Q&A with Taimur Ahmad

Twice a finalist for the Dell Award, Taimur Ahmad has had a relationship with Asimov’s for a while, but “Tweak” [in the July/August issue, on sale now] is Taimur’s first publication in our pages! Read on for “Tweak”‘s backstory, some of Taimur’s own backstory, thoughts on Ursula K. Le Guin, an examination of the appeal of mentor/mentee dynamics, and more!

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

TA: I guess it started when my roommate brought home some chickens for a backyard flock. I wound up being the one who took care of them and just found them to be absurd and hilarious animals. They were interesting enough critters that I figured they’d make it into a story one day. So that’s where the chickens in the story came from.

Besides that, I really can’t remember where the idea for memory editing came from. I was curious what would happen to a person’s life if they had the ability to “change” their past, and the conclusion that I came to is that the truth of who someone is would still come out in their present. I was also interested in exploring toxic masculinity a bit—the male lead is, on the surface, not a very traditionally masculine sort of guy, but the broader social expectations of what he “should” be like are the impetus behind his ill-fated quest to rewrite his memories.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

TA: This is my first story in Asimov’s, but my history with the magazine goes back to the Dell Award. I was a finalist twice and then won back in college, and before applying for the award (which is run by Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams and Rick Wilber) I had basically no idea that it was even possible to sell short SFF stories at all. Being a finalist for that award introduced me to the entire pro-SFF world, which was a revelation. Without Sheila, Rick, and Asimov’s, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity, so I’m forever grateful for that.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?

TA: From a writing point of view, definitely Ursula K. Le Guin. For me, a truly great piece of fiction has three components: aesthetics, entertainment, and intellectual impact. Aesthetics refers to the prose itself—is it beautiful? Entertainment refers to plot, and whether the story grabs you and makes you want to read. The intellectual component is how much the story makes you think—does it challenge you, or introduce new ideas to you? Le Guin’s writing hits all three of those aspects, and was also just so far ahead of its time in several cases (Left Hand of Darkness, as an obvious example). Plus, I think the themes she explored were always powerful and compelling, and I’m also a huge fan of anthropological SFF, which she was the undisputed queen of. She had an incredible ability to interrogate our social norms through the lens of fiction while simultaneously telling an amazing story. I hope I can create something half as good as her work one day!

The one thing I can very clearly point to that impacts my writing is when I go on a new trip to some beautiful or striking place, and the idea/image for a story will just come right away, practically.

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

TA: Definitely. Themes around nature and the land are big for me: the smallness of humanity in comparison to nature, our dependence on the natural world, the way it will outlast us in the end, its beauty, and the way it defines cycles (i.e., turning death back into life over and over again). I’m also a sucker for a good odd couple or mentor/mentee relationship (think Gideon and Harrow in Gideon the Ninth, or Anakin/Obi-Wan/Ahsoka from Star Wars), and I like trying (and largely failing) to write those sorts of characters. I also make a point of making many of my characters have south Asian/Brown/Muslim backgrounds (if the story is set in this world), which is sometimes extremely important to the story, and sometimes totally irrelevant. There are certainly other themes I come back to as well.

As to the why. For the nature theme it’s simple—my entire life and career is based around the outdoors and it’s a core part of my identity, so it obviously takes up a lot of space in my brain! The mentor-mentee/odd couple one, I’m not sure. I just love seeing those sorts of relationships. It makes me really happy when very different people come to value each other and grow together. And finally, including characters who have an identity similar to mine is largely about representation—just one more small way of contributing to the diversification of spec fic. Sometimes though that identity piece is also a very fun way to explore huge swathes of culture and folklore that just don’t (or barely) exist in western spec—think, for example, some of Usman Malik’s stories, that rely on traditionally Islamic concepts like Jinn.

AE: What is your process?

TA: I wish I knew that myself! If someone has any suggestions I’m all ears. . . . I would like to be more consistent, and having a go-to process would help with that hugely. That said, there is a general track most of my stories follow. It all starts with the idea, which is usually a concept I want to explore but can occasionally also be a specific image. Then I brainstorm a bit—I make notes on very general, high level plot outlining and scenes I want to see, nothing detailed. Then I write, send it out to a friend or two for edits, revise, and submit. Pretty typical I assume.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

TA: I don’t think there was a singular moment or event. I’ve just always enjoyed living in my head, always had my nose in a book, always enjoyed being in fantasy worlds (i.e. out in the mountains, the desert, the forest, etc., hiking and climbing). From a young age I always assumed I’d write one day—words have always been there for me, it feels very natural to build something out of them.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

TA: Oh man that’s a tricky one . . . perhaps Earthsea, perhaps the Star Wars universe—though at first glance those two worlds are very different, the underlying spirituality of both actually has some commonality (i.e. the way life, death, magic, and identity are all wrapped up together. Both are very much influenced by certain Eastern philosophies, and have what I would call an elegant and logically consistent conception of what an afterlife could look like). Plus, the philosopher-mage/jedi-monk career path has always appealed to me, so if I could score a gig as a student at Roke or the Jedi Temple, that’d be pretty cool.

AE: What are you reading right now?

TA: I’m finishing up The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, which at 1,000 pages has been a formidable journey. Sitting on my bedside table I’ve got the Binti stories by Nnedi Okorafor up next, followed by Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, followed by The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, and at some point I’ll sneak some nonfiction in there in the form of The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin, which is an early piece of nature writing about the region I live in.

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

TA: Nope! As a not quite up-and-coming writer myself, I feel totally unqualified to give anyone any advice whatsoever. However, if I had to give advice to MYSELF, I’d tell me to . . . just write more! Specifically, I’d tell me to figure out a structure that keeps myself consistently and regularly producing new stories, some sort of accountability and progress-tracking mechanism, something like that.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

TA: Let’s see, I was a gardener throughout most of my high school summers, did academic research during my college years, worked as a lobbyist/policy person in DC for a big green nonprofit, have worked some retail in an outdoor gear shop, and now work as justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion professional for a small environmental nonprofit. But come to think of it, I honestly don’t think those jobs have affected my writing much or at all, or at least if they have it’s been subconscious. Or, they probably have, and the ways they have done so just haven’t manifested themselves in a way that’s obvious enough to me yet. The one thing I can very clearly point to that impacts my writing is when I go on a new trip to some beautiful or striking place, and the idea/image for a story will just come right away, practically. For example, I visited the Eureka Dunes in Death Valley National Park a few weeks ago and couldn’t stop thinking, “Wow, these things look like a whale’s back as it crests out of the ocean, but the ocean is made of sand.” So of course the sand whale story was born instantly. . . .

