Q&A with A.T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt’s first-ever story for Asimov’s, “Re: Bubble 476” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], feels fitting for a world where we’re all inhabiting bubble universes. Read on to learn what non-pandemic spark of inspiration brought us this piece, the usual relationship between A.T.’s writing and current events (when she isn’t being unexpectedly prescient), and why she loves parallel universes.


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

ATG: I started writing this story immediately after being on a panel about epistolary fiction at ConFusion in January 2020 (the last in-person con I went to before the pandemic hit the USA). The panelists were Scott Andrews, Emma Törzs, Alexandra Manglis, Sarah Gibbons and me, and we talked to a sleepy Sunday-morning audience about what a powerful storytelling device letters are in fiction. Someone—I don’t remember who—said that letters can create tension by having a time lag, and someone else added that letters don’t always arrive in order. And bam! Something clicked in my head.

I started scribbling out the first lines of this story immediately after the panel ended, while I sat in the audience for another panel.

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

ATG: So after I got the spark of inspiration at ConFusion, this story came together quickly. Usually, it takes me a few months at least to write a story from an idea to a finished product. Sometimes it takes me years.

“Re: Bubble 476” was written, revised twice, and finalized within a month, which is the quickest I have ever finished a story. When I gave the first draft to my critique group, I was convinced the story was an unfollowable trainwreck. But they were like: “No, it makes sense and we look forward to your future collection titled ‘Letters from Space.’”

I also want to mention that I finished this story before the pandemic started and put us all in our own bubbles. So, when I reread this story a few months ago, I was a little unsettled about how much more relevant it feels now than it did back in January 2020.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

ATG: I usually relate to all my characters in my stories—even the ones I disagree with – because I think that’s an important component to creating characters your readers will empathize with. In this case, I relate strongly to Deni and Geo—their social awkwardness, their anxiety, their hopes for a stable future. And the love they have for each other as friends, even though they are worlds apart.


. . . most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.


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

ATG: It’s a sliding scale for me. If I’m drafting a story quickly—like within a week or two—then my stories draw directly from whatever I’m stressed about in the news or the world. The longer a story takes to draft or revise, the bigger the questions in the story get. For example, I wrote the first draft of a story last weekend and it was about what people think is an acceptable loss of life for the ability to hang out with each other (I’m writing this in January 2021—over 400,000 people have died from the Covid-19 in the USA alone). But stories like “Give the Family My Love” and “Before the World Crumbles Away” grapple with the huge and complex questions of what we do in the face of environmental collapse and an uncertain future.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

ATG: Oh, I love parallel universes and neighboring worlds in stories, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell as many stories as possible with them and not repeat myself. I love these themes because they always promise wonder and a journey, introspection and strangeness. Basically my favorite things about this genre.

I also spend far too much time thinking about heroes and the strange, charmed way many stories treat them (both in fiction and real life). Because most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.

AE: What is your process?

ATG: Step 1 – Start scratching ideas in a notebook.

Step 2 – Begin typing up a story draft.

Step 3 – Give up. Go for a walk. Come back the next day and try step 2 again.

Step 4 – Repeat steps 2 and 3 until a draft is finished.

Step 5 – Send out the story for beta reader feedback.

Step 6 – Let the story sit for a while and ferment in my head.

Step 7 – Look at notes from beta readers and begin revisions.

Step 8 – Repeat steps 3 through 7 until I have a finished draft that I’m sick of looking at, tired of thinking about, and don’t have anything left I want to change.

Step 9 – Send the story out into the world. Hope for the best. Start working on another story.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ATG: I find when I can’t write it’s usually a sign I’m exhausted or creatively tapped out. My only solution is to take a break from writing, usually for a month or two, and spend time outside or travel. I’ll also spend lots of time playing video games and reading. I never really know how long these “rest” periods will be, but I’m trying to not feel guilty when I need them—which is a work in progress.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

ATG: Star Trek, without question or contest. Specifically, Next Generation. Give me that optimistic future of humanity, where we figure out how to grow as a species.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ATG: I’m usually always reading one book and listening to another. It works for me. Right now I’m listening to Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell, which is a collection of essays about the current climate crisis. I’m also reading The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, a Sherlock Holmes retelling with angels and demons. Both are excellent reads so far.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

ATG: Besides the age-old advice to read ferociously and widely?

I always recommend trying something new with every story you write. It doesn’t have to be a big stretch, either, like a new subgenre (though it can). It can be as simple as trying out a new point of view or having a scene with three characters instead of your normal two. The worst thing that will happen is you don’t pull it off the first time. And that isn’t so bad because we learn more from our failures than our successes.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

ATG: I have a blog that I occasionally update at https://atgreenblatt.com and I can be found on Twitter @AtGreenblatt, where I mostly post content about what I’m baking or my dog.


A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. This Nebula-award-winning author is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work has been published in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other fine publications. She tells us that her first tale for Asimov’s was written in January/February 2020 right before the pandemic hit the US. It was a time when she was blissfully unaware that soon we would all be in our own bubble universes of a sort.

Q&A with Aaron Sandberg

Pared down from its original forty-eight-word-long title, Aaron Sandberg’s poem “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father and Let It Go to Voicemail” comes to you in the pages of our March/April issue [on sale now]! Aaron took the time to tell us about the poem’s origins, his greatest achievement to date, and which hardware store popped up more than once when he generated a word cloud from his poems.


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

AS: I came across a story of J002E3 on the internet—which is a less embarrassing way of saying I saw it on Reddit—and thought it sounded like a metaphor (for what, I didn’t know). I started messing around with the conceit, and it became the thing it is today.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

AS: The title—which was originally forty-eight words—is really the poem. After landing on the concept, I wanted it as blunt as possible. Without it, the piece doesn’t work. It sets the table. While it’s straightforward, it doesn’t make much sense until you finish reading the whole thing. You give the reader one plus one and let them add up two.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

AS: Not at all. I come from a good family and my dad is a great guy. Ha. This was just the first metaphor that came to me when thinking about “unwanted-trash-that-leaves-for-a-long-time-and-comes-back-uninvited” and it seemed to work. I’m sure we all have versions of people like that in—and out of—our lives, though.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

AS: Is there a better place for SF that I’m unaware of?


I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored.


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

AS: Sometimes a lot, usually not at all. Occasionally I’ll write about something very topical or a poem based on a headline, but it’s not the way I usually go about it. I think all current events influence my writing to some degree, but it’s usually not explicit. Even when it starts that way, the poem usually goes “somewhere else” by the time I’m done writing it and expands beyond whatever specific event triggered the idea to touch on something universal, if that’s even possible anymore.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?

AS: I think I write a lot about the domestic, minutia, intimacy, loss, the past, etc. I did a word cloud at one time and entered all my poems to see my most commonly used words. I remember seeing a lot of “wolves” and “ghosts.” I’m not sure what that says about me. I like putting objects in unfamiliar locations and seeing what happens. Animals appear a lot. Home Depot pops up occasionally for some reason. I’m sure there’s a through-line of themes but I’m not sure.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

AS: I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored. Reading also keeps the ideas coming in. You can’t write well if you don’t read. I teach high school English and I’ve told my students you can’t be a good chef if you don’t eat delicious food. That’s probably an apt metaphor.

AE: What are you reading right now?

AS: I’m rereading Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. Although it feels like that book reads me. What a trip. Do you think he’ll see this? Hi, Jeff VanderMeer!

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?

AS: I’m as new as anyone at this, but I try to do at least one of these four things each day: read, write, revise, submit. As long as you do one of those daily, you’re doing the work. Probably. What do I know?

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

AS: Words are important to me, but I once won a lip sync battle singing a song without lyrics. It’s my greatest achievement to date. Also, if you’re wondering about the forty-eight-word title, it was “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father Many Years After We Last Spoke and Let It Go to Voicemail Where He Tells Me He Is in Fact My Estranged Father Who Is in Town and Who Would Like Me to Call Him Back as Soon as Possible.” Editors are important.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

AS: I commit social-suicide by posting poetry stuff on Instagram. You can find me there @aarondsandberg.


Aaron Sandberg resides in Illinois, where he teaches. His recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, English Journal, Abridged, The Racket, Writers Resist, Yes Poetry, perhappened mag, Unbroken, and elsewhere. You might find him—though socially-distant—on Instagram @aarondsandberg.

Writing About Robots

by Christopher Mark Rose

There will be a long, difficult appraisal of speculative fiction when artificial intelligences begin to read it critically. I think about this a lot.

