Small Burdens

Lois Tilton at Locus Online was lukewarm regarding my “Stereogram” piece, but when my story “Small Burdens” came out in Strange Horizons back in March, she gave it a “Recommended.”  The other day, in her year-end wrap-up, she called it one of her three favorite Strange Horizons stories of the year:

Strange Horizons, now on its second decade, is one of the oldest surviving ezines. My picks are the dystopian “The Bright and Shining Parasites of Guiyu” by Grady Hendrix, “Small Burdens” by Paul M Berger, and “The Night Train” by Lavie Tidhar.

In this post I explained a bit about where the story came from.

Kuroda Bushi – A Translation

This isn’t the type of thing I usually put up on this site, but someone may find it useful one day, and it should be on the internet somewhere.

A friend is studying to be an opera singer, and for a performance project she was assigned an old, traditional Japanese folk song called a min’yo (民謡).  She was given hand-written sheet music that included only the syllables she was expected to sing, without the meaning, and she asked me to take a crack at translating it.  I said Sure, thinking that if the song was so famous I would just have to Google it.

No such luck.  The song is called “Kuroda Bushi” (黒田節), and it’s popular for shamisen and shakuhachi and old-school karaoke, but there was so little out there about it in English that I ended up doing the translation from scratch.  I translated all four verses in the version my friend gave me, but I came across many more.  The first two verses appear to be standard in every version, but after that it looks like people mix and match about a half-dozen others, and even then they don’t always agree on the details of the lyrics.

“Kuroda Bushi” means “Song of Kuroda,” but if you write “bushi” like this武士 instead of 節, it means “samurai.”  (The wordplay is intentional.)  The Kuroda clan supported the shogun in the wars to unify Japan in the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and they were given northern Kyushu as their fiefdom.  The song is based on a much older piece of court music called “Etenraku,” which was popular during the Heian Period (794-1185).

I found this explanation of the first two verses here, on the International Shakuhachi Society’s website:

Verse 1 commemorates a supposed event of 1590. The shogun Hideyoshi had just presented a famed spear to his general Masanori. The Kuroda warrior Mori Tahei then arrived with a message for Masanori, who insisted that Tahei join him in a celebratory drink. Forbidden to drink “on duty”, he refused; Masanori insisted, and finally offered him a gift of his choice if he would drink. Tahei drank — and claimed the spear!

(The spear is real, and it is kept in the Fukuoka City Museum.  That’s a picture of it up at the top.)

Verse 2 reaches back to the 12th century: the emperor’s concubine had, through court intrigue, been banished to a hidden hut in the woods. The monarch sent a servant to find her. From a distance, he heard her playing on her koto zither a tune that confirmed she still loved her man.

So these two verses are taken from unrelated stories, and in fact none of the other verses I’ve seen appear to be connected either (if anyone out there can shed any light on this, please let me know).

Here is my translation of the four verses my friend will be singing.  Since nothing ever disappears from the internet, maybe someday someone will be Googling around looking for a translation and this will give them a helpful head start:


Kuroda-Bushi — Song of Kuroda


酒は飲め飲め 飲むならば  日ノ本一のこの槍を 飲み取るほどに飲むならば  これぞ真の黒田武士

Sake wa nome, nome!  Nomu naraba, hi no moto ichi no kono yari o, nomi toru hodo ni nomu naraba, kore zo makoto no Kuroda bushi!

Drink! Drink this sake!  If you drink, this, the finest spear in all of the Land of the Rising Sun will be yours!  Drink enough to show you are a true Kuroda warrior!


峰の嵐か松風か 訪ねる人の琴の音か 駒ひき止めて立ち寄れば 爪音高き想夫恋

Mine no arashi ka? Matsu kaze ka? Tazuneru hito no koto no ne ka?

Koma hiki tomete tachi yoreba, tsuma oto takaki — Soh fu ren.

Is that the sound of a storm up in the peaks?  Or is it the wind in the pines?  Or could it be music from the koto of the one I seek?

He reined in his horse and paused, and heard the clear sound of her instrument expressing her yearning for her lord.