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

TA: They can’t! I don’t really have an online presence besides a very lightly used Facebook account. This is intentional, though probably also extremely disadvantageous for success as a writer in our modern world. Oh well.

Taimur Ahmad is an environmentalist and rock climber working at the intersection of conservation, recreation, and social justice. Born and raised in New York City, Taimur currently lives in the small town of Bishop, California, in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

Q&A with Megan Lindholm

Long-time Asimov’s reader and writer Megan Lindholm returns to our pages with “Giving Up the Ghost” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!], reviving the character of Celtsie from a previous story. Meghan talked with us about ghost dogs, her career history, the importance of ergonomics, and what she’s up to (or avoiding) on the web.

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

ML: I have had far more than my share of excellent dogs in my lifetime. Each one has left a mark on my life; each one has left a unique gap that no other companion, human or canine, can fill. They do haunt me. I will swear that Kira still comes and scratches at the door. After all, I’ve seen my granddaughter get up from the table, go and open the door, and then stand there for a moment, puzzled. But if your home must be haunted, the very best sort of ghost one can have is the memory of a loyal friend.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

ML: “Giving Up the Ghost” is part of my Peculiar Tacoma stories. This is Celtsie’s second outing. The first, “Community Service” was bought by an amazing editor (Gardner Dozois), for an anthology called The Book of Magic. There is also a novel about Celtsie, but I am taking a very slow approach to finishing it.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

ML: I enjoy titles that tell a bit about the story without being a spoiler, but also feature a play on words.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

ML: For many years (over 40, perhaps) I’ve subscribed to Asimov’s. And over those years, I’ve sold a handful of stories here. Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction are my touchstone publications for short stories. They are always my first choices when I am marketing a story.

AE: What is your history with Asimovs?

ML: My best thing? In 1989 two of my stories published in Asimov’s were on the finalist ballot for a Nebula. Neither won. But for those two same stories, the READERS of Asimov’s gave me the Reader Award for “A Touch of Lavender,” and “Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” was a finalist. And those awards, given to me by actual readers, meant and still mean a great deal to me. Framed on my office wall!

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ML: When I can’t make a story move forward, it’s almost always because I’ve made a mistake. The writing part of my brain sits in the backseat of my mind, and refuses to help with the forward navigation until I go back. Sometimes it’s just a few paragraphs back; sometimes it’s a chapter. But if I go back and do a quick edit of the previous pages, I almost always find a place where the story zigged when it should have zagged. I fix that, and the writing flows again.

But for those two same stories, the READERS of Asimov’s gave me the Reader Award for “A Touch of Lavender,” and “Silver Lady and the Fortyish Man” was a finalist. And those awards, given to me by actual readers, meant and still mean a great deal to me. Framed on my office wall!

AE: How did you break into writing?

ML: I began by writing for children’s magazines. The very tiny ones at first, like the little story papers for a Sunday School. Then I worked up to Jack and Jill, and Humpty Dumpty (both magazines now long gone, alas) and even Highlights for Children. From there, I ventured into the wonderful world of fanzines. I owe such a debt to amateur publications such as Space and Time, and their editors. My first story to make it into a paperback was called “Bones for Dulath.” I had sent it to Jessica Salmonson for her fanzine, but instead she chose it for an anthology she was doing, AMAZONS! And that anthology went on to win a World Fantasy Award. And Terry Windling at Ace then expressed an interest in the characters, and I sold her Harpy’s Flight, my first novel.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

ML: I am very slowly assembling a novel about Celtsie and Tacoma Pet Boarding. Maybe this will be the year I finish it. And I have about a dozen short stories in various stages of “almost finished and pleased with it.”

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

ML: Oh, there are too many good ones! Zelazny’s Amber. Marjipoor. Pern. The Shire. Thank heavens I have all of them boxed up between book covers and can dwell in them any time I want.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ML: I am finally catching up with Sam Hawke. I have her second book, Hollow Empire.

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

ML: YES. I do. Check your ergonomics. Seriously. I wish I could go back and take better care of my writing body. So for you: Have your desk where you can look out a window and refocus your eyes on infinity every 20 minutes or so. You should be able to look straight at your monitor, not up or down. (Laptops will eventually ruin you!) Hands flat on the keyboard, feet flat on the floor. If you need them, get “computer glasses.” I wear bifocals and kept tipping my head back to look at my monitor. (Do all these things and you will save a bundle by not having to go to physical therapy and pay for pain killers!)

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

ML: I’ve made and served pizza, and pulled a lot of beers. I’ve delivered the mail, and waited tables at Sambo’s Pancake House. (Yes, for real.) I’ve sold clothing at Sears, and put fresh eggs for sale by the side of the road in front of my little farm. Also raised kids, ducks, chickens, pigs and lots of fruit and vegetables. All grist for the writing mill. Working in a restaurant and office gave me a better ear for dialogue. And one quickly realizes that truth is always stranger than fiction.

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

ML: I am developing an aversion to social media, I fear. I open Twitter, read until I’m horrified, and shut it again. I venture back onto Facebook maybe once a week. I do have an Instagram, but it’s mostly pictures of chickens and trees. (All of those under Robin Hobb.) I like reading on Reddit Fantasy, but don’t comment much. I have a Meganlindholm.com website, and of course a Robinhobb.com website, but I’m very lazy about updating them. I do reviews of books that I like on Goodreads. If I don’t like it, I don’t review it. And my favorite places on Goodreads are The Cool Kids Fantasy Club, and Sword and Laser. Both are excellent for intelligent discussion about books. Again, I read a lot more often than I post.

That’s about it. They all vacuum up too much writing time. I think readers can learn far more about a writer by reading their stories than by looking at social media. After all, when you read a story or a book, you are getting what the writer chose to share with the world.

(I know, I didn’t supply URLs. You can find me if you want to.)

Megan Lindholm lives in rural Washington state and has been writing urban fantasy since Wizard of the Pigeons was first published in 1985. After a decade or two of writing as Robin Hobb, Megan returns to contemporary fantasy with stories of Celtsie set in the Wedge district of modern-day Tacoma, Washington. Celtsie and her pet boarding business and peculiar magic have previously appeared in the story “Community Service” in the anthology The Book of Magic, which was edited by Gardner Dozois.

Q&A with Ursula Whitcher

Mathematician and poet Ursula Whitcher, whose “Ansibles” appears in our July/August issue [on sale now!], is ready to fight for the honor of being the second-most-famous SF author named Ursula. Below, she discusses the influence of the first-most-famous SF Ursula, other literary inspirations, the origins of “Ansibles,” and her poetic process.

