Issue 4: Sino-SF, Icelandic Moon Landing, “Singular,” and Free Comics (November 2014)


(1) Sino-SF: Liu Cixin Makes a Splash in English With “The Three-Body Problem”

(2) More Sino-SF: Slash Fiction Finds Fertile Ground in China

(3) One Giant Leap for Literature: Was the First Fictional Man on the Moon an Icelandic Peasant?

(4) Singular: Colombia’s Orozco Brothers Release a New Short

(5) Public Domain Comics: An Online Treasure Trove

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Sino-SF: Liu Cixin Makes a Splash in English With “The Three-Body Problem”

China is setting a heady pace in space exploration. This year saw the safe return of a round-trip, unmanned lunar orbiter, the Tiangong Space Station is scheduled go to into low Earth orbit in 2020, and a Mars mission is planned for the same year. And, as in science, the country’s science fiction is also making an impact.

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The big news in international science fiction at the moment is the recent release of an English-language translation The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin’s (or Cixin Liu, to use the westernized order of his names). This is the first installment in a hard science fiction trilogy that has been spectacularly successful in Liu’s home country of China.  As Liu himself writes in an article entitled “The Worst of All Possible Universes and the Best of All Possible Earths: Three Bodyand Chinese Science Fiction” on

The main consumers of science fiction books in China are high school and college students. But Three Body somehow gained the attention of IT entrepreneurs; on Internet forums and elsewhere, they debated and discussed the book’s various details (such as the “Dark Forest Theory” of the cosmos—an answer to the Fermi Paradox—and the dimension-reduction attack on the Solar System launched by aliens) as metaphors for the cutthroat competition among China’s Web companies. Next, Three Body came to the attention of China’s mainstream literary world, which had always been dominated by realist fiction. Three Body was like some monster that suddenly erupted onto the scene, and literary critics were baffled by it while also feeling that they couldn’t ignore it.

The book even had an effect on scientists and engineers. Li Miao, a cosmologist and string theorist, wrote a book titled The Physics of Three Body. Many aerospace engineers became fans, and China’s aerospace agency even asked me to consult with them (despite the fact that in my novel, China’s aerospace establishment was described as so conservative and hidebound that an extremist officer had to engage in mass assassinations to allow new ideas to flourish). These sorts of reactions are probably familiar to American readers (e.g., The Physics of Star Trek, and NASA scientists regularly teaming up with science fiction writers), but they’re unheard of in China, and they contrast sharply with the official policy of suppressing science fiction during the 1980s.

On the Web, one can find many fan-composed songs for Three Body, and readers yearning for a movie adaptation—some have even gone to the trouble of creating fake trailers out of clips from other movies. Sina Weibo—a Chinese microblogging service analogous to Twitter—has numerous user accounts based on characters in Three Body, and these users stay in character and comment on current events, expanding the story told in the novel.

Liu Cixin

Liu Cixin

Now The Three Body Problem looks set to make a splash in the English-speaking world as well–naturally SFATW snapped up an early copy.  As NPR reports:

Published in China in 2006 and newly translated by award-winning Chinese-American author Ken Liu, the novel is the first installment of a trilogy that asks one of the oldest questions in SF: What would it mean for the human race to come in contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence? From there, though, it transcends expectation — not to mention borders.

The Three-Body Problem spans multiple decades and characters, but it zooms in on Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, two scientists in the very near future. Wenjie is an astrophysicist with a haunted past; she’s the daughter of a physicist who was executed during the Cultural Revolution for daring to teach the “reactionary” idea of general relativity. Miao is a nanotech engineer, and he’s been swept up in a virtual-reality, online video game called Three Body that’s so deeply metaphysical, it’s begun to resemble a cult.

Either of these premises alone would be make for a rich SF novel, but Cixin Liu is only getting warmed up. By the time the book hits its peak, it’s unveiled a conspiracy that spans solar systems — one that not only threatens to alter the human race, but the very building blocks of physics that we’ve evolved to understand.

As NPR notes, the translation is by Ken Liu, an award-winning SF writer in his own right who will be familiar to readers of SFATW. The Tor edition of the novel includes a postscript by Ken, and he has given a first-hand account of the project over on Novelocity.

I discussed the translation of speculative fiction in Issue #2 of SFATW (In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation), touching on the idea that the universal translator of Star Trek (and similar devices elsewhere in science fiction), might run into insurmountable problems in the real world, at least in certain contexts. Translation involves, in effect, rewriting a text, not just substituting words in one language for words in another. Liu concretely illustrates some of the ways in which this problem can bedevil even an experienced, human translator:

Though I’ve translated over twenty short stories from Chinese into English, this is my first novel translation, and the challenges I faced felt qualitatively different.

One set of challenges involved becoming sufficiently knowledgeable about various subjects discussed in depth in the book so that I could understand the nuances and render the relevant passages accurately in English. The Three-Body Problem is filled with grand ideas based on scientific speculation as well as very human-scaled stories steeped in China’s ancient and modern history. To properly discharge my duties as a translator, I had to do a great deal of research, including reading papers on pure math and astrophysics, gleaning relevant historical details from books about the Cultural Revolution and Classical Chinese, and interviewing scientists and individuals who lived through the Cultural Revolution to fill in gaps where book research was insufficient. In a lot of ways, translating this book required as much background research as writing a book myself.

Another set of challenges involved going beyond merely linguistic features to ensure the integrity of the translated work. When working with a large, complicated novel like this, a translator’s job isn’t just to re-create the work in a new language; he or she also needs to act as fact-checker and editor. Chinese readers have different expectations about narrative conventions and the desired level scientific detail, and I struggled to strike a balance between preserving the flavor of the original and making the book appealing to a new audience.

For example, to make aspects of the book dependent on knowledge of Chinese history and culture accessible to Anglophone readers, I had to decide how best to integrate the necessary background explanation with the text—a footnote is a very intrusive device, and I resolved to keep their use to an absolute minimum. Similarly, to make sure that I could make the technical parts of the book sound plausible to specialists as well as read fluently for general readers, I had to replicate the calculations in the book, look up the original scientific papers, and consult working physicists to determine the necessary jargon to use to ensure precision without sapping narrative energy. I ended up learning a lot about how to craft a compelling novel in the process.

