Jewish Christmas is Science Fiction

by Sam Schreiber

Ten years ago on the sitcom Community, Abed Nadir tells his friends the meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning, and that it can mean whatever we want. A season later, he convinces his best friend and Jehovah’s Witness Troy Barnes to “infiltrate” the holiday in order to destroy it from within. It’s a flimsy ruse to rope Troy and the rest of the study group into joining the school’s glee club, but what’s striking is how both of them embrace the thinnest excuse for loving Christmas, albeit on their own terms.

I can relate.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had what I suspect for secular Jews is a pretty typical relationship with Christmas. Never remotely tempted to become a Christian. Slightly guilty at what even at a young age I understood was the urge to assimilate. Unable to resist that impulse. Not quite sure where that left me, but knowing it left me somewhere.

If you grew up celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday, you might not get what I’m talking about. Even if you aren’t a Biblical literalist, even if you don’t consider yourself a Christian at all, the story of the Christ child and the promise of messianic redemption probably holds some meaning in your subconscious, be it faint or fraught. For you, those stories and those promises are the primary texts from which the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the Doctor Who and Rankin/Bass Christmas specials, and NORAD tracking Santa all draw their power, if not their meaning.

But for me? They are the primary texts. The meaning of Christmas is the idea that Christmas has meaning. And like science fiction, Christmas is what we point to when we say it. Which is why I say to you today that Jewish Christmas is science fiction.

Despite the title and the fact that its protagonist is literally Santa Claus, the true meaning of Christmas wasn’t even close to being the most important component of my novelette “Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria,” which appears in the November/December 2020 issue of Asimov’s [on sale now]. At least not when I was writing it. At its heart, it’s a detective story, and not this version of Santa’s first rodeo either. Nick is a seasoned, cynical gumshoe if ever there was one. Bigger influences than any particular Christmas story were Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, Stephen King’s short story “1408,” and Connie Willis’ novella “At the Rialto,” whose narrator is a sort of a mathematical detective in her own right, solving for the true meaning of quantum physics. At least, I think she is. But it’s definitely happening set in a hotel. Maybe.

Put another way, Jewish Christmas is Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. Cosmopolitan commonality, good will among men and peace on much more than just Earth. “There are always possibilities,” Captain Kirk quotes Mister Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. It’s among those possibilities that the science fiction of Christmas lives for us.

Look, it’s quantum physics. I can be forgiven for getting it wrong, or at least partially wrong. Check out “Take a Look at the Five and Ten” in this issue, by the way.

But for Nick, who in some respects bears more of a resemblance to Saint Nicholas of Myra (patron saint of sex workers, thieves, and fences seems about his speed) than he does to the jolly old elf we know and love, the true meaning of Christmas is the schism between the way things should be and the way things are. Between who he should be and who he is, or rather, what he is. Reconciling those differences is no grand triumph for Nick, but a pyrrhic victory. This Christmas is a vision of moral duty, the determination and world-weary humor with which it is carried out, and the horrifying cost of it all.

Of course, my fiction has always skewed a little dark. Things don’t always have to go that way. But no matter how happy or hopeful Jewish Christmas is, that schism is always a piece of the puzzle.

Just look at the music.

Songs about the baby Jesus, stars of Bethlehem, shepherd boys and mighty kings? Not really our forte. We write songs about roasting chestnuts, silver bells, red-nosed reindeers and, of course, Santa. Celebrations of the thing, not the thing itself. The mythos is all well and good, and I’m as big a fan of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar as anyone. But we dream of White Christmases just like the ones we used to know, except we never actually knew them.

But we could.

Put another way, Jewish Christmas is Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek. Cosmopolitan commonality, good will among men and peace on much more than just Earth. “There are always possibilities,” Captain Kirk quotes Mister Spock at the end of The Wrath of Khan. It’s among those possibilities that the science fiction of Christmas lives for us. We imagine Christmas without experiencing it—or at least not the same version of it that others do—because, well, we have to. If Jewish Christmas is anything, it’s the longing for a different world, one which we can absolutely relate to and envision, but that doesn’t quite exist.