春のやよいのあけぼのに  四方の山べを見わたせば  花の盛りも はくの  かからぬ峰こそ なかりけれ

Haru no yayoi no akebono ni yomo no yamabe o miwataseba, hana no sakari mo, haku no kakaranu mine koso nakarikere.

In the spring, in the third month, at dawn, he could see that all around him the mountainsides were covered with blooming flowers, but there were no peaks that were untouched by snow clouds.


花たちばなも匂うなり  軒のあやめも薫るなり  夕暮まえのさみだれに  山ほととぎす名乗るなり して

Hana tachibana mo niou nari, noki no ayame mo kaoru nari, yugure mae no samidare ni yama hototogisu nanoru nari shite.

The mandarin orange blossoms smelled sweet, and the irises under the eaves were fragrant, and in the early summer rain before twilight the mountain cuckoo was calling its own name.



And just so you know what I’m talking about, here’s a performance of the first two verses:

Well, That Could Have Gone a Lot Worse

The BSFA’s Short Story Club has ended, and they are in the post-mortem phase now.  My “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” got some of the harsh treatment I expected, but it looks like my story polarized the group more than most, and the discussion also included a few comments from people who thought it worked.  Even the criticism was generally thoughtful, helpful feedback, and I was glad to have it (with the possible exception of the one that suggested people only liked my story because they had been fooled into it by the cool title).

This process was made a lot more bearable by the fact that halfway through the week, while those comments were still coming in, I was notified that Rich Horton had picked the story for inclusion in his The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2011.  I got the email while I was sitting in a reading at the KGB Fantastic Fiction series, so I was able to turn around and share the news with my friends and several big-shot pro writers and editors.  To make the evening even more surreal, that day was my birthday, and the co-host of the series, my buddy Matt Kressel, led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday.”

Prime Books announced the TOC for the anthology today.

That’s me down at the bottom:  “And More.”

There are several names that mean a lot to me in this list (including Neil Gaiman, whom I was fortunate to have as a Clarion instructor), and I am floored to be sharing a book with them.

Here’s the whole TOC:

The Fermi Paradox is Our Business Model” by Charlie Jane Anders,
Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” by Paul M. Berger, Fantasy Magazine
Under the Moons of Venus” by Damien Broderick, Subterranean
Arvies” by Adam-Troy Castro, Lightspeed
“Braiding the Ghosts” by C.S.E. Cooney, Clockwork Phoenix
“Amor Fugit” by Alexandra Duncan, F&SF
The Green Book” by Amal El-Mohtar, Apex Magazine
No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller, Lightspeed
The Interior of Mr. Bumblethorn’s Coat” by Willow Fagan, Fantasy Magazine
“The Thing About Cassandra” by Neil Gaiman, Songs of Love and Death
“The Maiden Flight of McCauley’s Bellerophon” by Elizabeth Hand, Stories
The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson, Strange Horizons
“Holdfast” by Matthew Johnson, Fantasy Magazine
“The Other Graces” by Alice Sola Kim, Asimov’s
Merrythoughts” by Bill Kte’pi, Strange Horizons
“The Sultan of the Clouds” by Geoffrey A. Landis, Asimov’s
Flower, Mercy, Needle, Chain” by Yoon Ha Lee, Lightspeed
Abandonware” by An Omowoyela, Fantasy Magazine
“Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance” by Paul Park, F&SF
Amor Vincet Omnia” by KJ Parker, Subterranean
“Dead Man’s Run” by Robert Reed, F&SF
The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky, Subterranean
“The Word of Azrael” by Matthew David Surridge, Black Gate
“A Letter from the Emperor” by Steve Rasnic Tem, Asimov’s
The Things” by Peter Watts, Clarkesworld
“Bloodsport” by Gene Wolfe, Swords & Dark Magic
“The Magician and the Maid and Other Stories” by Christie Yant, The Way of the Wizard
Standard Loneliness Package” by Charles Yu, Lightspeed

Win a Critique from Altered Fluid

The members of Altered Fluid are donating a critique as part of the KGB Fantastic Fiction raffle. All ten current members of the group will critique a story up to 7000 words from the winning ticket holder, either in person or via Skype. Fantastic Fiction at KGB is a NY-based reading series featuring luminaries and up-and-comers in speculative fiction.

