The Moral of the Big Bang

by Michael Meyerhofer


Give Michael’s new poem—“The Big Bang Was Not”—a read, in our current issue on sale now.


 

Because I occasionally have nothing better to do than sit around contemplating the Big Bang, a while back, I found myself trying to grasp how the Universe could begin from a fixed point, then expand into infinity (since a growing number of scientists are now suggesting that the Universe is, in fact, infinite). It simply didn’t make sense, because like most people, I’d grown up hearing that everything from quasars to the Kardashians began with a kind of cosmic seed, unimaginably small, unspeakably dense.

I’m also a documentary addict, and you’d have a hard time finding any science or astronomy documentary I haven’t seen at least once. I’m not crediting intellectual curiosity for this; insomnia and frustration also play important roles. And so I just kept getting more and more frustrated as time went on, because virtually all of those documentaries describe the Universe expanding from a point smaller than an atom, which only makes sense if the Universe is finite.


Finally, though, I stumbled across one documentary that clarified what had been driving me nuts for months: if the Universe is infinite, it was always infinite. That means our cosmic seed was infinitely dense, but it sure wasn’t tiny. In fact, it was bigger than a dinosaur, a galaxy, a supercluster. It was infinitely huge. It was the size of God.


 

In other words, the textbooks have basically been teaching this backwards. We already know that infinity can grow (think of that famous analogy of an infinite hotel in which every guest exits their room and moves one room to the right), but as I understand it, it stops being infinitely dense in the process. Think of a drying puddle of water, how it separates into beads. In our case, those beads became galaxies, then whole clusters of galaxies. And that’s where and when life starts, once reality cools down enough to prevent us from getting instantaneously crispy.

So why does all this matter? Much like how the double slit experiment proves that things aren’t as neatly quantifiable as we’d like to think, the lessons taught to us by the stars aren’t just mathematical tidbits to bring up at lame parties; rather, they’re metaphors for . . . well, everything. I can’t think of any joyous event in my life that didn’t come with an element of sorrow, and vice versa. There’s an excellent Alan Watts lecture in which he demonstrates how black and white are the same thing, in a sense, because each implies and relies upon the existence of the other.

The loss of infinite density gave us matter, gave us life and stars and ribbons of iridescent gas that stretch on and on for light years. No matter how much we try to separate ourselves from our failures, our breakups, our tiny human indignities, we are still basically defined by absence. Hell, we were born from absence. It’s the very soil that sustains our roots and quietly pushes us ever upward, toward the constellations.


 

michael meyerhofer
Michael Meyerhofer is a fantasy author and poet whose publications include the Dragonkin Trilogy, the Godsfall Trilogy, and several books of poetry. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Sword and Sorcery Magazine, and other journals. For more info and an embarrassing childhood photo, visit wytchfire.com (fantasy) or troublewithhammers.com (poetry).

Q&A with Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead returns to Asimov’s with his imaginative new adventure “Straconia,” in the current issue [on sale now]. He let us in on his writing process, his first Asimov’s sale over a decade ago, and why he finds himself coming back to alienated characters.


 

Asimov’s Editor: How did the title for this piece come to you?

JS: “Stracony” is a Polish word meaning: “lost.” The story is about lost things and people, and parts of the story have a vaguely eastern European flavor—at least, they do in my mind if not actually on the page. “Straconia,” of course, is not a real word, and I pronounce it the way an American would, not a Polish person. Also, if it were an actual Polish word, the “c” would be a “k” as in: Strakonia. This will drive my Polish friend, Ania, crazy.

 

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

JS: Like most of my stories, it started with a core idea or situation. In this case, the situation was the estranged spouse of my protagonist disappears in the middle of the night to lead an alternate life in Straconia, where she works in a diner. The husband hides behind the seats of the car to find out where she’s been going, and winds up swapping places with her. He soon gets caught up in Straconia’s weird passive-aggressive justice system. From there, he has to figure out how to get back home, which involves defining what home is and why he has always felt shut off from it. That was the situation. The larger idea involved Straconia being a place where not only people but all the lost things wind up. You know, socks, pens, keys, etc. Estrangement is a theme I’ve written a lot about, so it was natural that I would land on that. The trick was not to be repetitive, to find something new to say. Once I started writing I discovered the story in the sentences—as it happened, too many sentences. Straconia came out to around fifteen thousand words. My editor asked me to cut five thousand of them! Naturally this was impossible, but I decided to give it a shot, just as an exercise in brevity. It became a very liberating experience. Every cut made the story better.