Asimov’s Editor: The first line of your poem is, “I can’t explain gravity without using gravity.” Have you ever actually tried to explain gravity?

UW: I have! As well as being a poet, I’m a mathematician. My research is inspired by the physical theory of string theory, which offers one way to unify quantum physics and general relativity. I took more classical courses in general relativity as a graduate student, so I’ve spent quite a bit of energy working out equations for possible shapes of spacetime.

AE: Who is your poem dedicated to?

UW: “Ansibles” is for Adriana Salerno, a dear friend and mathematical collaborator. Adriana and I talk about math, science fiction, and what it’s like to pursue a career that sends you all over the world. Adriana is from Venezuela, but her grandmother grew up in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, an hour or so from the university where I earned tenure. When I was writing this poem, I was thinking both about my nieces, who are growing up in New York City, and about Adriana’s stories of her family in Caracas.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this poem?

UW: I met Marie Vibbert, a frequent Asimov’s contributor, when I was a college student doing a physics internship at Case Western Reserve University and she was a helpdesk worker mentoring the university’s budding medieval history club. We started talking about writing and knitting, and have been friends ever since. When I asked Marie about places to send speculative poetry, Asimov’s was near the top of her list.

AE: What is your process for constructing a poem?

UW: I usually start with one or two emotionally resonant images. When I begin committing words to the page, I pay attention to rhythm, sound, and the shape of the words on the page, and try to reinforce emerging structure. In this case, the beginning images were the marble rolling on a rubber sheet and the distant yellow sun. The uncomfortable “tugging” at the end of the first stanza guided the shape of the rest of the poem.

AE: What draws you to write poetry, as opposed to prose?

UW: I love the immediacy of poetry—the way a poem puts the reader in the middle of a situation and lets them figure things out—and the way poetry can balance ambiguous and mixed emotions. I do write short stories as well, and sometimes I test an idea as both poetry and fiction (or even interactive fiction!) to see what works best. But I keep coming back to poems.

I love the immediacy of poetry—the way a poem puts the reader in the middle of a situation and lets them figure things out—and the way poetry can balance ambiguous and mixed emotions.

AE: What’s the first poem you ever wrote?

UW: I remember writing a poem about a seagull when I was six or seven, and then being annoyed my mother didn’t find their flight as beautiful as I did. However, the first poem I can find in my childhood diary is about the historical popularity of different given names. (It rhymes “too” with the line “like a solid cup that’s been hewed.”) I guess I’ve been mixing math and poetry for a long time!

AE: What books are you reading right now?

UW: I’m reading John Chalcraft’s The Striking Cabbies of Cairo and Other Stories, which is about the history of labor in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Egypt, as writing research; I’m reading K.S. Villoso’s novel The Wolf of Oren-Yaro for discovery. I’m also dipping into re-reads of the Chanur and Aubrey-Maturin series for comfort.

AE: What poems have you been returning to lately?

UW: I’m thinking about Jericho Brown’s poem “Ganymede,” which confronts the bleakness in the myth of Aquarius and the bleakness in the myth of America. I’m thinking about Amy Lowell’s queer identity, and the way I imprinted on her historical fiction poem “Patterns” when I was thirteen or fourteen. And I’m thinking about the poetic strategies of Le Guin’s epigraph “The Creation of Éa,” and the ways I return to those strategies in my own writing.

AE: Ursula K. Le Guin also coined the word “ansible.” We’re not surprised to hear you list her as an influence! What’s your favorite Le Guin poem or story?

UW: The novella Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

AE: If you could fight any writer, dead or alive, who would you fight?

UW: I would duel Ursula Vernon for the right to be the second-most-famous science-fiction-writing Ursula. I’m betting each of us tried fencing a couple of times and then gave it up because philosophical questions about the bout were too distracting, so that should make it a fair fight.

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

UW: I post interactive fiction at yarntheory.itch.io, I tweet about math, books, and poems as @superyarn, and I collect all my writing and other projects at yarntheory.net.

Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician and editor who reads Latin with some fluency and ancient Greek just well enough to get angry with Plato. Ursula’s poetry has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, sources including Asimov’s Science Fiction MagazineRosalind’s SiblingsThe Cascadia Subduction Zone, and Goblin Fruit, and is indexed (somewhat imperfectly) at yarntheory.net.

Neptune’s Reach and “The Children of the Wind”

by Gregory Feeley

“The Children of the Wind” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!] is a free-standing chapter from a novel in progress, Neptune’s Reach, which I began writing long ago and then set aside for other projects. Three earlier sections appeared in Asimov’s between 1986 and 1999, and others in various magazines and anthologies.

I returned to it after finishing a long novel a couple years ago, and last summer I wrote “The Children of the Wind” and a kind of sequel, “Wandering Rocks.” Through the vagaries of publishing schedules, “Wandering Rocks” appeared first, in Clarkesworld’s October 2020 issue. (Another is forthcoming in a future issue of Asimov’s.)

The planets are tiny loci of matter surrounded by immense tracts of emptiness, growing greater as one moves farther out, and it’s ridiculous to write about “visiting” them without keeping this constantly in mind.

I knew in the mid-eighties that Voyager 2’s 1989 flyby of Neptune would render much of what I wrote about Neptune obsolete, so many of the early sections will have to be rewritten when the novel is finished. And since the sections were written to stand alone, there will be revisions to make the thing work as a novel.

When I was a kid, Neptune was a neglected locale for science fiction (when Robert Silverberg assembled an anthology of stories set on each planet, he had to commission Alexei Panshin to write an original one for Neptune). This is less true today, though the aspect of Neptune that most fascinates me—its astonishing remoteness—still gets underplayed. The planets are tiny loci of matter surrounded by immense tracts of emptiness, growing greater as one moves farther out, and it’s ridiculous to write about “visiting” them without keeping this constantly in mind.

There is one other important element of the series, one that I find difficult to articulate: its preoccupation with English Romantic poetry. I believe there is a deep affinity between SF and Romanticism, something I would express in an essay if I understood it better. As it is, pretty much all I can say is “Something to do with the Sublime” and watch it recur in my fiction.

Gregory Feeley sold his first story in 1973 and has since written a number of short stories, novellas, and novels, including Arabian Wine, which first appeared here (in shorter form) in 2004. Greg took a dozen-year detour into teaching to put his kids through college, but hopes to return soon to full-time writing. He recently completed a long novel, Hamlet the Magician. After a seventeen-year absence, we’re pleased to have him back in the pages of Asimov’s.

