Spin State

Spin State

by Chris Moriarty

Paperback(Mass Market Paperback - Reprint)

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From a stunning new voice in hard science fiction comes the thrilling story of one woman’s quest to wrest truth from chaos, love from violence, and reality from illusion in a post-human universe of emergent AIs, genetic constructs, and illegal wetware. . . .

UN Peacekeeper Major Catherine Li has made thirty-seven faster-than-light jumps in her lifetime—and has probably forgotten more than most people remember. But that’s what backup hard drives are for. And Li should know; she’s been hacking her memory for fifteen years in order to pass as human. But no memory upgrade can prepare Li for what she finds on Compson’s World: a mining colony she once called home and to which she is sent after a botched raid puts her on the bad side of the powers that be. A dead physicist who just happens to be her cloned twin. A missing dataset that could change the interstellar balance of power and turn a cold war hot. And a mining “accident” that is starting to look more and more like murder. . . .

Suddenly Li is chasing a killer in an alien world miles underground where everyone has a secret. And one wrong turn in streamspace, one misstep in the dark alleys of blackmarket tech and interstellar espionage, one risky hookup with an AI could literally blow her mind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553586244
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/23/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 640
Sales rank: 617,414
Product dimensions: 4.15(w) x 6.90(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Chris Moriarty was born in 1968 and has lived in the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America. A resident of Utah since 1994, Chris has trained horses for cattle ranches and hunting operations, and worked as a ranch hand, backcountry guide, freelance editor and environmental lawyer.

Read an Excerpt


Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not play at dice.

—Albert Einstein

God may not play at dice, but She certainly knows how to count cards.

—Hannah Sharifi

They cold-shipped her out, flash-frozen, body still bruised from last-minute upgrades.

Later she remembered only pieces of the raid. The touch of a hand. The crack of rifle fire. A face flashing bright as a fish's rise in dark water. And what she did remember she couldn't talk about, or the psychtechs would know she'd been hacking her own memory.

But that was later. After the court-martial. After jump fade and the rehab tanks had stolen it from her. Before that the memory was still crisp and clear and unedited. Still hers.

After all, she'd been there.

Li knew Metz was going to be big as soon as she met the liaison officer TechComm sent out to brief her squad. Twenty minutes after Captain C. Xavier Soza, UNSC, hit planet surface he'd gone into anaphylactic shock, and she was signing him into the on-base ER and querying her oracle for his next-of-kin list.

Allergies went with the uniform, of course. Terraforming was just a benign form of biological warfare; anyone who had to eat, breathe, or move in the Trusteeships got caught in the crossfire sometime. Still, no normal posthuman was that fragile. This time TechComm had sent out a genuine unadapted Ring-bred human. And clever young humans didn't get cold-shipped to the Periphery, didn't risk decoherence and respiratory failure unless they'd been sent out to do something that counted. Something the brass wouldn't trust to the AIs and colonials.

Soza spent thirty hours in the tanks before he recovered enough to give them their briefing. He seemed alert when he finally showed up, but he was still short of breath, and he had the worst case of hives Li had ever seen.

"Major," he said. "Sorry you had to deal with that little crisis. Not how I imagined my first meeting with the hero of Gilead."

Li flinched. Was she never going to enter a room without her reputation walking two steps in front of her?

"Forget it," she said. "Happens to the best of us."

"Not to you."

She searched Soza's handsome, unmistakably human face for an insult. She found none; in fact his eyes dropped so quickly under her stare that she suspected he'd let the words slip out without thinking how they sounded. She glanced at her squad, settling into chairs proportioned for humans, behind desks designed for humans, and she felt the usual twist of relief, shame, envy. It was pure accident, after all, that her ancestors had boarded a corporate ship and paid for their passage with blood and tissue instead of credit. Pure accident that had subjected her geneset to anything more than the chance mutations of radiation exposure and terraforming fallout. Pure accident that made her an outsider even among posthumans.

"No," she told Soza finally. "Not to me."

Slip of the tongue or no, Soza was all smooth, cultured confidence when he stood up to give the briefing. His uniform hung the way only real wool could, and he spoke in smooth diplomatic Spanish that even the two newest enlisted men could follow without accessing hard memory. The very picture of a proper UN Peacekeeper.

