Category Archives: My Stories

Fiction: Unterminator

This is a flash piece that was published in Eschatology: The Journal of Lovecraftian and Apocalyptic Fiction in August 2011. As the journal is now defunct and Unterminator is not available elsewhere, I have been prodded by a reader to ensure it is available online!



by Zen Cho


You were sent to avert the nuclear apocalypse, but they sent you too early. It’s the 1950s and everyone seems fine.

Your makers made numerous mistakes. You look too young to command instinctive respect from humans. Your hair is not the hair of a hep-cat. Physically you are perfect, but they didn’t bother training you in the million unseeable things that make humans human. You take a little too long to laugh at a joke, and you smell like an overheated engine. People recoil when you sit next to them at the bus-stop.

Star Trek has yet to be produced. No one is familiar with the tragic android, empty as an abandoned house. No one is sympathetic.

You learn to play the harpsichord. You were not programmed to be lonely.

In 1973 you still have the same hair. You’re still wearing the suit you arrived in, and people avoid you in the street. You’re in Hiroshima when you figure it out, standing in a museum in the midst of a group of Swedish tourists.

You weren’t too early. You were too late.

This is what happens when everyone has a precious frangible world inside their soft head, liable to be smashed by every passing breath of tornado. In such circumstances apocalypse is always now. Why haven’t humans fixed this? Did your makers understand the extent of the problem? Something like this can’t be remedied by one robot on its own. Something like this can’t be remedied.

You don’t feel sorry for yourself. Your makers had a sense of the appropriate. You are not permitted despair, or the insult of self-pity. Your only participation in grief was to be the metallic screech of your joints as you swept children out of danger. Your eyes were designed not to weep, but to pick out, in a barren land, the beat of the human heart.


Sorcerer to the Crown was released in the UK last Thursday! The book’s properly out in the world now. :O

Thanks to everyone who came to the Forbidden Planet signing. If you missed it, you can still buy the signed hardcover from them: Sorcerer to the Crown at Forbidden Planet. And the signed and numbered limited edition is still available from Goldsboro Books for slightly more money: Sorcerer to the Crown limited first edition. I got #1!

IMG_1169The limited edition is really beautiful. *_* Apparently there aren’t many left, so if you think you might like one, order it while you can!

Also, a couple of weeks ago I spoke to David Barnett about the book. The interview ran in the Independent yesterday.


Super exciting! You can read it online here:

Zen Cho: Tackling questions of race, gender and social justice in fantasy fiction

Besides articles about fantasy authors and Viking sheep, David Barnett also writes steampunk novels. You can find out about them at his website here.

SORCERER TO THE CROWN signing at Forbidden Planet

Just a short post to say that I’ll be signing Sorcerer to the Crown at the Forbidden Planet London Megastore in a week’s time, from 6-7 pm on the UK publication date of 10 September 2015. Details at their website:

Zen Cho Signing Sorcerer to the Crown

It’s open to the public so do drop by if you’re in London! (This is different from the launch of the UK limited edition, which is invitation-only.) I set up a Facebook event page also if you find that sort of thing useful. Hope to see you there!

My publishing journey: Love and resource

I know I said I was winding up my Publishing Journey posts for now, but I had another thought: about love and resource, and the debts we owe. It’s quite a big thought, so bear with me.

IMG_0670A few years ago I got a daruma and was told how you draw in one eye when there’s something you want, and you draw in the other eye when you have got it. I drew in one eye and then I waited. The thing I wanted was the same wish I always made, when visiting temples and blowing out birthday candles.

Like many writers, I have wanted to be a published novelist since I was very small. Of course when you are small you don’t really know what that means. You don’t think about the New York Big Five or global distribution or advances or royalties or awards or reviews. What you want is very simple: to be on the shelf next to the books you love. It’s to be as important, as interesting, as true, as a story.

Publication does not give you that. But it comes to stand for that. I grew up devouring Penguin books and now I am a Penguin author. It might not last, but it happened. Imagine that.

Even though publication is no longer what it was — even though I know that’s not what it means — it still feels enormously satisfying. It still feels like a gift I have given six-year-old me.

But that’s not true, is it? It’s been a very busy, though happy, few months for me, and I have been thinking about resource. What an enormous amount of love and time and resource has been poured into me.

