Q&A with Robert Reed

Though it began  as “Riding the Growth Curve,” inspired by an image of “riding to the stars on an increasingly vast ball of meat and bone,” news junkie Robert Reed’s latest for Asimov’s comes to you, in our September/October issue, as “The Ossuary’s Passenger” [on sale now]. Read on to learn how the story was born, get Bob’s thoughts on writing in the midst of a pandemic, and benefit from his magic trick for dealing with stuck stories!


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

RR: Someone else’s interesting idea. That where “The Ossuary’s Passenger” began. I don’t recall where I read it—probably online—and I certainly don’t care enough to chase down the source. But the subject was Scientology, and in particular, a bit of funeral nonsense involving an alien world that receives the dead. (A more energetic individual might chase down this theological reference. But I’m old and don’t care.) The critical point was that the universe is extraordinarily big, and bodies, no matter how small, take up space as well as mass. An influx of carcasses from millions of worlds will quickly transform the cemetery. And that’s where the story comes from: A what-if problem carried to its ultimate ends.

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

RR: Obviously, “The Ossuary’s Passenger” is part of a larger universe. But in this universe, Robert Reed writes only this much.

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

RR: The old hyena. That’s just self-evident.

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

RR: Oh, that is an interesting anecdote. Or it’s dull as hell.

My first and only title was “Riding the Growth Curve.” That stems from an earlier story idea where the expansion of bodies is so great that the cemetery’s surface expands at relativistic velocities. The editor, Sheila Williams, didn’t particularly like that title, and so I pulled words from the text that seemed to make both of us happy.

Still, it remains an intriguing image: Riding to the stars on an increasingly vast ball of meat and bone.


“If a story is stuck, I sleep with a cat on my legs or chest. Because cats are magical beasts.”


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RR: Barely worth mentioning. A few titles are wearing my name.

AE: (That’s the understatement of the year!) How much or little do current events impact your writing?

RR: This is the Golden Age for news junkies.

I’m always feasting on current events. Multiple newspapers, magazines, network broadcasts and news conferences. Of course I love every flavor of science, which helps with my work. But I’m also blessed with a talent for expecting the worst, and an extremely high tolerance for awful news.

My family and I were vacationing in New York City when I read a little item about some respiratory virus in China, and being familiar with the science and horror of pandemics, my first thought was, “Oh shit, we just walked through Times Square.”

(I have strung together most of my pandemic stories and published them on Kindle. Pallbearer and Other Tales of Glorious Contagions.)

As fun as science can be, politics are just as amazing to me. Politics are where our apish nature becomes obvious, and these last four years constitute the most gripping reality TV show ever produced.

AE: What is your process?

RR: I used to write every day, often for many hours at a time. Now I try to make new words every weekday, but only for two or three hours. That’s partly because I don’t need to produce a river of words anymore. It’s also because the number of markets has diminished.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

Slow times come, but I rarely feel blocked.

Naps are a good solution. If a story is stuck, I sleep with a cat on my legs or chest. Because cats are magical beasts.

AE: They certainly are. What inspired you to start writing?

RR: I thought freelance SF was the path to an easy life. And I sensed that I might be rather good at it.

AE: You were right! What are you reading right now?

RR: Roman histories by Adrian Goldsworthy. And everything that I can find about the pandemic and global warming.


Robert Reed tells us that his new tale began as the simplest of thought problems: What if all the citizens of a far-flung galactic empire decided to come home at once? “It doesn’t take long for the math to turn brutal. Which is exactly what amoral math loves to do. Turn brutal. And that’s a lesson we have learned daily in these corona times.” Bob has just published a collection of his old work on Kindle. “Pallbearer and Other Tales of Glorious Contagions is a grim read, I’ll grant you that. But it proves that R. Reed has always been studying this specific kind of awful.”

Q&A with Jason Sanford

While no longer a “shovel bum” for an archaeologist, Jason Sanford is deeply impacted by the knowledge that we’re surrounded by a million plus years of human history at all times. “The Eight-Thousanders” [in our current issue, on sale now] plays with this idea, focusing on two older-than-human subjects: Mt. Everest, and a vampire. Jason stopped by to share the story’s origins, thoughts on masculinity, a harrowing tale from his past, and the recent contents of his bookshelf—Read on!


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

JS: I’ve long been strangely fascinated by mountain climbing, in particular how elite climbers push themselves to their physical limits and their willingness to enter a challenging environment which actively tries to kill them.

But climbing Mount Everest isn’t like climbing other mountains. You’re essentially queuing up with hundreds of other climbers as if at Disney World, with the catch that Everest is a tourist attraction which can kill you. And for the most part only the richest people in the world are able to pay to climb Everest. To reach the top, almost every climber relies on an extensive support system, including hundreds of guides from the Sherpa people who lay the grueling groundwork so some hedge fund manager can have their picture taken at Everest’s summit. 

Mount Everest today essentially presents a microcosm of our world’s problems, including extremes of wealth, entitlement, privilege, racism, class divisions, toxic masculinity, and environmental issues. 

So I figured I’d throw a vampire into all that and see where the story went. The result is “The Eight-Thousanders.”

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

JS: I love the term “eight-thousander,” which are the fourteen mountains in the world reaching more than 8,000 meters above sea level. The summits of these mountains are in what’s called the death zone, where the pressure of oxygen is so low the human body begins to die. This means there is only a limited about of time anyone can spend at the top of an eight-thousander.

Fewer than fifty people in history have climbed all of the world’s eight-thousanders, and less than half have done it without supplementary oxygen.

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

JS: When I was young one of my favorite issues of Asimov’s was from October 1991. That issue featured a number of great stories including the Hugo-Award-winning “A Walk in the Sun” by Geoffrey A. Landis, plus excellent fiction by Gregory Benford, Tanith Lee, and others.

But the story which absolutely grabbed me was the Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated novella “Jack” by Connie Willis. Set in London during the blitz, the story follows the work of a rescue squad saving people from bombed out buildings and homes. Into this arrives a new volunteer named Jack, who only comes out at night and has an uncanny ability to find survivors in the rubble.

“Jack” isn’t your typical vampire story and is, in my opinion, one of the best ever written. When I finished “The Eight-Thousanders” I remembered how much I’d loved “Jack” and thought Asimov’s might be a natural for the story.

As an aside, I still have my original copy of the October 1991 Asimov’s and a few years ago at the Nebula Awards conference, I had it signed by Connie Willis, Gardner Dozois, Sheila Williams, and Geoffrey A. Landis. I also told Gardner how influential this issue was to me and thanked him for his work as editor. Glad I got to tell him that.

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

JS: “The Eight-Thousanders” features the same vampire from my story “May Our Voices Sing Like Blood from Open Wounds,” originally published in Intergalactic Medicine Show. This earlier story is set during some of the darker aspects of the Italian Renaissance.

You don’t need to read the previous story to enjoy “The Eight-Thousanders,” which is structured as a stand-alone tale. But if you do, you’ll learn more about the vampire’s background.

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

JS: “The Eight-Thousanders” is one of a series of science fiction and fantasy short stories I’m writing around masculinity. One of the defining issues of our time is how our world deals with masculinity, be it the cultural and sociological aspects of masculinity or, alternately, how masculinity can be good, bad, or toxic depending on the person and expression.

Every single day we see how toxic displays of masculinity hurt people in our world. Perhaps the first step to changing this is to create stories about the issue.


“Mount Everest today essentially presents a microcosm of our world’s problems, including extremes of wealth, entitlement, privilege, racism, class divisions, toxic masculinity, and environmental issues.” 


