Q&A with Rick Wilber

Asimov’s Editors: How did this story germinate?

Rich Wilber: “Billie the Kid” emerged from a work in progress, a novel I’ve been working on for the past year or so, tentatively titled Alternating Currents. It’s an alternate-history novel about my fictional version of the famous World War II era baseball player and spy, Moe Berg, and it features him as the player/manager of the Hollywood Stars baseball club in the Pacific Coast League of the 1940s. I’ve written about Berg and the mystery woman who’s his spy handler and sometimes lover in previous stories that have appeared in this magazine. One of those stories, “Something Real” (Asimov’s, April/May 2012), won a Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History—Short Form, and another one, “The Secret City” (Asimov’s, September/October 2018)  was a runner-up for that award a few years later.

In the novel, the Twinks (get it, Stars twinkle?), as they were called, had a large number of Hollywood celebrities as their part-owners, who would come to the game and root for their Stars. The team was very popular all through the 1940s. A militant group of Nazi sympathizers are out to destroy the Jewish-owned movie studios and the Southern California aircraft factories and shipyards, which are starting to turn out fighter planes and bombers and warships of all kinds by late 1941, right before Pearl Harbor. Moe Berg, his time-traveling handler named Eddie Bennett, and a few others are trying to stop this sabotage before it happens.

As I was working away on the second or third draft of that novel, I needed to fill in details on the ballplayers on that team, so as I often do I fell back my extended family, which is chock full of talented women athletes. My “aha” moment came when I conjured up Billie Davis as a minor character, originally just to pay my respects once again to those athletes. But as soon as I started writing about her I realized that her story was so interesting that she deserved more than a minor role, and that Moe Berg and his mystery woman were going to be more minor players in this story.   

I set her background in St. Louis, where I grew up. I even put her into the all-girls Catholic high school that both of my sisters attended. It wasn’t long before I came to realize that the story I wanted to write was hers. It wound up at novella length, telling Billie the Kid’s story, and I was very happy with how it turned out. I’m sure some close version of the novella will be in the novel.  

AE: “Billie the Kid” has baseball as an important element of the story. You use sports a lot in your fiction, and especially the sport of baseball. What’s up with that?

RW: I suppose that as a writer I’m known best for my baseball science fiction or fantasy stories. I’ve just counted them up, and there’s a full two dozen published stories.  There’s also a baseball mystery novel, Rum Point (McFarland Press, 2010), a well-received memoir, My Father’s Game: Life, Death, Baseball (McFarland Press, 2007), a couple of short-story collections, Rambunctious: Nine Tales of Determination (WordFire Press, 2020) and Where Garagiola Waits (University of Tampa Press, 1999) and a large number of nonfiction articles and reviews.

You can blame my father for my dependence on the game as a useful tool for creative writing. Del Wilber (1919-2002) spent a lifetime in baseball as a player, coach, manager, and scout. He was a catcher for the Red Sox, Phillies and Cardinals, a coach for the White Sox, a scout for the Twins and other teams, a pennant winning Triple-A manager and, for one brief game (which he won) a major-league manager.

So my siblings and I grew up inside baseball’s extended family, often spending the summer months wherever Dad was playing or coaching, rambling around the ballparks where he played, like Fenway and Shibe and Busch, or the several minor-league parks where he was manager. We even spent six months in Havana, Cuba, pre-Castro, when Dad played winter ball one year for the Habana Leones (Havana Lions).

It was an amazing childhood, and I was deeply imprinted by it. I played high school and college baseball myself, and then played amateur baseball for a variety of teams well into my fifties before I finally gave up trying to hit a good curveball.

If you write what you know, the thing I know is baseball. Dad was also a great storyteller, and my mother was an excellent writer, so when you put that together with my love for science fiction, you get someone that the Coode Street Podcast called “Science fiction’s dean of baseball stories.”  That’s a title I’ll happily embrace.

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

RW: Outside of my family and its connections to sports and writing, which I’ve already mentioned, my greatest influences and inspirations are the writers, editors, professors and colleagues whose work I admired and tried to emulate, in theme if not in style. Early in my career these people were a mix of mainstream and genre authors and academics, from Bernard Malamud (The Natural)  and Martin Quigley (Today’s Game, The High Hard One) on the baseball side of things to Andre Norton, Walter M. Miller and Ursula Le Guin on the genre side. Martin Quigley isn’t much remembered these days, but he was a terrific novelist and editor. I was lucky enough to be one of his writers for a magazine in the Midwest where he was editor-in-chief. He loved softball and though he had some years on him by then he was our pitcher in a city-league slow-pitch team that did really well. I learned a lot about writing and publishing by sitting next to him on the bench between innings and paying attention to his stories about his life as a writer in New York before he came to the Midwest. He was a sharp-eyed editor on my stories for that magazine. Oh, and he was an amazingly effective pitcher in slow-pitch softball, too.

