In this week’s blog post, we chat with Ursula Whitcher, whose latest Asimov’s story, “The Fifteenth Saint,” appears in our [May/June issue, on sale now!]. Read on to learn about what inspired “The Fifteenth Saint,” and discover how Whitcher balances her fiction career with her work as a mathematician.
Asimov’s Editor: What is the setting of “The Fifteenth Saint”? Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
Ursula Whitcher: “The Fifteenth Saint” takes place on the far-distant planet of Nakharat. That’s the same setting as several of my other published stories, including “The Last Tutor,” which came out in Asimov’s in 2022. But “Fifteenth Saint” is set quite a few years earlier than “Last Tutor”: the characters and situations stand alone!
AE: What was the inspiration for this piece?
UW: The spark for this story is extremely erudite—maybe that’s fitting for a piece involving a judge obsessed with poetry! In his dissertation on the early modern Ottoman empire, Jonathan Parkes Allen describes a sprawling book written by a sixteenth-century Sufi mystic and equipped with a marvelous technology: an index. By consulting the index, a reader could find whichever piece of the holy man’s advice was most relevant to their specific problem. The book simulated the mind of the saint.
I loved the way Allen’s analysis highlighted the disruptive potential of the lowly index, a technology we take for granted. I also knew that my far-future Nakhorians were intensely suspicious of certain technologies—specifically artificial intelligence, which they viewed as destructive and amoral. I wondered how they would respond to a simulation of a saint.
AE: The protagonist of “The Fifteenth Saint” is named Sannali Emenev, but some characters call him Sani or Nalek. What’s with all the different nicknames?
UW: If Tolstoy’s characters can have a stack of different names, so can mine! But more specifically, the man Emenev is in love with calls him Sani, while Emenev’s family calls him Nalek. Nalek is the normal Nakhorian nickname for a boy named Sannali; Emenev’s family has used it ever since he was a little kid. Sani is a gender-neutral nickname, and by using it, Emenev’s friend acknowledges that Emenev’s approach to gender and sexuality is more complex than one might guess from his very conventional public presentation.
AE: It sounds like you do a lot of research for your writing. What’s the most surprising piece of research that went into “The Fifteenth Saint”?
UW: I learned that nobody manufactures snow tires for buses! I replayed the same thirty seconds of a news story on Montreal bus maintenance on a loop, watching city workers adapt tire surfaces for winter weather and imagining how the process would look different with lots more robots.
AE: The artificially intelligent book in “Fifteenth Saint” often quotes poetry. What’s your favorite poetic form?
UW: I’ve never met a poetic form I didn’t enjoy, from Latin hexameters to iamb patterns inspired by Yoon Ha Lee’s dystopian hexarchate. But one of the forms that has most fascinated me in recent years is the duplex, an English form involving cascading couplets that Jericho Brown invented after experimenting with ghazals. I first encountered the duplex in a poem that ends:
What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city.
You can’t accuse me of sleeping with a man.
AE: A fraught, queer relationship and hints of the supernatural—I can see why this poem resonated with you! What other poetry have you been enjoying recently?
UW: I really enjoyed Alycia Pirmohamed’s collection Another Way to Split Water, especially the poem “Meditation While Plaiting My Hair.”
There are ways in which fiction can feel more personal than math—but I never have to worry that a fictional lemma will be false!
AE: In an earlier interview, you mentioned Le Guin as an influence. What other science fiction writers are major influences on your work?
UW: When I was twelve or so, I read and re-read R.A. MacAvoy without knowing how to explain why: her books weren’t conventionally escapist in a way I recognized, and there were definitely pieces I was too young to understand. I think some of MacAvoy’s meditative approach from books like Tea with the Black Dragon seeps into “The Fifteenth Saint.”
On a more recent re-read of C.J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station, I was startled by her invocation of “the Deep”! In Cherryh’s work, the Deep is the parts of the galaxy that aren’t well-traveled, while in the universe of Nakharat it’s a different kind of space that enables faster-than-light travel. But I unconsciously picked up on Cherryh’s use of the Deep for symbolic effect!
AE: Writing and submitting creative work can entail setbacks and heartbreak. Why do you keep doing this?
UW: I think I have a different take on this process than many newer writers because, in my day job, I’m a mathematician. The cycle of submission, rejection, and resubmission is broadly similar across disciplines. But when doing research mathematics, not only do you inevitably worry about whether your project will be popular, you have to confront the possibility that you might be utterly, incontrovertibly wrong. I spent three months last summer trying to count solutions to the same equation in three different ways and getting three different answers, and this is a story with a happy ending: I eventually figured out which of those numbers was correct!
As a PhD student, I spent a lot of time being scared, first that I would never prove an original result, and then that the first time was a fluke. But as I matured as a mathematician, I realized that every project had its share of confusion and uncertainty, as well as flashes of joy. I began to treat managing the swirl of emotion around research not as separate from the work, but as part of the work.
I took some of that acceptance of the swirl with me as I started to submit fiction for publication. There are ways in which fiction can feel more personal than math—but I never have to worry that a fictional lemma will be false!
AE: Can you tell us about some mathematics you’ve been enjoying lately?
UW: I loved playing with the tools on Gabriel Dorfsman-Hopkins’s website that offer ways to visualize arithmetic in the p-adic numbers. Individual p-adic numbers are familiar fractions, but the notion of distance for p-adics is very different from our usual ideas of what makes two numbers close together. These tools suggest different kinds of intuition—and they’re full of rainbows!
AE: Are there more Nakharat stories in the pipeline?
UW: Yes! I am absolutely thrilled to tell you that North Continent Ribbon, a collection of Nakharat stories including an all-new novelette, is coming out from Neon Hemlock Press in 2024. When you put all the Nakharat stories together, the society itself becomes a character, with its own sort of arc plot. I’m so excited to share that transformation with the world.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
UW: I’m on Twitter as superyarn and I’m email@example.com on Mastodon. My website is yarntheory.net, and if you want updates about what I’m writing and publishing, you can subscribe to my newsletter at buttondown.email/yarntheory. I try to make sure every newsletter issue has at least one really good cat picture.