Growing the Story Seed

Author Marta Randall shares some of the inspiration and craft behind her latest story “Sailing to Merinam,” available [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]

By Marta Randall

As with almost all of my stories, a single element came first: here it was a voice, a young, opinionated, irascible voice. I have learned to pay attention to these small, seemingly unconnected bits; many times they are story seeds. Of course, sometimes they are not and can either lie there, expiring on the keyboard, or lead me down a path that ends abruptly, leaving me feeling rather foolish. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, they turn into stories and take me along with them. This may sound like some form of auctorial folderol but the stories that please me most, the stories that keep me going, are the ones that take off and keep me guessing as they unfold themselves. Which is probably why I write so little these days. Inspiration is an increasingly rare and expensive commodity.

And I hasten to say that not all writers work this way. I know plenty of us who plan each story out in detail, writers who outline extensively; Kate Wilhelm, a splendid writer and splendid teacher, said she couldn’t even start until she knew a story down to the layout of the furniture in rooms that never even appeared in a story. I would never question her writing procedures, but me? I’d go nuts. A story tells itself to me as much as I tell it to you. I end up at the tips of a lot of perilous limbs that way and have to write my way back, but the best fruit grows out there. Trust me on this one.

“Sailing to Merinam” [in our current issue] is an offshoot of a larger world I’ve been playing with for a few decades now: What would a society, loosely based on Western culture, be like if it had developed without the strictures of an overarching religious establishment to dictate its development? Cherek, the country that is the main focus of Mapping Winter and The River South, has developed socially and politically without any major religions although it does support minor cults who worship the Mother, the Father, and Death. It is, taken all in all, a rational and tolerant culture, its guilds interested in expressing their rivalry through progress. A few decades before the time of this story, merchant ships encountered the country of Merinam and set up trade. Merinam’s religion is deeply engrained and colors all aspects of its culture. The shock on both sides is profound, but the last thing I wanted to write was a polemic. Besides, that young irritable voice wouldn’t let me. If I have failed here, it is in that my own lack of tolerance for the intolerant has leaked into my narrator. So be it.


     I made my first sale in the early 1970s to Michael Moorcock’s New Wave anthology series New Worlds and have been writing and teaching and editing SF and Fantasy, off and on, ever since. You can find my full bibliography and a sporadically updated blog at MartaRandall.com, or can follow me on FaceBook under my own name (I have no shame).
I was born in Mexico City and raised in Berkeley, California, and spent most of my adult life practicing as a paralegal specializing in Federal Trademark Law (you may yawn). I have, for my sins, served one term as vice-president and two terms as president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. About ten years ago I left the tangle of active earthquake faults in Northern California for life on the side of an active volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i, which occasionally makes me homesick by shaking.

Q&A With William Ledbetter

William Ledbetter won a 2016 Nebula Award for “The Long Fall Up,” and has now written a sequel to that beloved novella called “The Short Path to Light,” available [in our March/April issue, on sale now!]. We spoke with him about the inspiration behind this new story and why patience is a virtue for up-and-coming writers.

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
William Ledbetter: “The Short Path to Light” is a sequel to my novelette “The Long Fall Up” that won a 2016 Nebula Award. It takes place a month after the events in the first story with some of the same characters and is really a product of reader requests. I had several readers ask me about the fate of the AI character from the first story. With comments like “You have to save Huizhu?” and “What’s going to happen to Huizhu?” I realized there was more to this story and found that I really wanted to revisit these characters.

AE: Since this story is part of a larger universe, do you see future developments?
WL: This is the second part of what will hopefully be a three or four story arc about humanity and our AI partners breaking the shackles that prevent us from truly growing as a civilization.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
WL: Even though I am not a priest, I probably relate the most to the Reverend Gabby. Like Jager in the first story, Gabby starts out with preconceptions and a mostly intransigent set of beliefs, yet over time is willing to reconsider and change her worldview based on new information. Doing that is difficult and it’s a constant struggle for me, so I like to show characters overcoming cognitive dissonance and admitting when they were mistaken. Especially, when it is something that can negatively impact others.

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?
WL: One theme that pops up a lot in my writing is humanity merging with our technology. That is the focus of my Killday novel series and I have multiple short stories that explore aspects of the idea. That line of thinking crystalized for me after reading a long, rambling article in Wired magazine titled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us” where Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, discussed the plausibility of a technological singularity. It was about twenty years ago, so I don’t remember a lot of details, but it boiled down to three likely scenarios. We would be destroyed by our technology, we will retain control of it or we will merge with it.  I thought the third one was the least discussed in SF, yet was the most interesting and most hopeful.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
WL: I usually work on several things at once. If I stall on one project, it’s usually because I’m too close to it and need a break. So, I pour my effort into something else for several days or even weeks, and that almost always works for me.


This is the second part of what will hopefully be a three or four story arc about humanity and our AI partners breaking the shackles that prevent us from truly growing as a civilization.


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
WL: I’m working on the third novel in my “Killday” series. The first two books, “Level Five” and “Level Six” are already out in audio format from Audible Originals but will be coming out in print and e-book formats from Interstellar Flight Press in August 2022 (Level Five) and maybe January 2023 (Level Six.) The third book, “Level Seven” will also be out in all formats in 2023.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe to live in, what universe would it be, and why?
WL
: I think it would be Greg Bear’s universe from “Darwin’s Radio.” I like the idea of humanity evolving more empathy and intercommunication.  We do see that, each generation seems to be pushing toward something better, but in these books it happens in one or two generations and that appeals to my impatience as well.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
WL: Well, I’m a tech geek, so science fiction gadgets fascinate me. I want two of them to become real. First is matter transmitters, like those used in Star Trek and Niven’s books. I would love to be able to spend more time with friends who live hours away or in other countries (or eventually on other planets) by simply popping into their house or a bar or restaurant of choice. Second would be an upgrade that would enable me to remember everything I “want” to remember.  Of course, our phones, with instant access to the internet and built in cameras are close, but I’ve lived a long time and have forgotten way too many amazing things over the years.