On the academic side I really admired Roberta Bosse, Dickie Spurgeon, and William G. Ward. All three of them were professors at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville when I was there getting my bachelor’s in journalism and master’s in English (and, later, my doctorate in Education). There was very little creative writing taught in those days, so I was a journalism major, and Bill Ward was the best journalism teacher I’ve ever met. I was in awe of his writing and his teaching skills and incredibly proud of the fact that he brought me onto the journalism faculty after I completed my MA in English. That was when my teaching career began, and here I am nearly fifty years later still teaching and writing, and still appreciative of what the late Bill Ward taught me.

On the fiction side of my writing, Robert Bosse and Dickie Spurgeon, both on the English Department faculty at SIUE were the two professors who happily supported my desire to write science fiction and fantasy and allowed me to write short stories for my term papers, which was critical to my goals at the time. They were both on my thesis committee for the master’s degree, and with their help I muddled through.  Without their support I wouldn’t have become a teacher and writer of science fiction and fantasy. I owe them both a great deal.

On the inspiration side, I’m in awe of all sorts of fabulous writers in the field who I admire and try to learn from by reading their work. Many of them have become good friends over the years and they’ve inspired me to press on with my own work and try to improve. A very short list would include Ben Bova (who died from Covid this past year, and was great loss to the field), Robert J. Sawyer, Julie Czerneda, Gregory Bossert, Alan Smale, Kathleen Goonan (who we also lost this year to illness) Kevin J. Anderson (who’s a faculty colleague at Western Colorado University, and with whom I collaborated with writing a novelette for Asimov’s called “The Hind,” that made the Asimov’s Readers shortlist for best of the year), Fran Wilde (also a faculty colleague), Nicholas DiChario (who’s my trusted first reader and an excellent writer), James Patrick Kelly, Alex Jablokow, Walter Jon Williams (who runs the Rio Hondo workshop where I first met some of these very talented writers), Michaela Roessner-Herman, Oz Drummond, Gregory Frost, Brad Aiken, Adam-Troy Castro, James Morrow, and many, many more.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

RW: I’m about ready to send out a new novella, “Goose Flight,” that’s a companion piece to “Billie the Kid.” It’s set in 1941 Hollywood, and it’s a prequel to the action in “Billie,” following the spy handler Eddie Bennett as she travels in time to recruit Billie to take part in some important counter-espionage that will, a few years later, lead us into the action in “Billie the Kid.”

Together with the novella “The Secret City,” (that ran in the September/October 2018 issue of Asimov’s and was runner-up for the Sidewise Award in 2019), these new stories will comprise the novel, Alternating Currents, that I’ve been working on for the past few years. It’s what we call a “fix-up” in science fiction, where you put shorter work together to make a novel. In this case, it’s a fix-up that I’ve had in mind since I first wrote “The Secret City” and ended it with these next two stories in mind.  

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

RW: Unless an editor for a magazine or anthology solicits a story from me, I always have Asimov’s in mind when I’m writing science fiction short stories. I feel like my work fits well in this particular magazine, and I always find the editing advice and copy editing from Editor Sheila Williams and Managing Editor Emily Hockaday to be very helpful in terms of maximizing the story’s potential. Asimov’s is my favorite magazine to read, though I love all the magazines in the field, and I’m always proud to have another story published in its pages.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RW: I’ve been in the business for a while, and with the publication of “Billie the Kid,” and counting a few poems, too, I’ve had about twenty-one stories published in Asimov’s, starting with “Suffer the Children,” in the April 1988 issue. That’s more than a third of my total published short fiction.  

AE: What are you reading right now?

RW: When I’m working on this Alternating Currents novel or the Moe Berg stories associated with it, I’m very much in espionage mode, and World War II-era espionage in particular. My favorite author for that sort of material is Alan Furst, who’s remarkably adept at evoking the tension and fear of Nazi-occupied Europe. I just finished Mission to Paris, the twelfth book in his Night Soldiers series.