What Do You Know? What Do You Love?

by L.X. Beckett

One of the things you will often hear in fiction-writing is the aphorism write what you know.

There’s more than one meaning packed into this phrase, and which of them matters in any given conversation can vary, depending on who you are talking to and the context in which the idea arises. 

One underlying concept is easy enough to see: it’s kind of cautionary. Your work may lack authority—an ability to convince the reader that what you’re saying is true and worth considering—if your audience can sense that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Readers can be pretty decent BS detectors, and we tune out quickly when we sense someone is having us on.

As such, if I want to write a super facty article about a particle accelerator, and I refer to this technology as the big bendy straw of the rock star physics toolkit—if you know me, this isn’t unlikely—I’d probably need, at the very least, to give up on selling the piece to Scientific American and take my shtick somewhere funnier.

Some people take write what you know to refer to lived experience. This is the idea that you can only truly write about something you’ve been through directly. This can be seen as the literary equivalent of method acting. It’s the proposition that you can only write authentically about steelworkers, for example, if you go and put in a year punching a timecard in a foundry.

This latter kind of knowing is flatly impossible, unless you want to populate your entire literary output with characters who are carbon copies of yourself. There are ways to tell the stories of people different from you respectfully; it’s work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s doable.

Writing what you know can include writing what you know because you looked it up. It can include spending a year in a foundry, if that’s your research process.  It can include interviewing a dozen veteran steelworkers instead, or watching footage from inside their factory, assuming such footage exists. 

Is the aphorism meaningless, then? No.

To me, the most important idea captured within write what you know becomes most important because it addresses the artist’s goal in creating work in the first place: the aspiration to communicate a fundamental truth about your subject matter. 

This sounds lofty, but don’t let it intimidate you.

It appeals to common sense to assert that it’s easier to touch on meaningful truths, as a writer, when you’re discussing a subject you understand. Where knowledge brings authority. But knowledge alone isn’t enough.

This brings us to the second part of this essay title: What do you love? Or, more properly, what are you passionate about?

Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of nonfictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.

Oh, now, I know what you’re probably thinking. We’ve debased the idea of passion a little in recent years. If you’ve had a job interview in the past decade, you’ve probably been obliged to say you were passionate about helping consumers find the right experience, or achieving for your clients’ optimization a satisfying user interface . . . but we’re not talking about the idea of bandying about passion as a buzzword for potential employers. We’re talking about the subjects that truly matter to you, the things that feel as though they are in your veins and marrow. The topics that you can’t help bringing up and going on and on about. 

Each and every one of you knows a shocking amount about things that aren’t necessarily near or dear to your heart. You know how to install an app on your phone, probably, and you know how to pay your taxes; you have expertise in driving cars or evaluating the quality of a given work of televised entertainment . . . but truth and facts are, weirdly, not the same thing, at least not all the time. 

Here’s an example of the slipperiness of truth: think about a wedding whose hypothetical bride has achieved that oft-quoted goal. They have organized a ceremony so perfect that The Big Day truly is the happiest day of their life. Then imagine that—despite pulling off an incredibly wonderful event and having a truly remarkable day—this same person has entered an actual marriage that is a massive personal disaster, just waiting to play itself out in the fullness of time. 

Contrast that bride with someone with immense experience and knowledge of how weddings work and why they derail. Say they’re writing a story, trying to pull the truth out of that underlying contradiction. Was it a good wedding if it was the symbolic beginning of a devastating romantic failure? Can the happiest day of someone’s life be undermined, retroactively, if the future it heralded doesn’t bear out the promises made at the altar?

Imagine the way that disappointed bride might write about this. Imagine the same topic tackled by a behavioral scientist, with years of research into how people form regrets. Imagine the poem written by the wedding planner. The rap song penned by the maid of honor. Each of these perspectives would contain its own possibility of Truth.

Human nature is quicksilver, and truth can be slippery. Ultimately, your verdict on “good wedding, bad marriage” is going to come down to how you feel. Some of that will be shaped by your temperament, and some by your past. But an insightfully written work of literature can also speak to the common human experiences of weddings and breakups, the shaping of those feelings . . . and that truth will be most likely to emerge if the author has an emotional stake in the answer.

The subjects that engross us, command our attention, beguile us into daydream, lead us into self-examination, the topics that bring us joy or take us out of ourselves . . . these are different for each and every person. Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of non-fictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.

Periodically when I teach story-writing, at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and elsewhere, I encounter a student who is very new to fiction-writing and struggling to shape their ideas. These folks sometimes create a main character for a story who is only quite a bit like themselves. Not only do they share a temperament, but the protagonist and the writer share a day job. So they open their piece by essentially taking us to work, that most familiar of environments, and subconsciously attempt to involve the reader in the drama that makes up their nine to five existence: fights with supervisors and weird bureaucratic details. 

These beginner writers are writing about something they know . . . but are they passionate about it? Speaking very generally, it’s quite often the case that a person takes a writing class when they’re not feeling complete emotional fulfillment at their day jobs.

I’m not saying everyone hates their job, or that everyone’s bored by their work. When someone is able to passionately articulate what is cool about a pursuit of theirs, whether it’s paid work or a volunteer or hobby pursuit, we are riveted. This is why so many people find TED talks compelling. And, indirectly, it’s why my novelette “The Hazmat Sisters” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!] has complicated fighty sisters, a bit of D&D, tree-planting drone platforms, all the things I find awful about camping, that baseball bat full of spikes—which I will never stop thinking about, shudders and all—and the taste of canned spaghetti in it.

So, the next time you are chasing truth in fiction, that’s where I recommend making a start: think about your favorite thing, and what it means to you. Home in on what you love, and then figure out what you know.

Toronto author and editor L.X. Beckett frittered their youth working as an actor and theater technician in Southern Alberta before deciding to make a shift into writing science fiction. Their first novella, “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF and takes place in the same universe as “The HazMat Sisters,” just like their novels Dealbreaker and Gamechanger. Lex identifies as feminist, lesbian, genderqueer, poet, cat-parent, and married. An insatiable consumer of kdramas, mysteries, and true crime podcasts, they can be found enthusing about these and other topics on Twitter at @LXBeckett or at the Lexicon, http://lxbeckett.com.

Q&A with Annika Barranti Klein

What began as a child’s comment at the San Diego Zoo now lives, fully fleshed, in our May/June issue’s pages—as Annika Barranti Klein’s “Phosphor’s Circle” [on sale now]! First-time Asimov’s author Annika stopped by to discuss “Phosphor’s Circle”’s conception, what she’s reading and writing these days, the creative power of baths, and why she’d call her story’s acceptance “sort of an accident.”

