Chernobyl thirteen years ago


Welcome sign to Chernobyl. Photo by Sue Burke

I’ve uploaded a new article to this site, Chernobyl: the half-life of war. I visited Chernobyl in 2006, twenty years after the disaster, then I came home and wrote about what I’d seen and learned.

Despite all my pre-visit research, the site wasn’t what I expected. It was grim, but not entirely: flowers were blooming at the Visitor’s Center, the forest was thriving, and the charm of the abandoned city of Pripyat was still apparent. During my visit, I learned that much of the radiation had sunk into the soil, where it was brought up by trees. A forest fire would release the radioactivity, so the forest rangers had to closely monitor the area, ready to act. It was neither a wasteland nor a fit place to live.

A recent HBO miniseries, Chernobyl, has dramatized the disaster. A bigger question remains: Why did it happen? In my article, I conclude that it was caused by desperate energy policies as the Soviet Union tried to win the Cold War. The Cold War ended, in part because of the Chernobyl disaster, but energy policies around the world remain desperate and misguided, and the world is still preparing for war. Fresh disasters hulk on the horizon.

My translation of “Techt” by Sofia Rhei: one tricky little success and one lingering failure

Sofia RheiAqueduct Press recently released Everything Is Made of Letters, a collection of short stories by Sofia Rhei. She’s an accomplished author with an engaging personality, and we became friends while I was living in Spain.

I originally translated her short story “Techt” for the anthology Spanish Women of Wonder. Sofía tells a thoughtful, touching account of an old man living in poverty in a hostile future. Language has become debased as well — or perhaps as a consequence — and can no longer express complexities. He strives to maintain what literature and “long” language have to offer humanity: sophisticated ideas, beauty, and a life of richer meaning.

Aqueduct Press put up a sample of its book, and it includes the full text of “Techt.” You can read it here.

Overall, I’m satisfied with my translation. I think I handled one tricky little detail effectively. A chart on Page 17 of the book shows “Alphabet 100,” a simplified form of communication using symbols, and the text explains what some of the most frequently used symbols mean. In the original Spanish:
@ – a, K – que, Ð – de, & – además

indexLiterally translated, it says:
@ – at, K – that, Ð – of, & – also

I saw that the meaning of @ and & are the same in English, so I didn’t need to change them for the translation. K presented a problem that was easy to solve: K is used in English as an abbreviation for OK, and I could substitute that meaning without doing violence to the original text.

Ð in Spanish has been used, especially in old documents, as an abbreviation of DE (of), but the symbol has no common use in English. I could have asked for the symbol to be substituted for something else in the original chart in the text, but I knew it would be so much easier to find some sort of adaptation. I researched until I discovered one.

It turns out that Ð is a letter in Old and Middle English, and it represents the sound of “th” in “the.” That substitution would work. Problem solved!

I couldn’t figure out how to solve anothe problem, and I feel bad because I failed. The original text features debased oral language: “Ké zer nau?” “Yob’m film!” “Nvío urgent. Krtera decir tú sign.”

My translation: “Wat du nao?” “Job’n film!” “Erjnt mes. Caryer say yu ident.” (They make more sense in context, don’t worry.) I think that’s a reasonable translation except for one thing. The original, you might notice, is Spanish heavily influenced by English.

English. It has a growing hegemony in the world, imposing itself on other languages, and its presence in debased discourse in the story implies something significant to Spanish-language readers. English is cool, thus Spanish is not as cool, so English is used needlessly in Spain these days in a way that doesn’t always advance or enrich communication, which breeds resentment among some Spanish-speakers. This article published by an important watchdog of the Spanish language, Fundéu BBVA, tries to refute the idea that English is the “enemy” of Spanish. The fact that the idea needs refuting tells us it exists.

I could not figure out how to express the subtext in the story that English has helped deteriorate Spanish, since English is the culprit here. Sometimes it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. The story “Techt” stands strong even without that missing detail, but my instinct as a translator is to bring you everything a reader in the original language would have understood and everything the author was trying to say. I failed, and it bothers me.

My father: some of his little-known, not always licit, achievements

My father, Richard Burke, died in 1996 of complications from prostate cancer.

Here are few things not everyone knew about him:

DickBurkeFootballSmallHe played on the defensive line of the Marquette University’s Golden Avalanche football team during the late 1940s. To earn a little money on the side, he also briefly (and secretly, since it was forbidden by college sports rules) fought as a professional wrestler under the name “Tiger Dick.”

