Sci-Fi Conventions Put New Worlds in Reach

Born too early for interstellar travel, too late for Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast, author Jack McDevitt reflects on how a half-century of sci-fi conventions has brought the cosmos closer in “Out There,” available in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]

by Jack McDevitt

During 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli saw what he thought were canals on Mars. As late as the 1940s, though most astronomers saw no evidence of any such thing, we still weren’t certain. But we had hope.

I’d become an avid science fiction reader by then. The Flash Gordon movie serial lit my fuse. Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter novels. In 1962, I became aware of the existence of SF conventions when I was driving a Philadelphia taxi and I took several people to the Sheraton Hotel for something they called Philcon. And if the name didn’t mean much, when we pulled up alongside the curb they got excited and screamed at me to stop the cab. The woman in the front seat began tugging on my arm and yelling “Stop! It’s him.” Somebody in back cried out that she was right. “It’s Asimov.

The guy they were pointing at disappeared into the building moments later while they were grappling for money and opening doors though I hadn’t quite stopped yet. There was no Asimov’s Magazine then, but I certainly knew who he was though I had no idea what he looked like. I’d read The Currents of Space and “Nightfall,” and I think I owned one of his science books. My passengers tumbled out of the cab and hurried inside. I pulled away, feeling sorry for myself. Philcon looked like fun.   

Three years later, finally, Mariner 4 did a flyby of the fourth planet and we got the news at last: nothing was there. No canals and no Martians. Not exactly news. It was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.

During the following years I attended whatever conventions were in reach. And I became aware that I was surrounded by people who hoped to find other civilizations in the sky. Venus was also out of the question by then, and no other world in the solar system seemed habitable. So whatever aliens we were looking for would have to be in other star systems. That became another discouraging issue. If we had a spaceship that could travel at 35,000 mph, which was pretty fast by current standards, it would need approximately 40,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star. Hard to imagine, I decided, we’ll ever be going over there.

So okay: unless the technology changes seriously, interstellar travel for people was never going to happen. Physicists were in agreement that exceeding the speed of light was impossible. And of course even if we could design a thrust system that would move a vehicle at light speed, we’d still need four years to complete the journey one way.


I first heard of flying saucers shortly after World War II ended. Reports implied that, if they really existed, they were surely visitors from another planet. My first reaction was excitement. I wanted them to be there. To land and say hello. And maybe offer to take some of us for rides. That sounded like a great idea until, in 1950, I read Damon Knight’s “To Serve Man.” Even then, I didn’t take that kind of possibility seriously. Intelligent visitors were not going to be Nazis. The truth is that we want to find out we’re not alone in this vast universe.

One of the benefits writers receive from the cons and from electronic exchanges is the opportunity to speak with their readers. That’s why we love to travel to conventions. The primary area of interest tends to be what we’re working on next. But get past that and readers inevitably ask: Who’s out there? Are we ever going to connect with them? It’s why we have SETI, of course. It’s why so much science fiction describes a first encounter.

During the following years I attended whatever conventions were in reach. And I became aware that I was surrounded by people who hoped to find other civilizations in the sky.

I grew up annoyed that I’d missed the radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” in 1938. It was broadcast on Mercury Theater as an actual news event and apparently left most Americans hiding under their beds. It wasn’t the kind of first contact we wanted, but I was sure I wouldn’t have been fooled by it.

The reality is that SF fans love aliens. Not only fictional ones, but we share a passion for an encounter. I’ve learned that the hard way. Speaking at cons has always been a pleasure. Sometimes it’s a general address, sometimes simply trading ideas during a writing workshop, sometimes just walking around talking with whoever shows up. The one question that inevitably surfaces is a variant on whether I believe that UFOs are interstellar vehicles. I don’t. I’ve no idea what the explanation for the sightings might be, but I know that readers don’t want to hear me talking about how far the stars are, and that I can’t believe any intelligent creature is going to want to sit inside an oversized space vehicle for years, get to a world that has lights on, and then fail to say hello.

