So you love science fiction stories but don’t have the cash to drop on a magazine. Or maybe you don’t want to commit out of the gate to purchasing an entire magazine issue. What if I told you that you could read award wining science fiction stories from today’s leading authors for free?
There are more science fiction outlets today than ever before. Although traditional print magazines like Analog, Asimov’s, and F&SF lead the pack, there are non-traditional publishing models that are consistently putting out award winning original content from the same field of authors as the big three. The so-called “free to read” model has found a lot of success in the age of Patreon. Issues are published online in a blog format free to read by anyone with an internet connection. Ads help support the content, with most support coming from digital (or in some cases print on demand) sales in more convenient packages like epub, Weightless Books, Amazon Kindle, or DRM-free PDF. One highly successful publication is Clarkesworld, created and edited by Neil Clarke. Clarkesworld has been publishing monthly since October 2006, and has ranked up quite the awards list, including multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for both individual stories and the magazine as a whole. You can read all of these award winning stories for free, and Clarkesworld maintains a convenient awards list on their website. So why not give them a read? Below are a few stories I’ve personally enjoyed from Clarkesworld to get you started.
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer, September 2017. 2018 Hugo award winner for Best Novelette, and a classic science fiction story inside a classic science fiction story.
“Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, April 2014. An alien is brought into the county morgue by the coroner’s ex-wife for an autopsy.
“Bits” by Naomi Kritzer, October 2013. A very fun story about alien sex toys. (I know, I know, but give it a try. It’s actually my favorite on this list, and it shows how Clarkesworld isn’t afraid of topics.)
“Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion” by Caroline M. Yoachim, August 2014. A beautiful story of grief and forgiveness after an accidental alien attack.
“The Oddish Gesture of Humans” by Gabriel Calácia, July 2020. A nice short story about that odd thing humans do. This is the author’s first published story.
All I ever wanted as a scientist was to work on interesting problems. I’ve also long contended that almost any subject is interesting if you approach it from the right angle. I’d argue that James Smoliga feels the same way. Smoliga, a physiologist and physiotherapist, recently conducted a study of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest to scientifically assess the long term performance increase of these “elite athletes.”
Essentially all competitive sports exhibit a long term improvement that will plateau at some point. Take sprinters, for instance. It is possible to use physiology to determine the maximum theoretical speed that a human could possibly run. Usain Bolt is famously the fastest runner ever officially clocked, with a peak speed during the 100 meter sprint of 27.51 mph. Scientists estimate that humans have a peak sprint speed of between 35 and 40 mph, which is about half the top speed of the fastest quadrupeds. It is reasonable to expect that over time, with improved nutrition and biological sciences, humans will get faster and faster, but will plateau somewhere around 40 mph.
It seems that competitive hot dog eating has undergone a similar trend in just 40 years, and that humans might be reaching the plateau very quickly. The limit to how many hot dogs a human can eat in 10 minutes is dominated by how far a human stomach and stretch to take on an ungodly amount of sausage. (With running, the limiting factor is how fast human leg muscles can move, which is based on the rate that muscles can contract and expand, so in a way it’s a very similar problem.) A more scientific term for stomach stretchiness is “gut plasticity,” and Smoliga has calculated that maximum human gut plasticity is equivalent to eating 84 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The thing is, the present world record is 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes. If you plot the “active consumption rate” of hot dogs – defined as hot dogs per minute – in the Nathan’s contest since 1980 you get the following chart.
The circles are data from 10 minutes competitions, and the squares are from 12 minutes competitions. In 1980 it was pretty much one hot dog per minute, or 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And that is what is so incredible. Every physical sport has this shape of curve, but the time between the low point and the plateau is usually much longer. As fast as Usain Bolt is, he is nowhere near the theoretical maximum human speed. Joey Chestnut, who holds the present record at 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, is very close to the theoretical maximum of 84. This leads to an interesting question: Why are competitive eaters progressing up the curve so much faster than other athletes?
Smoliga proposes an answer. In competitive running, an athlete must train their body to undergo an intense physical strain. This training turns them into a very specialized, and highly adapted, peak physical specimen. A competitive eater must also train their body, but rather than improving physical fitness, what might actually be happening is a chronic form of damage. It’s a lot easier to break something than it is to fix it, and that may be exactly what competitive eaters are doing to their own guts. Smoliga argues that high performance competitive eaters haven’t been around long enough to assess the long term health implications of this sport, but in general increased gut plasticity to the point that normal gut plasticity is no longer possible would not be good for long term health. It’s not a shock that routine binge eating (“training”) is probably not good for you.
So there you have it. Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is a great case study for a weird bit of human physiology. And you probably thought it was just a silly sport.