When he was cut from the team, he was drafted into the Marines, where he served as a Marine sharpshooter and MP. He was also a semi-professional gambler at the time, and he and some fellow Marines opened a clandestine casino on base — but only for about a month because “that’s how long the bribes lasted.”

(I’m not a great card player, but he taught me some useful strategies that I don’t share with potential rivals, so don’t ask.)

He never had occasion to face combat, but as an MP he once stopped an attempted rape. He warned the perpetrator, “Halt or I’ll shoot!” and, since the circumstances required it, he would have shot to kill. He recalled that incident with pride at his resolve to do what he had to do without hesitation. The perpetrator wisely halted.

DadHe went on to work in supervisory positions in heavy manufacturing. He eventually held three patents. He also raised four children, adored his wife, enjoyed pro and college football, could fix anything as a handyman, and was an excellent sport fisherman.

Later, he capitalized on his long experience in manufacturing to do some industrial espionage. He said the spy work wasn’t especially sneaky. He would simply observe what a company was doing during a public factory tour, for example, and since he understood manufacturing processes so well, he could deduce their secrets.

When he retired, he volunteered to lead tours at historic Fort Concho in San Angelo, Texas, headquarters to Pecos Bill and the Buffalo Soldiers.

“Semiosis” is a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award

Finalists for this year’s John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction novel have been selected, and Semiosis is on the list! I am deeply honored.

The John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel , or Campbell Memorial Award, is an annual award presented by the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas to the author of the best science fiction novel published in English in the preceding calendar year. It is the novel counterpart of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best short story, awarded by the same organization.

(The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer is a different award presented along with the Hugos at Worldcon. Yeah, I was confused at first, too.)

The Campbell Memorial Award will be presented in Lawrence, Kansas, on June 28. This year’s jury included Gregory Benford, Sheila Finch, Elizabeth Anne Hull, Paul Kincaid, McKitterick, Pamela Sargent, and Lisa Yaszek.

The full list of nominees:

Semiosis, Sue Burke (Tor)
A Spy in Time, Imraan Coovadia (Rare Bird)
The Calculating Stars, Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Time Was, Ian McDonald ( Publishing)
Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller (Ecco)
Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice (ECW)
Theory of Bastards, Audrey Schulman (Europa Editions)
Unholy Land, Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon)
Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
The Freeze-Frame Revolution, Peter Watts (Tachyon)
The Loosening Skin, Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)


My ballot for the Hugo Award Best Short Story

I have a problem. I really like four of the six short stories nominated for this year’s Hugo Award and would be pleased if any of them won, and the other two are highly meritorious as well. If you get the chance, read these stories or any one of them chosen at random. It will be worth your time.

That said, here’s my ballot. The Hugos uses a ranked voting system, so I have to rank them — but why can’t there be a co-winners like the eight finalists in the 2019 Scripps National Spelling Bee?

6. “The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
My low rank is solely due to my disagreement over the storytelling style. A boy discovers the cost of magic, and he learns that good intentions do not overrule cold cause and effect. The fable-like telling to me felt too distant, which I thought obscured the originality of the story — that’s a quibble, though, and the ideas within the story are well worth telling.

5. “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
This is a tale of dragons, a witch who is a princess, and a stupid prince, and the story is praiseworthy despite my low rank. It upends some conventions and the plot never falters. For me, it tries too hard to be funny — but a sense of humor is so uniquely personal that other people may think it strikes just the right notes.

4. “STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
The story format is a draft of a research paper with comments written in the margins by editors and reactions by the author. A woman loses her daughter in an accident involving an automated car and, as revealed in the research paper she writes, she believes that the car made the wrong choice. The emotions are raw, and the unusual format is used for good ends. I rated it in fourth place only because I thought the the story rested on some obvious ideas — but they’re expressed with an authenticity that lingered with me.

3. “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
This won the Nebula Award, a well-deserved recognition. The story takes a fact, which is that Washington had dentures made of human teeth, and uses it to create nine short biographies of the slaves whose teeth were used, each with a unique story and a specific kind of magic. I wish the magic had changed the sweep of history somehow — but the story is satisfying without that.

2. “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)
This was my vote for the Nebula Award. A witch librarian wants to help a troubled boy find the book he needs to escape his life. I liked it so much that I read it slowly so I could enjoy it longer. In truth, this is a tie for my number-one choice.

1. “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
I laughed out loud when I read this. Some mythical, magical men meet their match with a strong-willed mortal woman. The storytelling is wonderfully paced with delightful characterization, and it deliberately and transparently turns traditional tales on their heads. Again, humor is uniquely personal, but, personally, I loved this story.