Getting to Know Sheila Finch

For “Not This Tide” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now], Sheila Finch drew on her childhood in war-torn London, and on research enabled by the magic of librarians. Below, she delves into her history with this story, as well as her history with the wider world of literature.

I grew up in London during World War Two, which means I was there throughout the almost nightly bombing raids on the city. I don’t know why I wasn’t evacuated to the safer countryside as so many children were; all I know is there were a lot of children still in the city, and schools were open until they were damaged by bombs. After a while, there were no neighborhood schools open where I lived, so that meant I spent a lot of time with no schooling at all. Right after the war ended, I would’ve told you that I had no lingering bad effects from growing up in a war zone, but the disruption of marriage and moving to Indiana to attend grad school brought some episodes of traumatic memories which I learned to cope with. Friends often asked why I didn’t write about my childhood experiences, but I couldn’t see how to use them.

Then one morning after my oldest daughter and I had spent the previous evening looking at my father’s war record in the Royal Artillery, I found the beginnings of this story in my mind. The first thing I did was give myself a sister I never had, to make sure the story wouldn’t be entirely tied to the narrow plot of my own history (I’ll leave it to the reader to guess which events are from my experience and which belong to Rosemary Forrest). Then I settled in to research the history of the Maunsell Forts, Star Wars-like structures that served as anti-aircraft gun platforms in the English Channel.

At one point I almost gave up in frustration, because every source I found pointed to the same book of first-person recollections of soldiers’ lives on the fort—and I couldn’t locate the book. Just in time, a wonderful friend who happens to be a retired county librarian came to my rescue. There was one lonely copy of this book in the U.S., located in Harvard University’s Special Collection, and not allowed out. Never underestimate the magic of a librarian! The book came to a local county library, where I was allowed to study it for one whole day. It was a treasure trove of fascinating anecdotes and odd facts, many of which made their way into my pages. The title, “Not This Tide,” comes from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, one of the great poets of World War One, and a personal favorite of my father’s.


If you’re wondering how I broke in, I kept sending out my stories and getting rejected over and over, until one day I think an editor said, “Oh for heaven’s sake! Publish this woman’s story and be done with it!”


I always knew I was going to be a writer. I folded bits of paper and wrote “books” on them for my stuffed toys when I was quite young. And I read everything I could lay my hands on—still do. My parents had a good size collection of books which I made my way through, and family members gave me their old books along with their old clothes to be cut down to fit me (clothes were rationed too during the war, and for several years afterward). When the schools reopened, I was only a year away from the dreaded 11+ exam that sorted kids into college-prep schools or ones destined to deliver a workforce for business and industry. All that reading paid off, and I passed. When the library reopened, I devoured E. Nesbitt and Rudyard Kipling, H. Rider Haggard, and eventually John Buchan, Jules Verne, and H.G. Wells. And a few years later, there was a marvelous comic book called EAGLE, full of science fiction stories.

When I wasn’t reading, I was writing—stories, plays, poems. Things haven’t changed much over the years. I still am happiest when I’m writing, though I admit, not at the frenzied pace of my youth where I could complete the first draft of a five thousand word story in a day, finally falling off the chair exhausted after six to eight hours of hard work. My reading today is broad-based, though I must admit to a weakness for suspense as well as science fiction—James Lee Burke and Michael Connelly are favorites, along with Elizabeth George and Daniel Silva. If you’re wondering how I broke in, I kept sending out my stories and getting rejected over and over, until one day I think an editor said, “Oh for heaven’s sake! Publish this woman’s story and be done with it!” Or something like that.

Writing doesn’t pay the bills, especially at first, so I spent a good deal of time on my second career as a teacher. My first experience was a class of second-graders in the East End of London, a mile down the road from the docklands setting for Call the Midwife. Then when I came to California, I found my niche in community colleges and did that for over thirty years. There’s a problem with teaching literature for a writer—and especially teaching creative writing. You become too fixated on technique and method and it tends to get in the way. One day, a fiction writing class challenged me to write a story week by week in class, following my own methods. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time, but it got me over that particular hump. If you haven’t already seen this story, you’ll be able to find “Miles To Go” in a collection of my published stories that I’m currently putting together.

