Q&A with Frank Wu

Frank Wu is back in our pages with—in his words—another “invertebrate story.” Find “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed” on sale on newsstands now, but in the meantime get to know Frank below!


Analog Editors: What is the story behind this story?

Frank Wu: Back when I was a kid in the 1970s, the world was full of magic and mystery. Fresh off his stint as Spock, Leonard Nimoy was weekly leading us through theory and conjecture about the weird and wonderful . . . Was Bigfoot real? Was Vlad the Impaler the inspiration for Dracula? Were aliens haunting the Bermuda Triangle? Were the Nazca Lines built to signal ancient astronauts?

Everyone was talking about these things all the time. There was even a TV special called “The World You Never See.” That title summed it up perfectly. Yes, please! I want to see the worlds we never see!

Alas. Nowadays, most “reasonable” people laugh at UFO conventions or at flat-Earthers. Or at Giorgio A. Tsoukalos—with his wild eyes and giant hair—proclaiming, “I’m not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens.” No. Bigfoot doesn’t exist (though apparently fetishists wish he did), and neither do (or did) aliens or medieval vampires or shark gods. No no no.

But . . . but . . . but . . . maybe that’s true. On Earth. What about other planets? Can’t I be like RFK and dream of things that never were and say, why not? Maybe on some other planet, the theories of ancient weirdness are actually true! Yes yes yes!

 

AE: How did you decide what planet to place the story on?

FW: I was at Readercon 2016, when I ran into my pal and fellow Analog mafioso Allen Steele. Allen was assembling a proposal for a book called “The New Universe.” He was annoyed at people just making up planets, wherein the astrophysics or ecology didn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t it be cool to have stories set on real planets, like these marvelous ones recently discovered? And maybe accompany each story with a short science article about that planet?

And so I called dibs on Kepler-69c. It was the first planet ever discovered in the habitable zone of a star like our Sun. At first people thought and hoped it might be a super-Earth, perhaps a water world. Later it was determined to be too close to its star and more likely a super-Venus.

Unfortunately, Allen’s anthology never got sold. But Allen’s loss is Analog’s gain! And that, my friends, is why the new Analog includes my story “Until We Are Utterly Destroyed” about little centipede-like creatures called Skolopendrans on a super-Venus exploring the ancient mysteries of the universe.

 

AE: What made you think of submitting it to Analog?

FW: Analog had taken my first two professionally published stories. The ant story (“Season of the Ants in a Timeless Land,” Nov. 2015) and the octopus story (the AnLab-winning “In the Absence of Instructions to the Contrary,” Nov. 2016). The centipede story makes a nice triumvirate of invertebrate Analog stories.

Also, Analog is by far my favorite science fiction magazine. So many of my favorite stories first appeared in it or its predecessor, Astounding. H.P. Lovecraft’s best story, “The Shadow Out of Time.” Haldeman’s “Forever War.” “Foundation.” “Ender’s Game.” “Dune.” I wanted to be part of this long tradition!

Analog is also special to me, because its editors and readers really respect science. In my story there’s a plot point that hinges on a hexose (a sugar of six carbons) versus a pentose (a sugar of five carbons), and our wonderful editor and science-hungry readers (I hope) won’t bat an eye. Or I can freely throw out science-y terms like “genotoxin” or “proteotoxin” or “neurotoxin.” No issue there. Or even, my favorite: “premature envenomation.” Not every editor would look kindly on a phrase like “premature envenomation.” But Analog? No problem with “premature envenomation” there!

 

AE: So you obviously like science. Or at least, as you say, science-y words. Do you have a science background? What do you think of how scientists and science are depicted in science fiction?

FW: I am the proud owner of a Ph.D. in bacterial genetics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

I think Analog in particular does a good job of describing not just how scientists act, but how they think. The series of questions we ask to stumble toward a particular answer.

One aspect of science, though, is rarely captured—and I leave this as a challenge to my writer friends.