You can read the first three chapters of The Three-Body Problem online, or learn more about the cover art, courtesy of

More Sino-SF: Slash Fiction Finds Fertile Ground in China

By most accounts, slash fiction–in which fictional characters from established works are paired romantically or erotically–got its start in science fiction. “Kick/Spock” fan fiction (from which the term “slash” originates) grew out of the fandom that surrounded the original Star Trek in the 1970s (after the show was cancelled in the late 1960s).

Also known as K/S fiction, it portrayed the captain as intimately involved with his half-Vulcan first officer in stories and art work, a long tradition that now encompasses not only the portrayals by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy but also those by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

The original slash couple, Kirk and Spock, above from the original series, and their newer incarnation, below.

The original slash couple, Kirk and Spock, above from the original series, and in their newer incarnation, below.

Kirk and Spock reborn

But like science fiction itself, slash fiction ignores national boundaries, and it has apparently taken hold in China, where authorities have tried and failed to eliminate it. Dan mei, as it’s known, is mostly written and read by young women. Sherlock slash fic is especially popular, but slash’s roots in science fiction still show through in Dr. Who stories.

Unfortunately, Chinese slash has been swept up in the government’s attempts to root out pornography, with a number of people being arrested. As The Advocate reports:

Earlier this year, during a nationwide clampdown on online pornography, some 20 writers, allegedly under contract with “illegal erotic novel Web sites,” were arrested in Henan province, China, and numerous Web sites with explicit written and visual content were shut down. Most of these writers were young women, many of whom, according to footage from Phoenix TV, a Hong Kong broadcaster, were in their 20s, oblivious to the fact that they were breaking the law. The incident followed a similar spate of arrests in 2011 — again of young female writers.

The women were all writers of gay fiction, known as dan mei, which over the past two decades has gained a vast and dedicated following in China, a country where homosexuality is still heavily stigmatized. A form of slash fiction, a genre that first appeared in America in the ’70s and paired male characters from popular TV shows like Star Trek in unauthorized gay romances, it spread to China in the ’90s from a type of Japanese manga known as “boys’ love” (BL). Focusing on male-to-male romance, dan mei (which may be literally translated as “indulgence in beauty”) has surprisingly spawned an exclusive fan base: Its readers and writers are nearly all straight young women and girls.

More coverage:

One Giant Leap for Literature: Was the First Fictional Man on the Moon an Icelandic Peasant?

Human interaction with the Moon–from encounters with Moon natives to human landings on the Earth’s natural satellite–has a long history in fiction, including works by Dante Alighieri (in The Divine Comedy, where the Moon is the first sphere of heaven), Edgar Allen Poe (in “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall”), Jules Verne (who wrote about virtually everything before it happened), and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the awesome Russian, and then Soviet, scientist who was a pioneer in both rocketry and astronautics).

And of course a trip to the moon was the theme of Le Voyage dans la Lune written and directed in 1902 by Georges Méliès (embedded below), which is widely considered the first science fiction film.

But the very first fictional man on the Moon may have been an Icelandic peasant imagined by a German scientist.  Johannes Kepler is one of history’s most renowned scientific minds, but he’s also the author of the novel Somnium (The Dream in Latin), in which an Icelander usurps Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man.”

Icelandic astronaut on the Moon

If this fact has escaped your attention until now, the folks at The Reykjavik Grapevine want you to know about it. As  recounts in “Was Literature’s First Man On The Moon An Icelandic Peasant?”:

Written in 1608 by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), the novel ‘Somnium’ (“Dream”) is by many—including such luminaries as Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Jorge Luis Borges—thought to be one of the first examples of science fiction.

Although ‘Somnium’ was not published until 1634, after Kepler passed, he wrote the story as a student at the University of Tübingen, after being inspired by an essay topic he was assigned: What does the earth look like to a man standing on the moon, observing it from above?

Kepler presents ‘Somnium’ as an account of a dream, narrated by a 14-year-old Icelandic peasant boy, Duracotus. The boy’s elderly mother Fiolxhild (these are somewhat unusual Icelandic names, to say the least—but Kepler had never been to Iceland, and probably never met an Icelander), is skilled in magic, and ekes out a living selling magical trinkets to foreign sailors.

Singular: Colombia’s Orozco Brothers Release a New Short

Juan Felipe and Carlos Esteban Orozco are brothers from Medellin, Columbia who previously released the 2011 thriller Saluda Al Diablo De Mi Parte (titled Greetings to the Devil in English).

Posters for the Orozco borthers films Greetings to the Devil (left) and Singular (right).

Posters for the Orozco borthers’ films Greetings to the Devil (left) and Singular (right).


Now Twitch Film brings word that they’ve released a science fiction short, which is intended to support the development of a feature film.  Twitch says of the brothers:

Blessed with a phenomenal visual style it’s really just a question of when and where they break out internationally more than if.

A scene from Singular.

A scene from Singular.

It’s true that Singular is visually impressive, although the writing–which combines tropes from multiple SF sources–could be improved.

That said, it’s always promising to see up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world developing new speculative fiction. I wish the brothers well and hope to see a Singular feature film coming to a nearby multiplex soon.

More coverage:

Public Domain: The Digital Comic Museum, an Online Treasure Trove

I recently discovered the Digital Comic Museum, which stores digital copies of comics that have passed into the public domain.  All the comics can be downloaded for free (with a free membership).

While the DCM houses all sorts of comics, it includes some that fall within the bounds of speculative fiction, like science fiction and horror.  It’s stock is largely American, although it does house some Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand comics.

We can only hope that it will thrive and, in the process, be able to broaden its scope.  In the meantime, I’m going to be reading a lot of Space Detective and Journey Into Fear.

All downloads are in the CBZ format, which along with CBR is one of the main file formats for comic books.  If you don’t have a CBZ/CBR reader, there are a number of them that are available free.