But it could.

And I suppose that’s one reason I wrote “Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria,” even if I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. For those of you who don’t know, Hilbert’s Hotel is a thought experiment that asks us to imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of them occupied. Is there room for another guest? The answer (which is yes, by the way) boils down to the nature of large and small infinities and it’s an entertaining enough thought experiment. But for me, the next step in that experiment was considering what large and small infinities implied. There’s the infinity of what is. And there’s the infinity of what could be. Jewish Christmas means imagining the possible and, every so often, the impossible. Is it any wonder I chose Santa Claus?

Of course, Nick isn’t merely a curiosity in the world of “Christmas in the Hilbert of Astoria.” His superpower is explicitly tied up with the infinite. It isn’t an accident that he’s the one who the powers that be call in to take on an especially metaphysically challenging case. But for all his reality-bending talents, the sum total of all possible universes is bigger than he is, and he knows it. When the chips are down, he finds himself corned and outmatched. What happens next, well . . . I do actually want you to buy a copy, so that’ll just have to wait for now.

Obviously Jewish science fiction, the Jewish diaspora, and the true meaning of Christmas for Jews—or anyone else whose relationship to Christmas parallels my own—are giant, intimidating topics and a single blog post isn’t going to do them justice. If I’m being completely honest, this is the first piece of writing meant for the public in which I’ve discussed Judaism and Jewishness at all, let alone the relationship between my own Jewishness and my writing. Too many people who are smarter than me, who know more than I do, have done it better, and it makes it hard to say…well, anything on these topics. But here we are, in the final stretch of a short essay and here I am, saying . . . something. Once again, I’m the kid who doesn’t know quite what to do with conflicting theories about what one should feel, never mind what one should say. But I have the chance to put my two shekels in anyway, and I suppose that’s not something one should ever take for granted.

Sam Schreiber teaches science fiction and fantasy at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and the neighbor cat who sometimes drops in to say hello. Sam’s intense and zany first story for us imagines “Christmas at the Hilbert Astoria.”

Q&A with Lora Gray

“The onboard medic/says not to worry,” begins Lora Gray’s poem, “After a Year of Solitude” [in our current issue, on sale now]. But where did the poem really begin? Below, Lora tells us about its backstory, their own backstory as a writer and Asimov’s fan, and what they’re reading and writing lately.

Asimov’s Editor: How did this “After a Year of Solitude” germinate?

LG: This poem began as a quick, (barely decipherable) series of notes I scribbled in a journal during a long road trip in 2017. The poem itself was very slow to germinate and briefly morphed into a piece of flash fiction before settling into its final form.

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

LG: Most likely a stand-alone, although I’ve since explored similar themes in other poems and short stories.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

LG: When I was in junior high, a local convenience store carried Asimov’s. They had a spectacular book/magazine aisle and I remember plunking myself down on the floor and trying to speed read as many stories as I could while my mom shopped. When I was a little older and had money of my own to spend, Asimov’s was one of the first magazine subscriptions I ever purchased.

There’s a rhythm and sense of timing in particular, that I’ve noticed tends to work its way into my poetry that’s very similar to the way I move when I dance and choreograph.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

LG: I’m a big fan of freewriting and stream of consciousness exercises. When I’m stuck, forcing myself to write nonstop for five-ten minutes, as quickly as I can, without rules or worrying about what I’m putting down on the page, tends to shake me out of mental stickiness pretty quickly.

AE: How did you break into writing?

LG: I’d been published in a few smaller literary journals and anthologies when I was younger, but when I was in my twenties, I took a long hiatus from writing because of health issues. In 2016, shortly after I started writing seriously again, I was accepted into Clarion West. It was an invaluable experience and really helped me rediscover my creative footing. My short fiction and poetry have been published in several magazines and anthologies since.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

LG: I’m currently working on a slew of poems and stories (I generally have at least half a dozen going at any given time), as well as a novel which I’m hoping to have drafted by early 2021.

