Alexander Jablokov


I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction, with a new novel, Brain Thief.

The name is pronounced Yablokov, and the legal name is Jablokow.  My best friends can't spell or pronounce it, so you shouldn't worry about it either.

More here

Write me at alexjablokow [at]

I'd love to hear from you.





"The Instructive Tale of the Archeologist and His Wife", Asimov's Science Fiction, out now

"Bad Day on Boscobel", The Other Half of the Sky.

"Feral Moon", novella, Asimov's Science Fiction, March 2013

"Since You Seem to Need a Certain Amount of Guidance", Daily Science Fiction, November 6, 2012

"The Comfort of Strangers", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January/February 2012

"Blind Cat Dance" reprinted in Gardner Dozois's Best Science Fiction of the Year 28

"The Day the Wires Came Down", novelette, Asimov's Science Fiction, April/May 2011

"Plinth Without Figure", short story, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, November/December 2010

"Warning Label", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine August 2010

"Blind Cat Dance", short story, Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine March 2010

Brain Thief, a novel, Tor Books, January 2010


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Reboot blog



Learning the wrong lesson: the Battle of Lissa and the resurgence of the naval ram

Last week's discussion of how to win WWI got me to thinking about how you draw lessons from history--more specifically, in this case, military history. You won a battle. Or you lost one. Why? What about your approach, your weapons, your generalship, was the decisive factor? Deciding this is much harder than historical fiction makes it sound, because the easiest (and laziest) way to make a historical character seem smart is to have them anticipate the future and be able to easily distinguish between the necessary and the contingent in a way that was completely impossible for any real person living in the confusing flow of actual events.

This, incidentally, is how doctors in historical fiction work. They anticipate the past couple of centuries of data analysis, experiment, and many false paths just by being smart and observant, so they never ruthlessly bleed people, blister their heads, or make them throw up, and then blame them for not getting better, unlike real historical doctors. I've never read a credible doctor in a historical or fantasy novel. Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian books comes closest, I guess, but even he has a too-high success rate.

The entertaining Great Courses class The Decisive Battles of World History, by Professor Gregory Aldrete, starts out with a description of the 1866 Battle of Lissa, in the Third Italian War of Independence. Don't worry if you've never heard of either the battle or the war--I never had either.

Lissa was a sea battle between Italians and Austrians off the coast of Croatia, and involved both ironclads and wooden sailing ships. The Austrians won, but since they lost the significant Battle of Königgrätz (also called Sadowa) to Prussia the next month, this particular victory had little effect (Aldrete uses it to lead off a discussion of what actually makes for a decisive battle). But during the Battle of Lissa itself, several ramming attacks helped decide the issue.

As a result of this, all European navies for the next 40 years put rams on their battleships, as if they were giant, steam-powered triremes (perhaps the example of ancient Greek naval warfare encouraged over-educated procurement officers to make this odd decision), even though they would prove to be utterly useless in an era of long-range gunnery.

Here are a couple of examples.  First, the American ship USS Alarm, 1874:

Then there is the HMS Polyphemus, 1882:

It's not just the name: the Polyphemus really did look like a trireme:


During the US Civil War, in 1862, the USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by the CSS Virginia during the Battle of Hampton Roads, but Europeans tended to neglect the instructive experience of those crude Americans during their internecine squabble. It was Lissa that was influential.

In retrospect this seems completely crazy. But there were real reasons for making this choice. Naval guns were still weak and inaccurate, while armor had already become quite good. So shells tended to be ineffective in sinking opposing vessels. The ram promised a useful form of offense that would even the odds. They never actually ended up being used in battle. And naval guns quickly became more accurate and more powerful.

But these rams were not only useless.  According to this Center for International Maritime Security article, they were actively dangerous, because ships on the same side tended to sink each other on maneuvers, or in bad weather. It was running with scissors, naval style. You ended up poking your eye out.

It is incredibly difficult to figure out what is the important fact from a chaotic, fast-paced, and contingent set of experiences. And don't ignore the influence of trends, conventional wisdom, and fear of being wrong or ridiculous.The people who make influential decisions are always embedded in a complex and interactive social matrix. If they aren't, no matter how smart they are, they have no influence over events.

It would be incredibly hard to write a novel where you show a really smart person being repeatedly and completely wrong--and still smart. But that is what history is all about, how truly hard real lessons are to learn.

None of the many ship models I made in my youth was an ironclad with a ram. But now I'd like to find one.

And maybe I can work one into a story somehow.


The fictional and the real: WWI and narrative

Recently, I've listened to Dan Carlin's fine (if a bit overlong) podcast series on the Great War, Blueprint for Armageddon (in six parts, and currently free on his site, Hardcore History.  Well worth your time), and read the book Carlin acknowledges as a significant source, Peter Hart's The Great War, a Combat History of the First World War, which I also recommend, with this caveat: the maps are terrible. You'll need something like the resource I used, Arthur Banks's A Military Atlas of the First World War to have some idea of what is going on.