"The target is located below a beet-processing plant," he told them, "hiding in its heat signature." He subvocalized, and a streamspace schematic of the target folded into realspace like a spiny asymmetrical flower. "There are five underground labs, each one of them a small-run virufacture facility. The system is deadwalled. No spinstream ports, no VR grid, not even dial-in access. The only way to break it is to shunt the cracker in on a human operative."

Soza nodded toward Kolodny, who straightened out of her habitual slouch and grinned wolfishly. There was a new scar along the rake of Kolodny's cheekbone. Fresh, but not so fresh that Li shouldn't remember it. She searched her active files, came up empty. Ran a parity check. Nothing. Christ, she thought, feeling queasy, how much is missing this time?

She was going to have to get someone to put a patch on her start-up files. Someone who could keep a secret. Before she forgot more than she could afford to forget.

"The rest of you will get the cracking team past the deadwall," Soza was saying, "and collect biosamples while the AI goes fishing. We're after whatever you can get on this raid. Source code, hardware, wetware. Especially wetware. Once the AI has the target code on cube, he wipes his tracks, and you withdraw. Hopefully without being detected."

"Which AI are we using?" Li asked.

But before Soza could answer, Cohen walked in.

Cohen wasn't his real name, of course. Still, he'd been calling himself that for so long that few people even remembered his Toffoli number. Today's interface wasn't one Li had seen before, but she knew it was Cohen on shunt before he closed the door behind him. He wore a silk suit the color of fall leaves—real silk, not tank-grown stuff—and he moved with the smooth, spare grace of a multiplanetary network shunting through cutting-edge wetware. And there was the ironic smile, the hint of laughter behind the shunt's long-lashed eyes, the faint but ever-present suggestion that whatever he was talking to you about couldn't possibly be as important as the countless other pies he had his fingers in.

As usual, he'd appeared at exactly the right moment, but with no apparent idea what he was doing there. "Hallo?" he said, blinking vaguely. "Oh. Right. The briefing. Did I miss anything?"

"Not yet," Soza answered. "Glad you could make it." He spoke French to Cohen, and Li glanced between the two men, wondering how they knew each other—and how well they knew each other—in the privileged world Ring-siders called normal life.

Cohen caught her looking at him, smiled, took a half step toward the empty place next to her. She turned away. He took a seat in the back. He leaned over and whispered something in Kolodny's ear as he sat down, and she smothered a laugh.

"We interfering with your social life, Cohen?" Li asked. "Like us to take the briefing elsewhere?"

"Sorry," Kolodny muttered.

Cohen just raised an eyebrow. As he did, a thin, dark-haired schoolboy trotted into Li's frontbrain, dribbling a soccer ball. He pantomimed an elaborate apology, then bounced the ball off the toe of one cleated foot, tucked it under his arm, and loped off toward a point behind her right ear. The cleats tickled; she had to resist the urge to reach up and rub her forehead.

<Stuff it,> she told Cohen.

Metz's Bose-Einstein relay was sulking today. A rapid-fire barrage of status messages flashed across Li's peripheral vision telling her that the relay station was establishing entanglement, acquiring a spinfoam channel, spincasting, matching spinbits to e-bits, running a Sharifi transform, correcting nontrivial spin deviations and dispatching the replicated datastream to whatever distant segments of Cohen's network were monitoring this briefing.

Before the first Bose-Einstein strike on Compson's World—before the first primitive entanglement banks and relay stations, before Hannah Sharifi and Coherence Theory—a message from Metz to Earth would have taken almost three days in transit along a narrow and noisy noninteractive channel. Now Bose-Einstein arrays sent entangled data shooting through the spinfoam's short-lived quantum mechanical wormholes quickly enough to link the whole of UN space into the vivid, evolving, emergent universe of the spinstream.

Except today, apparently.

<Can't you get a better channel?> Li asked.

<I already have,> Cohen answered before she'd finished the thought.

Soza had turned back to the VR display and was explaining the logistics of the raid. If things went as planned, Cohen would shunt through Kolodny and retrieve the target code. The rest of Li's squad had only two jobs: get the AI in and out and collect biosamples while he cracked on-line security. It sounded little different than the two dozen other tech raids Li had commanded, and she thought impatiently that Soza could have briefed them more efficiently by dumping the data into the squad's shared hard memory. She sat through about five more minutes before interrupting him with the obvious but still-unanswered question.

