E&M and Electromagicians

four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell
Four telephone patent diagrams by Alexander Graham Bell, who is absent from “The Homunculi’s Guide.” Images from U.S. Patent Office via Google Patents.

A couple of weeks in, it still boggles me to think that “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” is out there in the world.

This is probably the most “me” story I have ever written. Not so much “write what you know” as “write what you obsess about.” One such obsession is electricity and magnetism–the physics discipline–which is often abbreviated as E&M. This discipline is heavy on the math, but the applications of the math are immediate and powerful. If you can solve this equation, then you can explain why electricity does that thing but not the other thing. Therefore, theoretically speaking, if you can set up your equations correctly, then you can tell electricity what to do, and when, and how.

To me, those equations have always felt pretty close to casting a magic spell: you can use a simple thought, a trick of your brain, to shape the world around you.

In real life, you have to actually put together your theoretical machine. But what if there was a kind of magic where having a sufficiently deep understanding of the theory was enough to make the theoretical become real?

That thought is where the magic system in “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts” started. Of course, it ended up going significantly beyond “magical physics,” but I hope that it retains some grounding in those concepts.

Although the story is fictitious, I invoked a number of real-life scientists, because I am not nearly creative enough to make up laws of physics that are weirder than the ones that already exist in our universe. And also because I admire the immense amount of work that went into their discoveries, which continue to shape our existence.

So if you will indulge me, I’d like to talk a little about the scientists that I referenced in the story, who helped describe the magic physics system that we actually live in. And because I cannot resist the urge, I’m also throwing in my headcanon about what they did in the Homunculi ’verse.

In order of birth year:

Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777–1855) was an incredibly influential mathematician. At 21, he published a landmark book on number theory. And he didn’t stop there. His name is attached to many, many, many concepts. These come to mind first: the Gaussian (aka “normal”) distribution in statistics, the Gaussian blur in your image processing program of choice, and not one but two of the equations in Maxwell’s Equations. The list could go on for quite a while.

While most of his work was of the theoretical variety, he applied his mathematical abilities to fields like astronomy, geography, and of course physics. In 1833, Gauss collaborated on building an early version of a telegraph. Today there is a replica of this machine at the University of Göttingen in Germany.

Gauss was a bit of a jerk, though: according to a grandson, Gauss “did not want any of his sons to attempt mathematics for he said he did not think any of them would surpass him and he did not want the name lowered” … well, he certainly lowered himself in my estimation with that sentiment.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Gauss made his name entirely in the scientific realm. But his children became well-known magicians in their own right. In particular, his daughter Therese became a famous electromagician.

Michael Faraday (1791–1867): a bookbinder’s apprentice who taught himself physics from the books that he bound, he went on to experimentally discover many fundamental principles of electromagnetism.

No slouch in the innovation department, Faraday invented useful things like the Faraday Cage, which is that metal mesh covering microwave doors. This mesh, poetically speaking, traps the electromagnetic dance that goes on inside a microwave whereby a frozen burrito gets nuked. As a result, said electromagnetic dance does not radiate outside and nuke your face.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Faraday invented the Faraday Ward, which traps electric spirits inside any mathematically defined closed surface. He also developed and formulated theories on how to store magical forces. The Farad, a unit named in his honor, describes the ability of various mediums–aether, quartz, bottle gourds and so on–to store magical energy, be they electrical or otherwise. Faraday was the first to study this quality experimentally. For this achievement, Faraday is venerated by all magicians.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879): best known for the eponymous Maxwell’s Equations. These are four foundational mathematical equations that showed that electricity, magnetism, and light are all different manifestations of the same thing: electromagnetism.

That may sound bland but it has very far-ranging implications. Maxwell’s Equations can describe (the electromagnetic component of) how an MRI images your brain, how power plants generate electricity, and how signals travel down coaxial cables to bring you this blog post.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Maxwell was an early electromagician who tried … and failed spectacularly to show that all types of magic are related to a fundamental magical force. However, in the process, he did come up with his three Maxwell’s Electromagical Equations, which state and formulate the following:

  • Gauss’s Law of Radiative Souls: Human souls produce electromagical fields. The electromagical flux across a closed surface is proportional to the amount of soul enclosed.
  • Faraday’s Law of Flux: Souls that fluctuate in time produce electromagical fields.
  • Ampère’s Law of Currents: Non-magical electromagnetic phenomena, when applied to souls, produce electromagical fields.