I use Comic Rackwhich is free for Windows, and for Android with the Comic Rack Free app, but charges for their iOS app.  Comical is also good and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems. Comic Flow is a free comic app for iOS devices–I haven’t tested it yet, but it comes highly recommended. If you prefer to shop around, you might want to consult the Lifehacker article Five Best Desktop Comic Book Readers.

A few of the speculative fiction comics from the museum.  One American science fiction title (far left) and two Canadian horror titles.

A few of the speculative fiction comics from the Digital Comic Museum. One is an American science fiction title (on the far left) and the other two are Canadian horror titles.

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Spotlight (Number 1, November 4, 2014): Jean Bruller/Vercors

The SFATW Spotlight is a series of brief, occasional articles that provide an introduction to authors, artists, editors, and others who help to create and present speculative fiction. The subjects in the Spotlight come from a variety of countries in a range of genres.

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Jean Bruller (26 February 1902 – 10 June 1991) was a French author who published under the pseudonym Vercors, which he adopted while fighting with the French Resistance in World War Two.

In Nazi-occupied France, Vercors and Pierre de Lescure risked the death penalty by founding Les Éditions de Minuit, an underground press that flouted the censorship imposed by the occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime.

Minuit published some of France’s greatest authors–generally under pen names–including Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard,  François Mauriac, Jean Paulhan, and André Gide, and it continues publishing to this day.

Vercors’ best known work of speculative fiction is the science fiction novel Les Animaux dénaturés, which has been translated into English under the titles, You Shall Know ThemBorderline, and The Murder of the Missing Link.

Vercors, flanked by the first English edition of You Shall Know Them (left)and a current edition (right).  Source for the portrait is here.

Vercors (Jean Bruller), flanked by the first English edition of You Shall Know Them (left) and a current edition (right). Source for the portrait is here.

Like Albert Camus–his countryman, fellow author, and Resistance comrade–Vercors combined compelling writing with a moralist’s point of view.

In You Shall Know Them, a tribe of primitive apemen, called Tropis, is discovered living in New Guinea.  When a businessman tries to exploit them as cheap labor, the issue of whether or not they’re human—and therefore entitled to the same protection as other workers—becomes the focus of debate.  A scientist impregnates one of the Tropis with his own sperm, then kills the child once it’s born, as a way of forcing a legal decision on the humanity of the Tropis, which the court must decide in order to determine whether or not he committed murder.

The English translation of Les Animaux dénaturés was nominated for the 1963 Hugo Award for Best Novel.

The Burt Reynolds film Skullduggery (1970) was an adaptation of the book, but was so bad that the author had his name removed from the credits.  The trailer, embedded below, seems to bear out the idea that the film is an execrable abomination.  Possibly the only thing to recommend it is that it features two alumni of the Star Trek Original Series School of Overacting, Roger C. Carmel, who played Harry Mudd in two episodes (“I, Mudd” and “Mudd’s Women”) and William Marshall, who played Dr. Richard Daystrom (“The Ultimate Computer”).


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Issue 3: From the Academy, Arabic and North Korean Science Fiction, and a Halloween Bonus (October 2014)


(1) From the Academy, “Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon: A Study of International Creation, Consumption and Dissemination”

(2) From the Academy, “From Pyongyang to Mars: Sci-fi, Genre, and Literary Value in North Korea”

(3) Yasser Bahjatt and Arabic Science Fiction

(4) Bonus Feature (With Free Stuff): The Ten Halloweens Project Turns Two Years Old

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From the Academy, “Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon: A Study of International Creation, Consumption and Dissemination”

Here at Around the World it’s considered a self-evident truth that the production and consumption of speculative fiction is an international, multi-cultural, polyglot activity. Otherwise, why have Around the World at all?

But just how international is it?

With regard specifically to science fiction, a brief paper entitled Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon: A Study of International Creation, Consumption and Dissemination from Elysia Celeste Wells at the Savannah College of Art and Design begins to outline an answer to that question.

The focus of this research is to determine whether science fiction is primarily English speaking and Western or global; being created and consumed by people in non-Western, non-English speaking countries…

Wells uses three methods to try to pick the issue apart:

Science fiction’s international presence was found in three ways, by network analysis, by examining a online retailer and with a survey. Condor, a program developed by GalaxyAdvisors was used to determine if science fiction is being talked about by non-English speakers. An analysis of the international websites was done to discover if it was being consumed worldwide. A survey was also conducted to see if people had experience with science fiction.

Her conclusion?

All three research methods revealed similar results. Science fiction was found to be international, with science fiction creators originating in different countries and writing in a host of different languages. English and non-English science fiction was being created and consumed all over the world, not just in the English speaking West.

Sample figures Wells had limited tools at her disposal–for instance her work was hampered by her survey’s very small sample size and exclusively English-language format–but her efforts represent a useful starting point for further investigation.

Click the image below to get a copy of the paper in PDF format from the Around the World Library, or click the text link underneath the image to get a copy from

Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon (PDF)

Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon (PDF)

Science Fiction as a Worldwide Phenomenon: A Study of International Creation, Consumption and Dissemination

From the Academy, “From Pyongyang to Mars: Sci-fi, Genre, and Literary Value in North Korea”

Speculative fiction is shaped by many things, from the era in which it’s created, to the specific goals and tastes of the creator, to the buying habits of its public.  And amongst those factors, as with any other cultural product, are the aggregated aspirations, fears, and attitudes of the society in which it’s created.

So what form does it take in the exceptional, hermetic society of North Korea?  I’d never asked myself the question, and the moment I saw the title of Benoit Berthelier’s article From Pyongyang to Mars: Sci-fi, Genre, and Literary Value in North Korea on I kicked myself for not having considered it.

Early on, Berthelier gives us a thumbnail sketch of the origins of North Korean science fiction:

Science fiction first appeared in North Korea in the mid-1950s with two volumes of translations of short stories by writers from the Soviet Union. Drawing upon these models as well as European authors of early science-fiction such as H.G. Wells and Jules Vernes, North Korean writers started to produce their own sci-fi works in the mid 1960s. Sci-fi stories continued to appear infrequently in youth magazines throughout the next twenty years, but it is really only at the end of the 1980s that the genre took off.