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

JS: When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I was a passenger in a car which crashed through the railing on a bridge over a deep river and dangled up and down, half on and half off the bridge. It was like a bad scene in a bad movie or story, where the people in the car try not to move because the slightest motion will send them plummeting to their deaths. 

If I wrote that scene in one of my stories, readers would scream “cliché!” But it really happened. Funny how life can be like that.

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

JS: In college I majored in anthropology, with a specialization in archaeology. I also worked for a time as a low-level archaeologist, what they call a shovel bum. As a result archaeology deeply affects both how I see the world and how I write my stories. 

Every person alive today is surrounded by a million plus years of human history, yet we only see a tiny bit of this at any one time. Despite this limited view, that great expanse of history continually impacts our lives in both visible and invisible ways. 

It’s impossible to unearth all the hidden history around us. But if you want to understand humanity you must at least dig a little bit into all that came before us.

AE: What is your process?

JS: I tend to start my stories with the opening sentence or scene in mind, then brainstorm it from there. With my short fiction I almost always discover the story as I write, what some people call the “pantsing” method of writing.

However, when working on novella- or novel-length fiction, I tend to plot things out. Although even there, I leave room to follow new ideas as they hit me. A major part of my process is also rewriting my stories. Tons of rewriting. An almost endless amount of rewriting. If you want to be a writer, learn to rewrite!

AE: What are you reading right now?

JS: I’m currently reading or about to read Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones, and A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer.

Other excellent novels I’ve read this year include The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, Vagabonds by Hao Jingfang, Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed, Docile by K.M. Szpara, and A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker.

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

JS: Find the story only you can tell and tell it. This doesn’t mean your stories can’t be influenced or inspired by others—all fiction is created within a much larger world of stories. Instead, I mean to find the truth or voice or essence which only you can bring to a story. Then write that story!


It’s not often a story lands an award before it’s even published, but “The Eight-Thousanders” did just that, receiving an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award earlier this year. Jason Sanford says he has applied for these biennial arts grants before with no luck, but his chilling story of life and death on Mount Everest did the trick. “The Eight-Thousanders” is the author’s eighth appearance in Asimov’s, with his other stories having been published in magazines such as Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Fireside Quarterly, and Interzone.

Psychopomps and Two-Bit Keyhole Peepers

by Ian Tregillis

“When God Sits in Your Lap” [on sale now!] is set in a near-future world I first imagined for my novel Something More Than Night, wherein a (very) minor fallen angel named Bayliss is charged with investigating the murder of the angel Gabriel. The novel opens decades after Kessler syndrome has sequestered humans from the rest of the solar system and, by extension, the greater universe—an event loaded with metaphysical significance, though of course the mortals don’t realize it. This story takes place about a generation earlier, on the very night the Kessler cascade begins.

For several years, I’d held in the back of my mind an inkling of what Bayliss was doing that night. Eventually I broke down and told myself that story, just to scratch the itch. I am overjoyed to share the result with readers of Asimov’s.

Needless to say, Bayliss and his world are a bit strange.

When I sat down to formulate the concept for Something More Than Night, I’d known for over twenty years that I wanted to write a mystery story set within the fantastical bestiary of a medieval angelic choir as might be envisioned by Christian scholars of the era. Not for any philosophical or spiritual reasons, but out of a purely mercenary desire to take advantage of those wonderful centuries-old eyeball kicks. After all, they’re just lying around free for the taking. Beings with six wings and four faces? Wheels covered in eyes? Flaming swords? My most fevered imagination could never compete with Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim. That’s one heck of a zoo.

Many years later, while watching Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, Brick, it occurred to me that a fun way to ratchet up the strangeness, albeit somewhat randomly, might be if one angel in the choir—but only one—spoke in the patois of a noir detective who might have stepped from the pages of a 1930 pulp novel. (And if the novel happens to take place in the near future, meaning nobody can understand what the hell he’s on about half the time . . . well, that’s just part of the fun.)

Bayliss’s low-rent Philip Marlowe shtick became not just a character affectation, but scaffolding for the entire novel. (Even the title, Something More Than Night, came from a somewhat ubiquitous quote by Raymond Chandler. The title of this story, “When God Sits in Your Lap,” is similarly inspired by a passage in Chandler’s famous essay on the mystery form, “The Simple Art of Murder.”)

Of course, it meant I had to learn the lingo. And that really was a challenge.


“That’s where a typical slang glossary comes to the rescue. They’re not very useful, though, when trying to write a noir pastiche—in that case, what you really need is a reverse-lookup glossary. Say you have a character who wants to admit they had a little too much to drink the night before: how might they have done so in a 1927 issue of Black Mask?”


There are a few short glossaries online (such as Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes and The Flapper’s Dictionary) and some related works in print (for instance, Max Décharné’s impressive and extensive Straight from the Fridge, Dad, a compendium of hipster slang that slightly post-dates the era I wanted to evoke), but these are geared toward readers. For instance, in the ninety years since Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon was first published, literal generations of readers have read the line, “How long have you been on the goose-berry lay, son?” and wondered what the hell it could possibly mean. That’s where a typical slang glossary comes to the rescue. They’re not very useful, though, when trying to write a noir pastiche—in that case, what you really need is a reverse-lookup glossary. Say you have a character who wants to admit they had a little too much to drink the night before: how might they have done so in a 1927 issue of Black Mask? (They didn’t have one too many and get drunk. They had a skinful and got tight, stinko, stiff, iced, shellacked, plastered, pie-eyed . . .)

At the time, I couldn’t find any such resource. So I created my own. The end result—after devouring the works of Hammett, Chandler, James M. Cain and others, perusing old newspapers and films, and frequently visiting World Wide Words—was an eighty-page reverse-lookup noir slang glossary organized by topic. Knowing I probably wasn’t the only writer faced with the reverse-lookup problem, I posted my glossary online after the novel was published. So if you’re wondering what the hell Bayliss is on about during his misadventure in “When God Sits in Your Lap,” you can peruse the glossary here.

I’m glad to know it’s been a useful resource for other writers, too. I periodically receive emails suggesting corrections, or additions, or asking if I’m familiar with a particular term absent from the glossary. Decoding hard-boiled lingo sometimes boils down to a best guess and nothing more; it’s not uncommon to come across terms that only appear in a single sentence in a single story.

In the course of studying that wonderful hard-boiled cant, I learned a little bit about how many of those old noir stories work. Raymond Chandler, for instance and in particular, tended to treat plot elements like Lego blocks. He had a set number of blocks which he rearranged from novel to novel and from story to story. Marlowe finds a dead body, Marlowe gets knocked out, Marlowe gets grilled by the bulls . . . The line between trope and cliché sometimes gets a bit thin in the noir world. (On the other hand, a noir pastiche can practically plot itself, and as far as I’m concerned that’s part of the fun.)

Chandler’s characterizations aren’t wildly diverse or widely nuanced, either. That’s true of much of the original genre in general, I venture. Women in particular tend to fall into one of three categories: puppyish virginal sylphs; deadly sexpots; and drunken harridans. Naturally, I couldn’t resist playing against those stovepiped and stereotyped gender roles when writing “When God Sits in Your Lap.” In the bog-standard formula, Bayliss’s client would almost certainly be a lady (usually version two, the dangerous-sexpot subvariant, though occasionally version one, the puppyish-virginal subvariant). So, too, the gold-digger, with both of them angling for a share of a man’s fortune. Nuts to that, I say.

