I’m interviewed at Locus magazine

Feb LOCUS CV finalThe March 2020 issue of Locus magazine has interviews with me, Nina Allan, and Gareth L. Powell. The issue also includes the Nebula Awards Ballot, notices of award winners, news, reviews, and columns. The magazine is available for purchase, but it isn’t free online.

However, you can listen for free to a podcast of my interview with Intralingo — many other fascinating interviews about world literature are also at that site. Host Lisa Carter and I talk about writing, science fiction, and my inspiration for Semiosis and Interference. One of the things I say:

“There’s something called ‘plant blindness,’ where you see a tree and every other tree is just the same tree. Well, no, it’s not. [I hope readers] begin to see the individuals that are around them and understand that their lives are difficult for them, but important for them too, because this is our environment. If all the plants die, we’re dead too.”

Links about language, literature, and me

Community Read blog
A Community Read Conversation with Sue Burke: I’ll be at Longwood Gardens as part of its Community Read program on March 27 and 28. Semiosis is one of this year’s books. At the Longwood blog, I answer some questions about the book and my love for plants.

Lisa Carter is founder and creative director of Intralingo Inc., and she’s a leading professional in the translation world. She was kind enough to feature me in her Spotlight series, meant to promote authors and translators and their work. In this 22-minute video interview, we talk about language, including the challenges of creating languages for Semiosis and Interference that were alien “enough” but still comprehensible to the reader.

TerMaSpain has a tradition of tertulias, which are informal social gatherings, usually in bars, often to discuss art or literature. When I was living in Madrid, Spain, the Tertulia Madrileña de Literatura Fantástica (Madrid Tertulia for Speculative Fiction, called TerMa for short) was meeting, and I had the pleasure to take part. TerMa became an engine for science fiction, fantasy, and horror from its founding in 1991 and for the next two decades. Now a half-hour documentary revisits those exciting times. Available on YouTube, La TerMa, semblanza de una época interviews the people whose literary lives were changed. I say a few words, too. In Spanish.

On YouTube, Linguistics in SFF Recommendations by Kalanadi, a book reviewer, has a v-blog about language, xenolinguistics, interspecies communication. “This is my favorite topic in science fiction by far” she says. “I’ve been asked occasionally for a recommendations video about this, so today I attempt to deliver.” Among the recommendations is Semiosis.

Author Karen Hugg interviews me for her blog.

Steven J. Wright reviews Interference.

Nerd CantinaThe Nerd Cantina interviews me for its podcast.

Finally, on YouTube, you can listen to this Clarkesworld Magazine podcast of my novellette, “Who Won the Battle of Arsia Mons?” The story was published in the November 2017 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine and is read by Kate Baker.

Non-gendered writing: one translation challenge

castlesinspainGender in language poses problems — but different problems in different languages require different, sometimes creative solutions.

I coordinated the translation team for the anthology Castles in Spain, published in 2016. Its ten stories represent the work of Spain’s most important authors as the genre consolidated around the turn of the millennium and took a leap into vibrant, world-class writing.

One challenge came with “The Star” by Elia Barceló, an award-winning, dream-like story. Its characters include some ethereal beings who have no fixed gender. Elia achieved that indeterminancy using certain grammatical aspects of Spanish. For example, possessive pronouns agree with the thing being possessed, not with the possessor. So “her house” and “his house” would both be su casa. Other kinds of pronoun use likewise doesn’t necessarily identify the gender of the person involved.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the story in Spanish and then an over-literal translation. I’ve used “he,” “him,” and “his” to emphasize the pronouns’ presence, although in Spanish those pronouns do not reveal the gender of the characters.

Estábamos todos allí. Lana, como una muñeca rubia colgada de sus cuerdas, con una incongruente faldita roja y el hilo de saliva brillando en su cara pálida; Lon, sus ojos inmensos y oscuros en un rostro casi inexistente; Sadie, moviendo vertiginosamente sus alas, lo que le hacía oscilar a unos centímetros del suelo, mientras masticaba en un gesto de robótica eficiencia esa sustancia verde que tanto le gusta; Tras, encogiendo hasta casi la desaparición su frágil cuerpecillo, su deseo clavado en el cielo, y yo, número cinco, el cierre de la estrella, temblando como un carámbano de luz, focalizando el anhelo. Todos allí, esperando.

We were all there. Lana, like a blond doll hanging from his strings, with an inconsistent little red skirt and a thread of saliva shining on his pale face; Lon, his immense and dark eyes in a nearly non-existent face; Sadie, dizzily moving his wings, which made him oscillate a few centimeters from the ground, while he chewed in a robot motion that green substance he likes so much; Tras, shrinking almost to disappearance his fragile little body, his desire fixed on the sky; and I, number five, like the close of the star, trembling like an icicle of light, focusing the longing. All of us there, waiting.

