Notes on “Association of the Dead”

Hi Everyone. I’ve always really liked blogs (like David D. Levine’s or Ian Creasey’s) that included notes about each of the author’s stories. To me, it feels kind of fun and historical. It’s nice to know that these things don’t just disappear. So this is my attempt at doing the same sort of thing. The story notes will be published on the blog’s main page as I write them, and then they will be linked-to in my bibliography.

Story Notes

  • “Association of the Dead” was published in Clarkesworld Magazine #46
  • Read it
  • Listen to it
  • Originally Published in  July 2010
  • 6200 words
  • Science Fiction
  • Rejected 1 time before selling
  • Took five days to write the first draft (March 25th – March 29th, 2010)
  • Finished revisions on May 2nd, 2010 ( with only minimal changes between first draft and final draft)
  • Accepted on June 27th, 2010

First Lines

The neon logic clusters cascaded through the extremities of Sumith’s perception as he sang sweet Code through the room, through the house, and out into the massed congregations of networked singers across the world.

The Code had tripped another threshold. Or so he’d been told. He’d long ago abandoned the ranks of dilettantes who stood back from the effort and sipped chemical so they could dream up fancy metaphors to describe the glorious totality of the Code. Now he sang the Code. He sang the Code in his sleep, and paused only a moment after waking before plunging in again. He sang it while he ate, and he sang it while he—

His home muted the orchestra of Code a moment before the rock crashed through his window, sprinkling his living room with pebbles of safe-shatter glass. A bleeding body, its clothes bloody and torn, slithered through his window. The face turned towards him. The pale whites of its eyes were highlighted by the dirt and dried gore caked on the face, the rust-colored bloodstains around its mouth. The face and the mouth were exact replicas of Sumith’s own… as exact as a molecular extruder could make them.

Origin Story (and other notes)

One day during my lunch break, I was browsing Wikipedia and I ran across the following List of Premature Obituaries: a list of people who, for whatever reason, had been declared dead while they were still alive (notable mentions: Alfred Nobel; Gabrielle Giffords; Ernest Hemingway; Mark Twain). Most of the stories are pretty silly: internet hoaxes or the accidental publication of pre-written obituaries. But one of them was super-cool!

Lal Bihari, Indian founder of the Association of the Dead, an organisation which highlights the plight of people in Uttar Pradesh who are incorrectly declared dead by relatives in order to steal their land, usually in collusion with corrupt officials. Bihari himself was officially dead from 1976 to 1994 as a result of his uncle’s attempt to acquire his land. Among various attempts to publicize his situation and demonstrate that he was alive, he stood for election against Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 (and lost). He was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for his ‘posthumous’ activities.

And that led me to this article in TIME. Apparently, this is a thing in India. People will bribe the district clerks to declare someone dead. Bihari formed an organization to represent these “undead” victims. When I got home that day, I started writing this story. I’m not sure why it’s about zombies and cannibalism and social networking and virtual reality, but, you know…that stuff happens.

When Clarkesworld likes a story, it will hold it at the top of the slush until the end of the month. But when this happened to me, I didn’t know that, since they’d never before taken longer than nine days to reject a story of mine. I was on mission in South Asia while I watched this story steadily climb up to the top of the slush pile. And I remember thinking, while in a hotel room in Bangladesh, that I really didn’t think this story was going to sell. Keep in mind that, at that point, I’d only made 1 SFWA qualifying sale (to Nature) and that I’d only sold 2 stories at pro rates (the other story was published in the second issue of the now-defunct Redstone Science Fiction). Clarkesworld was (and is), like, a real magazine. One whose stories get reprinted and nominated for awards and read by real people. Up to that point, I really had no proof that any of my stories had ever been read by anyone that I didn’t know (publishing a story in Nature, while awesome, will not win you any recognition within the field).

So selling to Clarkesworld would be a huge step up for me, and I really didn’t think that this was going to be the story that did it. Honestly, it just did not seem that much better than any of the other stories I was writing at the time (actually, in my eyes, it felt worse).

On June 27th, I’d finished my mission and was spending ten days in Berlin, visiting a former roommate of mine. I was staying in a wonderful hotel: the EasyHotel. It’s basically just this super-tiny room that’s a bed and a bathroom and nothing more (the bed takes up 70% of the floorspace in the room). I’d wake up around noontime and go out and meet my friends at a cafe. And one day I woke up to an email from the editor of Clarkesworld (Neil Clarke) saying that he wanted to publish this story.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy in my life. The happiness was literally not expressible. I tried to explain it to my college friends, but I don’t think I quite conveyed it.

Anyway, other fun stuff: I debated back and forth for a few emails with Neil Clarke about how the story should be read in audio (since it uses a typographic convention–uppercase and lowercase letters–to distinguish between multiple characters with the same name). Finally, he just left it up to Clarkesworld’s audio editor, Kate Baker, to handle. I’ve never listened to the audio version, so I have no idea how she solved the problem.