(Despite these issues, I still think Chandler was an extraordinary craftsman. I reread the Marlowe novels for the sheer joy of his extraordinary prose. To swoon over lines like, “She gave him a look that should have stuck out his back four inches.” Sublime.)

As I came to recognize those Lego blocks, and maybe even understand them and the operations of the world they represent, the juxtaposition of Bayliss’s noir trappings against his Aquinas-ish milieu no longer seemed entirely random. I mean, they were chosen randomly owing to some undiagnosable pathology of my imagination. But one could argue that the combination actually makes sense. Or so I’ve managed to convince myself.

After all, doesn’t the archetypical pulp-noir detective function, just a little bit, like a psychopomp?

Think about it. What is a psychopomp but a guide to and through the afterlife, the underworld? The psychopomp is your companion, your escort, on a journey from a world you know—the world of life, the living—to a strange and unfamiliar world with its own rules and conventions and requirements, even its own hierarchy. A world that furthermore has always existed alongside the world you knew.

Now, say you find yourself requiring the services of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. What is your money buying? Knowledge of, and access to, a world unknown to you. Often, it’s the criminal underworld. You’re hiring the shop-soiled Galahad, to borrow Chandler’s phrase, because that person is conversant with a world that you, on your own, cannot navigate. Otherwise why would you need him? (Unless you’ve got some other game in play because you intend to play the keyhole-peeper for a sap. That’s a slightly different set of Lego blocks, but they come with the standard set.)

In “When God Sits in Your Lap,” Tom Darlington hires Bayliss without realizing any of this. But it still takes a psychopomp’s knowledge of an entirely different world to make sense of the situation. . . .

Eh. Maybe it’s all spaghetti, as Bayliss might say.


By day, Ian Tregillis is a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. By night, he is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels including the Milkweed Triptych (Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, Necessary Evil) and the Alchemy Wars (The Mechanical, The Rising, The Liberation). Ian’s first tale for Asimov’s shares the same milieu as his angel-noir novel Something More Than Night. The author’s short fiction has appeared in F&SF, Popular Science, The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, and Best New Horror. He is a member of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards consortium, and he penned six episodes of Serial Box’s The Witch Who Came in from the Cold. A 2005 graduate of the Clarion workshop, Ian lives in New Mexico with his playwright wife and their extremely spoiled cat.

Q&A with Michael Libling

From his “earthquake chic” writing space, Michael Libling brings us a story with deeply personal origins—”Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” [on sale now], his fourth work to hit Asimov’s pages. Below, Michael discusses the decades of attempts that eventually became this story, his overarching history as a writer, and dealing with negative feedback.


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

ML: A vague concept had been circling my psyche since the early ’90s, when the eldest of my three daughters became seriously ill while in her teens. We were in and out of the Montreal Children’s Hospital for three difficult years, the emotional experience somewhere between rollercoaster and demolition derby. Fortunately, my daughter made it through the ordeal, healthy, happy, positive, and resolute. Today, she’s the mother of three with a thriving theatre company. But we also got to know too many kids and parents who weren’t so lucky, and those are memories you never fully shake.

AE: How did this story germinate?

ML: Many of the stories I write are loosely based on events in my own life and “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” is no exception. I tried taking a factual approach to my daughter’s story several times over the years, either as a personal essay or as a lengthier non-fiction account, but it was tough to write more than a page or two without the emotions resurfacing. I couldn’t do it. Even after all these years, writing about those hospital days strikes too close to home. It was only after watching an episode of Penn & Teller: Fool Us that a wholly fictional approach struck me as viable. While it’s not my daughter’s story by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, it was inspired by elements from that period: the hospital environment; the sub-culture that flourishes within a children’s ward; and the friends who stuck by my daughter and those that ran the other way.

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

ML: While researching an earlier horror story, I came across a website promoting “coffin sales.” Among the items offered were a variety of child-sized coffins, with “colorful and fun” options. The dissonance was jarring. I wanted my title to deliver a similar impact, though, in all honesty, I’m not sure I’ve succeeded to the same extent as that website. On a side note, working titles for what became “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin” included “How Death Works” and “The Amazing Robyn.”

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

ML: This is my fourth appearance. Previous stories were “The Grocer’s Wife (Enhanced Transcription),” “Wretched the Romantic,” and “At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, every acceptance and appearance in Asimov’s is as exciting as the first. It’s a special kind of thrill to have my stories appear in magazines I grew up reading.


“Here, I thank my older sister, Mara, who taught me a basic lesson—avoid the hackneyed; go against the flow. I’ve taken this to heart, though I have since wondered if this might also be the tactic to avoid if one is seeking broad commercial success.”



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

ML: Lately, with regards to COVID-19, I can’t see how anyone can write fiction set in 2020 without referencing the pandemic in one way or another. I just put the finishing touches on a new novel, which would not have felt real had I not brought the virus into play. Is there anyone whose life hasn’t been touched by it?

AE: How did you break into writing?

ML: Not sure I broke into it. More like I slipped into it.

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, thanks to the encouragement of teachers and an older sister who also loved to write. In university, I took every creative writing course available, lucking out with two exceptional “teachers,” Clark Blaise and Mordecai Richler—both well-established on the Canadian literary scene and each open to mainstream and genre fiction. While I tried selling stories in my teens, it was years before my fiction began to be published. (I took pride in my wall of rejections.) Meanwhile, I wrote anything and everything—newspaper and magazine features, term papers for a fee, even edited a stock market magazine with minimal knowledge of the stock market. I eventually ended up in advertising as a copywriter and then creative director. (Ex-Lax. It can make your day overnight! Yup, I wrote that.) Finally, circa 1992, I was signed by an agent (the late Virginia Kidd) and a month later I had my first pro sale for fiction. (You can read more abut this in “Genrealities,” an essay that’s available on my website.)

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

ML: Is a writer “inspired to start writing” or is it more a matter of discovering something he or she enjoys and is, perhaps, not bad at—like dancing or gardening or bowling? While it’s tough to pinpoint a specific moment, I often cite fifth grade, when my teacher, Mrs. Franks, read a story of mine aloud to the class. I loved the feeling and the response from the other kids. I haven’t stopped since. Here, I thank my older sister, Mara, who taught me a basic lesson—avoid the hackneyed; go against the flow. I’ve taken this to heart, though I have since wondered if this might also be the tactic to avoid if one is seeking broad commercial success. Writing about zombies, vampires, demon hunters, or the epic adventures of Glummox of Flugte and his quest for yet another damn ring or sword or muffin top might well be a more rewarding route to follow.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

ML: As mentioned, I’ve recently completed a new novel—a quirky thriller about serial killers, dentists, and ice cream. As with most of my fiction, there’s a strain of dark humor throughout. Meanwhile, I’m circling the first few paragraphs of what will become either a short story or a novel.

AE: How would you describe your writing space?

ML: Modern ransacked. Earthquake chic. A cautionary lesson on the perils of clutter.

AE: Do you ever hear from readers? What do they write to you about?

ML: I hear fairly often from readers, usually through the contact page on my website. To date, the notes have been uniformly positive, usually triggered by a story or interview that resonated. My last story in Asimov’s—“At the Old Wooden Synagogue on Janower Street”—was a good example of this. I received more response to this than any short story previously published.

Since my novel came out last year (and recently relaunched by Open Road Media), the mail has gone up considerably. Hollywood North: A Novel in Six Reels is set in my old hometown of Trenton, Ontario, and is based on true events. The town has a rather bizarre history. Accordingly, I’ve heard from many who either live or lived in the area, most notably old friends and one-time schoolmates. This has been an unexpected bonus in having the novel out there. There’s a small-town past we share, much of which is touched upon in Hollywood North.