AE: What are you reading right now?

LG: I just finished Follow Me to Ground by Sue Rainsford, which was deliciously creepy and poetic.  I’ve just started Docile by K.M. Szpara, which is great so far.

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

LG: Don’t be afraid to explore various writing habits and processes to discover what works for you. Oh! And finish what you start.

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

LG: I’ve worked professionally in several creative fields, including dance, art, and music (and briefly theater). I’ve found that, for me at least, every one of them has informed the other. There’s a rhythm and sense of timing in particular, that I’ve noticed tends to work its way into my poetry that’s very similar to the way I move when I dance and choreograph.

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

LG: You can find me on my website,, and on Twitter @LoraJGray.

Lora Gray is a non-binary speculative fiction writer and poet from Northeast Ohio. Their work has previously appeared in Uncanny, PseudoPod, Flash Fiction Online and Strange Horizons among other places. Their poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling Award. When they aren’t writing, Lora works as an artist, dance instructor and wrangler of a very smart cat named Cecil.

The Next Great Disaster

by Julie Nováková

Imagine a vast icy cold landscape of patchwork black-and-white ice bathed in starlight. Imagine stepping onto it a hundred years after the previous crewed mission had landed there. How does that make you feel?

Congratulations. You’re on Saturn’s moon Iapetus amidst the long Iapetan night, and you’ve reached another of humanity’s stepping stones in regaining its past achievements before Earth’s metaphorical long night. That long night is what I’ve come here to talk about. Beware: it’s not going to be a happy, uplifting read.

In “The Long Iapetan Night” [in our current issue, on sale now!] people are starting to explore the solar system once again a century after a disaster that plunged humanity into chaos—or, rather, two such disasters separated by less than a year.

There are a number of events that could have such an effect. In the story, it was a large volcanic eruption that erased Naples from the map and plunged Earth into a volcanic winter, followed by a powerful solar storm hitting the planet and frying not only satellites, but also a lot of ground-based infrastructure. We could think of other non-anthropogenic rare events with immediate global consequences, most importantly an asteroid strike. These events have some traits in common: They are rare (and the larger-scale they are, the rarer they get), and they are nigh impossible to reliably predict sufficiently in advance. We have their distribution mapped reasonably well, but that still doesn’t tell us whether the next megavolcano, severe solar storm with a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth, or asteroid strike will occur next year, in ten years’ time, in the next century, or in a thousand years; only the approximate likelihood that it happens sometime in a given period of time. The probability of two of such events coinciding is extremely low—but even one would suffice to do major global damage.

Sometimes these events are dubbed “black swans,” referring to something unexpected, near-unpredictable, and highly improbable. We should differentiate these from “gray rhinos,” events that can have just as massive impacts, but are slower moving, and the threat is more obvious (not that we can predict exactly when and how they happen, but looking at the statistics, we can say that the danger is more or less imminent). The current COVID-19 pandemic is such an event. Anthropogenic climate change is another.

Rare events such as volcanic eruptions, asteroid strikes, or solar flares more or less follow a power law distribution where the stronger they are, the less frequently they occur. Small meteoroids that burn up in the atmosphere or fall down as tiny chunks of stone and metal hit our planet many times a day. An asteroid of a one-km diameter, approximately the smallest that could theoretically jumpstart a global disaster, hits the Earth on average every half a million years. An asteroid strike of the rate that contributed to the extinction of dinosaurs (well, apart from birds) occurs, on average, about every twenty million years. The last one of such force occurred sixty-six million years ago—yeah, the dinosaur extinction—but that doesn’t mean we’re “due” for one. The next one could strike next year just as well as in a hundred million years.

If we are to survive and thrive as a species, as a biosphere, we need to take global action. The healthier and more stable the population and the whole environment are, the more likely we are to face any coming disaster of manageable proportions, well, managed. We need to care about infrastructure in the developed as well as developing countries—in terms of supply chains, industry, energy, information, health care, education . . .

