The story behind the story: The wind knows all

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Beth Cato and her story The wind knows all. Regular readers will recall that Beth is the author of the Clockwork Dagger duology and the Blood of Earth trilogy, as well as having written a number of stories for Futures (you’ll find a full list at the foot of this post). You can find out more about her work at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here, she reveals what inspired her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing: The wind knows all

I belong to Codex, a site for neo-pro writers that provides deep friendships, publishing industry news, and numerous writing contests throughout the year. The twice-a-year flash-fiction contests are among my very favourites.

The usual contest format involves five story prompts followed by a weekend of frenzied writing and revising to produce a work of flash fiction that I hope will not prove to be an embarrassment. Often, I end up combining several prompts to prod a story from my brain. That was the case with The wind knows all.

One of the prompts called on me to randomly shuffle through my phone’s music. That brought me to a song by one of my favourite bands, ‘Dust Bowl Dance’ by Mumford and Sons. Still, the song alone wasn’t enough to build a story. I studied the other prompts and fixated on one that asked, “How do you feed a ghost?”

My writer-brain, funny thing that it is, wondered: what if the dusty wind is filled with ghosts? Not just the ghosts of people, but the very spirit of a planet?

To make things even more challenging, I resolved to make the planet into the narrator, giving it insight into every other character and control over my protagonist, Maribel. Contest feedback pointed out that Maribel needed more agency. I agreed. I made the point-of-view even more complex by limiting the planet’s control over Maribel, establishing her as an independent teen girl amid horrible circumstances.

Codex’s contests are awesome because they push me to experiment, such as with prompts I’d never use otherwise (like the playlist on my phone) or with perspectives that would be downright daunting if I gave them too much thought (like the voice of an entire planet). Sometimes those experiments don’t work. In this case, it did, and I’m happy to see The wind knows all find a home with Nature’s Futures.

Read more Futures stories by Beth:

A picture is worthThe 133rd Live Podcast of the Gourmando Resistance | Powers of observationExcerpts from the 100-day food diary of Angela MeyerThe human is late to feed the catBread of lifePost-apocalyptic conversations with a sidewalkCanopy of skulls

The story behind the story: Infringement

This week, Futures is pleased to welcome Timothy J. Gawne with his story Infringement. By day, Timothy is a neuroscientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, but outside of the university, he is also author of the Old Guy cybertank novels. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Infringement

The idea for writing Infringement came up, as so many of my writing ideas do, when I was corresponding with my genius editor brother Jonathan.  He throws ideas at me, and usually I go “that’s stupid” or “not my style” but often when I sleep on them I realize that it can work if I just do X …

Somehow the idea of a galactic copyright police came up, and I thought, what if Earth itself was infringing and had to be destroyed?  Once I had that basic idea down, the story wrote itself.

It might seem harsh to rub out an entire world with billions of (alleged?) sentient beings to protect someone’s intellectual property, but don’t we do similar things now when we deny vital medicines to countless poor people to avoid hurting the profits of the people who count?  Why should a galactic/universal civilization be any better?

The idea of an advanced civilization that can build entire planets to order is hardly new — think Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — but why would we imagine that these planets would all be custom?  Look at how many of the manufactured items we have that are mass-produced.  Perhaps Earth would be considered a classic design, far more interesting than those boring planets where everything is a sunny beach littered with diamonds.  And even as people reading the same book or watching the same movie can take pleasure from sharing their experiences, surely owners of Earth might feel the same?

Science fiction can be written at several technological levels, ranging from grounded-in-current-physics (such as The Martian, by Andy Weir) to a level where the technology is so fantastically advanced that it becomes taken for granted in a way that becomes comical (The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but also Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley, or even the old 1960s TV series Lost in Space).  Here I obviously chose the latter.

