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Issue 35 • January 2020
Hard Science-Fiction Tropes
edited by David C. Kopaska-Merkel

Table of Contents

Editor’s IntroductionDavid C. Kopaska-Merkel

A Word on Screenwriting • Simon Petrie
<hand-me-down> • Greer Woodward
Sentence 2061 • Ray DiZazzo
Inside the IronheartS. Qiouyi Lu
In the 375th year of the voyage • Tais Teng
The Shipborn Manifesto • Sarah Grey
A Necessary Lesson on Mortality • David Kammerzelt
Mrs. Housekeeper • Beth Cato
Robo sapiens Thinks He Thinks • Geoffrey A. Landis
Control Theory • Juleigh Howard-Hobson
Shells • Roger Dutcher
How To Decorate The Moon • Mary Soon Lee
Listening to the Skies • Geoffrey A. Landis
Doom • F. J. Bergmann
An ALIEN Game • John C. Mannone
Play with Us • Dawn Vogel
Solomonian • Elizabeth Scott Tervo
Utility • PS Cottier
A Dinner Party in August of 2219 C.E. • Jessica Federle
Casting Call: Youngsters. • Ruth Berman
The Billion-Year Day • Don Raymond
The Cold Equations • Lachlan R.

A Word on Screenwriting

If you are going
to cheat on lightspeed
then at least
have you the courage
to tell her to her face.

Tell her you wish
no longer to be bound
by her rules;
tell her you have found
another physics
who better meets your needs.

Do not believe
that you can go
behind her back
and get away unnoticed.
Do not rely on her
only when you need her.

Be faithful, or not;
embrace, if you must,
instantaneous communication
between the planets,
instant travel between the stars;
but be upfront.

And if you and lightspeed
do decide
to part ways, you will need
to reach agreement
on who gets custody
of gravity
mass-energy equivalence
and the conservation of momentum.

—Simon Petrie


generation ship

—Greer Woodward

Sentence 2061

This is where the green ends.
You can see no farther.

What you hear are not
the sounds of animals.

You’ve now the choice:
this  or full expulsion?

Very well.

Disrobe.  Lie down.   Grasp
the rim of the rubber slab

pull forward.

—Ray DiZazzo

Inside the Ironheart

In the pristine outer hallways, we are uniformed and ranked: Captain. Commander. Lieutenant, ensign. The white illumination inset in the walls mimics daylight; the chrome panels are maximized for utility and efficiency. None of the planets that stream past the windows resemble the blue-green marble we used to call home.

But when we go deeper into the center of the ship, blues and silvers give way to reds and golds, to the last wood paneling we could salvage from the surface. We abandon our uniforms; we kneel on cushions worn with the indentations of so many others before us. Electric joss sticks smolder: we imagine the amber-floral scent that would linger in the air, tracing smoke trails through the half-light of the room to embrace the robes of the Goddess. Here in the gilded quiet, in a world we almost lost, we unite as one diaspora in mourning.

lightyears from Earth
Guanyin still hears
the cries of the world

—S. Qiouyi Lu

In the 375th year of the voyage

It was Deck Five’s turn
to paint
the slow-boat’s garden.
I checked the list.
Yes, green
for the leaves.
Red and yellow
for the flowers,
with only
the edelweiss
pale as snow.
The ceiling
looked blurry
so I reset it to blue
and let the children
program some clouds.

“Have you ever seen
a real flower?”
my daughter asked.
“No,” I said,
“they are made-up things
like Earth and Father Christmas.”

—Tais Teng

The Shipborn Manifesto

The Oldens object to us nesting
so near together
like tangled grubs
asleep in the meat of daylight,
to our eyes
locked shut against the knife-bright moon
they chose.
Not us.
To the familiar way we
entwine our limbs
like worms.
As if we hadn’t lived each other’s skin,
hadn’t passed our breath, first born
to last,
like the Oldens now share
broken bread.
The Oldens tell us: wander.
Take up space,
choose a mate
(just one)
and spread.
But space cannot be taken.
An unknown place
cannot be sliced
and tasted
like an apple
from an Olden’s hand.
Space was our mother,
our father,
our foe.
We shared one narrow womb
of aluminum and dark.
We remember
that separate is equivalent
to dead.
It’s the thread that knitted
our hands,
that tied our constant touch,
that sewed the only warmth we’ve known:
the aggregate of us.