The same, as far as we know, applies to volcanic events (although it’s necessarily simplifying—in principle, rare processes leading to clustering of eruptions could be imagined). As Papale (2018) remarks: “Exponential distributions are memoryless, exactly meaning that the probability of observing a next event in a given time window is always the same, irrespective of the time passed from the last observed event. Therefore . . . there is no ‘overdue’ event: the probability of a next cataclysmic or colossal eruption somewhere on the Earth is always the same, no matter how long ago—one day or one million years—we observed the last one.”

Predicting these events is hard. Most of the near-Earth asteroid population has been mapped, but still—asteroids are not so easy to spot, and if they don’t conveniently obscure some star while we’re looking at it, radiate a lot of heat as opposed to background, or reflect lots of sunlight, the chances are we would only notice one on a collision course with Earth too late to do anything about it—even if we were able to deflect an asteroid, which we at the moment aren’t. Volcanoes are notoriously difficult to predict—or, rather, we can usually tell if a volcano is about to erupt in the foreseeable future, but the size of the eruption is hard to ascertain in advance. Robust connections between the eruption size and pre-eruption data have not been found yet, although that may improve in the future. And as for solar flares, it’s possible to predict a coronal mass ejection hitting the Earth, but the warning period would be low indeed. If a flare-induced geomagnetic storm occurs on Earth, its effect will depend greatly on its size and other factors, such as the bedrock beneath grid infrastructure (resistive rocks may make the hazard worse). It could damage the electrical grid in just a small region, or it could leave us without satellite navigation and communications, and more or less without electricity—thus also without information. . . .

How can we prepare for these events? Infrastructure redundancy is one thing. It means not depending on a single source of food, energy, anything. The more you decentralize and the more independent systems you build, the more likely you persist with less damage. For instance, a geomagnetic storm could fry satellites and a substantial part of ground-based infrastructure, while it could leave cables laid on the bottom of the sea intact. It’s nice to have satellites as well as undersea cables in place. But that’s a trivial example. Another that doesn’t only apply to rare global disasters is having enough (well-equipped, well-staffed) hospitals distributed across the landscape, so that as few regions as possible are left with low accessibility of medical care. Having well-kept stores of basic medicine, food reserves or other essentials—and having clear, ideally local-based (not depending on offices hundreds of miles away) protocols of what to do with them if needed—would also be prudent. We don’t directly see the Earth in “The Long Iapetan Night,” but I like to imagine that at least some of these factors contributed to humankind venturing back into space only a century after the two disasters.

Yet given how 2020 has fared so far, I’m afraid that “The Long Iapetan Night” is hilariously, hilariously optimistic. (Ah, well. I suppose it had to be. Even Peter Watts is an optimist, and I probably don’t know any actual pessimists.) We’d known that a pandemic was coming. We’d had no idea about its type, its origin, or the time it would hit, but some pandemic sooner or later was [1] inevitable. It was reasonable for any government to have clear contingency plans with up-to-date ties to the market for surgical masks, ventilators and other equipment; to have stores of essential equipment and medicine; to be at least vaguely prepared for the eventuality of mass quarantine in terms of infrastructure, money, and education; to have regularly updated plans on how to effectively distribute key information . . .

Instead, in more places than not, we’ve got disasters. I was tempted to say shitshows, and speaking of some governments, I would not hesitate to use the term, but it would be more than disrespectful to the countless victims of the pandemic worldwide to apply it generally. Although, I guess I’m entitled to call it a shitshow if it’s my country’s government. It reacted reasonably well in spring . . . and then sat on its hands in summer, thinking that if people go about without masks, go to holidays, and generally have fun, everything will be okay. Guess what: Once people returned to their workplaces and to schools, the number of cases spiked rapidly and is still growing exponentially. We might be facing ICU overload in a few weeks’ time, and still, no measures matching those in spring have been taken. Experts predict that even if the measures are taken now, we’ll likely face insufficient medical care for patients with serious symptoms, because we can only observe the effect of safety measures (or lack thereof) with a delay of more than a week.