Most people who own Honda Civic automobiles are happy with them the way they are, but there are always some who want to tinker.  It’s a lot easier than building an entirely new car from scratch and, in addition, people can compare notes to see who can get the most out of a stock design.  Perhaps the same thing would happen with Earth?  Hmm, a story about a customized Earth competition, and all these hopped-up Earths come together to see who can take the grand prize of coolest Earth.  I know, someone from the reference standard Earth will be there as well, to give perspective to all the ways that Earth could have gone, if deliberately evolved by intelligences with different styles and tastes.  Let me call my brother …






The story behind the story: You will remember this

In You will remember this, Justen Russell introduces Futures to a novel alien race with a very different perspective on life from our own. A microbiologist by day, Justen has very kindly taken some time out from the lab to explain the origins of his latest tale, and the choices he made when writing it. As ever, it is best to read the story first.

Writing You will remember this

In an earlier draft of You will remember this there was a poster on the wall behind the narrator. On it a single, colourful image depicted our Solar System in all four dimensions, from the Big Bang to the heat death of the Universe. That poster, like Patrick Xu, added a little background to the world of the story, but the section it was described in did not fit nicely into the final version.

I have wanted to write this story since the I first encountered the theory of a biological arrow to time. The theory states that the Universe and everything that will happen is already determined. That we — living, conscious entities within that Universe — experience the past, present and future as a quirk of our biology and entropy. Because we form our memories by organizing molecules in our brain, at any point in time we can only remember events that occurred before those molecules were organized, i.e. we can remember the past but not the future, but both exist.

That poster with an image of the Solar System from the start of time to the end was mentioned in passing. The narrator said: “Personally, I just like the colours.” That is probably why it did not survive to the final draft. It was an artefact that was more meaningful because it was taken for granted. Pop-culture is full of scientific images, images that changed our perception of the world, images that took thousands of person-hours to create: the periodic table, Earth from space, the double helix of DNA. These images are placed on posters, screen-savers and corporate logos. They become so commonplace that they have meaning outside of the technical details they contain. The image of the Solar System in four dimensions was the same. Everyone in the story grew up knowing the Universe is determined, but not really understanding what that means. To most, the poster would have been just a pretty picture that represented an abstract idea, even though it contained in it everything that had happened, and everything that would happen. Not with enough resolution that one could see what they would be doing at 11:45 next Tuesday, but it would be understood that such precision is possible. I think the purpose of this story is to wonder what it would be like to grow up knowing such a profound truth without understanding it personally; children do not meet aliens.

It would be unsettling to talk to an alien for the first time. I know I would struggle to pass the test. My first attempt would be similar to the narrator’s, I would try to do the opposite of what was said. Afterwards, I would need to try again. The second time I would probably do exactly what was said and hope to somehow ‘trick fate’. I already know how disappointed I would be, on the third attempt, when after planning to stand there silently and ignore whatever was said I hear a prediction that I am going to do exactly that. It would take me many attempts, but I think I would eventually understand. I am afraid, however, of what truly understanding means. It would be so easy to conclude that consciousness is an illusion, that predetermination is incompatible with choice.

A large part of this story is to contend the opposite. Consciousness is making choices, even if those choices have already been made, even if those choice will always be made; they are still meaningful. If one chooses to wait before crossing the road, or chooses to run for political office, or chooses to compensate for the wind when landing on Titan’s Mayda Insula, they make that choice with the information available at the time. To always make the same choice in the same situation, with the same circumstances, and the same memories does not make one an automaton. It does not mean that one is simply a pawn to fate or swept along in the current of predetermination. It means those actions were, are, and will continue to be a part of the determined shape of the Universe. It means those choices, in their own small way, mattered.

The story behind the story: reCAPTCHA all over again

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Aaron Moskalik with his latest story reCAPTCHA all over again. Regular readers will recall that Aaron has previously introduced us to eLiza and some Ghosts in the machine. You can find out a lot more about his other work at his website. Here, Aaron reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing reCAPTCHA all over again

Are you a robot?