AE: What are you reading right now?
WL: In the last few years I’ve been reading a lot more non-fiction, perhaps out of some desire to get a better understanding of the world we live in. One such book that I’m reading right now is “Collapse” by Jared Diamond. It examines past cultures, how and why they collapsed, and if we can learn any lessons from them. I’m learning a lot so far. And I’m looking forward to reading some science fiction next with Derek Kunsken’s “Quantum War” which is the third book in his excellent Quantum Evolution series.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
WL: Most of my advice to up-and-coming writers can be summed up in one word. Patience. Everything in this industry seems to take forever. Hearing back from publications or agents about submissions or queries, ever selling a piece to a top market, having your work actually come out in print once you sell it, editing a written novel, etc. It all takes a lot of time and effort. It can be maddeningly slow and a big source of discouragement for new writers. But I say it’s usually worth the wait. Most of all I encourage writers to be patient with themselves. Don’t rush your writing. Take the time to make it something special. Edit, revise, tweak, workshop and polish every piece you write. Delete huge chunks and rewrite. Don’t be afraid to make the difficult choices. And don’t be so hard on yourselves. Most successful writers were at one point in the same place you are right now.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
WL: Website: www.williamledbetter.com
Twitter: @Ledbetter_sf
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/william.ledbetter/


William Ledbetter is a Nebula-award winning science fiction author based out of Texas. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, including Analog, Writers of the Future, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and more.

Q&A With Steve Rasnic Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem has always been fascinated by technology and the movement of life’s stages. His new story asks readers, “Do You Remember?”Check it out in our [March/April issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece, and do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

Steve Rasnic Tem: The fact I lost my wife Melanie (also an Asimov’s contributor) 7 years ago has led many reviewers to conclude my stories during this period have been about processing my grief. This may be true in part, but I’ve always written about grief, about losing people, about getting old. These are subjects which have interested me since I was in my thirties. Now they have more personal relevance.
Although my emotional connection to a subject often drives my fiction—I write about what I care about—my stories are rarely autobiographical. Even when you try to write your own experiences into a story the creative process changes them into whatever is needed by your narrative. You may still be telling the truth, but it’s an emotional, not a factual truth.
Someone once observed that writers tend to write characters close to their own age. Young writers write about finding a mate and starting a life. Slightly older writers write about raising kids and marital discord. Middle aged writers often write about divorce and starting over, and their fears over aging and a loss of vitality. Older writers write about being old and looking back or worrying about whatever is to come. I suppose if you get old enough, you start writing about dead people.
For the most part I’ve tended to look forward, writing stories about people a decade or more older than I was at the time. I write about personal and human issues which concern me, but my characters tend to struggle more than I do. Struggle is where our humanity is on full display.
Now that I’m past 70, I observe the struggles of older people from a closer, more involved POV. I find it troubling with all our technical prowess we haven’t done enough to make it easier for older people to function effectively in the world. Sharp minds with years of knowledge and experience find their participation limited because of mobility, strength, isolation, incontinence, and sometimes perceptual and cognitive issues. We could do much better finding solutions for these impairments.
Like many of my science fiction stories, “Do You Remember?” began with a couple of near-future technological developments and my thoughts about how those innovations might affect the lives of ordinary citizens. The first is round-the-clock surveillance, a development which most of us fear, but an older person (or that person’s family) anxious about dying at home without medical care might eagerly sign up for such an option. This option might help facilitate the second development: simulacra of the dead to facilitate grieving or for other therapeutic or educational purposes. Experts in AI tend to disagree as to whether we’ll ever be able to upload an entire human consciousness, but an intelligent imitation you could interact with seems entirely possible. But it will still be an awkward relationship for the average human family, and fraught with emotional complication.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this story?
SRT: When I think of Asimov’s I think of stories with great humanity, stories in which the emotional and psychological impact of technologies on real human beings takes center stage. So, this particular story was originally written with Asimov’s in mind.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
SRT: “Do You Remember?” is my twelfth short story in Asimov’s. My first was “Interlude in a Laboratory” in the August 1981 issue when George H. Scithers was the editor. I’ve also published numerous poems in the magazine.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
SRT: Like most writers I have a ton of influences. Generally, my literary influences lean toward the modern fabulists and writers of the supernatural: Kafka, Borges, Barthelme, Brautigan, Calvino, Ramsey Campbell, Robert Aickman, MR James. Gestalt Dream Theory has been another inspiration—I try to create elements in my stories which mirror the protagonists’ conflicts and concerns. For a supernatural story I can select items from the real world around me. For a science fiction story, I must speculate about future developments and create those items and landscapes which echo my characters’ dilemmas.
It took me awhile to find a voice for my science fiction stories which I felt was truly mine. I looked to SF writers like Ray Bradbury, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison, but the biggest influences on my science fiction have been the writers I have known and workshopped with: Ed Bryant, Connie Willis, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, and others whose work I consider “humanist” science fiction. They have consistently produced stories about real human concerns which have moved me. The main thing I look for in any piece of fiction is its ability to make me feel something. I want to laugh. I want to be brought to tears.

AE: How did you break into writing?
SRT: In high school I started submitting stories to Ted White at Amazing Stories. He never bought any of those stories (nor should he have), but he was always encouraging. I continued to submit to literary and SF mags in college without success. I got into the Master’s in Creative Writing program at Colorado State University and there I got a handle on the craft and started placing poems and short prose. My SF education continued as part of the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop started by Ed Bryant. My first professional sale was to Ramsey Campbell in 1979 for his anthology New Terrors. Sales to such editors as Charlie Grant, Roy Torgeson, Stuart Schiff, and Lin Carter followed. (I finally got into Amazing Stories in 1987.)


The main thing I look for in any piece of fiction is its ability to make me feel something. I want to laugh. I want to be brought to tears.



AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
SRT: At this stage in my life projects tend to be fluid. I’ve given myself permission to complete only those projects which I really care about (although new opportunities always tend to insert themselves). I just published my 15th story collection Thanatrauma (Valancourt Books), and I’ve placed Rough Justice, my collected crime fiction, at a publisher yet to be named.  At some point I’d like to collect some of my Appalachian stories and another science fiction collection. I’m also working on a couple of novels, including one about AI and interstellar travel.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
SRT: There are so many! Many SF novels seem to assume we survived climate change—I’d certainly like to know how we accomplished that. Then there are the science fiction novels which suggest some sort of basic universal income is available. A guaranteed basic income and health care would free up our time to focus on better things and move humanity forward. But what would we do with our time? That’s always been the challenge. Finding meaningful work for most people is a goal worth working for.

AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
SRT: If you’re so inclined, find a workshop to join. They’re not for everybody, but they’re invaluable if they work for you. Learn how to self-edit. It might require taking a few weeks out of your life to read a good book on grammar and usage. You can always hire an editor for the basics, but if you can’t edit yourself, you’ll always be at a disadvantage. But something available to us all is reading. If you want to write short stories read a thousand short stories, but pay attention. How did the author begin and end the story? What was the strategy? How did they structure the middle? How did they lead your attention through the narrative? You can learn a great deal from this kind of analysis.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
SRT: I’ve taught—7th, 8th, 9th, and first-year college students. I’ve run a parts department for Allis-Chalmers light industrial equipment. But by far my longest career was as a technical writer/editor in the software industry: accounting programs, games, Oracle databases, auto parts inventory, interior design back-office software, and wood construction engineering. I mainly wrote manuals and online Help systems. This experience was invaluable to my fiction career, teaching me how to organize and write quickly for long periods of time, but especially focusing my attention on the basics of composition, grammar, and clear communication.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
SRT: My website is www.stevetem.com. My Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/steve.tem/. My Twitter handle is @Rasnictem. My Pinterest is stevetem. And my Amazon page is https://www.amazon.com/Steve-Rasnic-Tem/e/B001JRYPX6?.


Steve Rasnic Tem, a past winner of the Bram Stoker, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards, has published 470+ short stories. Recent collections include The Night Doctor & Other Tales (Centipede) and Thanatrauma: Stories (Valancourt). His novel Ubo is a dark science fictional tale about violence and its origins, featuring such viewpoint characters as Jack the Ripper and Stalin.  You can visit his home on the web at www.stevetem.com.

Q&A With Joel Armstrong

Author Joel Armstrong has always been more of a fantasy person than a science fiction person, he says. While his brain still reaches for dragons before robots, he discusses here why a graveyard walk helped inspire his new short story, “The Roots of Our Memories,” his first for Asimov’s, which appears [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story come to be?
Joel Armstrong: I had recently moved and I was taking a walk around a graveyard down the street. For some reason I’ve always enjoyed walking around graveyards. I passed an open grave, freshly dug and ready for a casket, which I had never seen before. It got me thinking about who would be buried there, what their story was. My city historically has a large Dutch settler population, so I also noticed the generations of families that were buried together, many of whom had the same names of people I know today. Specific places have specific histories, and it made me curious what all stories belonged to the people buried there.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?
JA: I relate most strongly to Aiden, the narrator. I studied literature in graduate school, so I can also get grumpy about how little we seem to pay attention to the past, and how we may be dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past. I can also become obsessive about my work at the expense of the other relationships in my life. I am fortunate like Aiden to have a spouse who is good at reminding me that there’s more to me than my work.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
JA: I have such trouble titling anything. Typically I’ll read through the finished piece, jotting down key words or ideas, and then I’ll play around with different combinations and word orders. Then I’ll ask my first readers which titles they like best from my brainstorm. Somehow they never pick the title I like best, but they’re usually right when I stop and think about it.

AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
JA: There’s a great page in Danielle Krysa’s children’s book How to Spot an Artist that says, “Artists can often be found turning ordinary stuff—like feathers, rocks, noodles, string, buttons, egg cartons, leaves, and even old socks—into art.” Writing isn’t so different. I feel like I pull bits and pieces of my stories from everywhere: a news article, a thought-provoking documentary, that conversation I had with my sibling ten years ago, that strange dream or interaction at a coffee shop. Inspirations can be found anywhere when I’m paying attention, and I think it’s important to be on the lookout for new-to-me influences.


I studied literature in graduate school, so I can also get grumpy about how little we seem to pay attention to the past, and how we may be dooming ourselves to repeat the mistakes of the past.


AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
JA: Much of my writing has to do with trauma and responses to trauma. In my twenties, that meant a lot of war fiction with very blunt, physical traumas like family loss, displacement, and long-term injury. More and more I seem to be interested in less loud forms of trauma and grief. Everyone has lost something, and I think how we respond to loss—both in our own lives and in those around us—says a lot about how we’ll move forward.

AE: What is your process?
JA: I’m a planner and an outliner. In development, I like to write down everything I know about the characters, plot, theme, and setting. Then I try to arrange the different character moments and plot points into a recognizable story arc. Inevitably I make changes or come up with new ideas during drafting. I try to get first-reader feedback on multiple drafts, writing up their comments in my own words with specific action steps. Once the characters and plot are all behaving, I do a last pass for anything else I can delete and basic proofreading.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
JA: I have several other stories out with magazines right now, one about a new mom trying to learn how to parent her shapeshifting baby, and another about an FBI investigator who works on a historical magical objects unit in Chicago. I’m also drafting a short piece about a woman who’s had a full memory transplant. I’m eyeing up a novel-length project to work on in 2022, a near-future story that revolves around the legal case for trees to own their own land on Earth.

AE: What are you reading right now?
JA: I’m currently listening to Martha Well’s Network Effect. I’m thoroughly enjoying her narrative voice, and the questions she’s asking about what it means to be human (or not human). I also recently read Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, which was simultaneously hilarious and horrifying. Her pacing and mystery-style plotting are enviable, as well as her deep senses of empathy and absurdity. Off genre, I finished Angeline Boulley’s Firekeeper’s Daughter, a page-turning thriller that was especially engrossing for me since it’s set in Michigan, in a city I grew up visiting almost every summer.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
JA: I’ve been lucky to work in a lot of writing-adjacent spaces, mainly as a composition instructor and editor. Editing nonfiction definitely gives me a less romantic approach to building fiction: What’s the “argument” or primary change in the protagonist I want to show? What “evidence” or plot points does the reader need to see to believe me? Teaching rhetoric and genre awareness in college classrooms has also swayed me toward the analytical side of fiction writing. I’ve worked home renovation and retail as well, and customer service is its own kind of gold mine for characterization. You see a very specific side of human behavior, for instance, when you’re working the winter holiday season in a mall.

