Journal of Unlikely Cryptography Issue 11, February 2015

Lights of Encryption by Andrew Ostrovsky

Table of Contents

Jump Cut by Lauren C. Teffeau
Dropped Stitches by Levi Sable
It’s Machine Code by Curtis C. Chen
Those Who Gave Their Island to Survive by Barry King
The Confession of Whistling Dixie by Fiona Moore
The Joy of Sects by Joseph Tomaras

Editors’ Note:

Welcome, dear readers, to another issue of The Journal of Unlikely Cryptography.

Cryptography has established itself more firmly in the public consciousness of late with the award nominations and critical praise being heaped on The Imitation Game, in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, who famously broke the code of the Nazi’s Enigma Machine. (More fleetingly in the public eye, in the year since our last cryptography issue, we have seen multiple extremely large security compromises affecting the personal and financial information of in excess of a hundred million people, and a recent court decision in the UK determining that British intelligence committed human rights violations simply by using the information gathered by the NSA. But don’t let that worry you.) The unlikeliness of Mr. Cumberbatch’s cheekbones aside, we at Unlikely Story take a slightly more fantastical view of the subject.

In these digital pages, you’ll find stories exploring the limits and possibilities of technology and the various ways it defines, enhances, and intersects with humanity. An unorthodox application of a 3D printer; the creation of private worlds; hacking the human brain with extreme video sequences; parents customizing ideal children through knitted code; a self-aware AI taking up the pirating life; and a cult seeking transcendence through transformation — all of these stories explore coding, hacking, cracking, and our relationship with technology in most unlikely ways.

The stories in these pages also explore human questions as well. How far would you go to win? Would you risk everything for your beliefs? What would you do for your job? We invite you to immerse yourself in these tales, dear readers, and explore these questions along with us.

Cover art by Andrew Ostrovsky

Announcing: The Journal of Unlikely Coulrophobia, coming soon to a Big Top near you!

Come on in!

Step right up!

Welcome to the greatest show on earth, ladies and gentlemen. One moment… I’m being told the performers are still putting their faces on. Clowning takes a lot of work, you know. In the meantime, it’s my pleasure to give you a sneak preview of what’s to come. On April 1, 2015, the curtain will rise on these five fabulous tales:

Break the Face in the Jar by the Door by Carlie St. George

Five Things Every Successful Clown Must Do by Derek Manuel

Everyone’s a Clown by Caroline M. Yoachim

Perfect Mime by Sara K. McNeilly

A Million Tiny Ropes by Virginia M. Mohlere

But that’s not all! Much like a clown car, just when you think everything is said and done, there are still more clowns waiting to emerge. What do we mean by that? Well, you’ll just have to wait and see. We promise we’ll be unveiling our unlikely plans soon. In the meantime, grab your tickets and make sure you get a front row seat for the show on April 1st. This is a performance you won’t want to miss.

An Unlikely Interview with Michael Wehunt

Bookends,” as suggested by the title, uses the emergence of periodical cicadas to frame two of the most significant events of your main character’s life. The very nature of periodical cicadas feels deeply mythical with its cycle of birth/death/rebirth calling to mind various hero journeys to the underworld. What came first, the idea of framing a story this way, or the core of the story itself?

It was more the idea of the framing that came first, and I immediately thought of bookends and stuck with that title. I had this image of a man standing in a back yard, listening to all those cicadas, overwhelmed, and I thought, well, something significant must have happened the last time the cicadas came. And yes, I thought of that circle of birth/death/rebirth, as you aptly call it, and I realized the man had lost his wife by gaining a child, and I wondered how deep a darkness that might cast, and whether someone could make it through. This sort of tragedy was once almost common, but to me it felt as dark as the underworld.

On your blog, you recently said you’ve been seriously considering writing a novel. If you’ve begun the process, how have you found it different from writing short stories? If you haven’t begun yet, have you found your short story writing process altered at all by your ultimate goal of writing novel length fiction?