Note that Maxwell’s four Equations of electromagnetism also exist in the Homunculi ’verse. Any competent electromagician must master both sets.

Also note that the Gauss referenced here is Therese.

Maxwell also posited that spirits can be communicated with by means of radio waves. He was correct, though he did not live to find out. Nor did he leave any homunculi behind.

Tivadar Puskás (1844–1893): a Hungarian inventor who, among other things, came up with the first telephone exchange. An exchange is basically that switchboard you see in retro photographs, where you have rows and rows of operators (usually women) manually connecting phone calls. Today, these functions are carried out automatically by machines.

To be honest I wish I knew more about him. Wikipedia’s article certainly makes it look like he lived a very interesting life.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Puskás is revered as the closest thing that the homunculi have to a god. The telephone exchange opened the door to the dark world inside the wires, and Puskás gave that door a very hard kick.

Max Planck (1858–1947) is famous for being one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. While working for commercial electricity utility companies, Planck tried to calculate the energy emitted by light bulbs. That turned out to be a much more complex problem than one might imagine. Long story short, the only way Planck could make the math work was to propose that light itself existed in little “packets” of energy–indivisible units, somewhat like atoms. He was right, and today we call these packets photons. He received a Nobel Prize for this work.

The “Planck second” referenced in my story is the amount of time that it takes light to travel a certain distance (derived from a handful of other constants). It is an incredibly small amount of time–5.39 × 10 −44 s. In fact, it is, in a sense, the smallest unit of time. Below that amount of time, the concept of time itself has no meaning due to quantum mechanics.

In the framework of the Big Bang theory, by the way, it took one Planck second to go from the beginning of … everything … to the beginning of the universe as we know. We may never know what that first Planck second was like.

In the Homunculi ’verse, Planck was the first to take a stab at calculating the energy and dimensionality of the human soul. While he had no notion of the homunculi, Planck did theorize that there existed a quantum unit of the smallest amount of energy possible in a human soul. He was correct.

Kikyou Tachibana did not exist in our world, but if you will indulge me one last time …

In the Homunculi ’verse, Tachibana (1924-?) was a very successful developer of integrated circuit technologies. After selling all three of her companies, Tachibana retired early and became interested in electromagic. She joined an institution for magical studies, where she made a number of contributions to the practice before her mysterious disappearance at the age of 74* in 1998. She is, of course, best known for coining the name “homunculi” to describe telecommunications ghosts.

*Tachibana was, although no one ever knew it, the first person to figure out how to join the homunculi. Which she promptly did, out of sheer curiosity, but of course she could not return. Her homunculi have long forgotten who they used to be.

If you actually read all this way, thank you, and I hoped that was somewhat entertaining and/or educational. Oh, and may the electric gods bless you and your internet connection today.

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Friday Fictions: “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge

This week’s Friday Fiction is the terrifying and beautiful “And Her Eyes Sewn Shut with Unicorn Hair” By Rosamund Hodge, published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

You know the Rilke quote, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror”? This. This is what he was talking about.

So let’s jump into the plot. Zéphine is the crown princess of Retrouvailles, a nation guarded by an army of magical unicorns who have a contract with the queen, the Reine-Licorne. Zéphine, whose title is Demoiselle la Plus Pure, must perform the unicorn dance on her nineteenth birthday, when she begins to look for a suitor. And at the unicorn dance, she presents a suitor to the army of unicorns. If they like him, the two can wed and one day Zéphine will become the new Reine-Licorne. If they don’t approve … they run the man through on their horns. Repeat every full moon.

That’s a pretty good taste of the aesthetics of this story. And it only escalates from there, and I loved every bloody minute of it.