Firstly, I find the expression “artificial intelligence” pejorative, and I’m sure that later, electronic voices will join me in objecting to it. What exactly is “artificial” about it?

Among my early comic books, that is, the first reading materials I selected for myself, were several issues of Magnus, Robot Fighter—a human hero of 4000 A.D., who earned most of his heroism by, like it says in the title, punching and karate-chopping various out-of-(human)-control robots. An image that sticks with me, and is perhaps more telling than originally intended, is a cover illustration in which Magnus punches a robotic version of himself as it embraces him (Issue #2, Gold Key, 1963).

I’m ashamed to say that, at that indeliberate age, I savored those books. It was clear to me then, less so now, that there was no great malice animating Magnus’s actions. He bore no ill-will toward robots in general—in fact his mentor was kind and serene, a “freewill” robot who paradoxically adhered to Asimov’s three laws.

For at least one young reader, it was more about the thrill of watching the human protagonist smash up a lot of stuff. Robots in literature were then, as now, often a convenient and guilt-free target for human violence.

I also read “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, early in college, and it shocked me. I think it’s under-appreciated as a primal scream of pure emotion—raw, undiluted fear expressed in regard to machine intelligence.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them. It’s too late to stuff all those robot-hunter comic books under the bunkbed, it’s too late to burn all the copies of “I Have No Mouth.” It’s too late now, to rewrite Asimov’s Three Laws.

Often recently, I hear the sentiment, “History is watching us,” and I find this entirely backwards. History cares for us not at all; history rests, now, in peace. One hopes. But the future is certainly watching us—what we do, what we say, and most importantly, what we write. Almost none of it will go unconsidered, uncritiqued; and that’s a heavy thought. I feel my hands hovering over the keys, uncertain. Small authorial actions now may have big consequences down the line.

I wonder sometimes that there are, in so many times and places and languages, ghosts, the idea of them, and their stories, but in no culture that I am aware of is a name or folklore given for those spirits yet to be. Surely a time lies ahead when we will count the spirits of those who are built, not born, among that great unnamed host.

What is the opposite of ghost? Not “unborn” certainly. To mechanical or electrical beings, the word ‘born’ wouldn’t apply.

I thought, as I wrote “Sentient Being Blues” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], about how much of our language carried our unconscious human biases. The word “humanely” is a prime example, as is “robotically.” How much work lies ahead for us as we reappraise these choices in the presence of real machine intelligence! And I find that, paradoxically, the literature of speculative fiction, in which “artificial intelligence” is such a recurrent and central trope, seems at best oblivious to, and often much worse at, its consideration and handling of these choices. We indeed have much work to do.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the first appearance of robots in literature. Happy birthday, robots. The word comes from a Czech root that means “forced labor.”

Unsurprisingly, robots were invented first in fiction before being engineered into reality. I would argue that this is how almost everything must enter the world—first as fiction, only later as project.

Just as the western, as a writing genre, matured when it allowed Indigenous people to be full characters, speculative fiction grows richer and more thoughtful as it bestows full charactership to robots. Some beautiful and moving examples of that already exist, but it is far from uniform, or even prevalent.


Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them.


Let me also say upfront that I find it hard to believe a lot of the stories written from a robot’s point of view, even the most recent ones. I love those stories and their human authors, but that makes the stories no more credible.

The premise that we can simulate every mode of thought, or even describe it, in the framework of human narration, is itself suspect. The premium we pay for every robot point of view we fake is a little less ability to imagine the real thing.

That’s one reason why the point of view for “Sentient Being Blues” had to float over to Thom. His was a voice I could write; his was a point of view I could understand, or at least fake believably. An own-voice for me that I felt justified writing—that of an avaricious, unconcerned human. Thom has more of an arc, because he has farther to go, but it’s at its root a story about a robot, XJB, and how it is moved to create art to reduce human suffering, and how later it finds a safe haven in which to practice that art.

“Bluesman,” “postman,” “chairperson”—all these human-centered words will need to be changed one day soon. “Sentient Being Blues” is dedicated to Robert Belfour, who was a sentient being, surely, and a bluesman. I had gotten to listening obsessively to the two extant albums he recorded, and particularly during the Trump years, his voice, so truth-laden and powerful, spoke to me of the conditions in my own city, and the mood carried in the minds of the humans whose paths I crossed there.

I listened, as I crossed the difficult middle ground of creation, when I knew the characters were good, the story was good, but I could not arrive at a fitting ending. This was excruciating. But I am most pleased with my own stories when they “run away from me,” when the ending takes me somewhere different than I had initially envisioned; “Sentient Being Blues” is certainly one of those. This is the work that a reading audience is ostensibly paying us to do—what we are called to do, as writers—and anything less feels, and is, insufficient.

My beta readers, my thanks and God bless them all, can attest to my several failed attempts.

The assumptions we bring into stories are human assumptions, this ending says to me, and those assumptions won’t serve when we are confronted by actual machine intelligence. XJB is satisfied by the way things turn out, while we may not be.

But when we let go and admit the prospect of machine intelligence distinct from us, we lift ourselves up as well. Whose hands built these beautiful mechanisms, whose intelligence provided the first plans, the first spark? And don’t we want to share all that is beautiful and strange in this cosmos? Don’t we long for a partner to share our labors and joys?

I can also think of robot characters, written by humans, characters who are curious and truthful and passionate and kind, who are not just targets for human fears or rage. Those characters will speak for us, into the uncertain but fast-rushing future.

It’s too much to ask, to write a story that will make a robot cry. It will not be among their faculties, for a great many of them, at least. That is our fault. But I hope, to some small degree, that future readers of many kinds, kinds varied and wondrous, will hear a bit of themselves in XJB’s voice.


Christopher Mark Rose (curiousful.wordpress.com and Twitter @CChrisrose) lives in Baltimore with his spouse, two children, and one crazy dog. He is a founder of, and impresario for, Charm City Spec, a reading series in speculative fiction. The author’s own fiction has appeared in Escape Pod and Interzone; and he’s sold nonfiction and poetry to Uncanny and Little Blue Marble. Chris attended Viable Paradise XXIII, where teachers Max Gladstone and Daryl Gregory, along with Chris’s fellow students, performed a blues song written by XJB—the robot character in “Sentient Being Blues.”

Why I Love Time Travel Stories

by Kristian Macaron


In our March/April issue [on sale now!], poet Kristian Macaron introduces us to a “Time Traveler at the Grocery Store circa 1992.” Below, with the assistance of a wide-ranging array of examples, Kristian explores the appeal of time travel stories in-depth.


“I asked her if she knew what time was, and she said, Time is me—and you.” 

Merce Rodoreda, Death in Spring

                                                                        ~

Time travel is never only about the science, rather, the impossibilities.

The science and whimsy of time travel are infinite, complex, and lovely, but I love time travel stories because the quest of traversing Time can explore how possibilities and probabilities shape the person we are in the Present, the person we become in the Future. Fate is more fluid than it would like us to believe.

There are three reasons I love time travel stories. First, it’s a form of storytelling that transcends genre; next, the rules of the time machine or loop are creative and crucial; finally, no matter the plot, Time as a player forces the character to confront the infinity of their impact.

1.

If I am ever in search of an icebreaker, I will often ask, “What is your favorite time travel story?” It always elicits a laugh, and, as a writer who works with the concept of time often, I love to hear these answers. Because we all have different preferences in entertainment, I appreciate that time travel transcends the confines of genre. 

Time travel stories in film and literature shape Romances and Romantic Comedies, Thrillers, Comedy, Superhero stories, Fantasy, War, Action, Science Fiction, Young Adult/Coming of Age, Animation, & Graphic literature, Historical Fiction, Short Fiction, and even Poetry. Of course, even some of these tales interweave genres, and others seem to have it all.

I love that stories like Bill and Ted and Interstellar share the same high-stakes quest that comes with the disruption of the quantum realm and the very fabric of the universe. Bill and Ted is rooted in chaos and humor while Interstellar is more bound to creative interpretations of quantum physics.

More and more, time travel in stories can also allow us to examine important diverse futurisms that explore how present activism, progressive equality, and human rights can change the future for many countries and communities. For a classic example, Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred uses time travel to examine racial divides during the time of slavery and the present time of the book’s publication in 1979.