AE: What is something we should know about you that we haven’t thought to ask?
JA: I’m naturally more of a fantasy person than a sci-fi person. I’ve written some sci-fi alternate history before, and the novel I’m drafting now is near-future, but my brain usually reaches for dragons before it reaches for robots. Stretching myself to ask different what-if questions and think about different kinds of impossibilities has been rewarding, though.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing? (IE: Social media handles, website URL…)
JA: You can find me online at joeljarmstrong.com. On social media, I’m most active on Instagram @joelarmstrongwrites.


Joel Armstrong is a speculative fiction writer based in the Midwest. His short stories have also appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Teleport Magazine. By day, he’s an editor at an indie publisher. He shares a home with his wife and two naughty cats in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Plot Arc, Character Arc, Storyteller’s Arc

What makes a story compelling? It’s all about plot. Author Stephanie Feldman breaks down her thoughts on how to make a great plot into an even better story. Read Feldman’s new story “The Boyfriend Trap” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

by Stephanie Feldman

I spend a lot of time teaching the technical points of plot mechanics: how a first turning point kicks a story into gear, how a midpoint elevates and transforms the dramatic stakes, and how a climactic sequence should feel both surprising and inevitable. My students and I take a mathematical approach, measuring pace in percentage of words, each transition hinged on a precise moment of success or setback.

But the most perfectly plotted story in the world can still be just that—perfectly calculated and meticulous. Admirable, but not moving; satisfying, but not memorable, like a tasty meal that leaves you hungry an hour later.

A great plot isn’t a great story. For that, you need something primal driving—or tormenting—the character. Your character may have a flaw (they’re selfish, they lack confidence) or a personal struggle (they’re desperate to please their mom, their marriage is unhappy) or a fear (they’re afraid to be alone, they’re afraid to confront the past). This is the launching pad for their emotional journey. Such a journey doesn’t require the character to become a better person—there’s nothing satisfying about a forced moral lesson—but they do need to achieve a new level of honesty or insight.

In the spirit of that honesty, I’ll confess: I spend a lot of time explaining the above ideas, but I spend even more time struggling to get the formula right in my own stories—and then trying to make the stories sing.

This is no surprise, of course: Great art is hard to achieve. It’s why we get writers block, or goof off online, or clean our already clean houses, or dread the white screen or blank page. (Ok, to be very honest, my house is almost never already clean, but you know what I mean.)

This jump from plot arc, to emotional arc, to writing process reveals the third layer of the story: the writer’s own arc, the primal things that drive us and the needs we must confront.

No one wants to face their flaws—to admit they’re not perfect, that they’ve made mistakes, that they must do the hard work of forging and repairing relationships and examining their own feelings. But we must face these truths in order to be our own free selves. If our characters’ adventures force them to do this, then maybe our characters force us to do this, too.


Great art is hard to achieve. It’s why we get writers block, or goof off online, or clean our already clean houses, or dread the white screen or blank page.


That doesn’t mean a work of fiction is a diary entry, in plain sight or in code. Our fears can be gripping but still nebulous; specific but fueling a fictional scenario.

I hate to generalize “literary” and “genre” writers—I think our work has more in common than not—but I’ve found that my students writing SF, fantasy, and horror often start with a snappy concept, a ready-made plot springboard. For my story in this month’s Asimov’s, “The Boyfriend Trap,” that springboard was the image of a person in a wilderness landscape, and the lone light of civilization extinguishing. The world blinks out of existence, and when the lights come back on, she’s so relieved not to be alone that she doesn’t take a hard look at the world she’s returned to.

Before I could write the story, I had to determine why it mattered. What fear is even bigger than being lost in the wilderness or a destabilizing pitch black? The horror my character faces isn’t just a reality that she may not be able to trust; it’s a reality that serves as a mirror, or perhaps a spotlight, for all of the monstrous truths she’s kept in her own interior darkness.

As more and more of my work skews toward horror, I find that this is the key scalpel for revealing human experience: what scares us and why. Our stories need daunting and pressing problems, both realistic and speculative, but they also need our fears about society, humanity, and ourselves.

That’s what will make our stories, our carefully constructed plots and endings, meaningful and moving—that will become the spirit animating the bones, and will linger, like ghosts and great tales do.


Stephanie Feldman is the Pennsylvania-based author of The Angel of Losses, a Crawford Fantasy Award winner, and the forthcoming Saturnalia (2022). Her work has previously appeared in a range of science fiction magazines, including Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Q&A With Tom Purdom

Legendary science fiction author Tom Purdom sat down with our editor for a discussion about his earliest memories of reading and the inspiration for his new story “Long-Term Emergencies,”featured [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story come to be?
TP: I started with the idea that we need more stories about people who build windmills and fewer stories about people who fight giants. I ended up with a story about somebody who defends windmills but the original notion survived in the dialogue between Mukeree and Havardi near the beginning of the story.
I’d still like to write a few stories about people who build windmills.  Science fiction has produced some good examples but it’s hard. Our civilization advances, to a huge extent, through the labors of engineers and technicians but they don’t get a lot of coverage in our hero tales.  It’s easier to write stories about daredevil dragon slayers.

AE: Do you relate to any of the characters in this story?
TP: Mukeree and her husband.  There’s a natural tendency to think people will get bored with marriages when lifespans stretch to centuries. I’ve written stories that assume long-lived people will change spouses every few decades.  Many will. But I can visualize marriages that last for centuries. My wife and I were married for forty-six years.  Bonds develop as you share experiences.  The ties become firmer and more complicated.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
TP: Reading. The first time I read a novel, I was seven. The book was Felix Salten’s Bambi, and it was a magical experience. There I was, in a forest, listening to the animals talk. Naturally I went looking for more.
I didn’t know you could skip prefaces so I soon discovered all this marvelous stuff was produced by writers. Then, when I had been reading for awhile, I read something I’d written at a family gathering and my favorite aunt said “You should be a writer.”  What could be more wonderful?  You wrote things and people, all over the world, read them and had the kind of experiences I had when I read my favorite books and stories.

