video games, toys, movies, and television. Last year 80,000 people attended. C2E2 is especially known for its cosplay championships.

This should be fun.

Nebula Awards 2017: My thoughts on the novellas

As a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, I get to vote on this year’s Nebula Awards, which will be presented May 19. Here’s a list of all the nominees and more information about the awards and process.

I get to vote for one work in each category. Here are my thoughts about the novella category.

River of Teeth, Sarah Gailey ( Publishing)
The Wild, Wild West with hippos. A man of few scruples and a thirst for revenge assembles a crew with even fewer scruples and a variety of essential skills to clear the fierce, feral hippos out of a Louisiana swamp. (The prologue explains how they got there.) Repeatedly, the man denies that his plan is a caper, but it is: a predictable story right down to the many reversals, much like a matinee movie except that this story has a lot of savage murders. Despite the bloodshed, this is a fun farce of an old-fashioned Western — with hippos! — but I was hoping for something more solid and original.

Passing Strange, Ellen Klages ( Publishing)
In San Francisco in 1940, the lives of several women in its lesbian subculture become entwined. When one couple faces a disaster, they pull together and solve it by — well, no spoilers. The story starts and finishes tense, and while it has some sharp moments, in other parts it spends more time exploring the city and the subculture. I enjoyed the chance to see that slice of history, but I think the story could have been shortened a lot without much loss.

“And Then There Were (N-One),” Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 3-4/17)
Sarah Pinsker (not the author) gets an invitation to a Sarah Pinsker convention being organized by Sarah Pinsker, the quantologist, who has found a way to connect alternate realities. More than two hundred Sarahs come from a wide variety of divergence points, some very similar to other Sarahs, a few quite different, and from similar or different Earths. In one, for example, Seattle has been destroyed by an earthquake. Then a Sarah Pinsker is murdered. Which one? By which one? Why? Sarah (the author) does a good job of showing the weirdness of being surrounded by people almost just like yourself.

Barry’s Deal, Lawrence M. Schoen (NobleFusion Press)
The Amazing Conroy is back! This is the fourth caper of the galaxy-traveling stage hypnotist and his super-cute alien companion animal, a truly omnivorous buffalo dog. He comes to a hotel-casino that is planning an illegal auction, runs into some people he knows, and discovers a sinister criminal scheme. In the end, Conroy outsmarts the bad guy. What the story may lack in depth it makes up for in fun.

All Systems Red, Martha Wells ( Publishing)
I was among those who nominated this, a straight-up science fiction adventure. The narrator’s mordant attitude makes the story outstanding: a robot who has killed in the past, who is sure everyone hates it because of that, and who hates itself, too. It’s possibly clinically depressed and spends its time trying to lose itself in a video series, secretly dreaming of not being a slave to a brutal, profiteering corporation. But it does its job to protect people on a dangerous mission, even risking its own life, which those people didn’t expect.

The Black Tides of Heaven, JY Yang ( Publishing)
In a Asian-like culture with two moons and fluid genders, twins are driven apart by their tyrannical mother, also the land’s dictator, who rules with a bloodstained iron hand. Technology is managed by those gifted with the control of a sort of elements-based magic, and the tyrant and her family are among those gifted. But a rebellion against her, using mechanical technology, brings the twins, now adults, back together. At times, the writing seemed a little cliche and approached purple prose, and some characters, including the evil mother, get little development. The story doesn’t quite end, either, instead setting up a sequel.

I’ll vote for All Systems Red, but “And Then There Were (N-One)” is a close second, and Passing Strange third. I’m basing my decision on originality and execution, but reasonable people can come to different choices.

Nebula Awards 2017: My thoughts on the novelettes

As a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), I get to vote on the Nebula Awards. They’ll be presented May 19. You can see a full list of the nominees here and more information about the awards and process here.

I’ve been reading the short fiction nominees, and here are my thoughts on the novelette category. Let me add that last year, none of my choices in the three short fiction categories won, and the year before that I was one for three. That shows what I know. Or it shows how high the quality is.

“Dirty Old Town,” Richard Bowes (Fantasy & Science Fiction 5-6/17)
Boys who were rivals in grade school become close in adulthood and retain a magical bond. That’s it — not much plot to this rambling story. Yet it remains captivating to the end as the two men continue to struggle with mutual antagonism and affection while their bonds deepen.

“Weaponized Math,” Jonathan P. Brazee (The Expanding Universe, Vol. 3)
This is military SF, a noble subgenre. A sniper is on assignment, protecting a meeting in a war zone, and an attack comes. The site of the fighting and the reasons behind it aren’t clear, but the professional determination of the United Federation Marines shines through. The story’s tension never flags. Outside of some highly technological weapons, however, there’s not much science fiction, but this is from a larger series that I know provides more SFnal context.

“Wind Will Rove,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 9-10/17)
On a multi-generational ship, the older generations cling to what they recall from Earth or have learned about it. For the narrator, this means music. Younger generations grow rebellious, eager to create their own music and arts or to forget Earth’s culture and history altogether. These children know they will grow up in a static society on a voyage that seemed romantic to their elders but is confining to them. Despite the skill in storytelling, the focus seemed a bit off to me. I learned a lot about the narrator’s family and music, especially one particular song, but not as much about what is going on in the ship. The need to change and adapt became symbolized by that song, but the story got stuck on the symbol rather than a resolution of the on-board problems.

“A Series of Steaks,” Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld 1/17)
This was one of five finalists for Clarkesworld magazine’s Reader’s Poll. My story “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” was also a finalist. As soon as I read “A Series of Steaks,” I knew I was likely to lose. A woman in China agrees to make counterfeit beefsteaks for a client, then the deal starts to go sour. Three things impressed me: the quiet desperation of the main character, the philosophical musings about the art of forgeries, and the thoroughly satisfying ending.

“A Human Stain,” Kelly Robson ( 1/4/17)
A woman takes a job as a governess of sorts at an isolated old manor house/castle, where the staff is strange, her young charge is stranger, and the man who employed her flees from the place on a business errand as fast as he can. I don’t want to give you any spoilers, but you can easily guess that there’s a horrible secret, and things are going to end badly. I felt like I’d read this horror story before.

“Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” K.M. Szpara (Uncanny 5-6/17)
A man in the process of transitioning from female to male gets turned into a vampire. The difficulties of his human-to-vampire transition become more complex due to his gender transition, and he struggles. There are hot sex scenes. Beyond the transitional complication, though, there’s not much of a new take on vampirism in this story.

Every story here is expertly written and worth reading, and each one got on the ballot for good reason. Still, as you can tell from my comments, I think some have flaws in their development or originality. For that reason, I’m voting for “A Series of Steaks” because I think it pushes the genre into the newest territory. Second on my list is “Dirty Old Town” for its deep characterization. After that, I’m neutral — but to reiterate, if any of these stories appeals to you for some reason, don’t hesitate to read it.

— Sue Burke