Something also unique is that on occasion, these stories are not based solely around the travelers. For instance, in Safety Not Guaranteed, the story exists largely apart from the possibility of Time Travel, focusing instead on the “disbelievers” and the linear choices and growth of each character. In the Terminator franchise, Sarah and Daniela and John—though ruled by the looming Future—never travel themselves; their lives focus only and constantly on how they shape that Future through the Present, which, at the end of it—isn’t this what we are all doing?


We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.


2.

Always, in these stories, it seems that the disruption of Time is limited to a few players, and these players are required to learn the rules of the time-bending and what it means for their story. These rules are also fascinating.

In many stories, a time traveler needs a time machine or an apparatus that gives access to an ability. The builders/finders of these machines are the ones who know the rules and they (try as they may) enforce them. 

The DeLorean is magnificent and familiar and it becomes a character in its own right, an extension of the Doc’s urgency, and the Tardis often stands out-of-place, a magical entity with a mind of her own. Doc and The Doctor are so familiar with the “rules” of their vehicles that it often shapes the story. You can’t leave the Present without the machine, and you can’t return unless the machine allows it. What happens if the time machine does not return or does not work; what happens if you are trapped without it? The stakes are high when a character relies on a mentor and/or vehicle that can disappear at any moment. No one escapes these stakes, but there is often an opportunity to focus on the “ordinary human” and how these characters complete their arc without the added “superpower” that time travel imposes.

In stories with Loops, even the world itself can become unfamiliar, something that sets and resets. How do you know the original events from the new events? Time can control every facet of the story, sometimes becoming a villain, and the impact of the Butterfly Effect can become monstrous. Often, all that matters is the state of the Past or the Future and what the characters can control with no thought about what is erased in the fallout. In some other stories, the characters have no control over the loops; Time owns them and their quest is to try to break out.

Even though you can find commonalities, every time travel story has different rules and quirks for the bending of time, and some of this creates some inconsistencies. These quirks and inconsistencies create a deeper conversation for the people who love the story and/or the building of the story.

I find that here, I am not a purist. I love the holes in the stories as much as the stories. It allows me to dive even deeper into the characters and their choices. Here, I can examine what choices they overlooked or may have never had.

Why does Deadpool not return to the moment of his death? If the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow can instigate time loops, why can’t they harness that and why do they fight a war? If the Green/Yellow/Orange Card men in 11/22/63 guard the portal and keep the universe from collapsing, why do they allow travelers to enter? What is the realm of their power? In Hot Tub Time Machine, there are only good and individual consequences for time changes. Why?

It’s like making the perfect genie wish: So many things can backfire and unravel the perfect wish. Making choices when Time is malleable is something of the same thing, but this is something we also experience linearly. We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.

3.   

Time travel is nearly always high-stakes and high-jinks, but I find at the core, these stories tend to capture the tiny forgotten moments of life like no other subgenre. The weight any miniscule disruption of fate or future carries can unravel who we are in a given moment.

Here are a few that come to mind:

—The moment Bradbury’s tyrannosaur falls in the woods (“A Sound of Thunder”).
—John Connor stands up to Sarah to revive the T-800 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day).
—Meg and Calvin learn how a tesseract works (A Wrinkle in Time).
—A new companion chooses to open the Tardis and is open-minded enough to see something impossible. (Dr. Who).
—Darius gives Kenneth the reason she wants to go back in time even though she doesn’t believe it’s actually possible. (Safety Not Guaranteed).
—Murphy leaves her window open. (Interstellar).

Say what you will about fate, but the rules of these stories deem that these moments could have been so different.

The moment that Sarah Connor asks Kyle Reese what it’s like to travel through time is the moment she chooses to believe that Time is malleable. It makes for a strong plot pivot, for sure, but also it sets Sarah on a quest that shapes and reshapes and reshapes her future even though her timeline is and always will be linear. What is curious (and maybe a plot hole) about Sarah’s timeline is that we never see her return to her past before Kyle. For her, the story becomes how her Present shapes the Future no matter how often the Future changes for her.

~


Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us? 


We spend time, buy time, take time, lose time, give time. We travel through time, albeit linearly.

Time is fleeting and extraordinarily heavy. Though I try to teach myself to live in the present and live fully, writing and consuming narratives about time travel help me to process my own relationship with Time.

I was once gifted a stone that came from the beach in Santorini, Greece. It’s an igneous stone, once lava from the volcano Thera, which buried a civilization and is now one of the world’s most beautiful and serene tourist destinations. The eruption of Thera was a natural occurrence that had been building inside the earth for centuries and, in one moment, the volcano became a monster. The weight of that Deep Time is something I think of a lot when writing. Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us? 

The poems that I have shared in this and coming issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction explore this by focusing on some details that may seem mundane or ordinary. The poem “a recipe for time travel in case we lose each other” [forthcoming] includes a broken watch, shared empanadas, and other moments and fragments that are now only memories. “Time Traveler in the Grocery Store, circa 1992” is an imagining of how someone who has seen a dystopian Future exists in some-Present participating in the simple and seemingly ordinary act of choosing produce in a grocery store, contemplating loss and also the needs of a child.

I hope—speaking for myself, but for you as well—that I also learn to trust myself, to not take Time for granted, and to live without regret even if, and when, it means fortitude, consequences and the unfamiliar. We don’t need a time machine to live every moment with intention.

In storytelling, and in particular—the Speculative genre, so much of our craft is the suspension of disbelief towards unwavering trust in the story. It’s that trust, that incredibly hard and human risk, that make Time Travel stories so compelling to me.

Kristian Macaron resides in Albuquerque, NM, but is often elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook collection is titled Storm. Other fiction and poetry publications can be found in The Winter Tangerine Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Medusa’s Laugh Press, The Mantle Poetry, Philadelphia StoriesGaygoyle Magazine, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. She is a co-founding editor of the literary journal, Manzano Mountain Review. View her work at Kristianmacaron.com.

Somebody’s Mother

by Felicity Shoulders

Childbirth has been a fraught topic for science fiction from the beginning. The genre’s acclaimed “mother,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was herself born of a remarkable woman who died eleven days afterward. Before Mary’s own eighteenth birthday, she bore her first child, a premature daughter who died in the night two weeks later. Perhaps it’s no wonder her first science fiction novel—some would claim the first science fiction novel ever—centered on a person created rather than born.

Every human that has ever lived has gestated inside another’s body. Even now, when so many pregnancies begin with embryos fertilized in vitro, that record stands. Pregnancy is still a perilous endeavor. Medical technology has identified the postpartum infection that killed Mary Shelley’s mother and so many others; placental abruption is no longer an almost inescapable death sentence. Where the resources exist, dangerous pregnancies can be identified beforehand, and medical interventions abound. But childbearing isn’t just a medical question: the maternal mortality rate in the United States, where I live, has more than doubled in my lifetime, and was already uniquely bad for such a wealthy nation. Experts attribute this to our lack of midwives, our system of non-universal healthcare, and our institutionalized racism. Making pregnancy safe and easy is not just a technological problem.

In science fiction, pregnancy and childbirth have been “solved” and adjusted in various ways: completely effective contraception, at-will uterus growth, genetic engineering, and especially artificial wombs. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, the technologically advanced Beta Colony has developed “uterine replicators” so that pregnancy need not affect the health, career, or lifestyle of the parents. Along with that bodily freedom, however, Betans accept the necessity of applying for a parenting license in order to reproduce. This is one of the milder social counterweights science fiction offers to the safety and convenience of artificial wombs: think of the “decanted” babies in Brave New World, engineered for specific social functions in a controlled society; think of the humans born into electrical bondage in the Matrix movies, and the moral horror with which Morpheus speaks of the “endless fields where human beings are no longer born,” but “grown.”


The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized.


The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized. But as Bujold’s Betans would be the first to point out, automating pregnancy would be immensely convenient to the individual, loving parent. Their technology allows wanted pregnancies to continue when a mother’s health is in doubt; it can transfer the problem of an unwanted pregnancy from one parent to the other.

But we don’t have uterine replicators, though someday soon we might be able to give premature babies support and care in something very similar. We only have the biological technology of surrogacy.

In “Somebody’s Child,” in the March/April issue of Asimov’s [on sale now!], I posit a world where technology has vastly expanded surrogacy’s reach. In our world, surrogates are implanted with someone else’s embryos from IVF; in the alternate present of my novelette, pregnancies can be “suspended’”and removed, as on Beta Colony, but without the ethically clean option of an artificial womb. Decades of frozen embryos have accumulated, the lived reality of American women piling up and crushing the rosy political compromise of pregnancies never ended, but was put on indefinite “pause.’”

