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Introduction to BURN Print E-mail

burn_smallIn 2006 my pocket novel BURN was a finalist for the Hugo Award and in 2007 it won the Nebula Award for best novella.  According to the Science Fiction Writers of America announcement made at the time, it was the first podcast to win the award.  Of course, there was a dead tree version from Tachyon Publications which you should definitely buy to show to your grandkids so that you can prove that books were once printed on actual molecules.



You can download BURN in its entirety in these file formats:

Microsoft Word doc Burn 13/03/2007,09:39 294.00 Kb

Adobe PDF pdf Burn 13/03/2007,09:39 309.20 Kb 

 Hear the podcast Burn 


Here's an essay I wrote about the origins of Burn: 

I can't claim that it was inevitable that I would write BURN.  Many years ago my little novel began to accrete around a grudge I had against one of our literary Founding Fathers, Henry David Thoreau.  But Thoreau wasn't why I wrote BURN.  As I contemplated this project, one of its principle attractions was the lure of doing research into forest firefighting, a subject that is at once intrinsically fascinating and way obscure.  Lolling around libraries paging through books that haven't been checked out since 1975 is one of my principal joys as a writer.  In addition, I could find very little fiction about forest firefighting, and none in genre, which meant that I'd have the territory pretty much to myself.  But fire wasn't the reason I wrote BURN.  Of course, like so many of my fellow skiffy writers, I'd been wrestling with the problem of the singularity, and writing about a human enclave in a post-human galaxy seemed like a challenge that was within my range. But once again, that wasn't why I wrote BURN.

The fact is that Jacob Weisman of Tachyon Publications cajoled me into signing a contract for a 30,000 word novella by telling me I could write pretty much whatever I wanted.  If it hadn't been for him, I probably would've spent the end of 2004 and early 2005 on short fiction, as had been my habit for almost a decade.  I signed on thinking how pleasant it would be to have a new book that wasn't a short story collection.  However, I wasn't at all sure that I could sustain a narrative over 30,000 words, after too many years away from the long form. At the time I told myself that if worse came to worse, I could churn out 22-25,000 words and hand in a manuscript with a large font and wide margins.   And so, by giving myself permission to fail, I was able to begin.

Years ago I had made a note about the curious incident of the forest fire that Henry David Thoreau started.  You can read some of Thoreau's account of what happened at the beginning of Chapter Fourteen, but suffice it to say that after accidently setting the Walden woods ablaze -- some estimates hold that more than three hundred acres were consumed – our First Naturalist repaired to the top of Fair Haven Hill to admire his own private conflagration.  I thought folks ought to know about this.  You see, as a student I was force fed WALDEN and much of it disagreed with me.  I will admit that never has the Luddite point of view been advanced quite so eloquently.  And while I agree that simplicity can be a virtue and that cultivation of one's inner resources is necessary for the good life, it seems clear to me that the habit of thought which Thoreau urges on us is antithetical to the enterprise of science fiction.  Thoreau had little use for the technology of his own time, dismissing both the telegraph and the railroad. I can imagine his horror at the spread of our own asphalt and information superhighways.  Hey, I'm all for spirituality, but not if it means I can't check my email.

Although I have never witnessed a forest fire in person, I have been at the scene of several house fires and I believe that I understand some of what Thoreau must have felt as he watched his fire burn through the woods near Walden.  It is our nature to be fascinated by flame; civilization began around the firepits of pre-history.  We recognize the elemental power of fire to destroy and we all live with an almost imperceptible but omnipresent unease that it will escape our control and consume us.  When was the last time you checked your fire extinguishers?  Are you sure your smoke detectors are working?   Is it any wonder that one of our oldest cultural nightmares involves the fires of hell?   And yet fire is not easy to write about, or at least, I did not find it so.  Writing about it is like writing about music.  I struggled to craft sentences strong enough to capture the glare and heat of flame throughout BURN; you will have to be the judge of my success.

Back in 1993, Vernor Vinge gave the paper that introduced the idea of the singularity.  “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence.  Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”  The paths to the singularity are many.  One leads to -- and passes through -- artificial intelligence.  It is entirely possible that computer scientists are designing our successor species even as you read this.   Another path to the singularity leads through improved human/machine interfaces.  What if we could enhance our memory and creativity cybernetically?  Yet another path would involve purely biological improvements to intelligence – not to mention the human body.  The mapping phase of The Human Genome Project is already ahead of schedule and offers the tantalizing prospect that we might someday be able to gain control of the evolution of future generations, or even tinker with your genes and mine.  The singularity starts the day after the first posthuman baby is born.   But consider the metaphor of the singularity: it's borrowed from the astronomers and speaks to the unknowable nature of a black hole.  The gravitational field of a black hole is such that you'd have to go faster than the speed of light to escape it.   You can't probe or scan past the event horizon.   In the same way, we can't know what life will be like on the far side of the human singularity, if there is to be one.  That future is opaque to the science fiction writer — and reader.   So what I have done in BURN is to postulate a world on perched on the edge of the event horizon of the human singularity.  And of course, I have cheated, since some information about the Thousand Worlds does escape to the citizens of the Transcendent State – to their great peril.

I know more about the Thousand Worlds than I have told in BURN.  I was surprised that once I got into the book, I had no trouble reaching 25,000 words, then 30,000, then 35,000.  As my deadline loomed, I had to make some strategic decisions about the shape of the book.  I decided leave out stuff, in order to keep a tight focus on my main character and his problems, some of which open out into the larger concerns of his world and the galactic culture, but some of which are as personal as who will pick the apples or play the outfield.   I think this reflects the kind of life that I'm living.  I'm concerned about global warming and the pointless war in Iraq, but the dishes still have to go into the dishwasher and the grass is growing.  Maybe it's time to strap on the headphones and load WALDEN into my mp3 player.  I can listen to Thoreau lecture me about men leading lives of quite desperation while I mow the lawn.