I’m also reading In the Woods and The Witch Elm by the remarkably good Irish mystery writer Tana French. I love her pacing and detail. I’ve also recently read Roddy Doyle’s The Dead Republic from his The Last Roundup Series. If you think you detect a certain Irishness to that part of my reading you’d be right. My wife and I have a real affection for Ireland, and have been there a couple of dozen times, often leading college study tours. On our last tour before the pandemic hit we led a wonderful group of science fiction writers and editors and academics and friends on a pre-Dublin Worldcon tour that was really terrific: great scenery, great people, great history, great conversation. It was a chance to introduce some of my favorite Americans to some of my favorite Irish friends. It was sort of a traveling Algonquin Round Table-ish tour of the West of Ireland.  We all had a marvelous time.

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

RW: I began my writing career as a sportswriter for several different newspapers, which isn’t too surprising given the sports culture I grew up in. And then by the mid-1970s I began a college teaching career that I’m still part of and still find very fulfilling. For a very long time I was a journalism professor who worked part-time at the local newspapers wherever I was living as a copy editor, reporter, and reviewer. I wrote too many reviews, interviews, travel stories, feature stories, sports stories and the like to begin to count them. I really enjoyed newspaper work and the search for the truth of things and I find the slow death of the newspaper industry to be deeply troubling in several respects. Newspaper reporting certainly helped me learn to write to a deadline, something I find much harder to do these days writing fiction than I did when I was covering rock concerts and basketball games for one newspaper or another.

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

RW: There sure are, starting with sports and especially baseball and especially women athletes. I’ve also been told my some reviewers and a couple of editors that I write mostly about relationships, usually one-sided ones where someone holds power over someone else, and that someone else chaffs under that kind of duress. Certainly that’s what my most recent novel, Alien Day, is all about where one of the main characters (a woman who played two college sports, of course) struggles to control her own life under pressure from several men (one of them an alien) in her life. I also often have Down syndrome characters in my stories and novels, all of them presented as the positive, upbeat people that they often are. I have a Down syndrome son  who’s had an enormous impact on my life in any number of positive ways and I proudly inhabit that particular culture as a caregiver and parent. There are a number of those Down syndrome influenced stories in my Rambunctious short-story collection from WordFire Press in 2020.

You can look for me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Rick.Wilber   and on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WilberSFWriter and I have a good website that gets updated with some frequency (and through which you can reach me) at www.rickwilber.net

Rick Wilber is a frequent contributor to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, with stories that are often infused with elements of baseball and other sports. His new novel, Alien Day (Tor, 2021),features a near-future journalist who uses a “sweep” system for his reporting, where his audience becomes one with the journalist as he works. Rick has published a half-dozen novels and short-story collections and some sixty short stories, including the Sidewise Award-winning “Something Real,” and the Sidewise Award runner-up, “The Secret City,” both published first in this magazine. Those stories and his current Asimov’s story, “Billie the Kid,” feature a fictional version of famous ballplayer and spy, Moe Berg. Rick is a visiting professor in the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at Western Colorado University and he lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. His website is www.rickwilber.net.

Of Stories Seen as Trees

From a tiny seed, a story sprouts and grows in complexity until it reaches its maturity.  Sometimes it blooms as a flower, a small bush, and sometimes as a fully-grown tree. My writing draws from the roots of my own experiences and readings, plus my dreams and desires, all mixed by imagination to create a story.

I suffer from the opposite of writer’s block: my challenge is to herd the overload of wild ideas. My stories evolved from complexity to simplicity. My path towards writing compelling stories started with clunky, too-ambitious plots filled with incomprehensible jargon.

Of course, some savvy SF readers possess the advanced tools and experience to climb a billard-ball smooth bark without the writer having to cast them too many clues. Those readers enjoy the challenge of entering a world devoid of any explanation, and they have to patch the setting together by what the characters see.

Before they can enjoy the view at the summit, you have to make sure your readers can climb on the tree. So you make sure the story sprout lower branches on the trunk, at regular interval, to help the reader up. 

How I grew my writing career

Love of nature and science fiction directed me towards Earth sciences and later engineering, but shy me never could get any solid foothold in those fields. Two master’s degrees later and NO publications (the scientists among you know what this means) led to a string of dangerous, short-term, precarious jobs. The good, stable, sitting jobs went to others.

I loved drawing stories since a tot, and published graphic novels in small presses, but I never managed to stand out in the crowd of wannabee or cool artists. I had this knck of flying under the radar of the comic experts.

I found out at a later age that 1) I was on the autism spectrum, which didn’t help with my shyness, 2) I was better at creating alien worlds.