Details about the raffle can be found here. And a full list of prizes can be found here.

[From the Altered Fluid blog.]

If Short Story Club is Anything Like Fight Club, I’m Breaking the First Rule

The editorial staff of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, is running an online short story club – each week from late August through November, they’re discussing a noteworthy or interesting story that has been published on the internet recently.  And I’m stunned to say they’ve selected my “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” as one of the 13 stories for discussion!

Looking back at the discussions of last year’s stories, these guys don’t pull any punches, so I’m not expecting a love-fest.  But I am delighted to get this type of critical attention, and I’m eager to see what they have to say.

And by some weird coincidence, discussion of my story will commence on November 17, which is also my birthday…

The schedule of stories is here on Torque Control, Vector’s blog.

Clarkesworld Goes Inside Altered Fluid

cw_47_300 This month, Clarkesworld Magazine is running an interview with (most of) the members of Altered Fluid, in which we discuss writing, and writing groups, and each other.

It was a lot of fun.  Jeremy L. C. Jones emailed us the questions and we shared them as a Google doc.  This let each of us answer them while reacting to everyone else’s responses, and the final effect is very much like we were sitting around a table kibbitzing in real time.

Although I make wise and insightful comments all throughout the interview, I’m probably at my most articulate when I say, “Urgh…”

The interview is here:  “Even the Best Stories Have Flaws: Inside Altered Fluid.”

Sybil’s Garage #7

Sybil's Garage #7 cover_full_spread I’m a little late to the party on this one, but nevertheless I am delighted to announce that Sybil’s Garage no. 7 went on sale this week.  I had a blast helping out with this magazine — finding gems in the slush, guiding authors on rewrites,  and copy editing.  I’m rather proud to see it in print, but my buddy Matt Kressel contributed the overwhelming majority of the work and the vision, and the whole endeavor is really his baby.

Here’s the blurb:

Where can you find a television that sees five minutes into the future? Where can you find dragons trapped in a jar and an illness which turns people into glass? Where might you find families who sell their brainpower to corporations for penny wages, or dead relatives that sit down for family meals?

Why, in the pages of Sybil’s Garage No. 7, of course.

In this seventh issue of the highly acclaimed series, you will find twenty-seven original works of fiction and poetry from today’s top talent, with suggested musical accompaniment, our trademark design aesthetic, and much more. But be sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs on your way into Sybil’s Garage, or you may not find your way out.

6″x9″, 206pp
ISBN: 978-0-9796246-1-2

Available from Senses Five Press,, BarnesAnd and other fine bookstores.

For more information click here.

Table of Contents:


“By Some Illusion” — Kathryn E. Baker
“Suicide Club” — Amy Sisson
“The Noise” — Richard Larson
“A History of Worms” — Amelia Shackelford
“Thinking Woman’s Crop of Fools” — Tom Crosshill
“The Unbeing of Once-Leela” — Swapna Kishore
“How the Future Got Better” — Eric Schaller
“The Telescope” — Megan Kurashige
“Under the Leaves” — A.C. Wise
“The Ferryman’s Toll” — Sam Ferree
“The Tale of the Six Monkeys’ Tails” — Hal Duncan
“The Poincaré Sutra” — Anil Menon
“Kid Despair in Love” — M.K. Hobson
“My Father’s Eyes” — E.C. Myers
“An Orange Tree Framed Your Body” — Alex Dally MacFarlane
“The Watcher Thorn” — Cheryl Barkauskas
“Other Things” — Terence Kuch
“The Dead Boy’s Last Poem” — Kelly Barnhill


“Seven League”s — Lyn C. A. Gardner
“One October Night in Baltimore” — Jaqueline West
“Indian Delight” — Alexandra Seidel
“Candle for the Tetragrammaton” — Sonya Taaffe
“Emigrant” — Linsdey Duncan
“Schehirrazade” — Amal El-Mohtar
“The Hyacinth Girl” — Adrienne J. Odasso
“Pathways Marked in Silver” — Marcie Lynn Tentchoff
“Rain ” — Juliet Gillies


“Glourious Homage: Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Cinema” — Avi Kotzer

In Stereo

Hilltop Castle Ruin

Fantasy Magazine has published an Author Spotlight interview to accompany “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory.”  I discuss writing the story, and also attempt to describe what makes a successful writing group.