"So what are we looking for?"

"Ma'am," Soza said. He hesitated, and Li saw a flicker of self-doubt behind his eyes. She thought back to her first command, remembered the panic of wondering if she could give orders to seasoned combat veterans and make them stick. She'd been different, though. She'd led Peacekeepers in combat against Syndicate ground troops long before her first official command. Hell, she'd held a wartime field commission for three years before her CO would recommend a quarter-bred genetic for officers' candidate school. "Our reports—" Soza cleared his throat and continued. "Our reports indicate that the facility is producing products on the Controlled Technology List."

Someone—Dalloway, Li thought—snickered.

"That's not too helpful," Li said. "Last time I saw the CTL it ran to a few thousand pages. We go in with that, we're going to be confiscating wristwatches and toenail clippers."

"We also have strong evidence the parent corporation is Syndicate-friendly."

"That's it?" Li asked incredulously.

"That's it," Soza said.

He was lying, of course. She could see it in his eyes, which met her own gaze with unblinking, unnatural steadiness.

Her mind flashed back to her first meeting with Helen Nguyen—Christ, how many years ago had it been? She'd been younger than Soza then, but she'd already survived Gilead. And she'd known, standing in the discreet office of the woman whispered to be the UN's most ruthless and successful spymaster, that Nguyen's support could help her survive peacetime.

Bad liars always think they can make a lie stick with eye contact, Nguyen had murmured, an unnerving smile playing across her lips. But they're wrong, of course. There's no trick to lying well except practice. So go practice. That is, if you want to work for me.

Li stood up and flicked a thumb toward the door. "Can we speak privately, Captain?"

Squad members caught their breath, muttered, shifted on their benches. Fine, Li thought; it wouldn't hurt morale if they knew she was willing to go to bat for them. But that didn't mean she was going to dress down a TechComm liaison officer in front of them.

She followed Soza toward the door. In the back of the room, Cohen stood, stretched casually, and slipped out after them without even asking if he was wanted.

"Come on," Li said as soon as the three of them were out in the empty corridor. "Let's hear the real story."

"That is the real story," Soza said, still standing by his lie and putting his faith in eye contact. "That's what Intel gave us."

"No, it's not. Even Intel isn't that stupid. This your first trip to the Periphery, Soza?"

He didn't answer.

"Right. Well, let me tell you what they didn't tell you in your official briefing. Half the population of this planet are registered genetic constructs. The other half don't know what the hell they are and couldn't qualify for a clean passport even if they had the money to pay for a genetic assay. The only human in-system besides you is the governor. His air's shipped in, his food and water's shipped in, his official car has a full-blown life-support system, and he might as well be on Earth itself for all he has to do with anything. I could put you in a cab and drive you to places where people have never seen a human, where they'd look at you like you'd look at a mastodon. The Syndicates, on the other hand, are practically neighbors. We're eight months sublight from KnowlesSyndicate, fifteen from MotaiSyndicate. You can catch a ride to Syndicate space on half the freighters in-system as long as you're willing to pay cash, keep your mouth shut, and forget you ever met your fellow passengers."

Soza started to speak, but Li put up a hand impatiently. "I'm not being disloyal. Just realistic. We put riot troops on-surface here during the incursions. That's not the kind of thing people get over, whichever side of the gun they're on. And the Secretariat knows it. That's why they tread so lightly in the Trusteeships these days. And why they wouldn't in a million years call down a tech raid just because some local company is a little too friendly with the Syndicates. No. There's a reason for this raid. And the right thing for you to do is play straight with me about it."

"I can't," Soza said. He glanced at Cohen for support, but the AI just shrugged.

Li waited.

Soza laughed awkwardly. "General Nguyen warned me about your, uh, persuasiveness, Major. Look, I really admire you. You should have made colonel in your last go-round. Everyone who doesn't have his head stuck in a hole knows it. You're a credit to . . . well, all colonials. But you know that kind of politically sensitive information isn't cleared for release to line troops."

"It's cleared for release to you, though."

"Well . . . of course."

"And you'll be dropping with us tomorrow?" She asked the question in a carefully neutral voice. She didn't want to humiliate him—but she sure as hell wasn't going to sugarcoat it.

"No," Soza said. At least he had the grace to blush.