So I left the field of sciences and used my knowledge to tell space-operas in French, harvesting several prestigious literary nominations, and some awards in the SF field. My pair of parents accepted this change and enjoyed my winning my first SF awards.

Meanwhile, I was laying siege to the main SF mags and collecting rejections slips, then rejection emails.  With time, my short-stories passed from “wibbly-wobbley” with cardboard characters to straight-arrowed with rich, lovable characters. My excel sheet stretched past two wide screens. Rejections morphed into hold requests, and much later, perseverance paid!

Most of this Asimov’s story was written in one day, while wearing my Pirates of the Carribean outfit, because this was Halloween night and I was simultaneously finishing the story and receiving the trick-or-treaters at the door (this was Before Covid). And as I never lost the love of disguise, I had a blast, arrh!

A promise kept

My engineer dad had been the one to introduce me to reading science fiction (and also go birding, and running and star gazing). My first books were Isaac Asimov’s collection I, Robot (translated in French) and La fin d’Illa, a novel by José Moselli (published in 1920 in chapters, collected later in the Fantastic collection of Marabout).

In the fall of 2014, I stood at the hospital bed where my father was reading an Asimov’s issue. He was terminally ill, but intellectually active and writing his last paper.  Then and there, I promised him that one day I would have a story published in that magazine. I had been submitting stories to top and semi-pro markets since 2005, and getting rejections.

So this first story is the fulfillment of a promise made to my SF-loving father, Jacques E. Laframboise.

—Michèle Laframboise

michele-laframboise.com  (French and English)

sundayartist.wordpress.com (illustrated English blog)

echofictions.com (my indie publishing house)

The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

Peter Wood’s “The Apocalypse and the Lake Mattamuskeet Gnat” [in our September/October issue, on sale now!] features a book club at the end of the world. Below, the author recounts another stressful literary experience, though it ends with a bright spot—bright as the apocalyptic lightning on the other side of Lake Mattamuskeet.

by Peter Wood

I think about Kurt Vonnegut a lot. I’ve worn an insulin pump for almost twenty-five years. It has little beeps and alarms that go off at unexpected times. Every time I hear one of those medical warnings, I think of “Harrison Bergeron.”

Vonnegut’s classic of forced equality where those of above-average intelligent are made equal courtesy of alarms and buzzers that constantly disrupt their trains of thought has always stuck with me. I read it in ninth grade at Horace Mann Junior High School in Brandon, Florida. Seventeen years later, I met the author.

Fast forward to February 1997. Living in Raleigh, North Carolina, I read that Kurt Vonnegut planned to speak at Duke University just down the road in Durham. The talk was only for Duke students and tickets were unavailable to the general public.

I convinced my friend and sometimes co-author, Paul, to drive us to Duke. I assured him we’d be able to get tickets somehow.

Turned out the Duke students were giving them away. We approached a couple of coeds and asked if they had any extra tickets. They gave us two on the spot.

Paul and I squeezed into seats better suited for small children way up in the nosebleed section of the 1200-seat Page Auditorium. After about half an hour, the 74-year-old Vonnegut lugged an enormous pad of paper and easel on stage.

“We can all agree that Hamlet tells a pretty good story,” Vonnegut announced. He proceeded to dissect the play. He said the plot was “man falls in a hole.” With a magic marker he drew a straight horizontal line and a sudden drop to the bottom of the page. The hole, the problem the protagonist must overcome. Vonnegut explained the plot revolved around the man getting out of the hole. He would languish at the bottom for most of the story until he overcame adversity and escaped the hole.

Unless he happened to be Hamlet.

He talked about storytelling for most of the time and then segued into Dolly the Sheep and cloning, which was a hot topic that year.

Vonnegut took questions. A student near us asked, “You were great in Back to School. When are you going to make another movie?” In the 1986 comedy, Rodney Dangerfield pays Vonnegut to write his English paper on Kurt Vonnegut. The professor hates the paper and Dangerfield blesses out the author.

Vonnegut answered without hesitation. “I was great in Back to School.” And, of course, Vonnegut was right.

After Vonnegut explained issues he had with the studio release of the adaption of Mother Night, Paul and I made a hasty exit before Vonnegut had finished answering questions. I suspected he might be signing books at the campus bookstore. The student center was a stone’s throw from the auditorium. I confirmed that Vonnegut would indeed be signing copies and I bought two hardcovers of Slaughterhouse Five. A couple of dozen people had beaten me to the store, and I got in line.