Though I do work hard, I’m always conscious at the back of my mind of how little I have to do with anything I achieve. A while ago I realised with embarrassment that I did not mention in my post about revisions how much work my agent Caitlin Blasdell and editor Diana Gill did on the book. Hannah Bowman, who is not even my agent, read the manuscript twice before it went on submission. The post makes it sound like I was the only one working, but of course that is not true. And we have not even got to the people who typeset the book, who proofread it (and had to put up with my nerdy responses: “I think you’ll find the OED says that word has been in use since the 16th century … “), who have been sorting out publicity and marketing and sending advance copies all over the place, etc. etc. etc.

But much as I appreciate all that work, these are, after all, people for whom it is their job. They hope to see some concrete benefit from their work — and I certainly hope they do. Who I really think about when I think about love and resource is my maternal grandmother, my Ah Ma, who passed away earlier this year.

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ALL the Publishing Journey posts

I thought it might be useful to have a summary post with links to all my Publishing Journey posts, as I wound them up last Friday. Here they are!

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them
Querying agents
Signing with a literary agent
My query letter for Sorcerer to the Crown
Revising the novel (again and again and again)
Going on submission
Selling the novel
Love and resource

Thanks to everyone who read, commented, tweeted, shared on Facebook, etc. I did these posts for three two reasons:

1) Because people were asking me about publishing and I wanted to have something to link them to, instead of repeating the same answers to different people.

2) I really enjoy writing about writing, but in kind of an embarrassed way. Some people writhe in delicious guilt over having a chocolate. I eat chocolates by the dozens without shame, but feel luxuriously decadent about blogging about my ~writing process~.

3) Procrastinating on book 2 no what are you talking about I never procrastinate on writing fiction (she said as she procrastinated by doing a blog post)

Anyway, because of reason #2, I’ve really appreciated everyone who’s taken the trouble to tell me that they enjoyed these posts or found them useful or enlightening. Thank you!

I may take a break from doing these on a weekly basis as I really have to focus on book 2, but as I said in the last post, I do mean to keep doing them and am taking requests. So let me know if you have any writing or publishing-related questions or topics you’d like me to talk about, via email, Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments below.

P. S. Selamat Hari Merdeka! Hope you ols enjoyed the public holiday.

Roundup: fanfic, shrimps, hipste Kelate and more


On Thursday I went to Broadcasting House (!) to take part in the first episode of Late Night Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, which was on women in fandom. It was super fun — like a convention panel, only you had to keep remembering you were talking to a mainstream audience and stopping to define terms like “fanfic”. If you’re interested in listening to a lively discussion of women in SFF, the geek culture wars and fanfic tropes, you can download the podcast here:

Reclaiming the Nerdiverse

(And yes, we did discuss A/B/O on national radio with all our relatives listening. /o\ I confess I’m one of those old fandom grumps for whom A/B/O does nothing. In my day we had “we are spies who have to pretend to be married for implausible reasons and we fall in love as a result” and we were happy with that!!)

I also did a podcast with the fabulous Fran Wilde (Updraft out super soon!) and Aliette de Bodard (House of Shattered Wings out even sooner!), talking about food in our books:

An Intimidation of Shrimp: A Cooking The Books Roundtable

At the link I also reveal ~all my writing secrets~ and share my Big List o’ Regency Foods. I said this on the podcast, but I felt a bit like Sherlock Holmes explaining my methods and Watson going, “Oh, you’re nothing to call home about really, that’s easy!” Sigh. Anyway, if you’d like to know what “ruffs and reeves” are, go check it out!

Ghost words

I’ve been posting quietly to Where Ghost Words Dwell, the discarded writing collage project I do with a bunch of cool writers. Here are two of my most recent contributions:

The Green family goes to the mountains

Magical relatives berbalas pantun. This is from a story I was bouncing around with a friend a few years ago, inspired by our trip to Ladakh. The photo is of the glorious mountains, taken at Leh airport. It’s not at all a habitat that suits me — I spent the next seven days or so in the most wretched altitude sickness — but I’ve never seen anything like it.

On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Again, a snippet inspired by a holiday — this time a rather more prosaic one, a road trip in Kelantan with my BFF. We went to lots of wats and failed to eat any roti hamlet, laksam or nasi kerabu. (I know, I know … what were we even doing.) Eventually this inspired a short story called Everything Under One Roof, which Rose Lemberg accepted for her anthology Alphabet of Embers. The word count for Alphabet of Embers was 1,400 words so I had to cut everything non-essential, including the snippet at the link!