The story has already gotten some feedback.  In an absurdly flattering review in Locus, Rich Horton writes:

And speaking of writers beginning to attract attention, I was impressed last year by Paul M. Berger’s Interzone piece “Home Again”.  Now he contributes a brilliant story to Fantasy, one of the stories of the year so far, “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of her Glory”

I guess that kidney I gave him really paid off.

“Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory” in Fantasy Magazine

I’m delighted to announce that my story “Stereogram of the Gray Fort, in the Days of Her Glory,” has been published in Fantasy Magazine.  I’m a big fan of this publication, and I’m very happy this piece has found a good home there.

A couple of different things came together to inspire this story.  The first was a trip.  Last spring I was in India on business for the Day Job.  I’ve done a fair amount of traveling, but everything people had been telling me about India turned out to be true, and I’ve never been anywhere that challenged me or inspired me so much in such a short time. I was cooped up in offices and hotels for most of my stay, but I managed to steal some time for myself and get out and look around.

The Gray Fort in my story is modeled after complexes built by Mughal emperors in the 1500’s and 1600’s.  They’re called “forts” today, but they’re the size of towns, surrounded by moats and immense walls, and they contain military garrisons, palaces, audience halls and mosques, all in various states of renovation and ruin.

Red Fort Agra Fort

The same people built the Taj Mahal, which is right down the road from Agra Fort (and to my surprise, the Taj Mahal surpassed all the hype I’d heard about its beauty).

Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

For a few dollars I hired a guide for a day.  He was a high school History teacher who moonlighted on weekends (and probably made more this way than from his regular salary).  He had a master’s degree and spoke five languages well enough to conduct day-long tours in them, including Japanese, which he had taught himself.  He had given his spiel so many times that he compacted every list of architectural features and souvenirs for sale into one long, sing-song word.  It was a surprise to him that I didn’t want him to carry my camera and take snapshots of the scenery for me.  (He would occasionally lead me through areas crowded with hawkers, and each time he would instruct me beforehand that although he would appear to be encouraging me to buy from them, that was just because he had to interact with them on every tour, and I should under no circumstances give them any money.)  Whether he intended it or not, every time he spoke he drew my attention to the fact that here was a talented, dignified man, from a culture that had achieved marvelous things, but the only way he could support his family was to show rich foreign idiots around the remnants of the era when his home town was a seat of power.

In my story, the humans’ relationship to the old fortress, and to the greatness they’ve lost, and to the colonial powers that rule them, all stem from this impression.

The part about the stereogram came to me in a dream that involved a stereoscope – a Victorian-era parlor gadget with lenses that show the viewer two similar photographs at once, creating the combined effect of a single three-dimensional image. In my dream though, a different person was looking through each lens, and somehow they both understood the combined picture.  I worked backward from there to shape a relationship that would allow that to happen.

stereoscope 4

“Small Burdens” on Strange Horizons

Clockwork Heart

I’m proud to say my short story “Small Burdens” just went up on the wonderful speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons.  You can read it here.

This piece began as my first Clarion story, written during the week our workshop was led by Kelly Link.

A bit of spoiler — It’s a fairy story, and I knew next to nothing about fairy lore when I started it, but the piece grew out of the question: When fairies steal human children, why do they bother to leave changelings in their place?  It seems like a lot of work, and they’re eventually found out sooner or later.  Do fairies just have cruel senses of humor, or do the changelings serve some purpose that humans never see?  I tried to answer that, working from the premise that fairies were a bit too alien to relate to humans, and that the changeling had to be doing something that would help them abduct or raise a human baby.

I’ve been a big fan of Strange Horizons for years (and it was co-founded by another one of my Clarion instructors, Mary Anne Mohanraj), so I’m delighted this story found a good home there.

Playing Possum