Things could have been done in summer—the capacity for testing may have been increased. More people for contact tracing may have been hired and trained. More supplies of masks and ventilators could have been secured. More resources could have been diverted towards distance-working and learning. Instead, we’ve got campaigns about holiday-going.

Reading this, you might perhaps be tempted to become a “prepper,” to build a bunker underneath your house, stash lots of conserved food, medicine and other long-lasting essential items, and imagine you’d be okay.

That is not the way. If we are to survive and thrive as a species, as a biosphere, we need to take global action. The healthier and more stable the population and the whole environment are, the more likely we are to face any coming disaster of manageable proportions, well, managed. We need to care about infrastructure in the developed as well as developing countries—in terms of supply chains, industry, energy, information, health care, education . . . Investments in health care and education seem especially prudent, since they can leave the population more productive, less costly in the long term (guess what—it’s cheaper to have good-quality free prevention than spend on treating ailments or have sick people suffer while treatments exist), and more equipped to deal with catastrophic events. Lower, more manageable and less environment-demanding population growth closely follows the quality of healthcare and education (although one may argue that a single-child first-world family takes a much, much higher toll on the environment than a seven-child third-world family—which is a reason to change that cost, too). Measures such as the universal basic income are gaining more traction amidst the current pandemic, and multiple studies (albeit localized, rather short-term) suggest that it’s an economically (and literally) healthy step.

All of this has been and continues to be explored in SF. Science fiction can both warn and inspire. It can scare the hell out of us, and then get us to act. There is an ongoing debate about whether dystopias or hopepunk are more or less useful in this respect, but delving into that would be material for a whole new article. As someone who doesn’t too much like “taking sides” without the support of numbers, I’ll just say that it remains an interesting question to explore.

To look on the brighter side, it’s not like nothing is being done. Countless teams of scientists are collecting and studying data that may eventually help us predict large-scale disasters and mitigate their impacts. ESA is looking into more closely studying extreme space weather, and has an impressive fleet of satellites observing the Earth and ultimately helping mitigate the effects of smaller-scale events such as draughts, fires, storms and more. NASA, ESA and other agencies are trying to increase the observation and tracking of near-Earth objects. Things are moving . . . and it’s largely up to cosmic accident whether it’s good enough.

In any case, don’t be mistaken. The next great disaster is coming. It may be coming for us, our grandchildren, or many, many generations later, but it will happen. Hopefully, we’ll have mapped near-Earth objects, understood solar activity, or monitored geodynamics much better than now by then, but even that is no excuse for not being prepared in the most basic of ways.

The question is not if. It’s when.

Julie Novakova is a scientist, educator, and award-winning Czech author of science fiction and detective stories. She has published seven novels and over thirty short pieces in Czech. Her work in English has appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, and elsewhere, and has been reprinted in venues like The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019. Julie’s works have been translated into eight languages, and she has translated Czech stories into English for, Strange Horizons, and F&SF. The author edited an anthology of Czech speculative fiction in translation, Dreams from Beyond, coedited a book of European SF in Filipino translation, Haka, and created an outreach anthology of astrobiological SF, Strangest of All. Her newest book is a story collection titled The Ship Whisperer (Arbiter Press, 2020). Julie is a recipient of the European fandom’s Encouragement Award and multiple Czech national genre awards. She’s active in science outreach, education and nonfiction writing, and co-leads the outreach group of the European Astrobiology Institute. In addition, Julie is a member of the XPRIZE Sci-fi Advisory Council. Readers of her latest tale for us will feel the terrifying chill of “The Long Iapetan Night.”

Writing Hope in Times of Trouble

by Kate Maruyama

I sat down with four futurist and scifi writers—Cecil Castelucci, Matt Kressel, PJ Manney, Nisi Shawl, and Sherri L. Smith—on BookSwell with Cody Sisco in May, and we talked about the difficulty of writing the future when our present times are so difficult. So many very productive writers I know have had trouble stringing sentences together these days, let alone pages or story, as we are all overwhelmed by the present. Each day brings new tonnage of information to process. Our biggest questions were, “How do we move forward?” and, “What can we write now?”