"So when the shooting starts, we'll have no one on the ground who knows enough to tell us when it's time to cut our losses and leave. I'm not willing to send my people into action under those conditions."

That hit Soza where he lived.

"They're not your people, Major. They're UN Peacekeepers. And they're under TechComm command for the duration of this mission."

"TechComm doesn't have to visit their parents when we send them home in boxes," Li said.

She stood toe-to-toe with Soza and looked straight into his eyes so he could see the green status light blink off behind her left pupil as she shut down her black box. "Look. Feed's off. This is soft memory only. It'll wipe as soon as we jump out-system." Well, not quite. But hopefully Soza was too young to know all the ways you could kink Peacekeeper datafiles.

"You're not authorized for that information," Soza said stiffly. This time he didn't call her Major.

"Well," Cohen said on-line. "That wasn't exactly a smashing success."

Li ignored him.

Table of Contents


(The Long Strange Trip from Idea to Publication)

This week's assignment: write something funny.

Easier said than done. After all, belly laughs aren't the first thing that comes to mind when you mention the words Hard SF to the man on the street.(1) When I asked my editor what to write, she suggested I interview the Artificial Intelligence who is one of Spin State's two main characters. To which I responded with impressive maturity and a refined sense of metonymy:(2)

"Are you crazy? He'll make me look stupid!"

But then I thought about it. And realized that, though I wasn't about to let Hyacinthe Cohen, self-declared fashion maven and suspected Mossad agent, show me up in public, I might just be able to get away with talking about him behind his back. After all, Cohen wasn't even supposed to be in the book. And the story of how a nice Jewish AI with a taste for oysters and caviar charmed his way into Spin State despite my best intentions is pretty much the story of the making of the book - and the making of this writer.


I got the writing bug late, but I got it with a vengeance. Within a matter of weeks I went from being a perfectly sane person who had never dreamed of writing fiction to being a not even remotely sane person deep in the throes of writing a massive doorstop of a science fiction trilogy that I just knew was going to be the biggest thing to hit SF since Tolkien, LeGuin and Gibson all rolled into one. By the time I came up for air, I had something like 800 typewritten manuscript pages of...well, the title I gave it back then is way too embarrassing to share, so let's just callit the Monster Trilogy.

I knew, of course, that the embryonic Monster Trilogy wasn't ready to stand up to real criticism, so I did what many aspiring writers have done before me: I showed the first draft to my mother. Who read every blessed word of it. And then said: "You know, you're a really talented painter. Have you thought about illustrating children's books?"


I mentioned that it was my mother who said this, right?



I did what countless other writers have done when faced with the seemingly insurmountable task of turning an unreadable first draft into a publishable novel: I quit. I threw the draft in a drawer, started writing short stories, and told myself I just wasn't cut out to be a novelist. After which, in order to avoid admitting failure to all the people I'd told I was writing a novel, I had to get out of town. (Folks, there's a lesson here...)

I moved to Wyoming, where I waited tables at truck stops between ranch jobs. Then I moved into a trailer park. Then I moved out of the trailer park and into a town in Montana whose population was 7 according to the state highway administration's helpful roadsign.(3) Then I snagged a cowboying gig about which I mainly remember spending a lot of time doctoring lame horses and sitting around watching Denver Bronco games while my coworkers shopped the mail order bride catalogs.(4) Sometime around 1994, while sweating it out on top of a bucking horse, it occurred to me that health insurance would be a Good Thing. So I went to law school. And all the while, despite the fact that any reasonable person would long ago have given up, I kept on writing.

By now I had graduated from decent amateur science fiction to sensitive, finely-turned, and howlingly unpublishable literary fiction about cowboys and truck stop waitresses. But there was a still a little SF in there as well. And, bit by bit, it was the SF that actually started to go somewhere.

Looking back through old files from that first year of law school, I turned up the following fragment in a heavily corrupted Mac file that's enough upgrades behind the curve to have achieved near-deadware status:

He was lost, and there was no hope of getting directions. The Zone was a machine enclave: a tax haven where AIs and the few commercially active transhumans kept homes for the sole purpose of establishing Ring-side residency. The sidewalks were empty -- and so were the big houses behind their immaculately painted shutters.