I haven’t started a novel yet, and until recently I would’ve claimed it would have no effect on my short story process. But it seems I’m wrong, as a new story I just finished is 11,000 words long, stretching well past my previous record into uncharted mid-novelette territory. It was not my intention to go that long-form, and I think novel thoughts may have informed that. Just letting a larger frame breathe as it wants was pretty liberating.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I’m skipping this one. Not one single job I’ve had could be even exaggerated into weirdness. I’d never really thought about it before you asked. Now I regret not being more adventurous when I was younger!

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

I grew up in a rural town in Georgia, less than a mile from the largest of the forts used to hold (read: imprison) Cherokee natives before they were sent away on the Trail of Tears. As a lower middle-class white male in a place of lower middle-class white people, I learned a good deal about how my region came to be this way. I learned about that tragic part of history. I learned about local Native American culture. And it’s very much stayed with me. But as I grew older, I began to realize how revisionist the history I learned had been, how glossed over. Not in any conspiratorial or overtly ominous way…just in an ignorant way. And that has stayed with me, too, but in a much deeper, under-the-skin way. So I guess you could say I learned to learn underneath the learning, which taught me to know there’s nearly always a richer history waiting to be discovered, wherever and whenever you are.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

The current batch of “relatively obscure” authors I love, such as Laird Barron, Simon Strantzas, and Nathan Ballingrud, have recently been making bigger names for themselves. Others are newer and on their way, such as David G. Blake. As for an author who’s long overdue, Robert Aickman, a writer of self-styled “strange stories” who died in 1981, is finally set to take the stage at this year’s World Fantasy Convention, which is paying homage to him. Relative to his influence, he’s been obscure for far too long. I’d recommend his short stories, such as “The Stains,” “The Hospice,” and “Into the Wood.” Stories that worm their way into horror but ignore all of horror’s rules and end up somewhere better. No one did ambiguity better than he did, the sense of unreality that makes the reader truly feel in tune with the protagonist. And yet his stories, for all their creepy strangeness, always feel true, somehow. There’s a warmth, even a humor, to them.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

My first published work was the story “Notrees” in Innsmouth Magazine back in June of 2012. I actually read it not long ago and thought it held up better than it did in my mind. It’s fairly standard Lovecraftian horror and could use some better structuring, though what I find most amusing now is my early, rather trope-ish attempt at creating my own sort of Elder God-styled mythos. The elements to a good story were all there, just without the experience to (Love)craft it in a more unique way.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I recently received my first private invitations to write stories for two great anthologies, each from a well-known editor, which is like getting to cross one of the major items off my bucket list twice. But as these are both works in progress, I can’t blab the details. Speaking of my bucket list, I do have a short story forthcoming in an issue of Cemetery Dance. It’s called “The Inconsolable” and I’m very excited for it to be in the world.

An Unlikely Interview with Victorya Chase

At its core, Gemma Bugs Out seems to be a story about characters in transition -- between human and insect, between grief and acceptance, between fear of commitment and love. It also seems to be a story about characters struggling to find their place in the world, and ultimately deciding on a more liminal and shifting existence. Are these themes you deliberately set out to explore, and if so, why? If the story unfolded without those specific goals in mind, how did it come to be?

This was a question that had me go ‘huh,’ lean back, and think a bit. I hadn’t set out to write a story with such themes. The initial inspiration for the story came from an article about how The Bachelor has been on for twelve years. I began to think there had to be someone out there who has seen every episode over these twelve years and I really wondered who they were.

However, those themes are something I’ve been dealing with recently in my life. I have always felt in-between and never like I belonged in one camp or the other. From race and socio-economic status to sexuality and gender, I tend to slide more between definitions than have any solid singular idea of ‘self’ along those lines. I’ve been working on accepting that place between definitions, as it were, and it seeped through into the story.

You’re currently engaged in a fascinating literary experiment, co-writing a poem via Twitter as if the poem were a game of chess. Could you talk a bit about this project, how it came to be, and what you’ve learned, or how it’s changed your writing method thus far?

It started because I had just taken on a new position, and my friend Adam made it out of the adjunct pool and is now an official instructor. I think we wanted a way to keep writing, and had written poetry together while in our MFA program. Part of that initial inception was to force us to write at least one line each week, the other part was to slow writing down a bit because I think too often we see a lot of rushed work (both in our times as slushers and in our own writing), especially when a ‘keeping up with the joneses’ mentality of publishing kicks in.