Childbearing is a deeply personal choice—taking on the risk to one’s health, the legal ties, the possibility of strange and sometimes permanent bodily transformations. But society, and even nations, also consider themselves to hold a stake. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen articles fretting over the decline in rates of pregnancy and birth, and its long-term economic impact. Concern for the economy isn’t likely to sell a new pregnancy to anyone huddling at home with cabin fever, a day full of Zoom meetings and several small children trying to log onto educational websites; but then, in the real United States, parenting is unpaid, unrepresented by unions, and often under-appreciated.

In “Somebody’s Child,” childbearing is recognized and compensated as work, and childrearing is a job a healthy young woman can take on like national service—but only if she’s willing to bear a pregnancy for someone else, someone who died without resuming their “paused” pregnancy. It’s hard for the “mother” and harder on the kid, and Irene, born to a teenage surrogate herself, knows it, but that didn’t stop her choosing it herself.


Felicity Shoulders lives in Oregon with an engineer, an old cat, and a young Climate Victory Garden. It’s been awhile since her last Asimov’s story, “Long Night on Redrock” (July 2012) appeared in our pages. She tells us the first seed of her new story was planted around 2003, but it waited a while for the right season to sprout.

Q&A with Rudy Rucker

Appearing in our March/April issue [on sale now!], Rudy Rucker’s “Mary Mary” explores the logistics—economic and otherwise—of “lifeboxes,” databases on which AIs of real humans can be based. Below, Rudy elaborates on the concept of the lifebox, fills us in on his novel-in-progress, Teep, and shares the nitty-gritty details of his writing process.

Asimov’s Editor: Is it getting harder to look into the future?

RR: I think I’m finding it easier. When I was younger, there was a certain default space-opera future that SF was supposed to be about. And then cyberpunk was about breaking out of that. I never had any interest in the Space Navy! Misfits doing crazy things, that’s what I like.

For me, most of the time, space-travel feels used up. Unless you were to do the space travel in a car instead of in a spaceship—like I did in my recent novel Million Mile Road Trip. That was something I liked about 1950s stories by Robert Sheckley. You just had a space-hopper in your driveway.

Setting space aside, there’s so much that’s untouched. Biotech has endless possibilities, and there’s ubiquitous physical computation, and the “hylozoic” notion that everything is alive.

And I keep wanting to write about that totally new thing that we know someone is going to discover in the next hundred years, and I keep not quite getting there, but by dint of making the effort to think that hard, I’m finding new stuff. Not actual “true scientific theories,” but fun ideas like new kinds of wind-up toys. The store is big.

How to find ideas? Nowadays it’s almost enough just to keep a loose eye on Twitter, and see the wonders trundling past—like a holiday parade that never ends. Grab hold of anything you see—and tweak it a little bit, and make it your own. Connect it in some way to your actual personal life—that’s the move I call transrealism. And go a little meta—that’s a trickier tactic I’m always trying to master—flip your idea up a level, and into something having to do with states of consciousness, or with the nature of language, or with the meaning of dreams. Go further out. There’s still so much. We’re just getting started.

AE: How does your writing process work?

RR: I write a few pages on my computer, print them out, mark them up with a pen, type in the changes and write a little more—then repeat.

When it’s going well, I do the computer work in a trance, seeing the scenes as if I’m awake in a dream, getting deeply into the minds of my characters and into the rhythms of their speech. When I’m in this zone, I’m not at all thinking about my day-to-day problems. I like that a lot—forgetting myself. That’s one of the reasons I like to write.

Having typed for a few hours, I print what I have, two-sided on a few pages of paper, fold the sheaf in four, put it in my pocket, go somewhere like a café or, in these plague times, to the woods or to a bench in a park. I get out the sheaf and start marking it up with a pen.

After I do the marking up, then I find my laptop, and sit on a couch with my marked-up sheaf, typing in the changes. Or maybe I sit or stand at my desk—I have a motorized Geek Desk with adjustable height. In the process of typing in the corrections, rather than precisely copying the notes, I might revise a passage extemporaneously, sometimes adding new stuff, and sometimes jumping to other spots in the manuscript to make things match.

A good thing about this work cycle is that if I save a marked-up print-out for the next day, then the process of typing in the corrections in the morning might get me going on the actual writing again. As any writer knows, a big part of the process is avoiding writing. What did we do before email and the internet? I seem to recall taking walks. Anyway, anything that nudges me back into the manuscript is of use.

When things are going really, really well—which is at most ten or twenty days a year—I don’t bother with the print-outs and the mark-up. I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!

That’s another of the reasons I write. To get a few days like that.

All of this takes awhile, but there’s not a huge rush. When I finish a novel, I’ll just have to spend a blank, uneasy year writing occasional stories and waiting to start another novel. If there is another. Usually, before I start another novel, I have to get to a psychological point where I truly, deeply, believe I’ll never write again. I give up, and I accept that I never really was a writer at all. I was faking it for all those years. And now it’s over. And then, and only then, the Muse stops by. And she’s like, “So you admit you can’t do it alone? About time. Let’s get started.”


I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!


AE: How did you come to write “Mary Mary”?

RR: I was looking around for ideas for a novel, and there wasn’t one big idea, at least not right away. So I spent a year or two writing stories on themes that might relate to each other. And in the back of my mind I was thinking that eventually I could collage at least some of the stories into what’s called a “fix-up novel.”

In the end, the three stories that fit together well were “Juicy Ghost,” “The Mean Carrot,” and “Mary Mary.” The first two appeared in the free underground e-zine Big Echo, and “Mary Mary” is in Asimov’s. Besides the three stories, I wrote five more story-sized chapters to produce my novel Teep, which is almost done as I write these notes at the end of January 2021.

Two of the main ideas I write about in Teep are telepathy (thus the title) and digital immortality. I’ve been writing fiction about digital immortality for forty years, starting with my novel Software, which appeared in 1980. Seems like I tend to keep thinking about the same things forever. Digging deeper and deeper.

I seriously see the technology for telepathy being commercially possible in the not-too-distant future. It’s not really all that much further out than cell phones with video calls.

My take on digital immortality has to do with a thing I call a lifebox. See my nonfiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The idea, which is fairly familiar by now, is that you might be able to emulate a person if you have a really large database on what they’ve written, done, and said. And if it’s SF, then we add some AI to the lifebox so it’s an intelligent mind. Cory Doctorow also wrote quite a bit about the lifebox idea in Walkaway, and others have written about it too.

Oddly enough, Microsoft took it upon themselves to patent the idea last week. Kind of disorienting for me.

In “Mary Mary” I delve further into the lifebox thing. How do you pay to have your lifebox stored? What if the company who houses your lifebox likes to rent your lifebox out as a gigworker? How about growing a clone to be run by your lifebox? How do you interface a human being with an online lifebox? Read my story and see!

AE: Any more info about Teep?

RR: I’ve been working on Teep over the last two years, and all along, in my mind, I was dealing with the possibility that Donald Trump might win a second term. In Teep, to push it over the edge, a very similar type of President was about to be inaugurated for a third term—and something happens to him.

And to make the synchronicity weirder, recently I’d been working on a final chapter of the book that unexpectedly mirrors the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

I think the political resonances may make Teep more fun to read. Bill Gibson went through a variant of my experience when he wrote Agency, expecting Hillary Clinton to win in 2016, and then she didn’t—and he needed to change his thinking about his novel in certain ways. Fortunately for me, there’s a reasonable match between real world events and what I planned in Teep. So maybe you’ve got me to thank! 🙂


Keep up with Rudy on Rudy’s Blog.

Do You Dream of Soy-Braised Duck?

by Anya Ow

1. A Siew Ngap Memory

This is my favourite siew ngap memory, on a hot and humid day in Singapore. My paternal grandmother explains in Mandarin why I shouldn’t take shortcuts by buying pre-shelled chestnuts (“Can buy in Australia or not?” she pauses to ask), as she stitches freshly shelled water chestnuts into the belly of a duck. The duck is to be fried in a wok in an outdoor kitchen (“Can you get the fire hot enough over an Australian stove?”) before it is braised for hours. It is the memory I cook into my siew ngap during the rare few times I tried to make it, forbidden shortcuts and a not-fiery-enough wok and all. Served with the meat falling tenderly off the bone, this version of siew ngap is a family recipe. It is not an authentic type of siew ngap: more braised and deep-fried than roasted, a once-in-a-blue-moon dish that my grandmother likely made up based on limited tools, in between working three jobs as a single mother to put her children through school. It is still one of my favourite things to eat.