What science fictional prediction would I like to see come true? The establishment of Utopia with world peace. Literary critics complain Utopia is dull, but I’m ready for a little peaceful boredom about now.

How I Wrote a Rondel About Time Travel

Marie Vibbert


My time travel poem [on sale in our current issue] started, appropriately enough, in 14th Century France.

I was researching another topic when I found the poet Eustache Deschamps and fell in love with his short, sardonic verses. His nickname was “The Morel” and he may have been dark-skinned like the morel mushroom.

Look at this poem by Deschamps and you’ll get a hint of his no-nonsense pessimism:


Fleas, stink, pigs, mold,
The gist of the Bohemian soul,
Bread and salted fish and cold.

Leeks, and cabbage three days old,
Smoked meat, as hard and black as coal;
Fleas, stink, pigs, mold.

Twenty eating from one bowl,
A bitter drink -it’s beer, I’m told-
Bad sleep on a straw in some filthy hole,
Fleas, stink, pigs, mold,
The gist of the Bohemian soul,
Bread and salted fish and cold.


One of the forms I really liked of his was the triolet. It was so compact and structured! So I set off, at first, to write a time travel triolet. (For the alliteration alone!)

The triolet consists of eight lines, with the first couplet repeating as the end and the first line repeating in the middle. So we get a rhyme scheme of:


A line one

B line two

a new line that rhymes with one

A line one

a new line that rhymes with one

b new line that rhymes with two

A line one

B line two


It may seem easy at first – the poem only has five unique lines with all the repeating. The skill of the triolet lies in fitting your meaning in so few words, much like a haiku. It’s especially thrilling to pick a line one whose meaning will change each time you repeat it. The triolet is almost always in iambic tetrameter:


x     /   x   / x   / x / Come live with me and be my love


Here is a period example by Froissart. Notice how he breaks the pattern a little by adding a spondee (two stressed beats—“Love, love”) to the front of his A line.


Jean Froissart (1337-1404)

Love, love, what wilt thou with this heart of mine?

Naught see I fixed or sure in thee!
I do not know thee,–nor what deeds are thine:
Love, love, what will though with this heart of mine?

Shall I be mute, or vows with prayers combine?

Ye who are blessed in loving, tell it me:
Love, love, what wilt thou with this heart of mine?
Naught see I permanent or sure in thee!


I love the irony of taking a medieval poetry form and using it to write poems for science fiction magazines. My first triolet was published in Asimov’s back in February 2015, and was titled, “An Unrequited Process Loops.” I thought the repeating refrain was perfect for reflecting the looping logic of a lovesick robot.

Wanting to do it again, I chose the title: “Unlooping: A Time Travel Rondel.” I figured time travel would be another great place to showcase repetition.

The first thing I have to do is write the A line, the lines that will repeat three times. The first line to come to me was:


What’s past is future is passed


I liked that the meaning of the line could be changed by interposing the two homonyms “passed” and “past.” What’s passed is future is past? I don’t know what it means exactly but I’m here for it!

But what could I pair it with? In “Unrequited” I had a great repeating pair:


Love is just a chemical in the brain

Outside the realm of the electronic


It started as a statement and ended as a question. I wanted something like that. So I wrote:


An unwanted time-travel catch

What’s past is future is passed.


Ooh, I liked it . . . but the thing was, my A and B are too close. . . . “Catch” and “passed” almost rhyme. Could I come up with three more lines that rhymed these two and still have a coherent story?

I started from the top. The fun thing about these forms is it that it can feel like filling in a crossword puzzle. You make yourself blanks and plop things in them. Okay, first draft, some lines to play off the couplet:


My life is a black vinyl record

Your life gave it a scratch


There’s a hint of loss? I like it. Let’s see what it’s like plugging in my repeats and filling in lines between:


My life is a black vinyl record

Your life gave it a scratch

Each year I skip on your cord

My life is a black vinyl record.

