Tom Ligon's Science Fiction

Tom Ligon's Science Fiction And Fact


I am a science fiction writer, publishing mostly in Analog Science Fiction and Fact (external link). My publications include:
  1. "Inadvisable Adversaries", Short Story, Sept 84
  2. "A Christmas Adversary", Short Story, Mid-Dec 85
  3. "The Devil and the Deep Black Void", Novelette, Jan 86
  4. "Funnel Hawk", Novella, Cover Story, June 90
  5. "The Gardener", Novella, Cover Story, Nov 93
  6. "Dear Colleagues", Short Story, Sept 94
  7. "The Delicate Crunch of Marshmallows", Novelette, Cover Story, Feb 95
  8. "The Pattern", Short-Short, Mar 95
  9. "Amateurs", Short Story, Cover Story,
  10. "Prospectus", Fact Article,
  11. "The World's Simplest Fusion Reactor", Fact Article*, Dec 99

* Winner, 1999 Analab award for best science fact article, reprinted in Infinite Energy.

I am a life member of the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). I'm an Enforcer, Physical Law Division, of the Analog M.A.F.I.A. That title indicates that I Make Appearances Frequently In Analog. Here are two group shots (78 kB, 2 JPG's) of Analog M.A.F.I.A. at a couple of science fiction conventions.

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Here is a photo of me , taken by Richard Hull at a "Teslathon" in Richmond, VA, a couple of years back.

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My Policy on Limited Reproduction for Educational Purposes

On several occasions, I've been asked if it would be OK to photocopy or reprint my stories for certain limited use. Twice, that use has been as a SF writing example in college courses! Tom Easton used "Dear Colleagues" in his textbook Gedanken Fiction (external link) (I was paid for that republication). On another occasion, I was asked if "Amateurs" could be used in a college class. I agreed to that cheerfully, on condition that I get to read some of the student's critiques of my story.

Here's my thinking. Let's say Analog sells about 70,000 copies of each issue, and I've got one of maybe 10 stories or articles in an issue. I might get somewhere from a few hundred dollars for a short story up to maybe a bit over a thousand for a novella (if you work out the dollars per hour, I'd probably do better working at Burger King -- I ain't in this for the money). Let's say I'm paid $700, all the stories together are paid $7000, and that means the writers get about 10 cents a copy and of that I get a penny.

This means, for anything less than about seventy copies, its not worth your money or mine to even waste the postage corresponding about it. Just e-mail me, and I'll cheerfully provide permission for you to make a few copies for anything resembling a worthy cause.

Analog's policy has always been to forward all such requests to the authors, who retain copyright to their stories. Analog's copyright pertains only to the page images. You should get their permission if you simply photocopy the magazine, although they do usually seem willing to allow this if asked.

For any kind of commercial republication, however, I do expect to be paid. And I expressly don't want my stories plastered all over the internet, where I'll have no control over them. I don't mind being quoted, with attribution.

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The Adversaries Stories

"Inadvisable Adversaries" was my first publication, and wasn't very good. On top of that, between my proofreading the galleys and Analog's final paste-up, they decided to repaginate it, done at that time with a razor blade. Evidently, somebody dropped the galleys, for they ended up out of order. The story was rendered unreadable. The gist of is was that a team of electronic terrorists, the "Most Uncommon Denominator Liberation Front" was pushing for better TV programming, steering a network away from the "Least Common Denominator". I claim this to be the absolute worst pun in the history of Science Fiction.

The Sequel, "A Christmas Adversary", featured the same organization's continuing efforts to upgrade programming. I wrote it after a Christmas season in which I'd seen "A Christmas Carroll," plus several rip-offs of it, at least a half a dozen times. I figured one more wouldn't hurt, and used the overuse of that poor, overworked classic in the story. The network executive subjected to "the treatment" is deemed too unimaginative to warrant anything innovative.

I won't claim either of these stories is high art. However, it is possible they had at least some effect. A few years later, in the first season of "Star Trek, The Next Generation," Tasha Yar becomes imbroiled in the politics of a race called the "Ligonians." "Code of Honor" was the episode, and the race is described on this external page.

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"Devil" and "The Gardener"

"The Devil and the Deep Black Void" had an interesting genesis. I remember being outraged by reports coming from the far east. Vietnamese "boat people" were being preyed on by pirates. I set up a situation where a political upset in a distant colony would make it likely that refugees would be preyed on by pirates. However, the story developed a mind of its own. I realized that, due to the vastness of space, the pirates would be easy to evade. The real threat was the vastness itself. Running away was certain death, and the only hope was returning to face the original problem. That quickly became the focus of the story.