One thing I learned is I’m not the most disciplined writer. I had just moved, and haven’t kept to a schedule as much as I’d like. It’s also frustrating to not know what the next line is going to be to plan accordingly – I like to plan. At the same time, it’s exhilarating to not know and have to then scrap whatever idea I might have had and go with what’s in front of me, which I think is also a good metaphor for writing and editing. Sometimes the planned writing isn’t the freshest, and it’s okay to give up ideas and form new ones when it’s for the good of the story. It’s also good to give up control every once in a while, which this is forcing me to do.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I was a Credit Hostess for a department store as it was going through its last gasps of life. This meant I set up a table in the middle of an equally dying mall and gave away cheap gifts in exchange for completed credit card applications. There were many tricks to being successful in that job, not all ethical, but all handed down with great seriousness. One summer the circus came to the mall, another attempt to save it before it went under, and I was sent outside to have my booth alongside the circus tents. While I’ve written many an unsuccessful story about the circus part of my youth, it did expose me to life for those between the cracks and began a lifelong discovery, in person and writing, about those who just aren’t meant to live inside the definitions others put upon them.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

Oooh, another good question, especially since I am also a teacher who tends to err on the non-conventional side.

I actually think many things I learned were important and apply to writing and my career. For example, I loved mathematics throughout most of my schooling, and find there is a need for it in writing. For one, it can provide us with different narrative structures because mathematical formulas are a type of narrative. Also, having that background allows me to see formulas a lot easier- in writing as well as other subjects, because many things do have formulas (conversations with people are another example, especially office ones, they follow a prescribed way to communicate for the most part).

That aside, even though I went to public school we were taught from The Bible as in Literature which I think was invaluable. I haven’t met many others who, in high school, were taught religious texts. By going over the Quran, Bible, Bhagavad-Gita, and some Taoist texts I was taught the importance of all religious thought and how it influences writing. It also provided me with the tools to better understand writing from various cultures.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

How about a more obscure book from a writer many people know? I loved The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, and many in my age bracket kind of grew up on the movie. But Michael Ende’s Momo has become a big part of my own literary canon, one I go to again and again. It is one of those books that reads like a simple fairy tale, and like all fairy tales the more you go back to it the less simple you realize it really is.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

If we go by way back and not professional publication, I think someone found a poem I wrote (a parent snooping through my bedroom) and printed it in a newsletter they ran for the community. Aside from that, I think when I started getting serious I wrote a haibun that was published in a magazine back in 2007. I don’t mind that it’s out there. It was reviewed by someone, and while the review wasn’t completely positive it was still proof that my work had been read and that was encouraging.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?h

I’m keeping my keeping my website updated, so more of my writing can be found there at victoryachase.com.

An Unlikely Interview with Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

You have a talent for writing really nasty protagonists. Your main characters in both Miranda’s Wings and The Wall Garden (which appeared in a previous Unlikely Entomology Issue) seem to carry shades of Poe and Lovecraft. Your characters are not sympathetic, they do terrible things, and yet the reader ends up feeling for them based on the horror of their situations. Are you consciously influenced by either Poe or Lovecraft in your work?

Time for a confession. I have read very little by Poe or Lovecraft, maybe a handful of poems and stories for both authors combined. Or, said differently, I’m woefully under-read in these two canonical writers, which causes me to feel what I hope is an appropriate amount of shame. Based on your observation, though, maybe that’s not a bad thing--at least I can reasonably claim plausible deniability when it comes to them influencing my work! I’m sure I’ll get to them eventually.

Regarding unsympathetic protagonists: judging the actions of a character, I think, creates a relationship between the reader the character, and any relationship, in this case, is better than none. So I’ve never shied away from it. At times I’ve probably gone too far (in fact, an editor once told me so, using far kinder words). This is one aspect, by the way, that I enjoy about many of Joyce Carol Oates’ short stories. She often takes us inside the mind of damaged and damaging individuals, and while the horror of these stories tends to be non-supernatural or fantastic in origin, the overall mode or affect can be just as dark.

Not only are you an accomplished author, you hold a degree in Theoretical Physics. Do art and science ever clash for you, or does your educational background inform and enrich your writing?

