Q&A with Jack Dann

Jack Dann visits our blog to discuss his Salinger-influenced tale “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” on sale now in our Jan/Feb issue. Learn about his upcoming projects, his history with our magazine, and advice for emerging writers in our Q&A below.


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach”?

JD: This is one of those short stories that just sort of slipped out of my unconscious. That rarely happens, and I’m sure it has something to do with the death of my dear friend Gardner Dozois. I remember waking up from a night of bad dreams, one of those exhausting, seemingly sleepless nights; and as I propped myself up in the bed, I imagined the idea of death as the personification of a harried bureaucrat. And this combined with the ocean and the beach, which I associate with comfort, freedom, and . . . fear: the idea of drowning, of the pull of deep water, that sort of thing.

 


. . . I imagined the idea of death as the personification of a harried bureaucrat.


 

Over the next few days, I kept thinking about death, my image of “him”; and as I did so, the so-called texture of the image took on the coloration of a deadly story I admire by J. D. Salinger: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” It’s a mood-piece of a story with an ending that shocked the hell out of me. I knew “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” wasn’t going to have that kind of a shock ending, but I wanted to contrast the quiet joys of peace and relaxation with the undeniable finality of sudden death. I wanted to create a story that would be warm and familiar . . . so warm and familiar that it would chill like an ice-cube dropped into the collar of an unsuspecting bather. Whether I accomplished any of this will have to be determined by my readers.

So I think—and this is just a bit of pop-psychological self-analysis—that “Mr. Death Goes to the Beach” was this writer’s natural way of working out grief and guilt and all those subterranean emotions that accompany the death of a loved one. Dunno. Sounds plausible, anyway.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

Continue reading “Q&A with Jack Dann”

About Those Robots

This throw-back Thursday brings a piece from Herb Kauderer on his poem “Ghosts of Robots” (see end for poem) that appeared in our September/October 2018 issue. Herb is uniquely qualified for this post about robots, as he worked with industrial robots in the eighties—read on for a fascinating view of robots both real and SFnal.


 

by Herb Kauderer

I spent the 1980s working with touch screen computers and industrial robots, things that seemed impossibly futuristic in that long ago era when smartphones and Roombas were still decades away.  This was part of twenty years I spent as a Teamster, during which my natural abilities with technology provoked my employers to toss me the keys to a wide array of very expensive contraptions.  Yes, I’ve driven tractor-trailers and tank trucks and tow motors of every variety, but I’ve also used hand-held scanning computers, multi-million dollar pasteurization units, and automated pipe-cleaning systems that handled more than a mile of pipe at a time.

I retired from all that to become an English professor, which certainly caused some cognitive dissonance, but also provided an unusual vantage point from which to consider the role of robots in literature, as compared to their real appearance in factories.  Back in the eighties, the industry defined robots as machines that made decisions of sufficient complexity without human input.  There was occasional discussion of where the cut-off line was but such things are difficult to make hard and fast.  The industry generally agreed on what was robotic, and what was merely mechanical, even if they couldn’t clearly define the difference.  In the bulk of the science fiction I’ve read, decision-making was the province of Artificial Intelligences which were often stationary, and sometimes presented as immoveable.  When I think of Multivac in Isaac Asimov’s stories, especially “The Last Question,” I imagine a monolithic computer that humans approach with questions.  Despite my impression of Multivac, it is not lost on me that Asimov placed the story at the end of the ‘Robots’ section of Opus 100.  Dividing artificial intelligence and robotics is difficult, and this discussion is partly of perception rather than reality, so let me clearly state: I am writing about what industry called robots when I worked with them.  They were not AI in any way.  Furthermore, all my generalizations about SF are based on my subjective consumption, admittedly voracious but far from comprehensive, of books, magazines, television and film.  You may have a different experience base.

 


Perhaps the most interesting example of robots and robot multitasking was a whole room that was a robot.


 

Continue reading “About Those Robots”

Q&A with William F. Wu

The delightful William F. Wu visits the blog today to chat about his current story on sale now— “Written in Mud” —as well as give advice for up-and-coming writers, discuss his literary themes, and (perhaps!) taunt us with the exclusive novel he is reading right now….


What is the story behind this piece?

“Written in Mud” is a light-hearted story based on a friendship of thirty-six years between writer Rob Chilson and myself. In the 1980s and ’90s, we often traveled to science fiction conventions together, rented a house together for a short time in Kansas City, Missouri, and wrote ten collaborations of science fiction short pieces that were published. The title plays off one of my favorite stories of his, a serious time travel story called “Written in Sand,” which appeared in the December 1979 issue of Asimov’s. We had not yet become friends at that time. In fact, “Written in Mud” incorporates the titles, or references to the titles, of many of his published novels and short works in both the narration and dialogue. This gimmick only works if the story holds together for readers who aren’t familiar with the references or don’t care about them; I believe it does so and I hope it’s fun for readers who enjoy this sort of thing. The story also has references to all ten of our collaborations, one story of mine, and some by two women writers we’ve known for many years.