The planet, Mazra'ih, is unique. A lot of my science fiction comes from my frustration with what I consider foolish notions in the genre. One of those notions is the idea that we're going to colonize planets on which life already exists. That's nuts! Anyone else remember the biological isolation ritual we subjected the lunar astronauts to? That was for visiting a sterile rock! If Mars ever did bear life, it still does (deep underground), and we'll muck that up entirely the minute the first Mars astronaut dumps a chamber pot on the red planet. My future history has its own version of the "prime directive". Hands off any planet that already has life: the risk of introducing a disease to mankind, and the horrid damage we would do to the alien ecosystem, both make it criminally irresponsible to colonize living worlds, and that turns out to be almost any world that has any similarity to Earth. No problem, we can make our own habitat in space.

But Mazra'ih is a special world. Although Earth-like, it orbits a star that is part of a deadly trinary system. About every 12,000 years, it passes thru the polar plume of a neutron-star binary, its sun flares, and all the interesting pre-biotic chemistry gets cooked. The planet is otherwise habitable, a fixer-upper for sure, but worth it for about 8000 good years, a long time by human standards. We've found hundreds of worlds capable of supporting Earth-like life. Mazra'ih is the first we've found on which we could establish a colony!

I needed good victims. Recent news had offered an excellent group, the Baha'is, who had been horribly persecuted in Iran. The more I researched them, the more convinced I became that they would make excellent space colonists. My primary reference was an aged primer on the Baha'i Faith by J. E. Esselmont. I did receive some comments from several Baha'is suggesting that I'd portrayed them as too pacifistic, however, I'll stick by my guns on this. My characters, while they believe in public defense, even armies, to preserve peace, are stubborn in living by a passage I found in Esselmont's book in which Baha'u'llah forbids the Baha'is from taking up arms in the defense of the faith. The story is carefully crafted to back them into this corner. Our hero is faced with a loss of his faith, which enables him to take action to save his people, but leaves him in a spiritual dilemma.

I left him in that state for about 7 years, when I had the inspiration for the sequel, "The Gardener". Hoping to give Hab, our hero, some hint of faith back, not to mention some much-needed feminine companionship, I devised a story to show what he'd been up to in seven years of self-imposed exile on a remote continent of a planet just begging for life. It also gave me a chance to reveal some more about Mazra'ih's history. Turns out, before the nearby neutron star cooked off, it did have something like pre-Cambrian life! And we're not the first to colonize it! A dozen prior civilizations have found this cherry of a deal, but none have lasted very long on it. What perils does the planet hold? Or is the peril in the nature of starfaring civilizations?

Anyway, I managed to slip in a little uncharacteristic romance, and I think I did at least as good a job of it as Danielle Steele.

I'm proud of both of these stories. There may be one more sequel, a few more secrets of the planet to reveal, if I can figure out the right story to set them in. And there's a related story, unpublished even after three major revisions. The bad guys on Mazra'ih once sponsored a terrorist plot to destroy Earth (another of my contrary views: any ship that can go faster than light is a potential world-smashing weapon, a really scary piece of technology that makes nukes look like toys). I tried to tell that story from the viewpoint of the terrorist, an unusual perspective but a difficult thing to do well. I thought I finally came up with a pretty good rendition, but Stan Schmidt never agreed. I never saw any reason to re-write the story again without the terrorist's "POV": that was the whole reason for writing the story in the first place, and without it I might as well have been writing a Star Trek episode. "For A Little Price" required a tremendous amount of research and work, and the result is undoubtedly the darkest thing I've written, no doubt makes most readers uncomfortable, but I'm proud of it, too, published or not.

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"Funnel Hawk"

The premise: our heroine is a frustrated tornado-chaser who's been taking flying lessons and has a wild idea: build a high-performance fighter-like aircraft that's fast enough to really chase tornados, and strong and powerful enough survive skirting their edges. I did art for this aircraft, a pusher-puller twin turboprop that otherwise looks suspiciously like a Lockheed Lightning. While researching the story, I discovered that this configuration was one of the possibilities proposed for that plane, rejected only because they wanted the guns in the nose. This was the second story for which I'd provided art (I'd provided plan views for the Sunfire ion jet in "Devil"). This time the ploy worked: I got the cover!