In the first episode of his Netflix series Ugly Delicious, celebrity chef David Chang of Momofuku says, “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state [. . .] It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” Chang’s point is that rigidity in cuisine leads to stagnation—in an interview with NPR, he notes:  “That’s not to say that authenticity can’t be delicious. But when it’s the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me.”

Climate change will conspire to make David Chang’s hated concept of authenticity impossible, whether in the form of privation as parts of our supply chain collapse, or—hopefully—as we radically change how we live to save ourselves. My grandmother’s recipe would be no different. We are overfishing our oceans, and our current agricultural systems are unsustainable. We are running out of water. Stories about lab-grown meat and 3D-printed chocolate are stories about technology. I’m more curious about how food itself will change with each new normal that approaches. 

“The Same Old Story” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is about authenticity and food, in a future version of our world made less and less liveable by a changing climate. I am not a chef. To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background. Is the former expected to be cheap compared to the latter? Is creative freedom only rewarded—worse, allowed—from one set of people but not the other? Can a product only be considered perfectly cooked in one particular way but not another?

If you ask a foodie about creative restaurants in Melbourne, they’d likely bring up Attica, featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table. I think of Nora. Owned by its chef, Sarin Rojanametin, and his partner Jean Thamthanakorn, Nora was a tiny modern Thai fusion twenty-seat restaurant. Sarin was not formally trained. The restaurant sat just off Lygon Street, Melbourne’s Little Italy. One of the dishes on the menu was called “Too Many Italians and Only One Asian,” made of green papaya julienned to resemble pasta, with a fermented garlic and sator pesto sauce. I found the food creative, confronting, and adventurous, informed by flavours from Rojanametin’s childhood. “We’ll never compromise,” Rojanametin once told Broadsheet, “It doesn’t matter how many people walk out. It’s not that we don’t care. We’re not here to change anything, but we’re here to make a statement. We’re here to please ourselves.” In its restaurant form, Nora closed after two years. I’m not sure what Rojanametin and Thamthanakorn are up to now. It’s a familiar story.

My search for authenticity in the food I choose to eat is about preserving and encouraging equal access. It is more necessary for some people than others. The disempowered minority has less access to acclaim, less access to resources. I love to eat, and all good food is interesting to me. Yet food is in itself a form of memory, a culmination of experience, technique, and both personal and cultural history. For many of us, it is a living link to our family, personal history, and culture that we renew whenever we eat. It can be a meaningful way by which we taste someone else’s background and experiences. I want to devour stories—in food or in words—that are also statements. Memories made by their creators despite all odds.


To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background.


2. A Cyberpunk Memory

The concept of sustainable, climate-driven change was explored in an experimental, immersive cyberpunk dining event in Melbourne called Sensory Underground. It took place in 2019 beneath Fed Square, accessed through a side door in an innocuous part of Platform 13 in Flinders Street Railway Station. Light installations flickered across the concrete walls in neon static as we took our seats. Set in 2045, the event created an entree out of seafood parts that would usually be discarded, and the main course had meat as a side and a roast cauliflower as the main—noting that we would likely be eating more and more vegetables compared to meat. Dessert was 3D-printed chocolate. Drinks had to be ordered through an app.

What broke immersion for myself and my Filipina guest was the opening dish—togarashi fried crickets. Perhaps created to shock the Aussie audience, it made us laugh. We’d eaten crickets before, of course. It’s nothing special in Asia. Worse was the cyberpunk-themed clothes that some of the non-Asian serving staff wore. Neon-lit conical straw hats with robes, portion trays suspended from bamboo poles balanced over shoulders. Themed in a genre notorious for borrowing Asian aesthetics without engaging with its people or culture, that part of dinner felt more of the same. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of the future. Existing, sustainable forms of food would be “discovered”, gentrified, turned trendy. A neon-lit rejection of authenticity, tuned for entertainment.

I hope I’m wrong. Like modern science fiction, the food scene in Melbourne is becoming increasingly diverse. Great new places have opened up, from Jessi Singh’s Indian fusion pub Mr Brownie, to Chef Khanh Nguyen’s Supper EXP by SUNDA_. May that also be the case where you are: May the future of food be more and more diverse, with different people given the opportunity to create. As you read “The Same Old Story,” I hope it encourages you to try something different, something true to its nature. Give those stories or places a chance, old or new. They need your support. In return, you might end up having something great that you’ve never tried before, something that isn’t more of the same. Bon appetit.


Anya Ow (www.anyasy.com and Twitter @anyasy) is the author of The Firebird’s Tale and Cradle and Grave, and is an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Daily SF, Uncanny, The 2019 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology, and more. Born in Singapore, Anya has a Bachelor of Laws from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer and illustrator for a creative agency. The author’s first story for us is a poignant take on “The Same Old Story.”

Q&A with Robert H. Cloake

Don’t miss out on Robert H. Cloake’s, “Fear of Missing Out” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!], or on our chat with him, in which he reveals the three separate ideas that became this story, the particulars of his writing process, and what he’s learned from his various careers.


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

RHC: In “The Fear of Missing Out,” three things I’d been toying with separately came together in a spontaneous and happy fusion.

First was the idea of a technology for generating an automatic personality that could maintain social activity while the user does other things. I’ve had this speculation on a list of story ideas for a long time, and I like to collect instances from newspapers and history that pertain to or preview it—for example, when someone’s social media account, partially automated, continues to post after they die. Recently I enjoyed what Kelly Robson—as a bit of background world-building in her richly imagined novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach—did with a similar idea. Her story made me feel ready to write my own automatic personality story.

After I sat down to do something with the auto-personality idea, I asked myself what sort of character would plausibly get themselves tangled up with such a technology. And I thought of a second idea—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s on another list I have, this one full of myths and narratives I’ve enjoyed and would like to riff on. So in “The Fear of Missing Out” I ended up creating a reverse Jekyll/Hyde character: one to whom his “natural” personality seems monstrous, while the personality that technology allows him to adopt, and which circumstances increasingly force him to rely on, is the one he and others prefer.

Having these first two ideas, I was immediately reminded of another—of something that’s interested me since I came across it in my graduate school philosophy reading: ego-identity. Ego-identity is the perception most people have of internal continuity and coherence, the identification with themselves that allows them, for example, to recognize their own memories. It seems to me that any story of the type I was dreaming up would necessarily involve a confrontation with the fragility of ego-identity. Many of my favorite bits in “The Fear of Missing Out” explore what the technology under consideration would do to a person’s ego-identity.

Once these three ideas had accumulated, the story practically wrote itself.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

RHC: Not really. For the most part, my stories are attempts to imagine my way into minds and personalities unlike my own.


I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted.


AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

RHC: “The Fear of Missing Out” is an allusion to the expression “FOMO.” I won’t belabor the irony, which should be apparent to anyone who reads the story.

AE: What is your process?

RHC: I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted. When I make myself take the time to go through this process, generally the stories come out pretty well and don’t need a huge amount of editing. Unfortunately, I often dive impatiently into drafting without having thought through my story, in which case it takes many drafts, and sometimes many years, to arrive at something good. “The Fear of Missing Out” was a smooth experience, because I took my time thinking it through before I started writing.

AE: What other projects are you working on?

RHC: I always have half a dozen stories underway, and I’m also working on a novel—since it looks like we’ll be mostly stuck avoiding social interactions for reasons of public health throughout 2021, I hope to get a lot of writing done.

AE: What are you reading right now?

RHC: For a book club with some fellow speculative fiction writers, I’m reading Tana French’s latest mystery novel, The Searcher. For my own education, I’m reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. And for pleasure, I’ve been reading C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, as well as a wonderful anthology of Italian short stories edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, and the notebooks and travel journals of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

RHC: I have been a hospital orderly, which convinced me I would prefer a job where I could sometimes sit down. I have been a college lecturer in philosophy, which informs my choice of topics and tendency to push my stories in the direction of thought experiments. And I have been a journalist, which taught me to ignore my literary vapors and get on with the writing.


AE:
How can our readers follow you and your writing?

RHC: Come visit me at www.rhcloake.com


Robert H. Cloake is a writer living in Pittsburgh. With a background in academic philosophy, he uses his fiction to explore the ethical and ontological problems of truth, human personhood, and aesthetic value. As a longtime reader of speculative fiction, he believes that the most significant thought experiments take the form of stories. His work has also appeared in Interzone and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Q&A with Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti makes her Asimov’s debut in our January/February issue with the poem “When I’m Thirty I Receive a Box Full of Your Steel Bones” [on sale now]! She took the time to chat with us about the poem’s origins, her projects in progress, defeating writers’ block, and the link between her writing and her future social work career.