No, I don’t see a tension there. I think it’s very much the latter, knowledge and awareness--be it of literature, physics, whatever--informing my worldview and hopefully broadening my horizon just a little. As Richard Feynman said in that famous 1981 interview, “science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” I do think it does one more thing, too, which is constantly remind one of how little one really knows.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I can’t say I have anything even remotely of note, by those standards. I did once work the night shift as a customer service rep for a roadside assistance company in Spain, and some pretty whacked out calls would occasionally come in. Telling the cooks or drunks from the genuinely distressed was sometimes an interesting challenge--particularly since the categories weren’t always mutually exclusive.

You’ve been the subject of our Unlikely Interview questions before. Is there anything you wish we’d asked last time around, but didn’t? And if so, what is your answer? If not, would you care to flip the tables and ask us anything?

Last year you asked me about holiday-themed works, and I replied: “I’m looking forward to reading the Gardner Dozois and Sheila Williams-edited anthology Isaac Asimov’s Christmas (1997). Every year I say, ‘This is the year.’ This is the year.” Let me set the record straight. This is the year.

Yes, I’d love to turn the tables and ask you a couple of things: 1) Have you and your editorial partner in crime considered putting together an anthology of stories originally published in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology (or one of its brethren)? 2) At what stage in the process of creating your magazine did you and Bernie realize that your aesthetics would be complementary, and that you could work well together? How long was it from inception of first issue?

[ACW responding…]

1) We have talked about the possibility of an anthology, or anthologies, either collecting previously-published Unlikely works, or as the next stage in our Unlikely evolution. No concrete plans yet, but we promise to keep you informed!

2) Bernie and I were in a critique group together for a while before starting the magazine, so we already knew our aesthetics would be complimentary from the beginning. To the best of my recollection (not always a thing to be relied upon), we started seriously talking about JUE in Fall 2010, we opened for submissions in January 2011, and our first issue appeared in May 2011.

[Bernie responding…]

2) I think it was actually Summer of 2010 that we started talking about it, and we put in a few months of serious thought and research before announced our intentions. It was important that we approached this in a way that was sustainable, not just financially, but from a work load perspective. We wanted to make sure both that we didn’t over-promise, and that we remained author- and story-focused, rather than editor-focused. It wasn’t until we convinced ourselves that we could do that that we announced our magazine.

1) Yes, of course. Mostly it hinges on sorting out the finances and modes of distribution. And time. Sorting out takes time.

When you’re not writing or theorizing about physics, what are your favorite ways to occupy your time?

My interest in science manifests in a strictly non-academic way these days, and has for a while. In my free time I tutor high-school students on calculus, physics, and so on, and I like to read all sorts of non-fiction and watch documentaries. I also enjoy movies, listening to music, and pursuing my fitness goals (as anemic as those are!).

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I have some short stories slotted for publication:

“The Romance of Flying on Dead Languages” will be appearing in the first issue of Bahamut, edited by Rima Abunasser and Darin Bradley, with quite an extraordinary line-up of authors
“The Obvious Solution”, in which I resurrect a famous SF author, will appear in Buzzy Magazine
Mike Resnick bought “The Rose is Obsolete”, about time-travel and the challenges of old age, for Galaxy’s Edge
“Repeat After Me” is my first middle-grade SF short story, and will be included in the 2015 anthology Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, edited by Corie and Sean Weaver
Rose Lemberg picked up my experimental piece “And Now You Are Alone Among the Stars” for the anthology she is editing, An Alphabet of Embers
“The Black Hole and the Entropy Collector” will appear in Nature Physics.

I’ve also been doing interviews for Clarkesworld magazine, and hope to be able to do more for them. Ditto for work on the Locus blog. I have a new review column called “Another Dimension” at InterGalactic Medicine Show (the first piece was just published in November).

I have a non-fiction book-length project on the horizon, but will only announce once the contract has been signed. And I’m looking for an agent to represent my first solo novel, an SF YA adventure called REYLA’S SONG.

Unlikely Academia Submissions Open

It’s January 1st, which means not only a new year, but that our Unlikely Academia issue is officially open for business. By which we mean submissions. In case you need a refresher, here’s what we’re looking for with this issue.

