Vikram Ramakrishnan emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1980s, and the experience of the Indian diaspora influences his new story “The Abacus and the Infinite Vessel,” his first for Asimov’s. Read it in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]
Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Vikram Ramakrishnan: In the late 20th century, thousands of Indian families, including mine, immigrated to the United States. I wanted to understand better the tensions these families faced when navigating their roots with a new place. Specifically, I was interested in how extended family reacted to members leaving. From there, I had a vague picture of a mother and daughter fleeing their home because the mother wanted a better life for her daughter. As I worked on the story, I thought about the tensions they’d have to deal with: deep loss, the stressors of a new land, and the pressures they felt from extended family. I wanted to highlight all these against the harshness of the Martian landscape.
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
VR: I was going for a drive with my wife along the Long Island Sound. It’s a gorgeous drive. You have water on one side and cliffs on the other. We passed a cliff overlooking the water. She told me a story about how immigrant families from India would do religious rituals on that cliff. One of the rituals involves releasing a clay statue of Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, into the water. It symbolizes the idea of “samsara,” the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. That immediately became the seed of the story. I was fascinated about how people bring their cultural practices to a new place. I sketched out a few family scenes and put it aside. In the original draft, the story took place on Earth. One day during a revision, it suddenly occurred to me that the story should take place on Mars in the future. There is something incredibly beautiful about the harsh Martian landscape. I thought it would make an interesting setting. From there, the rest of the story seemed to click.
AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
VR: The story is a stand-alone. I hadn’t considered it part of a larger universe, though the more I think about it, I suppose it is part of a larger thematic universe in my stories. Particularly, that of family in times of tectonic technological shifts.
AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
VR: Being an only child and with parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1980s, I relate to the narrator the most. When I reflect back on that period, I think about the amount of change we dealt with. Moving of course, but also adapting to a new country, a new culture, a new language. I think that’s one reason I framed the story the way I did, with an older narrator looking back on her childhood. I wanted to evoke a sense of memory-reflection, but also a faint nostalgia for a past that’s long gone and very different from the present.
AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
VR: I read a chasmic array of authors and styles. I firmly believe there is something to learn from all of them. Some of my favorites are Nicole Krauss and her idea of how we create our own stories; Arundhati Roy’s ability to tug your heart around the page; Haruki Murakami’s playful strangeness; Greg Egan’s science fiction, where he’s able to pick the most important congruent parts of an idea to show us what a potential future can look like; Robert Jordan and his worldbuilding in “The Wheel of Time”; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s gorgeous prose and delicate language. I get very excited when I come across a new author I’ve never read.
AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
VR: Earlier I had mentioned that I seem to write a lot about family. I’m taking a glance at a Google sheet that I have. In it, I list out stories I’ve published or am in the process of drafting. I have a column for themes. It strikes me that a family element is central to almost all of them. “The Abacus and the Infinite Vessel” of course, is about a mother and daughter, but also about tensions within the extended family. Right now, I’m working on another about two brothers and even one about a found family. There are plenty of stories about families of course. What I’m most interested in is how family dynamics change when it comes to great technological change. I think that’s one note I wanted to hit in “The Abacus and the Infinite Vessel.” Think about modern technologies, say video chat for example. We took advantage of it during the 2020 pandemic to stay close with family even though we couldn’t see them. If we think about medical progress, disease treatment has allowed us more years with loved ones we otherwise wouldn’t have had. What will space exploration do? I’m interested in how downstream effects of technology will affect our relationships.
AE: What is your process?
VR: Mornings for me are really important. I get up fairly early and plop into the chair in front of my computer. There’s something about early morning drafting. Before coffee, before the hullabaloo of the daytime. There’s something special about this time. I find my mind more calm, but also making strange and wonderful connections with seemingly unrelated ideas. It’s a very different mindspace from the rest of the day. So, once I’m done drafting in the morning, I take my Siberan Husky, Kratos, for a walk. At the moment I’m in Philadelphia, and it’s springtime. The mornings are crisp, and it’s quite nice with the way the morning sun hits the buildings. After the walk, I’ll come back, feed Kratos, and make coffee. At this point, I’m out of my dreamlike state and able to concentrate on the other parts of writing like editing and planning.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
VR: One thing I’ve noticed is when science fiction hits mainstream audiences, themes tend to either get watered down or exacerbated. I’m speaking in broad generalities here. Of course there are exceptions. At the moment, there is quite a bit of attention on dystopias. Movies, books, TV shows. They are all stoking the fears of dystopian outcomes. Fear, of course, is a big driver of human action, and given the state of the world, feeling fear is understandable. I think big producers take advantage of this by seeing how much money dystopian themes bring in, and this drives their decision making to produce more of it. But, I’d like to see more anti-dystopian science fiction out there. It’s one thing I love about Asimov’s. There is so much hopeful fiction in its pages. I’d like to see more of it. So what’s upstream of anti-dystopias? Science and technology that evokes our curiosity, makes us healthier, helps heal our collective society’s many scars. I hope to see those come true.
I read a chasmic array of authors and styles. I firmly believe there is something to learn from all of them.
AE: What are you reading right now?
VR: I love learning how stories are told differently, particularly those that break away from the three-act structure we often see. New Directions Publishing deals in books-in-translation. Their editors curate books from all over the world: Germany, Argentina, Spain, Hungary. They have a monthly book club where they send subscribers one of their publications. It’s a treat to get something completely new in the mail every month. One of their recent selections was Hole by Hiroko Oyamada. It’s a dazzling fantastical tale set in a familiar home setting, a mix of urban and countryside Japan. It has elements of Alice in Wonderland. I love stories like this that play with reality, evoking a dreamlike state for their readers.
AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
VR: When I’m not writing fiction, I write software. Part of writing software is breaking down applications into their core parts. The more I do both, the more I realize good writing is good engineering. In software, you have the ability to look at a piece of code to see how it was engineered. There are certain design patterns that reveal its quality. I can’t pinpoint the exact date, but at some point, it struck me that writing is like this too. You can take a look at a piece of fiction and see the quality of its engineering. I think this is a good analogy for writing fiction.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
VR: I keep a newsletter at https://vikramramakrishnan.substack.com/ and can be found on twitter at @okvikram.