This conversation was early in the quarantine, and we were seeing the positive environmental repercussions on the planet from everyone simply staying home. My family made the trip to see bioluminescence come back to the Santa Monica Bay for the first time in decades. Matt Kressel said, “All across the world people are reporting bluer skies, cleaner water. I hope that people will make it want to last longer, think about how to treat the environment better.”

I came away from that conversation so full of hope for the future and this planet, hope that out of the current crises, things can change. I also came away thinking science fiction was more important now than ever.

When I wrote “Footprint” I was in a very different place, wrestling with growing knowledge that my kids, now eighteen and twenty, were outgrowing my abilities to protect them from the world. I had a terrible feeling I hadn’t prepared them properly. I’m certain so many parents are feeling this right now. The story, in the November/December issue of Asimov’s [on sale now], dives into the helplessness of being a parent and how terrifying it is that every decision you make, even if it feels like a guess, can have lasting repercussions on a child’s life. At the time I wrote it, I was overwhelmed by these feelings, to the point at which I was having trouble writing. But not writing isn’t an option, so I waded in, sank for a while. I set the story in a future where global warming is catching up with us and my main character is missing garlic, which no longer grows fresh in Southern California. Temperatures are up, bees are down, food supply is challenging, but it was important to me to capture a future with hope in the air, a world on the cusp of positive change. That the reader leave this future feeling things are on their way to getting better. In many ways I hope that is where we are now, a bad place where things can only get better.

But not writing isn’t an option, so I waded in, sank for a while. I set the story in a future where global warming is catching up with us and my main character is missing garlic, which no longer grows fresh in Southern California. Temperatures are up, bees are down, food supply is challenging, but it was important to me to capture a future with hope in the air, a world on the cusp of positive change.

Science fiction has always created worlds we want to see, but there has been a recent trend of dystopian futures, worlds without hope. Zombie narratives have touted an every man for himself future, testing the theory of how badly we will behave when things are at their worst. The problem is we’ve reached some terrible times, and that narrative seems only to have encouraged hoarding. There was that period of the quarantine when we all ran out of toilet paper, when I saw people installing deep freezes in their garages so they could buy all the meat, when the shelves at the supermarket were empty. Cory Doctorow has written and spoken on how these narratives in fiction can be damaging to us as a human race.

In these times, I’m more fascinated by the good I’m seeing coming out in people. In Los Angeles, I’m seeing neighborhoods stepping forward to take care of their own, from people buying groceries for each other, to local restaurants in Little Tokyo forming cooperatives to churn out free meals for people unemployed or houseless due to COVID-19. My group of friends seem to be participating in a vegetable exchange as we’ve all started growing things in our gardens or in pots. Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Made in Hell, tracks disasters across a century and a half, detailing how unexpectedly people have kindness at their center when terrible events occur. These times, despite the news to the contrary, are full of basic human kindness. In our conversation on BookSwell, Sherri L. Smith said, “The willingness to stay inside to protect other people . . . is the most generous movement I’ve seen on this planet for a long time.”

Afrofuturism revolutionized the idea of laying a path of positive futures centering on Black characters doing good things, in positions of power, at the leading edge of technology, living free of the inequities of current times. There is power in painting futures we want to see.

A number of science fiction writers at NorWescon (Nisi Shawl and PJ Manney included) were on a panel where they talked about the importance creating a New Mythos, an ideology where we don’t have to imagine a terrible future. We can envision ourselves better; we can envision a planet healing; we can find a way forward. In our conversation, Nisi Shawl said, “[dystopia] is what’s served to us, it’s what we’re trained to enjoy . . . I want people to feel better, to let them know they can go forward . . .”

In our conversation, Cecil Castellucci pointed out that half of the scientists she knows at NASA say that science fiction was what gave them the vision to want to pursue space exploration, that drove them to choose science. That the better futures dreamed up in fiction seemed like a possibility worth pursuing.