AE: How do you deal with criticism of your writing?

ML: Besides burying my head in my hands and weeping for a few hours?

In the late ’90s, I had a story appear in what was then the print rebirth of Amazing Stories magazine. I went online to see if it had been reviewed. I found two reviews in short order.

The first reviewer was disappointed with the magazine’s comeback issue, feeling nothing was worth reading, EXCEPT for Michael Libling’s “ribald” “Pheromitey Glad.” I was gratified and excited, until a few minutes later when I came across a second review—this one by Dave Truesdale:

“Of the three slightly longer, independent short stories, Michael Libling’s ‘Pheromitey Glad’ I found to be a sophomoric, unfocused and an ambling attempt at arch cuteness, which failed miserably. It just didn’t make any sense on any real level, and was difficult to read with all of the cUTe spellings . . . Sometimes literary experiments work, sometimes they don’t. This one totally failed for me.”

I wanted to crawl under the covers and hide. I realized then, if I was going to believe the good reviews, I had to believe the bad ones, too. Best to avoid them all and carry on. Still, the occasional review will hurt, whether from a pro reviewer or a reader. In this regard, I turn to this paragraph from Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel series, The Escapists:

“I know it sounds whiny, but if you’ve never gotten a bad review before, you have no idea what a unique kind of heartbreak it is. And I’m not talking about getting constructive criticism from your seventh-grade English teacher. . . . I’m talking about a complete stranger telling other complete strangers that something you’ve been carrying inside you for months is stillborn.”

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

ML: My website, where I also blog on occasion: http://www.michaellibling.com

Twitter: @michaellibling

Instagram: michaelliblingwriter

As for Facebook, well, just search for me. And feel free to follow or “friend” me. Well, unless you’ve read the above and feel you might be better off maintaining a safe distance.


Open Road Media relaunched Michael Libling’s mystery and fantasy noir novel, Hollywood North, in July, and the author is currently finishing up a new novel. We’re delighted that he took some time in between projects to write this eerie tale about “Robyn in Her Shiny Blue Coffin.”

Q&A with Leah Cypess

Leah Cypess believes in giving herself time, allowing a story to unravel through several drafts and necessary breaks. The end result is always worth the wait, and this time, for Asimov’s, it’s a “ghost” story—”A Sideways Slant of Light” [in our current issue, on sale now]. Below, Leah took the time to talk to us about writing, reading, and waiting.


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

LC: The basic idea for the story came to me in a spark of inspiration. But the themes and details of the story—minor things like what was going to happen, who the “ghost” really was, and what the story was really about—came very slowly, over the course of several drafts.

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

LC: Also very slowly and after several drafts! For the longest time, I was calling it “Deathbed” as a working title. As I went along, I kept trying out new titles and discarding them. (Do you want to know what some of those possibilities were? Okay, but don’t mock me: “The Ghost of a Possibility,” “Sideways Motion,” “A Moment in a Slant of Light.”)

Finally, after probably the third revision, I added a line into the body of the story itself— and a *ping* went off in my head: This is the title! And so it was.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

LC: By giving myself time. Sometimes, that actually means putting a story aside for several months (in one case that I can think of, several years), and then coming back to it. Obviously, that is not ideal, especially once deadlines come into play. Fortunately, in most cases, I find that just taking a couple of hours or weeks away can do it.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

LC: Mostly I’m working on middle grade books that are under contract. I have a trilogy of fairy-tale retellings that will be published by Random House starting in April 2021. (The first one is going to be called Thornwood, and it’s the story of Sleeping Beauty’s forgotten little sister.) But I am still trying to squeeze out the occasional short story/novelette!

 


“The basic idea for the story came to me in a spark of inspiration. But the themes and details of the story—minor things like what was going to happen, who the ‘ghost’ really was, and what the story was really about—came very slowly, over the course of several drafts.”


 

AE: What are you reading right now?

LC: At the beginning of the shutdown, I found that all I wanted to do was re-read, and embarked on a project to re-read most of David Eddings and Connie Willis. I’m still at the tail end of that! But my interest in new books is re-awakening (fortuitously, in time for the library to reopen for hold pickups), and next on my list are Sal and Gabi Fix the Universe by Carlos Hernandez and A Ceiling Made of Eggshells by Gail Carson Levine.

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

LC: I’m on Twitter (@leahcypess); I’m not very active there socially, but I always announce new releases. I’m also on Instagram, where I mostly post pictures of nature and books, but also of my new releases. And there’s a lot more information about me (including the sign-up for my new-releases-only mailing list!) at my website, www.leahcypess.com.


Leah Cypess is the author of four young adult fantasy novels, starting with Mistwood (HarperCollins 2010), and of an upcoming middle grade fantasy novel, Thornwood, scheduled to be published by Random House in April 2021. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with her family.

Q&A with Tom Purdom

Tom Purdom returns to our pages and to a favored locale—an asteroid city—with his action-packed “We All Lose if They Take Mizuba” [on sale now]. Read on for his criticism of ray guns, thoughts on personality modification, and explanation of the powerful quotations employed in this new story.


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

TP: My last two stories in Asimov’s had been relatively low-key affairs dealing with subjects like marriage and job problems. I decided it was time I wrote an action story.

AE: How did this story come to be?

TP: I started with the general idea it would be an action story, and gradually developed ideas. Mostly I wanted to avoid off-the-shelf science fiction elements.

Ray guns are a good example of the kind of thing I tried to avoid. They’ve been a standard element in science fiction since the first SF magazines appeared on the stands. The advent of the laser in the 1960s gave the idea a new lease on life. But I’ve never been convinced they’re an inevitable successor to projectile weapons. What’s their energy source? How do you store the energy?

A gun is actually a very efficient way to transmit energy across a distance. A small amount of explosive propels a bullet that smacks its target with most of the energy it possessed when it left the muzzle. The energy source is compact and you can store it for long periods.

I decided to use lasers but they don’t burn their way through armor. They transmit information in the form of disruptive programs. They’re followed by very small missiles that carry programs that are even more destructive.

I don’t know if anything like that will ever be developed. But it sounds plausible. And it’s more interesting, to me, than one more story in which people kill each other with magic rays.

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

TP: I’ve written several stories set in asteroid cities, so I guess my asteroid stories fit into a common future. Years ago I might have set this story on the Moon. Today I tend to favor the asteroids.

My interplanetary stories assume robots, computers, and bioengineering will continue to advance. A group of twenty or thirty people, equipped with the machines and engineered life forms of the future, could turn an asteroid into a habitat, and profit from the real estate they’ve created. Will that ever happen? I think it’s a possible, completely believable future. Freeman Dyson visualized people living on comets and he was a certified world-class astrophysicist.

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

TP: I used a standard trick. I looked for a phrase in the story that might make a title.

I usually pick short titles like Legacies and Bank Run. This is the second time I’ve opted for a long title. They seem to be mildly fashionable these days. In this case, I felt it summed up one of the poignant aspects of the situation.


“To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them.”


 

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

This story revolves around two themes that run through a lot of my stories—personality modification and immortality. In the early 1960s, in my first decade as a selling writer, I decided the big advances of the future would be developments in psychology and medicine. Immortality and personality modification are interesting subjects because they would create profound transformations in humans and their societies.

