The Problem with Human Hands: The Making of “Note to Our Guests”

by Amy Miller

I love caves. Whenever I travel, I hit any public cave that’s nearby. If there’s a public tour, even the kitschy kind with handrails and colored lighting and a bored teenage guide, I pay the $30 and do it just to gaze at the stalactites and stalagmites and blind newts and colonies of bats clinging to the walls like so many brown leaves. I do the more adventurous tours too, rappelling down hundred-foot drops and crawling on my elbows through rock tubes barely wider than my shoulders. I’m a bit obsessed with caves. They stir up something primordial with their alien, otherworldly landscapes right under our feet.

One thing you often hear when you tour a cave is that its condition—how little it’s been damaged, how close it is to pristine—is directly related to how recently it was opened to the public. Caves that have been overrun by tourists for a century or more bear the scars of their longtime fame—jagged stumps where stalactites were snapped off and taken home as souvenirs, hundred-year-old names of visitors scrawled on walls with charcoal or candle wax, and stalagmites that should sparkle with healthy, growing crystals but are now dull, dark lumps, their life cycle stopped by the oil on people’s hands when they touched the exquisite formations and unwittingly “killed” them.

Caves that were opened more recently, since about the 1960s, are markedly different—underground ponds shine with ethereal colors, and even the most delicate formations, like soda straws and helicities, gleam at eye level, preserved by their distance from the strategically placed walkways and by careful tour guides, part of whose job is to give you an educational lecture on how not to ruin a cave.

It’s been a hallmark of human civilization that we don’t always know which of our everyday practices—something as small as reaching out a hand when we’re walking through a cave—might have disastrous consequences centuries down the road.


Surely the people who invented plastic in the 1800s had no idea that giant “garbage islands” of the stuff would eventually plague our oceans. In Herman Melville’s day, most people believed that whales were an inexhaustible resource—there were so many of them—unaware that their wooden boats and hand-held harpoons would evolve into a massive mechanized sea-hunting industry in the 20th century that would drive many whale species to the brink of extinction.

So I couldn’t help feeling a little trepidation after I saw NASA’s spectacular, closest-ever photos of Saturn from the Cassini spacecraft last year. The images were amazing, jaw-dropping—the rings appearing knife-thin, the loops and whorls of the big planet’s exquisitely complex atmosphere, the varied and lonely-looking moons, some battered as beach rocks. I was so excited; I could not wait for us to get our human selves out there. We could set up an orbiting space station, I thought, with a big hotel and . . .

. . . well, then I thought about those snapped-off stalactites, and the human impulse to write our names and gouge tire tracks in mud, and the dopes who think it’s fun to knock over ancient rock formations in national parks. I wondered: What will we do out there? Will we ever really learn the lessons of the passenger pigeon, the northern white rhino, the Great Barrier Reef? What will happen when we get our hands on an entire new world?

See the 2017 Cassini photos here:

 *Image of Saturn’s rings provided by NASA.


Amy Miller’s writing has appeared in numerous journals, including Asimov’s Science Fiction, Fine Gardening, Gulf Coast, Rattle, and ZYZZYVA, anthologies such as Nasty Women Poets and Ghost Fishing, and many editions of the Poet’s Market. Her poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis Award from Concrete Wolf Press. She works as an editor and print-project manager for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is the poetry editor of the NPR listening guide Jefferson Journal, and blogs at #AmyMillerPoet



Q&A with Dale Bailey

Dale Bailey’s latest short story, “Rules of Biology,” is featured in our July/August issue [on sale now]. In addition to chatting with us here on the blog, he also recorded his new story in podcast form, available here now!


Asimov’s Editor: Happily, you agreed to participate in our podcast series with this story. Our gentle readers can give it a listen here. How did you find the recording process? 

DB: It was interesting. I try to write in the rhythms of spoken language. I once received a rejection letter that said the piece read too much like it had been written to be read aloud—which I took as a compliment, even though it wasn’t meant that way. So in that sense, reading the piece was fine. But I never mastered the actor’s gift of giving each character a different voice.