We’ve all encountered the traffic light CAPTCHA. The first time I was asked to identify traffic lights, I thought it strangely … specific. But it never had the same images twice and I began to notice variations in the theme. Sometimes there were nine different images, other times it was one image broken into nine squares. And each time I encountered this strange test, it seemed to get progressively harder. Soon there were images where the traffic light was sideways or even facing away from the camera. Confounding elements were introduced such as other devices of similar shape hanging from poles and wires stretched across a street. I would occasionally get the answers wrong and had to prove I was human a second time.

Why make it so hard? Surely bots were not so sophisticated and determined to sign up for random accounts. When I heard a news story about Google using us to train their self-driving AI, it all made sense. I have mixed feelings about this. I am an indifferent driver, so the thought of machines taking over this duty while I read a book in the backseat is an appealing one.

My wife is not so sanguine about this prospect and not just because she enjoys driving. What if your AI is hacked? Who is legally responsible when something goes wrong? We’ve already seen news stories. But then too there is that niggling unease many of us feel that this will not just stop with practical tasks we don’t want to do.

It was way back in the 1980s when I first saw a plotter that replaced the work output of a drafter. It was fascinating to watch the pens fly across the table-sized piece of paper to produce a drawing of perfect fidelity that would have taken me hours to do. At this same time, I also saw CNC machines doing the work of a machinist in a similar manner.

It feels as if we are giving up control, step by step, to forces beyond our understanding and this process has been going on long before AI or automation were even concepts. When was the last time you made something practical? Or even fixed something? Have you ever worried about laying in food stores for the winter? It was not so long ago these were everyday concerns for most people. Now we place our trust in a globe-spanning system that provides for our every need. All we need do is contribute in some way. But what happens when all the ways we can contribute have been overtaken by more efficient machines?

The common trope that represents this fear is the android, a machine made to look and act just like us. I don’t believe such devices will ever be more than a curiosity akin to the automatons of the machine age. Or self-driving cars that need to understand traffic lights.

We humans are versatile beasts, but the System prizes specialization over versatility, so machines need not emulate us to be competitive. Indeed, computers can already best us at chess and Go, and they make inroads into creative pursuits like composing and writing every day. They beat us at our own games, one by one by one. How long before there aren’t any left?

This is not the most concerning aspect of AI, however. Even as machines compete with us on our own turf, we invest more and more importance in theirs, the virtual worlds of social media, cryptocurrencies, deep fakes … the list is ever-increasing. This is a domain where bots need not be physical to emulate and surpass us.

Given that, it’s only a matter of time until the desired answer to the question “Are you a robot?” will be “Yes”.  But hey, at least we have the weekend. See you at the Greyhound. We’ll party like its 1999.

The story behind the story: The monster and the child

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome Dolly Garland with her story The monster and the child. Dolly is a writer based in London, and you can find out more about her work at her website or by following her on Twitter. Here she reveals what sparked her interest in monsters and what led her to her latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing The monster and the child

For most people, the word ‘monster’ evokes an image of some scary, non-human monster; the word ‘child’ evokes an image of youth, innocence, and a human child — whether a happy one or one in need of affection.

But as we know from school bullies, not all children are nice and innocent. I don’t know exactly where the idea for this story began, but it came with the assumption that what if the child is the monster, and the monster is the child? There are plenty of stories where humans are the bad guys, and I wanted to merge that idea with the innocence of childhood.

Of course, the famous example of that sort of exploration is Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which children are fighting a real war, thinking they are playing on a simulator.

I wanted to touch upon the idea of childhood — regardless of species — and combine that with morality that adults and society teach children.

Adam is told that what he is doing will protect his world, protect humanity. He has been taught what is good and bad, and he has been taught to do the right thing. But that moral compass is biased. Do we teach our children to do the right thing, or do we teach them to do what is right in our opinion? What if absolute morality has a negative impact on us? Who do we put first? What if it is ‘them’ and ‘us’” but ‘them’ are not the enemy, nor have they done anything wrong?