And what caused science fiction to suddenly “take off” in the 80s?  Like so many things in North Korea, it was an order straight from the top.

After a speech delivered by Kim Jong-Il in October 1988 called for the development of science fiction on a larger scale, the number of sci-fi works grew significantly. From space travel to immortality or underwater exploration, sci-fi stories cover a wide range of subjects within settings that usually exceed the national boundaries of North Korea. If the country remains the central point of most plots, foreign characters–both positive and negative–are much more common than in traditional fiction.

I would love to know what possessed Kim to suddenly demand more science fiction, like Stalin arbitrarily setting a new wheat production quota for the latest five-year plan. Maybe a clue to the answer lies  in the didactic quality of North Korean science fiction that Berthelier identifies.  For instance:

Family or love relationships sacrificed for the pursuit of scientific truth are common clichés of both literature and film… just like the image of a worker spending nights after nights [sic] trying to improve his factory’s machinery. But in each case, while the actual process of research is mentioned it is hardly ever described. Science is not the object of the story but works more as a kind of plot device through which traditional matters such as family values or devotion to the country can be addressed.

NFaux North Korean space propaganda.  All elements public domain except for the human figures, from an image by Wikimedia user yeowatzup and used pursuant to  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.  Image available at

Faux North Korean space propaganda. All elements public domain except for the human figures, from an image by Wikimedia user yeowatzup and used pursuant to Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Image available at

On the other hand, if science fiction can act as a means of delivering propaganda, it can provide an unusually liberated imaginative space even as it does so:

The international and exotic settings of these works give writers greater freedom in the depiction of criminality and violence, from murder to drug trafficking, sexual abuse, or cyber warfare. This in turn allows for a level of action as well as a variety of characters and villains (such as sea pirates or hackers) otherwise unheard of in the country’s literary tradition.

Berthelier’s article left me wanting to know much more, but it provides a tantalizing glimpse behind the veil of North Korean literary life, as well as showing science fiction in yet another of its international incarnations.

Yasser Bahjatt and Arabic Science Fiction

Yasser Bahjatt is a technologist, the first Saudi to attend Singularity University’s graduate study program, and an active member of the TED community.

Bahjatt believes that scientific innovation springs, at least in part, from a healthy science fiction culture, or at least that the two reinforce one another.  (He’s not alone in this view, which–for instance–lies behind the creation of the Center for Science and Imagination at Arizona State University.)  As a result, he wants to see science fiction–which is he says is now largely absent from Arabic culture–fostered in Arabic countries.

Toward that end, he helped found Yatakhayaloon, The League of Arabic Sci-Fiers (the Arabic portion of the name translates loosely as “they are imagining”).  In an interview with Ares Magazine, Bahjatt describes Yatakhayaloon as:

… a long term experiment in social science to figure out whether there is a causality between SciFi and R&D. We still do not have any solid evidence of causality but have strong coloration data.

The idea actually started from a simpler question: “Can you mention one technological development that was not described in SciFi at least 20 years prior to its existence in reality?” This question started as a joke but the longer the joke went one that more I realized that no one can actually mention any such technology; and if they do, I would easily find its SciFi reference to prove them wrong.

So now with Yatakhayaloon we want to see if scientific development grows in the region with correlation to the amount of SciFi exposure and if any technologies would be developed from the region that we can clearly point out its reference in our SciFi. Wish us luck!

Screenshot from Yatakhayaloon

Screenshot from Yatakhayaloon

Bahjatt is also the co-author (with Ibraheem Abbas) of a best-selling Arabic science fiction novel, HWJN, a science fiction romance about the relationship between a jinn (or genie) named Hawjan who falls in love with a human woman, Sawsan, that became the top selling novel in Saudi Arabia.  Bahjatt told Foreign Policy:

Most people would say this book is fantasy, because it includes jinn… but we believe Islam is a scientific religion, so we try to explain the claim of existence of such beings through speculative science… that is why we consider it science fiction.

Bahjatt referenced string theory, among other theoretical frameworks, that might explain the existence of jinn and other multidimensional beings.

But the path Bahjatt has chosen may not be as straightforward as one would hope.

Bahjatt gave a TED talk on his project in 2012.  In November 2013, HWJN was removed from some book shops in Saudi Arabia on the order of representatives from the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, although reports indicate it hasn’t been officially banned and is still available for sale.  In December of the same year, however, HWJN was banned in Kuwait and Qatar.

How Bahjatt’s initiative will fare in the long run is still an open question.

The web site for Yatakhayaloon, can be found here and an English language version of HWJN is available on

Bahjatt’s TED talk is embedded below, as is the trailer for HWJN.

You can read more about Bahjatt and the tribulations of HWJN in the Ares Magazine interview (“Yasser Bahjatt, Author”) and (if you create a free account) in a substantial article in the journal Foreign Policy (“Can Science Fiction Survive in Saudi Arabia”).

Bonus Feature (With Free Stuff): The Ten Halloweens Project Turns Two Years Old

Around the World is devoted to all speculative fiction, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, horror, or something that fits into no specific genre at all.  And since “horror” is on that list, Halloween naturally has a special place in our hearts.

Apropos of the upcoming visit from the Great Pumpkin, I’ll mention that the Ten Halloweens project–a decade-long art project in ten parts with a supernatural theme–has just turned two.

Click the banner to go to the 10 Halloweens site, with links to the free downloads.

Click the banner to go to the 10 Halloweens site, with links to the free downloads.

For each Halloween over a span of ten years, from 2013 to 2022, I’m releasing a new, free work.

Last year saw the release of The Haunt in the Meadow, 100 years of haunt contained in 12 poems, illustrated with photographs.  It was available free, but only from mid-October to November first.  You could read it online or download it in either ePUB and Kindle format, but once the time was up, it disappeared.