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

ABK: In the first few days of 2020, my family went to the San Diego Zoo for my younger son’s tenth birthday. His best friend came with us, and we spent some time watching one of the polar bears swim in this slow, lazy circle. One of them (there is some disagreement about which one) said, “That polar bear is stuck!” and then, pleased with themselves, both said it several more times. I wondered what would happen if a polar bear really did get “stuck” doing something like that—why would that happen? What would I do about it if I discovered it? I decided on holograms (spoiler!) because I happened to think about the time my father took me and my sister to the hologram museum in Soho (I cannot find any evidence of its existence, but I know it was there) in the ’80s.

Everything else just fell into place. I have no idea how the San Diego Zoo does tours, nor did I need the story to be accurate to real life, so I opted to have different workers at each area giving mini tours, loosely based on what I remembered from when my mom worked at Space Camp. I chose Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the school play because my husband was in a production of it in his youth and I like the opening number. The arctic fox was hiding the whole time we were there, so I don’t know for sure that it really exists. I had “Tiny Dancer” playing in the gift shop because it’s a great song and it just seems like something you’d hear playing in a gift shop. (Plus I often hear people singing along with the “Tony Danza” lyric—sometimes it’s me.)

I wrote the story fairly quickly, I think over two or three days, and sent it to my writing friend Lyndsie. She gave me some great ideas about expanding the ending a bit—the original draft did not have the final tour in it, just the discovery—and I added that, polished the language and punctuation up, and sent it off into the world by the end of the month.

There is a live webcam of the polar bear habitat here: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/cams/polar-cam

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

ABK: It’s a standalone, but there are some themes that show up in my other work. I often reference musicals, for instance; I have written a handful of other stories narrated by irritated young hourly workers, and I just finished writing a very different story that is also set in a zoo. Everything I write is queer, unless there is a reason for something to be cisheteronormative. I imagine that many of my standalone near-future stories could work as part of the same universe, but I am not actively creating one at the moment.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

ABK: I actually named the story “Glitch,” which I loved for it, but Sheila asked me to change it because she had recently accepted Alex Irvine’s fantastic novella “Glitch,” which was in the March/April issue. I texted Lyndsie (probably something like “help help bother help”) and she helped me go through the text and look for phrases we could pull out to use as a title. I sent Sheila a short list of ideas, including “Phosphor’s Cycle” and “Perfect Nuclear Family,” as well as “Phosphor’s Circle,” which she chose. (I was very relieved that she was willing to pick one! Naming stories is hard.)

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

ABK: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it was sort of an accident. I am truly terrible at gauging what editors like, and most of my story submissions are stabs in the dark. I wrote “Phosphor’s Circle” quickly and was feeling overly confident in it, so I wanted to get a quick rejection out of the way to temper the disappointment that is inherent in the long submission process of sending a story out over and over again until (hopefully) it lands at the right magazine. Sheila had sent very kind, very quick rejections to two of my more fantasy-leaning stories previously, and I thought a kind, quick rejection would be a good start for this story. Joke’s on me, I guess, since she bought it!

If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds.

AE: What is your process?

ABK: I start projects constantly. If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds. I have more ideas than I could possibly write if I live to 100 and never have another one, and I don’t know where they come from but I believe they multiply when I’m not looking. 

If there’s more than a snippet, or if that snippet is a sentence or dialogue rather than just a concept, I start writing. I work on whatever project is on my mind, and so sometimes I have what feels like hundreds of half-finished stories, and sometimes I finish more than one story in a week. This approach might not work if I had deadlines, but no one is waiting for me to finish these stories, so it works very well for me, for now.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ABK: It depends. If the block is specific to the story I’m working on, I work on another one. If I am just feeling uninspired or unmotivated or can’t figure out how to make something work, I take a bath. Baths are extremely restorative, not to mention where I get some of my best ideas. (Don’t believe people who say writer’s block doesn’t exist. Of course it does.)

AE: How did you break into writing?

ABK: I’ll let you know when I’ve done it. (Does anyone ever feel that they’re “in”? I genuinely don’t know if it’s real, or just a concept.)

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

I started writing when I was five years old and my favorite book was The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Wiggle. I wanted to be the next Beatrix Potter, but alas my painting skills are not up to par. As a young adult, my more “serious” writing began after I first read Shirley Jackson in the late ’90s. I’ve been trying to emulate her ever since. Somewhere along the way, I found my own writing style, but I very much credit both of them for inspiring me.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

ABK: I also write young adult contemporary novels, and I am currently querying agents with one (a queer, gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers), finishing another (a sapphic romance), and planning out a third (an old Hollywood mystery).

AE: What are you reading right now?

ABK: I recently finished My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which is brilliant. The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance is an incredible, magical contemporary YA that I am reading very slowly in hopes that it will not end. I just bought a book of poetry (Wild Embers) by Nikita Gill that I am absolutely smitten with. And I am reading a handful of memoirs and biographies about movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age as book research. Olivia de Havilland and Veronica Lake’s memoirs (Every Frenchman Has One and Veronica Lake, respectively) are delightful, and Lauren Bacall’s (By Myself) is an old favorite that I am revisiting.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

ABK: I am a knitter! I mostly make sweaters and socks for myself and hats for whoever in my household (I have two sons and a husband) wants to wear them. It is perhaps silly to have this much wool in Southern California, but it will come in handy if I ever move back to the northeast. Someday I hope to write a story that incorporates knitting in a meaningful way.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

ABK: I’ve done a little bit of almost everything. I’ve worked retail, been an advertising sales assistant, was in catering, was a nanny, taught knitting, designed knitting patterns, was a roller derby referee (my derby name was Anna Mean Gables), reviewed horror movies, and worked as a copy editor, among other things. Plus I’m a parent. I think everything I’ve done affects my writing because it all goes into the big pool of knowledge I draw from. Every experience might end up on the page in some form or other.

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

ABK: I keep a list of my published stories and a gallery of my photographs at annikaobscura.com. I’m on Twitter as @noirbettie. My personal Instagram is private and mostly pictures of my dinner, but I have a public account where I pair books and yarn: @prettygoodyarns.

Annika Barranti Klein lives and writes in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles full of books, knitting, and children. Her stories have been in Hobart After Dark, Milk Candy Review, and CRAFT Literary, and her poetry in Fireside Quarterly. Her first story for Asimov’s uncovers a tragic secret.

