My next novel: “Immunity Index”

Here’s the cover art for my next novel, Immunity Index. Notice that the skyline is Milwaukee.

The book will be released on May 4, 2021, and may it be a better year for us all.

I began writing this long before Covid-19 appeared, and as I finished it early this year, I became deeply troubled — then I realized why. This novel tells the story of a better coronavirus epidemic than the one we have. I am heartbroken by our real-life loss and suffering. The challenge to our perseverance and compassion will last for months and years.

More information and preorder links for the novel are here:

The official synopsis somehow fails to mention the woolly mammoth, but he’s in there and he’s loveable:

Sue Burke, author of Semiosis and Interference, gives readers a new near-future, hard sf novel. Immunity Index blends Orphan Black with Contagion in a terrifying outbreak scenario.

In a US facing growing food shortages, stark inequality, and a growing fascist government, three perfectly normal young women are about to find out that they share a great deal in common.

Their creator, the gifted geneticist Peng, made them that way — before such things were outlawed.

Rumors of a virus make their way through an unprotected population on the verge of rebellion, only to have it turn deadly.

As the women fight to stay alive and help, Peng races to find a cure — and the coverup behind the virus.

Susie Homemaker’s zucchini-couscous salad recipe

This is more of a cooking method than a recipe. I love to cook, and I’ve noticed that zucchini (also called marrow, summer squash, or courgette) gets kind of soggy when cooked. This works fine in ratatouille or similar dishes, but not in a salad. Then I figured out a way to make sog work for me with the aid of modern technology.

The secret is instant couscous. The photo shows tricolor instant couscous. Any brand and variety will do.

Begin several hours before you plan to serve the salad. Use ¼ cup/45g of couscous per zucchini. Put the couscous in a microwave-proof bowl, and, if you want, add herbs and spices to taste. Then chop the zuke into bite-sized pieces, put them in the bowl, and stir so the pieces are coated by the couscous. You can also add any other vegetables you might want lightly cooked in the salad, such as onions, garlic, or bell pepper. Do not add tomatoes at this point. Tomatoes get way too soggy when they cook.

Now cover the bowl and microwave until the zuke is almost tender. The exact time will depend on your microwave and the size of the batch. I do about five minutes for a two-zuke batch, stirring halfway through. It’s easy to overcook the zucchini, so keep an eye on it.

Take the bowl out, keep it covered, let it cool, then refrigerate. The zuke will continue to cook a bit as it cools. The couscous might seem dry, but don’t worry. The zucchini will eventually release a lot of liquid. Those things are mostly water anyway.

Before you serve it, add dressing, such as oil and vinegar, salt to taste, and any other herbs, spices, or vegetables you want in the salad, even cheese or cooked meat. Here’s where tomatoes can safely go in. (The photo includes black olives and onions.) Toss gently because the zucchini is a little fragile.


The Bombs Next Door: Nice Nuclear Neighbors

I wrote this article for TowerTalk, my apartment building’s newsletter. Montrose Beach is less than two miles to the south of us.

Crazy as it sounds, missiles stationed near Montrose Beach during the Cold War were armed with nuclear warheads. Even crazier, people seemed to think it was a good idea. This US Army “Family With a Future” decal anticipated a series of Nike missiles.

The missiles formed part of the Nike air defense system, one of 22 sites that ringed Chicago. These sites protected Chicago from Soviet aircraft flying over the North Pole and Canada to drop atomic bombs on the United States.

The Cold War was a time of international conflict that, for the most part, stopped short of violence. It began as World War II ended in 1945, leaving two major powers in the world: the United States versus the Soviet Union (USSR). The US already had atomic weapons, and the USSR exploded its first “A-bomb” in 1949.

The arms race was on, but neither side had long-range aircraft or missiles. As the Iron Curtain fell across Europe in 1946 and the Berlin Crisis sparked an airlift to the western half of the divided city in 1948-49, each side desperately researched improved weaponry.

Soon, about 300 Ajax launch sites were built to guard strategic locations. “Chicago has become the best-defended city in the Middle West against enemy air-to-ground attacks,” declared the Chicago Sun Times in 1960. Most of the city’s 22 sites were at its fringes, including in Indiana, but the lakefront had to be defended, too. Sites opened in Burnham Park, Jackson Park, and Lincoln Park.

A Nike Ajax missile in firing position at Montrose Beach in 1956.

The Lincoln Park site, operational from 1955 to 1965, was typical. An underground magazine of four missiles was installed just north of Belmont Harbor, where a patch of grass grows now. The radar and computers were housed in a building just south of Montrose Beach, where a restaurant operates now.

The sites opened to praise from the Chicago American newspaper. “The thing you ought to remember is that the Nike’s presence hereabouts should enable you to sleep a lot more soundly.” The missiles, it said, “make nice neighbors.”

Meanwhile, the Cold War kept heating up. As both sides improved their weapons, Americans began to build fallout shelters and create Civil Defense Systems with hopes of surviving a nuclear war. The Korean War from 1950-53 tested the limits of the Cold War. Then in 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the Earth. The space race was on, and the US lagged behind in missile technology.

A nuclear-capable Nike Hercules missile and its crew at the Montrose Beach site in 1959.

In 1958, the Army replaced Ajax with Hercules missiles and nuclear warheads. The missiles had a range of 100 miles, a top speed of 3000 miles per hour, and greater accuracy. The warhead could destroy ballistic missiles as well as several aircraft at once.

The Cold War remained tense. In August 1961, the Berlin Wall was built.