Neither of the main characters of Spin State existed when I wrote that paragraph. In fact, I hadn't even imagined writing the novel that Spin State eventually became. Nonetheless, these lines appear, with very minor changes, on page 125 of the published book. And in retrospect it seems inevitable that once I had invented an AI tax haven I would invent AIs to populate it, and that once I had invented AIs with mansions and tax breaks one of them would turn out to be Hyacinthe Cohen or someone very like him.

A few years after I first wrote those lines, I decided it was time to take one last desperate all-or-nothing shot at writing a novel. I went down into the basement and dug up the now heavily-mildewed boxes in which I had interred the stillborn first draft of the Monster Trilogy. Most of it, read with the distance of a few years, turned out to be a lot better than I'd thought it was. Sure, I'd made a lot of rookie mistakes in that draft. But the writer I was now knew how to fix those mistakes. And there's nothing as encouraging to a writer as reading a draft and seeing mistakes he or she knows how to fix.

Less encouraging, however, was the realization that the Monster Trilogy was completely unpublishable, at least as a first novel. It was a trilogy. Worse, it was a trilogy whose individual books didn't even remotely stand alone. Worse yet, the first volume alone ran over 1000 pages in manuscript. With appendixes, footnotes, interpolated drawings and ethnographic reports, and (I can't really be admitting this in public, can I?) an entire invented language.(5) In short, the Monster Trilogy was the kind of massive, quirky tome that established authors can afford to publish precisely because they are established. From an unpublished writer without so much as a short story credit, on the other hand, it would be less likely to inspire awe and wonder than fear, loathing and unanswered query letters

Clearly, it was time to carve the wooly mammoth up into bite-sized pieces. I needed a self-contained story, set in the same universe as the Monster Trilogy, that I could develop into a stand-alone novel. I rummaged through my old drafts and found something that looked to me like it just might fit the bill: a rough draft of a novella about a young field geologist who goes to a mining colony called Compson's World and finds...well, we'll talk about what he found later.

I decided to expand this novella into a full-length novel. It involved people and events only tangentially related to the Monster Trilogy, which I could still hope to publish later. Equally important, all the scene-setting and world-building and appendices I had done for the Monster Trilogy would allow me to bang this new book out with minimal additional research. (I was wrong about that, of course, but why and how badly would take another essay to explain.)

At first I got on with the new novel like a house on fire. The writing was easy. The world felt vivid and interesting. The characters obligingly schemed and plotted and flirted with each other. This was going to be nothing like the last time. This book was going to be a piece of cake. Then, somewhere around 20 thousand words I hit a wall.

After banging my head against that wall for a few months, I began to see the source of the problem: I didn't like my main character. Actually, I was sick of him. He'd been okay when the story was just a novella, but he couldn't hold my interest through 100 thousand words. I needed a character strong enough to hang a whole novel on.

The funny thing was, I already had one. I just hadn't thought of putting her in this novel.


The main character of the first volume of the Monster Trilogy was Kylie Roemer, a United Nations Peacekeeper whose professional skills are wet-wired into her, but who loses her personal memories every time she makes an FTL jump. At the critical point in her story, Roemer faces a decision that the Syndicate clone Bella actually talks about in the published version of Spin State: do you jump out of a planet where you've made friends (and more, perhaps) and lose all the memories you've made there, or do you accept permanent exile in order to remain the person you've become since your last jump? Roemer makes a different decision than the one Bella says she'd make, but the idea - and underlying emotional conflict - was there already.

It took me a while to figure out how to fit Roemer into Spin State, but eventually I began to see the faint outline of another character behind her. Another Peacekeeper, also a woman, but with more advanced wetware and a very different personal history. This character grew into Catherine Li, the genetic construct who passes for human in Spin State by hacking her own wetware and purposely using jump amnesia to erase her incriminating childhood memories.

Armed with my new and improved main character, I tore up my last draft and tore into the story again. And this time I wasn't just getting on like a house on fire. This time I was burning down the whole damn neighborhood. Li had a job she could really sink her teeth into: investigating the death of Hannah Sharifi, a quantum physicist who was in many ways the offshoot of the original geologist protagonist of the earlier drafts. Even better, she had big personal problems, plenty of attitude and some truly snarky enemies. I got her on the ground, the skullduggery began, and life was grand ... until I ran into another roadblock around page 100.