At least we’re moving forward (terrible rhyme forced in temporarily to match the A)

An unwanted time-travel catch (gotta use that! my b)

My life is a black vinyl record

Your life gave it a scratch.


That was my crappy first draft. I didn’t get my past is future line at all.

After several bad drafts that I read to my friends, I realized that . . . the triolet was just not happening. I went back to Eustache Deschamps and looked for inspiration in some of his poems. Far more often than the triolet, he wrote rondeau.

The rondel is a variation of the rondeau that has thirteen lines, two four-line stanzas and a final five-line stanza. The first two lines again repeat. (A triolet is sometimes called a rondel simple, the shortest form of this style.) In this version, the couplet repeats in the middle instead of just the first line, and the poem ends with the first line again. For a rhyme scheme of: ABba abAB abbaA

With more room to work I was able to put in all the lines I’d thought of and mess them around. I solidified the meter by reading aloud while slapping my knee. Removing a syllable, “My life, a black vinyl record,” got the stresses and unstresses lined up better. “Your life, it gave me this scratch.” Ooh, yeah we were getting rhythmic!

My new, stronger draft still felt wonky. The opening couplet didn’t work as a refrain. It made more sense as something happening once, with the rest of the repetition following. I really wanted “What’s past is future is passed” to be my refrain, and as a first line it was so dense as to be impenetrable. I decided to move the refrain to the end of the first stanza. It felt like lopping the rondel’s head off, but on reading this draft, I felt I’d done the right thing. I sent it off to Asimov’s, and here I am, writing a blog post about it!
Which is a long way of saying that playing with form can be an aid and a fight. You get to drop words into slots. You wrestle words into places. When the slots get too restrictive, well, there’s always the hammer and the blow torch!

So why write restrictive forms in the first place? One of the things I want in my poetry is to get away from myself, my habits and standard phrases. Fixed forms force that to happen.

I hope you enjoy my hacked rondel that started out as a triolet!


Besides selling thirty-five short stories, a dozen poems, and a few comics, Marie Vibbert has been a medieval (SCA) squire, ridden 17% of the roller coasters in the United States and has played O-line and D-line for the Cleveland Fusion women’s tackle football team.

Q&A with Mar Catherine Stratford

Influenced from an early age by kids’ books about the unsolved and zir relationship to gender, Mar Catherine Stratford loves a good mystery. This is obvious from zir enigmatic “Third Shift” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now]. Below, ze discusses this story’s origins, working through writers’ block, and the authors who have inspired zir most.


Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

MCS: I was at the Denver Natural History Museum looking at a diorama of taxidermied animals, which included a rattlesnake, and thought, I should make a character named Rattlesnake. A few weeks later, I was taking a writing class that had us write a few paragraphs in a strong character voice. Mav’s voice came to me from that exercise, and from there it all kind of fell together.

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

MCS: I wrote this piece to be stand-alone, but I do have enough ideas about the larger conspiracies in this world, and how Mav, Rattlesnake, and Miguel grow and change after the story cuts off, so I’d like to revisit this world at some point!

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

MCS: Yes—all the characters in “Third Shift” are related to me in some way. When I began writing this story, I was working a job with odd hours and thinking a lot about how to leave that job, so those feelings went into Mav. I’m also a genderqueer person like Rattlesnake, and like Miguel, I’m a little bit of a political theory nerd.


I sometimes describe my writing as “stories about aliens except the aliens never actually show up.”


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

MCS: Charles de Lint’s Newford books have been immensely influential to me. Him, along with Holly Black and Francesca Lia Block, are the writers who introduced me to the idea that you could have a story set in contemporary America and still fill it with unusual experiences, so while these are writers whose work I encountered at a fairly young age, I’d say they’re still among my greatest influences.

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

I sometimes describe my writing as “stories about aliens except the aliens never actually show up.” This is to say that thematically, I’m very interested in mystery, and the impacts that mystery has on my characters, and aliens make a pretty good mystery. I think my interest in this theme comes from a few places, including the mysterious confusion I lived with for years as child and teen before understanding my gender identity, and a fourth grade obsession with this “Unsolved Mysteries for Kids” kind of book series.

