Q&A With Mark D. Jacobsen

Mark D. Jacobsen history with Asimov’s stretches back 22 years, when he was the first runner-up for the Isaac Asimov Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction. The following year, Jacobsen won that award, and eventually moved on to a career in the U.S. Air Force. Now “The Repair,” his first story for Asimov’s, appears in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
MDJ: I sometimes deliberately experiment with different types of stories to stretch my abilities. These typically begin as stream-of-consciousness freewrites, with no expectation they will turn into full-blown stories.
“The Repair” was born when I decided to try writing a cyberpunk story. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was at a remote lake with my wife and children, hardly the setting in which to find cyberpunk inspiration. I wrote with a pen and notebook. I had no characters or plot in mind, only a mental picture of pouring rain outside an abandoned hotel that took its inspiration from Blade Runner. In that first session I followed my protagonist into the building, up the stairs, and through his first meeting with a haunted, paranoid client who hired him for an illegal job.
I continued to write blindly, trusting my unconscious. I find the writing experience wildly different when I write this way, as opposed to my more usual process of meticulously developing characters and a plot. It is disorienting and a little scary, but I find these stories typically hold more creative power. It’s telling that “The Repair” was my first sale to Asimov’s.
The theme of “cancellation” emerged organically as I wrote. I had no intent to write a story about this topic, but it was something I’d been grappling with for a long time. I think it was Asimov who developed the three postulates of science fiction: “if only,” “what if,” and “if this goes on . . .” In retrospect, I can say this story explores the latter.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
MDJ: The protagonist, Joel, is a disgraced robot repairman who survives on illegal work for desperate clients. In this story he grapples with whether to keep working for a lonely and slightly crazy woman who was cancelled after sending a Tweet judged to be racist. She has spent the years since living under the exploitive protection of an insurance company.
Joel embodies the tensions that many of us feel around online discourse, contempt, and cancellation. Joel’s client is not a likable character and yet we sense that even she, imperfect as is, does not deserve her fate. The story hinges on Joel’s empathy for her humanity. That is an aspirational value for me.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
MDJ: Twenty-two years ago, as a college sophomore, I took 1st runner up in the Asimov/Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing. Sheila Williams and Rick Wilber flew me and the other finalists out to a writing conference, where I sat by the pool and talked writing with Joe Haldeman, Sean Stewart, Kelly Link, Charles Sheffield, Nancy Kress, Daniel Keyes, Ted Chiang, Octavia Butler, Brian Aldiss, and many others. The next year, I won the contest and went back. These were life-changing experiences for a young person with only distant dreams of being a writer. I realized that “making it” was well within reach and began submitting stories, without success.
I got busy after that, with an Air Force career and a young family. Writing came and went. In 2020, amidst the pandemic and a transition into a teaching job, I committed to writing more seriously. It has only taken 22 years, but with “The Repair,” I finally made it into Asimov’s.

In frequent moments of doubt, I wonder if I should give it up and focus on the “real” world. But I can’t help myself; I need to write.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
MDJ: Almost everything I write, no matter how dressed up in SF or fantasy, is rooted in our modern world. I’m a career Air Force officer with a PhD in political science. My professional life is devoted to understanding and managing complex political problems. That is what compels me to write fiction. Academia generally breaks complex problems down into narrow constituent parts, but fiction is a big enough medium to explore the scale and complexity of the whole.
The SF writer who has influenced me the most is Kim Stanley Robinson, largely because his writing reflects his love for and commitment to our own world.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
MDJ: I’ve been writing since I learned how to read. My dad owned hundreds of SF paperbacks, which gave me abundant inspiration when I was young.
I’m not sure why I feel such a deep need to write. Writing fiction is difficult for me, and from a pragmatic perspective, the returns aren’t great. In frequent moments of doubt, I wonder if I should give it up and focus on the “real” world. But I can’t help myself; I need to write. My studies of foreign affairs feel dry if they stay in the abstract; I’m most interested in individual human beings and their lived experiences. Fiction is where I can explore that.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
MDJ: I am slowly chipping away at a novel based on the two years I spent studying Arabic and Conflict Resolution in Jordan. It features a Jordanian-American woman and her daughter, who are trying to cross Jordan and reach safety after a biologically engineered weapon begins killing anyone who speaks Arabic. It’s an ambitious novel about the consequences of unchecked reciprocal hatreds, and about the longing of a woman with multiple sources of identity to find a sense of belonging in a collapsing world. It’s a difficult novel to write, and I can’t tell yet if it will be terrible or brilliant or somewhere in between.
I’m also trying to write, finish, and submit more short work. I’ve been developing a world that will support multiple stories, set multiple generations after a nuclear apocalypse, in which professional “reinventors” who rely on the patronage of warlords aim to reinvent technologies that they know once existed.

AE: What are you reading right now?
MDJ: I just finished Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris. Much of my academic work involves complexity theory, so I’ve long been fascinated by the fact that the reclusive McCarthy spent years hanging out with complexity scientists at the Santa Fe Institute (SFI). That influence shows in these novels. Coincidentally, it was fantastic to see that Ted Chiang just joined SFI as a visiting scholar. It gives me hope for aligning my academic work and fiction.
On the SF front, I just finished Ray Nayler’s wonderful debut novel The Mountain in the Sea. I discovered Nayler through his short work and fell in love with his writing. Like me, he works on U.S. foreign policy and has spent extensive time outside the U.S., so I felt an immediate kinship with him and his writing.
I’m also revisiting the SF books from my college years that most influenced my writing. I just listened to Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos and am now listening to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
MDJ: I was a C-17 cargo pilot, flew 200 missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have spent much of my career studying international relations. That included two years of graduate study in Jordan. Much of my fiction reflects my fascination—and disillusionment—with U.S. foreign policy. My novel The Lords of Harambee embodies my decade-long effort to grapple with questions of intervention and responsibility raised by the Rwandan genocide.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
MDJ: It took me 22 years to get published in Asimov’s. Don’t give up!

AE: What’s the best way to follow you and your work?
MDJ: The best way to find me is through my website and mailing list at www.markdjacobsen.com.

Mark D. Jacobsen is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Studies in the United States Air Force, where he tries to instill wisdom and humility in future leaders navigating global challenges. He enjoys writing humanistic fiction about characters grappling with political, social, and technological change. His short fiction has appeared in War Stories, Derelictand Inkstick Media. He is the author of one military SF novel, The Lords of Harambeeand a memoir titled Eating GlassHe was a Dell Award winner more years ago than he would care to recount. “The Repair” is his first story published in Asimov’s. 

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