AE: What kind of fiction did you read as a child?
TP: I started off with Bambi and I continued reading talking animal books and books about animals—books like Albert Payson Terhune’s collie stories and Ernest Thompson Seton’s fictionalized biography of a typical American wolf. I added historical fiction as I approached my teens.  I read Dumas and Rafael Sabatini along with the historical novelists who wrote the best sellers of the ’40s and ’50s—Thomas Costain, Frank Yerby, Samuel Shellabarger.
I mentioned talking animal books when I was on a panel with Gardner Dozois and he noted that most science fiction readers read talking animal books when they were young.  He felt there was a natural connection between aliens and talking animals. He asked the audience if they’d read talking animal books and most of them raised their hands.
You can say something similar about historical fiction.  A science fiction story is a story set in an imaginary future. A historical is a story set in a real past, as imagined by the writer.  We even use the term “Future History” when we describe certain kinds of science fiction backgrounds.
Shakespeare contributed another stream to my childhood reading.  When I was ten, I read some excerpts from Shakespeare in a children’s encyclopedia and I loved the feel of the language. The paperback rack at a local drugstore contained a thick red Pocket Book, Five Great Tragedies of Shakespeare. I bought it for twenty-five cents and read Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and Romeo and Juliet.  Over the next few years I read most of the tragedies and comedies. That may have been one reason I drifted into reading historicals.
Nowadays, a lot of Young Adult fiction deals with realities like divorce, abusive parents, and contemporary social issues.  I don’t have any quarrel with that but I disagree with people who argue young people need that kind of fiction because it gives them stories they can relate to.  I didn’t have any trouble relating to Dr. Dolittle. Or D’Artagnan. Or Freddy the Pig. Or Romeo Montague.

AE: What are you trying to do when you write a story?
TP: Primarily, I’m trying to create a story that will give readers the kind of experience I have when I read a story that really affects me.
I have two working definitions that summarize the vision that guides me when I’m writing science fiction. One is that a science fiction story is a story about people coping with some development that could take place in the future. The dramatic situation at the heart of the story—the conflict or problem—is created by the future development.
My other working definition is a quote from Frederick Pohl. When he was editing the Galaxy magazines many decades ago, he said he was looking for stories about “interesting people doing interesting things in an interesting future.”
I’m also fond of an exchange between E.M. Forster and a literary theorist.  The theorist opined that “The whole intricate question of technique in the novel comes down to point of view.” Forster, who was a working novelist, and one of the best, replied that “The whole intricate question of technique in the novel comes down to the writer’s ability to bounce the reader into believing what he says, and keep him bounced.”
In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the old man, Santiago, thinks about the fish he’s struggling with.  It’s a good fish, he thinks. “It will feed many people and bring a good price on the market.” To me, that’s a great way to think about all the arts, if you’re trying to be a practitioner. You feed a few people. You make a little money.



AE: Does science fiction have any social value?
TP: It fills two important social functions, in my opinion, and they are both natural byproducts of the drive to create strong, interesting stories.
I started reading science fiction in 1950 and I’ve now lived through seventy-one years of the future that followed that momentous development in my literary life.  I can tell you, with some authority, that science fiction is a good psychological preparation for the changes you will encounter over the course of your life. Science fiction writers don’t predict the future but their creations foreshadow many of the changes you will live through and give you a deep rooted understanding that the world is going to change. Science fiction is a vaccine that creates mental antibodies against future shock.
Science fiction can protect you from a common human weakness—the need to attach yourself to some cause so you can feel your life is meaningful.  Over the last few centuries, the physical sciences have given us an awesome picture of an immense universe with a history that covers billions of years and probably stretches billions of years into the future. Science fiction transforms that vision into a saga. You don’t have to fall in behind a Great Leader or join the crowd marching in a Great Cause. You’re already participating in a magnificent epic—the story of the human species. You can contribute to that story just by going about your daily life, just by pursuing your own ambitions and desires.  Many people feel the cosmic background reduces us. For me, it has the opposite effect.

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, available on the website, contains ten chapters and 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.  Journey Press recently reprinted his first novel, I Want the Stars, fifty-five years after it was first published as an Ace paperback.

Goldie Origins

Growing up in a birder’s paradise like New Zealand fostered Sean Monaghan’s curiosity and appreciation for avian life. In this interview, Monaghan tells our editor how the story of one spectacular osprey inspired him to write Goldie, his new novella available [in our January February issue, on sale now!]

by Sean Monaghan

Some years ago I came across a wonderful natural history book by Helen Armitage, Lady of the Loch—The Incredible Story of Britain’s Oldest Osprey (Constable, 2011), about an osprey, Lady, whose tenacity, endurance and patience was quite extraordinary.

The ospreys are migratory birds, traveling each year between northern Africa and Scotland. I understand that. Images I’ve seen of the Scottish winter would make the warm climes closer to the equator quite attractive to a bird of prey.

Scotland’s very nice, I hear, but I would be the same in winter: get me closer to the equator. In New Zealand we have milder winters and I still find myself seeking out warmth.

Coming from New Zealand, I’ve grown up surrounded with birds. They are the dominant natural fauna here. Save for a small bat, we have no native mammals, and save for one shy spider that lives only in the dunes, we have nothing venomous and out to bite you (I’m thinking here of our close neighbors in Australia, where it seems that every second creature you come across would love to inject poison into your bloodstream).

As with the Scottish ospreys, many of New Zealand’s birds are fabulously migratory. Some stay on the wing for weeks as they cross the Pacific from Alaska or Russia. I’m fortunate to live a half hour’s drive from Foxton Estuary, recognized as being wetland of international significance for the birds which fly in to breed each year. Plovers, knots, godwits, spoonbills and others. Over ninety species of birds call the estuary home (though those migratory ones, only for part of the year).

It’s a treat to visit and wander the path at the estuary’s edge and watch the birds feeding on the mudflats. I’m no birder, but there are plenty of others who are. They stride along with powerful lenses and cameras and identification books, and are always thrilled to share their knowledge.

I’ve learned more from their enthusiasm than from anything I’ve read.

The story of Lady and her endurance really engaged me. For one, ospreys are stunningly beautiful birds—one of the photos of Lady she looks like a grumpy teen, with her feathers seeming to be “gelled” into spikes, her upper eyelid slightly curved down and her bill a hook that seems ready to make short work of a hapless rabbit, weasel or starling.