Now, as year two rolls around, The Haunt has reappeared alongside the new, 2014 installment of Ten Halloweens, so for a brief time you can once again download last year’s Halloween treat as well as this year’s.  And of course next year there will be another installment, another the year after that, and so on, all the way to 2022, for a total of ten Halloweens.

Different iterations of Ten Halloweens will take different forms.  The first year it was poetry and this year it’s a short story.  In future years it may be a musical composition, a series of visual images, a video, or just about anything else.  They may have a traditionally supernatural theme or be otherworldly in some other way appropriate to the season.

This year’s installment is a short story called The Terminal Case, once again available as a free ebook. Think spirits only haunt old houses and dark, gothic crypts?  How about a bright, sleek, international airport?

Ghosts are mostly associated with old buildings rather than modern ones, but I did quite a bit of background reading to get ready for my investigation and I was surprised by some of the places that are supposed to be haunted. Whenever new territories open up through exploration, or new spaces are created by technology, ghosts show up to occupy them. There are already rumors of a ghost on the Kunlun Multiuse Space Platform that China launched last year. A female taikonaut involved in a love triangle is supposed to have killed her rival, cutting the other woman adrift during an EVA to float off amidst the dead satellites and other space debris, making it look like an accident.

An airport may not look much like a traditional haunted house, but if we already have space ghosts then it makes sense that there are aviation ghosts too. There’s an industrial airport in Nevada haunted by an employee who shot three of his co-workers and then himself. There are aviator ghosts from World War II in Egypt and Italy, and there’s a squadron of half-visible kamikazes near Ulithi Atoll who will swarm a ship and then fade into the clouds and spume. Ghosts from more than one commercial air disaster are supposed to gather at their crash site on the anniversary of the day they died. And then there are my subjects, Toronto’s own star-crossed lovers, Veronica Heinecke and Lawrence Dean.


The free downloads for 2013 and 2014, both available until November 01. Then they disappear until next year.

The free downloads for 2013 and 2014, both available until November 01. Then they disappear until next year.

Each year’s iteration of the project also comes with an image I’ve created to help set the tone.  The annual image may be related to the new work that appears that year, or it may stand entirely on its own.  In 2013, and again this year, the images have been standalones.

Here’s this year’s image, “Darla Can’t Sleep, Doesn’t Dream,” taken from the series Circus Somniorum (Dream Circus).

“Darla Can’t Sleep, Doesn’t Dream,” by Nas Hedron, from the series Circus Somniorum

“Darla Can’t Sleep, Doesn’t Dream,” by Nas Hedron, from the series Circus Somniorum.

Happy Halloween everyone!

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Issue 2: Mexican Psychedelic Sci-Fi, In An Alien Tongue, and More (September 2014)

(1) Mexican Psychedelic SF: Inés Estrada and the English debut of Lapsos

(2) In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation

(2A) Translating Science Fiction: Judith Merril, Kaributsu Ba’ in Japan

(2B) The Image of Translation in Science Fiction and Astronomy

(3) World’s Largest Publicly Accessible SF Collection Gets $3.5 Million Dollar Bequest

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Mexican Psychedelic SF: Inés Estrada and the English debut of Lapsos

I recently wrapped up my blog Once and Future Mexico, which dealt (in part) with Mexican science fiction.  But O+FM is not so much dying as being reincarnated since my Mexican SF material will simply migrate here, where it will appear along with genre news from other places around the world.

And this item is a case in point.

Inés Estrada is a Mexican comic book artist who’s had a hit with her psychedelic science-fiction epic, Lapsos, about a pair of friends in Mexico City who encounter other dimensions. Now, three issues have been translated into English and are being bound together in a single hardcover volume, supplemented by more than forty pages of new content.

An image from Lapsos.

An image from Lapsos.

And in truly international fashion, the English edition of this Mexican comic is being published by a Swedish non-profit with a name that’s half French: C’est Bon Kultur.

Lapsos premiered at the 29th Helsinki Comics Festival (September 5-9, 2014).  If you don’t happen to have been in Helsinki at the right time, you can still order a copy (US$33.00 in North America, US$39.00 elsewhere), with orders shipping at the end of September.

If you want to know more about Estrada and her work, check out her interview with Giant Robot.  For those of you who haven’t stumbled across it, Giant Robot is a magazine (and art gallery, and hipper-than-thou store, and all-around multimedia empire) ostensibly devoted to pop culture with Asian roots–although it  sometimes strays into whatever territory its editors find interesting and GR-ish.  It’s been a must-read publication in my house for more than fifteen years now.

Inés Estrada

Inés Estrada

You can read a ten-page sample of the English version of Lapsos over at Comics Alliance.

Those not familiar with Mexican culture should note that Estrada doesn’t emerge from a cultural vacuum.  Comic books have a long Mexican history, and the country is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of comics, possibly second only to Japan.  I can’t visit without coming home with stacks of them.  You can check out a small selection of Mexican comics in English at

In An Alien Tongue: SF and Translation

In science fiction stories there tends to be a clear evolutionary trajectory for automated translation devices, from:

  1. primitive, clunky prototypes, to
  2. modestly successful devices, and then on to
  3. the universal translator that made life so much easier for the writers of the various iterations of Star Trek.

Although, for the sake of all the ubergeeks and nitpickers out there I’ll note that the first appearance of the universal translator came long before even the 1960s iteration of Star Trek, in Murray Leinster’s 1945 novelette First Contact.

Murray Leinster's First Contact, the first appearance of the universal translator.

Murray Leinster’s First Contact, the first appearance of the universal translator.

In real life that trajectory may or may not come to pass, but even if it does we haven’t yet reached the part where I can pick up a novel by Liu Cixin from the Chinese language selection of his books on and simply hit the “English” button on my ereading app and go from there, although we continue to get closer (see the video below).


So we continue to rely on human translators.

But any translator will tell you that machine translation of creative writing may not turn out to be a tractable problem at all.  A translator doesn’t just substitute words and expressions in one language for those in another, they rewrite a story, trying to balance a whole range of considerations.  They try to preserve the author’s unique voice.  They strive to render dialogue in a colloquial way that approximates the original dialogue when there may not be exact correlates in the target language.  They try to ensure that the mood and pacing of the story are as faithful to the original as possible, and so on, and so on.