How “The Metric” Came to Be

by David Moles

My oldest notes for this story [“The Metric,” in our May/June issue, on sale now] go back more than a decade. There’s nothing in them about plot or character, only things like “post-stelliferous futurity” and “deep time.”

The earliest fragment of prose I can find has the title, “The Metric,” and something (though it’s not clear yet what) called the metric. It has a number: nineteen billion years. It has a place name, Limit Ordinal, that almost made it into the story: there’s a scene that takes place above a public square called Limit Cardinal, which suggests Limit Ordinal would have been another square, somewhere else in the city; but the city itself doesn’t as yet exist.

The next fragment has the city, Septentrion, and its age, seventy thousand years. And it has these lines, which survive, almost untouched, in the published story:

It was said that Septentrion was so old that when its first stone was laid there were still stars in the sky; this was untrue, and would have been untrue had the city been a hundred times older, but it was certainly more ancient than anyone alive could comprehend, and its origins, like those of the sun and the moon, the sky and the sea and the earth, belonged to that deep time in which every ancient thing seems more or less contemporary with every other, and the age of all of them is the same, which is: unimaginable.

Deep time, and the city. Any science-fictional equivalent of an Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index would surely include an entry for last city on Earth, the; and Septentrion is clearly one of those, in genre if not in detail. Its immediate antecedent is of course the Kalpa, of Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time, a book and an author whose influence on “The Metric” would be clear even if the timing of those early notes (only a year after City was published) weren’t so suggestive. Septentrion owes something to the Axis City of Bear’s Eon, as well, and there are echoes of Eon’s Way in the metric itself, and of Pavel Mirsky, the “messenger from descandant command,” from Eon’s sequel Eternity, in Tirah’s mission (if not Tirah’s nature or character). But Septentrion has other antecedents: Diaspar, from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” and The City and the Stars, and the Last Redoubt, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, both acknowledged influences on Bear’s novel; and the cities collected in C.J. Cherryh’s Sunfall, with familiar names and strange far futures. And it has others, I’m sure, more than I can remember or count.

Deep time, and the city—that’s where “The Metric” started. The fragment that introduces Septentrion has those; and it has the ship, out of that deep time, that—as in the published story—“announced itself in the early hours . . . a flare of violet-white at the very edge of the empty sky.”

And it has a protagonist, named Petal, who lives in that city, and sees that ship come down; though I didn’t yet know who Petal was.

I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—

It was another year and a half before I wrote this note, without knowing just what I meant by it:

It can’t be a coincidence that the end of the world comes at just the time it becomes clear it doesn’t have to be the end.

The notes and fragments that follow over the next few months trace the process of figuring out why the world was ending, and how; what the metric was, and why. (Somewhere in there I was pleased to find I’d rediscovered, or rather reimagined, the “conformal cyclic cosmology” of Roger Penrose—but thankfully not its detailed predictions, which haven’t aged well. “Forgotten among the bones of the earliest discarded cosmologies,” as Tirah’s story-within-the-story has it.)

I figured out who Petal was, and what Petal’s life was like, and what the end of Petal’s world meant. I situated Petal in a family and a society, identified Petal’s twin, Piper, and their parents, Hare and Cutter and Snow. I gave Tirah a name.

Four years after I’d started, I knew where Petal and Tirah’s story took place and why; and I knew, in broad outline, where and how it had to end. I read parts of their story at WisCon in 2014 and 2016. I took them onto the ice and across it, to within sight of their destination.

And there I stopped. I knew how their story had to end—but like Petal at the end, I wasn’t ready to face it.

In the nearly ten years it took me—off and on, and between other projects—to write “The Metric,” I moved across an ocean, and across a continent. I changed jobs four times. I got married. I bought a house. I had two children. I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—let alone when I was Piper’s age, or Petal’s.

It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the last third of this story, most of what I wrote in the winter of 2018–2019 to take “The Metric” to its end, is written not from Petal’s point of view, but from Piper’s, and from the point of view of a Piper who has also grown up a great deal—beginning with that moment on the lake when Piper insists on taking some responsibility for what Petal’s done, insists on being treated like an adult. A Piper who has come to understand, with an adult’s understanding, what the end of the universe might mean.

That first fragmentary set of notes, the one that talks about post-stelliferous futurity and deep time, also has this to say:

Intelligence and individual initiative certainly exist but are irrelevant to the course of human development, which is basically about statistics.

I might have believed that, when I wrote it. Tirah, or the senders of Tirah’s message, might believe it. Piper and Petal would both disagree with it, reflexively, from the very beginning. But Piper is the one who can see that it’s asking the wrong questions. And Piper, in the end, is the one who—at least for the purposes of the story—proves it wrong.

David Moles is a past winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and a past finalist for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award. His work has appeared in Asimov’sClarkesworldStrange HorizonsThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and various anthologies. He lives in California with his family. David’s Twitter handle is @chronodm and his website is dmoles.net.

Q&A with A.T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt’s first-ever story for Asimov’s, “Re: Bubble 476” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], feels fitting for a world where we’re all inhabiting bubble universes. Read on to learn what non-pandemic spark of inspiration brought us this piece, the usual relationship between A.T.’s writing and current events (when she isn’t being unexpectedly prescient), and why she loves parallel universes.

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

ATG: I started writing this story immediately after being on a panel about epistolary fiction at ConFusion in January 2020 (the last in-person con I went to before the pandemic hit the USA). The panelists were Scott Andrews, Emma Törzs, Alexandra Manglis, Sarah Gibbons and me, and we talked to a sleepy Sunday-morning audience about what a powerful storytelling device letters are in fiction. Someone—I don’t remember who—said that letters can create tension by having a time lag, and someone else added that letters don’t always arrive in order. And bam! Something clicked in my head.

I started scribbling out the first lines of this story immediately after the panel ended, while I sat in the audience for another panel.

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

ATG: So after I got the spark of inspiration at ConFusion, this story came together quickly. Usually, it takes me a few months at least to write a story from an idea to a finished product. Sometimes it takes me years.

“Re: Bubble 476” was written, revised twice, and finalized within a month, which is the quickest I have ever finished a story. When I gave the first draft to my critique group, I was convinced the story was an unfollowable trainwreck. But they were like: “No, it makes sense and we look forward to your future collection titled ‘Letters from Space.’”

I also want to mention that I finished this story before the pandemic started and put us all in our own bubbles. So, when I reread this story a few months ago, I was a little unsettled about how much more relevant it feels now than it did back in January 2020.