 

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

JS: My first professional sale was to Asimov’s and appeared in 2003. Since then, more than half of my forty-four story sales have been to the magazine. Without Asimov’s I wouldn’t be the writer I’ve become. I would undoubtedly be some kind of writer, since I’d been writing for many years before that first sale, but Asimov’s was my doorway into professional publication, and it changed my life in all the good ways you might imagine.

 

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

JS: Yes. But first I’d like to say that I never start with the theme. In fact, until I’d been publishing professionally for a while I wasn’t even aware of my themes. Recurring themes arise naturally through the long process of learning to tell your own stories. Anyway, I have frequently, but not exclusively, written about characters who have emotionally barricaded themselves off from other people. As an example I’ll point to Frank in “Straconia.” Here’s a guy who is married and holds down a full-time job and yet is as effectively isolated as an astronaut in a one-man capsule orbiting the moon. He is powerfully estranged from his wife and doesn’t even realize it until she starts disappearing into another life without him as a means of her own emotional survival. Why do I keep writing about out this character type? God knows.

 

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

JS: By redefining it as “writer-not-ready.” If I’m having trouble getting started or moving forward with a story that’s already rolling it’s always because I’ve lost, or at least misplaced, my faith. A writer’s faith arises from the inner conviction that he or she knows, at some level, conscious or not, that they are on the right track. And it works the other way, too. I might think I know exactly where I’m going, but my under mind knows I don’t know everything I need to know. If the story is solid at its core, eventually I will finish it (or start it in the first place). But forcing the process is pointless.

 

AE: How did you break into writing?

JS: The usual way, which is the way every writer I’ve ever talked to has broken in. I wrote for a long time in total obscurity (as opposed to the near-obscurity I now dwell in). I lost my way, found it, and lost it again—over and over. I kept trying, even in the face of continued failure. And I genuinely tried to analyze my work to figure out what I was doing wrong. If you do this long enough and with an open mind eventually you will see the path. I remember quite clearly the day I could see what I was doing wrong. I picked up a black marker pen and started lining out words and sentences on the first page of one of my better stories that had nevertheless failed repeatedly to sell. When I was done the page looked like one of those CIA redacted documents. But it worked.

 

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

JS: I’m writing a follow-up novel to my science fiction thriller, The Chaos Function. Chaos is coming out in March 2019 from John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The new book is also a thriller, this time dealing with issues of immigration, the nature of memory, environmental catastrophe, and family relationships. It’s an alien invasion story of a very different stripe.

 

AE: What are you reading right now?

JS: I’m reading research books about nuclear power plant failures and how memory works as a physical process, as far as we understand it. I’m also reading a new, massive, biography of Leonardo Da Vinci. On the fiction side, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Kindred. It’s pretty great, just as everyone has been telling me forever.

 

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

JS: I was a reader from an early age, and of course I also watched a lot of television. When I was twelve or so I became entranced with Star Trek and wanted to somehow be part of it. I knew the way in would be through writing scripts (and it wouldn’t hurt to be older than twelve!). I watched for the writing credits, wrote down the names, then looked for those writers at the library. A lot of the writers were TV people, but there were a surprising number of “real” writers, too. This is how I first became acquainted with Bloch, Sturgeon, Matheson, Ellison, Bixby, and others. My TV dreams faded, but I became obsessed with writing fiction.

