The Spruce Goose, the Hollywood Stars, and America’s Nazis

Rick Wilber dives into the setting and inspiration for his story, “The Goose.” He discusses the historical background explored and retold within his work. Read his novella in our [July/August issue, on sale now!]

My novella, “The Goose,” in the July/August issue of Asimov’s, acts the part of a story about 1941 Hollywood and its celebrities, from movie stars and studio owners to baseball players, politicians and other famous Hollywood movers and shakers.  

It was fun to write, connecting my usual interest in baseball as a tool for storytelling with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in an era that I altered only slightly from the real thing. 

Howard Hughes was still making movies but seemed more interested in building airplanes in the early 1940s. hiring the best engineers and designers to work for his Hughes Aircraft Company and setting air speed records while also building the H-4 Hercules flying boat (also known as The Spruce Goose), the largest airplane on Earth in its day. I happily gave that great plane a significant place in the plot, and especially perceptive readers will remember that I’ve used the Spruce Goose before, in the story “At Palomar,” in this magazine back in 2013. I moved the first flight of the Goose forward some years to accommodate the story, but the plane and its flight characteristics are as realistic as I could make them.

Similarly, movie stars like Gene Autry and Barbara Stanwyck and George Burns really were part-owners of the Hollywood Stars Baseball Club, and they often showed up to watch their favorite team play at Gilmore Field. Afterward, they could celebrate the team’s wins or mourn the losses at the Hollywood Brown Derby, just down the road from the ballpark. There, over a Cobb Salad (invented by Bob Cobb himself, owner not only of the Brown Derby but also the person who put together the whole idea of celebrities being part owners of the baseball team), they might dissect the game with the players and coaches often in attendance, happy to hobnob over how well their team was doing. 

Hollywood was in its Golden Age in 1941 and so was baseball. As I wrote this novella, setting scenes at Gilmore Field and the Brown Derby and Long Beach Harbor  for the first flight of the Spruce Goose was great fun, made all the more enjoyable for my fictional version being not so far from the truth.   

But there’s another part of this story that’s also not far from the truth. Underneath all the glamour and magic of Hollywood in those years there was a dark upwelling of fascism. There  were plenty of people in America, and particularly in Southern California, who admired Hitler and the way he’d made Germany a world power again. Many, perhaps most, of these people also liked what he was doing to the Jews in Germany and thought that was something they should do to the Jews of Hollywood, especially  the Jewish studio heads and their many directors and producers and actors, who, in the fevered minds of these home-grown fascists, were destroying America with their evil money-making success trying to make propaganda films that warned of the Nazi menace and praised resistance to it. Good thing the German consul to Los Angeles, Georg Gyssling, made sure those films were changed to be less troublesome before they were released, else he’d ban them from distribution in Germany, Europe’s biggest market for films.


But there’s another part of this story that’s also not far from the truth. Underneath all the glamour and magic of Hollywood in those years there was a dark upwelling of fascism.


These self-styled fascist patriots were dangerous. They were armed and ready to do whatever Hitler asked of them, and he was ready to ask a lot. German freighters came into Long Beach regularly throughout the 1930s and up to December of 1941, and it was said that there was a Gestapo agent on every ship, bringing messages to people like Gyssling, who held real financial power over the studio heads; and to Henry Allen, a vicious loser in life who’d found a way to make much of himself by leading the Silver Shirts, an army of thugs and bullies wearing black pants and silver shirts who numbered in the thousands. 

Hitler has taken all of Europe that he cares to take, in this fictional take on things, but his Eastern front is in trouble as the Russians continue to bog down the Wermacht. Hitler would like Japan to open up another front to keep America busy, and occupying some of the Hawaiian Islands and attacking the West Coast of America with Admiral Yamamoto’s fleet was not out of the question. 

In my fictional version of 1941 in Southern California, the Hitler admirers are ready to do their part. They’ve been marching for years and holding rallies that drew thousands as they built their militias, the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund and the rest.  Now they’re ready now to do more, like killing the Jews in the movie industry, starting at the top with studio heads like Harry Warner and his brothers and my fictional studio mogul, Jacob Wise, who’s one of the heroes of this story.

And that was only part of the plan. In history as we know it and in my alternate retelling, the fascist militias also planned to sabotage the Southern California arms industry – the airplane factories and the shipyards, in particular – in the name of Hitler’s Reich. As the United States geared up for the coming war, the West Coast had become the pre-eminent arsenal of democracy, at least in warplane construction. More than half of America’s warplanes were being built right there in Southern California. Destroy them and it would open the door a little wider for Hitler and Mussolini and especially the Empire of Japan. There was even talk of a coup in Washington, D.C., where the government would be toppled and these patriots would put their own leaders in place, men who could be trusted to take action against America’s internal enemies and make peace with the fascists and the Japanese.     

It was only through the brave work of men like Jewish spymaster Leon Lewis and the brave men and women who worked with him, like Grace and Sylvia Comfort, that the plans of these would-be patriots were uncovered and thwarted.

Lewis was, in our reality, the single individual most responsible for thwarting the Silver Shirts, the Bund and others in Southern California. He is the star figure in the excellent book (and Pulitzer Prize finalist), Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America by Steven J. Ross, which I leaned on heavily for an understanding of the Nazi plots and of the courage and integrity of Leon Lewis. My fictional version of Lewis hews close to real life.

The Comforts, Grace and her daughter Sylvia, were recruited by Leon Lewis to infiltrate the fascists group in Los Angeles and they both did so with great courage. In the archives of the Los Angeles Times you can find an excellent article on these two amazing and courageous women: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1999-apr-18-me-28616-story.html

Of course I always enjoy writing my fictional version of the famous baseball player and World War II spy, Moe Berg, who’s known as Archie Miller for most of this story. And Archie’s spy handler has her usual major role in this story, too. She’s named Eddie Bennett here, and she’s crucial in stopping the fascists, along with Billie the Kid Davis, the talented teenage who first appeared in her own story in Asimov’s in the November/December 2021 issue. 