Our personalities are heavily influenced by internal factors like our physiology and external factors like childhood experiences. As our knowledge of the process develops, we should increase our ability to modify it. I can’t predict that will happen, but it’s a great subject for fiction because it raises interesting possibilities. Well-drawn characters have believable motivations. But what if you could choose your motivations. What would you want to want?

Immortality is actually a logical impossibility. You won’t know you’ve lived forever until you’ve lived forever. I use the term loosely. My characters live in a world in which no one has to die. Many science fiction stories assume one-off treatments like an immortality pill. My stories assume the life span has been extended into an indefinite future because of the general advance of medicine. Anything that can happen to you can be cured or repaired, with the possible exception of extensive brain damage.

This means I’m writing about people who know they’re probably going to be alive a thousand years from now. But they’re also intensely aware they’re dependent on an advanced medical system and the civilization that supports it.

AE: How did you break into writing?

TP: I did it the old-fashioned way. I wrote lots of stories, collected lots of rejection slips, and eventually made my first sale. You could still do it that way in the 1950s because there were a lot of magazines that published science fiction and other kinds of fiction.

On my website, you’ll find ten chapters of a literary memoir called When I Was Writing. The first chapter contains a more detailed description of this process.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

TP: My first novel, a 1964 Ace Double called I Want the Stars, is being reprinted by Journey Press, the publishing arm of the Galactic Journey website. Galactic Journey reviews the magazines and books of fifty-five years ago, advancing through time year by year. Last year they got to 1964. The editor liked my book and decided to reprint it. Neither of us think it’s the greatest SF novel ever written, but it combines an action-adventure plot with an upbeat, highly personal view of the future.

I don’t know if that constitutes a project since I didn’t have to do much work. But I have consulted with the editor on matters like the cover art, and I will probably do some video appearances.

On my website, the seventh chapter of my literary memoir tells how I wrote and sold I Want the Stars.

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

For universes by other people, I would choose Ian Bank’s Culture series. But my first choice would be the future that underlies most of my stories. It’s a future in which every human being is far better off than they would be today, in the same way most of us are better off than the people who lived three hundred years ago. It’s not a Utopia. It has problems and conflicts. But it’s better.

I realize there are challenges. Global warming is the most obvious. But I’ve lived through the Second World War, the decades of the nuclear standoff, and massive disruptions in our economic life. I’ve also seen smallpox eradicated and polio defeated in much of the world. The story of the last three hundred years looks like a chart of the S&P 500. Up and down. Sometimes way down. But the long-term trend is up.

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

TP: “Where did you get the quotes in this story?”

I’ve been memorizing poetry since I was a teenager. I’ve taken it for granted all these years and never thought to mention it.

I memorized Patrick Henry’s entire speech when I was in the eighth grade and delivered it to my class. I can still recite the last few sentences. I came across the Frederick Douglass quote more recently and ended up reading a collection of his work that included the complete text of his first autobiography, selections from the second and third, and a good selection from his shorter pieces. It was a real treat. He’s one of the great figures in American history, American literature, and American journalism.

The Macaulay quote comes from his poem celebrating Horatius, the “captain of the gate,” who held a bridge across the Tiber in the days of the Roman Republic.

I encountered the last four lines in a magazine article when I was fifteen. The roll and thunder of it had so much force, for me, that I think it stuck in my head without any attempt to memorize it. Decades later, when I read William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I discovered it was Churchill’s favorite bit of poetry.

In 2011 I had a colon tumor removed. The operation went well. My primary care physician, Dr. Robert Rudenstein, spotted a symptom and prescribed a colonoscopy that caught the tumor early. The prep and waiting time for the operation went smoothly, but there was one moment when I found myself slipping emotionally. I was sitting in the little curtained off section where you take off your clothes and put on the hospital gown. I was left waiting, for some reason, for about half an hour. I was all alone. All the other curtained off sections were empty.

Then the Macaulay came into my head. I wasn’t facing fearful odds, and I wasn’t defending anything. But that touch of the old warrior spirit did the job. The moment of panic faded.

To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them. Macaulay couldn’t have known, when he wrote those lines in the middle of the nineteenth century, that a hundred and sixty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a seventy-five year old American would receive a helpful bracing. Buck up, lad, says Captain Horatius. But he says it with style.

If you enter the Macaulay on Google, you’ll find some great videos that quote it, featuring stalwarts like Churchill and Dr. Who.

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

TP: I’m not on Facebook, but I have a website I keep up to date: www.philart.net/tompurdom. My literary memoir contains ten chapters tells how I wrote some of my stories and novels. James W. Harris has posted a multi-part series he calls The Tom Purdom Project (!). You can also look me up on Broad Street Review. Enter terms like science fiction, Ray Bradbury, and economic growth in the BSR Search box and you’ll find some essays on science fiction and related matters.


Tom Purdom started reading science fiction in 1950, when the science fiction genre was just emerging from its pulp magazine period. His first published story appeared in the August, 1957 issue of a magazine called Fantastic Universe. His stories have appeared in all the leading science fiction magazines and various anthologies. In the last thirty years, he’s written a string of short stories and novelettes that have mostly appeared in Asimov’s. Ian Strock’s Fantastic Books has published two collections of his Asimov’s stories, Lovers and Fighters, Starships and Dragons and Romance on Four Worlds, A Casanova Quartet.

The Secret Origin of Poem: Spaceknight

by Adam Ford

“Dog Day Afternoon,” [in our July/August issue, on sale now], is a poem from a suite of 79 poems that I wrote in 2016 in response to a series of comic books published by Marvel Comics back in the 1980s. The series in question was Rom Spaceknight. It ran from late 1979 until 1986. It told the story of a cyborg from the planet Galador who had come to Earth to uncover a hidden race of shape-changing aliens who were intent on taking over our planet as part of a centuries-old scheme for galactic conquest. 

The series was inspired by an electronic toy robot whose creators had commissioned Marvel Comics to write a comic about it, in the hopes that the publicity from the comic would translate into sales of the toy. As it turns out, the toy was spectacularly unsuccessful, disappearing from shelves within a year or so, but the comic went on to run for seven years, growing a dedicated fanbase whose love of and nostalgia for the comic would establish it as a cult classic with a legacy that would last long after the final issue was published. 

The series was written in its entirety by veteran comic book author Bill Mantlo, and largely illustrated by two veteran comic book artists—Sal Buscema and Steve Ditko—throughout its run. This continuity of art and writing is somewhat unusual for the world of comic book publishing at the time. Its resultant consistency of vision may be one of the things that makes the series stand out even after all these years. 

The story of Rom the Spaceknight borrows heavily from the tropes of science fiction B-movies, with elements in its early issues that map neatly onto source materials like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It also draws heavily upon tropes that were well-established at Marvel Comics by the late seventies, such as the hero vilified by the people they seek to protect, existential soul-searching about the personal cost of fantastic powers, and the comic’s protagonist frequently facing off against and/or pairing up with heroes and villains from other comic books published by the same company. 

As a child, I was a fan of Rom Spaceknight. Back in the 1980s, I was buying secondhand copies from the few secondhand bookstores that sold comics in my home town. Those issues went the way of many of my tattered comic books when I moved out of home, but years later, in my thirties, I stumbled across a pile of Rom comics in a dusty book shop in Sydney and my interest in the series was reignited. 

By the time of this discovery I had been enjoying retrospective articles about Rom Spaceknight that I had come across on the internet, reading along with various pundits’ reappraisals and re-readings. After re-reading my newfound Rom stash I was pleased to find that the series still read well, and allowed myself to kindle the flame of an idea about one day writing something on these comics: a series of reviews or maybe even a podcast.