Stories about studying and the act of learning. Stories set in unusual schools like Hogwarts, Brakebills, and the Unseen University (Note: please don’t set your story in any of these specific schools unless you happen to be J.K. Rowling, Lev Grossman, or Terry Prachett). Stories focusing on the students and faculty of unorthodox majors like Decision Sciences, Theme Park Engineering, and Bowling Industry Management and Technology (these are all real majors offered by real universities). Researchers digging deep into forbidden tomes (preferably not the Necromnomicon; it’s been done.) Fictionalized scholarly articles on the Ethics of Motorcycle Taming or the Alternate History of Space Flight in the Mongol Empire (think Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series).

As always, we want gorgeously-told tales, gripping characters, and unique worlds to explore. Genre doesn’t matter, along as your tale involves schools, studying, or academia in some integral way. Although we won’t rule them out completely, we’d prefer not to receive stories involving study related to any of our previous or recurring themes (insects, coding, maps, architecture, etc.)

We want stories with diverse viewpoints, characters, and settings. We’re particularly interested in stories by authors from traditionally under-represented groups, including, but not limited to POC, QUILTBAG, non-binary, ESL, and neuro-diverse writers. We love stories from new authors and established authors alike. We’re more than happy to receive submissions from anywhere in the world, as long as the story is in English. We’re open to translated works as well, as long as they’ve never been published in English before.

Full guidelines can be found here. Happy writing and submitting. We can’t wait to see what you send us!

An Unlikely Interview with Luna Lindsey

In Meltdown in Freezer Three, Corinne’s service animal, Macy, uses color to convey emotion. In your story Touch of Tides, which appeared in Crossed Genres Issue 8, your main character sees physical sensations as color. There are other similarities between these stories, including neuro-atypicality as feature, not a bug, making your characters uniquely qualified to deal with the situations confronting them. Could you talk a bit about your personal relationship with color, and the way you explore it and neuro-atypical characters in your fiction?

My brain is a very colorful place. I have grapheme-color synesthesia. I’m also autistic (Asperger’s), which means my relationship with language is interesting. I do think in words, but I also think in movement and shapes, emotions and flashes of images, and colors (and colors of words). Even though I’m strongly verbal, some thoughts are very difficult to translate into words. And sometimes when I’m struggling to remember something, all I get is the color of the words, not the words themselves.

I am intrigued by differences of perception and thinking styles between people. There’s an assumption that everyone is somehow the same inside, when really, we are all incredibly different. The reason we assume homogeneity is because everyone learns the same outputs (we speak the same language, for instance), but how we store knowledge varies from person to person. It’s like software that spits out the same data, but runs on very different platforms, written in different programming languages. And those differences fascinate me. Especially since underlying thinking-styles can explain conflicts, unusual behaviors, and miscommunication between people.

When I write, I often like to imagine unfamiliar internal landscapes, and write from there. Not just neurodiverse humans, but also alien minds, animals, mythical creatures. I’d like to challenge the assumption that there is a “normal” way to think, because it’s dangerous to take that for granted. Stories allow us to experience neurodiveristy in a way that no other medium can, because it allows us to be inside the head of another person and see with their eyes. (Or feel with their appendages if they have no eyes.) It can be challenging, though, because we’re still limited to words, and what do you do when your protagonist doesn’t think in words at all?

Authors frequently know more about their characters than what makes it to the page, including what happens after the story ends. If you know, and don’t mind sharing, what role might Macy have in the faelien society after she rescues them?

It’s funny, but I often don’t think about what happens after the last word in my stories. I like that feeling of mystery, the question mark without the period. But since you asked? Once the batteries die in Macy’s control circuits, she probably eats a dozen faelien children, plus three brave faelien warriors, before she is finally taken down in a hail of ice-arrows. But I’m just guessing.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I once worked a high school internship at a Cold War Era government nuclear reservation. It was the same facility (tho not the same office) where my dad worked. My job included editing electronic maps of storage tanks. Gigantic tanks full of radioactive waste. I’ve never written anything based on the experience, but the fact that this seemed like a perfectly normal job, not weird in the slightest, might have had an impact on my formative years.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

I was actually homeschooled. And the single most important thing I learned was how to teach myself. I wish every child could learn this skill. Instead, many children are simply taught to memorize directions and obey without question. It’s a nice way to rear an army of corporate drones, but I doubt it leads to a satisfying life for most people. Life is endless learning, and without knowing how, too many people stop after they graduate.