So this is a story about fascism’s appeal to many Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, and how we can hear the echoes of that appeal even today.    

As I am for all the Moe Berg stories, I am indebted to the excellent biography, The Catcher Was a Spy, by Nicholas Dawidoff for an understanding of Berg’s quirky personality, his baseball talent, his successes as a spy, and much more. The book made for a pretty good movie, too, with Paul Rudd doing an excellent job of playing Berg.

I am also indebted to the fine book, “Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America,” by Steven J. Ross, and indebted, as well, to another very fine book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” by Neal Gabler.  

—Rick Wilber


Rick Wilber has written about his fictional version of famous baseball player and World War II spy Moe Berg often in this magazine. In his new story, set in a slightly alternate 1941 Hollywood, Moe and his handler, the mysterious Eddie Bennett, are assigned to stop America’s homegrown fascists from destroying Southern California’s defense industry and murdering Jewish movie moguls. The Spruce Goose plays a critical role, as do a number of Hollywood celebrities, Pacific Coast League baseball players, a talented teenage girl shortstop named Billie Davis, and the villainous Georg Gyssling, the German consul to Los Angeles whose job it was to keep the restive studios sympathetic to Hitler’s Reich. Rick points out that most of the villains in this story are based on real fascist sympathizers who really were plotting a kind of insurrection in California in the months before Pearl Harbor.

Q&A With Jonathan Sherwood

Read as Jonathan Sherwood discusses wonder, his unconventional writing process, and advise on how to counter writers block and more. You can find his newest story, “Retrocausity” in our [July/August issue, on sale now!]

Asimov Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Jonathan Sherwood: I’m in love with the feeling of wonder. I’ve come to realize it’s the main reason I read or write at all, and while most genres explore the wonder of being human in some capacity, only science fiction also explores the inherent wonder of the universe we live in. In our daily lives, we necessarily think in such limited ways—I need to go to work; when I step on the accelerator my car goes faster; my hand doesn’t go through the doorknob. But when you step back for a moment and realize that the very universe you’re interacting with every moment is behaving in bizarre, inexplicable, utterly counterintuitive ways, you start getting that feeling of wonder in every moment again. When you stop to consider the fact that both your hand and the door are 99% empty space yet still refuse to pass through each other, the world seems a little more crazy and delightful. When I think about how we’re not exactly sure what gravity is, or what consciousness is, or why the universe exists at all, I find it makes my outlook on life, literally, wonderful.
Retrocausality came about because of two wild ideas in physics: 
First, there’s quantum entanglement. In a nutshell, two entangled particles can be separated by a huge distance—even the entire width of the universe—and yet they’ll still influence each other instantaneously. We have no idea how this is possible since we can’t detect any mechanism at work and nothing can travel faster than light anyway, but we have some wonderfully bizarre hypotheses. One hypothesis is retrocausality. Perhaps, somehow, when one particle is disturbed it doesn’t communicate with the other particle instantaneously, but instead it carries that disturbance backward in time to the point where the two particles were first entangled together. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s no more ridiculous than any other hypothesis put forth to explain the behavior of entangled particles.
Second, it’s been noted that antimatter behaves very much like regular matter if you were to play the film backwards, so to speak. Scientists have asked, could it be that antimatter is just regular matter going backwards in time?
So, one day I wondered if it would be possible to combine those two ideas, essentially entangling one particle of regular matter with one particle of antimatter that’s already traveling backwards in time. The more I toyed with the thought experiment, the more disturbing the possible results became.
The story then deals with the implications of running such an experiment. What’s the fallout? How does someone deal with the consequences? What are the questions it raises and how do we as failable people cope with understanding the universe in a fundamentally new way?

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story? What is your history with Asimov’s?
JS: Asimov’s was my unquestioned first choice. In 2006, Asimov’s published my first science fiction story, Under the Graying Sea. Much like Retrocausality, that story dealt with how we deal with some of the universe’s unflinching laws of physics.
I planned to follow up Under the Graying Sea immediately, but I had started a family, went back to school, and started a new career, and trying to write on top of that was just too much for me to juggle.
So, fifteen years later, I found I had the time again to write and the first piece I pulled together was Retrocausality.
Asimov’s strikes that sweet-spot balance for me between science and humanity in science fiction. The scientific conundrum creates that sense of wonder, but its purpose is ultimately to provide a setting in which the characters do the actual work of playing out the story. Reading about some bizarre bit of physics in Scientific American or New Scientist is a lot of fun, but reading about characters you truly empathize with as they struggle to deal with the implications of that crazy conundrum is satisfying on a personal level.
The field of science fiction is blessed to have magazines that run the gamut of science-light/character-heavy, and science-heavy/character-light. Asimov’s has always struck an attractive balance for me by making sure both halves are fully represented.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JS: I’ve just completed my first novel, Shadow on the Deep Black Sea. It’s about how the universe itself seems to be having an immune response to humans, and how we fight for our survival while we question whether we are something special, or are a cancer on creation.
I’m quite pleased with how it’s turned out. It’s definitely the most page-turning piece of work I’ve written, and it plays on the same themes I’ve talked about above—the strangeness of the universe we live in, and our struggles to understand who we are when confronted with it. I have a pair of writing groups that gave me fantastic feedback, and by the time this is published I should have the revision finished and ready for the marketplace. You can keep posted on its progress via my website or Twitter info below.
I’ve also served as an assistant editor to Asimov’s alumnus Pete Wood on an anthology coming out this fall called The Odin Chronicles. It’s an homage to The Martian Chronicles where we’ve asked eight authors to write 30 stories about people living in a mining settlement on a planet called Odin III. The stories are varied in styles and themes, but still intertwine with one another. It should be out this fall as an ebook.
And I have some more short stories in the hopper I’ll be sending to Asimov’s soon.