So as writers of the future, how can we expose the evils of the world—as they should be—but bend toward a more hopeful future? How can we help change the human narrative? Be careful what you write; you are making a bigger imprint than you know.

Kate Maruyama’s novel Harrowgate was published by
47North and her novella “Family Solstice” by Omnium Gatherum. Kate’s short stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies. She writes, teaches, cooks, and eats in Los Angeles where she lives with her family. Kate’s first tale for us takes a moving look at family dynamics in the not too distant future.

How “The Hind” Came to Be

by Kevin J. Anderson and Rick Wilber

When we first conjured up “The Hind” [in our current issue, on sale now!] neither Kevin nor I had any idea that by the time of its publication, people worldwide would be confining themselves at home, isolating themselves not unlike our scenario about a generation ship facing a troubled future, with leaders more concerned with staying in power than in fixing the problems that plague the ship. 

The story began on a long drive in July of 2019 through the mountains of Colorado, with Kevin—adept at mountain driving—at the wheel, and me, a mere flatlander, riding shotgun and gawking at the incredible scenery. We were on our way to the summer residency at Western Colorado University, where we are both on the faculty of the graduate program in creative writing. Kevin is director of the innovative and highly successful publishing M.A. program, and I’m a visiting professor in the genre fiction program led by director (and award-winning writer) Fran Wilde.

I’d spent the previous night at Kevin and Rebecca Moesta’s castle-like home after flying in early to Colorado to spend a little time acclimating to the altitude. Our home in Florida lies eighteen feet above sea level, and the campus at Western is at nearly eight thousand feet, so that’s a bit of a difference. Spending a day in the Colorado Springs area, at 6,500 feet, seemed like a good idea. I planned to stay in a hotel and do as much walking around as I could, but when Kevin generously offered a guest room for the night and an afternoon walk through the spectacular Garden of the Gods, followed by an evening barbecue at the Anderson house with relatives and friends, well, I jumped at the chance. Kevin even offered to let me ride with him on the four-hour drive to the university.

We didn’t aim at a story so relevant to today’s pandemic crisis, but we are pleased to point out that in the story, some problems are resolved and things seem to be heading in the right direction for our characters.

The price for all this was minimal and a ton of fun. Kevin said we needed to write a short story together, and see if Asimov’s would buy it. I’m something of a regular in the magazine, with nearly two dozen stories or poems published in its pages over the years, but Kevin J. Anderson, with many dozens of best-selling novels and non-fiction books, and short stories published in almost every major SF market, had, oddly, never sold a story to Asimov’s. 

So conjuring up a story good enough to earn its way into the magazine’s pages seemed like a worthy goal, indeed; and conjure away we did during the long drive to Gunnison. We bounced various ideas around, though I have to say that Kevin’s ideas come pouring out at warp speed, and I’m more of an impulse-drive thinker. With Kevin in the lead, we quickly settled on a generation ship story, with a troubled young woman facing a grave personal crisis that involves the ship’s dangerous condition and its population limits, and the power-hungry leadership that wanted to keep the status quo.

Satisfied with the idea and exhausted by all the brainstorming, I relaxed. Kevin would do the first draft, and that surely would take weeks. And then I’d polish up the next draft, brainstorm and iron out any problems, clean up the final manuscript, and send the story in.

The college residency started and we both were busy with our classes, with only an occasional day off. I put the story out of my mind and focused on the workshop I was leading for those grad students who were just about to start writing their theses. The students were uniformly brilliant, to my delight, but it was demanding work for me, with a lot of thoughtful editing involved. By the time the first open day rolled around, I wanted to sleep in for part of it, and then walk around and see the sights in Gunnison.

Kevin, on the other hand, is inexhaustible. He was up early in the morning, off to a winding trail and beautiful natural area near the Blue Mesa Reservoir, and dictating our story.

This is his usual routine, I should point out. Kevin hikes in Colorado’s mountains and dictates his novels while on the trail. On this particular day, and on another trail the following day, he wrote an entire first draft of “The Hind.” By later that same day, his transcriptionist had typed it up and sent the manuscript back to him, and he’d then sent it on to me.    