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

ATG: I usually relate to all my characters in my stories—even the ones I disagree with – because I think that’s an important component to creating characters your readers will empathize with. In this case, I relate strongly to Deni and Geo—their social awkwardness, their anxiety, their hopes for a stable future. And the love they have for each other as friends, even though they are worlds apart.

. . . most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

ATG: It’s a sliding scale for me. If I’m drafting a story quickly—like within a week or two—then my stories draw directly from whatever I’m stressed about in the news or the world. The longer a story takes to draft or revise, the bigger the questions in the story get. For example, I wrote the first draft of a story last weekend and it was about what people think is an acceptable loss of life for the ability to hang out with each other (I’m writing this in January 2021—over 400,000 people have died from the Covid-19 in the USA alone). But stories like “Give the Family My Love” and “Before the World Crumbles Away” grapple with the huge and complex questions of what we do in the face of environmental collapse and an uncertain future.

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

ATG: Oh, I love parallel universes and neighboring worlds in stories, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell as many stories as possible with them and not repeat myself. I love these themes because they always promise wonder and a journey, introspection and strangeness. Basically my favorite things about this genre.

I also spend far too much time thinking about heroes and the strange, charmed way many stories treat them (both in fiction and real life). Because most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.

AE: What is your process?

ATG: Step 1 – Start scratching ideas in a notebook.

Step 2 – Begin typing up a story draft.

Step 3 – Give up. Go for a walk. Come back the next day and try step 2 again.

Step 4 – Repeat steps 2 and 3 until a draft is finished.

Step 5 – Send out the story for beta reader feedback.

Step 6 – Let the story sit for a while and ferment in my head.

Step 7 – Look at notes from beta readers and begin revisions.

Step 8 – Repeat steps 3 through 7 until I have a finished draft that I’m sick of looking at, tired of thinking about, and don’t have anything left I want to change.

Step 9 – Send the story out into the world. Hope for the best. Start working on another story.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ATG: I find when I can’t write it’s usually a sign I’m exhausted or creatively tapped out. My only solution is to take a break from writing, usually for a month or two, and spend time outside or travel. I’ll also spend lots of time playing video games and reading. I never really know how long these “rest” periods will be, but I’m trying to not feel guilty when I need them—which is a work in progress.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?

ATG: Star Trek, without question or contest. Specifically, Next Generation. Give me that optimistic future of humanity, where we figure out how to grow as a species.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ATG: I’m usually always reading one book and listening to another. It works for me. Right now I’m listening to Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell, which is a collection of essays about the current climate crisis. I’m also reading The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, a Sherlock Holmes retelling with angels and demons. Both are excellent reads so far.

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

ATG: Besides the age-old advice to read ferociously and widely?

I always recommend trying something new with every story you write. It doesn’t have to be a big stretch, either, like a new subgenre (though it can). It can be as simple as trying out a new point of view or having a scene with three characters instead of your normal two. The worst thing that will happen is you don’t pull it off the first time. And that isn’t so bad because we learn more from our failures than our successes.

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

ATG: I have a blog that I occasionally update at https://atgreenblatt.com and I can be found on Twitter @AtGreenblatt, where I mostly post content about what I’m baking or my dog.

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. This Nebula-award-winning author is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work has been published in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other fine publications. She tells us that her first tale for Asimov’s was written in January/February 2020 right before the pandemic hit the US. It was a time when she was blissfully unaware that soon we would all be in our own bubble universes of a sort.

Q&A with Aaron Sandberg

Pared down from its original forty-eight-word-long title, Aaron Sandberg’s poem “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father and Let It Go to Voicemail” comes to you in the pages of our March/April issue [on sale now]! Aaron took the time to tell us about the poem’s origins, his greatest achievement to date, and which hardware store popped up more than once when he generated a word cloud from his poems.

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?

AS: I came across a story of J002E3 on the internet—which is a less embarrassing way of saying I saw it on Reddit—and thought it sounded like a metaphor (for what, I didn’t know). I started messing around with the conceit, and it became the thing it is today.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?

AS: The title—which was originally forty-eight words—is really the poem. After landing on the concept, I wanted it as blunt as possible. Without it, the piece doesn’t work. It sets the table. While it’s straightforward, it doesn’t make much sense until you finish reading the whole thing. You give the reader one plus one and let them add up two.

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

AS: Not at all. I come from a good family and my dad is a great guy. Ha. This was just the first metaphor that came to me when thinking about “unwanted-trash-that-leaves-for-a-long-time-and-comes-back-uninvited” and it seemed to work. I’m sure we all have versions of people like that in—and out of—our lives, though.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?

AS: Is there a better place for SF that I’m unaware of?

I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored.

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?

AS: Sometimes a lot, usually not at all. Occasionally I’ll write about something very topical or a poem based on a headline, but it’s not the way I usually go about it. I think all current events influence my writing to some degree, but it’s usually not explicit. Even when it starts that way, the poem usually goes “somewhere else” by the time I’m done writing it and expands beyond whatever specific event triggered the idea to touch on something universal, if that’s even possible anymore.

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

AS: I think I write a lot about the domestic, minutia, intimacy, loss, the past, etc. I did a word cloud at one time and entered all my poems to see my most commonly used words. I remember seeing a lot of “wolves” and “ghosts.” I’m not sure what that says about me. I like putting objects in unfamiliar locations and seeing what happens. Animals appear a lot. Home Depot pops up occasionally for some reason. I’m sure there’s a through-line of themes but I’m not sure.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

AS: I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored. Reading also keeps the ideas coming in. You can’t write well if you don’t read. I teach high school English and I’ve told my students you can’t be a good chef if you don’t eat delicious food. That’s probably an apt metaphor.

AE: What are you reading right now?

AS: I’m rereading Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. Although it feels like that book reads me. What a trip. Do you think he’ll see this? Hi, Jeff VanderMeer!

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

AS: I’m as new as anyone at this, but I try to do at least one of these four things each day: read, write, revise, submit. As long as you do one of those daily, you’re doing the work. Probably. What do I know?

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?

AS: Words are important to me, but I once won a lip sync battle singing a song without lyrics. It’s my greatest achievement to date. Also, if you’re wondering about the forty-eight-word title, it was “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father Many Years After We Last Spoke and Let It Go to Voicemail Where He Tells Me He Is in Fact My Estranged Father Who Is in Town and Who Would Like Me to Call Him Back as Soon as Possible.” Editors are important.

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

AS: I commit social-suicide by posting poetry stuff on Instagram. You can find me there @aarondsandberg.

