We’re used to grand world-building from Derek Künsken, but in “Tachyon Hearts Cannot Love” [in our March/April issue, on sale now] he challenged himself to write on a smaller, more personal scale. Below, he gets more personal still, diving into this story’s origins, his long history with Asimov’s, and the impact his winding career path has had on his writing.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
DK: I’ve been unbelievably fortunate that my science fiction has been well received in China. One of my Chinese publishers has commissioned short fiction from me with various futurism prompts. Last year, they invited me to write a story for the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration, with the cultural prompt that it had to do with homecoming. “Tachyon Hearts Cannot Love” came out of that invitation, and when I was considering its English-language home, I was very happy that it was a fit for Asimov’s.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
DK: My normal short fiction length falls naturally at ten thousand words or fourteen thousand words, in part because most of my stories are heavily world-built with a fair amount of science-y sense of wonder that needs room. This story needed to be less than three thousand words, so I knew my normal world-building wouldn’t fit, and that it would need to be more personal.
I decided that if I was going to consider anyplace home in the deepest sense, it would be the village where my mother had been born (and all my uncles and aunts, and all my grandparents going back six generations). I feel rooted to that village.
And in terms of a personal story, I decided to dig into my reaction to my first heartbreak, which happened when I was twenty-five. At the time, I didn’t know what to do to make the feeling of bleakness go away, or how to manage it, so as soon as I could, I went far away. I saw many things and met new people who were different from me. When I’d gotten as far as I could be geographically and emotionally, I didn’t feel particularly better and my one solace seemed to be dreaming of going home—not to the place where I grew up, but to where all my roots were. That wasn’t a story I’d ever told. I usually approach my fiction as a kind of sense-of-wonder escape. This felt like the right time and right way to write a story about what I knew.
AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
DK: Sheila bought my second story ever in 2007 and “Tachyon Hearts Cannot Love” will be my ninth appearance in the magazine. She’s bought the hardest scifi I’ve ever written, and she’s also taken pieces that are quieter and more introspective. I felt that she might enjoy this one.
AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
DK: After she bought “Beneath Sunlit Shallows,” I received two to three years of rejections from Sheila, but they were always kind and encouraging. When I met her in Montreal in 2009, she remembered each of my rejected stories and gave me some additional feedback, which I took to heart. In 2010, Sheila bought a light scifi satire, “To Live and Die in Gibbontown” (which is available as a free audio podcast at the Asimov’s site).
Then I decided to return to the space opera and hard scifi settings that I love. Sheila bought the extremely alien “Way of the Needle,” which won the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. She also published the equally alien “Schools of Clay” and “Pollen From a Future Harvest,” both of which contribute science fictional or political elements to my novels The Quantum Magician, The Quantum Garden and The House of Styx. I’m grateful for the editorial encouragement I’ve had over the last 12 years from Asimov’s.
I usually approach my fiction as a kind of sense-of-wonder escape. This felt like the right time and right way to write a story about what I knew.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
DK: My early reading was comic books and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tolkien, none of which were particularly helpful for an aspiring novelist or short story writer. As I became a more discerning reader, I discovered David Brin’s Uplift, Stephen Baxter’s Ring, Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Alastair Reynolds’ short and long fiction, Charles Stross, and of course, Dune. On the more literary side, One Hundred Years of Solitude remains my favourite novel, while I enjoyed a lot of the short fiction of Nadine Gordimer, Alice Munro and Anton Chekhov. And I remain deeply indebted to Podcastle and Escapepod for feeding me short fiction through a firehose as I was trying to improve my writing.
AE: What is your process?
DK: After many unpublishable failures, I don’t trust myself to pants anything. So I’m a detailed outliner and I interrogate the ending and denouement especially to see that they work before I write a single word. I tend to start with setting or some bizarre detail of physics, biology or ecology. Characters and plot grow out of that world.
AE: What are you reading right now?
DK: 2019 was a really busy time with lots of travel and family time, so intellectual and emotional bandwidth felt a bit constrained. So as sort of popcorn reading, I’ve been listening to a lot of comic book history documentaries and I’m currently trying to read the entirety of the X-Men, from 1963 to the present. So far I’ve reached 1970. I’m also really enjoying Al Ewing’s The Immortal Hulk and a bunch of Image titles.
My audible account has a Ted Chiang collection, Astounding by Alec Nevala-Lee, Arkady Martine’s Memory and Empire, Greg Egan’s Incandescence, Peng Shephard’s Book of M, and Stanley Chan’s Waste Tide.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
DK: While I was still in university, I was a reserve air force officer. And during grad school, I built genetically engineered viruses to test as vector systems for the delivery of therapeutic genes into tumours. The former encouraged an understanding and appreciation of the traditions of a military of a middle power like Canada, which at that time identified strongly with opposing fascism and Nazism in the two world wars and being important peace-keeping forces in modern times. The latter career enabled a lot of kind of heavy technical alien building that is probably a characteristic of my writing.
After grad school, I worked with street kids in Honduras as a volunteer for almost a year, before joining the Canadian Foreign Service, where my first job was processing in-country refugee applications during the civil conflict in Colombia. Both of those jobs depended on having a very strong heart, to withstand both the successes and failures that came with each.
I’ve tried, usually unsuccessfully, but occasionally adequately, to write about street kids. Most of the failures involve me not feeling like I’m capable (literarily or thematically) of doing justice to what the kids have gone through, and not knowing how to fictionalize what I saw. I did write a literary story (“Getting High With Thomas the Apostle”—free read here: http://subterrain.ca/magazine/49/subterrain-issue-52), a fantasy story (“Juan Caceres and the Zapatero’s Workshop”—free listen here: http://podcastle.org/2013/09/07/podcastle-276-juan-caceres-in-the-zapeteros-workshop/), and a comic book short story (in press). I think the refugee themes have made their way into my short fiction and novels.
Fatherhood is its own career and that theme has run through a few of my stories and novels.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
DK: I tweet from @derekkunsken in the snowy wastes of Canada (well, they’re snowy now . . .). I blog about comic books and the comic industry every two weeks at http://www.blackgate.com. Writing-wise, the events of my first novel, The Quantum Magician, occur about two hundred and fifty years after the events in The House of Styx. The Quantum Magician and its sequel, The Quantum Garden are available everywhere via
The Quantum Magician: https://books2read.com/u/bQav7D
The Quantum Garden: https://books2read.com/u/m2rgn6
I also write a retro-futuristic, Flash Gordon-esque young adult jet-pack adventure webcomic called Briarworld available to read for free at http://www.bitly.com/briarworld. Check it out or show your kids!