Among the problems to solve: how to make it gender-neutral while keeping the beauty of the original prose. (Its beauty is lost in the over-literal translation.) I worked closely with translator Nur-Huda El Masri and copy-editor Charlie Sangster, and this is what we came up with:

We were all there. Lana, like a blond doll hanging from puppet’s strings, with a ridiculous red skirt and a thread of saliva glistening on a pale face; Lon, with eyes huge and dark in a nearly non-existent face; Sadie, fluttering a pair of wings dizzily, hovering a few centimetres off the ground while chewing that beloved green stuff with robotic efficiency; Tras, reduced to a tiny, almost vanishing fragile frame and desire fixed on the sky; and I, the fifth, the brooch that binds the star, atremble like an icicle of light, there to illuminate yearning. All of us, waiting.

Any work can be translated in a wide variety of ways, all of them correct. Often something is lost — but often something is found, too. This was our solution to this gender-free problem, and I think it worked.

How to avoid me at Capricon

Capricon40I’m going to Capricon this weekend, February 14 to 16, a science fiction convention held annually in the Chicagoland area since 1981. We’ll be at the Westin Chicago North Shore, discussing and debating topics about books, movies, television, anime, space exploration, and science, with special tracks for children and teens. This year’s theme is the Tropics of Capricon. Specifically, as the con describes it:

The tropics is a band around the globe from 23 degrees north to 23 degrees south. This region includes 40% of the world’s population and is underrepresented in science fiction and fantasy. These areas will also be disproportionately affected by global warming. For example, entire island nations like the Maldives and Tuvalu are in danger of being wiped out by rising sea levels.

The word tropics evokes sun-drenched beaches, bustling marketplaces, and lush rain forests. The tropics can be a setting for escape and exploration, or for colonialism and dystopia. Will the future of the region be filled with glittering cities, or a wasteland ravaged by climate change? What does it mean for a science fiction and fantasy setting to be tropical? Come with us as we explore the nexus between geography and culture for science fiction and fantasy settings.

I’ll participate in two panels:

Real Tropical Killers, Friday, 2:30 p.m.
A jungle is a war zone. Jaguars and snakes and other animals will try to kill you, but there’s so much more danger. Many plants will also try to kill you or each other, animals hunt each other, disease lurks, and the climate might get you, too. In our fiction, we can invent all kinds of perils, or we can just incorporate all the threats that menace us in real life. Panelists: Jonathan Brazee, Patricia Sayre McCoy, Shelly Loke, Sue Burke, and Mari Brighe.

Lessons I Learned as a First-Time Novelist, Friday, 8:30 p.m.
From finding a publisher, working with an editor, to marketing your book and everything in-between, our panelists discuss what it’s like to publish your first novel. Panelists: Mark Huston, Sue Burke, John O’Neill, Clifford Johns, Tracy Townsend, and Jon R. Osborne.

I’ll also be autographing at the Autograph Table on Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Come by and say hi! You don’t have to bring something to sign, and there probably won’t be a line.

How much does a dragon weigh?

Canada GooseI’ve been thinking about writing a fantasy story in which the main character picks up a sickly young dragon and carries it home. Would that be possible? How much does a dragon weigh?

Google’s answers refer mostly to Dungeons & Dragons, where the dragons weigh tons, and that’s not my fantasy universe. I want a fantasyland closer to our consensus reality (the “real world” to Muggles). Dragons fly, and birds fly, so perhaps we could extrapolate dragon weight from bird weight.

Canada geese have a sort of dragon-like shape — and like dragons, they can be nasty. If geese could spit fire at us, I’m sure they would. Very roughly (for easy math) a Canada goose is 3 feet long from beak to tail, has a 5 foot wingspan, and weighs 10 pounds. A dragon 30 feet long with a 50 foot wingspan would weigh 100 pounds.

That’s not very much. It would be far easier to carry around a dog-sized dragon than to carry around an actual dog. The hard part would be avoiding the dragon’s fiery breath.

Even a dragon the length of a city block, about 300 feet, with a wingspan equal to the height of a 50-story building would weigh only 1000 pounds. A dairy cow weighs more. World champion weightlifters could pick up a skyscraper-sized dragon.

So … dragons are lightweights. That’s useful to know.


A friend has kindly pointed out that dragons have not merely length but depth and breadth — that is, their weight would increase by the cube square law.

The 30 foot dragon would be 100 times heavier than a Canada goose, or 1000 pounds. The 300 foot dragon with a 500 foot wingspan would be 10,000 pounds, about the weight of an African elephant.

Sorry. In my defense, a skyscraper-sized dragon that weighs as much as an African elephant is still relatively lightweight, even though we’d need a crane to lift it up (provided that the dragon is cooperative). Another thought: Would you want a dragon to land on the roof of your house?