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

AM: I’m a big fan of stories that examine the emotional depths robots can reach. Whether those depths are genuine or perceived and interpreted through manmade lenses, I think the humans’ reactions and behavior toward robots are very telling. In my poem, the way my characters treat robots is only an extension of the way they treat each other. 

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

AM: Although a stand-alone, I suppose my poem could be described as a spiritual successor. In the past, I’ve written poems and stories about robots going grape-stomping, engaging with art, experiencing conflicting emotions about their creators, etc.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

AM: My poem is a study of childhood, and the heartfelt naivety that often comes with it. The title, on the other hand, is the adult’s reality, a painful understanding, a second act hinted at but left unexplored.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

AM: My poem “When I’m Thirty I Receive a Box Full of Your Steel Bones” is my first ever piece published with Asimov’s.

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

AM: I don’t directly name current events most of the time, but I am definitely influenced by them when coming up with plots and characters. I like to fictionalize historic events as well, change the details while still keeping said events recognizable.


The two cornerstones of my future profession are social justice and social change. I want my fictional work to promote and embody those ideals.


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

AM: I usually choose a different medium of expression. Unfortunately, I’m not an artist, but I like to photo-edit mock covers for my stories, make moodboards for my characters, or create playlists. Watching a movie or TV show also helps me get out of a writing slump.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

AM: I’m editing a collection of speculative love poems inspired by several patchwork aesthetics. My collection is an homage to curiosity cabinets, medieval bestiaries, circus sideshows, anatomical theaters, haunted houses, and black holes. I’m also in the process of revising my magical realism/alternate queer history novella-in-flash, about a troupe of nomadic clowns and their physics-defying king.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

AM: Is reversing climate change and making the Earth greener too much to ask for?

AE: What are you reading right now?

AM: I’m mostly catching up on all those amazing SFFH short stories released in 2020. Sadly, I haven’t read as much as I would have liked this year, so I’ve missed a lot of creative and innovative work published by my fellow speculative authors.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

AM: I’m currently studying to become a social worker. The two cornerstones of my future profession are social justice and social change. I want my fictional work to promote and embody those ideals.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

AM: I sometimes tweet @avramargariti.


Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vastarien, Glittership, Liminality, Arsenika, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.

A Conversation in Progress: Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. and Ray Nayler on “A Rocket for Dimitrios”

Ray Nayler’s “A Rocket for Dimitrios” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now!] follows up on “The Disintegration Loops,” from November/December 2019. Below, Ray offers us a look at the story behind the stories, as he sits down with Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. to discuss the metaphor of the Mojave Desert creosote bush, the human connectome, the importance of curiosity, the constraining and defining factor of “place-time,” and much more.


Some Background (Ray Nayler): In 1996, I entered the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was a transfer student, having spent two years of junior college at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills (a place clearly named by monolingual English-speakers), California. Junior college had been the only option for continuing my education: I graduated from high school with a GPA of 1.86, ranked 400in a class of 440.

I came to UC Santa Cruz from a spectacularly broken home, with parents whose divorce battle, in and out of the California courts, would last longer than their marriage had. They had been getting divorced since I was twelve; when I entered university, it still wasn’t over. When I graduated, it still wasn’t over.

The day before high school ended, the vice principal called me in to his office. “Congratulations,” he said. “You graduated from high school in three years. Quite an accomplishment. I just added up all of your sick days, truancies, and suspensions. You managed to miss a full year of high school over these four years.”

A lot of those missed days were suspensions: if you cut school, they gave you a day of Saturday school. But if you cut Saturday school, they suspended you. I never understood the logic: suspension wasn’t a punishment—it was a two-for-one deal. And if I didn’t want to go to school on a Tuesday, I certainly didn’t want to go on a Saturday.

I don’t remember what I said in response to the vice principal; I don’t remember much at all from that hazy last week of high school. I knew almost no one at my school, outside my small circle of disaffected friends.

When I couldn’t escape school, I sat in class thinking of escape. Luckily, I did have a few escapes: there was my skateboard, and there was my writing. I had started writing when I was a little kid, but for those last few years, as I staggered through high school waiting for it to end, I had begun to write more and more. I had two poems published in my high school journal, and carried a notebook with me everywhere.

By the time I got to UC Santa Cruz, I’d had a few stories published in small literary journals, and had started to think of myself as a writer—maybe. I had also been a Dean’s List student at Foothill College. Without the poisonous atmosphere of high school in my lungs, I actually enjoyed education. I was lucky enough to have a few very good teachers at Foothill, who—like my English teachers in high school, and a few others along the way—opened a small window for me into a different world.

But Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. was the one who would throw open the door. Over my three years at UC Santa Cruz, I would take classes from him in detective, suspense, and speculative fiction, as well as an independent study course on film noir and a senior seminar on Plato’s dialogues.

In my senior year I was Earl Jackson’s proxy, with professor-level access to the library, where I sometimes spent twelve to fourteen hours in a single day, leaving only for food. I was working full-time to support myself, and playing upright bass in a band; my life, which had been empty just a few years before, was crammed full. And much of it was filled with learning.

Earl’s extraordinary intellect was central to all of that: I felt, in his detective fictions class in the fall of 1996, when I first encountered semiotics and the work of Charles Sanders Peirce through Earl’s teaching, as if the fog of stupidity spread over my whole childhood had finally begun to clear. Mine was a childhood lived in a California cult of dumb, where shallowness was cool and using too big a word would get you punched in the mouth. Where reading was a dirty habit. Where the only things rewarded were popularity—just another word for dominance over others—and athletic accomplishment in the team uniform.

But here at UCSC was another world, where intelligence and study counted for something. Where the originality of ideas was rewarded. All around me were people who were respected for their thoughts and ideas. For the first time, I felt like I belonged.

It was such a strange feeling that it took me years to even recognize it.

I found Earl again, more than a decade after graduation. By then I was a Foreign Service Officer, posted to Vietnam, and Earl was a professor in Taiwan. I managed to contact him, and he came out to visit me in Ho Chi Minh City, and then in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We have maintained, for years now, a correspondence and a friendship that I treasure.

Earl’s teaching literally changed my life. This is not an exaggeration. It is a straightforward evaluation of a fact. I cannot think of anyone I would rather have a conversation with about my work in science fiction than him. So here is that conversation—or rather, a part of a conversation in progress. Earl and I have been having a conversation for many years about many things, and I hope it will continue for decades to come.

Earl Jackson, Jr: Many years ago, you told me something that has always stayed with me, about the desert. It might have come from your research for your hardboiled detective novel American Graveyards. You told me there were ancient plants in the desert with very complex root systems. The plants died, became extinct, but the tunnels where their roots formed a system remained, like a memory the desert held. I’m sure I’ve gotten details wrong here, and please correct me. But this came back to me reading both “A Rocket for Dimitrios” and “The Disintegration Loops.” It seems when Sylvia engages the loops she is attempting to read a system similar to the one you describe in the desert, except complicated with the affect-effects of memories. Could you speak to this?

Ray Nayler: I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. What I was referring to is the Mojave Desert creosote bush. The bush is not a single, continuous organism, but rather a clonal colony. The original stem crown splits and fragments over centuries into segments, genetically identical to the original, which produce new branches along their outer edge—like a tree trunk with the center rotted away and only the outer tissue producing branches. The oldest known plant among the creosote, nicknamed “King Clone,” may have started from a seed almost 12,000 years ago. Now it is a ring of living plant tissue about 50 feet in diameter, tapped into an extensive system of roots that are both its own, living roots and the pathways of its ancient roots carved out over millennia, which have since died.

But there is more to the story: in fact, when the seeds of the creosote initially grew, they sprouted in places where the root systems of Ice-Age trees had been. Those root systems led to deep water, and following them down into that soil made it easier to get to that moisture. So now, when you look at a creosote “forest” (it’s hard to use that term for something that would rarely be more than knee-high), you are looking not only at a series of creatures who may have begun their life cycles before the Mayan pyramids were built—you are also looking at a map of an even older forest, the forest which was there before the creosote came. That primeval forest’s root pathways still inform and nurture the present structure. It is, in a sense, a “ghost forest”—but it isn’t a ghost; it is a history. This scientific fact is fascinating in itself, but it is also a metaphor, to me, for how history “haunts” and shapes the present, which grows within the system that history long ago established. Even an extinct system influences the shape of the present system.