 

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

JS: Some of the best advice I’ve come across was: “Get obsessed and stay obsessed.” I wish I could remember who said it. And it begs the question: can you deliberately become obsessed? I doubt it. How do you know if you’re obsessed? You won’t be able to stop, even when life and time tell you stopping would be a good idea. Beyond that, finish every story and novel you start. Don’t expect to be successful right away. It can and does take years, though of course how many years varies writer to writer. Exceptions prove the rule. Note, I’m not talking strictly about publishing. You can learn enough craft to get by if you are dogged and willing to take constructive criticism. But writing fiction is only worthwhile if you manage to excavate the material that is unique to yourself. That’s where voice comes from, and it’s your best shot at outlasting the initial appearance of your stories. Beyond that, don’t take rejection personally. You will, but try at least not to respond publically to rejection and criticism. It really isn’t personal, and if you can’t get past that your road will be a rocky one.

 

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

JS: https://www.facebook.com/jack.skillingstead; https://twitter.com/JSkillingstead; https://www.jackskillingstead.com/

 


 

Jack Skillingstead has been publishing in Asimov’s (and elsewhere) since 2003. His stories have been reprinted in various Year’s Best volumes and translated into French, Chinese, Spanish, Romanian, Russian, Vietnamese, and Polish. The collection Are You There and Other Stories appeared in 2009, as did Jack’s first novel, Harbinger. His 2013 novel Life On The Preservation, based on his Asimov’s story of the same title, was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. He has also been shortlisted for the Sturgeon Award. In March 2019 John Joseph Adams Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish The Chaos Function, a science fiction thriller. Jack lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress, and their toy poodle, the indomitable Cossette.

 

The Stuff of Fantasy

SFWA Grandmaster Jane Yolen, whose poem “Counting the Cost” is in our current issue on sale now, discusses where poetry and genre intersect, and what that intersection means to her.


 

Science fiction poetry is the stepchild of the genre, even though we poets have our own organization (SFPA). However, most SF poetry is definitely looked down upon. Spaceships in sonnets?  Robot poems? Men on Mars villanelles? Rhymed couplets about Sirius? Only (hiss boo) fans write that. NOT literature, the canons complain, and the gatekeepers sniff.

But fantasy poetry has been around, well, forever. Think the Odyssey, think Gilgamesh, think Shakespeare, think (more recently) Yeats’s “Song of Wandering Angus” and the mermaid reference in Eliot, and and and and and.

Much of poetry is the stuff of fantasy. Burns “My love is a red red rose” metaphors. Ballads with folkloric underpinnings like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallot.” Heroic, bombastic, or dark and ghostly, yeah—we have seen those before so they are ok.

What about wicked, whimsical, outrageous, and satirical poems: “Jabberwocky,” Eliot’s cat poems. Asimov’s and Lears’ limericks. The critics may look down their long noses on such, but they allow light verse a seat at poetry’s table, though well below the salt.

And some magazines (thank you, Asimov’s) invite us all—dark rhymers, light fantastic, and Mars Rover poets in through the front door. We even get to sit by Sheila’s right hand at the table, though if it is food for fans, it is often pretty thin gruel. Well, peanut butter sandwiches and cheese toasties, and pass the chocolates if you please. My kind of meal. My kind of poems.

 


Jane YolenJane Yolen, often called “the Hans Christian Andersen of America,” is the author of over 365 books, including OWL MOON, THE DEVIL’S ARITHMETIC, SISTER EMILY’S LIGHTSHIP, and HOW DO DINOSAURS SAY GOODNIGHT. The books range from rhymed picture books and baby board books through middle grade fiction, poetry collections, nonfiction, to novels and story collections for young adults and adults. Her books, stories, and poems have won an assortment of awards—two Nebulas, a World Fantasy Award, a Caldecott Medal, the Golden Kite Award, three Mythopoeic awards, two Christopher Medals, a nomination for the National Book Award, the Rysling Award, and the Jewish Book Award, among many others. She was the first woman to give the St Andrews University’s Andrew Lang lecture since the lecture series was started in 1927. She was also the first writer to win the Arts and Humanities award given by the New England Public Radio. A past president of SFWA, she is a World Fantasy Grand Master, a Science Fiction Poetry Association Grand Master, and a Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master. Six colleges and universities have given her honorary doctorates. Also worthy of note, her Skylark Award—given by NESFA, the New England Science Fiction Association, set her good coat on fire. If you need to know more about her, visit her website at: http://www.janeyolen.com.