When you stop to consider the fact that both your hand and the door are 99% empty space yet still refuse to pass through each other, the world seems a little more crazy and delightful. When I think about how we’re not exactly sure what gravity is, or what consciousness is, or why the universe exists at all, I find it makes my outlook on life, literally, wonderful.


AE: What is your process?
JS: Okay, I think about the process of writing a lot. Probably a little obsessively.
Most writers identify as being either a “plotter” or a “pantser.” A plotter is someone who lays out the story in detail before they start writing. A pantser is someone who has only a rough idea, or sometimes no idea, of what the story will be when they start writing. They write by the seat of their pants and invent the story as they go.
I find pantsing to be more fun, but I’m almost always a hardcore plotter. I usually don’t start unless I know every single thing that’s going to happen. I have one novel outline that’s 30,000 words long—a quarter of the actual completed novel length. That doesn’t mean things won’t evolve as I write, but I know what I’m going to write at every step because…
I usually start at the end.
I don’t actually write backwards, but I usually start with the endpoint I want to take the reader to. I have a concept, usually a crazy scientific idea, and I think about what fascinates me most about it, especially what fascinates me most about its implications. To use the hand-and-doorknob example again, what if you could exploit the fact that they’re both 99% empty space? What would that mean? What larger societal issues would be impacted? How would that change your own life? And maybe most importantly, how would you feel when all this happens?
And then I figure out what kind of situation would bring about the impact of that ending and what kind of characters are needed to create the emotion of that moment, and I work that all backwards until I have a roadmap of how to get from some beginning setup and a character at one end of their arc, to that final moment. To me, that final moment is the entire purpose of the story, and while I certainly want the story to be entertaining along the way, everything needs to be in service of that last moment.
Once I have that all sketched out, the writing is mostly about making the actual language and rhythm engaging as the story moves toward its end.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
JS: I have a theory about writer’s block.
I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve seen this advice work for others.
When I feel like I have writer’s block, it’s always because of one thing: I don’t like the previous bit I’ve written. 
I think when most writers are writing, even if they say they aren’t self-editing, they’re still weighing the merit of their words as they go. It’s sort of like building a house, and your subconscious mind knows if your foundation isn’t going to support the next floor you want to put on it. Maybe you wrote a character’s personality in a way you just don’t like, or maybe your previous plot points aren’t satisfying, or maybe the language in which you wrote the previous scene wasn’t up to your standards. 
Usually, the sub-par bit of writing is literally the last thing you wrote—the last scene or pages. Science fiction authors are brimming with ideas, so it’s not likely that the problem is that you don’t have an idea of what to do next.
So my advice is to go back to the last thing you felt really good about, and see if the writing that comes after that is really up to your standards and producing the effect you want it to.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
JS: Yes! Get a good writer’s group!
By far, the best advice I can give is to find a group of writers that are like-minded, competent, supportive, and dedicated. You can find them online, and you can probably find them locally (I helped start a small organization called R-SPEC specifically to help writers find and support each other in the Rochester, NY area).
A good group of writers does not seek to tear down your work, but to point out possible flaws and offer thoughtful solutions. Likewise, a good group isn’t there just as a cheerleader. You may have to try a number of groups to find one that will give you the tough love that will improve your writing. Don’t be afraid to leave a group that isn’t working for you.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
JS: Though I work in finance now, I was a science writer for a research university for about 12 years, and I still do occasional freelance science writing.
My job at the university was to interview scientists about their work and write about it in a way that would (hopefully) be interesting to general readers. I realized how great a job it was one day as I was driving home thinking about how I’d spent three hours in the morning with a geneticist, and three hours in the afternoon with a physicist. I was exhausted, but I was full of that sense of wonder about how amazing the world is at its very roots.
And really, my aim in science fiction writing is to spread that exact feeling: The world we live in is overflowing with wonders. Enjoy it.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
JS: I have a website at JonathanSherwood.com, and on Twitter @jonathsherwood


Jonathan Sherwood has written about science and scientists for research universities for more than two decades, and science fiction for even longer. He holds a bachelors in science writing from Cornell University and an MA in English from the University of Rochester. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, and others, and he has just completed his first science fiction novel, Shadow on the Deep Black Sea.

Cosmic Shadows Upon A Lit Screen

Megha Spinel talks about the grounding truths of life and its resemblance to the mangrove tree. The large roots that work to support every aspect of the world around us, connecting existence into a living system. Read on to discover why “The Secret of Silphium” [on sale now] could never have been about Megha’s tree….

For the past 8 months, I have been studying a mangrove tree. I’ve made detailed graphs about the way water flows up from the roots and transpires out of the leaves in the sunlight, I know exactly how the trunk swells and shrinks as water moves up and down horizontal gradients created by the presence and absence of sugars in the internal vessels, I know what happens to my tree on sunny days and cloudy days and the all days in between them. I know the new cells burst into growth suddenly and joyfully when rain brings freshwater to the brackish, sandy ground thick with tangling roots, both fine and thick, both living and dead.

Continue reading “Cosmic Shadows Upon A Lit Screen”

Q&A With Josh Pearce

Poetry has fascinated Josh Pearce since childhood, when a teacher explained to him the meaning of a line in “America the Beautiful.” Since then, Josh has gone from writing on the backs of Jamba Juice receipts, to getting published in a range of magazines. Read his new poem “Mare Serenitatis,” which he calls a “secular take on the Serenity Prayer,” in our [July/August issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: How did this poem germinate?
Josh Pearce: It’s a secular take on the Serenity Prayer—if you’re flying to the moon, you’re putting your faith in something larger than yourself: thousands of engineers; impossibly long manufacturing chains; complicated software; esoteric math and astronomical calculations; national attitude toward science and subsequent funding.
But you’re also putting faith in your own abilities and training. The Serenity Prayer encapsulates that balance, so when I was looking for a framework to hang a poem about Mare Serenitatis on, it fell together fairly easily.