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

DB: Certainly not Esterman, who is a pretty selfish and unpleasant man. But I do like Dee. She’s doesn’t deserve what happens to her (who does?). But she’s stronger than she seems at first, and she claims some happiness for herself, which I like about her.


AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

DB: Asimov’s and I go way back. I used to scour newsstands for it in the late ’70s and early ’80s and have subscribed for years. Decades I guess. Which is kind of sobering now that I think about it. How did I get this old?


AE: What inspired you to start writing?

Continue reading “Q&A with Dale Bailey”

Q&A with Zack Be

Not too long after his return to writing, Zack Be struck gold with “True Jing,” which we were lucky to publish in the our current issue [on sale now]. Zack spoke with us about the story’s origins as well as his interests in music, transhumanism, and therapeutic counseling.


Asimov’s Editor: Before we get into the questions, Zack, we want to say how exciting it is to be your first professional sale! How long have you been submitting?

ZB: Thanks! “Excitement” only begins to describe how it feels for me to call Asimov’s the home of my first professional sale. There may or may not have been a few joyous leaps around my bedroom when I got the email from Sheila Williams expressing her interest in buying “True Jing.” I’m deeply honored by the sale. I’ve been reading the magazine off and on since middle school. My mom bought me an issue right off the newsstand (remember those?) because I had expressed interest in the cover art. Even though it wasn’t my first science fiction, it was definitely my introduction to a type of contemporary, forward-thinking short fiction that I had not been exposed to yet. All of that is too say I couldn’t think of a better market to break into!

As far as my submission history is concerned, before I sent “True Jing” to Asimov’s last year, I had been on a submission hiatus since I graduated from college in 2013. After a few years of consistent workshopping in my undergrad Creative Writing minor and a handful of rejected submissions, I felt the need to develop myself more on my own. I spent a lot of time producing music, playing in bands, and working on other forms of artistic expression until I was suddenly galvanized back into the prose writing habit by a few stellar issues of Clarkesworld and Asimov’s, etc. One month I wasn’t really writing at all, and the next month I was on a weekly routine of ~5000 words. “True Jing” was one of several stories that came out of that (still continuing) routine, and Asimovs was the second place I sent it!

“If you had asked me a year ago which markets I thought would be most likely to give me a rewrite, I don’t think I would have picked any of the “big three” (Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF). They must be too busy, right? Wrong—in my experience, it would appear that Sheila and the rest of the editorial staff is just as devoted to developing new writers as they are to bringing readers fresh work by their old favorites.”


AE: How did your experience with Asimov’s differ from other markets?

ZB: “True Jing” happened to be a very early submission in the revival of my writer’s life, but since then I’ve been lucky enough to experience the usual deluge of rejection that almost every writer gets to enjoy. I’ve got a nice big folder full of everything from “we really like this, but we aren’t going to buy it” down to “this needs work” and even a harsh but understandable “never.” Sometimes if I’m having trouble falling asleep I’ll recite the texts of my favorite form rejections (not really).
Continue reading “Q&A with Zack Be”

Q&A with Bruce Boston

Our most frequent contributor Bruce Boston took the time to speak with us about his long history with Asimov’s, how a poem becomes a series, the process of collaboration, and much more in our latest Q&A. Make sure to check out Bruce’s most recent poem, “Unwritten,” in our current issue.


AE: Bruce, our readers are quite familiar with your work, as you are a regular in our table of contents. Can you talk a little bit about your history with Asimov’s?

BB: I published my first poem in Asimov’s SF in 1984. Since then, I’ve had poems in every year of the magazine, sometimes as many as five in one year. In sum, I’ve appeared in more issues of Asimov’s than any other author, and have been fortunate enough to receive the Asimov’s Readers Award seven times.

Most of my poems for Asimov’s are what I consider populist poems. By this I mean they are written for literate and intelligent readers who don’t normally read poetry, which seems appropriate for a fiction magazine. Writing poems primarily for those who read poetry is different, though the two are not always mutually exclusive.