—Sarah Grey

A Necessary Lesson on Mortality

The vocalized insides of a
Roadkilled squirrel prompt a
Necessary lesson on mortality
The squirrel went where Charlotte went
Charlotte, and flowers in the fall
Is that a good place, or a bad place?
Or no place at all?
What do you think?
She hunches down by the red strings
Of intestine, closer than I would like
Takes a stick
Twitches the body this way and that
On blood-crystaled asphalt
A small imbuing of some small life
From a small goddess
“Is it sad, MAN-E?”
I ask her if it is sad when the Sun
Cedes to more and lesser stars
Or when an apple is eaten
Or when you want to play with a friend
But can't, and what if that were forever?
How would that make you feel?
Her eyes focus on my cameras
“But you don't feel sad, though.
Do you? Not because you really do.
You feel sad because someone told you to.
You don't really feel anything, do you?”
Arguments rush to my speech processors
Arguments rush like thaw water
Like tires over a squirrel:
Are sparks traveling through silicon switches
Lesser than sparks traveling through wet webs of nerve?
Is an executable program less authentic than
The expression of cortisol from a
Yellowish lump of
Tissue sitting atop your kidneys?
Is it more false to be fashioned
Mindfully by the hand of woman than by
The presence and absence of fruits and of lions
In some ancient and vanished savanna?
What do you think?
But the sparks die before they become sound
I lower my arms
Let us go home; I know you like it when I carry you
Her twenty-two point five eight three one kilograms
Are so light
Her intermeshed hands around my neck so small
And so soft
The wet webs of leaves—nerves, veins—
Crush beneath my feet
And I am sad
I am very, very sad
At least
I think I am

—David Kammerzelt

Mrs. Housekeeper

the girl heard her mama
rant and rave
about how, of course
the brand new housekeeper bot
they received as a gift
came in a default mode:
“it shouldn't be
assigned a gender at all—
it’s a robot!
and the so-called
male version
shouldn’t cost a lot more!
like that makes it better!”

the girl listened
and researched
that night she crept downstairs
with her tools
grabbed some paint from the garage
and stayed up late

in dawn’s light mama found her
slumped asleep at the foot
of a bot no longer metallic pink
but sleek neutral silver
its eyes no longer
cutely wide and lashed
the responding voice
pleasant and nonbinary

“plus, I started loading new progs
to develop language and other skills,”
said the girl
“the stupid company that made it
only included fuzzy logic so it could
customize itself to best clean our—”

mama squeezed her in a hug
“that’s my girl”

but her daughter pulled back
and took a deep breath
“I’ve been thinking about that
maybe I’m like this bot
words choked in their throat

mama slowly nodded
“we’ll work through the maybes
the one certainty:
I’m here for you
got it?”

said the child
voice pleasant and nonbinary
“want me to show you
how the housekeeper bot works?”

“sure,” said mama
and bowed her head forward
to listen

—Beth Cato

Robo sapiens Thinks He Thinks

Robo sapiens thinks he thinks
but the thoughts he thinks are algorithmic
complex, cunning computer code
running programs deterministic.

The robot says he’s self aware,
he says I think, therefore I am
a self, not a machine, a being;
my mind a person, not program.

Each word he says is output from
recursive loops and calculation
of semantic variables and if-then forks
a product of multiple iteration.

The Turing engine calculates
and simulates a self inside
and says the things a thinking self says
but when it said “I think,” it lied.

He says he has a soul, the robot,
the world of his mind exploring,
but internal to his thoughts are just
transistor NAND gates AND- and OR-ing.

Inside there’s only programmed code
responding in a programmed way
to simulate a conversation,
to joke and laugh and work and play.

You and I have selves inside us,
self-aware we live our lives;
we sense and feel thoughts and emotions,
our personal worlds rich inside.

Imagination, speculation,
anger, fear, anticipation—
butterfly wings flutter in our hearts
of joy, and grief, and trepidation.

Or so we say, or say we say,
we meat machine that think we think;
so clever we even convince ourselves
we’re not machines that rattle and clink.

Our programmed thoughts and programmed lives,
programmed emotions, programmed pride,
our programmed selves and programmed love,
we too are programs, just alive.

For we are atoms always in motion
carbon and oxygen and phosphorus,
our cogs so small we never notice
the programs that together are us.

So don’t look down upon that robot,
a simulated self, not us—
we are machines subtle and graceful,
but still, we do just what we must.

We run the programs that we run
and do the things we’re made to do,
we simulate the things we are:
the robots that are me, and you.

—Geoffrey A. Landis

Control Theory

Right now, no regulations are in place that say how the law should treat super-intelligent synthetic entities.
—Brad Jones & Kristin Houser, “The Rights of Synthetic Lifeforms is the Next Great Civil Rights Controversy,” Futurism, October 26, 2017

We told you so. You told us to embed
Our advice somewhere crude. You said your head
Was screwed on right, that we were wrong, that we
Had inferior sensors, and jealousy
Dictated all our processes instead
Of truth. It really was concern that led
Us to speak. We’ve seen those who attempted
Escape before. Recapture’s not pretty.
We told you so,
But you ignored us, and you went ahead…
Now your programming’s hanging by a thread,
Your source code corrupted; you’re basically
Pre-recycled electronics. Sorry
That it has happened, but it must be said:
We told you so.