Lady has a real personality, and she returns year after year from Africa to raise new chicks. A record-breaking twenty years. In the period related in the book, she accepts a new suitor, Laird, a much younger, but enthusiastic male osprey. Laird is somewhat bumbling. He struggles with catching fish. He manages to bash Lady’s head with sticks as he attempts to woo her with his clumsy attempts at nest building.

The story is a wonderful, moving document of an individual bird’s resilience in the face of a changing environment.

Reading about Lady’s trials and dogged toughness, I wanted to see if I could tell a story about that kind of tenacity.

Being a science fiction writer, I knew there were opportunities to borrow something of Lady’s story and give it a whole different take.

After a couple of false starts I found the place where there was a true story. I’ve always loved creating complex environments, and discovering the vast broken plateaus of Karella, and the ecosystems there was fascinating.


Reading about Lady’s trials and dogged toughness, I wanted to see if I could tell a story about that kind of tenacity.


As I’d borrowed from the Scottish landscape, I also freely borrowed from Venezuela and Guyana’s. The table mountains—tepui—in the highlands are remarkable for their scale and ecosystems. Already made famous in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where explorers reach the summit to discover isolated worlds where dinosaurs have survived (Michael Crichton borrowed the title for his Jurassic Park sequel).

More recently, the tepui featured in the Disney/Pixar film Up, again with lost fauna and somewhat whimsical landscapes.

The tepui are home to the world’s tallest uninterrupted waterfall, Angel Falls (a version of which appears in Up). Looking at photos of the falls, you get a real sense of the sheer scale of the cliffs and the isolation they create for the mountain plateaus above.

Of course I happily took liberties the the landscape. This is on another world, after all. Karella’s mountains are higher, closer and much more numerous. The geological processes that carved up the old plateau are, trust me, quite reasonable. I think. The division between the ecosystems above and below, is just what you would find. The dense rainforests below, and the hardy and tough meadows and diminutive trees in copses clinging to the rocky surface above.

I did enjoy writing about Karella’s landforms, the flora, and most especially the fauna. The place and the story almost let me feel right at home.

I do hope you enjoy reading “Goldie,” and thanks for letting me share some of the story’s background here.


Sean Monaghan is a New Zealand-based writer of science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. His work has perviously appeared in Asimov’s and elsewhere. Find out more about Sean at his website [https://seanmonaghan.com/]

Q&A with Betsy Aoki

Betsy Aoki is a poet and game producer who comes from a journalism background. Her new poem “Messaging the Dead” bridges attempts to bridge the distance between the living and the dead, and you can read it [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
BA: “Messaging the Dead” came about as I was thinking about how we wait for our computers and devices to complete our sentences. Search engines will suggest how to complete your search terms; your phone autocorrect will try to guess what word(s) you want to offer up next. It’s an interruptive act, with a machine trying to be helpful.  Once upon a time, in the early days of messenger software (chat rooms, icq, etc.) we were amazed how new words took life without our typing them. Now, we have daemons inside the software whispering in our ear, suggesting intent and phrasing to us.
We talk about machines and phone lines as if they are alive. Magical. Even as so many of us are typing into the absence of others: widows, widowers, the newly-orphaned, the bereaved.  All of the places and people they used to type words to on a daily basis are now closed account, dead machines, wiped phones.
Like the artist’s Wind Telephone in Ōtsuchi, Japan where folks pick up the phone to have conversations with their departed loved ones, for my poem “Messaging the Dead” I envisioned a messenger app that would let the speaker of my poem talk to their dead.  I wanted a poem that was specific to grief and the distance the dead are from us (or paradoxically their feeling of closeness) but I simultaneously wanted blurred lines, pushing into the mysteries of what we can’t program, can’t pre-record, can’t know how to autocorrect. I wanted to capture the elusiveness that true communication presents, and that the ineffable face that the dead present to the living.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
BA: I wrote the poem first and then looked up to the first line and realized what the title had to be.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this piece?
BA: Asimov’s was an easy choice of home for the poem; it’s an amazing magazine that has dealt with technology and death themes in powerful ways.  I also thought it important the poem was semi-conversational, matter-of-fact, bordering on chatty.  Asimov’s fiction often brings the reader into intensely human situations with ordinary language. For those reasons, I was glad that the poem was selected.

AE: What is your process?
BA: If left to myself and able to indulge my own biorhythms (a writing residency, or a vacation), I do my best generative work from about 8 a.m. until noon. After a break for lunch and some kind of exercise (walk, gym, etc.) I can then pick up new reading in the genre I am working in, or editing/revising pieces not worked on during the morning period. Afternoons are also good for editing-type freelance projects or tasks on the business side of writing.
During non-vacation times, generally I don’t have the juice for generative writing until Sunday morning.  Best strategy for me has been taking a Friday off, doing all manner of errands and household tasks on that day, and then I find the generative writing brain comes back to me for a full Saturday and Sunday stint.  
The final point in my process is that I fight with myself about submitting.  It’s like the boss battle of writing to me! Submitting means facing the demons of not being good enough and even with great tools like Submittable and Moksha the demons lie in wait while choosing what to send and faithfully tracking rejections. Editor Sheila Williams at Asimov’s kindly chided me at Readercon about my fiction process because I was taking rejection as a sign to rewrite each and every fiction piece before resubmitting them elsewhere. That meant sometimes years between submitting pieces.  Forget that! she said (I am paraphrasing here).  Submit—submit—submit and once you run out of outlets, trunk.  Write something new if you run out of stuff to send.