AE: I know that the “Music of” series were particular hits with our readership. Do you find yourself working in series frequently?

Continue reading “Q&A with Bruce Boston”

The Way the Future Used to Be

By Peter Wood

Write what you know. Hemmingway made a career out of novels about fishing, drinking, and cards. Faulkner seldom ventured outside mythical Yoknapatawpha County. Bradbury lifted small town America to Mars.

Most of my stories are Southern Fried Science Fiction. I like bluegrass music, barbecue, fried chicken, iced tea, and ACC basketball. My characters do too. Many of my stories take place in my hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Sometimes I venture as far as Kinston, Sanford or the world’s perfect vacation spot—the mountain town of Boone.

But, what of stories like Robots, Riverboats, and Ransom in the Regular Way? In this month’s Asimov’s, I write about the distant future aboard an interstellar star ship. What do I know about that?


I grew up immersed in the Retro Future—the sort of world preserved in Tomorrowland in Disney World. The way we conceived the twenty-first century and beyond in the 1950s. Think Golden Age Science fiction. The Pulps. Heinlein. Frederick Pohl. Fritz Leiber. Isaac Asimov. In my own small way, I want to bring it back.

This year’s Best Picture Oscar went to The Shape of Water, a film firmly rooted in the Retro Future. What a poignant and loving take on 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I’ve very grateful to have sold seven stories to Asimov’s. Every single one had its seeds in my childhood.

Radio drama makes a fleeting comeback every so often.


Drink in a Small Town” (March 2014) is basically a half hour Twilight Zone episode. If it has any inspiration—besides the Happy Tap bar in Dublin, Georgia that sadly closed down and took its recipe for the world’s best hamburger with it—it might be the episode “Will The Real Martian Please Stand Up.” Guy walks into a lonely restaurant and things are not what they seem.

Continue reading “The Way the Future Used to Be”

We Lost Control a Long Time Ago

Sue Burke, whose novelette “Life From the Sky” is in our current issue, graces us with a deeply thoughtful and intriguing post that covers a far-ranging set of issues including self-realization, technology, anonymity, the changing nature of truth, and the power of science fiction.

by Sue Burke


We all need to achieve self-realization. We’ve been told this by Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Abraham Maslow, and several Eastern religions.

We should know ourselves deeply, they say, to understand who and what we are. When we do, we’ll awaken our potential and fulfill the latent possibilities of our character and personality. With self-realization, we’ll achieve our ultimate goal as human beings and find inner peace.

On the other hand, Martians could suddenly land and blast all of humanity into ashes. Knowing our true selves will not save us.

This way of thinking about things—that external events matter more than individual self-realization—might account for the difficulty some people have with science fiction. Its stories tell an uncomfortable truth, according to Barry N. Malzberg. He began writing in the 1970s, and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls him “a master of black humor.”

In a 1980 essay titled “The Number of the Beast” in the book Breakfast in the Ruins, Malzberg tried to define science fiction. He said it “holds that the encroachment of technological or social change will make the future different and that it will feel different to those within it. In a technologically altered culture, people will regard themselves and their lives in ways that we cannot comprehend.”

The concept of science fiction as the literature of change wasn’t new. Then he took the definition into perilous territory.

Continue reading “We Lost Control a Long Time Ago”

Q&A with Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw returns to Asimov’s with a new short story, “A Mammoth, So-Called” in the current issue on sale now. Here, he chats with us about playing with form and revisiting the classics.


Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “A Mammoth, So-Called”?

Marc Laidlaw: Recently I went through all of my papers in order to donate them to a library. There were many, many story fragments but this one, dating from 1991 (and showing an interest in the themes that obsessed me at the time), was complete. It was written in the form of a scientific report, but the lack of technical detail made it rather unconvincing, and I remembered why I was never satisfied with it. I rescued it from the files and started tinkering with it, and realized that what it needed to offset the scientific aspect was an element of fabulation—to make a tall-tale of it. That inspired the framing device. I have never written anything before in the mode of a traditional “club story,” but the model was perfect for this piece. I was a little surprised to discover that my style had not changed much in the last 25 year, and in many ways it seems like a story I could have dreamed up and written a week ago. I do, however, think that unlike most of my stories, it is a rare piece of science fiction rather than fantasy, and that’s why I thought it might be right for Asimov’s.