And if translating realist fiction is difficult, speculative fiction has demands of its own.  For instance, how do you translate a word that an author has invented out of thin air for a concept, being, or technology that doesn’t exist in the real world?

Which brings us to today’s links, two papers concerning the translation of speculative fiction.

Translating Science Fiction: Judith Merril, Kaributsu Ba’ in Japan

Judith Merril (1923-1997), a Science Fiction Hall of Fame inductee known as “the little mother of science fiction” (and in Japan as “monster grandma”) was a formidable presence in science fiction (Wikipedia page,

J.G. Ballard, whose work she helped introduce to a North American audience, said of her:

Science fiction, I suspect, is now dead, and probably died about the time that Judy closed her anthology and left to found her memorial library to the genre in Toronto. I remember my last sight of her, surrounded by her friends and all the books she loved, shouting me down whenever I tried to argue with her, the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.

First published in the 1940s, Merril was a member of the New York-based Futurian group of science ficiton fans and writers that included Isaac AsimovJames Blish, and Damon Knight.  She collaborated with one member, C.M. Kornbluth, and married another, Frederick Pohl.

Always a social and political radical, she left the United States in 1968 over American involvement in Vietnam, settling in Toronto, Canada, where she was a founding member of Rochdale College an experiment in student-run education and cooperative living that was also an ongoing counterculture happening.

She started the Tesseracts series of Canadian SF anthologies, and donated her considerable library of SF books and periodicals to the Toronto Public Library.  The collection began as the “Spaced Out Library,” ultimately becaming the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy.  It’s an awesome collection, the third largest of its kind in the world (anyone wanting to help sustain the collection should contact Friendsof

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library.  Exterior above, interior below.

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy at the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library.

Merril’s best known for having been an anthologist, but she was also a translator of Japanese science fiction, despite not speaking Japanese.  She worked (on and off) on a collection of Japanese SF for years.  What eventually emerged was not exactly what had been envisioned, but it was an excellent volume nonetheless, The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories edited by John L. Apostolou and Martin H. Greenburg, with Merril listed as a contributing editor.

Translating Science Fiction: Judith Merril, Kaributsu Ba’ in Japan [PDF here] by Dianne Newell and Jenea Tallentire (11 pp.), gives an informative and entertaining account of Merril’s involvement with the Japanese project.  It’s brief and well worth reading.

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

The Best Japanese Science Fiction Stories

The Image of Translation in Science Fiction and Astronomy

Many science fiction writers who deal with alien contact use one of several convenient devices to elide the issue of the communication gap between humans and extra-terrestrials.

Maybe we have a universal translator that can handle even unknown languages (a.k.a.. a magic wand).  Or maybe multiple planetary cultures share a common language, like latin during the Roman empire.  One way or another, the question of whether we could really communicate with an alien species is often side-stepped rather than the author grappling with it directly.

And even when the issue is tackled, there’s usually an assumption that even when dealing with a non-Terran species, our languages and theirs would share enough common elements, or would operate on similar enough principles, that with enough work and sufficiently advanced technologies, one could bridge the gap.  We could learn one of their languages, or they could learn one of ours, or both.

But what if that isn’t actually possible?

In The Image of Translation in Science Fiction and Astronomy, Brian Mossop, a retired translator and a translation researcher, deals with exactly this question.  Mossop examined not only science fiction, but also factual science writing, to gather a variety of ideas about possible modes of communication with extraterrestrials coming from a variety of vantage points.

He notes three typical devices for dealing with the language gap:

  • Machine translation that can handle even previously unknown languages
  • Telepathy , and
  • A lingua franca (the Space Latin solution)

As Mossop points out, there are problems with all of these putative solutions that writers typically (though not always) gloss over.

The telepathy option usually ignores the fact that thoughts are (at least in humans) encoded in the mind in language, or some other semiotic system.  Merely avoiding having to speak doesn’t do away with the need for translation.

The lingua franca solution of a common language ignores whatMossop calls the “Chomsky problem.”  This arises from the fact that the structure of human languages are, as far we know, shaped by the specifically human brain in our heads.  It may not be possible to learn languages across species beyond the kinds of rudimentary signals we can, for instance, train a dog to recognize.

With regard to machine translation, this solution typically assumes that translation is, at its heart, a form of decryption.  But decryption and translation are not the same thing:

The problem with cryptological techniques is that they can only identify recurring forms.  If these forms are relatable to the recurring forms of an already known language, i.e., they are an encoded version of a text in that language, then the techniques will indirectly provide access to meaning… But cryptological techniques can never by themselves associate forms with meanings; quite simply, meaning cannot be deduced from form.

Mossop goes on to consider three issues that arise from the notion of communicating with aliens:

The semiotic-type problem:  leaving aside cases where the message takes the physical form of an inscription on another planet or an interplanetary probe, a key question about any binary-coded radio signal from the stars is its semiotic type.  Is the sequence of zeroes and ones to be taken as representing a text in a natural or invented language, a set of mathematical theorems, still or moving pictures, or perhaps a computer programme?

The language-decipherment (language learning) problem: if the semiotic type is a text in a natural language, and the language is learnable by the receivers of the message, can at least some of the vocabulary and syntax be determined?

The translation problem: if the language is at least partly determinable, can the intention of the message’s senders be discovered?

The balance of the paper is taken up by an examination of these issues.  Along the way, Mossop confronts many of the difficulties with trying to communicate across interplanetary lines.  Problems arise irrespective of whether the attempt is made using a natural language or a formal, artificial one.

The Voyager Golden Records, a real attempt at communicating with aliens.  These gramophone records were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them.

The Voyager golden records, a real attempt at communicating with aliens. These gramophone records were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or for future humans, who may find them.