The Problem with Human Hands: The Making of “Note to Our Guests”

by Amy Miller

I love caves. Whenever I travel, I hit any public cave that’s nearby. If there’s a public tour, even the kitschy kind with handrails and colored lighting and a bored teenage guide, I pay the $30 and do it just to gaze at the stalactites and stalagmites and blind newts and colonies of bats clinging to the walls like so many brown leaves. I do the more adventurous tours too, rappelling down hundred-foot drops and crawling on my elbows through rock tubes barely wider than my shoulders. I’m a bit obsessed with caves. They stir up something primordial with their alien, otherworldly landscapes right under our feet.

One thing you often hear when you tour a cave is that its condition—how little it’s been damaged, how close it is to pristine—is directly related to how recently it was opened to the public. Caves that have been overrun by tourists for a century or more bear the scars of their longtime fame—jagged stumps where stalactites were snapped off and taken home as souvenirs, hundred-year-old names of visitors scrawled on walls with charcoal or candle wax, and stalagmites that should sparkle with healthy, growing crystals but are now dull, dark lumps, their life cycle stopped by the oil on people’s hands when they touched the exquisite formations and unwittingly “killed” them.

Caves that were opened more recently, since about the 1960s, are markedly different—underground ponds shine with ethereal colors, and even the most delicate formations, like soda straws and helicities, gleam at eye level, preserved by their distance from the strategically placed walkways and by careful tour guides, part of whose job is to give you an educational lecture on how not to ruin a cave.


It’s been a hallmark of human civilization that we don’t always know which of our everyday practices—something as small as reaching out a hand when we’re walking through a cave—might have disastrous consequences centuries down the road.


 

Surely the people who invented plastic in the 1800s had no idea that giant “garbage islands” of the stuff would eventually plague our oceans. In Herman Melville’s day, most people believed that whales were an inexhaustible resource—there were so many of them—unaware that their wooden boats and hand-held harpoons would evolve into a massive mechanized sea-hunting industry in the 20th century that would drive many whale species to the brink of extinction.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little trepidation after I saw NASA’s spectacular, closest-ever photos of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft last year. The images were amazing, jaw-dropping—the rings appearing knife-thin, the loops and whorls of the big planet’s exquisitely complex atmosphere, the varied and lonely-looking moons, some battered as beach rocks. I was so excited; I could not wait for us to get our human selves out there. We could set up an orbiting space station, I thought, with a big hotel and . . .

. . . well, then I thought about those snapped-off stalactites, and the human impulse to write our names and gouge tire tracks in mud, and the dopes who think it’s fun to knock over ancient rock formations in national parks. I wondered: What will we do out there? Will we ever really learn the lessons of the passenger pigeon, the northern white rhino, the Great Barrier Reef? What will happen when we get our hands on an entire new world?

See the 2017 Cassini photos here:

https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cassini/images/index.htmlhttps://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/09/14/science/cassini-saturn-images.html

 *Image of Saturn’s rings provided by NASA.


Miller-Amy_0193

Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fine Gardening, Gulf Coast, Rattle, and ZYZZYVA, anthologies such as Nasty Women Poets and Ghost Fishing, and many editions of the Poet’s Market. Her poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. She works as an editor and print-project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is the poetry editor of the NPR listening guide Jefferson Journal, and blogs at writers-island.blogspot.com. #AmyMillerPoet

 

 

Q&A with Dale Bailey

Dale Bailey’s latest short story, “Rules of Biology,” is featured in our July/August issue [on sale now]. In addition to chatting with us here on the blog, he also recorded his new story in podcast form, available here now!


 

Asimov’s Editor: Happily, you agreed to participate in our podcast series with this story. Our gentle readers can give it a listen here. How did you find the recording process? 

DB: It was interesting. I try to write in the rhythms of spoken language. I once received a rejection letter that said the piece read too much like it had been written to be read aloud—which I took as a compliment, even though it wasn’t meant that way. So in that sense, reading the piece was fine. But I never mastered the actor’s gift of giving each character a different voice.