Knowing how to learn was instrumental in my IT career before I switched to writing, since the tech field is always changing. Meanwhile, I was constantly learning about topics I felt curious about. Which has since helped my writing career. This ability makes me a better citizen and a more informed voter. I’m rarely willing to form an opinion based merely on someone else’s opinion, on conjecture or speculation. I’m always wanting to know the how and why of things. This gives me a flexible mind, willing to stretch and change and grow. I wish everyone could be given this gift.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

Mervyn Peake. His prose is beautiful and clever at the same time. His world building is quirky and his characters are odd. His descriptions are delightful, from a time when cinematic POV was permitted and words mattered more than stories. His plots are almost non-existent, but that hardly matters. I have underlined passages and read them aloud and quoted them on the internet. So you should drop everything and go read the Gormenghast trilogy.

Here is one of my favorite passages: “A room was filled with the late sunbeams. Steerpike stood quite still, a twinge of pleasure running through his body. He grinned. A carpet filled the floor with blue pasture. Thereon were seated in a hundred decorative attitudes, or stood immobile like carvings, or walked superbly across their sapphire setting, inter-weaving with each other like a living arabesque, a swarm of snow-white cats.”

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

This is a tricky one, since I’ve been writing since before I can remember, and since I was quite young, I’ve had both fiction and nonfiction published in the kinds of small-town publications that would publish basically anything. If we’re to narrow it down to the categories of “fiction” and “published in a place where other people could actually read it,” I’d have to go with a series of shaggy-dog stories I wrote for the Benton City Bulletin in my mid-teens. These were based on jokes my dad always told, and relied heavily on puns and juvenile prose. For all that, they were probably pretty good. I’m not sure. I haven’t read them in years.

For the record, my first paid and published story, which is what some people mean when they say “published,” was right here in the Journal of Unlikely Entomology! And I still like that story. 😉

(Editors’ note: We still like it, too! The story in question is Let the Bugs Work Themselves Out from Issue 3.5. You can -- and should -- read it here.)

What else are you working on you want people to know about?

I’m just finishing promotion of my big nonfiction project that took up most of the last 18 months. (Recovering Agency: Lifting the Veil of Mormon Mind Control.) This month, I’m switching gears back to fiction. My novel, Emerald City Iron, the long-awaited sequel to Emerald City Dreamer is all written and awaiting revisions. It’s about faerie hunters in Seattle. Sandy and her team track down a terrifying murderous sea faerie, the Nuckelavee, while Sandy herself begins her inner journey to heal from her trauma. I’d like to have it out by next spring.

Unlikely Story #10 PDF Available

The PDF version of Unlikely Story #10: The Journal of Unlikely Entomology will be skittering its way to subscribers any moment now. What’s that? You’re not a subscriber and you want to get your hands on this wondrous thing? Well you’re in luck -- subscribing to Unlikely Story is both easy and free. Just send an email to unlikelystory (at) kappamaki.com and ask to be added to our list. A post with further details can be found here.

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An Unlikely Interview with Naim Kabir

Dr. Shreeya Murrow can equally be seen as the protagonist or antagonist of Prism City Blues. Her Green Project could be an altruistic reclaiming of the planet for the greater good of humanity, or a wholly selfish act, one which doesn’t even seem to make her all that happy. How do you see her -- as a philanthropist, or a super villain?

I don’t want to interfere with whatever judgment the reader comes up with—as far as I’m concerned, if you think she’s a villain, she’s a villain. If you think she’s a hero, then she is.

What I will say is this: she’s human. A very old human. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that a person is just a product of their history and environment: but I really think that’s true here! She’s old, and in a place of high status. Somewhat detached from the younger population, and always, always missing ‘how it used to be’. Everyone’s always talking about how much hurt getting old will bring you, and—well, sometimes when you’re hurting you lash out hard and fast to get that hurt to stop.