How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

This story came together suddenly, though it brings together information I had collected over decades. I was born in Missouri and grew up in Kansas, so I noticed the title of one of Rob’s novels, The Shores of Kansas, when it was published in 1976 even though we had not met yet. As it happens, I didn’t read it, but I never forgot it, given the obvious: Kansas is a long way from a salt water shore—and yet, that wasn’t always the case, as recently as the Cretaceous period. (It’s science fiction; “recent” is relative, right?)


Kansas is a long way from a salt water shore—and yet, that wasn’t always the case, as recently as the Cretaceous period. (It’s science fiction; “recent” is relative, right?)


Several years ago, I read that fracking in Oklahoma was causing earthquakes in that state. That started me thinking about the earthquake faults in Missouri and Kansas, which aren’t often in the news. That combined with my memory of the University of Kansas sports cheer “Rock chalk, Jayhawk!” that references certain Cretaceous-age bedrock formed under the Western Interior Sea. Continue reading “Q&A with William F. Wu”

Writing “Ventiforms”

Sean Monaghan’s story “Ventiforms”—on sale now in our current issue—is set in a universe of grandiose art projects and stunning natural beauty. Below he discusses the inspiration behind this.


 

by Sean Monaghan

I’ve always loved landforms. I studied physical geography and geology at university. (I always preferred the geography.) The face of our planet is decorated with wonderful and often startling results of tectonics and erosion and other factors.

I figure that the faces of more distant planets and moons are similarly decorated. After all, Mars boasts vast canyons and enormous volcanoes. It’s right in our neighborhood.

And with regular frequency now we discover new exoplanets with quite probably even more remarkable features. These planets defy our old “model” of a Solar System—based on our sample of one—with hot Jupiters, Super-Earths, sub-Neptunes and so on. Surely their surfaces will defy our models too.

My previous story in Asimov’s, “The Billows of Sarto,” explored the ecosystem in a vast caldera on a distant world. I’m fascinated by volcanoes and their results—from perfect cones to jagged jumbles to the long tongues of lava flows and tubes, and to calderas.

Continue reading “Writing “Ventiforms””

Language Usage in “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots”

by Alexander Jablokov

Far future stories are clearly written in a language we can’t understand, and only incompetently translated into a form of our current speech by an author who is almost never a linguist.

And sometimes there is no exact local equivalent to a concept or usage in that other world. So: do you make up a word, or repurpose one from our own language—in this case, English?

Tempest, City of Storms

My Sere Glagolit stories [“How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry,” July/August 2017 Asimov’s & “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” on sale in our current issue now!] are set in a vast city called Tempest, the City of Storms, the foundations of which were built by mysterious characters called the Architon. The city is inhabited by dozens of species from a variety of worlds and is full of widely variant environmental conditions. Storms and extreme weather conditions are common.

Sere herself is what we would recognize as a human being. She grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional human community, and now makes her living as a detective and problem solver, benefiting from a difficult childhood in which she often spent a lot of time in the company of the offspring of other communities. This past has not made an explicit appearance in any of her stories yet, but will in the future.

Referring to others with minimal judgment

While each of these groups does have a specific name I had to make up, how does the Sere refer to these other species in general? How does she think about all the various beings around her? Thinking of herself as “human” and the others as “alien” might, in some circumstances be the natural solution. “Us” and “others” is a typical dichotomy in history.

But this world is a bit different. It’s not that these groups all cooperate, or even acknowledge each other as equal. Tempest is riven with conflict, sometimes leading to societal breakdown. But they do each have a specific role to play, and face the same physical threats of a city built by others whose purposes are not understood and has dramatic weather conditions that sometimes turn fatal. Everyone is an alien.

So I figured there would be, mostly, a sense of rough equality, of “we’re all in this together.” So for the general referent for all other beings, I chose the somewhat Biblical term “nations.”

I put a version of the earlier Sere story, “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” through the Rio Hondo workshop, a peer workshop run by Walter Jon Williams. The general suggestion there was to use “gentile.” That had a certain logic to it, but I thought its connection to Jews and Mormons would load it with a bit too much referential baggage. But thinking about that baggage led me, finally, to nations.

“Nations” as used by the Hebrews was certainly not a neutral term. They thought other peoples were pretty awful, and existed solely to make their lives miserable. And so its use is not necessarily devoid of judgment in Tempest either. It’s just the term one group uses to describe all of the others in a generic way.

These matters of usage do play a role in revealing something of the social structure and culture of a place.

Speaking without a tongue

But sometimes I do find myself making up words. “Traffiq” is probably the most obvious. I wanted a word for language or tongue that did not refer specifically to that part of the human anatomy: many of the nations lack what we would recognize as a tongue, and sometimes communicate through gestures or other modes.

Why this finicky precision? Once in a story set in a medievalish world that never had Judaism or Christianity (“The Forgotten Taste of Honey”), I wanted to refer to someone’s Adam’s apple, the cartilage around the larynx that is visible in the throat, particularly in males. This gave me pause. They wouldn’t call it that, of course. The etymology of the term is more disputed than you might think, but its source is in Hebrew, through Latin.