You may remember a Dunkin’ Donuts commercial from the early eighties where an exhausted and sleep-deprived doughnut-maker gets up at the crack of dawn and sleepwalks through work. Looking like a zombie, he mumbles, “Time to make the doughnuts.”

A couple of handlers escorted Vonnegut into the store a few minutes later. He had that “Time to Make the Doughnuts” vibe. He looked like he desperately needed to go to bed, and that he wanted to be anywhere but the college bookstore.

I am not one of the beautiful people. I don’t hobnob with celebrities. I have met a few and they have generally been quite gracious.

Not giving a damn about what Vonnegut wanted, the handlers ushered him to the back of the store.

I am not one of the beautiful people. I don’t hobnob with celebrities. I have met a few and they have generally been quite gracious. Jimmy Carter beamed and asked how I was doing when he signed my book. Charlton Heston shook my hand and chatted for a few seconds. I have never read his book, In the Arena, except to check out the page on Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Heston admitted he didn’t remember much about the movie, and I still don’t know what he was thinking when he appeared in the worst sequel of all time.

A couple of years ago, William Shatner gave me a fist bump and talked for ten minutes about time travel, Gene Roddenberry, Harlan Ellison, and all things City on the Edge of Forever. I think it helped our relationship that the guy before me asked an incoherent question about how to get ahold of a super obscure video game. Shatner blurted out, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He looked to me with pleading eyes and asked if I had a “good question.”

David Gerrold has to be the most gracious. I called him on the phone at his request when I asked him a question online. We talked for over an hour. I felt like we’d known each other for years.

But back to Vonnegut.

When I reached the second place in line, a store employee revealed I could only get one copy of the books signed. Then, like one of the grouchy elves in A Christmas Story, he pushed me toward Vonnegut.

The author sat at a desk and refused to even make eye contact. He signed my book and shoved it back to me. I told him it was an honor to meet him and that I loved his fiction. He didn’t even look up. He said nothing.

Tucking the signed edition under my arm, I took the unsigned copy to the cashier and asked for a refund. He said that the store would only give store credit, which would not be available that night.

I had just spent twenty bucks on a book I did not need. Interestingly enough, in the March 1997 issue of the Duke Alumni magazine, the bookstore reported its number one seller was Slaughterhouse Five.

“Look,” I said. “What am I going to do with an extra copy of Slaughterhouse Five? Who needs two copies of the book? I’ve never been to this book store before and doubt that I’ll be coming back here again.”

The clerk started arguing with me.

Then we both realized that Vonnegut was watching our exchange with interest. A half smile on his face, he had stopped signing books to see how this played out. Nobody had a sense of the absurd more than Kurt Vonnegut. The store’s return policy was right up his alley.

The cashier gave in and refunded my money before the book signing ground to a halt.

And, I’d like to think that I made Kurt Vonnegut laugh.

Peter Wood lives in Raleigh with his very patient wife. This is his tenth story for Asimov’s. He loves vacationing in North Carolina, the best state in the country. Every nook and cranny is worth exploring. He cautions people who zoom down US 264 to reach the Outer Banks and the best beaches in the world. If you don’t slow down and take a look around you might miss something like . . . “The Apocalypse and the Lake Mattamuskeet Gnat.”

Q&A with Wole Talabi

Although he doesn’t often draw directly on current events, Wole Talabi’s first tale for Asimov’s, “An Arc of Electric Skin” [in our September/October issue, on sale now], was born partially from his anger about real-world injustice. Below, the author discusses this influence, explores his personal history with SF, explains the changeable nature of his writing style, and more. Read on!

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

WT: This story, like many of my stories, germinated from two seeds.

The first: In 2019, I read an interesting paper in a journal—Frontiers in Chemistry—where a team of scientists in Italy described the successful use of heat treatment to increase the conductivity of melanin by several orders of magnitude. You can read it here.

I found the paper fascinating. And I remember wondering if there would ever be a way to apply the process to the melanin in human skin and how painful the process would be, assuming someone could even survive it.

The second: In October last year, millions of young Nigerians took to the streets and the internet to protest the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police notorious for abuses and extra-judicial killings. The #EndSARS movement quickly expanded to include demands for good governance. On 20 October, the government responded by sending in the army to a major protest site at the Lekki tollgate. They opened fire. At least 25 people died. Probably more. I observed the news online from afar, feeling sad and powerless and angry. Very angry.