I had great fun writing this one. I wrote it after reading an article in National Geographic on tornado chasing, which provided much of the lore. When a friend read a draft and suggested it was similar to a program done in the post WWII days, I did some more research. It turns out that Curtis LeMay, in the interest of creating an "all-weather Air Force", did order a fair amount of research in bad-weather flying, but I could find nothing resembling the hare-brained scheme I put in "Funnel Hawk". The more interesting early work is mentioned in the story, a program of deliberately flying in thunderstorms, using aircraft from sailplanes to P-61 Black Widows, the ugly sister of the P-38 that was the model for the Funnel Hawk research plane.

"Funnel Hawk" was well-received. I recall it did get some Nebula recommendations (that's far removed from nomination, but its nice to hear a few other writers like your work). The fan mail included one reader who thought I must be a woman using a male pen-name.

Is the idea all that far-out? Maybe not! Around the time this story was published, Flying published an account, in "I Learned About Flying From That," of a close encounter of the twister kind. One of their writers, Howard Fried, had gotten snapped around by something horrible while attempting to land in close proximity to a thunderstorm. The door was ripped off of his light plane, and he had difficulty with the controls after the encounter. He landed safely, got out, and found the door imbedded in the horizontal stabilizer, making his survival truly remarkable. Later conversations with Air Traffic Control personnel revealed that a "hook reflection", indicative of a funnel cloud or tornado, had been spotted at about his location about when he was there!

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"Dear Colleagues", sample paragraphs

Erica Thompson writes this letter to her co-workers. Erica is the central figure in my future history. As a child of 6, and a fan of Star Trek, she informed her physicist-father that she was going to build a starship when she grew up. He sat her down and explained the Theory of Relativity to her. Erica vowed then and there that she'd prove that hateful Albert Einstein wrong! She made little progress until she stopped fighting him and instead realized, inspired by his famous quote, she should climb on his shoulders. That led her to formulate, as a teen, an extension to relativity that postulated a new energy form called c-prime. In this tale, we start to get a hint that maybe she's on to something.

The insane safety-consciousness of this not-too-distant future is borrowed from an early story I wrote, but which Stan Schmidt rejected. I abandoned that otherwise unrelated story, but adapted the opening scene to this story.

     As you no doubt have heard by now, I quit.
     Now, I'm sure most of you think old Erica Thompson is a prima-donna (it's true), especially since she got that little award. You probably think she's just in a snit over a raise or something. Actually, this has been a long time coming, and it has almost nothing to do with money. In particular, I was offered a job a few weeks ago, one I would have snapped up in a minute when I was fresh out of school. I've sort of gotten used to my cozy lifestyle, though, and I was going to pass it up.
     Until this morning.
     I was up until two this morning working on a new proposal. Consequently, I overslept. That got me into a rush, and I came down the stairs a little too fast. Naturally, the motion detector at the bottom of the stairs interpreted that as a fall, and deployed the air-bag.
     I knew instantly that I had to call the local rescue squad to let them know it was a false alarm. Since it would be against the law to call 911 for this purpose, I had to call the normal number. It was busy. By the time I got through, they had already dispatched an ambulance and rescue vehicle, which means I'm stuck with a five-hundred dollar fine.
     I was mad at myself for being so careless, but I was inclined to chalk it up to experience and get on with the day. I headed into the kitchen for a container of fat-free, cholesterol-free, salt-free, high-fiber, toxin-screened, FDA-inspected, AMA-accepted, UL-listed, nutritionally labeled, high carbohydrate fuel for Homo sapiens. Blueberry flavored, my favorite. Then I stepped over to the utensil drawer for something to eat it with. I fumbled with the child-resistant catch, and opened it to find nothing in the drawer but spoons.
     Of course, you say? What else would you have in a utensil drawer? Friends, I remember when we also used knives and forks to eat with. That's right, we used to put four-pointed implements right into our mouths, back before the Insurance Institute for Culinary Safety managed to get them banned.
     Anyway, I grabbed a spoon and my briefcase, resigned to eating breakfast in the car again, and headed out to the garage. I was grateful, for once, to just be able to tell the car my destination and have it handle the driving while I choked down the tub of mush and looked over the proposal in perfect, computer-controlled, NHTSA-mandated safety.
     I reached the Institute with minutes to spare before presenting my proposal to the review committee. I caught myself running down the corridor, fortunately before any alarms took notice, and reached the conference room a few seconds before the appointed time.
     Dr. Prunebottom -- and yes, since I'm quitting I will call everyone by their accepted nicknames, and maybe someone will tell Prunie how he earned his -- glanced at his watch. "By the hair on your chinny-chin-chin, for once, Dr. Thompson. What wild and mysterious rending of the laws of physics do you propose this time?"
     I passed out copies of my proposal. "I want to modify the Higgs field generator for a much smaller and more intense field. I think I can get the Supercollider's collision cross-section up enough to have a significant chance of getting to within an order of magnitude or so of primordial density, at least on a sub-nucleonic scale."
     Dr. Pigwhistle was aghast. "After the havoc you caused last time?" She held up an invoice and shook it in my general direction. "We had to replace all the detectors in the collision chamber. And you want to go further?"
     I nodded. "That's right, I do. I think I'm on the verge of something really exciting."
     Dr. Ruth -- see, Ruth, your nickname isn't all that bad -- glanced over the proposal. "Well, Erica, I see you've included a more ... shall we say ... robust? Yes, a more robust detector and field generation assembly. Substantially so. Ought to be capable of soaking up quite a blast, in fact. Now, Erica, I know you have a Nobel prize and I don't, but the fact is that you either can't or won't explain why these reactions are so violent. From what I can tell, you expect a geometric increase in output from the last run."