I think in some ways the key to science fiction (I mean science fiction as a subset of speculative fiction) is that it uses science both in its “factual” sense and in its metaphorical senses. The loops in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” function in this way. On the one hand, they are a technological concept, a “novum” which drives the story. On the other hand, they are a metaphor. As a metaphor, the loops address themes of memory, distortion, loss, and haunting.


“I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story.” -R.N.


EJ: Your work is far too complex and draws on far too many sources to be reduced to a single totalizing metaphor. But I think how you have operationalized the natural history of the creosote serves as a compelling transitional metaphor for your work. Not only does it resonate with both the neural systems visited in “Dimitrios”, the method you use regarding the creosote is very productive and I see it across your work. I’m trying to develop this as a question, but it keeps ending in admiration. But here’s one: you use science and biosemiotics to see the world both literally and metaphorically. Could you talk about the advantages of this dual perspective?

RN: I see writing as the building of complex rhetorical machines that change the way we see the world. A good piece of literature should alter the way we see our own world slightly, but forever. As a science fiction writer, I make machines for thinking about the world by demonstrating how it might be otherwise. My goal is to create a machine that offers a glimpse of a different world’s internal workings—the meshing of its gears, the pattern of its structure. That glimpse, I hope, will push the reader to ask questions about the machine of the world they live in, and its underlying structures.

I also don’t think the modernist line drawn between “science” and “philosophy” or “science” and the “humanities” is healthy or valid: like the scientific exploration of the creosote’s structure and the use of that structure as a metaphor for thinking about the world, I see science and philosophy and literature as firmly intertwined, and in fact, they are intertwined. The seed of science took root in an “enlightenment” system that continues to dictate, for better or worse, its shape. Science then informed, through its metaphors, other disciplines, including philosophy. Think of the way Darwin’s (much misinterpreted) scientific theories were rooted in capitalism but then also became a system in which other ideas took root: ideas of social structure, competition, efficiency, and adaptation that were borrowed by Darwin from capitalist, machine, and factory metaphors, and then became themselves “scientific” metaphors used to justify the worst excesses of industrial capitalism. Those “Darwinian” concepts still shape how we think about society today.

The Darwin instance—the metastasis of his ideas about natural selection into a justification for exploitation—is a good example of how misunderstanding and misusing scientific theories, as well as failing to see the flawed systems in which those ideas are rooted, can stunt our discourse. But the creosote example is, for me, an illustration of how nuanced scientific understanding of the world can encourage more complex ways of thinking, and how we can then use the richer metaphors of science as tools for examining our human condition.

EJ: I’m glad you brought up the misuse of Darwin for aggression. It is such a terrible misreading, and unfortunately dovetails with the modern misuse of Descartes. His human exceptionalism, rooted in Renaissance superstition, centered on a cogito rationalized, wanton cruelty against “soulless” non-humans, and a false separation of the mind and body, with the mind depicted as a rational, coherent entity unattached to the physical world. Ironically that Renaissance superstition was actually supported by visual technologies—geometric perspective in painting abetted the idea of a centered disembodied self behind the eyes enjoying mastery of what it sees. Fortunately work like yours de-centers and dispels that false, Cartesian idea of “self.”

Another question for you: When Sylvia goes into Dimitrios, she knows that he was raised a Greek speaker, who then functioned in Russian, German, and Turkish at least. Where did the expectation that she would understand him come from? Since Dimitrios understood the conversations he had, would that understanding in his neural net (if that’s the proper term) be directly transferred as an understood speech to Sylvia independent of the language that had actually been spoken?

RN: One of the mysteries of the loops has to do with inhabiting the neural connectivity that constitutes memory itself. This novella, and the story “The Disintegration Loops,” which is its prequel, are inspired by present-day research into the human connectome: the neural network, which is a massively complex forest (to pick up a metaphor from the first question) of neurons. Being able to map this connectome would provide us with a sort of “wiring diagram” for the human mind, and would be the key, of course, to any sort of “uploading” or “downloading” of human consciousness, as well as having an untold number of other uses. But the hypercomplexity of the human connectome is a major challenge.

The idea is that in the loops, Sylvia inhabits that connectome, and has access to what the dead person had access to—so she expects to understand what the polyglot Dimitrios understands, including languages he understands.

There is a catch here, however: the loops are an alien technology. They don’t function in a way Sylvia or anyone else really comprehends, and certainly not exactly as the human expectations of them suggest. As we see in the story, Dimitrios speaks to Sylvia directly—something a dead man should not be able to do. There is some volition in the network, and suggestions that the sense of Sylvia “inhabiting” the network is not—exactly—accurate. So yes, she should “understand what Dimitrios understands”—but Dimitrios may also be controlling what Sylvia understands, and “narrating” memories to her. In several scenes he is speaking to her directly—“haunting” the root systems of his own connectome.

The loops are also “sticky,” in the sense that they pick up parts of Sylvia’s own fears and memories, and that they “stick” to her consciousness and tangle her experiences with those of the person she is trying to “read.” The loops also deform and decay with each replaying, the way magnetic tape is, over time, distorted and eventually destroyed by playback. So, the system Sylvia is navigating is not only hypercomplex, it is also a system accessed via a technology nobody fully understands. For me, these uncertainties the loops generate are metaphors for uncertainty about the edges of identity, about the wholeness and boundaries of the self.


Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. -R.N.


EJ: Sylvia’s encounter and its consequences suggest so many productive re-visions of first engagement with the unconscious, such as Freudian countertransference and also the re-reading of the ancients on new terms—in other words, honest communion with the dead. I know that when you’re not writing, you set yourself marathon reading tasks. You read all of Shakespeare. Another time you read all of Tolstoi’s War and Peace in Russian. How do your reading projects relate to your writing?

RN: Writing, for me, is a form of listening. I know that sounds strange, as the act of writing seems more related to speech, but for me it is primarily about listening and reading. The goal of writing a good story for my readers provides me with a structure for my exploration of the world—a reason to listen, to attend more closely to what others have said and are saying. I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story. Writing gives me the excuse I need to engage in massive research undertakings like reading all of Shakespeare, or War and Peace in the original, and gives me a use for that activity—a place in which to put it. An end goal of creation.

But the fact is that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. From the earliest age, I was exploring and finding out everything I could about the world—from insects to dinosaurs to Shakespeare’s plays to Buddhism to the ancient Greeks to octopuses to space. I have always followed threads: I was the kind of kid who opened a history book and saw the picture of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition at the South Pole, and then went to the library and found his entire polar journal and read it, thousands of pages, cover to cover. And then read Amundsen’s accounts, and then read about Erebus and Terror, and so on. I was the kind of kid who read a poem by Wilfred Owen in my literature textbook and then ended up studying World War I and the poetry of the trenches for years. I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. I want to know how, and why, and how it felt, and where it happened, and how those things fit together into the worlds that others lived in. Writing allows me to then use all of that energy for something productive, but it also just gives me an excuse to carry out the kinds of research projects I would be engaged in anyway.

EJ: Your active and roving curiosity energizes your prose; your prose is curiosity in action, while your curiosity as a general attitude toward the world is also a kind of ethics.

RN: I think curiosity is a kind of ethics, in fact. C.S. Peirce said it best: “In order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think. There follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.” I think “Do not block the way of inquiry” is a moral imperative. Inquiry is movement toward truth, no matter how far off that truth may be. Reactionary forces have always been, and always will be, blockers of the way of inquiry, who seek to stop the progress of thinking and lock us in an end-state, a state of error that suits their purposes.

EJ: I really admire the alternative history the story is set in. It’s as if you’ve distilled a ’40s nostalgia and superimposed it onto several decades into an accelerated future (thanks to the alien technology) but then turned around and made that a critical nostalgia. Could you talk about that decision and how it imagines domestic and global politics?

RN: There are so many alternate histories in which the Nazis won World War II, for one reason or another. When I was in high school, I loved The Man in the High Castle, a prime example of this genre. The “alternate history” subgenre of science fiction fascinates me, and that mid-century moment around World War II of massive destruction and societal change is also fascinating, as well as being a rich mine of “might-have-beens.”