I had already started trying to write a story based on the first seed, but it never really came together the way I really wanted. It was when the two seeds met that the main character being willing to endure pain to gain power to strike back against a government determined to crush its own people came to me fully. I had the final version of the story done a few weeks later.

I dedicate this story to the memory of all the young Nigerians who lost their lives in the protests last year.  

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

WT: I toyed with a lot of alternative titles, but this was the one that resonated the most. “An Arc of Electric Skin.” I think it has a nice ring to it.  The word “arc” has multiple meanings, one of them referring to a bright electrical discharge that can burn and cause damage, and the other referring to the change/transformation of a character through a story. Both apply to this story, I think. Especially considering how the main character gets his “electric skin,” why, and what he does with it.

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

WT: Along with F&SF and Analog, Asimov’s is one of the great three legacy SF magazines that I really wanted to sell stories to when I first started seriously writing, partly because I grew up reading anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov (especially The Hugo Winners), which featured a lot of stories from those magazines (and many others which are sadly no longer around), and also partly because the three magazines are great in different ways and do have different tastes. To me, this was an Asimov’s kind of story because of the magazine’s focus on “character oriented” science fiction stories: a description which I believe this story definitely fits, given the two seeds I mentioned earlier.

I dedicate this story to the memory of all the young Nigerians who lost their lives in the protests last year.  

AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing? Are there any themes that you find yourself returning to throughout your writing?

WT: I don’t usually allow the news and current events to influence my stories, not directly anyway, even though I am sure they sneak in from time to time. I tend to have certain themes I return to frequently—the nature of the mind and its relationship with technology, personal loss, and the desire to change the world have been mentioned frequently by reviewers and interviewers. But sometimes, I do take direct influence from current affairs. Twice it has happened, in fact. In the story “If They Can Learn,” which appears in my collection Incomplete Solutions, and again with this one, as I mentioned earlier.

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

WT: That is a great question. I think almost any science fictional world could be good (or at least interesting) to live in, since, like our world, your happiness level will depend primarily on who you are, who you are surrounded by, and what technologies, resources, and opportunities are made available to you. Out of pure philosophical curiosity, I think I’d like to live in the world of China Miéville’s Embassytown because I think it would be fascinating to engage directly with an alien race so different from us in thought and language.

AE: What are some of your favorite science fiction stories?

WT: I have far too many favorites to even attempt to list here but off the top of my head, I’ll mention three stories I love: Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist,” Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild,” and B. Kojo Laing’s “Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ.”

AE: If you were faced with a new reader wanting to check out your work, how would you describe your style to them?

WT: I’m not sure I really have a writing “style.” My writing tends to be more idea-driven and character-driven though, and I pick the writing style I think would best reflect the way I’ve chosen to explore the idea. Sometimes it works and I pull it off, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I enjoy the experimentation with various styles in service of a concept. So, to someone unfamiliar with my writing, I’d say if you’re a fan of idea-driven or concept-driven prose, you might like my stuff. Also, try three stories at least before deciding either way. On a more technical note though, I’m a huge fan of poetic prose, palindromes, alliteratives, and acrostics, and I personally use them whenever I get the chance and if the story permits. I also really like it when an author uses a unique, constrained structure to build a good story—for example, C.C. Finlay’s amazing “Time Bomb Time,” in Lightspeed, which works as a story when read both from beginning to end and from end to beginning. I might attempt something like one day myself.

AE: What are you reading right now?

WT: I’m currently finishing Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s David Mogo: Godhunter, which came out back in 2019. I picked it up didn’t get around to completing it. It was a busy year. I am also simultaneously reading the collection Black Sci-Fi Stories, which was just released, and which I also have a story in. I’m enjoying both, especially Godhunter. Suyi actually first shared a story (I think it was called “Pure Black”) featuring this character with me all the way back in 2015 and it’s a lot of fun for me to see his world and character fully evolved and realized in this exciting novel.  

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

WT: Right now, I am working on a contemporary fantasy novel about a succubus and a nightmare god in a fictionalized version of the Yoruba pantheon, which is operated like a corporate business. It’s an expanded version of my short story “I, Shigidi,” which also appears in my collection Incomplete Solutions. It’s been quite a lot of fun to write and I really hope readers find it fun and exciting to read as well once it’s out there. I can’t wait until I have a release date ready to announce so stay tuned.  

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

WT: I have always been an engineer and so inevitably, it has always affected my writing. In fact, my father was a chemical engineer and my mother had a degree in English language and literature so one could argue that I was sort of genetically predisposed to enjoy science fiction. Science fiction, and in particular, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series also played a big part in my decision to become an engineer. So, for me, engineering and writing have always affected each other and probably always will.