Continue reading “Q&A With Josh Pearce”

The Therapeutic Value of “Writing What You Know”

by Zack Be

Zack Be has extensive experience playing gig after gig as a touring musician, and his latest story is inspired by all of the road-weary bands, singers, and performers who must eventually ask themselves: Will we ever make it big? Read “Meryl’s Cocoon” in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

If you travel in creative writing circles you’ll constantly hear the phrase “write what you know.” It’s said both ironically and unironically, with either derision or approval (but almost always certainty) as authors wrestle with the scope of what topics they think they can write about with any sense of verisimilitude. I shudder to think that in this very blog post, in its very first sentence, I’ve fallen prey to dragging out that dusty old creative writing class discussion yet again. Still, I can’t escape the fact that writing “Meryl’s Cocoon”—which appears in Asimov’s May/June 2022 issue—involved me intensively “writing what I know,” and by extension, helped me to gain a deeper understanding of “what I know” by forcing me to process it on the page.

The story centers on a pair of musicians barely surviving as they navigate the rigorous touring schedule of their small-time band. As a small-time gigging musician myself with a background in running DIY house shows out of my garage, I’ve played, toured, hosted, and attended countless shows just like the ones Nia and Brit play and/or reminisce about in the story. Just like Nia and Brit, I’ve seen the world around my music scene change over the years; or at least, I’ve felt the scene change, perhaps as a function of my own aging and the jadedness that comes with it. 

Change is inevitable—people come and go from the music scene, as do trends, venues, platforms, and one’s own stomach for the labor of staying involved. However, no matter how the ornamentation melts and reforms, there remains a subcutaneous energy that drives the operation forward, stalwart as ever, desperately pushing people to make something meaningful out of nothing (that’s the DIY spirit, after all). But most can’t live on that energy alone. As much as this story is about the love of the scene and the spirit that oils its gears, it’s also about growing up and, with great effort, recognizing the right time to let go. 

These days, I spend the bulk of my time toiling in the PhD mines and working as a psychotherapist. But does that mean I’m giving up on my music? Not so fast. 

“Meryl’s Cocoon” is a sort of love letter to all my musician friends around the world and especially those in the Washington D.C. area who continue to climb the mountain. I hope every musician who reads “Meryl’s Cocoon” sees a bit of their story in Nia and Brit. Back-breaking load-ins before shows, empty crowds, hype-beast bands trying to network after your set, back-breaking load-outs after shows, long rides in the van between venues that decouple you from reality and generate existential malaise—it’s all here, folks, plus SFnal robots. It just so happens that trying to capture the truth of these moments also means being upfront about the self-doubt musicians experience as they become increasingly self-aware of the potential limits of their lifestyle. As Nia finds out, sometimes it is the right time to pivot, and detailing this piece of the story became a much more intensive process of “writing what I know” than I initially intended. In order to make the story honest for the reader, I needed to be honest with myself about what music means to me, and connect with the part of myself that has lost faith in the music life as I matured. 

The raw material to be this honest was present, but from a writing craft perspective, my closeness to the characters of “Meryl’s Cocoon” also left me snowblind at times while I tried to “write what I know.” This is one of those stories that jostled around in the back of my head for years before I actually sat down to start drafting, in part because I did not know where to begin. Some of my creative writing mentors are probably groaning as they read this, cracking their knuckles over their keyboards as they prepare to tell me in the comments that this was a completely unnecessary period of gestation. And guess what? They are probably right, but there were many times before I started writing that I felt truly overwhelmed by my proximity to these experiences and the desire to do them justice. Much like the bedroom music producer who can never seem to stop tinkering and release his long-delayed cloud rap album, “Meryl’s Cocoon” inadvertently became a story I was telling myself for years before I sent it off to Asimov’s.

I did not expect my attempts to do these feelings justice on the page would expand my understanding of those feelings within myself. We often think of “write what you know” as a maxim for writers to follow for the purpose of improving the reader’s experience. If you write what you know, then the authenticity will flow. From there, authors like to argue about whether or not they can write a convincing firefighter character without having been one themselves. 


It just so happens that trying to capture the truth of these moments also means being upfront about the self-doubt musicians experience as they become increasingly self-aware of the potential limits of their lifestyle.


At a deeper level, however, it seems that “write what you know” provides an author with the opportunity to process their world and their experiences. Putting words on the page, one after another in a long unbroken linear string, forces us to take the chaotic cloud of abstract thoughts and feelings that floats above our heads all day, squeeze it down, and reformat it piece by piece into a coherent explanation of our inner worlds.

Now you might be thinking, “this process sounds eerily similar to therapy.” Well, it is! But in the realm of fiction—and especially speculative fiction—this process is uniquely different from journaling, a classic psychotherapy tool. Fiction writing can be completely untethered from reality in the way it allows us to play with the parts of ourselves we bring to it far beyond the frame of a personal journal. 

Here’s an SAT analogy: “Writing what you know” is to play therapy as journaling is to talk therapy. Both kids and adults “play,” writing fiction is a form of “play,” and any form of play can be play therapy. Playing frees us to engage with ideas in ways we never thought possible, and by extension, see new parts of ourselves. Just like a child’s pretend play as a fireman may help them to understand what a fireman is, so too does an author’s depiction of vengeful mistresses in the Royal Martian Court offer that author an opportunity to wrestle with their own understanding of vengeance (and infidelity?) in their lives. “Write what you know” is not a boundary within which authors must write, but instead it is an invitation to authors to draw what we know up into the boundless expanses of our imagination and process it via play.

I’ve spent the entirety of my adult life going to, playing, and hosting shows in my local music community, as well as producing music. The scene can be transcendent, beautiful, joyless, and unforgiving, scraping all the highs and lows of the creative experience in a single night, if not over the course of a single set, or even a song. “Writing what I know” about this experience, and the experience of music itself, has helped me to understand this corner of my life in a way that was previously inaccessible. Raising it into the realm of fantasy offered me the unique opportunity to see it from new sides and add new dimensions to my sense of self. Whether your story takes place on Titan, or in a pocket dimension full of space whales, or right here on Earth on tour with a rock band trying to survive the impending machine singularity, there is an opportunity for any author to process a part of themselves through prose. “Write what you know” may be a dusty chestnut indeed, but its endless regurgitation speaks to a deeper value many of us ignore. 

