The Science Fiction and Fantasy of B. Franklin Thatcher
Bruce Franklin Thatcher is an award-winning science fiction and fantasy author who lives in Orem, Utah, not far from BYU, a university that has produced numerous major sf/f authors, such as Orson Scott Card, Dave Wolverton, and Diann Thornley.
Thatcher may be best known for his "Star Trek" stories in the Strange New Worlds anthologies. Thatcher had stories chosen for publication in both of the first two "Strange New Worlds" contests, including his 2nd place story "Of Cabbages and Kings" (out of over 3,000 entries).
Thatcher's dark fantasy story "By Other Windings" won a first place prize in the "Writers of the Future" contest, the world's most prestigous (and highest paying) contest for new science fiction/fantasy writers. Previous WoTF contest winners have included such major s.f. novelists as Dave Wolverton (author of The Courtship of Princess Leia, Serpent Catch, etc.), David Zindell (Neverness), Bell, Barnes, Hoffman, Rusch, etc. Like these WoTF predecessors, Thatcher may also become a major writer in the field.
After "I Am Become Death" (a story about Data) was published in the 2nd Strange New Worlds anthology, Thatcher was no longer eligible for publication in venues such as these, which cater to new writers. But he has continued to write and publish short stories and is currently working on a novel.
Thatcher has dealt with a variety of themes in his fiction, but ethics and morality are always central considerations, although approached from unusual perspectives. In "Of Cabbages and Kings", "I Am Become Death" and "By Other Windings" the nature of the human or sentient soul has been explored in stories focusing on a starship computer, an android, and a demon. In each of these stories, an intelligent but ostensibly soulless being is spirited instantly from its own familiar reality to an unfamiliar realm where it confronts choices to grow or perish, to be a willful agent or the pawn of others. Yet these stories are so completely different in tone and content that most readers would never notice these commonalities, unless they were specifically reading Thatcher stories and looking for them. Thatcher is first and foremost telling interesting, compelling stories, and any common "themes" are so deeply imbedded in the fabric of his fiction that even he seems unaware of them.
In answer to this site's inquiry, Franklin Thatcher tells us that the novel he is currently working on is "the story of a religious mission sent to acquire historical and scriptural records from a culture of centaurs living on a planet doomed to colonization by humans."
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Thatcher's 2nd place award for this story is impressive, given the thousands of submissions the contest received. As the story chosen as second best, it is no surprise that "Of Cabbages as Kings" is an impressive, original, well-crafted story. Right from the start it is clear that this is an unusual story: it is told entirely from the perspective of the Enterprise - the ship itself, or, specifically, the ship's computer. As the ship's "thoughts" cycle rapidly, at billions of calculations a second, the ship and readers soon realize that the crew has suddenly and unexpectantly vanished. The entire story, in fact, is devoid of any characters other than the Enterprise (unless one counts a holodeck simulation of Captain Picard, which has a relatively brief but important role).
This is particularly challenging subject matter because the Enterprise is not sentient, and can merely run the routines programmed into it. This actually turns out to be quite interesting, as Thatcher addresses a legitimate question: Just what is a Starfleet ship programmed to do if it has no crew? The answers are very plausible and should appeal especially to logicians and computer programmers.
But this story becomes much more than simply a tale of a failsafe algorithm, because in order to extricate itself from its situation, the Enterprise must (as challenged by the Picard simulation) achieve some semblance of sentience. It must go beyond its orignal programming.
Certainly similar themes have been addressed before, especially with Data and Voyager's holodoc. Both this story and "Of Possible Futures" (in Star Wars: Tales of the Bounty Hunters by M. Shayne Bell, another Utah author), deal specifically with the concept of an artificial intelligence acquiring intuition. This tale of the Enterprise, however, adds new dimensions to these concepts, while providing a detailed but very readable look deep into the "mind" of a starship. The story also addresses the interesting question about why Starfleet doesn't design its ships with self-awareness in the first place.
"I Am Become Death"
Short story in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds II, edited by Dean Wesley Smith.
New York: Simon and Schuster/Pocket Books, 1999.
Anthology of seventeen stories chosen from a competition which had over 4,000 submissions.
After winning 2nd place in the first volume of Strange New Worlds, Thatcher is back with another story about an artificial intelligence. Different in every way from "Of Cabbages and Kings", Thatcher's volume 2 story, "I Am Become Death" is about Data, one of the most popular artificial beings in all of science fiction.
(Interestingly enough, another Utah author has a story in this anthology: Ken Rand. His story, with the coincidentally similar title "I Am Klingon", is about Worf and the differences between Klingons of the original Star Trek and the TNG era. Ken Rand and Franklin Thatcher did some book signings together promoting this book.)
"I Am Become Death" is a very short story, and to say too much about the plot would give things away and lessen the impact of a very original, stunning story. The story contains prominent references to much of Data's family tree, including Data' creator Soong, his brother Lor, "daughter" Lal, his wife, and other "descendants." For the most part, these characters are referred to in the past tense, as most of them have long since died or been destroyed. Some of these relations will be unfamiliar to even the most ardent Star Trek fan, because they haven't happened yet: This story takes place thousands of years past the 24th century future depicted in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
One of the highlights of this story, in fact, is the glimpses it offers into what life may be like for this never-aging android who seeks to become human as he continues to live for many centuries. Thatcher masterfully conveys Data's soulfull moodiness, borne of his own exhaustive experience with the inevitable death of beloved mortal friends, and even of whole races. The galaxy we briefly see thousands of years in the future is in some ways dark, but believable, and very fascinating. But what is most memorable about "I Am Become Death" are the actions Data takes to change things and atone for the far-reaching legacy of himself and his "family."