All of which brings up another issue: Is the question of whether we might be alone in the universe the prime scientific issue of our age? I can’t speak for scientists, of course. Although when they point out that the universe contains billions of Earthlike planets, only one conclusion seems plausible. For the general public at large, it appears to be the topic that generates the most enthusiasm.

Eventually I tried to deal with one aspect of the issue in a story, “The Fifth Day,” published in Asimov’s, April/May, 2007.


The reality, of course, is that we are social creatures. And as we evolve, we become increasingly interested not only in those within our societal complex, but in others. “Others” currently refers to people with a different skin color, different religious views, or whatever. We’ve been learning, during the last century or so, that we share too much with others to cut them off. It’s taken awhile, and we haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re on the right track.

The future will probably bring connections with other species. Though they might be limited to radio exchanges. And there may be some surprises. “Tau Ceti Says What?” takes a look at one possibility. 

Before his successful career in sci-fi, Jack McDevitt was a taxi driver, an English teacher, a customs inspector on the U.S.-Canada border, and a member of the U.S. Navy. His novel Seeker won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 2006. He lives in Georgia.

Q&A with Leah Cypess

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind “From the Fire”?

Leah Cypess: In 2019, I went to the Historical Novel Society Conference. It was a chance to learn about a whole different segment of the writing community, and it was an amazing experience. I was especially impressed by the sense of historical consciousness these writers had — their deep understanding of the fact that people in the past thought in very different ways than people in the present do. I loved the discussions about how to navigate those complexities when writing books about the past for a modern-day audience.

Then, during a panel on the Italian Renaissance, one panelist mentioned the story about Sandro Botticelli throwing some of his paintings into the Bonfire of the Vanities, and said, “I wish I could go back in time and throw myself between those paintings and the fire.”

And the story idea was born.

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

LC: You’ve already heard about the spark of inspiration, but the actual story came to me very slowly. For one thing, I am that weird person who is fascinated by the Italian Renaissance and not at all interested in its art, so I had to embark on a whole new area of research—both into Botticelli in particular and into artists in general. It was slow going! I’ve done more research for this story than I’ve done for some of my novels.

In the meantime, fortunately for me, Jo Walton published her book Lent. Lent is about Girolamo Savanarola, the architect of the Bonfire of the Vanities. (Well, it’s sort of about Savanarola. It’s a weird and wonderful and fascinating book.) Walton’s depiction of the Bonfire of the Vanities was very different from how it’s normally described, and she explained her reasons for that in her epilogue. It was another fascinating example of the difficulty of understanding the past from a modern perspective.

All these things, as well as various happenings in our modern world, brewed in my mind and formed various disconnected pages in my growing Scrivener file. At one point, I despaired of ever forming a coherent story out of all these ideas—and I did end up deleting some of those pages, hopefully to be used in future stories someday.

In the end, I’m really pleased with the story I pulled out of all these thoughts. Thank you for publishing it!

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

LC: I love using time travel as a way to (1) explore a variety of themes that really work well with this concept, and (2) sneakily write about history in short fiction, since there is no short fiction market for straight-up historical fiction. So I do have this concept of a future where time-travel has been invented and is used for various research purposes… a world I first explored in my story “A Pack of Tricks” (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020), and then further wrote about in “Unredacted Reports from 1546” (Future Science Fiction Digest, June 2021). This is the third installment in the “series” and I hope there will be more.

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

LC: Since I’ve been talking so much about historical fiction, I’ll continue in that vein (sorry for those of you who came here thinking they would read about science fiction and fantasy! I’ll get to that, I promise.) After going to the Historical Novelist Society Conference, I was so impressed by many of the panelists that I immediately went and took out their books. I’m someone who was never particularly attracted to historical fiction until I decided to write it — I kind of figured, if I was going to read fiction just for fun, I’d do that, and if I wanted to learn history, I’d read nonfiction. But I am happy to admit the errors of my ways, and now when I read great historical fiction, I pay close attention to what makes it work. One of the authors I heard at the conference, who I now think is one of the best authors working in this genre, is Kate Quinn. I highly recommend her most recent novel, The Rose Code, about three female code-breakers at Bletchley Park during World War II. Another recent standout is Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig, about a group of Smith Alumnae who went on an aid mission to rural France during World War I.