Getting to tell these stories in “Meryl’s Cocoon” was a treat, and for what it’s worth, I hope my musician friends continue to live this life and make the best music hiding under the average listener’s nose for as long as they can (see some local DC suggestions at the bottom).  

Some artists you might not know:

Color Palette – https://colorpalette.bandcamp.com/

Lightmare – https://lightmare.bandcamp.com/

The North Country – https://thenorthcountry.bandcamp.com/

Spring Silver – https://springsilver.bandcamp.com/

Darryl Rahn – https://darrylrahn.bandcamp.com/

Oh He Dead – https://www.ohhedead.com/

Near Northeast – https://nearnortheast.bandcamp.com/

Garrett Gleason – https://garrett-gleason.bandcamp.com/

Pretty Bitter – https://prettybitter.bandcamp.com/


Zack Be is an author, musician, and family and couples therapist who lives in the Washington, D.C. area. His work has previously appeared in Asimov’s, and has won the Writers of the Future story contest.

Stringing Pearls

Ursula Whitcher’s new story “The Last Tutor” is inspired by memories of her great aunt Beattie, who led a colorful yet mysterious life. Find “The Last Tutor” in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

by Ursula Whitcher

The author’s maternal grandfather’s family in Shanghai, ca. 1910s, with her great aunt seated to the left (courtesy of the author)

I want to make one thing clear up front: the family in “The Last Tutor” is not my family. The protagonist, Isekendriya, has two abusive parents: their father is willfully ignorant, their mother overtly cruel. I’m not above using fiction to work out how I feel about real problems, but that’s not what I’m doing here: I made the whole nasty tangle up.

But sometimes you don’t write to reproduce yourself. Sometimes you write to imagine a context where someone like you could exist. That’s a maxim I picked up from Heather Rose Jones, who uses it to describe her alternate-history Alpennia series, which is focused on lesbian relationships and women’s community in a nineteenth century that never was. I’ve used some of the same strategies to create the far-future planet of Nakharat and the people who live there.

When I was inventing Nakharat, I was thinking about family, specifically my mother’s father’s family. Let me tell you about my great-aunt Beattie. Beattie was born in Shanghai in 1907. She was the youngest in a family of many sisters and one brother (my great-grandfather). I have exactly one photo of her: she’s the tiny girl sitting on a pillar and wearing a bow that’s almost as big as her head.

I met Beattie only once, when she was in her eighties and I was about eight. I was almost as tall as she was. Beattie had flown to California and taken the Greyhound all the way to Oklahoma, wearing her favorite necklace, a piece of gold from the Chinese mint strung on a silken cord. In Oklahoma, she collected my grandfather and forced him to take her to McDonald’s.

I didn’t want to go to McDonald’s myself⁠—I was a weird kid who preferred dim sum and frog’s legs⁠—but making my grandfather go there was an astonishing feat. Gus inhabited the role of an English gentleman with the stubbornness of a former commando and the meticulousness of someone whose Englishness had often been questioned. But Beattie, though his youngest aunt, was still his aunt. She didn’t have to play along. I expect she enjoyed my grandfather’s protests nearly as much as the French fries.


But sometimes you don’t write to reproduce yourself. Sometimes you write to imagine a context where someone like you could exist.


Gus and Beattie drove from Oklahoma to Baltimore, where my family lived. We all went to the Chinese grocery store, where Beattie insisted on buying a canned rice pudding, which she described as economical and delicious. My sister and I hid it in the lowest cupboard.

Beattie never inflicted the pudding on us: she was too busy teaching us how to string pearls. With a necklace of real pearls, you need a knot between each bead, so that if the string breaks, the pearls will not scatter and be lost. We used ordinary beads for practice, but Beattie told me approvingly that I would never lack a trade: I was now prepared for pearl-smuggling.

That was the family story: Beattie was a smuggler. Anecdotes collected around her, the way another woman might have collected scarves. I can’t tell you what she dealt in when, or what laws she skirted, with a fact-checker’s precision. I do know her ventures included importing wine. Before the Chinese Civil War, she sold liquor to the Shanghai Club, though she was doubly barred from club membership, because she was a woman and because she was mixed race. Later, trading on her expertise in French fashion, Beattie founded a dress shop in Hong Kong. And of course she had many opinions about the quality of pearls.

Like my great-aunt Beattie, my character Isekendriya’s forebears were gleeful capitalists. Their grandfather, for example, “had walked off the steppe, chosen a name meaning ‘ruler of rulers,’ and refactored Fountain Company security for half the continent.” 

Ise shares something else with their grandfather, and with Beattie: a sense of momentum. As a smart kid in ’80s and ’90s suburbia, I learned a lot of strategies for deflecting attention. I was quiet, cautious, eccentric only in unthreatening ways. I’d slide through social situations as smoothly as possible, so I could go back to reading a book. Ise does exactly none of these things. Sometimes they won’t get along; sometimes they can’t. They respond to conflict in one way: running toward it as fast as possible.

When writing Ise, I had to take the brakes off. I lent them layers of bossiness, stubbornness, and inexorability that I’d forgotten I possessed. I got much better at noticing when I was angry or terrified⁠—those aren’t feelings that Ise slides around. 

That’s the weird thing about inventing imaginary places. Sometimes, if you build a place where you might exist, your sense of your own self expands. I’m not planning a career smuggling jewels. But somehow, I don’t feel as cautious as I used to.


Ursula Whitcher is a mathematician and associate editor at Mathematical Reviews who also writes speculative fiction and poetry. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Cossmass Infinities, and Goblin Fruit.