One could argue that we are living in the golden age of “dog whistle” racism. By using a dog whistle instead of an overt racist phrase, the speaker can (and in modern times does) claim complete ignorance. (“When I said law and order I meant that my political opponents are pro-chaos.” No US politician has ever been pro-chaos, though at this point I might entertain supporting one.) Pointing out a dog whistle as a dog whistle is a point of education, but it tends to piss off the people blowing all the whistles.
Case in point. The US Army is launching a diversity “conversation” initiative given everything going on in the country. (As an aside the US Army is actually very diverse. In 2016, whites constituted less than half of the women in the US Army, with black women serving in an almost one-to-one ratio with white women. White men formed a more dominant percentage, but still only around 70% of all men in the US Army. These numbers constitute a much higher percentage of minorities in the US Army than in the general population, but that’s a tale for another day.) Normally, this type of initiative is the kind of thing that wouldn’t get a lot of attention if it hadn’t been for an apparent accident. I’ll call it an accident for now, but I’ll pick that thread back up later.
On July 6, an official handout promoting the Army’s “listening tour” under Project Inclusion (everything needs a code name in the Army) was disseminated at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The Army claims that the graphic, which listed forms of white supremacy in a pyramid structure, was pulled from a non-government website. At the top of the pyramid were things like racist jokes, blackface, and lynchings listed as “Overt White Supremacy (Socially Unacceptable).” Lower on the pyramid were other things labeled “Covert White Supremacy (Socially Acceptable).” These were things like “All Lives Matter,” racial profiling, denial of white privilege, and most importantly, “MAGA.” Yup, a US Army handout listed Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” as a covert white supremacy phrase. I’m not going to argue whether it is or not (it is), but rather bring up an interesting point in the response to this “accident.”
Once the inclusion of MAGA was brought to the Army’s attention they did what you would expect, recalling the pamphlets and claiming that those were still under review and they aren’t sure how they got printed and disseminated and they very much didn’t mean to put that in there.
Republican Alabama House Representative Mo Brooks sent a letter to the Secretary of the Army accusing the service of violation of the Hatch Act, which forbids civil servants from making political statements. (Unsurprisingly, sitting congresspeople and the president, who are by definition civilian employees of the government since they receive a salary, are not considered civil servants under the Hatch Act, which probably tells you all you need to know about politicians.) Brooks is pushing for prosecution of any Army employee who was in any way connected with the creation or dissemination of this pamphlet, arguing that claiming MAGA to be white supremacist is a political statement.
Here’s a hypothetical. Let’s say there was a sitting US President who was overtly racist. For the sake of this argument I’m claiming that Trump is not overtly, but covertly, racist. (It’s a stretch, I know, but work with me here.) What I mean is pretend there was a sitting president that stood in front of the media and openly said horrible things about black people. Or even simpler, he said “I don’t like black people. I do not represent them and I don’t want to help them. I don’t think they’re worth my time.” That’s very overt racism. Since the US Army has a lot of black people in its ranks, this would pose a problem for Army leadership. But what could they do? What if this president made campaign hats that said “Black People Are Bad”? Suddenly, saying “Black People Are Not Bad” is a political statement. The Secretary of the Army can’t say that because that’s (apparently) in violation of the Hatch Act. (On the flip side, Vice President Pence won’t utter the sequence of words “black lives matter” because he claims that those words represent a political statement that in some weird and confusing way he doesn’t agree with.)
We live in a world where cell phone videos of people waving Trump campaign signs and wearing MAGA hats shouting “white power” are easy to find. It’s as if dog whistles are too complicated these days. More likely, dog whistles just aren’t needed. When the sitting president retweets a video of a supporter shouting “white power” along with his comment of thanks to the “great people” shown in the video, what would you possibly need a dog whistle for? Of course, all the president’s men claim he didn’t hear the racist shout, which was arguably the point of the whole video. Then why did he share the video? It doesn’t make any sense to share one random video of supporters, especially one that he apparently hadn’t listened to. Of course he listened to the video and of course he heard his supporter say “white power.” He just knows he can get away with claiming he didn’t, because he has before and he did this time. There is no legal precedent for hate speech becoming political speech. If something is political speech then it gets a weird form of protection in civilian life, but a weird exclusion of acceptability for civil servants under the Hatch Act. My favorite line from the Army’s response to the uproar over the pamphlet was to say “The unapproved pages were in no way used as part of the 'Your Voice Matters' listening tour sessions.” The opinion that MAGA is white supremacist is not part of Your Voice. That is too ironic to handle, and that line sums up just how screwed we are.
We have somehow evolved into a political environment where dog whistles aren’t needed. You can shout “white power” in the most overt way then claim “Oops, my bad” and it seems there is nothing to be done. In a way, it’s kind of nice. I can’t see fit to claim any Trump supporter in the second half of 2020 isn’t a racist. If you vote in a democracy for a man who is overtly racist then you are clearly condoning that overt racism. If you condone overt racism how are you not in turn racist? We don’t often get such clear litmus tests that can be used to judge our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. So that’s handy.