A natural language may be far harder for a recipient to understand than much science fiction suggests if, as if likely to be the case, they don’t share a common environment with the sender.   Mossop quotes Stanislaw Lem (from His Master’s Voice) as an author who understood this problem:

The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all languages of all languages of Earth’s culture, however varied they may be, is striking.  The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like… The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time.  But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those dividing like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent.  The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed.  Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals.  They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.

At the same time, Mossop suggests that an artificial language created in order to make the need for a shared environment less relevant–a common science fiction trope and an idea that’s been explored in real world science–will have a far more restricted communicative capacity than many science fiction authors posit.

We may well be effectively caught between a language that’s effective, but too parochial to be understood, and one that’s universal enough to be understood but fails to carry much meaning.

Mossop’s dissection of the issues is well worth reading.  You can get a copy of his paper (in PDF format) here.

One final detail:  in the notes to his paper Mossop thanks the staff of the Merril Collection, introduced in the previous section, for helping him amass a collection of science fiction dealing with the issues he wanted to examine.  Judith Merril strikes again.

World’s Largest Publicly Accessible SF Collection Gets $3.5 Million Dollar Bequest

The Merril Collection may be huge, but the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction and Fantasy at University of California, Riverside is the largest publicly accessible collection of its kind in the world.

It houses 300,000 items in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, German and many other languages.  Not limited to books, it also has fanzines, comic books, films and television series, scripts, and collectibles and memorabilia

The Eaton Collection Home Page

The Eaton Collection Home Page

Now the collection has received a $3.5 million bequest from the estate of Jay Kay Klein. Klein worked in advertising and adored both photography and science fiction. He started taking photos of science fiction writers and fans at conventions in the 1940s and continued for much of his life. He died in 2012.

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Issue 1: SF Diversity Writing Grant, Czech Robots, and a Massage from the Swedish Prime Minister (August, 2014)


(1) Awesome Campaign for a Grant to Increase Diversity in SF

(2) Rebooting the Original Robots: Classic Czech SF Revisited

(3) SF News from Nigeria

(4) Swedish Prime Minister’s Science Fiction Novel Becomes a Hit Play

(5) Hit Film Gravity Crosses Borders

(6) The International Speculative Fiction Alumni Department: The Entire Roster from International Speculative Fiction #2

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Awesome Campaign for a Grant to Increase Diversity in SF

Ellen B. Wright and Faye Bi are both speculative fiction fans, they both work in book publishing, and they’re both runners.  Last year the two joined forces for an awesome cause that overlaps substantially with the mandate of this blog: a marathon to raise funds for a brand new writing grant (to be administered by the Speculative Literature Foundation) that will go toward supporting diversity in science fiction and fantasy.

As the pair noted on their fundraising page, science fiction and fantasy fans are a diverse group, but our beloved SF books, television, and movies don’t always reflect that diversity:

“…those of us who don’t fit into one particular box (and some who do) have noticed something. There’s one story that’s told in the genre over and over again. You’ve probably seen it. It’s about a straight white man, or often a bunch of straight white men, creating things with science, wielding magic, saving the world, blowing stuff up. If there are women or people of color involved, we’re probably love interests or sidekicks. We probably only talk to, or about, the white male lead. We probably die first, or to provide motivation for the protagonist.”

None of this is news to Around the World—after all, recognizing and enjoying diversity in speculative fiction is what it’s all about.  But it’s nice to see someone taking concrete steps to do something about it.

Ellen and Faye teamed up with the Speculative Literature Foundation, which already administers the Older Writers Grant and the Gulliver Travel Research Grant, to create the Diverse Worlds Grant, which will:

“… help writers from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in the genre to start and continue publishing. As good science fiction and fantasy worlds should, this grant will welcome all kinds of diversity: gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, ability level, religion, etc.”

The two women ran the 2013 NYC Marathon to raise funds for the new grant.  Their efforts were a huge success, and the campaign exceeded its $2,500.00 goal, raising a total of $3,356.00, or 134% of their target amount.

So congratulations to Ellen and Faye, and congratulations to the speculative fiction community, which will be deepened and enriched by their efforts.

Diversity Screenshot

Rebooting the Original Robots: Classic Czech SF Revisited

The word “robot” came into the English language via a Czech play called R.U.R., written by  Karel Čapek in 1920.  R.U.R. also marked the first appearance of a theme that would be revisited more than once, notably in the Terminator films: a robot uprising.

An image from an early production of R.U.R., flanked by posters (both from 1939) for two others productions .

An image from an early production of R.U.R., flanked by posters (both from 1939) for two others productions .

Now, R.U.R. is having a renaissance of sorts, having been adapted into the short film R.U.R. Genesis.  The original play was set in the 1950s or 1960s—then far in the future.  The film is set in the same time period, in an alternate version of 1969, but from the vantage point of 2014, of course, the 1960s have become retro-futuristic.

The team at Helicon Arts Cooperative, who previously made the feature Yesterday Was A Lie (2008), hope to turn R.U.R. Genesis into a feature as well.  The cast includes Chase Masterson, whom SF fans may know from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

You can watch the R.U.R. Genesis online and a behind-the-scenes featurette below.  The film’s home page is here.

You can read the original R.U.R., translated into English by David Wyllie, here.  You can also see a production of it on YouTube in the videos embedded beneath the R.U.R. Genesis videos.

R.U.R. Genesis

R.U.R. Genesis Featurette

R.U.R. (the original play) Act I

R.U.R. (the original play) Act II

R.U.R. (the original play) Act III

SF News from Nigeria

Item One:  Nigeria has a thriving film industry, often referred to as Nollywood.  When Ficson Films—a new Nigerian company that provides film production, event coverage, documentaries, and commercials—wanted to announce their presence recently, they did it in an imaginative way: they released a short science fiction video on YouTube.

Screen capture from The Day They Came, Episode 1

Screen capture from The Day They Came, Episode 1

The Day They Came, Episode 1 (embedded below) doesn’t have a very expansive plot, but maybe it’ll be fleshed out in later episodes.  A man comes out of a house to have a cigarette and clear his head.  Everything’s normal—a rooster crows somewhere nearby.  Then he hears something and looks toward the horizon, which is when the aliens arrive and all hell breaks loose.