 

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

DB: Certainly not Esterman, who is a pretty selfish and unpleasant man. But I do like Dee. She’s doesn’t deserve what happens to her (who does?). But she’s stronger than she seems at first, and she claims some happiness for herself, which I like about her.

 


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

DB: Asimov’s and I go way back. I used to scour newsstands for it in the late ’70s and early ’80s and have subscribed for years. Decades I guess. Which is kind of sobering now that I think about it. How did I get this old?


 

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

Continue reading “Q&A with Dale Bailey”

Q&A with Zack Be

Not too long after his return to writing, Zack Be struck gold with “True Jing,” which we were lucky to publish in the our current issue [on sale now]. Zack spoke with us about the story’s origins as well as his interests in music, transhumanism, and therapeutic counseling.


 

Asimov’s Editor: Before we get into the questions, Zack, we want to say how exciting it is to be your first professional sale! How long have you been submitting?

ZB: Thanks! “Excitement” only begins to describe how it feels for me to call Asimov’s the home of my first professional sale. There may or may not have been a few joyous leaps around my bedroom when I got the email from Sheila Williams expressing her interest in buying “True Jing.” I’m deeply honored by the sale. I’ve been reading the magazine off and on since middle school. My mom bought me an issue right off the newsstand (remember those?) because I had expressed interest in the cover art. Even though it wasn’t my first science fiction, it was definitely my introduction to a type of contemporary, forward-thinking short fiction that I had not been exposed to yet. All of that is too say I couldn’t think of a better market to break into!

As far as my submission history is concerned, before I sent “True Jing” to Asimov’s last year, I had been on a submission hiatus since I graduated from college in 2013. After a few years of consistent workshopping in my undergrad Creative Writing minor and a handful of rejected submissions, I felt the need to develop myself more on my own. I spent a lot of time producing music, playing in bands, and working on other forms of artistic expression until I was suddenly galvanized back into the prose writing habit by a few stellar issues of Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, etc. One month I wasn’t really writing at all, and the next month I was on a weekly routine of ~5000 words. “True Jing” was one of several stories that came out of that (still continuing) routine, and Asimovs was the second place I sent it!


“If you had asked me a year ago which markets I thought would be most likely to give me a rewrite, I don’t think I would have picked any of the “big three” (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF). They must be too busy, right? Wrong—in my experience, it would appear that Sheila and the rest of the editorial staff is just as devoted to developing new writers as they are to bringing readers fresh work by their old favorites.”


 

AE: How did your experience with Asimov’s differ from other markets?

ZB: “True Jing” happened to be a very early submission in the revival of my writer’s life, but since then I’ve been lucky enough to experience the usual deluge of rejection that almost every writer gets to enjoy. I’ve got a nice big folder full of everything from “we really like this, but we aren’t going to buy it” down to “this needs work” and even a harsh but understandable “never.” Sometimes if I’m having trouble falling asleep I’ll recite the texts of my favorite form rejections (not really).
Continue reading “Q&A with Zack Be”

Q&A with Bruce Boston

Our most frequent contributor Bruce Boston took the time to speak with us about his long history with Asimov’s, how a poem becomes a series, the process of collaboration, and much more in our latest Q&A. Make sure to check out Bruce’s most recent poem, “Unwritten,” in our current issue.

 


AE: Bruce, our readers are quite familiar with your work, as you are a regular in our table of contents. Can you talk a little bit about your history with Asimov’s?

BB: I published my first poem in Asimov’s SF in 1984. Since then, I’ve had poems in every year of the magazine, sometimes as many as five in one year. In sum, I’ve appeared in more issues of Asimov’s than any other author, and have been fortunate enough to receive the Asimov’s Readers Award seven times.

Most of my poems for Asimov’s are what I consider populist poems. By this I mean they are written for literate and intelligent readers who don’t normally read poetry, which seems appropriate for a fiction magazine. Writing poems primarily for those who read poetry is different, though the two are not always mutually exclusive.

 

AE: I know that the “Music of” series were particular hits with our readership. Do you find yourself working in series frequently?

Continue reading “Q&A with Bruce Boston”