Philadelphia seems to have attracted a natural confluence of speculative fiction authors, and you’re one of them. What are your favorite places to eat, read, and hang out in the city? What, if anything, do you find particularly speculative about Philly, or what would you say to recommend the city to someone who has never been here before?

When my wallet’s hanging heavier than usual I like to eat over at POD, which is a little like dining inside the 20th-century vision of a 23rd-century spaceship. Meal of choice? A bowl of rock shrimp glazed with something yellow and delicious with walnuts and a few slices of pineapple sprinkled all over. When I’m hurting for cash a food truck usually does the trick. Literally any truck down the line from 36th and Spruce to 38th will serve up something delicious—though I particularly enjoy New York’s Famous Gyro.

As for reading: back when I was still living around Rittenhouse, the Park was brilliant for just finding a bench and knocking back a novel. Then there are all the art shows, the performers, the extravagant set-ups during holidays. A beautiful piece of the city that lives and breathes over the year, in very familiar rhythms. Probably a bit of a common choice—but for good reason!

Last question:

Speculative elements can be found in any city. In Philadelphia I’d pin feelings of the fantastical on the purple-pink night sky that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It takes on an even stranger tinge after a snow.

But the most important thing Philly has to offer to writers, I think, is the constant reminder that people can’t be put into neat boxes. Cultures can’t, either. There’s always one fest or another that takes up an entire city block—and the characters there can be strange, and new, and wonderful. It reminds you not to feel limited when you get down to filling up a page. It makes you think, Damn, the world I live in is crazy. Damn, the world I live in has all of these unique people, and all of these unique peoples.

And if the world as you know it—constrained by what already is—if that world is this crazy, think about all the worlds that could be! All the characters that could be!

Those reminders are important.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I once was a research assistant in a sleep lab, the kind that got contracts from NASA and the Office of Naval Intelligence. It didn’t inspire any stories directly, but it definitely informed my characters and their dynamic.

The job basically had me taking care of and observing a group of four strangers thrown together as they braced themselves to bear sometimes insurmountable challenges. They dealt with the hospital food together, the lack of entertainment, the several periods of long sleep deprivation that left them incoherent—and they started as strangers.

Sometimes you’d get shear lines in the group, sometimes they’d spot weld into the strongest bunch you’d ever see. It was amazing to watch these long studies unfold, and these friendships and animosities appear.

Strangers, thrown together to trump a challenge. Now that sounds like every good epic I’ve ever enjoyed.

One of the perennial points of contention in the world revolves around education -- who should get educated (and to what degree), what should be taught, who should be excluded. Meanwhile, children in their classrooms ask, “Why do I need to know this?” Tell us one obscure thing you learned in school that you think is important, and why.

I learned that Gregor Mendel worked to give us the first—though quite simplistic—model of trait heritability.

This was important.

Though I usually prefer reading about the actual facts discovered rather than the history of the discovery, this bit of history was important because it was different. While the other scientists in my textbooks were being praised for their genius and for their ripe-for-TV eureka moments, right there on the page was this humble man whose two specialties were gardening and beekeeping.

And he was always referred to as humble. He didn’t found Mendelian Genetics through genius or in-born brilliance, but through diligence. At the time he actually embodied the apex of discipline in my mind: he was a monk. Who could work harder than a monk?

That was just a first step to learning that our culture in the States, the kind that praises innate smarts, is all wrong. I’ve always been told I’m clever, but all that did was make me smug and too reliant on cunning-over-effort.

Over 22 years of living, I’ve learned that the most brilliant head on a set of lazy shoulders is going to do precisely jack shit in the real world. Hard work is always more important, always.

And Gregor Mendel, the hardworking monk who figured out how heritable smarts might be passed down, showed me that those same smarts don’t actually matter.

Not if you don’t have discipline.

It’s a lesson I’m still trying to fully understand.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

Paul Neilan. I don’t know if he’s obscure, but I do know that his bibliography totals exactly 1. A hilarious, page-turning 1.

The novel is Apathy and Other Small Victories, and it will split your sides and send them into stratosphere. Or, you know, make you chuckle a little to yourself.