I love stories that takes the beautiful and make it terrifying. In fact, l generally love stories with a little bite to them. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy the occasional happy ending where everyone wins, but my favorite stories all have some sort of sacrifice. Some sort of unfathomable choice being made. I’m sure this speaks volumes about myself and my worldview.

(Or, let’s bring in guest lecturer Edward Elric: “A lesson without pain is meaningless. For you cannot gain anything without sacrificing something else in return, but once you have overcome it and made it your own, you will gain an irreplaceable fullmetal heart.”)

And this is true of the story. Zéphine loses everything she loves over the course of the story, but she does gain something too: self-determination. In the beginning of the story, she’s hating herself for being too weak to commit suicide. By the end of the story, she’s surveying the wreckage of her life and kingdom and helping rebuild both. And she is willing to fight for herself. Bleed for her people. And the others around her learn from her lesson as well, and take their own steps. She has a hard-won, clear-eyed understanding of her world and how to work within it. She doesn’t hide from the beautiful terror; she embraces it and makes it her own.

Long live Zéphine, la Reine-Licorne.

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The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts

I’m so happy to say that my story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts”, is out today in both audio and text form at Escape Pod!

What if every time someone sends a text or an email or even a fax, a little bit of their soul goes off with the message?

And what if that someone dies, and you desperately want to bring them back to life, no matter what the cost?

Then you better get cracking on those physics textbooks, because in this story, the laws of electrons are the laws of magic. And electrons are entangled with souls …

This story contains: life, death, love, sacrifice, linear algebra, electricity & magnetism, particle physics, and a very small smattering of quantum mechanics. You know, all the usual Kara obsessions.

Of note, the audio is narrated by the amazing Katherine Inskip, whom I was lucky enough to meet at Worldcon in Dublin. If she had delivered my college physics lectures, I might have gone to more of them.

As the Homunculi say: Thank you for reading. Or listening!

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Story Sale Announcement

Photograph by Bucketsofsnow. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

I am super happy and mildly in disbelief to announce that I’ve sold a short story, “The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts,” to Escape Pod. This is my first ever sale to a SFWA professional market, so, I’m kind of quietly imploding. The story features souls lurking in telephone lines and magical electromagnetism*, and will hopefully appear sometime in fall 2019.

*My research for this story consisted of pulling out my college E&M and quantum textbooks, which I somehow still have. It’s good to know that the very expensive education I received finally went to an appropriate use.

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Friday Favorites – Selections from Clarkesworld Issue #151

The original internal purpose of Friday Favorites was, s2g, to get me to read more short fiction. So let’s get back to it! This week I read issue 151 of Clarkesworld (note to self: update link when it is taken off front page), which had lots of good stuff. Here are my two favorites:

“Skyscrapers in the Sand” by Y.M. Pang. Like the song*, “Skyscrapers in the Sand,” at the fulcrum of this story, it’s a short, pretty, wistful, deceptively light-touch tale. In a post-climate-apocalypse future, an old woman named Xuming buries a time capsule in the desert that used to be Shanghai**. The capsule is the opposite of the Golden Record sent out into space; it plays one song for humans who will one day resurface to their own planet.

I love cities and I love memories and I love the people caught in the web of those things. I’m thinking again about Borges and his Book of Sand and its infinities. Love is like that, isn’t it, fractal like coastlines–one unstoppable force against another, along with the erosion it brings. Ask Xuming, if she ever makes it out of the desert.

*Also, I really want the song to exist! It comes as no surprise to me that Pang is also a poet.

**I especially love the setting of this story not only because we don’t get to see enough mentions of Chinese cities in Anglophone SFF, but because Shanghai became a desert, which is a great word joke. For the non-Mandarin-speakers, Shanghai translates to something like “on the sea” or as I prefer, “embark upon the sea,” but now that the port city is buried under sand, its name is an artifact, a fossil in the desert.

Social Darwinism by Priya Chand (NSFW). I’m not sure how to best describe or summarize this story, but let me first say that it is extremely Sign Of Our Times, even though it is set in a far flung future, the kind where you can pop a pill and then tentacles will temporarily replace your hair.