Together, those sources gave me much better appreciation for the military challenges of winning the war on the Western Front, particularly from the Allied side. In essence: you couldn't. The French and British got better and better at attacking as the war progressed, learning how to use moving barrages, how to concentrate their forces, how do combined operations with aircraft and tanks. All that ever got them was a few miles and a lot of dead men. Even at their best and most organized, each offensive would reach its initial objectives and then, while they regrouped for the next round, the Germans would also reorganize and present another defensive line. Not a single one of these offensives achieved any larger objective.

And many of them were not at all well-organized.  Over and over, Hart tells how either the British or French would be hard-pressed, about to collapse, and desperately request their allies to launch an offensive to take some of the pressure off.  Even though even well-planned and well-resourced offensives failed, the commanders would scramble to comply, essentially slaughtering thousands of men to maintain a feeling of alliance. Nothing ever succeeded.

So that is why the whole four years feels like one endless static nightmare, except in the beginning, at the Battle of the Frontiers, and at the end, when moving armies meant that the casualties were way higher that they were even in brutal assaults on trenches. Carlin refuses to detail much of 1915, because every horrible battle was exactly like every other horrible battle, and no one yet had much of a clue how to manage things.

So no wonder that people with a sense of narrative, like Churchill and Lloyd-George, became what were called Easterners, trying to find some way they could attack without facing the iron wall of the German army in the West. The results were just as terrible: Gallipoli and Salonika (where, after getting all bent out of shape about Germany's violation of Belgian neutrality, the British blithely violated Greek neutrality in pursuit of their own goals). Even the successful Middle East campaigns, featuring the charismatic Lawrence of Arabia, were just sideshows that drew resources from the main fight. Not one of those operations were worth the effort.

You could tell bad commanders by the fact that they killed way more of their own troops, but there was no way to be a truly good commander. No genius could come up with some spectacular tactic. New weapons systems, like tanks, would work well at first and then break down. No propaganda could affect the enemy's will to resist.

None of us would ever come up with something like this as the basis of an SF or fantasy novel. There we like people who affect things, make things happen, and can anticipate the actions of the enemy. None of that on the Western Front. The best thing would have been for everyone involved to negotiate some kind of status quo ante treaty after the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914. After all, by the end of 1914, the French alone had already lost something like 300,000 dead, an unbelievable 27,000 on just one day, August 22.

Of course, everyone still believed there was a story to tell, one with some kind of narrative. It's startling to think how long they would have to wait for the end of the story.


Dystopian slipstream pornography!

This is no place to learn about the recent Hugo award kerfuffle (Sad Puppies, oppressive gynocrats, etc.).  There are plenty of thoughtful people writing about it, and I won't point you to any one.

But, I just need to point out a comment on George R. R. Martin's post, Me and the Hugos, from Lou Antonelli:

Whether there is an organized blacklist or not, the fact remains literary science fiction has become a boring repetition of dystopian slipstream pornography. (emphasis added)

I believe this is a movement. It needs a manifesto and an anthology, at the very least. I feel like I have regained my faith in speculative literature. Who's with me?

(HT to my friend, writer Olivia Hall Fowler, who pointed this term out to me)


Best sentences I read today, post-mortem edition

From a great article, DeathHacks, in the online magazine Medium:

You should know that for unattended deaths the cops will show up and remove any prescription drugs stronger than Advil and they will not return them. If you are a newly-bereaved family member looking for something in the medicine cabinet to take the edge off, you’ll be out of luck.

It's of a techie woman dealing with the elaborately programmed house left behind by her even techier father.

Aside from the advice that all of us should have

a will; durable power of attorney; healthcare proxy; and a way for your loved ones to access (or not) your things, both material and digital

She tells an interesting detective story, of trying to reverse hack her father's oddball programs.

I suspect SF editors will be seeing a bunch of stories based on this article in the next couple of months. It has a lot to offer: mysterious motivations, interesting technology, and the relationship between a daughter and her now-dead father. There are a number of ways to take it, from suspenseful to emotionally revelatory. I may try it myself, but by the time I get to it, editors will be heartily sick of this unasked-for subgenre of competitive hacking between generations and across the abyss of death.



Word for the day: petrichor

Most writers know way more different words than they use, though there are the occasional outliers who use way more words than they know.

That's because writers like readers, and many readers do complain when a writer uses a word they don't already know, as if any of us already knows all the words we will ever know. Has this changed with online dictionaries easily linked to the actual text being read? A Kindle lets you look up a word instantly. I would be interested to hear if anyone has done a study of whether people are now more willing to attack a "difficult" text, knowing they won't actually have to get up and go open a dictionary when they hit an unfamiliar word.

Allusion assistance can't be far behind.

This is all by way of my getting to a cool word I learned today (via a story about rain on The Dish): petrichor, the earthy smell of rain when it first falls on dry soil.  The name was made up in 1964 by two Australian researchers, and comes from the Greek words for stone (as in "you are Petrus, the rock on which I will build my church") and ichor, the word for the fluid in the circulatory systems of the Greek gods, which got used by H. P. Lovecraft and people imitating him for the circulatory fluids of aliens and other creepy creatures.

It's not a very mellifluous word for such a sensuous, specific concept. If I do use it, no doubt tying it to a specific memory a character has, I will probably define it, just because this really is one of those "there's a word for that?" words.