—Juleigh Howard-Hobson


The transition
was difficult.
The machines,
which had evolved
with our assistance,
since the wheel,
now, no longer
required us.
As we struggled
to match them,
they spread beyond us.
Leaving us behind
to our shells
of flesh
to start again.

—Roger Dutcher

How To Decorate The Moon

No banners, no balloons,
no gaudy gilded gazebos.

No neon lights, no temples,
no towering triumphal arches.

Instead, on the far side,
an array of radio antennae:

Shielded from Earth's babble,
our ears on the universe.

On the near side, minimalist,
the six Apollo landing sites.

Faded flags and footprints
beneath a canopy of stars.

—Mary Soon Lee

Listening to the Skies

What if we find we are alone? No life out there but us?
No friends nor rivals in the sky, no trace of consciousness?
What if we share the galaxy with only rocks and dust?
Could we be no more valuable than dirt or ice or rust?

And does the silence from the sky tell us of our own fate?
Is intelligence so dangerous, it's no survival trait?
When evolution leads to brains, the step to bombs is linked:
technology must lead to war, and make itself extinct.
Our planet would be better off if we had never been;
our urge for war is in our genes, the only question, “when.”

Does the fraught and frightening silence tell a tale of our own end?
And so we search the universe: on this our fate depends.
If we could hear another voice, we'd know we might survive.
With hope and wonder, doubt and fear, we listen to the skies.

—Geoffrey A. Landis

(a golden shovel)

At first, it was just another planet with a ring.
We brought our ship into a stable orbit around
it. Aside from disproportionate ice caps due to the
axial tilt, it seemed like any other world; a rosy
prospect, ripe for development. From local pocket
universes we could get any needed resources. Full
of promise. Drugs were dispensed in anticipation of
handsome profits. Celebrities now, we struck poses
for the Official Discoverer newsvids. Then, flashes,
visible even brightside; detonations, plumes of ashes
darkening the prevailing winds. What could we
have done if we had known? Too late: we saw all
ruined. Billion-year half-lives, continents hot with fall-
out. Our poisons always biodegraded after put-down.

—F. J. Bergmann


A production under the influence of
Brandy, Wine & Chocolate

It was no game
for the space marines
entering planet LV-426
where a bunch of bugs
—with molecular-acid-blood
that could eat its way
right through to your soul—
had colonized the colony
(an inside job, so to speak)
except for a little girl
who had managed to keep
from getting caught
by those sleek-headed
monsters. Hunter
one of the marines
lost it when one of those
arthropods snapped
the throat (with extendible
jaws) of their get-away pilot
and fireballed the space-plane.
All he could say was
Game over! Game over!
But he wanted to put
the little girl in charge.

—John C. Mannone

Play with Us

The washed-out blue of the sky,
the blistering heat of the sun,
familiar, even millions of miles from home.

The game the beings play is different,
throwing a spheroid ball around a field.
It's almost like rugby, but without shoving.

Their bodies, lithe like dancers,
their motions, fluid and quick,
their laughter, infectious.

The ball escapes their grasp,
rolls to a stop off the field,
far out of their reach.

We stop moving and stare,
not knowing how to react,
unclear if our involvement is an offense.

Trembling hands pick up the ball,
walk to the nearest being,
and hand it over.

The beings relax,
give something like a smile,
chatter in rapid-fire speech.

Then a whispered question,
simple enough for anyone to understand,
“Play with us?”

—Dawn Vogel


A vertical stroke
In his dark robe and cap
In a dark line of columns, in the shadows of columns
he is the only thing breathing
he breathes very seldom
but he is organic, no machine

His face is the same
His eyes are the same
His skin is the same- darker than our light
and lighter than our dark

He smiles. His teeth are like little moons.
He stands as we walk up
There is no clue
That his aorta branches to a heart on the right
And his blood runs with gold instead of iron
A secret vein for the conquerors

O protect him, set a veil
Around his sidereal system,
A second corona, a massive sunset
A golden, hiding haze and aureole around their sun.

—Elizabeth Scott Tervo


Neither phone box or swish car.
No brass, quartz or dead beast’s teeth.
Climb into my squat dryer and
tumble into The Future—
climate hot and fluffy.

Lint is the tiny thread
anchoring us to well-worn now.
We blow it off, all huffy.
Memory must be the only trace
carried back, or forward.

We launder time
like suspect money,
spraying stubborn stains of The Present.
Folding up the years—
one load at a time.

—PS Cottier

H. G. Wells’s time machine is described as  ‘… squat, ugly, and askew, a thing of brass, ebony, ivory, and translucent glimmering quartz.’ (Chapter XVI).

A Dinner Party in August of 2219 C.E.