By late 2015 I had finally turned my back on the novel that I had been struggling with for almost 10 years. In quitting that novel I allowed myself to return to my first love of writing, which was poetry. I dusted off a folder’s worth of poetry drafts and set myself the task of working up a manuscript to submit for an impending chapbook competition deadline. I found the process of working toward that deadline invigorating and inspiring. When it was over I thought about what other deadlines I might set myself in order to create new poetry, instead of simply editing and revising drafts. 

Soon after that, I found myself on holiday with my family, my entire stash of Rom comics tucked into my suitcase for a good old holiday re-read. As I read through the comics over that week or so, the desire to write something about what made them special bubbled up again and somehow got entangled with the desire to set myself a poetical task and deadline. This soon crystallized into a statement of intent.

Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each?  That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well. 

Okay, so one poem for each comic in the series. That was 75 monthly issues plus the four special editions that were released as “annuals” (despite the fact that the series had run for more than four years). It all came to a grand total of 79 poems. I just needed a deadline to work toward. 

I had been keeping up with the latest gossip that fans of Rom were sharing online (of course I had) and I knew that there were plans for the comic publisher IDW Comics to reboot the character and start publishing a new Rom comic series in July 2016, with a teaser issue to be released as part of the international Free Comic Book Day event on the first Saturday in May. 

It was mid-January. There were roughly three and a half months, or approximately 120 days, until Free Comic Book Day. If I wrote one of these comic-inspired poems every day for the next 79 days, they would be finished and ready for revising well before the teaser comic’s release date, and then I could piggyback the completion of the collection onto the comic’s release and maybe some of these poems might catch the eye of diehard Rom fans like myself. Even if I didn’t manage to write one poem a day, there was about 40 days’ slack in that deadline. That was plenty of time to catch up if I fell behind. 

To keep myself on track, I decided that I would announce the whole endeavor on my social media accounts, and publicly commit to publishing every poem online as soon as it was finished. The threat of public humiliation would help to spur me onward to completion any time that my passions were flagging. 

It sounded like the most preposterous, arbitrary and foolhardy way to approach writing a poetry collection. If I pulled it off, though, I would have a 79-poem body of work about the angst and whimsy of the life of a comic book cyborg. I loved it. I told my wife, herself a writer, what I was planning. Naturally, the first question she asked was, “Why?” All I could tell her by way of justification was that the idea of creating my very own folly out of science fiction poetry was exciting.

I started work on the afternoon of my decision. I re-read issue #1 (“Arrival!”) and then began scratching out a poem in response, using a red pen and the spiral-bound notebook in which I had been composing my daily to-do lists. I used the title of each comic as the title of each poem, noting over the next few months how many times these titles attempted to confer import with the use of either a faux-literary tone of voice, a garbled quote, an exclamation mark, or all three. I had never written a poem with an exclamation mark in the title before. I liked it. 

I set up a website to house each poem as I wrote it. I used my social media accounts to announce my intentions, document my process and link to each poem as I uploaded it. I soon drew the attention of a number of fellow Rom fans, including the writer and publisher of the forthcoming new Rom reboot comic series. I snagged a couple of mentions and one feature interview on a few comic book podcasts. I got written up on a comic news website. I dedicated a number of the poems to the people who were helping to spread the word and cheering me on.

 


“Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each?  That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well.”


 

Every day I would carry an issue of the next comic in the series with me and try to find a snatch of time to read it. Every night, after coming home from work, feeding the kids and putting them to bed, I would try to sit down for an hour or so and bash out something resembling a poem that touched on scenes or themes from that comic. Some nights it would be too hard to find the time or energy, which meant that the next night I would need to write two poems, or sometimes even three, to stay ahead of the impending deadline. 

I got good at bashing out something, anything, that might be poemlike enough to get me over the line, reasoning that this was the writing stage, and the editing stage would come later. I played with forms to keep myself interested and engaged. I wrote in fixed meter and free verse. I found that I could write a villanelle reasonably quickly once I’d established the repeating refrains, and that the repetition of the form was a good mimesis of the repetition of the fight scenes in superhero comics. I felt like I was gaining some insight into what it might be like to write a new story every month for six years, just as Bill Mantlo had done when creating these comics in the first place.

I wrote a monorhyme out of desperation one night and discovered that the form’s repetition was more evocative and functional than I had anticipated. I wrote a poem based on the instruction manual from a 1970s Xerox machine that I found online in a database of vintage copier manuals. I stole in its entirety the rhythmic structure—verse, chorus and middle eight—of a pop song that had been earworming around in my head the week prior. I did everything I could to keep the poems coming, diligently uploading them while the ink was still drying on the final stanza and announcing to anyone who cared to listen that I was one poem closer to completion.

Eventually I did manage to write 79 poems, although I didn’t get them done in time for Free Comic Book Day. To be honest I hadn’t been expecting to. In the back of my mind there was always the secondary deadline of the July release of the first issue of the new Rom comic from IDW, which I did managed to achieve with some time to spare. According to my drafts folder, the 79th poem in the series, written in response to issue #75’s aptly titled “The End,” was created on 14 June 2016, 155 days after “Arrival”’s timestamp of 13 January 2016. That works out to one poem every 1.962 days, or thereabouts. 

Since then I have been reworking these poems, pleased to have a substantial body of work to play with. Some of the poems were pretty good, if I do say so myself, just needing a tweak here or there. Others have required more substantial revision, and still others I have abandoned as unsalvageable. In October 2016 I assembled my 10 favorite poems into a limited-edition chapbook and hosted a launch at a comic shop in Melbourne, reading all 10 in front of an artist’s easel on which were perched enlarged reproductions of the covers of the comics under poetic consideration. 

Quite a few of these poems have seen publication in journals of both speculative and non-speculative poetry, including Going Down Swinging, FreezeRay Poetry, Strange Horizons, Star*Line and the pages of Asimov’s as well (hence this blog). I have also had the pleasure of recording “Arrival” for an online collection of Australian poetry performances, and of seeing another poem from this suite illustrated by the very talented illustrator Bren Luke. I was even able to use the payment from one of these publications to buy my very own little Rom action figure.

Each of these things has been extremely gratifying. It is always encouraging to find other people who like what you are doing artistically, especially when it feels as perversely idiosyncratic as this endeavor has often felt to me. 

Most recently I have edited a selection of these poems into a 33-poem chapbook that I am currently seeking a publisher for. I have entered it into a chapbook competition that I am waiting to hear about, and am making plans to seek out other publishers if this particular one doesn’t end up being my cyborg poems’ final destination.

In the meantime I am trying to apply the lessons I learned from this project to new writing and new poems. I hope that I have found an approach to writing poetry that can help me to regularly produce a decent volume of work, however rough and ready, on a particular theme, which can then become the basis of something more substantial and well-crafted. 

I know it’s cheesy to tell people to follow their bliss, but if you have something bubbling up inside you that feels as irrelevant and self-indulgent as a pseudo-verse-novel suite of ekphrastic poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg, and you can’t stop thinking about it, I say just write it and see what happens.


 

Q&A with Richard Schiffman

An environmental journalist when he isn’t a poet, Richard Schiffman views science fiction poetry as “another flavor of nature poetry.” Below, he discusses this confluence of genres, the word “ecstasy,” and the specific pleasures he finds in poetry-writing and in SF. “Planets,” which draws on the boundless optimism of the Space Age, is his third poem to grace Asimov’s pages [in our July/August issue, on sale now].