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

ML: I was trying to keep up with the current trend of including as much punctuation as possible in my title. Continue reading “Q&A with Marc Laidlaw”

Into the Tsunami: Q&A with David Gerrold & Ctein

Our readers will find a tense, exciting novella coauthored by David Gerrold & Ctein in our current issue on sale now. The sheer emotional magnitude of “Bubble and Squeak” is astounding—and it is clear that meticulous research informs the story to support this  rich, thrilling experience. Luckily David and Ctein agreed to chat about this process and the larger work this is a part of—their novel-in-progress Ripple Effect. Their interviews are woven together below—enjoy!

Find an excerpt of this tale on the Asimov’s website.

Asimov’s Editor: It is always a treat to publish a collaborative story. Every collaborative work seems to have its own process and style: How did you two approach coauthoring this piece?

Ctein: Before I get into the questions, I should mention that David and I thought it would be more entertaining to answer them individually, without consulting each other in any way. Should it turn out that we contradict each other, well—as Walt Whitman would have put it—we contain multitudes. Should some people be perturbed by that, the alternative explanation is that David and I inhabit parallel universes so what each of us says, even if it contradicts the other, is true.

“Bubble & Squeak” is about 20% of the novel that David and I are writing together, currently titled “Ripple Effect” (more about the novel later). It’s one of several interwoven storylines the novel follows. Each of us has had ideas for storylines to go into the novel, and generally speaking we’re writing them individually and then passing them back and forth. In this particular case, David had an idea for one of those subplots set in LA. We discussed the broad (sub)plot points ahead of time, but the details were all his to create (my subplots are developed similarly).* What was special about David’s was that it was so well-focused that when he was finished we realized it would make a good standalone novella.

David wrote the whole first draft. Then he passed it on to me for a rewrite, and I mucked with it. Then we fought about what I’d mucked with (‘cause that’ll happen sometimes), and I will claim I won most of those fights. Not because I’m a better writer, but because second draft is always better than first and a fresh pair of eyes is always better than a stale one.

He gave it a final pass, I gave it a sanity check, and off it went to Sheila. She suggested a very few modest (and entirely correct) changes. They got incorporated, and there you are!

*(No, I’ll take credit for one detail. David’s first idea was that it would be about a boy saving his girlfriend. I opined that this was shaping up to be an awfully “straight” novel, especially considering that both of its authors had been “out” for decades. So maybe it could be a GIRL rescuing her girlfriend . . . or . . .)

David Gerrold: “Bubble and Squeak” is part of a much larger work. We write stuff, we pass it back and forth for multiple conferences, rewrites, polishes, and tweaks. I specifically wanted to do this part of the story. Because of my familiarity with the landscape, I could take the reader across half the LA basin.

AE: Have either of you worked with another author (perhaps each other) before? In what ways was this experience different? Continue reading “Into the Tsunami: Q&A with David Gerrold & Ctein”

Q&A with Jane Lindskold

Our current May/June issue [on sale now], contains the talented Jane Lindskold’s first Asimov’s appearance with “Unexpected Flowers.” Get to know her and what inspires her work in our newest author Q&A!

Asimov’s Editor: What is the story behind “Unexpected Flowers”?

Jane Lindskold: My mother sent us flowers for Valentine’s Day. Repeatedly. They kept being delivered to the wrong address—the same wrong address. My sister’s flowers arrived, but without a card. I began speculating as to the impact of anonymous Valentine’s bouquets and the story blossomed from there.


AE: How did “Unexpected Flowers” germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?