Whoa—in two days? But Kevin reassured me that I could take whatever time I needed to do my part. That turned out to be a couple of months, sitting at my desk in the flatlands of coastal Florida, tinkering with the story here and there, with my principal input, perhaps, naming the generation ship—and the story—for Sir Francis Drake’s ship, The Golden Hind, which circumnavigated the globe in 1577-78.

Kevin and I went back and forth on it some from there, and then off it went to Sheila Williams, editor at Asimov’s. Now, more than a year after its inception, you can read the story and let us know what you think. We didn’t aim at a story so relevant to today’s pandemic crisis, but we are pleased to point out that in the story, some problems are resolved and things seem to be heading in the right direction for our characters. In terms of our current global crisis, we hope that problems are resolved and that a vaccine, better treatment options for coronavirus victims, and people embracing wearing masks get us all heading in that right direction. Just like The Hind.

—Rick Wilber

I’m not antisocial, really. I enjoy the company of other writers, talking business, brainstorming ideas, sharing our love of the genre. And Rick Wilber is certainly one of the good guys. I enjoy his company, and was pleased to offer him a place to stay when he flew into Colorado for our grad-school residency at Western. Gunnison, CO, the home of Western Colorado University, is in the middle of the mountains (and in the middle of nowhere), and is not particularly easy to get to. It generally requires flying into Denver or Colorado Springs, renting a car, and driving four to five hours. Since I was making the drive anyway from my home near Colorado Springs, how could I not let Rick tag along?

The only problem was that I rather enjoy the hours-long solo road trip. I spend the time thinking and I usually keep the digital recorder at hand. During long stretches on the open road, I’ll be dictating scenes or complete chapters in a work in progress or even a new story. For most of my career I’ve written by dictation; I have lectured and given workshops on the technique, even wrote a book with Martin L. Shoemaker, On Being a Dictator. I’d been looking forward to the hours-long drive through beautiful scenery to get some solid writing done.

If I had a copilot in the car, we might have some terrific conversation, but I wasn’t going to get any writing done. I told Rick, “You’re going to cost me a short story if you ride along.” So, I said we’d better come up with a story we could write together—and the brainstorming was a blast, as we tried to make our plot as twisty and curvy as the mountain roads.

On the same drive, I also agreed to produce a new collection of Rick’s short stories, Rambunctious, which my WordFire Press released earlier this year to great reviews. So, yeah, it was a pretty productive drive. I suppose he can tag along the next time we drive out for the summer residency.

—Kevin J. Anderson

Kevin J. Anderson is a New York Times bestselling author of more than 165 books and numerous short stories. This is his first appearance in Asimov’s. Kevin has written many novels in the Dune universe with Brian Herbert as well as his own Saga of Seven Suns and Saga of Shadows space opera series. Rick Wilber’s stories appear regularly in Asimov’s. He is the author of more than fifty short stories, several novels, and several college textbooks on writing and the mass media. His novel, Alien Morning (Tor, 2016), was a finalist for the 2017 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and its sequel, Alien Day, will be out in 2021 from Tor. Both Kevin and Rick are professors at Western Colorado University’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing; they brainstormed and wrote this exciting tale about travel on a disabled generation ship during last year’s summer residency on campus.

Q&A with Robert Reed

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

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

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

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

RR: This is the Golden Age for news junkies.

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your process?

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

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

Slow times come, but I rarely feel blocked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Jason Sanford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your process?

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

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

Psychopomps and Two-Bit Keyhole Peepers

by Ian Tregillis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Michael Libling

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

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

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

AE: How did this story germinate?

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

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

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

How much or little do current events impact your writing?

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

AE: How did you break into writing?

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

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

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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

AE: How would you describe your writing space?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ML: My website, where I also blog on occasion:

Twitter: @michaellibling

Instagram: michaelliblingwriter

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

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

Q&A with Leah Cypess

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

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

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

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

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

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

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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


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


AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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