It’s a fun little short and, given the number of times it’s been posted and reposted on Facebook and elsewhere, it appears to be doing what it’s supposed to do: getting attention.

Item Two: Nigeria is also the location for a small SF miracle—the discovery of nine “lost” episodes of Doctor Who, which came to light just in time for the recent 50th anniversary of the show (BBC page, Wikipedia page).  The trove includes four episodes of the six-part story The Web of Fear, in which the Doctor battles robot Yetis who are spreading a poisonous fungus on the London Underground.


Swedish Prime Minister’s Science Fiction Novel Becomes a Hit Play

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away the Monty Python gang had a brief gag announcement, “And now, a massage from the Swedish Prime Minister,” followed by the slapping sounds of a massage being administered.

Well, the real Swedish Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, wrote a dystopian novel called Det Sovande Folket (“The Sleeping People” or “The Sleeping Nation”) twenty years ago, and by all accounts it was a book with a message (not the subtle variety, but the hit-you-over-the-head kind).

A production of Det Sovande Folket.

A production of Det Sovande Folket (source).

Det Sovande Folket was all but forgotten, and isn’t in print any more, although a pirated version is available on internet torrent sites. But now that Reinfeldt is running the country it’s become a hot property and it’s been turned into a play that has sold out every performance.  Reinfeldt has refused to comment.

A production of Det Sovande Folket.

A production of Det Sovande Folket (source).

Written when he was 28, the novel is set this year, in 2013, making his tenure in office a perfect time to resurrect it.  It portrays a Sweden that is feeling the effects of twenty years of Social Democratic government, where the populace is divided into the Fools, who do all the work and who finance the welfare state, and the Sleeping Brains, who lazily watch television all day long while living on benefits.  Sounds positively Ayn-Rand-ian!


Hit Film Gravity Crosses Borders

Caution: spoilers ahead.

There’s some debate as to whether or not the film Gravity (home page, Wikipedia, YouTube trailer), which stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and which set an all-time record for an October film opening last year, should be classified as science fiction.  There’s nothing fundamentally speculative about it—everything in it could happen today, with current technology and in the current social context—so maybe it’s better considered simply as a space-based thriller.

Whatever the merits of the arguments on each side, it certainly features a setting associated with science fiction (indeed, a setting that was science fiction until fairly recently), has been well received by SF fans, and is considered SF by many people, so I’ll let that classification stand for the purposes of this column.

Being a major Hollywood release, Gravity doesn’t fall within Around the World’s mandate in any obvious way, but it has several international aspects, both in story and execution.  The film was co-written, co-produced, and directed by Alphonso Cuarón, the Mexican director of Spanish-language films like Y Tu Mama También and English language features like Children of Men.

And then there’s the Chinese connection.  The massive Chinese film audience is being courted by innumerable film projects these days, often through co-productions with Chinese companies or through the casting of Chinese actors.

But as the International Business Times notes, Gravity appears to be have its sights set on China using story elements alone.  Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) first takes refuge in a state-of-the-art Chinese space station, then hitches a ride home in a Chinese capsule—giving uncommon cinematic recognition to the growing Chinese space program.  It couldn’t come at a better time: China’s space program recently celebrated its first decade of manned flight, and it has plans to return man to the Moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

And it appears possible that the Chinese story elements succeeded in pleasing Chinese authorities, because the film has been approved for distribution in China.

Gravity Trailer

The International Speculative Fiction Alumni Department: The Entire Roster from International Speculative Fiction #2

Much of the content that will appear on this blog in the future will also appear in the column of the same name in International Speculative Fiction, where I’m the non-fiction editor.  For this initial column at least, all of the content appeared recently in ISF.

The ISF column regularly checks in on authors who’ve been featured in its pages and given that ISF features some of the best international voices in speculative fiction (ISF#4 featured three winners of the World Fantasy Award), it seems like a good idea to maintain the author roundup in the blog even though it isn’t explicitly tied to the publication where their work appeared.  With that in mind, here’s some recent news on ISF authors.

ISF #2 featured fiction by three authors, Ken Liu, Lavie Tidhar, and me, Nas Hedron, and each of these alumni has recent news.

International Speculative Fiction, Issue 2

International Speculative Fiction, Issue 2

Ken Liu has actually appeared in two issues of ISF (#2 and #4).  Given that this is only issue #5, that makes him practically a member of the family.  Recently Ken had a brief profile on the Malaysian news site The Star Online.  It recaps his historic sweep of the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, and World Fantasy Award in 2012, the first work of fiction to take all three awards in a year.  Ken was in nearby Singapore as part of the Read! Singapore program.  Until now he has focused on short fiction, but told the Star that he’s now at work on his first novel, which he hopes to finish by the end of the year.  I’m sure I’m not the only one at ISF looking forward to it.

Lavie Tidhar, meanwhile, has been interviewed at length for the current issue of Clarkesworld, in “Deep Into the Dark: A Conversation with Lavie Tidhar.”

Finally, I recently released a free soundtrack album to accompany my 2012 magic realist novelette The Virgin Birth of Sharks (home page, page).  The story is about a Desi street kid in Toronto who learns that she was, inexplicably, conceived while her mother was in prison and had no contact at all with men.  The Album is The Virgin Birth of Sharks: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head.

The album includes music ranging from blues to tango to ambient, and features artists from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, Ukraine, and the United States, and is available as a free download here.

Two tracks are embedded below.  The first is a beautifully constructed piece of music by Jason Brock, an independent musician whose organization, ArtisTech Mediaoperates the remix site  Jason built the track around a rich, tasty organ riff from French electronic music mogul Morusque (who also contributed a track of his own to the album).

The second is a remix of my own, featuring tracks available through and my own spoken word recording.


The Virgin Birth of Sharks: the Soundtrack for the Movie in Your Head

If you know of an item you think should be included in the next installment of Around the World, please send it to us at

(Adapted from a column pulished in International Speculative Fiction #5, January 18, 2014)

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