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"Amateurs", sample paragraphs

NOTE: This story took second place in the Analab novelette category for 1996, beat by Bud Sparhawk, who called me to gloat about it. I returned the favor with "The World's Simplest Fusion Reactor", below, which took first place in its category -- that year poor Bud (how'd this happen? 40 kB JPG) had to settle for second!

     Jake Knoll stared in the general direction of the fire, his eyes focused at a point in the darkness a hundred meters beyond the charred timbers, which were still sprouting tendrils of flame.
     "Shame about your boat," Fire Marshall Fredricks offered, indicating the blackened outline of a sleek, finned hull amidst the embers. "Would'a liked to see it go."
     Jake continued to stare blankly for a few seconds, before the words sank in. "Boat ... oh, yeah. Thanks," he replied dispiritedly, shrugging against the evening chill, and shifting his focus to the ruins of his project.
     "Um, you covered by insurance?" the fire marshall asked.
     Jake let out a long sigh. "Let it lapse a couple of months ago. Stupid, I know. Needed the money to finish the hull."
     The fire marshall looked strangely relieved. "There's a sunny side to that, if you care to hear it."
     "You mean because it's arson?" Jake asked.
     Fredricks raised an eyebrow. "How'd you know?"
     Jake shrugged. "Strong smell of kerosene. Pattern of blackened puddles around the barn. Spread fast. Building was engulfed before my alarm went off. Doesn't take a rocket scientist." He managed a thin smile at his little joke.
     Fredricks nodded. "Do me a favor, stick to building boats. You make my job look too easy. But, I'm glad to say, at least this puts you way down on the list of suspects. Any idea who'd want to do something like this?"
     "Yeah," Knoll replied, shifting his gaze to the left, toward a shallow lake at one corner of his property. "Told Johannson I'd be conductin' tests on the lake, and it would be too dangerous for him to water his cattle there for a few months. He said somethin' nasty. Guess I warn't exactly cordial neither. I told him he'd be trespassing if he let his critters on my land again, and I'd have him slapped with papers. He stomped off swearin' revenge."
     The fire marshall gave him a quizzical glance. "You couldn't let him water his cattle while you were testing your boat?"
     Jake shook his head. "It's ain't ... warn't ... some fishing skiff, you know. I needed to test the engine. The tests would'a been a little dangerous, and even if they wasn't, the noise would'a terrified his cows."
     Fredricks nodded understandingly. "Sure would'a liked to see it go."
     Back at the house, Knoll slumped into the recliner, aware for the first time that his clothes reeked of wood smoke and burned plastic. He was working up the will to get up and take a shower when the phone rang.
     "Jake, it's Baker Bret", said the voice on the other end. "Just got your call. What happened?"
     "We're ruined," Jake answered. "Wiped out. Finished. Barn is burned to the ground, workshop's a total loss, nothing left of the lab but a concrete pad. Got my computers, my library, my notes, my drawings, everything."
     "The ship?"
     "Nothing left but a big, crispy shell."
     "Guess we just have to start over."
     Jake sighed deeply. "Listen careful, Bret, I said we're finished. Out of business. Broke. No capital. Nothing to start over with. We're out of the rocket business. Kaput. Kapish?"
     "I gotta get this stink off of me," Jake said impatiently. "If you don't mind, we can argue about pointless foolishness later, after I've had a good night's sleep."
     Jake didn't sleep though, and the following morning he began rebuilding his project. He pulled a venerable Commodore 64 home computer from the closet, and simply started over. By the end of the week, he had funds committed to an escrow account by a customer who needed a cheaper alternative for lofting small payloads to low earth orbit, and had a new consulting job to generate a little ready cash.

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