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

WT: You can find me online at wtalabi.wordpress.com and @wtalabi on twitter.

Wole Talabi is an engineer, writer, and editor from Nigeria. His stories have appeared in such venues as F&SF, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld. He has edited three anthologies of African fiction: the science fiction collection, Africanfuturism (2020); the horror collection, Lights Out: Resurrection (2016); and the literary fiction collection, These Words Expose Us (2014). Wole also cowrote the play Color Me Man. His fiction has been nominated for several awards including the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Nommo Award, which he has won twice (2018 and 2020). The author likes scuba diving, elegant equations, and oddly shaped things. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Breast-feeding and “Matriphagy”

by Naomi Kanakia

“Matriphagy” [in our current issue, on sale now!] was inspired by a breast-feeding class my wife and I took during the last few months of her pregnancy. Personally, I am a breast-feeding skeptic. If you look deep into the data, you’ll find that the benefits aren’t necessarily there. Unfortunately it’s hard for me to argue these points, because my wife has an MD and a PhD and is a professor of immunology and infectious disease. Note, she hasn’t studied breast-feeding or anything—she has to google it the same as me—but she has a certain level of moral authority when it comes to scientific data.

I found the class incredibly annoying. Less a class about breast-feeding and more of a commercial for breast-feeding. And this was even more annoying because it was offered by the university system where my wife works and where we receive our medical care, so it carried the imprimatur of considerable medical authority. 

What surprised me about the class, however, was that so many of the men and women (six of the ten women were there with their partners, who were all men) were interested in breast-feeding because of the intangible benefits—the connection to the baby and the feeling that it was just more natural and was what you’re kind of supposed to do as a human being. Like, breast-feeding is a paleo diet but for babies (which is something I believe one of the people at the class actually said, which, now that I think about it, is both clever and annoying).

My main concern about breastfeeding was the time expenditure. It’s just a lot slower than bottle-feeding. My wife read some study that during the first year of her baby’s life, a woman will spend umpteen zillion hours breast-feeding (I forget the figure; you can see why I’m not good at arguing these points). My wife has a time-consuming job, and I felt like, well, why spend all this time doing this stuff if there’s no benefit.

Doctors don’t care about how rare something is in the general public; if they’re seeing it every day, then it’s gonna be on their minds.

But my wife is an immunologist, and she was all about the benefits to the immune system from the practice, etc, etc. Doctors are so weird about their own specialty. Like, we have a friend who’s a radiation oncologist who said she wasn’t gonna fly during her pregnancy because of radiation exposure from being high in the atmosphere or something. A rheumatologist is gonna worry about allergies, etc. They are all obsessed with controlling their environment, but particularly so when it comes to their own specialty, which, because they encounter so many people who have rare conditions tied to that specialty, is something they tend to think about a lot. Doctors don’t care about how rare something is in the general public; if they’re seeing it every day, then it’s gonna be on their minds.

The class was several hours long; we did gain some useful information about breastfeeding, but the smarmy tone bothered both my wife and me. However, we did argue as we left the class—she thought I hadn’t paid enough attention and that I’d been rude when they asked why I was interested in breast-feeding (I said that the benefits seemed a little exaggerated to me, but I was here to support my wife).

But as time passed, my wife and I’s opinions tended to converge, just like the couple’s in the story. We gave birth during the early days of COVID, and I was grateful for any immune system benefit to our baby. My wife found pumping to be tiresome, and was grateful to give it up at six months rather than continuing to a year as the class had insisted was necessary. We both ultimately were happy that the other person had injected some realism into our opinion.

But I think I wrote this story before all that happened! I believe the very next day after this class, or at most no more than a week or two later, I said something like, “What is the dumbest birthing practice that people would continue to do just because it’s ‘natural.’” I’d previously written a story called “Sexual Cannibalism” about praying mantises and their seemingly self-defeating mating practices, and somehow the word “Matriphagy” floated up to my mind. From there the rest of the story wrote itself in about ninety minutes, and that was it!

Incidentally, my wife read the story and was very tickled. My only regret about it is that the story implies that matriphagy does have some benefits to the spiderlings, but honestly it makes for a better story that way, and even if breast-feeding doesn’t in truth make much of a long-term difference in outcomes, you always—when it comes to children—feel like there’s something more you could’ve done to set them up better in life.