Was the Army’s dissemination of the pamphlet an accident? In my opinion, yes and no. I worked as an Army civil servant for eight years at the US Army Research Laboratory. Though I was a civilian, ARL is incorporated as an Army unit. Among other things that means I had to take lots of training geared towards enlisted personnel as a work requirement. (Don’t get me started on Constitution Day training.) I sat through a lot of tone deaf training during those years. The bumbling nature of some of the training videos, and the haphazard way they were slapped together still boggles my mind. When accusations of rape in the military were on the rise, the Army decided that a suitable form of training was to make us watch a documentary featuring first person testimonials from raped service men and women. I had nightmares for a week. What sort of vetting process did that decision go through? I couldn’t have been a very rigorous one. So was the pamphlet an accident? I’m fairly certain nobody read it carefully. Most likely the people that made it didn’t even read it. I’m sure somebody gave it a quick look and approved the printing and dissemination. I was never a soldier but I did spend nearly a decade embedded in Army bureaucracy, and haphazard is how the Army does things. One thing the Army is good at is covering up its mistakes.
You can expect this one to be covered up as efficiently as a dog buries its own shit.
I could not have written a more poetic arrival in Las Vegas than the one reality presented me with. I deplaned at LAS, which looks like any other major airport in America save for the enormous banks of slot machines evenly deposited about. Each row ends with a sign that reads “seats are for slot patrons only,” after spending three days in Vegas I’m certain that rule is ruthlessly enforced.
The slot machines at the airport, like in the rest of the city, do not portray the true Las Vegas. Nor are they the poetic arrival I mentioned. That occurred when I reached baggage claim. Here LAS set itself apart from other major airports I’ve visited. Baggage claim occupied a cavernous three story space that housed the numerous carousels. As I entered my eye was drawn to the twenty foot diagonal television screen mounted on the ceiling playing a loop of Las Vegas tourism propaganda. Accompanied by the happy poppy music that pervaded the epic baggage claim arena, the TV spit images of young sexy men and women lounging around a pool in skimpy swimwear, dining in fashionable evening wear, and enjoying opulent hotel rooms. As I panned my vision back to ground level, leaving the dream of Vegas, I observed the truth of Vegas. Middle aged men and women in baggy shorts and beer bellies groped for cheap luggage, wrangling children that were either screaming or eating boogers. Rather than being well-heeled fashionistas, I was surrounded by average people drawn by the dream image of Vegas.
Walking The Strip was a similar experience. The hallmark of The Strip is that everything is accentuated, and this feeling received such a treatment. The sky was aglow with the lights, glitz, and glamour of Vegas. Even during the desert daylight the digital billboards were bright to the point of painful. Back down to earth, The Strip is four miles of grime, sex, solicitation, and stink. The nonstop solicitation in particular aggravated me. Solicitation for your money directly, but sometimes solicitation for your money by way of first soliciting your time. Everyone in Vegas, it seems, has a timeshare. Everyone, it seems, desperately needs to sell their timeshare.
“If you come to a short presentation I’ll give you free lunch and two tickets to such-and-such famous show.”
“It will just take a minute and I’ll give you twenty dollars cash!”
“Where are you staying?” is the pervasive question in Vegas. When asked by a waiter or retail employee it is a polite inquiry. When asked by a random individual on the street it is a question with no correct answer, because by virtue of the question being asked you can not respond with “In your timeshare,” which would be the only acceptable answer. Walking The Strip inevitably forces everyone to either be rude or lose hours each day to dodgy conversation and timeshare presentations.
Though the legendary Strip falls far short of the beauty portrayed in tourism promotions and Hollywood, the numerous shows of Vegas exceed all reasonable expectations. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Vegas tourist is that shows only happen at night, meaning that even the best scheduling master who is willing to run from hotel to hotel can at best see three shows in one night. For mere mortals it is a one show per night affair.