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece? How did the title for this piece come to you?

RS: They call people in my generation “Baby Boomers,” but we might just as well be called “Space Agers,” because we grew up when human beings were leaving the home planet for the first time. It was a hopeful and expansive time that young people today may find difficult to imagine. In rereading over this poem, I realize that it is about that sense of optimism and of breaking free of limits, entering a future that was incredibly exciting and full of previously undreamt possibilities.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RS: This is the third poem of mine to appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Science fiction poetry encourages my imagination to soar in ways that more earthbound themes do not always allow for. For me, it is another flavor of nature poetry, but nature on a cosmic scale. We are parts of something vastly bigger than ourselves. It is both humbling and incredibly inspiring to contemplate our place in the larger scheme of things. That is the great gift of science fiction, to put us in touch with this awareness of something incomprehensibly greater.

AE: What inspired you to start writing? How much or little do current events impact your writing?

RS: I am an environmental journalist who writes about science for the NY Times and other publications. I love doing reporting and feel that a lot of creativity goes into a well-told news story. But when I really want to sing with words, I turn to poetry. Reading it and writing it can put me into an ecstatic state. When I was a kid, I loved the word “ecstasy” and knew that it was something that I wanted to share with others.

AE: What is your process?

RS: Walking and being outdoors in nature helps to get my creative juices flowing. Sometimes I’ll take notes—images, phrases, metaphors—that I later weave into a poem. More rarely, the poem just writes itself full-blown from start to finish, but usually it involves a lot of revising and editing. The final version may end up completely different from what I had in mind at the beginning.


“Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.”


 

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

RS: I don’t often get writers’ block. But it can take a while to get into the mood and actually start writing a poem. Having said that, however, not every poem that I write is necessarily a keeper. A thin little poetry book can take years to produce, not because it takes a long time to write the words down, but because it takes a long time to figure out what you really want to say and then to actually say it in the most eloquent fashion. So much of the pleasure of poetry for me is getting the words just right. That can take time. I love the revision process as much as writing the first draft. I can work on a poem over a year or longer before it arrives at its final form.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

RS: What I have always loved about science fiction is that it allows us to re-envision our life on earth—by imagining how other advanced civilizations have dealt with the issues that we ourselves are facing. Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.

AE: What kind of SF do you like?

RS: I’m not interested in writing that simply transposes our wars, ecological disasters, and social divisions out onto a larger cosmic stage. That’s boring. Science fiction should be a visionary and spiritual literature that helps us to think about how we can outgrow these lethal habits and become more truly universal, tolerant and cosmically intelligent. If it is not offering a vision of a better world, I have no use for it.

Do I think that such advanced spiritual civilizations actually exist? Yes, absolutely, they exist—and as soon as we humans get our collective act together and begin to rise above our provincialism, our aggressiveness, and our speciesist prejudices, we will get incontrovertible proof of this. I had dinner with moon astronaut Edgar Mitchell some years ago, and he said very much the same thing. Other galactic civilizations won’t fully reveal themselves until we are mature enough to merit that contact. But for those who are paying attention, the signs of their presence are already there. . . .

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

RS: My journalism: https://richschiff.contently.com

My poetry: https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=414&a=296

Twitter handle: @Schiffman108


Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist, poet and author of two biographies. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and other venues including the New York Times, BBC Radio, Writer’s Almanac, This American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily, and many other publications. His poetry collection What the Dust Doesn’t Know was published last year by Salmon Poetry.

Q&A with Ted Kosmatka

Born from toy robots, fairy tale language, and a somewhat erratic writing process, Ted Kosmatka’s newest story, “The Beast Adjoins” [on sale now] taps into the universal emotions of the parent-child dynamic. Below, he digs further into the tale’s genesis, his varied career history, and a work of SF that’s recently gripped him.


Asimov Editor:  What is the story behind this piece?

TK:  I can probably thank my eleven-year-old son for sparking this story.  He’s a great builder of toy robots and spends a lot of his time creating these elaborate, complex figures out of plastic building sets, and they fold up in interesting ways, and have all kinds of strange body plans and moving parts.  One day he was showing me what he’d built, and it was just great, this robot with all these arms and legs, and a little swiveling rib cage that opened up and had another robot inside.  He asked me if I’d written any robot stories.  I hadn’t, really.  So I decided to write one.   

I didn’t really have an idea beyond that at first, just an intention to write something about robots, at some point, but sometimes if you open yourself up to a subject, the story will just kind of unfold for you later when you’re not really thinking about it, and that’s what happened in this case.  Later I got to thinking about consciousness, and the ways observation impacts quantum mechanics, and I realized that those things might have an interesting intersection with the idea of AI, so I started noodling on a beginning to see if it took me anywhere.  I think I originally wanted the story to have a timeless feel to the language, which would maybe make it feel a bit like a Grimm’s fairy tale.  The story went in its own weird direction once I started, and it didn’t end up anything like a fairy tale at all, really, which just shows that I’m either horrible at doing what I intend to do, or that stories have a mind of their own. 

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

TK:  This story is a stand-alone, though now that I’ve written it, I can imagine other stories could spin off from here.  It might be the kind of thing I return to again.  I’m just finishing up a new story that’s actually in the same universe as a story I wrote ten years ago, so you never know. 

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

TK:  I can usually relate to all the characters in a story at least a little, or I have trouble writing them.  There are certain universals that are good to tap into.  As a parent you have a burning fire inside you to protect your children, no matter what.  And as a child, you have this desire to believe that things will be okay no matter how scary they seem.  Both those conditions are things I can relate to, and they provided a kind of pivot for the story to circle.

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

TK:  Titles are tricky.  This one came to me pretty quick, before I’d even finished the first page, which was a nice relief.  There’s nothing worse than finishing a story and not having any idea what to call it.  In this case, the odd word combo just popped into my head as I was writing, and I thought it might make a good handle for the story.  When I told people the name, they didn’t hate it, so that was that.  It’s nice when a title has an interesting juxtaposition of words. 


“I think you just kind of stumble upon your recurrent themes when you write.  I never intend to aim at certain themes, but when you stack all your stories next to each other, there they are staring back at you.  And then you’re like, oh, that’s what I write about, I guess.  The patterns pop out.  I try not to dig into the reasons too much or I might accidentally change something.” 


 

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

TK:  I read a lot of Asimov’s robots when I was a kid, so sending a robot story to Asimov’s felt pretty cool.  Like coming full circle.     

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

TK:  I think you just kind of stumble upon your recurrent themes when you write.  I never intend to aim at certain themes, but when you stack all your stories next to each other, there they are staring back at you.  And then you’re like, oh, that’s what I write about, I guess.  The patterns pop out.  I try not to dig into the reasons too much or I might accidentally change something. 

AE:  What is your process?

TK:  Whatever the most efficient way to write is, I’m sure I’m not doing it.  I’m pretty ADD and tend to jump around a lot, and work on multiple projects at the same time, switching between novels and short stories.  At some point, I usually find myself staring at the screen, down the home stretch, and I think to myself that I’m finishing the project before I get up from the chair, no matter what.  It’s like a vow.  So then I switch from being pretty scattered to having this almost pathological focus.  That often means that I end up writing all night, at a twelve-hour stretch, and send stuff off as a submission at seven a.m. 

AE:  What other projects are you currently working on?

TK:  On the fiction side of things, I have a finished novel in the hopper now which I’m trying to figure out what to do with.  It’s a far-future post-apocalypse that I spent a couple of years writing. I’m also writing for a video game that I’m really excited about. 