Often the answers we get are dictated by the technical limitations of our experiments, and we don’t know it. For example: When I was in grad school, we were studying a protein called Pi, which was required for replication of a plasmid (a ring of DNA) in E. coli. Pi protein bound to seven consecutive binding sites on the DNA. The question: What was the manner of binding? Was binding non-cooperative, meaning that you would see the protein binding to 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 sites? Or was binding cooperative, e.g., all-or-nothing, so you’d see binding to either 0 or all 7 sites with nothing in between? Well, the answer is it depends on how you do the experiment. Specifically the buffer. If you use Tris borate buffer, the protein binds non-cooperatively. But if you use Tris acetate, it binds cooperatively. What’s going on?

(If you’re interested, you can read more at: Urh et al., 1995, Gene 164: 1-7.)

Here’s another example. Herceptin is an antibody that binds to a receptor on breast cancer cells, killing the cells, saving lives and making Genentech billions of dollars. A competitor, Cetus (which later became part of Novartis) made the same discovery—almost. The key difference? In the lab, the antibody only kills cancer cells grown on soft agar. And not on hard agar. Cetus missed out on a multi-billion dollar discovery because they used the wrong growth medium.

So an experiment performed one way gives you one answer, and another experiment done slightly differently gives you the opposite answer! So which answer is right?

A friend in grad school loved the quotation from Robert Frost: “We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

My challenge to my writer friends is to write something that captures this inherent uncertainty of science!

 

AE: Now that you’ve challenged your fellow writers, we have to ask: Do you set up challenges for yourself and your own writing?

FW: One of my biggest influences as a writer is AE Van Vogt. Like me, he made his professional debut in Analog/Astounding. And the same big ideas interest both of us—time gulfs, uplift, transcendence, the rise and fall of species.

One thing Van Vogt did was write from the alien’s perspective. Possibly in answer to Astounding editor John W. Campbell saying: “Write me a creature that thinks as well as a man or better than a man, but not like a man.” This story is my response to that challenge.

Another thing that Van Vogt did was achieve a “sense of wonder” in his work. And he used slingshot endings a lot, where the reader’s mind trips over a doorsill that wasn’t noticed, into a room that isn’t there.

I challenged myself to write endings like his. Thus, the ending of my ant story is modeled after Van Vogt’s “The Weapon Makers”. Both conclude with a single critical word not previously mentioned in the story. And the last sentence in Van Vogt’s “The Weapon Shops of Isher” was purposefully echoed in the preantepenultimate (fourth to last) sentence in my octopus story.

In many of Van Vogt’s stories (and those of H.P. Lovecraft), all the pieces only really come together in the last sentence. And that’s what I wanted to do with the centipede story. I leave it up to the gentle reader to judge whether or not I’ve succeeded.

There are some other challenges I’ve thrown out for myself (or any one else who writes).

While Analog doesn’t record audio readings, some Analog stories are later recorded in places like the Escape Pod podcast. Clarkesworld does recordings of its stories, which are narrated by Kate Baker. Who does not pre-read them.

The challenge? Write a story that—because of peculiarities of formatting, typography, etc., cannot be read aloud. At least not easily. I recall a story about a famous pianist who boasted he could play anything just by sight-reading. His buddy said, Oh yeah? Betcha I can write something you can’t sight-read. So his buddy wrote this piece that had the right and left hand slowly drifting to opposite sides of the piano—then with one note smack in the middle. Impossible to play! No, his buddy said. You play the note in the middle, with your nose. I think it’d be fun to see a story like that.

Or how about this? How about writing a story that, while it is percolating along—just ends. Boom. Right in the middle. Without the second half. Like Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale.

And one final challenge: how about a story that ends with a sentence fragment without a period or exclamation mark. It just sort of

 


Frank Wu is a transdimensional interspace being, living physically near Boston with his wife Brianna the Magnificent, but regularly projecting his mind across time and space to commune with dinosaurs, eurypterids, and numinous energy beings. Visualizations and written accounts of these journeys can be found in Analog, Amazing Stories, Realms of Fantasy, frankwu.com, and the radiation-hardened memory bunkers of planet Gorsplax.

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