Q&A With Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a writer of science fiction and fantasy whose work is deeply concerned with the implications of power. In his latest story, Ekpeki brings readers to a future Lagos, his home city, where he casts a critical eye on problems he witnesses today. We are pleased to feature “Destiny Delayed,”in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki: “Destiny Delayed” was inspired by a practice in Southern Nigeria where female children are given away, permanently, by their parents to settle loans or long standing debts they can no longer settle.
In Northern Nigeria child brides marriage is a thing as well. So these cases of spending the lives of young female children as currency was something that inspired my story.

AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
ODE: Aside from child bride marriages and loan settlement practices with girl children, Nigeria’s toxic and exploitative corporate practices also inspired this story. One day the two ideas collided and I decided to merge all the above issues to critique and examine them in my fiction.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
ODE: Hardly any of my stories are stand alone. I feel that the beauty and major work in a story is realized in short stories. Creating the world, premise, main characters. And it always seems like a waste discarding all that after just making a short story with them. Hence my shorts usually have an extension or expansion. More going on with the same characters, the world. Much like my Ife-Iyoku short story that became the novella Ife-Iyoku, Tale of Imadeyunuagbon and is becoming a trilogy. This story is no different. I envision it as a multiple book series, seven books at the moment, with the series title, The Seven Destinies or Nyerhovwo. Each book taking place in a different African country, with the series an exploration of African lore and geography as the main character here journeys in search of her destinies across the breadth of the African continent.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
ODE: I can relate with almost everybody in it. The banker who has to get mixed up in the sordid world of corporate theft and exploitation to survive. The father who has to make horrid sacrifices because he thinks he sees and has no better options. I can relate with all the characters really. Which I believe is the job of the writer. To tell their story, I have to see through their eyes, walk in their shoes and even wear their skin. Metaphorically speaking of course. I have no literal experience of doing what they did. But I understand the desperation, and some of the emotions that lead there. And that’s something that comes extra easy being that I live in the very city the story is set in. The reality, not far from the fictional.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
ODE: It comes from the popular saying “Destiny can be delayed but not denied.” It’s something that’s often thrown around here. And I thought about the saying a lot. It’s used to excuse a lot of horrid things happening here, a form of consolation. Cold comfort if you ask me. Because sometimes “delaying” a “destiny” is damaging enough and one may never recover from that damage. So I thought to explore the literal interpretation of the saying, as SFF often does. What if destinies were tangible or at least could be interacted with, could be harnessed, delayed? What would be the implications of that? The story and people behind it, in an urban, modern setting, the commercial hub of the most populous African nation. This is why I intend further books in the world, to explore fully the loss of that destiny on the main character and how they deal with that loss and the journey it takes them on, dealing and processing its true meaning for them.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
ODE: Asimov’s has always been my dream venue for science fiction, if not the dream venue for it generally. And this story is very much science fiction. My brand of science fiction; mundane, genre bending, and flavoured with African elements and Nigerian elements, from where it’s set. So naturally I thought Asimov’s would be a great fit for it.


What if destinies were tangible or at least could be interacted with, could be harnessed, delayed. What would be the implications of that?


AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
ODE: My fiction tends to be hyper realistic. At least my science fiction. And even when not, to interrogate issues in the real world and have themes that do. My BSFA, Nebula finalist, climate fiction novelette O2 Arena did that. “Destiny Delayed” like it is set in present to near future Lagos so it, like that story, is as close to current events and happenings in our society as possible. This is to give an accurate enough representation that even people who have not been there can have a strong enough measure of the truths being told and events being portrayed.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
ODE: The most dominant for me is power. Power in its entirety. Its effects— misuse, lack, effect of its lack, the processes taken to obtain it, the results of those efforts, the results and cost, the effect of its being obtained and the uses to which it’s put by the formerly powerless when they do eventually obtain it. It’s a subject that I find myself returning to, perhaps because of the state of powerlessness I find myself as a Black, African, disabled writer on a continent that’s been enslaved, colonized, and exploited for centuries and continues to be. There’s also toxic capitalism, gender and racial issues, illness and disability, marginalizations generally, and more

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
ODE: Food and drink. Especially chocolate. Those can usually force my creativity out no matter what or when. And change in environment, scenery. Also, peace of mind, resulting from financial and other security helps too.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
ODE: A number of projects. You’ll find out soon enough. *Wink wink*

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
ODE: Craft is good. But it usually and unfortunately takes up all the space in a writer’s process. Beyond the writing craft, writers, especially marginalized writers, should give some thought to the other aspects of writing. Like publishing. How and where they want their works to come out and appear. The kind of editors, agents and publishers they want and how to obtain those in a world that will try its utmost to deny them anything good. As it will take deliberate effort to break through the wall of marginalizations that lies between them and their dreams. And having that at the back of your mind as you create isn’t bad. It can help to streamline things to the direction you want to go. Pay attention to the industry you are in.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
ODE: I’ve been submitting to Asimov’s since 2017 when I started submitting to SFF mags. I’ve sent in nearly every piece I’ve written since then. I always felt my chances of getting in were slim, since I had no science background and it was considered the premier science fiction venue. I felt that would show in and affect my work and chances of getting in. But it remained a dream, what I considered my biggest challenge because of my non-science background. So I persevered. And the rest is history as you can see. Perhaps destiny really can never be denied, even if it can be delayed, as they say. *grin*

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL . . .)
ODE: Website: https://odekpeki.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/penprince_
Instagram: https://instagram.com/penprince


Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an author who currently resides in Lagos, Nigeria. His work has preciously appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and elsewhere. In addition to winning the African Speculative Fiction Society’s Nommo Award for his short story “The Witching Hour,” Ekpeki is the first African novelist whose work became a Nebula Award Finalist with his novella Ife-Iyoku, the Tale of Imadeyunuagbon

Q&A With Vikram Ramakrishnan

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.


Vikram Ramakrishnan is an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania and enthusiastic member of Odyssey Writing Workshop’s class of 2020, where he received the Walter & Kattie Metcalf Scholarship. He is the winner of the 17th Annual Gival Short Story Award. His stories have been published or are forthcoming in Meridian, Eclectica, and Dark Matter Magazine. “The Abacus and the Infinite Vessel” is his first story for Asimov’s.

