What Do You Know? What Do You Love?

by L.X. Beckett

One of the things you will often hear in fiction-writing is the aphorism write what you know.

There’s more than one meaning packed into this phrase, and which of them matters in any given conversation can vary, depending on who you are talking to and the context in which the idea arises. 

One underlying concept is easy enough to see: it’s kind of cautionary. Your work may lack authority—an ability to convince the reader that what you’re saying is true and worth considering—if your audience can sense that you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Readers can be pretty decent BS detectors, and we tune out quickly when we sense someone is having us on.

As such, if I want to write a super facty article about a particle accelerator, and I refer to this technology as the big bendy straw of the rock star physics toolkit—if you know me, this isn’t unlikely—I’d probably need, at the very least, to give up on selling the piece to Scientific American and take my shtick somewhere funnier.

Some people take write what you know to refer to lived experience. This is the idea that you can only truly write about something you’ve been through directly. This can be seen as the literary equivalent of method acting. It’s the proposition that you can only write authentically about steelworkers, for example, if you go and put in a year punching a timecard in a foundry.

This latter kind of knowing is flatly impossible, unless you want to populate your entire literary output with characters who are carbon copies of yourself. There are ways to tell the stories of people different from you respectfully; it’s work, sometimes a lot of work, but it’s doable.

Writing what you know can include writing what you know because you looked it up. It can include spending a year in a foundry, if that’s your research process.  It can include interviewing a dozen veteran steelworkers instead, or watching footage from inside their factory, assuming such footage exists. 

Is the aphorism meaningless, then? No.

To me, the most important idea captured within write what you know becomes most important because it addresses the artist’s goal in creating work in the first place: the aspiration to communicate a fundamental truth about your subject matter. 

This sounds lofty, but don’t let it intimidate you.

It appeals to common sense to assert that it’s easier to touch on meaningful truths, as a writer, when you’re discussing a subject you understand. Where knowledge brings authority. But knowledge alone isn’t enough.

This brings us to the second part of this essay title: What do you love? Or, more properly, what are you passionate about?

Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of nonfictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.

Oh, now, I know what you’re probably thinking. We’ve debased the idea of passion a little in recent years. If you’ve had a job interview in the past decade, you’ve probably been obliged to say you were passionate about helping consumers find the right experience, or achieving for your clients’ optimization a satisfying user interface . . . but we’re not talking about the idea of bandying about passion as a buzzword for potential employers. We’re talking about the subjects that truly matter to you, the things that feel as though they are in your veins and marrow. The topics that you can’t help bringing up and going on and on about. 

Each and every one of you knows a shocking amount about things that aren’t necessarily near or dear to your heart. You know how to install an app on your phone, probably, and you know how to pay your taxes; you have expertise in driving cars or evaluating the quality of a given work of televised entertainment . . . but truth and facts are, weirdly, not the same thing, at least not all the time. 

Here’s an example of the slipperiness of truth: think about a wedding whose hypothetical bride has achieved that oft-quoted goal. They have organized a ceremony so perfect that The Big Day truly is the happiest day of their life. Then imagine that—despite pulling off an incredibly wonderful event and having a truly remarkable day—this same person has entered an actual marriage that is a massive personal disaster, just waiting to play itself out in the fullness of time. 

Contrast that bride with someone with immense experience and knowledge of how weddings work and why they derail. Say they’re writing a story, trying to pull the truth out of that underlying contradiction. Was it a good wedding if it was the symbolic beginning of a devastating romantic failure? Can the happiest day of someone’s life be undermined, retroactively, if the future it heralded doesn’t bear out the promises made at the altar?

Imagine the way that disappointed bride might write about this. Imagine the same topic tackled by a behavioral scientist, with years of research into how people form regrets. Imagine the poem written by the wedding planner. The rap song penned by the maid of honor. Each of these perspectives would contain its own possibility of Truth.

Human nature is quicksilver, and truth can be slippery. Ultimately, your verdict on “good wedding, bad marriage” is going to come down to how you feel. Some of that will be shaped by your temperament, and some by your past. But an insightfully written work of literature can also speak to the common human experiences of weddings and breakups, the shaping of those feelings . . . and that truth will be most likely to emerge if the author has an emotional stake in the answer.