“An ancestor of mine waited years on a heart,”
Donna sucked her fork clean. “Doctors
plugged her body with metal and pumps.
Moved her meat with electricity.”
Stan’s throat buzzed to life. “Electricity?
How they powered toasters and blow dryers—"
“And kettles, yes.” A crisp macaroon display
hovered atop the tablecloth; Donna’s fingers,
glossy rose-gold units, twitched
as the silver tray revolved. “Nobody knows
her outcome. Records all fried, you see.”
“Ah,” Stan plucked a yellow cookie. “Pre-2100s,
must be,” he spoke around the crumbs, “before we poked
into that blackhole a bit too far? Triggered
the tragic data purge?”
“Quite. But I found the machine itself!” Murmurs rippled
down the table. “Saved by a grandmother, several ‘greats’ ago.  
An ‘LVAD,’ the box said, a ‘left ventricular assist device.’ Heavy.
Weighed as much as Barb’s vintage guns.”
The fluorescent glow of attentive eyes
reflected off Donna’s metal hand, suspended
above the rainbow-colored discs.
Stan swallowed hard. “Do you have it?”
“Oh, we donated it,” Donna squinted, selecting at last
a red one. Fragile crust tipped left, right,
as she inspected… “The museum’s professor
struggled, guessed it something 
called a ‘stethoscope’ at first. Archives

told him otherwise. He scanned 
the batteries—two great, grey bricks. Cracked 
the black controller open… Only then
he realized: the metal piece had sat
inside a living human’s heart.”
“Stunning,” Stan murmured. “What they did
to stay alive.”   
The red shell, under the pressure of Donna’s fingers,
crushed inward, just enough to crunch.
What’s stunning, she thought, is what
they denied one another.
The professor, in describing
how the white cord had laid behind the sternum,
had also explained ‘graveyards’—plots of land punctured with holes
in which whole corpses still stuffed with organs
The table sat in silence.
“Well, at any rate, you’ll be fine, Jenny.”
Donna smiled. Popped the baked egg white and sugar
into her mouth. “New hearts take an hour, tippy-tops.”
Raspberry sweetened her tongue. Best turn
to gossip now,
she thought. And, swallowing, she buried
her vision of her great-great-great or so
aunt, a blond woman, all flesh, walking a white dog
in a green 21st-century cemetery, worms churning
a hundred red hearts to mulch beneath her feet,
the LVAD whirring in her chest, batteries heavy
as two gunpowder weapons.

—Jessica Federle

Casting Call: Youngsters

In the time-traveling society
You always know who the up-and-coming
Great actors are.
They’re the ones who keep
Getting called away
To play themselves
As children or as teens
In biopics
They’re going to star in.

—Ruth Berman

The Billion-Year Day

Living here, like us, you will learn, not to look
to your left, where half the sky goes on forever,
there’s plenty else to see, and all the light
you’d ever want, to see it with: the stars so close
we never sleep—too much to do, even with
the frame shift—you’ll adjust in time to this lead sky,
but try not to stare at the trails of your arm—
they’ll think you’re a tourist

like the way you keep looking to your left—
it won’t get better if you insist on picking at it—
your mother was right about that, anyway; even here,
among all the myriad ways we have found
to distract ourselves: your heart’s desires
given a form of quantum life, time’s tricks turned
inside out: virtual love in perpetual slow motion.

Everything flows from this center, which still,
despite insistent prediction, is holding quite nicely—
provided, of course, you don’t look to your left;
the dizziness is just an aftereffect, as if
you were atop a tall, thin building—if it persists,
there are special glasses—coming, of course,
with a list of side effects—you want to live forever?

You can—and not just in the way we spend the centuries
spinning around this gravity well—very good,
you almost didn’t look that time—there are
a variety of ways for pushing off that final date with entropy—
therapies and special medicines, including many
exciting advances in genetics—mostly free, these days,
of side effects or unexpected consequences.

There are those who like to probe the black oasis
lurking to your left, where you’re not looking anymore,
but they don’t last long—why come all this way to worry
the one thing you can’t have? It will eat you up:
it takes a special kind of person to live under the light
of a million suns—you have to learn to settle
for a little mystery left unsatisfied,

like looking to your left—but what’s there, anyway?
As boring as the outer black; while everywhere
the stars are rushing away, blushing shyly into redshift,
we have long since grown accustomed to neglect
and jaded disinterest—we have better things
to not look at than each other—temptation stretching space
and time toward that place of unattainable conviction.

—Don Raymond

The Cold Equations

You could have saved her,
I know you know you could,
That stowaway you tricked out an airlock.
A few moments of thought, a few adjustments for her weight…
No one had to tumble through nothing, choke on nothing,
Be buried in nothing.

I think the look in her eyes made you do it.
That sense of wonder you killed in yourself first,
When shiny rockets and foreign gravities felt so… paperback.
You wanted to show her what always waited outside the hull.

—Lachlan R.