What is your process?

I typically start working on a story with a few significant images all formed in my mind. Then, I put together an outline of the main beats in each scene, and from there typically work in a cycle of writing and revising.

How do you deal with writers’ block?

Talking it out with other writers—I’m lucky enough to be in the University of Arkansas creative writing MFA program with a number of really excellent, creative folks who can listen to me and suggest the kinds of big structural changes that often help me get unstuck.

What are you reading right now?

I’m currently reading Kingdoms of Elfin by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which is a collection of short stories that combine the kind of New Yorker literary short story sensibility with fairies. It’s really incredible writing; thank you to the June 13, 2019 Strange Horizons book review that reccomended this collection!

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

I think I’m still an up-and-coming writer, so I don’t know about advice for other people, but if I could give advice to myself when I was just starting to write fiction, I’d tell me to use outlines, and don’t be afraid to tell the reader what they need to know.

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

I’m on Twitter @maricatmaricat, and my website is


Mar Catherine Stratford (ze/zir/zirs) is a fiction student at the University of Arkansas creative writing MFA program, and one-half of the team behind Swamphouse Press Zines. Additionally, ze is a foster parent to a fluctuating amount of kittens, and friend to all animals.

How to Read “Selfless”

by James Patrick Kelly


too much me

If, as I suspect, you are a frequent reader of Asimov’s, you probably know that I write a column there called “On The Net.” Ostensibly it’s about my continuing hunt for interesting websites about science and science fiction, although I occasionally stray into the more remote precincts of popular culture. In the course of my explorations, I often share information about my life as a writer. In fact, I sometimes worry that I’ve overshared. Thus some (many?) of you may know more about Jim Kelly than you ever wanted to! So, with Sheila and Emily’s permission, I’m going to skip the interview. Email me if you want to know how I got into this biz, or who has influenced me or what I’m working on now. I guarantee a prompt reply!


“Selfless,” in particular, lends itself to dramatic reading because of its oddball point of view.


print v audio

Instead I want to discuss my new novelette, “Selfless” in its two current incarnations, print in the magazine and audio on the website. Depending on how you arrived at this blog, you may already know that I recorded the novelette for Asimov’s here at the fabulous, high-tech James Patrick Kelly Studios (my walk in closet). Continue reading “How to Read “Selfless””

Q&A with Neal Asher

Drawing on his time surrounded by the the rich natural beauty of Crete, Neal Asher brings us a story full of what he calls “sensawunda stuff” with “An Alien on Crete” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now]. Read on to learn more about his inspiration, his history as a writer, and why he would like to live in the universe of his own stories.


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

NA: Again, as is usual with me, I was ahead of my publishing contract with Macmillan having one book, The Human (third book of the Rise of the Jain trilogy), ready, bar a bit of editing, for publication almost a year before I needed to hand it in. I’ve wanted to return to writing more short stories for some time, since it was through them I got my first stuff published. I also feel that the change, the discipline and the necessity for brevity are good for my writing. I can explore stuff outside of my long-running space opera series too. It also makes good business sense to expose readers who might not have heard of me to my stuff. And opportunities had arisen (which I can’t talk about) concerning the TV streaming services. So I started writing some more short stories.


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

NA: I am lucky enough to spend half of my year on the island of Crete and there, besides kayaking and swimming, I spend a lot of time walking in the beautiful mountains. One of the advantages of only needing a laptop, or even just pen and paper to do your job, is that you can do it anywhere. Being an SF writer, I of course visualized all sorts of sensawunda stuff in those mountains: starships in the sky, alien plants growing amidst the rest, some places where you could think you were on an alien world, how the walk would be while installed in a new Golem chassis and, of course, an alien landing there. Continue reading “Q&A with Neal Asher”

Q&A with Brittany Hause

An image of the Archaeopteryx fossil found in Berlin made a lasting impression on Brittany Hause when they were a child. Years later and inspired by that image, Brittany’s poem “billets-doux” [on sale now in our current issue] has made a lasting impression on us. Read on for a more in-depth look at the inspiration for “billets-doux” and to learn about Brittany’s works in progress.