When it comes to time travel, Connie Willis is my biggest inspiration. I’ve read nearly everything she’s written, but Blackout/All Clear, in particular, are two of my favorite books of all time.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

LC: Despite my going on about historical fiction and time travel for two pages… my current main project has little to do with either. I’m writing a middle grade fantasy series, “Sisters Ever After,” which retells fairy tales from the point of view of the forgotten younger sisters. The first book, THORNWOOD, about Sleeping Beauty’s little sister, is out now; the second, GLASS SLIPPERS, about Cinderella’s third stepsister, will be published in April 2022.

AE: What are you reading right now?

LC: At the moment I’m focused on reading middle grade and young adult novels published in 2021, for the purpose of Nebula nominations. I’m currently in middle of Even & Odd by Sarah Beth Durst, about sisters who have to share their magical power (each one can do magic on alternating days), and it’s delightful! After that, I’m going to take a break from middle grade to read A Master of Djinn by P. Djeli Clark, a book I am very excited about. And then, or possibly simultaneously, Rae Carson’s recent apocalyptic young adult novel, Any Sign of Life.

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

LC: My website,, has all the information, and also a very infrequent, new-releases-only newsletter you can sign up for. I’m also on Facebook (Leah Cypess), Instagram (leahcypess), and Twitter (@LeahCypess).

Q&A with Jack Skillingstead

Jack Skillingstead’s “Dream Interpretation” [in our November/December issue, on sale now!] went on a long journey of revisions to become the story that it is today. Similarly, Jack himself has come a long way—from a Star Trek-obsessed kid to a prolific author making his twenty-third appearance in Asimov’s pages. Read on to learn more about both of these fantastic evolutions!

Asimov’s Editor: How did the title for this piece come to you?

JS: Originally the story was about an astronaut who returns from a disastrous mission to Mars and is tormented, or at least harassed, by weird dreams, which are actually coming from the remnants of a race of Martians still living beneath the surface of the planet. I called those early drafts “Martian Dreams.” But the further I departed from the Mars idea, the less useful that title became. The story folder on my desktop eventually became simply DREAM STORY. In the end I settled on “Dream Interpretation” because of the psychiatrist/client relationship at the heart of the story.

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

JS: As frequently happens, the story began as one thing but ended up as another thing altogether. I believed I wanted to write a story about Martians trying to communicate with astronauts. I thought these Martians would be real, physical beings living beneath the surface of Mars, shielded from detection until humans arrive. The Martians would somehow infiltrate the minds of sleeping astronauts, perhaps with a benign objective, perhaps not. In that first version of the story, mayhem quickly ensued. It turned into a sole-survivor story. The last member of the crew having discovered that the only way to avoid the Martian incursion into her mind was by staying awake until she was far enough away from the red planet to outdistance the mind-infiltration beams or whatever. “Martian Dreams” was a pulpy idea inspired by B science fiction movies like Angry Red Planet, which starts off with the return of a space ship from Mars and the only surviving crewmember telling her tale.

Anyway, that didn’t work. “Martian Dreams” was kind of fun to think about but I discovered I wasn’t that interested in fully realizing it. Nevertheless, I spent quite a bit of time hacking away at the original idea but was never able to believe in it to the necessary extent. Writing stories is hard. At some level you have to really love what is almost always, in the beginning, a fragile and broken thing. It’s like, Here’s this beautiful bird, it’s got gorgeous plumage, a nice crest, whatever. But the wings are so badly broken that it’s going to take a lot of patient work to figure out how to fix it and set it free into the air.

Gradually, I let go of the whole underground-Martians-shooting-mind-rays thing. This was a relief and a problem. More than half the story took place on Mars. A new direction meant dropping a lot of hard-won words. But if a story isn’t working, you’ve got accept it and move on. That’s part of the job. And you have to come back fresh and try again. That’s what writers mean when they say writing is hard. (I realize all writers don’t say it’s hard; this is just my personal perspective).