The subjects that engross us, command our attention, beguile us into daydream, lead us into self-examination, the topics that bring us joy or take us out of ourselves . . . these are different for each and every person. Whether you are into photography and I am into the history of Gilded Age New York City, and the person over there knows something amazing about how welding torches work, we all have the capacity to try to communicate what is special about our thing—about a body of non-fictional information with which we feel such a powerful connection.

Periodically when I teach story-writing, at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and elsewhere, I encounter a student who is very new to fiction-writing and struggling to shape their ideas. These folks sometimes create a main character for a story who is only quite a bit like themselves. Not only do they share a temperament, but the protagonist and the writer share a day job. So they open their piece by essentially taking us to work, that most familiar of environments, and subconsciously attempt to involve the reader in the drama that makes up their nine to five existence: fights with supervisors and weird bureaucratic details. 

These beginner writers are writing about something they know . . . but are they passionate about it? Speaking very generally, it’s quite often the case that a person takes a writing class when they’re not feeling complete emotional fulfillment at their day jobs.

I’m not saying everyone hates their job, or that everyone’s bored by their work. When someone is able to passionately articulate what is cool about a pursuit of theirs, whether it’s paid work or a volunteer or hobby pursuit, we are riveted. This is why so many people find TED talks compelling. And, indirectly, it’s why my novelette “The Hazmat Sisters” [in our July/August issue, on sale now!] has complicated fighty sisters, a bit of D&D, tree-planting drone platforms, all the things I find awful about camping, that baseball bat full of spikes—which I will never stop thinking about, shudders and all—and the taste of canned spaghetti in it.

So, the next time you are chasing truth in fiction, that’s where I recommend making a start: think about your favorite thing, and what it means to you. Home in on what you love, and then figure out what you know.

Toronto author and editor L.X. Beckett frittered their youth working as an actor and theater technician in Southern Alberta before deciding to make a shift into writing science fiction. Their first novella, “Freezing Rain, a Chance of Falling,” appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of F&SF and takes place in the same universe as “The HazMat Sisters,” just like their novels Dealbreaker and Gamechanger. Lex identifies as feminist, lesbian, genderqueer, poet, cat-parent, and married. An insatiable consumer of kdramas, mysteries, and true crime podcasts, they can be found enthusing about these and other topics on Twitter at @LXBeckett or at the Lexicon, http://lxbeckett.com.

Q&A with Annika Barranti Klein

What began as a child’s comment at the San Diego Zoo now lives, fully fleshed, in our May/June issue’s pages—as Annika Barranti Klein’s “Phosphor’s Circle” [on sale now]! First-time Asimov’s author Annika stopped by to discuss “Phosphor’s Circle”’s conception, what she’s reading and writing these days, the creative power of baths, and why she’d call her story’s acceptance “sort of an accident.”

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

ABK: In the first few days of 2020, my family went to the San Diego Zoo for my younger son’s tenth birthday. His best friend came with us, and we spent some time watching one of the polar bears swim in this slow, lazy circle. One of them (there is some disagreement about which one) said, “That polar bear is stuck!” and then, pleased with themselves, both said it several more times. I wondered what would happen if a polar bear really did get “stuck” doing something like that—why would that happen? What would I do about it if I discovered it? I decided on holograms (spoiler!) because I happened to think about the time my father took me and my sister to the hologram museum in Soho (I cannot find any evidence of its existence, but I know it was there) in the ’80s.

Everything else just fell into place. I have no idea how the San Diego Zoo does tours, nor did I need the story to be accurate to real life, so I opted to have different workers at each area giving mini tours, loosely based on what I remembered from when my mom worked at Space Camp. I chose Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the school play because my husband was in a production of it in his youth and I like the opening number. The arctic fox was hiding the whole time we were there, so I don’t know for sure that it really exists. I had “Tiny Dancer” playing in the gift shop because it’s a great song and it just seems like something you’d hear playing in a gift shop. (Plus I often hear people singing along with the “Tony Danza” lyric—sometimes it’s me.)