The publication of "I Am Become Death" disqualifies Thatcher from future competition in the "Strange New Worlds" contest, but Thatcher is said to be working now on a novel and I'm eager to read whatever he writes next.
"By Other Windings"
Short story in L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future, vol. 15.
Los Angeles: Bridge Publications, 1999.
First Prize Quarterly Award in Writers of the Future Contest
You can say one thing about "By Other Windings" -- one certainly would not guess the writer's background from this story. This is a very dark tale of a demon and a witch. The imagery and situations in this story mark it as being clearly not for youth, and not for most of Thatcher's adult neighbors as well. This is not the type of story one expects to come out of Orem.
The main character and story's narrator is a demon, apparently once a human, who has been cursed in the afterlife with the enlargement of that feature which in mortal life he loved most about himself. The demon's male feature, now uselessly and awkwardly large, is described prominently in this story full of violent sexual imagery. If filmed, the story's sexual situations, nudity, and graphic violence would probably have to be edited to avoid a rating worse than R. The language is sedate in that the story contains no outright profanity or vulgar words, but the imagery is highly disturbing and provocative.
When the story starts out, the demon lives in the waters beneath Charon's boat (in the River Styx), where he often interrupts the Charon's job ferrying the dead across the water. While toying with a deceased soul, the demon is conjured into the mortal world Elenora, a woman who has apparently gained some skill as a witch. Elenora wants to use the demon in a plot to torment, torture and then kill Miara, her brother's new wife. She is upset about the end of her incestuous relationship with her bother, and the fact that her brother's new wife will replace her as the heir to his great fortune.
Conjured by Elenora, the demon's body remains in her cellar within a chalked five-point star and circle of candles, while Elenora commands the demon's ethereal spirit to accompany her on her devious errands. The demon's ethereal self has impressive power to direct suggestions and temptations to other people.
Elenora's evil designs and the demon's lustful impulses cause pain in the lives of all those they encounter in the execution of Elenora's plan to regain her place as the only woman in her brother's life. But the demon's own cruel actions shock him into a remembrance of when he was mortal youth, before he died and was consigned to his demon state. His recalls the event when, as a young soldier, he let violent and sexual urges overcome him to victimize a fleeing civilian woman -- an act which transformed him into a monster even while he was still human. The demon is also affected by the nobility and goodness within Miara, and even by the deeply hidden honor and ethical sense within Elenora's outwardly soulless brother. Eventually the story, which has intentionally shocked with depravity, reveals a shocking amount of redemption and morality.
"By Other Windings" is not for everyone. At fist glance, and certainly within the initial scenes, it might seem merely an exercise in dark horror and gratuitous evil. Clearly the story is intentionally challenging, but it is also interesting, unusual, and very literary. It should appeal to fans of Stephen King and Neil LaBute, authors who write challenging, visceral but deeply moral fiction. Thatcher's story would be classified as "shockingly appropriate," to use Benson Parkinson's method of categorization (the two more "mild" classifications are "completely appropriate" and "broadly appropriate").
This is not to say that everything within the story is justified -- different readers (or potential readers) will disagree on whether this story has used overly extreme means to achieve its end. In large part, this story is a condemnation of physical, sexual, and emotional violence against women. But its frequent graphic portrayal of such evils may be deemed unconscionable even to those who most agree with the values which emerge from the complete story. What is inarguable is that this is not a fluff piece and its powerful ingredients are not included carelessly or for their own sake. This is a multilayered, carefully constructed piece of fiction which refuses to allow the reader to stand on the sidelines but forces emotional, intellectual, visceral participation.
The third quarter winner, Franklin Thatcher's "By Other Windings," is a vague, dark saga of the demon living under Charon's boat. Reduced to stealing some of the dead souls that Charon ferries across the river, the demon is suddenly forced into the control of Elenora. The story is a surprising pick, since the action drifts in parts, and a definite plot materializes very late into the tale.
Ashley M. Wilborn reviewed this book, particularly Thatcher's story, in The Crimson White Online (University of Alabama), 17 February 2000:
The authors in this book deal with injustice and mete out their own brands of justice. Like all good books, most of the stories are not so far fetched that most people cannot relate to them. Some of the stories are a bit out there though, such as "By Other Windings" written by Franklin Thatcher and illustrated by Tomislav Tomic.
This story is both kinky and strange in a death-by-mutilation way. The plot is not quite important until the very end, but let me just say there is a very big male demon... I began to question the author's motivations for writing this story, and wondered whether this was just one of his personal twisted fantasies.
But then again, I am just a reviewer, find out for yourself. That particular story may just be your cup o' tea.
Additional Comments: Ms. Wilborn clearly didn't like "By Other Windings" very much. One could suggest that she was put off by the surface details and did not read the underlying story. But the truth is, there is much to dislike in this story. That the story's contents are intentionally disagreeable will not be an acceptable excuse for many readers. One suspects that LaBute fans will love this story, Dutcher fans may or may not like it, and anybody who finds Card too uncorrelated should definitely avoid "By Other Windings." Many a reader will appreciate the story for its considerable power and art and even its X-rated Puritanism, yet still partially wish that they hadn't read it.
"Luther and the Dragon"
Short story in Realms of Fantasy no. 7 (October 2000).
Read "Luther and the Dragon" online at SciFiNow.com
"The Lion Sleeps"
Short story in Irreantum (Fall 2000).
Readers can order single back-issues of this excellent literary journal, or start a subscription, by visiting the Irreantum web site.
In Sorrow Bring Forth Children
Short story in Realms of Fantasy 7 (June 2001)