So “Martian Dreams” became “Dream Story,” which was just a place-holder title. When I resumed work on the story I looked for whatever remained from those earlier drafts that still felt alive and interesting. What I landed on was the psychiatrist/astronaut relationship. As I mentioned in my answer to the question above about the title, “Dream Interpretation” arose naturally out of that particular dynamic. Freud and dreams, all of that. But I think you could take the title itself as a metaphor describing the way stories get written. You have these often disconnected images and floating pieces of dialogue, like the remains of really vivid dreams that you can only partially recall upon waking. The writer has to investigate those images and make something real and coherent out of them. And, of course, entertaining.

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

JS: Sure, of course. I’ve frequently visited the mental landscape of emotionally isolated characters, or characters who perceive or even manipulate a fundamentally different reality set. My early published work is especially full of this stuff. In more recent years, though, I’ve tried to broaden my scope and appeal to a broader range of readers. It can be really difficult to find your groove as a writer, and all too easy for that groove to become a rut. After a while, you can lose sight of the bigger world of possibilities. My last published novel, The Chaos Function, is a good example of narrative expansion. I think I managed to address my familiar thematic concerns while telling a big story with an emotionally satisfying character arc. If you don’t grow as a writer you risk spending your years chasing the ghosts of your original inspiration.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

JS: My first pro sale was to Gardner Dozois in 2002. When he left Asimov’s I continued to sell work to Sheila Williams. With “Dream Interpretation” I think I’m up to twenty-three sales to the magazine (and forty-five over-all). Asimov’s feels like home. That first sale opened the door to the life I eventually passed into. Beyond my personal connection, it’s a great magazine that has continued to evolve over the many decades of its existence.

Writing stories is hard. At some level you have to really love what is almost always, in the beginning, a fragile and broken thing. It’s like, Here’s this beautiful bird, it’s got gorgeous plumage, a nice crest, whatever. But the wings are so badly broken that it’s going to take a lot of patient work to figure out how to fix it and set it free into the air.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

JS: This is the story I like to tell people, and it’s more or less true. When I was a kid watching the original Star Trek I became absolutely obsessed with it. I mean, I wanted to be in that world. I know I’m not some weird exception. I’ve encountered many writers who say the same thing. Back then I wasn’t delusional or anything. I knew it was make believe. I read Stephen E. Whitfield’s book The Making of Star Trek and loved the whole idea of TV/movie production. But even then, at age eleven or so, I knew the real engine behind Star Trek was the writing. I didn’t want to be a TV director—I wanted to write the stories. I began looking at the credits on episodes, and that’s where I first saw names like Theodore Sturgeon, Norman Spinrad, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and others. I soon discovered that these were “real” writers—writers who did short stories and novels, so that’s what I wanted to do, too. Now when I say this is “more or less” true, I mean that the idea of being a writer had already occurred to me but it was unfocused. I had no idea how to get there. The Star Trek thing simply led me to the world of science fiction books and magazines.

AE: How did you break into writing?

JS: Oh, the usual way. I wrote for years and years, short stories and novels, and eventually the door opened. Before that first pro sale to Asimov’s, I’d had a couple of small press hits, but Asimov’s was different. It took me a long time. I don’t know if it was longer generally than other writers. What made the difference, besides becoming better on the page, was that I finally got organized about submitting stories. A turning point came in 2000 when I entered Stephen King’s On Writing contest and won. Before then, I’d all but given up on ever seeing my work in print. Then here was this famous writer actually making a comment about my little story on his own website. I remember feeling a resurgence of hope. Of optimism. I don’t even know why I entered that contest. It’s not like I’d ever entered a writing contest before, or that I had any real expectation of winning. Anyway, after that I put together a submission grid. Ten markets for the best ten stories I currently had hanging around. Almost immediately I started selling and have never looked back, except to answer questions like, How did you break into writing?