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

TK:  This week, my answer would be that Mars show on Netflix.  I’ve been binge watching that thing, and I’m practically overcome with grief that I was born too soon to get the chance to be a part of something like that in real life.  I love the way they mix real science with the fictional aspects of that SFnal universe.  It’s a tough balance to strike, but they really pulled it off.

AE:  What SFnal predictions do you find yourself thinking about for the future?

TK:  SFnal predictions are tough and I have a tendency to think about the negative. The one bright prediction I’d make, though, is that I think we’ll get out into space in a big way before too much longer. So that’s one positive thing. I’m just young enough that nobody has stepped on the Moon during my entire life, and I’d love to see that change.  I’m also interested in how solar power advances might free us up from the grid.

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

TK:   I’ve done a lot of different jobs over the years, starting with a paper route at age ten.  I detassled corn in high school, and painted houses.  I washed dishes at a truck stop, and shoveled manure in a zoo.  I’ve been a steel worker in the Indiana mills—a job I did for years—and then a lab tech at a research lab, and most recently, a video game writer in Seattle.   All these different jobs have had an effect on me, I’m sure, though it’s hard to say what, exactly.  Work is how I tend to understand the world, so it helps me center my stories, I think, if I know the kind of work that’s being done by the characters.  In some stories, that work might just be survival.  But that still counts.  It’s always job number one.

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

TK:  If folks would like, they can check out my website at https://tedkosmatka.us/.

I have links there to a couple of novels available, if anyone wants to try my longer fiction.


Ted Kosmatka’s most recent story, “Sacrificial Iron,” was a winner of Asimov’s 34th Annual Readers Award. The author returns to our pages with another story set in deep space.

The End of the World and We Knew It

Below, Peter Wood answers the question, “What makes an apocalypse story worth following to the ends of the Earth?” Throughout are many examples you might want to add to your reading list, but first—be sure to check out Peter’s story, “Why I’ll Never Get Tenure,” in our July/August issue [on sale now]!


by Peter Wood

Growing up, nobody liked science fiction in my house except me. My parents had exactly one science fiction book. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957). I read it in high school and, to this day, still think it’s the best book about the apocalypse ever written.

With a shout out to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Douglas Adams classic (1979).

Both have the world ending in fairly believable fashions.

What makes a great end of the world story? No preaching. Great characters. A plausible enough premise. And a plot that doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.

No idiot plot, in other words. There are a lot of great examples and I can’t possibly begin to name them all. I’ll focus on a few.

In On the Beach, a nuclear war has wiped out the Northern Hemisphere, and radioactive winds will soon eradicate everywhere else. The residents of a small Australia town have, at most, months left. Full-fledged characters make the nightmare scenario all too real. And Shute doesn’t resort to preaching. The scene where a nuclear sub discovers that radio transmissions from North America have been caused by a soda bottle caught in a set of blinds, not survivors, speaks volumes and is a real kick in the teeth.

The movie version (1959) stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire and is rightfully considered a classic. Although snubbed by the Oscars, it is worth viewing still. Just read the book first.

Then there’s Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank (1959). A limited nuclear war cuts off a small Florida town from the rest of the world. Frank, though, presents the day after the holocaust as a rollicking adventure. Yeah, it’s not all peaches and cream, but Frank’s characters seem to welcome the apocalypse. They can finally achieve their potential, unfettered by civilization’s restraints.


I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies.


 

The oddest take on nuclear Armageddon has to be Robert Heinlein’s Farmham’s Freehold. (1955). The bomb shelter holding tough guy Farmham and his long suffering family gets shot hundreds of years into the future somehow by the force of the exploding nuclear bombs. Don’t ask. He discovers, to his horror, that Black people now run the planet, thanks to the atomic war that largely left Africa alone. Never mind that the new ruling class has apparently had peace for dozens of generations; Farmham wants WASPs running the joint. He finds a way to travel back to the past where his goal isn’t to prevent the nuclear war. He can live with that. He just doesn’t want those uppity Africans in charge. A very racist book that has not aged well.

A plague is also a good cause for the apocalypse. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1959), and The Stand (1978) by Stephen King are well known examples.

King’s novel might be my favorite of the plague subgenre. A fatal miscue at a military lab releases a deadly virus that kills over 99% of humanity. What’s not to like? Great characters, a slam dunk premise, and an epic battle between the massed forces of good and evil. And King avoids my least favorite trope of the fictional apocalypse. The characters neither devolve into savagery nor turn on each other. They work together and act pretty damned sensibly in trying to keep civilization afloat.

Aside from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), I can’t really think of many examples of this trope that works. Ray Bradbury pulls it off in The Smile. Maybe the Mad Max franchise. Revolution (2012-2014), the abysmal science fiction series, would have us believe that everything would collapse and warring bands would take over just because the power stopped working. Uh huh.

The Scarlet Plague has people just lose interest in reading and learning for no apparent reason. Same with Earth Abides. Neither book justifies why people would do that except to imply that somehow it’s inevitable. This begs the question of how civilization and modern technology ever developed in the first place.

Carmac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) pulls it off. I buy his savages making life unpleasant for everything for three reasons. One, the prose is perfect. Two, the story is kinda allegory and doesn’t need to be taken seriously. And, three, he, like King, balances out the bad guys with good guys who are just trying to raise their families and keep the fires of civilization going.

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John tells several simultaneous narratives covering from the start of the plague to the survivors trying to cope. She presents a world where people don’t turn on each other just for the hell of it. Aside from a religious cult that rocks the boat, everybody tries to get along. And to her credit, St. John presents the religious zealots as fully developed, sometimes sympathetic, characters with back stories. Imagine that.

I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies. A world where dead bodies can survive indefinitely without breathing or food makes about as much sense as cars tooling up and down the highways without engines or fuel.

I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on zombies when the science in most of my stories is balderdash. And Phillip Dick’s 1953 apocalyptic novella, Second Variety, has a preposterous plot when you think about it, but it’s such a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia that I don’t care.

I like the take of the film 28 days Later (2002), where survivors aren’t dealing with zombies. They’re fighting infected people who are very much alive, but act like zombies. There’s plenty of idiot plot to go around, but the film at least tries to present a plausible science.

My favorite zombie story is I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. The last man of Earth deals with plague victims who have mutated into zombie-like creatures. But they’re not caricatures. They can think and don’t have that Space Invaders death wish of many movie and literary monsters. The hero behaves in a very logical way and, although not an educated man, he painstakingly tries to understand the science of these new humans. Don’t waste your time with the movies by the way. All three versions stupidly ignore the plot of the novella. The Vincent Price version, The Last Man on Earth (1964), comes closest, but the book is still far superior. Charlton Heston at least makes The Omega Man (1971) fun. I am Legend (2007), the Will Smith version, is just insulting, with an ending that undermines the entire movie.

The characters in the novella I am Legend, even the zombies, act like people. They have backstories, flaws, and an inherent logic that made me want to keep reading. I guess that’s what it boils down to. Give me good solid characters and I’ll follow a story anywhere. Even to the end of the world.


Peter Wood is a lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his very patient wife. He points out Frying Pan Tower is real and is actually a bed and breakfast. He’s glad he works in the relatively calm field of criminal defense and not cutthroat academia. Some days it just doesn’t pay for a college professor to get out of bed. When Murphy’s Law kicks in, any professor will throw up her hands and admit “Why I’ll Never Get Tenure.”