I think I finally referred to the “voice box,” which sounds kind of dumb. Why spend so much time on this?

Because a word that carries inappropriate references can really rattle a reader. I still remember coming across the term “input” (as in “did he give you his input?”) in someone else’s medievalish novel, a computer-era term that affected me like a missed step in the dark.

Words carry with them all sorts of history, some upfront, and some more or less hidden. How much attention is the writer supposed to pay to this? Now that I look at my points of sensitivity, I see that at least these two derive from human anatomy. That’s not enough to formulate a rule from, but it’s something to watch.

“Traffic” derives from a Middle French word that means trade or commerce, which seemed appropriate. That French word had a Q in it, so, despite the overuse of that particular letter in making words seem “alien,” I thought it was enough to make clear that the word traffiq did not refer to getting stuck somewhere in your car. Still, it has a slightly orientalizing feel, since Arabic transliteration is the most common place you tend to see Q ending words. There’s always a loose end flopping around somewhere.

Are there innocent choices?

And here you thought “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” was just a fun detective story set in a world with a lot of weird aliens. And it is! But sometimes more goes into light entertainment than you might think.

So don’t get me started on my search for an ungendered pronoun to refer to members of other nations, who may or may not have sexes as we understand them. “It” is generally used for objects or animals, not intelligent beings, though that is what I ended up using. I toyed with something like “id,” treated grammatically just like “it,” but as you’re reading you could easily trip over it and think it’s a typo for “I’d,” or, most likely, just think it’s dumb. Sometimes precision has to give way to readability. Particularly when the precision is more imagined than real.

There are enough alternate pronouns being created to deal with societal issues in our actual world that I didn’t want to come up with yet another to deal with a purely imaginary one in a made-up one. Still, “it” does not satisfy me. Suggestions welcome.


From his day job as a freelance marketing content writer, Alex Jablokov has learned to question his clients about what, really, they are after. His detective in this story, Sere Glagolit, is still learning the ropes, though her business is a bit more fraught than producing white papers. She first appeared in “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” (Asimov’s, July/August 2017). Alex enjoys Sere, her cases, and her environmentally complex home city of Tempest so much that he has several more stories planned for this world. He is also currently at work on a novel that grows out of the events of “The Forgotten Taste of Honey,” which was first published in our October/November 2017 issue.

Q&A with Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is back in Asimov’s pages with his touching story “Neom,” on sale now in our current issue. Don’t miss this poignant story about the passage of time. Read on below for a peek behind the curtain with Lavie’s insights and inspirations.


 

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Neom”?

LT: I’ve been visiting the Red Sea for twenty years now (on the Egyptian side), and I was always struck by looking just across the water to the Arabian Peninsula, and that huge stretch of desert along the Red Sea coast is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Then I came across crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS)’s plan to build this sort of cyberpunk utopia called Neom there! I mean it has a promotional Youtube video and everything . . . And I’ve been recently very interested in the idea of future cities, and I knew I had to write about it. If only because I find the idea of a cyberpunk utopia so very terrifying . . .

 

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

LT: So it came from my interest, I think, in the new Chinese Silk Road, which goes all the way to the Red Sea (and is partly featured in my Tor.com story “Yiwu”), and from the portrayal of Neom in the promotional material put out by the Saudis. And then, I’ve been interested in robots again recently. I did a conference on AI in Cambridge in England, and I was struck by how AI researchers are still talking about Asimov’s three laws! And also, of course, by the famous act of Saudi Arabia granting citizenship to a robot recently, Sophia (you really can’t make this stuff up!). So all of this kind of came together for me.

 

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

LT: It’s nominally a part of the wider Central Station universe, where the majority of my straight SF stories are set. And it’s also thematically linked to “Yiwu.” I was kind of hoping to explore more future urban settings in forthcoming stories, but that hasn’t happened yet. I have a few planned . . .

 

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

Continue reading “Q&A with Lavie Tidhar”

Q&A with Robert Borski

Robert Borski has been contributing to our magazine for close to a decade now, and his latest—and shortest—poem “Eclipse 2017” can be found in our current issue [on sale now].

 


 

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?

RB: Like almost everyone else in the country on August 21st, 2017, I was watching the solar eclipse, trying not to blind myself in the process, even as, online, a number of my colleagues in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association were uploading their impressions, mostly in the form of short poems. Almost immediately, half a dozen ideas came to me and while I shared a few of them (e.g., “Shady deal nixed/ changeling sun returned”), I held back several, intending to submit them for publication. “Eclipse (2017)” was subsequently accepted by Asimov’s a short while later.

AE: Do you particularly relate to this piece?

RB: Even though I’m nearing 70, I still have a rebellious nature, so if you tell me not to fly too close to the Sun or don’t look back, I’m either going to cheat (does it count, if I use a mirror, to see if my wife follows or if my former place of residence is on fire?) or just outright disobey—even if other auspices (like a total eclipse, perhaps) present themselves. So, yes, Icarus and I could be blood brothers.

Continue reading “Q&A with Robert Borski”