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

JS: Sure! My advice is: Don’t panic. Work steadily but don’t worry too much if your early efforts aren’t successful. Play the long game. Writing fiction really isn’t much like other professions, and I’m not talking about the money. Don’t take rejection personally. That’s a tough one, for sure. I’m convinced I would have published sooner if I’d been more capable of absorbing rejection without suffering shockwaves of insecurity and self-doubt. So I do understand the core difficulty, but still urge new writers to push their work out there and not give up.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

JS: Writer’s block is a psychological phenomenon, not a clinical diagnosis. Usually it’s tied up with fear of rejection, fear of inadequacy, fear of failure and exposure as a fraud. All of this stuff is in your mind. When I get “blocked,” as am now with a novel I’m writing, it’s because I don’t know enough to go forward. I could force it, and may do that as a last resort. But if I give my unconscious enough time, it will almost certainly come up with the information I need to proceed. The trick is to not succumb to unhealthy mental states in the meantime. Easier said than done, but there you go.

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

JS: This is a tricky one. If you don’t take into account current events, especially major social and political shifts, you can’t write convincingly of the contemporary world, or the near/far future. For instance, who can anymore afford to ignore climate change, the threats of pandemic, or social media’s influence on society? But you must remember that you’re writing about people first. Spinning off on contemporary issues to the exclusion of character and story values means you run the risk of your work becoming dismally dated. Just look at some of the stuff published in another turbulent period of history, the 1960s. Of course, a lot of great work came out of that decade as well. I’m just saying, be aware of the danger.

AE: What are you reading right now?

JS: I’ve usually got a few books going. Right now I’m reading a biography of Truman Capote, Stephen King’s new novel, and Jane Eyre. Mostly, I’m loving the Bronte over the other two.

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

JS: My website is:

Twitter: @jskillingstead

Facebook: just search my name. I guarantee you, I’m the only Jack Skillingstead.

Jack Skillingstead has been publishing short stories and novels since 2003. His first story in Asimov’s was a finalist for the Sturgeon Award. He has also been short-listed for the Philip K. Dick Award. His latest novel is The Chaos Function, published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Jack lives in Seattle with his wife, writer Nancy Kress, and their Covid puppy, Pippin.

Q&A with S. Qiouyi Lu

Asimov’s Editors: What is the story behind this piece?
S. Qiouyi Lu: I’d always wanted to write my own take on Little Red Riding Hood, one where Red and the Big Bad Wolf have a more intimate relationship. Little Red Riding Hood has always read to me as a cautionary tale about masculinity; I wanted to invert the story and make masculinity not something to be feared, but to be explored on its own terms.

AE: How did this story germinate?
SQL: “Your Luminous Heart, Bound in Red” was originally written for an anthology called Speculative Masculinities that never ended up being published. I wanted to explore masculinity not as some kind of default state, but as an entity in itself, something that’s as constructed as femininity. What does non-toxic masculinity look like? How might someone transform their relationship with their own masculinity to something that’s more fulfilling, that’s more true to themself?

I write a lot about queerness, mental illness, diaspora, language, and my Chinese heritage. I find that most of my characters are some facet of myself, so my identities and experiences project out onto them. Mostly, I write what I’d like to read but haven’t seen yet.

AE: How did the title come to you?
SQL: When I don’t have a title in mind already for a piece, I tend to comb through my poetry collection and see what resonates. This title was a mashup of a couple lines that I found.

Continue reading “Q&A with S. Qiouyi Lu”

Q&A with Rick Wilber

Asimov’s Editors: How did this story germinate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can look for me on Facebook at   and on Twitter at and I have a good website that gets updated with some frequency (and through which you can reach me) at

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

Of Stories Seen as Trees

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

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

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

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

How I grew my writing career

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise kept

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

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

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

—Michèle Laframboise  (French and English) (illustrated English blog) (my indie publishing house)

The Time I Met Kurt Vonnegut

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

by Peter Wood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless he happened to be Hamlet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Vonnegut.

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

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

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

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

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

The clerk started arguing with me.

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Wole Talabi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breast-feeding and “Matriphagy”

by Naomi Kanakia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Elizabeth Bear

I really like writing mystery stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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