I’ve always thought writing comedy was the hardest talent to hone, but Neilan’s book is just effortlessly funny, while still managing to tell a well-structured story. It’s an exemplar of what good situational comedy is, and I look to it whenever I need some help. Definitely pick it up.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

Haha, I’m still actually quite the new writer. I still consider myself a novice—and so I’m still actually riding the high of my first publication! It was “On The Origin of Song”, published by Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Even now I’m incredibly grateful to Scott H. Andrews for considering me and taking me on.

Speaking of which: I’m quite grateful to you, too. Thank you so much!

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

Currently working on a science fiction story set in a near-future Japan, with a societal twist—as well as a story set in a new surgical department that I’ve taken to calling ‘Neuroplastics’. I hope the latter finds a home soon, though I’m still polishing the former.

I’m also trying to get my debut novel completed, polished, and off the ground! I’m almost afraid to even say its name, like I’m afraid I’ll break it.

But I’ll say it anyway, because I like the way it sounds:

“Starshine For Whiskey Riser.”

Which… is a tale about a bunch of strangers thrown together to trump a challenge.

An Unlikely Interview with Polenth Blake

On Shine Wings is lovely and poetic piece. For me [editor A.C. Wise] reading it was akin to viewing a series of snapshots from a dream. Could you talk a bit about where the imagery came from, or how the story originated and developed for you?

Culture plays a big part in colour language. Some colours are considered different in some languages, but the same in others. Some languages may focus more on whether a colour is light or dark, over whether it’s red or blue. It led me to think about how colour might be described for people who often see the world through the eyes of bees. For a bee, dark things are likely to be predators, such as bears stealing their honey. Bright things are flowers. That matters a whole lot more than whether those colours are shades of red.

From there, I considered if words might change depending on whether things had always been that colour. It matters if a flower is always a light colour, or if it only becomes light when it’s dying. This might matter less when describing something that can be painted, like a ship, over something alive, like a human.

So the story formed around the colours and the meaning behind them.

According to the author bio on your website, you have pet cockroaches, which makes you the first Unlikely Entomology author to openly admit to living with insects on purpose. Did the cockroaches influence the writing of On Shine Wings? Have they, or an interest in bugs in general, influenced your work in other ways, or is your professed love of invertebrates a stronger influence?

I’m afraid the cockroaches aren’t big on the idea of flying, and would likely find space rather horrible. They like warmth, apples and waking people up in the night by throwing their water bowls around.

My interest in invertebrates does find its way into a lot of stories. I’ve written about giant squid, scorpion aliens and sentient beetles. There isn’t an invertebrate I don’t like.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

I worked for a while as a conservation volunteer, which included some contract work for farms. One of the team’s jobs was putting up a fence for a small organic farm. They needed a fence to divide the cow field and the wood where the free-range chickens lived, because European Union rules stated there must be a fence.

To which we replied, “You know chickens can fly, right?”

This didn’t matter. The rules only stated there must be a fence of a certain height, not that it had to actually contain the chickens. So we put up the fence, and everyone was happy. The chickens got a new perching spot. The EU got its fence. As long as the politicians never meet a chicken, all will be well.

I’ve not yet written a story about chickens or fences.

We all have our favorite authors, some of whom everyone has heard of, and some of whom are relatively obscure. Who is one of the more obscure writers you love? What do you love about their work? Tell us which story or novel of theirs we should drop everything to read right now.

I like Emily Jiang’s work, and think she’ll be one to watch. Her short story “The Binding of Ming-tian” was the first I read, about footbinding. She also has a lot of poetry out.

We all start somewhere, and the learning curve from first publication is a steep one. What’s your first ever published work, and how do you feel about it now?

The first story someone paid to publish was “Carousel Princess”. I still like the piece, though it was an early lesson in how certain works are considered not-a-story, and get a harsh reaction based on that. I tend to hedge my bets now by listing such work under flash fiction/prose poetry, and letting the reader decide what they want to call it. People tend to judge it then by whether they like it, not whether it’s correctly labelled as a story or not.

What else are you working on have coming up you want people to know about?

I’ll have a story called “After the Rain” in Lackington’s next year. I’m also working on a cozy mystery novel with a fairy godmother sleuth, which will be out some time next year.

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