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

BH: The first image sketched out in “billets-doux”—the establishing shot, I suppose—was also the first element of the poem to come to me. For a few days, that was all I had of the story that would later tell itself with little effort on my part: a static vision of the crisp, unmistakeable lines of a modern shoeprint pressed into rock alongside the equally unmistakeable contours of a pre-Cenozoic fossil. That said fossil happened to be Archaeopteryx, specifically, is unsurprising—pictures I saw in childhood of the famous full-skeleton specimen found in Berlin, the ur-bird with its head thrown back and limbs spasming out in a weird forever-dance, made an impression (pun intended) that’s never quite left me.

I let this anachronistic tableau rattle wordlessly around in my head for a while before I put it to paper. When I did finally scribble the idea down, it seemed to take the form of a three-line poem of its own accord.

At first pass, I considered that to be the finished product: a standalone haiku-like sci-fi piece (what many call “scifaiku”). But then some photos I’d seen years before in an art history textbook suddenly swam to mind—the stark shapes of ancient human hands with fingers outspread, empty spaces outlined in red and black on the cavern walls of Pech Merle, and I thought: It’s not an accident—it’s a message. I wrote the rest of the poem in the same sitting.

I’m a plodding sort of writer, generally. Fiction pieces, especially—whether poetry or prose—are in most cases only wrung out of my system in tiny, disordered fragments jotted down over the course of several noncontiguous days before being rearranged and severely edited. So to have a poem flow out all at once for me like that was a nice change of pace.

Something about the first stanza looked naggingly familiar, though. I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d seen similar imagery in someone else’s poetry before.

After some vague but determined googling, I finally tracked down the piece haunting the fringes of my memory. There are enough differences to put my fears of unmeaning plagiarism to rest, but I’m almost certain that the immediate inspiration for the fossilized sneakerprint of “billets-doux” is the second poem Tom Brinck gives as an example in his “SciFaiku Manifesto,” one of the places I turned for more information when I first heard of scifaiku a couple years back. Brinck’s “Digging up an ancient city” is probably the subconscious reason “billets-doux” came out in haiku-shaped stanzas to begin with, and the reason for the shout-out in the subtitle.

AE: What made you think of Asimov’s for “billets-doux”?

BH: The sci-fi elements of this poem are overt, and central to the piece. The time travel alluded to throughout is easily read (I think) as a literal plot point—not strictly as a metaphor for something else.

It’s also a fairly upbeat, optimistic poem. At least, that’s what I was going for.

I associate Asimov’s both with the explicit exploration of sci-fi tropes (like time travel!) and with a wide range in the tone emanated by the stories and poems making up each issue. Though I could be wrong about this, it seems to me that the editors make more room for lighthearted stuff than many other regular SFF publications, both nowadays and historically. (I’ve gone back to Lawrence Watt-Evans’s “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers,” a now fairly venerable Asimov’s-debuted short story, on several occasions when I wanted an emotional pick-me-up.)

As an unambiguously SFnal poem leaning toward the happy-go-lucky, I thought “billets-doux” might be a good fit for the magazine. I’m glad the editors agreed!

AE: What is your process?

BH: Poems and stories for me nearly always originate as a few bullet point notes hastily jotted down on whatever surface avails itself at the moment—my writing notebook, if the timing’s good, but more often than not, the back of a lecture handout, a napkin, or even my wrist. (My phone’s note-taking app is probably a more sensible option, I know, but somehow its existence seems to slip my mind in the instant inspiration strikes.)

Later, at a more convenient moment (ideas almost never announce themselves at convenient moments), I transfer to my writing notebook any notes not already contained therein. I revise and reorganize my notes by hand in the same notebook, and usually go through at least two drafts that way before transferring my work to a word processor. I edit as I type, too—editing at this point largely consisting of heavy pruning. Work I submit for publication is often only a third or a fourth the size of early drafts.