Humans, I think, are selfish creatures and it is that selfishness that has helped us thrive as a species. But as we continue to grow, without much care for the world around us, how far can we go? How far should we go? These are some of the questions that inspired this story.

The story behind the story: Hello, Hello

In this week’s Futures Jeff Hecht puts us in touch with extraterrestrial life in Hello, Hello. Regular readers will recognize Jeff: he has written multiple stories for Futures over the years (you can see a full list at the foot of this post). When not penning science fiction, Jeff writes about lasers, dinosaurs and other science and technology. You can find out more about his work at his website or by following hm on Twitter. Here, Jeff reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Hello, Hello

Hello, Hello came from pondering one of the ‘big questions’ in both science and science fiction: where are all the little green beings, or whatever other creatures we might imagine inhabit other parts of the Universe. Space is big, it’s full of stars and planets, and the Universe was around for over nine billion years before the Sun and Earth formed. It took us only about 10,000 years to go from banging on the rocks to walking on the Moon. Shouldn’t that have been more than long enough for some of those beings to develop the technology needed to drop in for a visit? Either the little green beings must be running very late, or we must be the most technologically advanced civilization in the Galaxy.

Or so we like to think.

We live in an era of astounding technology development, where we carry tiny computers in our pockets that are far more powerful than the much larger computers that got us to the Moon. Yet our technology does have limits. It’s now nearly half a century since a human walked on the Moon, although we have plans to do so again in just a few years that seem within reason. We also have plans to send people all the way to Mars in the not too distant future. Of course, in the 1950s Wernher von Braun had plans for sending people to Mars in the not too distant future, and that seemed like a good idea at that time.

We also have a few other troublesome little problems, particularly in keeping the climate of our native planet in the reasonably habitable range we are accustomed to.

Those thoughts led me to ask the question that has launched countless science-fiction stories: what if? I wondered if the reason no little green beings have dropped in for a cup of tea might be that interstellar travel is impossible, at least for organic life. What if only machines could survive the trip. Then ‘Oumuamua cruised through the Solar System as quickly and quietly as a derelict interstellar spacecraft.

Read more Futures stories by Jeff Hecht

A slice of timeWhen last I saw the starsThe Internet of [Expletive Deleted] ThingsThe speed of dark energyWaiting for ChronomaticEvent horizonClear proofThe Neanderthal correlationQuantum entanglementsDirected energyOperation Tesla

The story behind the story: What must remain

In this week’s Futures, Thomas Broderick takes us to visit a special museum in What must remain. Based in California, Thomas is a freelance writer who has previously introduced us to the Chrysalis — you can find out more about his work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — so you should read the story first and then enjoy the trip!

The Aircraft of Modern Antiquity

Here, I saved you a seat. Even on these old electric trains, it’s better to sit than stand.  I’m surprised. These things are usually packed on Saturday mornings – people off to see their grandparents or buy vegetables out in the country. Oh, and don’t be surprised if a guy should start screaming while waving around knives. He’s just an enthusiastic salesman.

Where are we going? Well, it’s where What must remain was born. Like in the story, it’s a place of lost glory and half-truths bordering on lies. We have about an hour until we get there. Enjoy the view. I’m going to take a nap.


Thanks for waking me up. It’s a mile on foot from here. I know, this town needs a lot of love. Most of these apartment blocks were built in the ’50s, and in some cases, entire sections have been reclaimed by nature or squatters. It’s not all bad, though. There are some new homes and a modern grocery store in the town centre. And look at the people. They’re dressed well and look happy enough.

It’s just up ahead on this nature trail. Ah, there’s the entrance. I’ll step inside and get us tickets. One sec.


We give our tickets to the woman at the gate. Just like in my story, she’s a caretaker, one of five, I think. Yes, they do live here – the same little cabins. When I visited, I saw them washing down the exhibits with sponges and hammering out dents.