Q&A With Andrea Kriz

Writer and biologist Andrea Kriz discusses some of her favorite anime series, along with her passion for the French Resistance in this enlightening interview. Check out her new story “The Leviathan and the Fury” in [May/June issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?
Andrea Kriz: The spark was something I think many people who study the history of the French Resistance wonder—what if the tragedy of Jean Moulin hadn’t happened? What would the future of France have looked like then? I couldn’t find any stories that tackled such an alternate history (but would love to read them—if you know of any and you’re reading this, let me know via Twitter or my website!) so I attempted to write one myself. But it never quite worked. Every time I changed something, something else fell into place to create the exact same outcome. I realized that this was a classic set-up for a time loop story. Who would, if they had the power, most want to repeat that time period and change what happened? What parts of the future would and wouldn’t change?
Another spark was the anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica (warning, spoilers for the series). Madoka made me realize how truly horrifying repeating the same events over and over again, with the aim of saving one “unsavable” person, would actually be. Once hope of an “easy fix” fades, an almost-scientific approach would be needed, altering variable by variable to gradually get closer to the goal. Just like a player speedrunning a video game, the time-looper must decide who or what’s an acceptable sacrifice while not losing sight of who they’re trying to save, and the reason they’re trying to save that person in the first place… and I think that touches on the history of the history of the French Resistance, what that narrative means to different people, and how certain figures have become symbols, which might be immutable no matter what.

AE: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
AK: Not necessarily a larger universe, but this story is linked to two others I wrote: “Resistance in a Drop of DNA”
(https://clarkesworldmagazine.com/kriz_08_21/)
and The Last Caricature of Jean Moulin (https://dailysciencefiction.com/science-fiction/time-travel/andrea-kriz/the-last-caricature-of-jean-moulin). I wrote the other two first, and I see “The Leviathan and the Fury” as the thematic ending to the trio.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
AK: The narrator sees himself as monstrous at this point, after repeating his years in the French Resistance countless times. He’s made every possible sacrifice and witnessed (if not indirectly orchestrated) every horrific outcome just to see what happens, how that impacts the future. But nobody he interacts with can see the person he’s become as a result of that trauma. They only see him on the surface-level, the person he was in the original timeline. The ‘monster’ beneath that surface—that’s the leviathan. The fury is the spark of what if. And the fact the narrator attributes his time-looping power to not just the fury but also the leviathan, what he sees as his true self and feelings, is the crux of the story and the realization he has at the end.
The title as a whole is a reference to The Sorrow and the Pity, which is a documentary directed by Marcel Ophuls about the German Occupation of France. A man in that documentary is asked about his strongest feelings during the Occupation and he answers “sorrow and pity.”

AE: You mentioned anime—can you talk more about which shows inspired you and what you’re watching now?
AK: Like a lot of kids, growing up I watched Gundam and Sailor Moon on Toonami, and Pokémon, which got me hooked on the science fiction and fantasy genres. Later I watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, which basically shattered every pre-existing conception I had of what science fiction could be or the kind of story that can be told in a science fiction setting. I actually didn’t like it at first because of the ending (if you know, you know), but I still think about it years later (and am so glad we also got a satisfying ending with 3.0+1.0). What Evangelion nailed for me was telling a deeply human story with and about aliens and giant fighting robots and the children forced to pilot them. No matter how ridiculous the set-up, I want to do the same in my stories.
More recently, I really enjoyed Eighty-Six, an anime that takes place in a Republic, which forces members of the non-ruling race to fight in a never-ending war. One of the protagonists is a remote “handler” for these conscripted soldiers, an idealistic woman who insists she isn’t racist and cares about those under her command. The other protagonist is the leader of the squad under her command, who drove the previous handler insane. It’s an intense deconstruction of armchair activism, the savior trope, how democracies become deeply flawed and what changing that from within actually looks like.


What I’ve found most important is letting yourself write what you want to write, even if it seems weird or like no one would understand why you’d want to write about that (after all, who would’ve guessed a biologist would be writing about the French Resistance . . .).


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
AK: Often it’s going back to the spark of the story and thinking about if the work-in-progress is losing steam because it’s straying from that, if bringing it back to that will help move things along. Or taking a break and writing something fun and unrelated. Finally, remembering that any progress—even moving a punctuation mark, or just thinking about the work-in-progress—is progress and that’s moving forward.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
AK: I found that the scientific journal Nature actually published flash fiction on its last page in its Nature Futures section (which continues online now). Back then, I hadn’t even known it was possible to write a science fiction story in such a short space! I started writing flash myself, had my first piece accepted by Nature Futures . . . and here I am now.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
AK: I actually think way too much about living in the Pokémon world, probably because I spent so much time playing Pokémon games growing up. If anyone is interested, my Pokémon team would include Dragonite (flying and battling) and Poliwag (so freaking cute!).

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
AK: Don’t feel like you have to write about a certain topics because that’s where your expertise or background is. Not to say it’s not wonderful to write science fiction that draws on your expertise or background—but I’ve found that because these things are so personal they can actually be more difficult to draw inspiration from. And this was frustrating for me, especially when I first started writing. Be patient with yourself. What I’ve found most important is letting yourself write what you want to write, even if it seems weird or like no one would understand why you’d want to write about that (after all, who would’ve guessed a biologist would be writing about the French Resistance . . .). And if you want to write stories based on your expertise and background, those will come too. Write them on your own terms. Don’t let anyone tell you that readers will only be interested in your story if you write about x in y way because you’re z.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
AK: I’m a biologist. I recently got my PhD and am now working as a research fellow, studying the epigenetics of human neurodevelopment. I’ve found both doing science and writing science fiction require creativity—albeit channeling it in different ways. When I come up with an imaginative idea in my science career, I then work on experiments to either support or disprove that hypothesis. If the hypothesis is not supported, its gets discarded and replaced with a hypothesis consistent with the data. But in fiction, even if the idea is not plausible I can sometimes write a story based on it, I can create a world and society where that idea is plausible.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
AK: You can find me on Twitter @theworldshesaw and online at https://andreakriz.wordpress.com/


Andrea Kriz is a writer and biologist from the greater Boston area. Her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed Magazine, and Fireside Magazine.