Aaron Sandberg resides in Illinois, where he teaches. His recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, English Journal, Abridged, The Racket, Writers Resist, Yes Poetry, perhappened mag, Unbroken, and elsewhere. You might find him—though socially-distant—on Instagram @aarondsandberg.

Writing About Robots

by Christopher Mark Rose

There will be a long, difficult appraisal of speculative fiction when artificial intelligences begin to read it critically. I think about this a lot.

Firstly, I find the expression “artificial intelligence” pejorative, and I’m sure that later, electronic voices will join me in objecting to it. What exactly is “artificial” about it?

Among my early comic books, that is, the first reading materials I selected for myself, were several issues of Magnus, Robot Fighter—a human hero of 4000 A.D., who earned most of his heroism by, like it says in the title, punching and karate-chopping various out-of-(human)-control robots. An image that sticks with me, and is perhaps more telling than originally intended, is a cover illustration in which Magnus punches a robotic version of himself as it embraces him (Issue #2, Gold Key, 1963).

I’m ashamed to say that, at that indeliberate age, I savored those books. It was clear to me then, less so now, that there was no great malice animating Magnus’s actions. He bore no ill-will toward robots in general—in fact his mentor was kind and serene, a “freewill” robot who paradoxically adhered to Asimov’s three laws.

For at least one young reader, it was more about the thrill of watching the human protagonist smash up a lot of stuff. Robots in literature were then, as now, often a convenient and guilt-free target for human violence.

I also read “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, early in college, and it shocked me. I think it’s under-appreciated as a primal scream of pure emotion—raw, undiluted fear expressed in regard to machine intelligence.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them. It’s too late to stuff all those robot-hunter comic books under the bunkbed, it’s too late to burn all the copies of “I Have No Mouth.” It’s too late now, to rewrite Asimov’s Three Laws.

Often recently, I hear the sentiment, “History is watching us,” and I find this entirely backwards. History cares for us not at all; history rests, now, in peace. One hopes. But the future is certainly watching us—what we do, what we say, and most importantly, what we write. Almost none of it will go unconsidered, uncritiqued; and that’s a heavy thought. I feel my hands hovering over the keys, uncertain. Small authorial actions now may have big consequences down the line.

I wonder sometimes that there are, in so many times and places and languages, ghosts, the idea of them, and their stories, but in no culture that I am aware of is a name or folklore given for those spirits yet to be. Surely a time lies ahead when we will count the spirits of those who are built, not born, among that great unnamed host.

What is the opposite of ghost? Not “unborn” certainly. To mechanical or electrical beings, the word ‘born’ wouldn’t apply.

I thought, as I wrote “Sentient Being Blues” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], about how much of our language carried our unconscious human biases. The word “humanely” is a prime example, as is “robotically.” How much work lies ahead for us as we reappraise these choices in the presence of real machine intelligence! And I find that, paradoxically, the literature of speculative fiction, in which “artificial intelligence” is such a recurrent and central trope, seems at best oblivious to, and often much worse at, its consideration and handling of these choices. We indeed have much work to do.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the first appearance of robots in literature. Happy birthday, robots. The word comes from a Czech root that means “forced labor.”

Unsurprisingly, robots were invented first in fiction before being engineered into reality. I would argue that this is how almost everything must enter the world—first as fiction, only later as project.

Just as the western, as a writing genre, matured when it allowed Indigenous people to be full characters, speculative fiction grows richer and more thoughtful as it bestows full charactership to robots. Some beautiful and moving examples of that already exist, but it is far from uniform, or even prevalent.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them.

Let me also say upfront that I find it hard to believe a lot of the stories written from a robot’s point of view, even the most recent ones. I love those stories and their human authors, but that makes the stories no more credible.

The premise that we can simulate every mode of thought, or even describe it, in the framework of human narration, is itself suspect. The premium we pay for every robot point of view we fake is a little less ability to imagine the real thing.

That’s one reason why the point of view for “Sentient Being Blues” had to float over to Thom. His was a voice I could write; his was a point of view I could understand, or at least fake believably. An own-voice for me that I felt justified writing—that of an avaricious, unconcerned human. Thom has more of an arc, because he has farther to go, but it’s at its root a story about a robot, XJB, and how it is moved to create art to reduce human suffering, and how later it finds a safe haven in which to practice that art.

“Bluesman,” “postman,” “chairperson”—all these human-centered words will need to be changed one day soon. “Sentient Being Blues” is dedicated to Robert Belfour, who was a sentient being, surely, and a bluesman. I had gotten to listening obsessively to the two extant albums he recorded, and particularly during the Trump years, his voice, so truth-laden and powerful, spoke to me of the conditions in my own city, and the mood carried in the minds of the humans whose paths I crossed there.

I listened, as I crossed the difficult middle ground of creation, when I knew the characters were good, the story was good, but I could not arrive at a fitting ending. This was excruciating. But I am most pleased with my own stories when they “run away from me,” when the ending takes me somewhere different than I had initially envisioned; “Sentient Being Blues” is certainly one of those. This is the work that a reading audience is ostensibly paying us to do—what we are called to do, as writers—and anything less feels, and is, insufficient.

My beta readers, my thanks and God bless them all, can attest to my several failed attempts.

The assumptions we bring into stories are human assumptions, this ending says to me, and those assumptions won’t serve when we are confronted by actual machine intelligence. XJB is satisfied by the way things turn out, while we may not be.

But when we let go and admit the prospect of machine intelligence distinct from us, we lift ourselves up as well. Whose hands built these beautiful mechanisms, whose intelligence provided the first plans, the first spark? And don’t we want to share all that is beautiful and strange in this cosmos? Don’t we long for a partner to share our labors and joys?

I can also think of robot characters, written by humans, characters who are curious and truthful and passionate and kind, who are not just targets for human fears or rage. Those characters will speak for us, into the uncertain but fast-rushing future.

It’s too much to ask, to write a story that will make a robot cry. It will not be among their faculties, for a great many of them, at least. That is our fault. But I hope, to some small degree, that future readers of many kinds, kinds varied and wondrous, will hear a bit of themselves in XJB’s voice.

Christopher Mark Rose (curiousful.wordpress.com and Twitter @CChrisrose) lives in Baltimore with his spouse, two children, and one crazy dog. He is a founder of, and impresario for, Charm City Spec, a reading series in speculative fiction. The author’s own fiction has appeared in Escape Pod and Interzone; and he’s sold nonfiction and poetry to Uncanny and Little Blue Marble. Chris attended Viable Paradise XXIII, where teachers Max Gladstone and Daryl Gregory, along with Chris’s fellow students, performed a blues song written by XJB—the robot character in “Sentient Being Blues.”