The drawing of a hipste Kelate is by my phenomenally talented cousin Alina Choong and is posted with her permission. It’s based on the boss of Kopitiam Kita, which you should definitely visit if you’re ever in KB. Siti Nurhaliza went also k.

Sorcerer to the Crown

Ala, you knew it was coming.

If you’re in the UK, first edition bookshop Goldsboro Books is running a competition for people who pre-order Sorcerer to the Crown! Order Goldsboro’s special limited edition (SPRAYED EDGES!) before 10 September, i.e. the UK release date, and you’ll have a chance to win an invitation to the book launch. Come and talk to meee! You can pre-order the limited edition here.

The Book Smugglers also ran a giveaway for the book. Closed liao, sorry, but you can still read my post on the Inspirations and Influences Behind Sorcerer to the Crown.

I also did a guest post for Pornokitsch on Five Fictional Girls and Women I Will Love Forever. Features Anne of Green Gables, Rukia, Lucy Snowe, Elizabeth Bennet and Eowyn. No surprises, but lots of *___*-ing … you will point out that this doesn’t have anything to do with Sorcerer to the Crown, because it’s part of The Apex Book of World SF 4 promo push, but little do you know! One of those five characters inspired Prunella Gentleman. You should tell me which you think it is!

And JUST TODAY Publishers Weekly gave Sorcerer a starred review:

Cho’s tale knits together a dizzying array of taut story lines populated by complex characters with interesting backstories. Zacharias brings to mind another orphaned young wizard whose combination of grit and melancholy captured readers’ hearts, and ingenious, gutsy Prunella simply shines.

How totally amazing. You couldn’t ask for better.

Social mediaz

As always, if you’re interested in receiving updates on my stuff in real-time, Twitter or Facebook is probably your best bet. My Facebook page is public and I don’t add back automatically, but will if you drop me a message saying hi. I’ve also started using Instagram! Not a lot there at the moment, but what I’m going to do is post pictures there instead of Twitter. I crosspost Instagram posts to Twitter and Facebook, though, so better not follow me on all three — after lemas only.

My publishing journey: Revising the novel (again and again and again)

There is a certain trend within the huge volume of writing about publishing on the Internet, which I think of as being the writing advice equivalent of grimdark. The people who give grimdark writing advice point out how incredibly difficult it is to get a foothold in publishing. They explain at length how small the rewards are, how disheartening the challenges, how huge and cold and indifferent the world is when you are a writer who is just starting out — and even worse, when you are a writer who is getting established. When you are a writer who was successful but whose sales have begun to decline. When you are a writer full stop.

When you read this type of advice you get the impression that in order to be a published author you need to be made entirely of bones and steel. You need to be willing to rip out all your own tender feelings with your own teeth and burn them on a pyre along with every first draft of everything you have ever written. You basically need to be a sort of combo of the meanest Transformer and Godzilla.

I don’t mean to suggest that this type of advice is not true. But as with all single depictions of the world, it only shows one aspect and it’s only true for some people some of the time. (The triumphalist stories of glorious, easy success are also only true for some people some of the time, of course.) If you’ve read my fiction it’s probably pretty obvious that I’m of the “pine woods are as real as pig-sties” school of thought, but I’m also conscious that nobody will believe in the scent of pine unless there’s a smell of pig-sties lurking underneath it. Because the real world has both — but probably more pig-sties.

Anyway, this is a rambly way to say that I’m going to talk about the hard part. I have tried in this series to be encouraging and optimistic, because I feel like the kind of tough love that is all “suck it up! become a killer writing machine! you will never make it if you don’t write every day while swallowing raw egg yolks and juggling live babies, all at the same time!” is often likeliest to discourage people from traditionally marginalised backgrounds, who are more likely not to trust themselves and their abilities. If the approach lights a fire under anyone’s ass it’s probably going to be the asses of privileged entitled people, which, frankly, are warm enough already.

But I guess part of being encouraging is being honest about the hard parts. If you have ever said to me, “I’ve always wanted to write but I’m too busy” and seen my face twitch slightly, I will explain why here.

I mean, I totally know how you feel! You have my genuine sympathy! I know balancing life and obligation and art is hard! But here is how I feel.

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