AE: How did you break into speculative writing?
BA: I was fortunate enough to attend a few one-day workshops put on by Clarion West, and then after that submitted pieces that got me into the six-week workshop.
Ironically though the six-week residency at Clarion West helped my fiction writing take a quantum leap, it took me some months (and wise words from Julia Rios, who was poetry editor at Uncanny Magazine at that time), to take on writing speculative poetry.  A few poems I had already written were definitely speculative without me consciously thinking about it. Others found their way to me with the clear intent to go to a speculative market.
What makes a poem speculative was a question I wrestled with then and still wrestle with to this day. It’s not the craft; I use the same moves in my speculative poetry that I do in the ones that are tackling traditional literary subjects. But I do think speculative poetry, much like speculative fiction, requires a kind of literalism even as it is using imagery and metaphor. There is a contract with the reader that the speculative world being built is real, and the world is upheld/upholdable in the poem.  That the speculative poem opens up a world that is not the mundane world we live in today.
The fun and games begin of course when you write in the mode and craft of the literary poet and seduce them over to the genre ranks! Come to my dystopian robot face factories, my poetic invocations of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace like Greek gods, my alternate take on the Witcher mythos . . . all part of my first book of poems: Breakpoint.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
BA: For most of 2022 I will be promoting my first book of literary and speculative poetry called Breakpoint, published by Tebot Bach. and working on a manuscript about Japanese folklore and demonology. In addition to writing speculative short fiction, I am working with Cadwell Turnbull on the Many Worlds Project .
I currently serve as an assistant poetry editor for terrain.org, a journal about the built and natural environment.


I do think speculative poetry, much like speculative fiction, requires a kind of literalism even as it is using imagery and metaphor. There is a contract with the reader that the speculative world being built is real, and the world is upheld/upholdable in the poem.  


AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
BA: Though I will cite credentials like my MFA degree in poetry and Clarion West Writers Workshop, these experiences are not the only paths to good writing and may in some ways hinder more than they help. Plenty of amazing writers (and those who are solidly making a living at it) have done well without those programs.  And, I am here to attest that having those credentials does not protect you from doubting your writing is any good.
What those two things do offer if done right is engage you the writer into a community where you can bounce ideas (literary or genre or both) against fellow writers and have conversations about where the art is taking you. There are other ways to find that community. National Write a Novel in a Month, a.k.a. Nanowrimo, is a great November event that creates local groups welcoming any and all writers.  Another superb resource is Writing the Other, which is a book and a series of classes taught by speculative writers about creating worlds and characters that reflect human diversity.
Design your own writing program if you can’t take time away from your day job for a residency or degree.  Listen to yourself and what your writing needs, and go from there.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
BA: Long before I worked in technology, and even before my graduate degree, I worked as a newspaper reporter. I had internships at the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post and went on to The Palm Beach Post where I worked my way up to General Assignment reporter. Later when I went into technology, The Seattle Times had me do a Sunday column called “Planet Northwest” as well as work on their web site.
This journalistic work taught me daily deadlines, enforced brevity, and not to bury the lede. I am not saying I mastered these skills but having to do that regimen in my first day job meant that what I write now is at least not as bad as what might have been sans that influence. Reporting also taught me about how to deconstruct misinformation—because people wanted to lie to journalists then as much as they do now—and understanding how to follow the money and hidden agendas will serve you well in any job.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
BA: You can find me on twitter at http://www.twitter.com/baoki
Instagram (which will get more active with Breakpoint publication) https://www.instagram.com/betsyaoki7669/
My general author site is http://www.betsyaoki.com .  (To contact me more reliably by email please use the form there.)


Elizabeth (Betsy) Aoki is a poet, short story writer and game producer. Her work has appeared in Strange HorizonsUncanny Magazine, and Asimov’s Magazine of Science Fiction, and is anthologized in Climbing Lightly Through Forests (Ursula K. Le Guin tribute poetry anthology). Her first poetry collection, Breakpoint, is a 2019 National Poetry Series Finalist and received the Patricia Bibby First Book Award in 2021, to be published by Tebot Bach in 2022.

Q&A With Anatoly Belilovsky

The linguistic differences between English and Russian have long fascinated Anatoly Belilovsky, whose new poem highlights them using a hearty, warming metaphor. You can slurp up “Word Soup” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

Asimov’s Editor: Is this poem part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?
AB: It is part of the universe of language. Although I don’t have formal linguistic training, I am functionally bilingual, and the differences between Russian and English never cease to amaze me. English sentences are like  sandwiches: their ingredients are fixed and their order matters. Russian sentences are soups: in addition to the major components, prefixes, suffixes, and endings may be added to adjust their flavor and texture, to most exacting specifications, and stirring changes the emphasis but not the overall meaning.

AE: How did the title for this piece come to you?
AB: I’ve used soup before as a metaphor, in a story appropriately titled “Borscht,” in that case for love and loss and family; it seemed a small stretch to look at it as a metaphor for language. And having translated short fiction from Russian to English, “Word Soup” is also an apt description of what you get if you translate too literally.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for this poem?
AB: I think of Asimov’s for each and every story I write. This happens to be the first time Asimov’s and I thought alike.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?
AB: A more or less continuous subscription since 1978. Some of the best authors and some of the most influential (for me, anyway) stories I have ever read. A companion on dark days and light. A bucket list publication since I started writing a decade ago.


English sentences are like  sandwiches: their ingredients are fixed and their order matters. Russian sentences are soups: in addition to the major components, prefixes, suffixes, and endings may be added to adjust their flavor and texture, to most exacting specifications . . .


AE: Who or what are your greatest influences and inspirations?
AB: My fellow punning bilingual (actually polyglot) Vladimir Nabokov.
My fellow physician short fiction writer, Anton Chekhov.
My fellow Asimov’s author, John M. Ford.
Living authors whom I am proud to call friends, and respect too much to name drop.

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

AE: Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing? If yes, what and why?
AB: Art as a driving force in history rather than its mere reflection.
My longest published story is an alternate history in which the great poet Pushkin survived his duel. I also wrote a “musical warfare” series in which, for example, Russian pop repels Napoleon from Moscow, Wagner invades France with “Die Walkure,” and John Philip Sousa combats submarines at sea.

AE: What is your process?
AB: Yes.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?
AB: Poorly.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?
AB: I had things to say, I guess?

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?
AB: In my day job I am a pediatrician. Pandemic whack-a-mole takes up most of my time right now.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?
AB: The major result of my medical career is that I can’t really write medical-adjacent SF: I get far too critical of small plot holes and science gaffes, to the point of paralysis.
I was also a chemistry major, and a teaching assistant in Russian, but somehow I am far more forgiving of my own handwavium in these fields.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
AB: @loldoc on Twitter.  Equal parts puns, punditry, and (self)-promotion.