JL: “Germinate”? Seriously? The spark was quick, but working through the logic trees and their various ramifications took a while. I gave a copy to a friend of mine who is a specialist in computer algebra and he said very approvingly that it was a nicely mathematical story.

I also wanted it to be a real story, so the main character does develop over the course of events. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be a story, just an exercise in empty speculation.

  Continue reading “Q&A with Jane Lindskold”

The Novel I Wish Isaac Asimov Had Written

Image courtesy of NRAO/AUI

By Jay Cole

As I wrote my article about my experience teaching a course about Isaac Asimov (“A Semester with Isaac Asimov in the May/June issue on sale now), I found myself thinking about what he did not write. By this, I mean the Good Doctor was a prolific author of science fiction novels and stories that help to explain and popularize a variety of scientific topics and issues.

From robotics to mathematical sociology, Asimov’s science fiction has had a significant impact on public opinion and the popular imagination. This was, after all, one of my primary reasons for creating and teaching the course. Recognizing that he could not write about everything (although, thankfully, he gave it his best effort), what scientific topic or issue do I wish he had addressed in a novel or story? My answer: radio astronomy.

I say this because two radio astronomy facilities, the Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia, face uncertain futures. Due to budget cuts, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has made some tough choices recently about how to allocate scarce dollars across a large portfolio of expensive scientific installations and programs. Thus, the NSF is dramatically reducing its investment in both Arecibo and Green Bank over the next few years. These observatories are seeking other sources of funding to continue their essential research, education, and outreach. Arecibo just announced a partnership with the University of Central Florida.

The impact of these facilities has been very significant. Arecibo ( has been instrumental in a range of discoveries from neutron stars to ice at the poles of Mercury. Green Bank (, located in my home state of West Virginia, discovered the first signal of an organic molecule in space and is at the forefront of detecting gravitational waves from pulsars. And in 1960, Frank Drake launched the modern search for extraterrestrial intelligence by using a Green Bank radio telescope.

With such a legacy, it is not surprising that radio astronomy has been a topic for science fiction literature and film. James Gunn’s 1972 novel, The Listeners, tells a very compelling story, set at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, about the social and political struggles that might result from detecting an intelligent signal from beyond Earth. Gunn paved the way for Carl Sagan’s best-selling novel, Contact, in 1985 and the 1997 film based on the book. The film, in particular, has promoted awareness of the Jansky Very Large Array, a collection of radio telescopes in New Mexico. (In a nice example of crossover between science and science fiction, Jodie Foster, the star of Contact, narrates a video that plays at the VLA’s Welcome Center.)

The novels by Gunn and Sagan are two great examples of how science fiction literature can help to shape public interest in and understanding of science, in this case the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I just wish Asimov had written a book about radio astronomy as well!

There is every chance that Asimov’s treatment would differ sharply from Gunn and Sagan. Perhaps he would have focused less on searching for extraterrestrial life and more on radio telescopes as a research tool for understanding the nature of time and the shape of space. (It is important to note that Asimov did write about radio astronomy in his nonfiction. His summary of the history of radio astronomy and his explanation of how radio telescopes work occupy two chapters in his book, Eyes on the Universe: A History of the Telescope.)

However Asimov would have approached it, we can be confident it would have been thought-provoking. As authors such as Asimov, Gunn, Sagan, and many others have demonstrated over the years, there is a special power in science fiction to capture the imagination, generate enthusiasm, and influence opinion. And of course, it is not too late for the next generation of science fiction authors to weave radio astronomy into their stories and novels, and explore the scientific and social issues that swirl around the field.

A radio astronomy-themed science fiction anthology, anyone?

Jay Cole is senior advisor to the president and an adjunct faculty member at West Virginia University. His scholarly interests include science policy, the history of science, and the relationship between science fiction and public opinion. During the fall 2016 semester, Jay channeled his life-long love of science fiction, and Isaac Asimov in particular, into creating and teaching an honors course on Asimov. Jay’s guest editorial describes his experience and makes a case for teaching about Asimov’s work as an antidote to a “post-truth” era of “alternative facts.”