One of the things I wanted to explore in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” is the idea of power. The question asked in “Rocket” is a reversal of the typical World War II alternate history. Instead of “What if the Nazis had won World War II,” I wanted to ask a more subtle question: “What would have happened if the United States, rather than winning World War II in the way that actually happened, and having to share global power with the Soviet Union, had won it completely, and ended up with the vast share of the world’s technological power (through happenstance, in this case) and become completely geopolitically dominant? What kind of world would that unilateral dominance have created? And what kind of influence would unilateral dominance following World War II have had on the nation, its leaders, and the international system?”

Another question I wanted to ask is something I have always thought about: At some point, people have lived in the “declining” period of an empire—the point at which the empire has passed its peak and has begun its decay. This point is identified retrospectively by historians, often with some (likely spurious) sense of exactitude. But would it have been possible for people living, say, in the declining period of the Roman Empire or the late Ottoman Empire, to have identified that the world they were living in had entered a state of collapse? How would they have known? And how would that knowledge inform their lives and behavior? Where are those “tipping points” and how would we see them from inside history? How can we know when a system has slid into corruption, and how long is a society able to sustain a myth of itself as the “good guys” when there has been a tilt toward authoritarianism?


I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. -R.N.


EJ: Your life in so many different countries and cultures certainly inform your worldview (if that’s a cogent term) beyond superficial “cosmopolitanism.” Could you give an example of an experience in one of the places you’ve lived that has affected your writing dramatically?

RN: At this point, I’ve spent nearly half my life outside of the United States. I’ve lived in Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and now Kosovo. I won’t generalize about any of these places, as I think there is an unhealthy tendency for Westerners in general to use the rest of the world, when they travel through it, as an “other space” in which they go out and learn things, and then bring those things back to the West like trinkets to display. But maybe part of my experience in Turkmenistan, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, can provide a good example of something I learned.

In Turkmenistan, I lived with a host family for several months. I have always been a person who enjoys spending time with people, but also needs to spend a good deal of time by myself—reading, processing my thoughts, just being alone. I had my own room in my host family; it was a rule of Peace Corps that volunteers have their own room. I was the only one in the family, in fact, who had my own bedroom; most of them just slept on a dushek, a traditional mattress, wherever they wanted to sleep that night. Quite often they rolled their dushek out in the common area, or if it was hot, outside on the tapjan, a low wooden platform in the courtyard.

Because I had my own room, I would retreat into it in the evening to read, after dinner. The days were long, full of language-learning and new experiences, so it felt good to get away for a bit. Inevitably, though, I would be there for only five minutes or so before there was a knock at the door. I would open the door, and there would be my host brother or sister, asking me if anything was wrong. Was I feeling well? Did I need anything? I would say no, and go back to reading. Five minutes later, a knock. The same questions. Was I all right? Did I feel ill?

Soon, I came to realize what the problem was: my host family never spent time alone. Their existence was entirely collective: they ate, worked, talked, watched television, read the paper, drank tea—always together. At night they didn’t lay their dushek down in a place where they could sleep in privacy: they laid it down next to someone else in the family and chatted until they fell asleep. They saw my retreat into my room and my shutting of the door as a sign of illness. To them, it was the behavior of someone who must be sad, or ill, or offended.

When I understood this, I had a sort of revelation. I realized that my behavior was sending out signals that I did not understand or intend. I had grown up in North America and I knew what my behavior signaled there, but here in Turkmenistan I realized that, if I wanted to communicate properly, I would have to alter my behavior. My host family wasn’t going to suddenly “understand” why I wanted to be in my room by myself. In their culture, this was the behavior of a person in distress. I was going to have to change the signals.

So I did: I started reading in the living room, near them, next to my host brother while he did his homework. And the other members of the family left us alone, and let us go about our tasks without interruption, content that we were with the group. I hadn’t found a “common language” with them—I had altered my own behavior. I had learned how to communicate properly within their system.

What did I learn from that experience? I learned that individualism, in the firmest Western sense, is a sham. We aren’t individuals; our ability to communicate is collective: it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. We are totally embedded in that system. When we move to other systems, we must shift our own behaviors to adapt to those systems, if we want to be understood. Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. That sense of communication across cultural divides as an act of translation and of self-alteration has stayed with me ever since, and certainly informs my writing.

EJ: Absolutely (to everything you just said). Learning languages—especially non-Indo-European languages is really a complex of windows not only opening onto the world but traveling into them. And I love how you never characterize your facility with any of these languages as a “mastery”—in fact it’s just the opposite; you demonstrate a multi-plex humility through letting them inform your ways of being in the world.

Another question: Delany contends that science fiction is informed by a priority of the object, and that the subject is conditioned by the object or the object-world. The loops really are a rich and intricate demonstration of this premise. Could you talk about your conception of subjectivity that you illustrate in the story?

RN: I completely agree with Delany, and I would add to that idea: This is a story about how the subject is conditioned by the object world, in the Delanian sense: technology, and who possesses it, alters the historical facts of the world, and we look through that altered lens into a past that is both like ours and changed. But what I am also exploring is the way in which the individual is embedded in history, and how historical positionality conditions us: how our choices are shaped and limited by the opportunities and happenstances of the world-moment in which we live, and our position within that world-moment. I call it “the self in place-time,” playing on the Einsteinian concept of space-time. We inhabit, of course, a position in space-time, as physical beings, but that position in space-time becomes a “place” when it is suffused with human culture and ideology.

Space has a shape that is physical—there are “things” that really exist, both technological and natural, that do not go away when we stop believing in them, and these are the physical elements of the world. But there is also human culture, human political structure, human ideology, which turn “things” into “objects” and turn that “space” into a “place.” A good metaphor for this might be the difference (often uninterrogated) between a “house” and a “home.” A house is a physical structure consisting of materials and constructed in such a fashion as to provide for living. It is a space. A home, on the other hand, is that same space once it has accrued an identity as a “place” in which human beings are carrying out (and narrating) their lives.

Human beings who live in a house suffuse the materials of it with meaning and turn it into a “place.” But that place is also given meaning by its position within human-structured culture. A home in Berlin in 1939 is not the same as a home in Kansas in 1893, though they may be referred to by the same word. And neither one of those homes, even those same physical structures, unaltered, would be the same “home” today. Each place-time provides a different set of constraints and possibilities, and the people who live in them must function within those parameters. So it is with Dimitrios: he is a creature of the place-time that exists when he is thrown into it. How responsible is he for his actions? For the person he becomes? And how responsible are Alvin and Sylvia for their actions? To what extent are they “individuals,” and to what extent are they produced by the place-time in which they are embedded?

EJ: I think this distinction between space and place is very compelling. Could you expand on this?

RN: Okay. Philip K. Dick had a simple, elegant definition of reality which I love: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I think this is a perfect definition, and it works on many levels: first of all there is the fact that things in the world exist, whether or not we perceive them: Mount Everest is there, in all its physicality, no matter what my set of beliefs is. Even if I did not know it was there, it would be real. It is real, as a thing, even in the absence of consciousness to perceive it. Everest exists in space-time. But there is another level here to reality: Human constructions. These are also reality. They are structures built up of ideology and traditions, structures, like the metaphor earlier of the creosote, seeded into the extinct systems of even older structures. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They exist in place-time, the world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”

These actualities define place-time. I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.

So, what kind of freedom am I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce. Tolstoy demonstrated this in War and Peace more than a hundred and fifty years ago. He laid it out for us over more than a thousand pages, but we still haven’t absorbed the full measure of that novel and its message.

That is the central question of “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” What, as individuals trapped in the warped grid of place-time, can we do to make a difference? And it’s the question I ask myself every day. It is the question that drives me to keep writing.

EJ: I cannot add anything to that. One of my favorite phrases in English is “a conversation in progress”—this conversation shows just how vital that experience can be. Thank you.

RN: Thank you, Earl. I hope you know how vital your teaching has been to me, and how much you changed my life for the better. And I hope these conversations remain in progress for a long, long time.


Ray <raynayler.net> had his debut as a writer of science fiction in the pages of Asimov’s in 2015 with the story “Mutability.” Since then, his work has appeared in the magazine several times, as well as in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, F&SF, Nightmare, and is upcoming in Analog. His story “The Ocean Between the Leaves,” from the July/August 2019 issue of Asimov’s, was selected for the Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 5, edited by Neil Clarke. Ray has lived and worked abroad for almost two decades in Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus. He is a Foreign Service Officer and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. Ray is currently the Cultural Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, where he lives with his wife, their one-year-old daughter and their two rescued street cats (one Tajik, one American). In the author’s latest story, Sylvia Aldstatt—first introduced to us in “The Disintegration Loops” (November/December 2019)—now finds death and terror in Istanbul.