You see, Li's commanding officer was lying to her, hedging her bets by concealing information vital to the investigation. And she wasn't the only person who was lying. Everyone in Spin State has something to hide. And as Li's investigation progresses each one of these dirty little secrets starts to look like a really good reason to kill Hannah Sharifi - or Li herself. If Li was going to get a handle on what was really happening, I realized, she was going to have to talk to someone older, wiser, and better connected than she was.

It would be a cameo role at most: walk on-stage, deliver the info, and exit gracefully, never to be heard from again. So it wasn't like this had to be a real character. I just needed someone who could tell Li all the things everyone else wasn't telling her. Someone who dealt in information.

Like ... an AI?


At this point, in one of those odd confluences of memory, inspiration and sheer unadulturated panic that characterize the writing of a first draft, I thought of that little paragraph sitting on my hard drive. I hunted around for it (thereby delaying by several hours the horrible moment at which I'd have to actually write something new), pasted it into the current draft, and messed around with it until it ran as follows:

Cohen lived in the Zona Angel, an immaculately tended neighborhood of immense town houses overlooking the quietest streets money could buy. The houses here had names, not numbers, and the streets didn't appear on any public-access database. Li usually dialed in; on foot she had to backtrack twice before she found the house. There was no one on the street to ask for directions; Zona Angel was a machine enclave, a tax haven where AIs and the few commercially active transhumans jept homes to establish Ring-side residence. The wide white sidewalks were quiet between tidy flower beds, and half the houses were probably empty behind their brightly painted shutters.

Cohen? I thought. That's weird. Who the hell's Cohen? Then I kept writing. And what came out read something like this:

Cohen was waiting for her in his study, a bright sunlit room whose grass-papered walls were hung with elegantly framed portraits of someone else's ancestors. Glass-paned doors opened onto a walled garden. Antiques scented the air with the smell of old hardwood and beeswax furniture polish. The bookshelves held snapshots of scientists clowning for the camera in front of ivy-covered buildings, including a shot of the original Hyacinthe Cohen at some artificial consciousness conference before the Evacuation. Alongside these were pictures of the Cohen Li knew -- or, rather, photos of handsome, unfamiliar faces wearing Cohen's sly smile. Cohen at parties. Cohen playing with his dogs. Cohen shaking hands with the Israeli Prime Minister and sunbathing on the beach in Tel Aviv.

And there were novels, of course. Cohen and his novels. Stendhal. Balzac. The Brontës. Sometimes Li thought Cohen knew more about book people than real people.

Cohen himself was sitting on the sofa, wearing a summer suit the color of the new-mown hay in the Stubbs portrait of eclipse that hung behind him. "Catherine," he said, taking her hand in his and drawing her down to sit beside him. "So you're back on Compson's World. How bad is it?"

By the time I'd pounded out a first draft of that scene, I was hooked. Who was this AI that seemed to slip in and out of other people's bodies at will? What could explain his obsession with 19th century novels and portraits of other people's ancestors? And how did he know the Israeli Prime Minister? Was he Israeli? Was he Jewish? Was he ... an Israeli spy?

I had to know. And the only way to find out was to keep writing.


I began to imagine a shared backstory for this strange artificial being who had insinuated himself into my novel. I began to began to suspect, though at first I was far from certain, that Cohen might be secretly in love with my take-no-prisoners heroine. And I began to ask him the question on which the entire novel hangs: would he help Li ... or betray her?

Line by line, page by page, the story that became Spin State unfolded in front of me. This was it, I realized: the moment every writer waits for. After almost a decade of failed launches, I finally had two characters who were strong enough -- both individually and together -- to write their own story.

I just followed them, taking notes, drawing maps, charting the unfamiliar terrain as best I could. And in doing so, I crossed over into territory that was a lot bigger and a whole lot wilder than the territory I'd set off to write about.


1. I tried this, actually. The answers, in order of receipt, were: Star Trek; Carl Sagan; and "the future governor of California".

2. Don't ask me what metonymy means. It's one of the eight words in the English language I've finally admitted I'm not cool enough to understand.

3. The sign may have been right too, for all I know. But if it was, then three out of my seven neighbors never got around to introducing themselves.

4. Russian mostly. Occasionally Thai. And one memorable catalog from Kazakhstan, where the women do really interesting things with their eyebrows.

5. Have I mentioned the epic poetry? Printed in bilingual format, of course. I was reasonable; I didn't expect readers to actually learn my invented language.

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