Whether acquiring tickets through a timeshare presentation for purchasing them like a rational human being, undoubtedly the best performances on earth are presented nightly in Las Vegas. To my mind the redeeming part of Vegas is the shows, and I encourage any visitor to see a show every night they are there. When purchasing tickets it is never necessary to pay full advertised price, and never buy tickets before arriving in Vegas – with the exception of purchasing tickets for a limited time show, such as when an international superstar has a two week nightly engagement. Major hotels on The Strip have concierge desks that can sell tickets for that night or the next at large discounts. We purchased ours at Caesars Palace despite the fact that we weren’t staying at Caesars Palace. There are no gimmicks when purchasing tickets at the concierge desk, it is simply a concerted effort by all of Vegas to sell out every show every night and make a minimum acceptable profit on each seat. As such, ticket prices in Vegas fluctuate wildly even within the same show on the same night, so pay only what you are personally willing to pay and accept it. For instance, my wife and I saw Blue Man Group (which I can not recommend highly enough – it was an absolutely magical performance), which on their official website states that Las Vegas tickets range from $86 to $150 for VIP seats. We were in the back row of the theater in the Luxor so were firmly in the $86 seat range. Purchasing tickets from the concierge we were able to see a show the next night for $53 a seat. (An aside about purchasing seats. The seating floor chart that comes up is intentionally deceptive in making you think that a back row seat is in the nosebleeds. In particular the theater in Luxor is very intimate and I’m pleased that I didn’t pay a penny more for a row closer because even the back row had an outstanding view.) A good concierge can also recommend shows based on what you’re interested in, which is how we ended up seeing “V – The Ultimate Variety Show,” which was an insane performance in the best possible sense.
Having talked about The Strip in general and Vegas shows in detail, I now come to the most important part of my commentary on Las Vegas. Over the last few decades, the Las Vegas tourism industry has attempted to rebrand it as a family friendly destination. They have demonstrably succeeded based on the number of young children I encountered while in Vegas. This idea, however, is absolute bullshit. Las Vegas is unquestionably the least child appropriate city in the United States.
Walking The Strip at eleven in the morning isn’t early enough to avoid men handing out business cards featuring pictures of topless women that you can see at the listed location; cards which inevitably become adhered tits-up to the ground as people discard them. One frequent sight on my three days there was the obese elderly woman handing out event cards while wearing a bright read shirt that read “ORGASM LESSONS” on the front and back.
Children can be seen accompanying their parents in strollers through the smoke filled casinos at all hours of the day and night. Time doesn’t flow right in Vegas, which adults seem to be perfectly comfortable with but this fact wreaks havoc on children. Our first night in Vegas we ate at the Rainforest Cafe, a family restaurant chain where diners eat in an elaborately decorated animatronic jungle. It’s a fun gimmick, and I’m essentially a giant child so I love it. As you’d imagine, it’s a popular destination for families with children of all ages, so while we were there I saw at least a dozen children under the age of twelve. It was sometime while we were waiting for our dinner to come out that I realized it was ten thirty at night. Many of the children looked exhausted, and the youngest ones were crying having not yet eaten. Walking The Strip close to midnight we saw numerous children in strollers and wagons gawking at the high heeled police women – who inexplicably lost every part of their uniforms save their hats and handcuffs – soliciting passing men to take pictures with them.
On our last day we decided to have a somewhat swanky lunch at the cafe attached to the botanical garden in the Bellagio, and were seated next to a baby barking happy screams. This kind of thing has never bothered either my wife or myself, so we were fine with it. Truth be told, this was a super cute baby of about nine months and was very clearly enjoying hearing the sound of his own voice. The mother and father looked financially well off. Dad wore those shiny dress pants that have come in style the last few years, along with an immaculate dress shirt and shoes to match, designer sunglasses hooked into his shirt neck. Mom looked like she’d spent the Vogue-ideal time in a tanning booth, blond hair combed and styled perfectly into rows, designer dress and shoes. Dad was trying his best to keep his son quiet, even leaving the restaurant to try and walk it out of him. Mom looked exhausted; she’d clearly had enough. I don’t fault any of these people. I certainly don’t fault the baby for babying, and I’ve been there with my own son so I feel for these parents. As I watched them struggle it became obvious what was happening. Mom and Dad were frequent Vegas visitors, but this was the first time they came since baby showed up. They probably thought, “Of course we’ll take our annual trip to Vegas! We’ll just bring the baby along.” They either didn’t think it through or they believed the hype, having seen so many other babies in Vegas. Clearly, things were not going well for them. Having a kid changes things, and I hope they accept that fact quickly, for the sake of their mental health.
Las Vegas is a place of pluses and minuses. It is a place where citizens of the world come together to collectively buy into the Hollywood dream of a place while ignoring the fact that they are walking daily through a veritable river of shit. Vegas is an exhausting experience in every way. It physically drains you due to the extreme amount of walking necessary to see various sights, and it is psychologically exhausting just being around so much stimulus.
Everyone can find their own Las Vegas. For some it’s the gambling. For others it’s living the high life for a little while. For my wife and I it was the shows, the art galleries, and the related art books we came home with. In retrospect I realize that our Vegas is a remarkably nerdy Vegas. Perhaps that is the real truth of Las Vegas; it is a place that is whatever we want it to be.
But really, I think it’s just a place run on money, sex, and alcohol. So essentially it’s the only place where Americans are honest about who we are.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.