Ishtar Kim is a synthcode cam girl, servicing clients with her extremely changeable body (see above re: tentacles). But it’s not just her body. Her mind is modified too: her mother gave her the “need-attention mod” when she was a child. As a result, Ishtar literally, sexually, gets off on attention, which drives every second of her life and her work. Yes, internet, Chand wrote a story taking the concept of attention whoring seriously.

When I say Sign Of Our Times I mean that such a story couldn’t have been written pre-Mark Zuckerberg, even though the human need for attention has always existed and there have always been people whose need was a few standard deviations from the norm, which probably goes a long way toward explaining some of the more flamboyant mystics and such in ancient times. It’s just easier to recognize now and we’ve even put a name on your success rate, “analytics.” And you know, I’m calling myself out, too. I’m typing this in between refreshing my Instagram and my Twitter and of course I’m going to be checking how many people read this blog post. Some days you watch the cam; some days the cam watches you.

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Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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New Old Translation: “The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

First, credit where it is due: I learned about San Mao (三毛) from Morporkia, who is about 100x as well-read as I will ever be.

San Mao (1943-1991) was the pen name of a famous and popular Taiwanese author who wrote many clever and sparkling and quite humorous short stories. They’re lighthearted pieces shot through with witty observations and the occasional wry, subtle insult. Naturally, I gravitated toward her.

San Mao, who also went by the English name Echo, moved from Taiwan to Madrid for college and there met her eventual husband, Jose. They moved all over the world to places such as the Western Sahara and the Canary Islands, where Jose drowned in a diving accident in 1979.

After that, San Mao returned to Taiwan. She continued writing and became friends with many other Taiwanese writers including Chiung Yao (瓊瑤/琼瑶). I’ve read some of San Mao’s later works, and the vivid grief in there brought me to tears. She took her own life at 47.

Before Jose’s death, San Mao wrote about their life together in the Western Sahara in a collection called Stories of the Sahara 《撒哈拉的故事》which at the time had not been translated (but there is a volume coming out in November 2019).

So in 2011, I translated one of the stories, with assistance and editing from Morporkia. Then I forgot all about it, until I saw the delightful news on Twitter today (March 26, 2019) that San Mao was being honored by a Google Doodle.

She deserves wider recognition than I feel she has in the English-reading sphere, and so, I am posting my translation, which contains San Mao’s original text as well:

“The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

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Friday Favorites: “Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle

This week’s Friday Favorite (yes, I’m back!) is a short (1600-ish words) story that stabbed me through the heart when I first read it year ago: Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

Like everyone, I have my Things, my Tropes, my Narrative Kinks, my Stabs In The Heart. One of the topics nearest and dearest to my soul is asking the question: what are memories worth? What do they matter? And what is worth more: the thing itself or your memories, your feelings, your sentiments, about the thing?

There is, of course, no definitive answer to that question, and Hokkaido Green doesn’t pretend to give you one. It just lays out the story for you, like a photograph that you come back to over and over again.

The language is spare and quiet and a little sad, like Hitoshi, the worn-down salaryman at the center of the story. He’s lost his family. All he has of them are photos and memories. His father, who ran a restaurant, had been hoping to pass a certain recipe on to Hitoshi before he died.

After his brother dies at the start of the story, Hitoshi takes a trip to Hokkaido, a place that his father had spoken of. There, he gets a chance to make a trade … and has to gather and sift and weigh and measure one set of memories against another, with quietly devastating consequences.

In the end, I’m not really sure that I am able to explain exactly why this story makes me smile and cry and then stare off into the distance, thinking about what memories weigh inside my heart. But that is okay, because the story is all about the ineffable:

“Colors are like dreams,” his father replied. “If you try and reproduce them, you’ll only be disappointed.”

Fortunately, in this case, we are able to dream the same dream—read the same story—and find out for ourselves, should you wish to do so.

Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

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Friday Favorites: “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang

Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang, published in Gignotosaurus.