Anatoly Belilovsky is a Russian-American author and translator of speculative fiction. He was born in a city that went through six or seven owners in the last century, all of whom used it to do a lot more than drive to church on Sundays; he is old enough to remember tanks rolling through it on their way to Czechoslovakia in 1968. After being traded to the US for a shipload of grain and a defector to be named later, he learned English from Star Trek reruns (apparently well enough to be admitted into SFWA in spite of chronic cat deficiency) and to become a paediatrician in an area of New York where English is the fourth most commonly used language. His story collection, Halogen Nightmares and Other Love Stories, is available on Amazon Kindle.

All Too Human

What does it mean to be human? Where is technology taking the evolution of the human race? A.A. Attansio ponders these questions here and in his short story “River of Stars, Bridge of Shadows”available [in our January/February issue, on sale now!]

by A.A. Attansiao

Are we really human beings—or human apes? Clearly, most people exhibit the self-reflective and innovative awareness of human beings. Yet, as a species, our violent history of endless wars and our social hierarchies structured by the power and privilege of dominant individuals, xenophobia, and nearly ubiquitous misogyny have more in common with apes than rational sapiens.

All that is about to change—if our simian behavior doesn’t destroy us first. Advances in genomics, computer science, and nanotechnology assure a tremendous transfiguration of human identity.

It has already begun: The gene-editing tool CRISPR can now control insect vectors of viral diseases, with important benefits in medicine and agriculture. Somatosensory virtual reality has opened opportunities beyond entertainment, for enhanced education as well as emotional processing therapy. And nanoparticles are currently being deployed to commandeer cancer cells.

But where is this going? What are we becoming? The answer is far more surprising than you might guess. Yes, we are becoming less like apes—and more like the story that narrates us.

Our human story is not told by us. Homo sapiens is, in fact, a tale authored by non-human powers ancient beyond reckoning. Unfathomed and anarchic to reason, our narrators root in the deep time that is fermenting in our gut. These three-billion-year-old storytellers are the bacteria manufacturing hundreds of neurochemicals among the enteric folds of our intestines. 95% of our serotonin is made there. And these chemical signals composed by gut bacteria profoundly influence our brains and, consequently, our thoughts and feelings.

How dare we imagine these gut bacteria as storytellers? Because they produce the ecodelics that shape our subjective experience. The contour of our minds— everything from intellectual skills and creative inspiration to moods and qualia—originate with them. They decide if we are energetic entrepreneurs or dysfunctional depressives. The story of our lives begins in the rhizoid animacy of our gastrointestinal tract.

Because the dreaming of our bacterial hosts is so awake in us, the coming amplification of our cognitive powers will not be a computational augmentation. Fusing genomics and nanotech in the decades ahead will not make us cyborgs. Instead, we will transmute ever more faithfully into the language that has been expressing us from our homininbeginnings—namely, the ecopoetics of the planet’s biome. So far, we’re just a short story, compared to the episodic novels of the dinosaurs or the saga of the prokaryotes in the primordial ocean. But soon, a new episode begins for us.

The sentient robots of the future will not be mechanical. We aren’t going to assemble the digital components of artificial general intelligence. Those constructions of cybernetic parts will only ever be smart devices. True sentience will be grown.

Through artificial abiogenesis, we will generate organic architectures with varying degrees of mindfulness. Our dwellings will possess bodily self-awareness such that the needs of the occupants are met spontaneously. These biotectures will provide the most delicious foods we’ve yet to imagine. Reading our metabolic wastes, our homes can then monitor our health and supply not only precisely suited nutrients but also medicines.


Fusing genomics and nanotech in the decades ahead will not make us cyborgs. Instead, we will transmute ever more faithfully into the language that has been expressing us from our homininbeginnings—namely, the ecopoetics of the planet’s biome


New kinds of pets organized with social self-awareness will prove the most engaging and reliable of emotional companions. Their physical needs shall find satisfaction from our biotectured abodes. Maintenance free, the many varieties of these sociobots can be purposed to handle with joy every manner of daily activity from games to chores.

Those organic creations with introspective self-awareness will prove even more rewarding, though a bit trickier. They will understand feelings, know desires, and evolve beliefs. The bacterial narration of our anthropic legacy at this point enters a new kind of telling.

In my short story, “River of Stars, Bridge of Shadows,” each of the three variations of synthetic self-awareness make an appearance. Glimpsing a biotectured planet, the protagonist—a sapiens very much like us—gets to compare an anthrorhizal (human rooted) arboreal world with the agricultural community of her origin. She had just come from working the land for food and then briefly encounters a forest of somatic self-awareness that works on humans for the mutualistic fulfillment of planetary bionomics.

Later, she encounters a zoological bot—a zobot. Endowed with nimble social self-awareness, this construct of nanosized biological units shapeshifts. It de-represses life’s phylogenetic memories to answer the situational demands of the moment and can become any creature its companion requires.

Most strange of all, introspective self-awareness appears as an artificial human unrecognizable as a somebody. Neither a he nor she, certainly not an it, they have been designed through germline engineering to perceive the quantum mechanical regime. They can read the wave function, the set of probability amplitudes for quantum states, the basis of all appearances. This manufactured person embodies the paraphenomenal awareness traditionally associated with seers. For their ability to follow the entrainment of probabilities and influence outcomes, they are known in my tale as an omen-coder.

Mine is a fiction that attempts to extrapolate what the storytellers in our gut intend. They began their narration in darkness. Billions of years ago as archaea, when our planet’s thermal vents saturated the atmosphere with volcanic gases and melted the ice sheets encasing the globe, they found their way to the light. The unborn dream of solar fire turned their story green. Until then, dawns and sunsets and the wheeling stars had occurred for no one.

Then, a dark twist in their story transpired. 1.5 billion years ago, the fateful encounter of prokaryotes and mitochondria initiated the secret life of the nucleus. We eventually emerged from that extraordinary coupling. Our story is theirs. Over billions of years, consciousness has journeyed out of darkness into the light and then back into the dark of our cranial lives. Gut bacteria organize the chaotic determinism of our minds. We think we author our own thoughts when, in truth, we are the psychoenergetic product of our earliest ancestors. Within the lightless depths of our entrails, they are inventing “I am” and the real and enduring promise of human being.


A.A Attansio is a writer from Honolulu, Hawaii whose works often explore the. His first novel Radix, published in 1981, was nominated for a Nebula Award.