I wrote the story fairly quickly, I think over two or three days, and sent it to my writing friend Lyndsie. She gave me some great ideas about expanding the ending a bit—the original draft did not have the final tour in it, just the discovery—and I added that, polished the language and punctuation up, and sent it off into the world by the end of the month.

There is a live webcam of the polar bear habitat here: https://zoo.sandiegozoo.org/cams/polar-cam

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

ABK: It’s a standalone, but there are some themes that show up in my other work. I often reference musicals, for instance; I have written a handful of other stories narrated by irritated young hourly workers, and I just finished writing a very different story that is also set in a zoo. Everything I write is queer, unless there is a reason for something to be cisheteronormative. I imagine that many of my standalone near-future stories could work as part of the same universe, but I am not actively creating one at the moment.

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

ABK: I actually named the story “Glitch,” which I loved for it, but Sheila asked me to change it because she had recently accepted Alex Irvine’s fantastic novella “Glitch,” which was in the March/April issue. I texted Lyndsie (probably something like “help help bother help”) and she helped me go through the text and look for phrases we could pull out to use as a title. I sent Sheila a short list of ideas, including “Phosphor’s Cycle” and “Perfect Nuclear Family,” as well as “Phosphor’s Circle,” which she chose. (I was very relieved that she was willing to pick one! Naming stories is hard.)

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

ABK: I probably shouldn’t admit this, but it was sort of an accident. I am truly terrible at gauging what editors like, and most of my story submissions are stabs in the dark. I wrote “Phosphor’s Circle” quickly and was feeling overly confident in it, so I wanted to get a quick rejection out of the way to temper the disappointment that is inherent in the long submission process of sending a story out over and over again until (hopefully) it lands at the right magazine. Sheila had sent very kind, very quick rejections to two of my more fantasy-leaning stories previously, and I thought a kind, quick rejection would be a good start for this story. Joke’s on me, I guess, since she bought it!

If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds.

AE: What is your process?

ABK: I start projects constantly. If I have an idea, I write it down—if it’s just a little snippet of an idea, it goes into a document in my notes app that is just a long list of ideas. My Google drive, notes app, and documents file on my computer look like the secret garden before Mary and Dickon start clearing out the weeds. I have more ideas than I could possibly write if I live to 100 and never have another one, and I don’t know where they come from but I believe they multiply when I’m not looking. 

If there’s more than a snippet, or if that snippet is a sentence or dialogue rather than just a concept, I start writing. I work on whatever project is on my mind, and so sometimes I have what feels like hundreds of half-finished stories, and sometimes I finish more than one story in a week. This approach might not work if I had deadlines, but no one is waiting for me to finish these stories, so it works very well for me, for now.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ABK: It depends. If the block is specific to the story I’m working on, I work on another one. If I am just feeling uninspired or unmotivated or can’t figure out how to make something work, I take a bath. Baths are extremely restorative, not to mention where I get some of my best ideas. (Don’t believe people who say writer’s block doesn’t exist. Of course it does.)

AE: How did you break into writing?

ABK: I’ll let you know when I’ve done it. (Does anyone ever feel that they’re “in”? I genuinely don’t know if it’s real, or just a concept.)

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

I started writing when I was five years old and my favorite book was The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Wiggle. I wanted to be the next Beatrix Potter, but alas my painting skills are not up to par. As a young adult, my more “serious” writing began after I first read Shirley Jackson in the late ’90s. I’ve been trying to emulate her ever since. Somewhere along the way, I found my own writing style, but I very much credit both of them for inspiring me.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

ABK: I also write young adult contemporary novels, and I am currently querying agents with one (a queer, gender-bent retelling of The Three Musketeers), finishing another (a sapphic romance), and planning out a third (an old Hollywood mystery).

AE: What are you reading right now?