Surreal, isn’t it? Some of the most advanced aircraft ever built, many of them weapons of war once so secret that if we were standing here the year I was born, we’d be shot on sight. Now anyone can waltz right in and take pictures.

And here it is – the first supersonic passenger liner in the world. Like the Miraz, this plane never carried a single passenger, just mail and cargo at Mach 1.5. The moment it was parked here in 1980, they scrapped the interior. Here’s the picture on this display – just hanging wires and struts. It was only in the last decade or so that the caretakers started raising money to restore it. New paint, original seats, that sort of thing.

Why? Four times a year they let schoolchildren inside to pretend they’re flying. A woman dressed up as a stewardess gives them a snack. Here’s their picture next to the donation box. They look thrilled, don’t they?

Seeing those kids’ happy faces, I thought ‘Well, it’s only a harmless fib. The children make a nice memory and get to tell people that they sat in a plane that carried people higher, faster, and farther than anything that had come before … or since.’

Unlike my story, there’s no dark secret here. It’s just a melancholy relic, something befitting of a Latin proverb or Shelley’s Ozymandias.

But I wondered if there was more to it. Would someone who worked at a place like this do so to honour a loved one? And would that person, because of his love, blind himself and the museum’s guests to uncomfortable but vital truths? Maybe that happens here. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Anyway, that’s enough philosophizing for one day. Let’s head back to the capital and get some lamb dumplings and a beer.








The story behind the story: Three tales the river told

This week, Futures is taking a trek courtesy of Three tales the river told, the latest story from Stewart C. Baker. Regular readers will recognize Stewart as he has perviously taught us How to configure your quantum disambiguator, revealed the truth about Love and relativity and examined Failsafes. You can find out more about Stewart’s work on his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Three tales the river told

This is kind of a heavy story, in a number of ways. But perhaps it should be: although it’s unlikely that the Yellow River would dry up to such an extent you could walk along its empty river basin for a month, climate change and other human-caused issues are projected to have a serious impact on rivers.

Will it be so big an impact we have to live underground to survive, drinking reclaimed water a la the Fremen in Dune?

I sure hope not.  But since I’m a bit of a cynic, I’m equally sure we’re on a path to find out.

Other than general anxiety about the mess we’re making of our planet, the inspirations from this story came from a number of places.

Rivers, oceans and other bodies of water have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because they’re so vast and ever-changing, and speak to the wanderlust that lives on deep inside my soul even though I’m somewhat of a homebody in practice. Or perhaps it’s just some ingrained awareness of how vital they — and water in general — have always been to the arc of human development and survival.

The title came first with this one. For that, I’m indebted to Vylar Kaftan, who runs an annual Rummage Sale contest on Codex Writers Group where you write a story from someone else’s title, and to Aimee Ogden, who provided the title itself.

For the rest:

Part 0, set in UnderGuangdong, and the general idea for the setting, pays homage to Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, which features a future world where people live in cities under the earth after the surface has been taken over by desertification. Although my story doesn’t have nearly as many aliens in it, of course.

Part 1, with the archaic characters reading “Weep, Mothers, for Your Children”, is from an even stranger source: real life. The only thing I’ve changed is the location. I remember seeing a number of reports about ‘hunger stones’ being revealed in the Elbe river due to a drought in 2018. In real life, although the path of Yellow River has changed many times, as a rule it does so much farther downstream, where it overruns its banks and floods the countryside around it before settling into a new course. These course corrects have literally changed the course of Chinese — and world — history, affecting battles and wars, and the longer, more subtle conflicts that accompany commerce and settlement.

Part 2 looks a little at one of those. Kaifeng is on the Yellow River’s south bank, and was regularly flooded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ming Dynasty river engineers eventually stopped the worst floods, but in 1642 the governor of Kaifeng broke the dykes on purpose to stave off a peasant rebellion besieging his city. Turns out, that was a terrible idea: the resultant flooding, famine and disease killed hundreds of thousands, and severely decreased Kaifeng’s importance. If this sounds interesting to you, check out the excellent Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China by Randall A. Dodgen, which uses a mix of primary and secondary sources to paint a fascinating, complex picture of China’s relationship with its second longest river.