Long story short, as much as I love mentally escaping into sci-fi worlds for days or even weeks at a time, I believe I’m best off where I am, learning to better live in this world. In the immortal words of Sesame Street’s Ernie, “I’d like to visit the Moon, / but I don’t think I’d like to live there.”


AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

BH: More of my time is occupied with moving forward with my doctorate thesis (on linguistic borrowings in Spanish) than with fiction-writing, at the moment.

But I have been getting some sci-fi and fantasy work done here and there. I recently guest-edited an issue of online speculative poetry magazine Eye to the Telescope (“Tricksters,” October 2019), and I have three specpo collections of my own in the very, very slow making. The one I’m farthest along with, and hoping to publish within the next year or so, is a collection of SFF micropoetry—scifaiku, tanka, sijo, and other very short traditional forms of unrhymed verse. (As a series of linked scifaiku, “billets-doux” falls under this umbrella.)

I’ve also got an incipient collection of rhyming poems in the works. These are mostly sonnets, and mostly feature speakers drawn from European folklore and fairytales. I’ve been mentally calling the book-to-be Bluebeard’s First Wife and Other Poems, though that could change. You can read one of the sonnets, “La Belle a la Bête,” online at Abyss & Apex.

And, finally, I continue to gradually add to a series of erasure poems drawn from the text of Ray Bradbury’s classic sci-fi story collection The Martian Chronicles. One of these erasures, “The Martian Chronicles The Earth Men,” is currently available to read online, also at Abyss & Apex.

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

BH: There are a number of series of sci-fi novels featuring intricate world-building that I enjoy immersing myself in time and again. I love reconnecting periodically with the universe and characters of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, for instance.

Much as I find the physical and cultural settings of these books compelling platforms for stories that I care about, though, I doubt I would enjoy living in most of them, especially if making the choice to do so meant I could never return to this corner of spacetime.

As far as sci-fi universes in TV/movies go, I’m very attached to the settings and characters of Star Trek—as developed in Deep Space Nine in particular—despite taking a rather cynical view of the United Federation of Planets’s self-advertisement as a democratic, pacific utopia. Having watched shows set in the Star Trek universe since early childhood, I figure if I were suddenly plopped onto one of the member worlds of the UFP, I might have a fighting chance at working out how to get around and at navigating cultural differences. And physically, at least, I expect I would be okay, given the access to many necessary resources and the technological conveniences most Federation citizens in Star Trek shows take for granted.

But again, if moving to Risa or Vulcan or Andoria meant I could never come home, I’d turn down the offer.

Long story short, as much as I love mentally escaping into sci-fi worlds for days or even weeks at a time, I believe I’m best off where I am, learning to better live in this world. In the immortal words of Sesame Street’s Ernie, “I’d like to visit the Moon, / but I don’t think I’d like to live there.”

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

BH: Reliable, government-provided healthcare available free of charge to anyone who wants it, anytime.

AE: What are you reading right now?

BH: On the nonfiction side of things, I’m currently working my way through Stephen King’s On Writing, Don Kulick’s A Death in the Rainforest, selected chapters of The Cambridge Handbook of Spanish Linguistics, and scattered articles in old installments of the Folia Linguistica Historica. On the fiction side, I’m reading Arkady Martine’s sci-fi political thriller A Memory Called Empire; Dashiell Hammett’s classic hardboiled detective novel Red Harvest; and The Gunslinger, Book One of the sprawling Dark Tower series (Stephen King again).

My habit of jumping from book to book mid-read is a firmly entrenched one. I own probably around 15 bookmarks at this point, all put to frequent use.

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

BH: I can be found on Twitter: @BrittanyHause. I also blog occasionally about science fiction and fantasy poetry at specpotpourri, where I maintain a (usually) up-to-date list of my published poems and other SFF writing you can access by clicking here.

Brittany is a linguist; they also write SFF poetry. Their speculative verse has most recently appeared in Star*Line, Grievous Angel, Abyss & Apex, and Eye to the Telescope.

