Science Fiction and the Difference


A hazard of writing science fiction is that actual advances in science often tend to overtake the fictional advanced science in the story, making it appear quaint at best, or laughably naive at worst. Thus we have novels with scenes set in interplanetary spacecraft where the pilots are using slide rules to plot their courses, or computers with human-like intelligence that have a memory “core” made of donut-shaped magnets strung on a grid of wires. As late as the 1980s there was limited realization among science fiction writers of how the internet would transform society. Sometimes that makes a difference in the story, sometimes not.

Science fiction writers are well aware of this. I remember reading an essay about the making of “2001, a Space Odyssey,” by Arthur C. Clarke once a long time ago, though I’ve forgotten where. In it, as I recall, he said that Stanley Kubrick had queried Lloyds of London about getting an insurance policy against the possibility that actual aliens would contact humanity before the movie came out, and thus render the plot obsolete. Clarke said that he had no way to know how they calculated the premium for the policy, but it was, appropriately enough, astronomical, so they went without this coverage.

As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

And so I watch with growing apprehension the spread of the novel Corona Virus, COVID 19, as it paralyzes China and spills over into other countries. As I write this, no one is able to predict how far the epidemic will spread, and statements from government officials have been contradictory. The human and economic toll is rising day by day.

There have been many science fiction stories written about the aftermath of a plague, Earth Abides by George Stewart, and The Stand by Stephen King are two examples that come to mind. I certainly hope those books remain fiction. I hesitate to mention, in the same paragraph as those other books, the novel that I’ve written, The Great Disruption, which I’m currently shopping around to agents, but it too is set in the aftermath of a world-wide plague.

I’m currently (March 2020) reading a fascinating book by Laurie Garrett, The Coming Plague. It’s not fiction, but parts of it read like a horror story. It turns out that plagues are not uncommon in our history. With the advent of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, novel strains of viruses appearing, and the ease of world-wide transportation, such plagues could well be a growing problem.

In my novel, the plague has ended by the opening, and the survivors don’t know if it was a chance mutation of a naturally occurring virus, or a biological weapon that backfired. That point is moot to the few who are left.

The corona virus currently afflicting China doesn’t have the characteristics of the one in my novel, but that point is likewise moot. Real people are suffering now, and I’ve donated to help the victims. A small gesture from my comfortable home in the United States, perhaps, but I hope that enough small gestures will add up to make a real difference.

You can read the opening of The Great Disruption at Embark Literary Journal, Issue 9, July 2019.


The Spider, the Fly, and the Bee

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Photo ©2007 Steve K. Smith

I’ve developed a routine of coming to a coffee shop in the mornings to work on writing or do some reading. This coffee shop is in a renovated late nineteenth century home and takes up almost the entire first floor.

I try to get there early, just after they open most days, and I have a regular table in the front sunroom right next to a large picture window. I’m there so often even the baristas have started referring to it as “my” table. When the sky is clear it gets sunlight in the morning as soon as the sun clears the roof of the Italian market next door. There are some shrubs along the house outside the window, so the window pane outside doesn’t get washed often.

During the last spring and summer I watched a funnel-weaver spider build a web outside in the lower corner of this window right beside my customary seat. Usually there wasn’t much of interest to see, but occasionally I got to witness a miniature natural drama play out there.

In my area—similar to many, I understand—honeybees are stressed and in decline. Though I encourage clover and other flowers on my lawn for pollinators, and I don’t use pesticides, seeing a honeybee has become sufficiently infrequent as to be a noteworthy sight. Late last summer as I entered a shop which had a flowering bush outside, I noticed what I at first thought were two honeybees. I quickly realized, however, that one of them was instead some sort of fly that mimicked the appearance of a honeybee. It hovered in a manner that honeybees don’t do and lacked the pollen sacs on its hind legs.

As I watched, the bee-mimicking fly dove at the real honeybee, striking it. The bee fell, convulsing, apparently dying as the fly hovered nearby. Horrified, I slapped at the fly, but of course there was nothing I could do for the bee.

My immediate impulse had been to protect the honeybee—who doesn’t love honey, after all?—but rationally, that predatory fly was just as much a part of nature’s web as the bee. Over the previous couple months I’d had no difficulty watching the spider outside the window by my seat at the coffee house capture flies and eat them. This, logically, was no different.

And yet it was.