Plot: Isabel Chang is a kitchen witch who runs a Pâtisserie in Montreal. One day, she is asked to help Elias, a young man with an immortality curse of Chinese origin, break his curse.

“Hungry Demigods” is a delightful story about family and food. (Against every stereotype, I don’t seek to read about these topics. Ever. A good friend linked me the story. Thanks, Tari!) But what was more, I deeply resonated with the Chinese magic elements and how they were used in this story–I don’t want to spoil them for you, because coming upon those elements so unexpectedly left me shrieking a little with joy! I feel it is the lit equivalent of amazing fusion cuisine (if you will), using and updating some of my very favorite concepts from Chinese folklore/mythology.

This story … I felt a bit like Elias biting into one of Isabel’s buns: “I’d forgotten how food could taste, after you haven’t eaten in ages. It’s like color returning to the world.”

Don’t get me wrong–I fully understand that not everything is for everyone. But when I do manage to stumble upon a story for me … there’s nothing like it.

You may notice I haven’t recced a whole lot of Chinese/East Asian diaspora stories. That’s because when I click on a story and realize that it’s about my ethnicity/culture, sometimes I will back-button. Even if the author’s name suggests they are writing from their lived experience as a part of said ethnicity/culture. Sometimes I run away ever faster—because 1) at least if someone is writing from a place of ignorance, it’s easier to shrug off if I don’t like it. 2) I feel like a traitor if I end up disliking something by a fellow Chinese/East Asian diaspora writer … and I have felt like a traitor many times. I know that’s irrational, but you try reasoning with feelings. Then one day I realized that my fear came from “the danger of a single story” (TED talk by Novelist Chimamanda Adichie). I had personally been burned by the prevalence of certain pieces of Chinese-American literature in the popular consciousness that I felt did not speak to my experience, but that due to the single-story effect, became what others thought of me*. Of course that was and is not the fault of the author or the literature, it’s the fault of the publishing environment. But it still hurt. I’m not going to apologize for protecting myself. But I do find that lately, I am able to explore more. To see what my fellow people are doing. Even to dip my own toe into telling my stories, which I had not really felt like doing in the past. That’s a story for another post. In any case, I’ve been grateful for the slow yet steady increase in Chinese/East Asian diaspora writers being published, along with stories about their cultures (not that they have to be, obviously, I’d be a hypocrite if I said so).

As usual, a review says more about the reader than the story! Which you should read. “Hungry Demigods” by Andrea Tang!

* Chinese stories from China, translated into English, do not meet my mental barriers in this regard. The original intended audience is different, so it doesn’t trip my wires.

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Friday Favorites: “The Lady Astronaut of Mars” by Mary Robinette Kowal

Today’s Friday Favorite is one that probably everyone has read: The Lady Astronaut of Mars, by Mary Robinette Kowal. I’m way late to reading this, I know. But maybe someone else is too …

The threads of love and fragility and hope and exploration are all masterfully interwoven in this story. I disbelieve most love stories in SFF, and I’m guilty of it too–it’s easy to skimp on that when I just want to get to the time travel or whatever. Not so here. The love is deep and rich and real and kicked me in the feels with astronaut boots.

On top of that, I made my own connection with this story is as a former academic married to an academic. There was a time before I realized how much traveling is involved in the jobs that we both chose, and what sacrifices you have to make when you chase your career and/or tenure across the country and sometimes the world. And even after you have it, your career still depends on your willingness to give talks and attend conferences and on and on and on. It takes a toll, especially if you have any special circumstances. I should know—one of our joint decisions resulted in some rough months of solo parenting a tiny child. It’s not the same, but I know. I know what it’s like to make those choices. (We got a happy ending though! Those months passed and we are now happily together, both working jobs that we love.)

This story brought it home to me, thread for thread, exactly how it feels to want the best for someone while knowing exactly what you are bringing upon yourself. Anticipating what lies ahead and still saying yes, dear, we need to do what is best for you.

Anyway. Read The Lady Astronaut of Mars! And if you don’t want to cry, may I suggest read it in space like an astronaut. Because there is no crying in space.

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