I’m not sure where part 3 came from, except a belief that gulls are likely to survive just about anything. (My mother, who is a birder, insists that ‘seagull’ is not a type of bird, hence ‘gull’.)

Is the gull’s appearance at the end of the story a good thing? A sign of ongoing life in the face of apparent mass extinction?

I’m ambivalent, but — as above — I sure hope we never get to the point where seeing a single bird is cause for thankful tears.

The story behind the story: I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Steven Fischer with his latest story, I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime. Regular readers will remember Steven’s previous pieces for Futures in which he introduced us to The First Fragmented Church of Entropy, offered A beginner’s guide to space travel and seafood and ran the software routine Query, Queue, Repeat. You can find out more about Steven’s work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing I am not the hive mind of Transetti Prime

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about making decisions, particularly ethical ones, and how the right answer to a question can depends on who is answering it.

Individuals and groups make judgements in drastically different ways, and the moral principles an individual is obligated to uphold can be separate from, or even at odds with, those that a group needs to examine.

Although principles such as justice, deterrence and efficient use of resources can be major priorities for governments and societies as a whole, these more nebulous concepts don’t often find their way into our individual decision-making on any appreciable level. On the other hand, empathy, compassion and many of the other qualities that make us human seem to disappear (or may even be impossible to reproduce) when large groups of humans start making decisions together.

Truth be told, I think that might be a good thing. Individuals and societies make different types of decisions on vastly different scales, and maybe a different approach is required. But I wanted to explore that contradiction a little bit in this story, and look at the tradeoff between those methods and the times when we might lose something in the process.

I’m not sure what the right answer is, or even the right way to go about reaching it. But I know what I’d say if I was the one designing the system, and I know what I’d do if the decision was up to me alone. And frankly, I don’t think those two answers would be the same.

The story behind the story: Breadcrumbs for an alien

This week, Futures is delighted to welcome back Bo Balder with her new story, Breadcrumbs for an alien. Bo has previously introduced us to Skin hunger and the story I die a little, and in her latest piece, she wrestles with some curious communication difficulties. You can find about more about Bo’s work and her novel The Wan at her website or by finding her on Facebook and Twitter. Here, she reveals the inspiration behind her latest story — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Breadcrumbs for an alien

I wrote Breadcrumbs for an alien while thinking about communication.

I grew up with Star Trek the Original Series, where aliens are just human actors with bits of rubber stuck to their faces. Everybody spoke the same language, American English, and the problem wasn’t usually understanding each other’s goals and desires. Klingons wanted to fight. Starfleet officers wanted peace. The humans always won.
Jabba the Hutt was a bit uglier and more alien than Spock. And sure, aliens have become more complex and more alien since. The movie Arrival is a great example of that.
But still, it’s usually clear that there are sentient aliens, that they understand we are sentient, and that both sides are trying to bridge the communication gap. It’s only a matter of movie time and the heroine’s insights to get there.
And  yet human beings don’t really need to meet aliens to experience misunderstandings. Isn’t trying to get our meaning across and ourselves understood what we do every day of our lives? And isn’t it usually hard, even between persons of the same species, language and culture?
I think when we meet real aliens, if we meet them, the gap we need to bridge is a bit wider than an episode of space opera or the length of a book.
Suppose we managed to meet aliens living concurrent with us in this Universe that is vast in both space and time, would we be able to communicate with them? Would we even recognize them as sentient beings, and they us?
What if a human astronaut landed among a civilization so different to her own she couldn’t even recognize its existence? No matter how hard the other party tried to signal to them, how willing and eager they were to find common ground? There is both tragedy and comedy to be found in such a situation, and that’s where I went with this piece.