I have to admit that I play favorites with nature. I love honeybees and butterflies. Parasitic wasps and carrion flies creep me out. I think a part of me could easily accept the loss of every mosquito on earth, or at least the sub-species of mosquitos that feed on mammalian blood and transmit diseases.

We need pollinators. Of course, several species of songbirds need mosquitos too, and I wouldn’t want to further stress them. As much as we’d like to, I don’t think it’s wise to pick individual winners and losers among insect species.

But yes. I love honeybees.



A few writing related news items to catch up on:

I had two poems published in “300 Days of Sun” the literary journal of the Nevada State College Humanities Department. The poems are “Super Nova” and “Gravity’s Embrace.” They’re in the lead position of the journal, pages one and two. Information about the journal is at

Embark Literary Journal published the opening 4000 words of my novel, “The Great Disruption,” which I’m currently shopping around to agents. You can read the excerpt at

Here is the draft of the dust jacket blurb:

More than 99.99% of the population died in a plague. A chance viral mutation? A biological weapon? No one left alive knew for sure. But for a couple of years before the plague society was was increasingly torn apart by some mysterious pervasive illness that killed 80% of all boys before their first birthday, though girls were immune. Many suspected a rogue government actor was responsible.

Those who gathered to riot spread the plague and died. A few people hid from the rest of society and survived. Now they have to find each other and rebuild civilization.

Leaves of Ink published my poem, “It Could Have Been Beautiful.” It’s available online at

The Swimming Hole

Photo SKSmith ©2006

In a flash fiction piece of mine due to be published soon, there’s a scene set in a place I visit occasionally, not far from my home. I bicycle there sometimes on mornings during good weather. It’s a little swimming hole in a local creek, and while the event I describe in the story is totally fictional, the place is real.

There’s a gravel bank by a bend in the creek, with plenty of flat stones perfect for skipping. Depending on how dry it’s been, the water gets deep enough that I can’t touch bottom for a small area. Maple and sycamore trees line the stream, but the gravel bank is bare of vegetation. I often see deer and herons around it, and a couple of times I’ve seen snapping turtles sunning themselves on the bank in the spring.

Most of the time when I go there in the morning I have the place to myself, but occasionally I’ve seen tents set up there. I just leave, trying not to disturb them in that case, if they haven’t seen me. Otherwise, I exchange a brief greeting before I go.

I went there again last Saturday morning, arriving about 10:00 AM. It was the first time I’d been there since last fall. When I pulled off the bike path there was a tree down over the trail to the swimming hole, but I was able to get around it. A little farther along there were another couple trees down, ones that appeared to have been cut with a chainsaw and felled beside each other in such a way that they would block the path. I parked my bike there and continued on foot, carrying the water shoes I’d brought with me. A little farther along another tree was down, cut the same way. They seemed to have been cut recently, probably only a few days ago.

The spot itself wasn’t disrupted, except for the remains of a campfire on the gravel bank. It was littered with beer bottles, potato chip bags, and the remains of firecrackers. The Fourth of July was only last week. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a campfire there, but this one was particularly messy.

The sky was clear, but the bank was shaded and the air relatively cool for early July. I was alone this time, and swimming alone is a remarkably bad idea. I waded some in the shallows, skipped stones, and generally relaxed for twenty minutes or so.

I think I’ve figured out why the trees were cut across the trail. I’ll bet the farmer that owns the bean field that flanks the trail got tired of people going back there to party, and worried that if one of them got hurt, he could be liable. The firecrackers probably pushed him over the edge.

If true, I can see his point, given today’s legal climate. Still, I think it’s a shame that all of those who had peacefully enjoyed that spot over the years are punished now for the inconsiderate behavior of a few. Ideally, people that take a woodland trail to a secluded spot should be responsible for their own safety, and be considerate of the land they use. Packing out their trash seems like the least they should do.

With everything dire and important happening in the world, it seems trivial to complain about this small restriction of my recreation. I suppose it is. Still, I’m reminded of the adage, “If everyone swept their own doorstep, the whole world would be clean.” Why is it so difficult to think about others, about how what you do affects your neighbors, or the planet as a whole?

I hope I don’t have to stop going to this place altogether, but I guess that’s a possibility I need to consider. I’ve enjoyed my visits to this little swimming hole over the years, and it provided a scene for a story of mine, after all. I’ll always have fond memories of it.


The flash piece, “Loops”  is due to be published in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue, of “Children, Churches, and Daddies” ( ) See my piece “Night” in the current issue, June 2016.