Naomi Kanakia is the author of two contemporary young adult novels, Enter Title Here (Disney, 2016) and We Are Totally Normal (HarperTeen, 2020). Additionally, her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Gulf Coast, The Indiana Review, and West Branch, and her poetry has appeared in Soundings East, The American Journal of Poetry, and Vallum. She lives in San Francisco with her wife and daughter.

Because It Was Hard: How “A Blessing of Unicorns” Came to Be

by Elizabeth Bear

I really like writing mystery stories.

This is probably obvious, given my oeuvre. I love mysteries in all their glory—procedurals, whodunnits, those Columbo-style pieces where you know whodunnit and how and the tension is all in the character interactions. I love the metered reveal of clues and I love how characters under pressure show who they are and what their ethical limits might be. I like the work of Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Walter Mosley, and Val McDermid.

I like stories of people working outside the system, looking in—and I like stories of people working inside the system, looking out.

Nine years separate the writing—and the publication in Asimov’s—of “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” and “A Blessing of Unicorns” [in our September/October issue, on sale now!], the two Sub-Inspector Ferron mysteries to date. Nine years, and a world of difference.

I have complex feelings about this future, the future of these stories, which is also the future in which several of my other stories take place: “Covenant,” and “Gods of the Forge,” and “The Salt Sea and the Sky,” and maybe “Deriving Life,” though that might be one universe to the left. The thing about these particular stories is, I set out to write a hopeful future. A future that acknowledged climate change and crisis, but still posited adaptation that was mitigated, not apocalyptic.

After the bleakness of the futures I wrote in the first decade of the millennium, I felt the need for a little leavening when I started working on Aryaman. A little bit of hope. One of my best friends was just back from some months of working and visiting her family in Bangalore, and she told me many stories of that exciting city and its people and culture. She commented that she wanted to see more futures in English in which the vibrancy of India and its many cultures and people was showcased.

I wanted to write her a story, and so I came up with Ferron.

I think it’s worthwhile to keep that discussion going, to look at various ways in which the conflicting tensions surrounding crime and the carceral state might be resolved in favor of human dignity, freedom, and the safety of everyone, not just the privileged few.

I always intended to write more stories about Ferron but there was always something else that needed doing first. Other time, other demands. And then the world seemed like it was changing, turning back on itself, becoming bleaker. Slipping back from the sense of hope I felt in the early 2010s. India suffered a toxic, fascistic change of government; so did the USA. The momentum of social progress stumbled; human beings suffered as a result. The horrors of police brutality, authoritarianism, and the need for social safety nets have come to dominate conversations around the world.

Eventually I realized that this was an artistic opportunity. That rather than avoiding writing another story about Ferron because it was difficult and emotionally complicated, what I ought to do was actually make it happen because it was hard. Because art is hard, and life is hard, and good art talks about why life is hard and complicated.

Because there are models of being a peace officer different from the ones our worldwide cultures currently embrace, and those more positive models ought to be discussed and normalized. I think it’s worthwhile to keep that discussion going, to look at various ways in which the conflicting tensions surrounding crime and the carceral state might be resolved in favor of human dignity, freedom, and the safety of everyone, not just the privileged few.

Last summer, after I wrote this piece, the tragic murder of George Floyd brought the relevance and necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement into even clearer focus. It is even more obvious now that policing around the world needs to be drastically changed—in its remit, in its training, and in its objectives. As a society, we are doing this wrong, and people are suffering and dying as a result.

This was a difficult story to write. I write fiction on a topic when I don’t have easy answers for what the solution to the problem is. In writing this one, I found myself wrestling with a lot of cognitive dissonance: about law enforcement, about abusive people and systems, about navigating the care of friends and families, about the obligations we have to one another, about the panopticon of social media and the way the world says to us, “Dance, Monkey, Dance.”


But I’m happy I wrote it, even if it was hard. And I hope it works for you.

Elizabeth Bear is the Hugo-, Sturgeon-, Locus-, and Astounding-Award-winning author of around thirty novels and over a hundred short stories. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, writer Scott Lynch.

Q&A with Taimur Ahmad

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your process?

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

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

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

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

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Megan Lindholm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimovs?

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

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

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

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

AE: How did you break into writing?

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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

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

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Ursula Whitcher

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

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

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

AE: Who is your poem dedicated to?

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

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

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

AE: What is your process for constructing a poem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What books are you reading right now?

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

AE: What poems have you been returning to lately?

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

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

UW: The novella Fisherman of the Inland Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Gregory Feeley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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