Writing on Assignment

Over the past few years, I’ve had the good fortune of appearing in 23 professional anthologies. Roughly a third of them were the result of an editor inviting me to submit a story and, as is common with anthologies, this typically means submitting a story on a specific theme, word count, and strict deadline. “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is…”

I usually accept the mission. I love the challenge posed by an assignment.

Last November, editor D. Avraham asked me if I’d be willing to write a sci-fi- story for an anthology he was putting together. The catch was that the story had to be set in, or inspired by, Mesopotamia. What a concept! My mind instantly filled with images of the Ishtar Gate, of the friendship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, of braided beards and ziggurats, and golden lions set against blue-glazed walls.

There was an immediate temptation to retell one of those ancient fables. The setting was so rich. Who wouldn’t want to play in such a sandbox? Yet as I considered the question, I realized there was an opportunity here. Sure, it’s fun to twist fairy tales and invert myths. Why not add something fresh to the mix, working with the cultural ingredients and setting to come up with a new recipe? Besides, the editor confessed he was already getting an influx of fantasy stories, so why not bring the science-fiction?

The natural, initial thought was to do ancient astronauts. Once upon a time, I had wanted to be a cryptozoologist and ufologist; as a kid, I’d pored over Time-Life books on the supernatural, read Budd Hopkins and Whitley Strieber and Erich Von Daniken, and seen documentaries insisting that aliens had built the pyramids, erected Stonehenge, and carved some Etch-a-Sketches onto the Nazca plains. I quickly dismissed the idea. It’s been done so much it’s a cliché of a cliché. We already had Chariots of the Gods and Stargate, after all.

What I ended up writing is an exploration of the Great Silence, Babylonia, extrasolar colonization, and Middle Eastern archaeology. My story “The Anzu Protocol” was selected to open the Holy C.O.W. Anthology: SF Stories from the Center of the World, available now.

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Likewise, my story “Steel Dragons of a Luminous Sky” is now featured in the just-published GRIMM, GRIT and GASOLINE anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish. A collection of dieselpunk tales, my contribution is set in 1930s China. The aesthetic of dieselpunk fascinates me, as do the historical eras that fuel it (WWI through WWII, generally speaking).

Even in a relatively unexplored subgenre, there are some tropes that have already cropped up, and so I sought to sidestep them. Swiveling the focus away from Europe, “Steel Dragons of a Luminous Sky” examines China under siege by Imperial Japan. It’s a fairy tale of islands in the sky, a daring expedition, mechanical monsters and diesel-powered wonders, harrowing escapes, pulp adventure, served up in a gritty stew. Publisher’s Weekly gave the anthology a glowing review, with a very nice shout-out to my story.

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