Ted Kosmatka sold his first story to Asimov’s over a decade ago and went on to win a Readers’ Award a few years later. We always welcome new stories from him, so we were thrilled to publish “Sacrificial Iron” in our May/June issue [on sale now]. Be sure to give this story a listen with our podcast here!
Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
TK: The story idea came together slowly over about a year or so. For most of that time, it was in the back of my head, in bits and pieces. There was the science side that had an origin in some physics questions I’d been thinking about, and there was a character side that grew out of something else entirely. I combined the pieces, and the story formed out of that mixture. I’ve always been interested in the subject of conflict resolution, and a story can be a great way to simulate how different scenarios might play out. In a ship traveling across deep space, conflict resolution takes on a new level of importance.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
TK: I was aiming for stand-alone, but I realized halfway into the story that it was probably in the same universe as another story idea I’d come up with in the past. I didn’t plan on that, but it just kind of worked out that way, as a discovery, so maybe that’s the most natural way for it to go. Now I’m wondering if I’ll write into the connective tissue a bit more and see where it takes me.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
TK: I think I can relate to most of the characters, at least a little bit. Or that was the goal anyway. Most of my stories are a way for me to think about questions I have, so it helps to relate to characters on both sides of whatever the central dilemma happens to be.
AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
TK: The title of the story comes from a bit of sailing technology called “sacrificial zinc.” The idea behind sacrificial zinc is that you can attach a zinc anode to the hull of your boat, and it helps to keep the metallic parts of your vessel from corroding away in the saltwater. The electrons are preferentially lost off the zinc instead of from the boat itself. Over time, the zinc will actually completely disappear, having been sacrificed to the water. I had an idea for space travel, coupled with this idea that nothing is really free, and that everything has to be paid for in some way. Sacrifices always have to be made.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
TK: For me, Asimov’s was the start of it all. I grew up reading Asimov’s, F&SF, and Analog, so when I began trying to write my own stories, it was natural to send them off to those same places I’d liked reading as a kid. After about a decade of nothing but rejections—a whole huge drawer of rejections—I finally made my very first pro sale to Sheila about 15 years ago. I remember leaping into the air when I got the acceptance. Over the years I’ve published a bunch of other stories at Asimov’s and was even co-winner of the Asimov’s Readers’ Award once. I tend to get buried in novels or game stuff from time to time, but I’m happy whenever I get the chance to return to these pages.
AE: What is your process?
TK: There’s usually some sort of “what if?” idea that kicks off in my head and gets things started. Once I have that laid out, I let myself stew on it, thinking about the best way to explore the question. The characters often come later, and I start telling myself stories about them in my head. Sometimes this goes on for months before I have any real foothold on the writing, or a way to actually start. Sometimes I never figure out a way to start, and the story just stays a “what if?” question forever.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
TK: I think I probably do return to certain themes. It’s funny how that works, because it’s not intentional, and I’m mostly blind to the process. It’s not like I pick a theme and try to run with it. It’s more that I finish a story, and then see what I did after the fact, and it occurs to me that I’m still kind of circling around something. Trying to talk in a sensible way about your own themes is a lot like trying to write the synopsis of a novel you’ve written. It’s practically impossible to do it well because you already tried, and the shortest synopsis you could come up with is a hundred and fifteen thousand words. Themes can be like that, too. It’s hard to distill your own stuff down.
AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
TK: I just finished a huge, five-hundred-some-page far-future post-apocalyptic novel that took me several years to write, and I’m just now coming up for air. It was fun trying to build a society from scratch, but it was also really challenging, too, in ways I never expected. When you write science fiction set in the near future, you can take a lot of things for granted. You have something to extrapolate from, and there’s this assumed bedrock of continuity that sits under everything. But once you decide to set a story a half a millennia in the future, you can’t really take anything for granted. There is no bedrock. Everything has to be thought out, along with the reasons why things are the way they are, and you have to imagine how the different incentives might produce different sociological outcomes over time, and you have to consider how existing technology (or its lack thereof) might change things; and no matter how deeply you think about it, there are always other layers. You can spend days or weeks just thinking and not writing. With that novel now plopped down like a brick on my agent’s desk, I’m looking forward to not having to invent new bedrock for a while and instead am going to try and finish up a slew of short story ideas that have built up over the last couple of years.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
TK: This question is an easy one for me. I’d like to see us push off from the shore of this world and get out into space. I’d love to see a Mars colony, for starters. I feel like the potential is right there in front of us, and we just have to have the will to put the work in and make it happen. How many thousands of generations have our species been around, and right now we’re maybe one generation away from being able to do this amazing thing. It’s a pretty incredible time to be alive. We’ve always ventured outward to new horizons, literal and figurative, and I’d like to see us keep going.
AE: What are you reading right now?
TK: I just finished reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and am now on the second chapter of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novel, which I’ve heard great things about. Next up on deck after that is Andy Weir’s Artemis. I loved The Martian, so I’m eager to dig into his next one.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
TK: It’s been a strange run for me. Back in the day, I was a dishwasher, fast food cook, and house painter, among other things. In college I worked for a while as a zookeeper and a tutor but eventually dropped out of school and ended up in the steel mills like my dad. I started as a sinter planet laborer, lots of shoveling and breathing black dust, but I later managed to bid into the mill’s chem lab where it was my job to get samples from different locations in the mill and test them. At some point I finished a degree, changed jobs again, and landed in a materials research lab where I worked with electron microscopes. Around that time, I finally sold my first story, with others to follow, and after several more years of writing got an invite from a video game company to come visit Seattle. I took the leap and worked as a video game writer for Valve for the next seven years or so, and then Bungie, before road-tripping my way back to the Midwest where I now write from home. Work has always been a place where I’ve learned about life, more than the classroom, so that probably shows up in what I end up writing about.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
TK: I don’t really do a lot of social media, alas, though I’m maybe on Twitter every blue moon. My website address is a good place to reach me or check out my latest: https://tedkosmatka.us/ Or you can buy my books here: https://www.amazon.com/Flicker-Men-Novel-Ted-Kosmatka-ebook/dp/B00S54VT76/ref=sr_1_2?keywords=ted+kosmatka&qid=1553543898&s=gateway&sr=8-2
Ted Kosmatka lives in the Midwest, not far from Lake Michigan. His brilliant new tale challenges comfortable historical assumptions and reveals the excruciating cost of sacrificial iron.