Dreaming “Aurora”

The world of sleep is both fantastical and fleeting, but can be the source of some of our greatest creative ideas. In this blog post, Michael Cassutt discusses the dream that inspired his story “Aurora.” Read it in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]

by Michael Cassutt

I’ve been writing fiction for a long time, easily fifty years, and have had story concepts find me in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s through a song lyric, at other times it’s a passing phrase. Frequently it’s an image in a magazine or on-line.

I’ve also gotten ideas from other fiction, seeing some SF notion and deciding, in my infinite wisdom, that it was wrong or incomplete, and that I could do better. (I’m actually writing one of those now.)

Almost all of these inspirations are gifts. I’ve never been in the position where I’ve had to brute force an idea for an SF story because I need to write one and get paid.

(That torture is more common in the world of series television, but the less said about that the better.)

Making the transition from concept to complete story can be a gift, too.

One year my parents gave me a picture book titled Stillwater: Minnesota’s Birthplace, which had an image and a few paragraphs on a man named John Jeremy, who was famed as a corpse fisher. (Apparently Stillwater, a logging town on the St. Croix River, suffered a lot of drownings.)

While getting ready to leave home for work that morning (I was then employed by CBS TV) a complete story about John Jeremy appeared in my mind along with the opening line.

That night, part-time writer that I was, working 2-3 evenings a week, I sat down at my IBM Selectric III and in ninety minutes wrote the entire 3,800-word text of “Stillwater, 1896″), far more than I usually wrote in any single session.

It sold on its second submission—the first rejection came from The New Yorker, the only time I was brave or ambitious enough to attempt that market – to a horror anthology series called Shadows, edited by Charles L. Grant. And over the years it was picked up for six different anthologies. I still make a few dollars on it every other year.

But this swift, productive origin never occurred again. Like most writers, possibly all, I find notions or images in dreams, too, but usually some barely-remembered fragment. It isn’t a common source of stories, unless you happen to be A. E. van Vogt, the no-longer famous author of Slan and World of Null-A from the 1940s.

Van Vogt developed a method of shaping dreams in order to generate fantastic concepts. On selected nights, having mercifully located himself in the second bedroom in his residence so his wife would not be disturbed—

“I set the alarm to ring in one and one-half hours. When it awakened me, I reset the alarm for another one and one-half hours, thought about the problems in the story I was working on—and fell asleep. I did that altogether four times during the night. And in the morning, there was the unusual solution, the strange plot twist.”

As anyone who’s ever read a van Vogt story can tell you, frequently some really strange plot twists.

This is the kind of insane stratagem you invent when you are supporting yourself as a pulp SF writer in the 1940s.

Which is, now that I think about it, a lot like supporting yourself as a writer for TV series in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, where you often have to come up with an episode concept today, not tomorrow.

However, “Aurora,” my new story in the March/April 2022 Asimov’s came to me in a fabulously detailed and complete dream.


Like most writers, possibly all, I find notions or images in dreams, too, but usually some barely-remembered fragment.


I was somewhere in a northern climate, an empty steppe, at a research facility. I knew that I was involved in astronomy because I was looking at images from space, specifically at an object in the solar system that was shaped like a table-top, not a sphere or a shard of rock.

Also that it was icy.

And on a collision course with Earth.

I remember being alarmed, an unpleasant dream state—which makes me wonder if this was actually a nightmare.

But then, with one of those dream-like leaps that defy logic, my team and I were beaming a laser at the Object, and its surface was boiling, changing its trajectory.

(Certain other details followed, but I withhold them because they are part of the reading experience.)

When I awoke I not only remembered all this detail, something I rarely do.

I also knew it was a story, and I even had a title: “Reciprocal.”

Much like my experience with “Stillwater 1896,” it was a simple matter to simply sit down and write it, which, less than a week later, I did.

Identifying the setting was easy . . . in my mind, the landscape was always northern Russia at a remote scientific installation. I’ve been fascinated with Russian/Soviet science and technology, especially space-related, since I was in my teens. Not only have I read a lot on the subject, twenty-some years ago I had the good fortune to travel to Russia and visit several high-tech facilities.

I’ve also interviewed or had conversations with perhaps two or three dozen workers in those facilities, too, so possessed some idea of that life might be like—the residences, the isolation, the lack of shopping or entertainment (as we would expect it in the U.S.), the crumbling infrastructure and, well, the rampant alcoholism. (I had heard credible reports of former cosmonauts, those who trained for decades and never got into space, stumbling the streets drunkenly at all hours. One was struck by a car and killed. Another died after consuming wood alcohol.)

Which gave me a possible character in Vera Kuznetsova, a retired physicist and facility director. In order to connect her to the story’s core problem, I bestowed her with institutional memory that her successors in the 21st Century would lack . . . especially those who had evolved in a world where people were routinely “enhanced,” that is, possessing neuro connections to a global data network.

Looking at “Aurora” and its dream origins with a year’s perspective makes me wonder why I had such a detailed vision. I suspect it was drug-related. During most of 2019 and all of 2020 I was dealing with a medical condition that defied easy diagnosis or even description, though my doctors and I have agreed on “allergy-asthma.”

What I was doing was ingesting a lot of medications. And they often affected my sleep and surely my dreams.

I’m in better shape now and, like every writer I know, always eager to repeat a proven method for generating stories, especially when swift and painless.

No, no, going back on those drugs is a bad idea, right?

But there is the van Vogt method—


Michael Cassutt is a science fiction writer who has previously worked in television production and screenwriting. His work, including over 30 short stories, has previously appeared in Asimov’s, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and elsewhere.