Not everyone liked living with the threat of sudden annihilation, and in November 1961, the first US Women’s Strike for Peace inaugurated the slogan, “End the Arms Race, Not the Human Race.”

In 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. Later that year, the US discovered USSR missiles armed with nuclear weapons in Cuba, and the crisis almost sparked a nuclear war. That led to the 1963 Test Ban Treaty that prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, which had been spreading around a lot of radioactivity.

But as a consequence of the space race, missile technology improved. Soon the USSR and the US could launch intercontinental ballistic missiles carrying nuclear warheads, and the Nike sites became obsolete. In 1965, the site at Montrose Beach and Belmont Harbor returned to park use, as did nine of the other sites around Chicagoland.

Eventually, the Cold War became history. Now Montrose Beach hosts the joys of nature and piping plover nests — but we still live in crazy times.

For further information:

Chicago Uptown History: “Nike Missile C-03 Montrose Harbor/Belmont Harbor Chicago”

Ed Thelen’s Nike Missile Web Site

Two bits and pieces of eight

You may know the American English-language expression two bits from the musical/rhythmic riff, “shave and a haircut, two bits” or from the meaning of two-bit as something cheap or trivial. You may even know that in the United States, two bits is twenty-five cents, a quarter-dollar, so you might think that one bit is one-eight of a dollar. You would be right.

How did this linguistic oddity come to pass?

Back when the United States were British colonies, due to a coin shortage, the colonies tended to use a Spanish coin called a dollar, also known as a piece of eight because it was worth eight reales. The real coin had been circulating in Spain since medieval times, and because of the rich silver mines in Spanish colonies in Mexico and South America, during colonial times reales and Spanish dollars became common currency throughout the world. The one-eighth dollar coins became known as “bits” or parts of a dollar.

When the United States became an independent country, it started making its own silver dollars and smaller coins, including quarter-dollars, and the terminology for bits as eighths hung on for a couple of centuries. Language changes slower than currency.

As for Spanish, the only meaning of bit is another meaning for that word in English, a BInary digiT used in computer sciences. Spain stopped using reales in 1868, when it replaced them with the peseta, until that was replaced by the euro in 2002.

In English, a piece of eight remains as part of Caribbean piracy lore. Now you know the booty the pirates were after: silver coins. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.

The euro was coming!

Spain_20cent_2001We’re living through historic times. Of course, we’re always in the midst of history, but the pandemic reminds us that this time it’s big — and not what we would have chosen.

I lived through a much happier big event almost nineteen years ago. The European Union was switching to the euro. At the time, I was living in Spain, and we were all excited. Rarely do average citizens get to participate directly in such a grand moment as the introduction of a new international currency involving fourteen European countries.

In late December of 2001, I got my first euros, a “starter kit” bag of shiny new coins purchased at a bank with Spanish pesetas, about 12 euros’ worth. I took them home and admired them with a friend: some copper-colored, some gold-colored, and some silver and gold bi-metal. They depicted King Juan Carlos II, Cervantes, and the Cathedral of Santiago.

At an exchange rate of 166.386 pesetas per 1 euro, the math stumped us a little, but lots of businesses were handing out cards with conversion tables. We were going to need the help.

On January 1, 2002, we would begin to use this new, strange money.

No more would we use the peseta, which had served Spain for 133 years. No more peseta prizes would be offered in the El Gordo lottery, held every December 22. At the lottery drawing, the winning numbers and prizes are always sung, and in 2001, the audience began to sing along — singing goodbye to the peseta.

Euro-ready or not, nine days later, midnight struck! People lined up at ATMs on their way to New Year’s parties to withdraw the new cash. The Madrid subway system discovered that its ticket machines were not quite euro-ready and didn’t work with the new currency, so people got to ride free until that was fixed the next day.

Officially, the euro had existed as a non-physical currency starting January 1, 1999, so we’d had a long time to get ready. Despite all the preparations, on January 1 a waiter in France got confused and accepted a 5-denomination Monopoly bill as a 5€ bill: both are grayish, the same size, and have big 5s on them.

In Spain, we officially had until February 28 to shift over to the new currency, but it took only a few days. By law, we could pay in pesetas and get our change in euros, and that’s how we did it: people would buy a 100-peseta cup of coffee with a 10,000 peseta bill.

We all had to do a lot of math with the 166.386 exchange rate. For a long time I saw befuddled elderly people in stores helplessly holding out a handful of euro bills and coins to check-out clerks, who would pick out the right amount. The euro had cents, like dollars, and my husband had to teach our landlord how to write a check with decimals. I knew that the copper coins would tarnish soon like US pennies, but Spaniards were dismayed when they saw the pretty coins turn brown.

Yet even before the euro began circulating, problems had begun to surface. To avoid paying taxes on under-the-table earnings, many Spaniards kept significant savings in cash — suitcases full of bills. How could they exchange those for euros without paying taxes? They couldn’t, so they began spending the pesetas. One December 2001 advertisement for diamonds simply showed jewelry and the tagline: “Honey, the euro is coming and I don’t have a thing to wear.”

More problems with the euro eventually followed, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, a historic event that no one enjoyed living through. I prefer to remember those fun days eighteen years ago when we had bright new money in our purses and the knowledge that one day we would tell children, “I remember when I held my first euro coin.…”

Some day, I hope to bore children with the story of the excitement of getting my Covid-19 vaccination. Meanwhile, we’re all in a historic moment, and we can influence the outcome, at least a little. “Honey, the coronavirus is coming…”