Exploring What’s Real in an Imaginary World

by Kali Wallace


The setting of “The River of Blood and Wine” [on sale in our current issue] is a world founded on the profitability of murder. That is not how its inhabitants see it: they believe themselves to be colonists taming a wild frontier, and that includes hunting and killing the animals that roam the land. They ignore, dismiss, and cover up evidence that the creatures they hunt are intelligent beings with a culture of their own—right up until they can’t hide it anymore, and their way of life must end.

That is the initial seed of an idea I had when I first began writing this story. I often begin my stories with little more than a vivid image and a “what if . . . ?” premise to hang onto. In this case, the images I had in mind were a broad, slow river snaking through a vast plain, a man returning to this troubled home after years away, and a native species so alien a society might choose to see them as mere animals.

Starting with that scenario and those three nexus points, I began to see the world growing and stretching, becoming more real in my mind, before I even knew how I would populate it. Even more than the geography, I began to get a feel for it—what kind of world this was, what it might feel like to walk beneath its sun, what dark memories a child of this society might take with him when he left. What it might mean for a person’s greatest act to be driven by personal demons as much as altruism.

The setting is a distant planet in an equally distant future, but it’s a world that borrows a lot of its imagery and atmosphere from real places here on Earth. The savannas of East Africa, for example, or the plains of North America, these broad open spaces full of wildlife that have so often been used as shorthand for adventure, exploration, individualism, and rugged prowess. A place to prove one’s mettle against nature.

For incomers, that is. For colonists. For invaders.

It was part of a writer’s work to think not only about what we’re writing, but also to think very deeply about what kind of story we’re trying to tell. In this case, I had to take a step back from the imagery and science fictional ideas that captivated me and realize that my first emotional engagement with this idea was one that required some examination. I was wary of telling a story about invasion from the point of view of the invaders, which is what I was doing by centering the point of view of a human in this planetary colony.

This is where the “What if . . . ?” that formed the spark of my story idea had to expand and grow. It isn’t enough to think about a scenario humankind might encounter in a science fictional future, on a distant planet. It is often said that science fiction is the literature of ideas, but ideas cannot be separated from the people who hold them, and social systems cannot be separated from the people living within them. Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying. See, for example, narratives about good slave owners, or loving domestic abusers, or promising and accomplished young rapists, or egalitarian billionaires. To live in our world is to expend a great deal of energy grappling with narratives that insist upon separation between flawed systems and the people who benefit from those flaws at the expense of others. It is, and always has been, a false division.

In the same way, stories cannot be separated from the world in which they are written. When I was turning my own ideas over in my mind, I realized that I could not separate the violence of the culture I was creating—both implicit and explicit—from the sort of people who would create and preserve that culture. It requires people thinking themselves superior, drawing lines around who deserves to live and who deserves to die, creating categories of who even gets to be called people and placing only themselves inside. It starts, as Granny Weatherwax said, with treating people as things. That is where systemic violence comes from.

I did not set out to write a story about the nature of evil. Nor did I set out to write a story about domestic violence. I started with nothing but an idea about what humans might encounter in a distant future, and the feeling of a world I could not quite define but wanted to capture. I wanted to describe big open spaces—because, indeed, sometimes a story is born out of an urge no more complex than wanting to explore a specific idea in a specific place, then searching for a way to bring it to life.

But that’s where it begins, not where it ends. A story only becomes a story when it turns toward the people in it and the forces that define their lives, then reaches out to the readers to urge them to consider those same forces in reality. It seems so obvious, so silly and mundane, but I often feel like I am reminding myself of this every time I sit down to write something new. When the sun shines on a character’s skin as they walk across an impossible world in an imagined future, what they feel, and why they feel it, are always going to be shaped by the experiences of readers in this one.


Kali Wallace studied geology and earned a PhD in geophysics before she realized she enjoyed inventing imaginary worlds more than she liked researching the real one. She is the author of the young adult novels Shallow Graves and The Memory Trees and the middle grade fantasy City of Islands. Her first novel for adults is the science fiction thriller Salvation Day. Her short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, F&SF,, and other speculative fiction magazines. After spending most of her life in Colorado, she now lives in southern California.