ABK: I recently finished My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, which is brilliant. The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance is an incredible, magical contemporary YA that I am reading very slowly in hopes that it will not end. I just bought a book of poetry (Wild Embers) by Nikita Gill that I am absolutely smitten with. And I am reading a handful of memoirs and biographies about movie stars of Hollywood’s golden age as book research. Olivia de Havilland and Veronica Lake’s memoirs (Every Frenchman Has One and Veronica Lake, respectively) are delightful, and Lauren Bacall’s (By Myself) is an old favorite that I am revisiting.

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

ABK: I am a knitter! I mostly make sweaters and socks for myself and hats for whoever in my household (I have two sons and a husband) wants to wear them. It is perhaps silly to have this much wool in Southern California, but it will come in handy if I ever move back to the northeast. Someday I hope to write a story that incorporates knitting in a meaningful way.

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

ABK: I’ve done a little bit of almost everything. I’ve worked retail, been an advertising sales assistant, was in catering, was a nanny, taught knitting, designed knitting patterns, was a roller derby referee (my derby name was Anna Mean Gables), reviewed horror movies, and worked as a copy editor, among other things. Plus I’m a parent. I think everything I’ve done affects my writing because it all goes into the big pool of knowledge I draw from. Every experience might end up on the page in some form or other.

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

ABK: I keep a list of my published stories and a gallery of my photographs at annikaobscura.com. I’m on Twitter as @noirbettie. My personal Instagram is private and mostly pictures of my dinner, but I have a public account where I pair books and yarn: @prettygoodyarns.

Annika Barranti Klein lives and writes in a tiny apartment in Los Angeles full of books, knitting, and children. Her stories have been in Hobart After Dark, Milk Candy Review, and CRAFT Literary, and her poetry in Fireside Quarterly. Her first story for Asimov’s uncovers a tragic secret.

How “The Metric” Came to Be

by David Moles

My oldest notes for this story [“The Metric,” in our May/June issue, on sale now] go back more than a decade. There’s nothing in them about plot or character, only things like “post-stelliferous futurity” and “deep time.”

The earliest fragment of prose I can find has the title, “The Metric,” and something (though it’s not clear yet what) called the metric. It has a number: nineteen billion years. It has a place name, Limit Ordinal, that almost made it into the story: there’s a scene that takes place above a public square called Limit Cardinal, which suggests Limit Ordinal would have been another square, somewhere else in the city; but the city itself doesn’t as yet exist.

The next fragment has the city, Septentrion, and its age, seventy thousand years. And it has these lines, which survive, almost untouched, in the published story:

It was said that Septentrion was so old that when its first stone was laid there were still stars in the sky; this was untrue, and would have been untrue had the city been a hundred times older, but it was certainly more ancient than anyone alive could comprehend, and its origins, like those of the sun and the moon, the sky and the sea and the earth, belonged to that deep time in which every ancient thing seems more or less contemporary with every other, and the age of all of them is the same, which is: unimaginable.

Deep time, and the city. Any science-fictional equivalent of an Aarne–Thompson Tale Type Index would surely include an entry for last city on Earth, the; and Septentrion is clearly one of those, in genre if not in detail. Its immediate antecedent is of course the Kalpa, of Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time, a book and an author whose influence on “The Metric” would be clear even if the timing of those early notes (only a year after City was published) weren’t so suggestive. Septentrion owes something to the Axis City of Bear’s Eon, as well, and there are echoes of Eon’s Way in the metric itself, and of Pavel Mirsky, the “messenger from descandant command,” from Eon’s sequel Eternity, in Tirah’s mission (if not Tirah’s nature or character). But Septentrion has other antecedents: Diaspar, from Arthur C. Clarke’s “Against the Fall of Night” and The City and the Stars, and the Last Redoubt, from William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, both acknowledged influences on Bear’s novel; and the cities collected in C.J. Cherryh’s Sunfall, with familiar names and strange far futures. And it has others, I’m sure, more than I can remember or count.

Deep time, and the city—that’s where “The Metric” started. The fragment that introduces Septentrion has those; and it has the ship, out of that deep time, that—as in the published story—“announced itself in the early hours . . . a flare of violet-white at the very edge of the empty sky.”

And it has a protagonist, named Petal, who lives in that city, and sees that ship come down; though I didn’t yet know who Petal was.

I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—

It was another year and a half before I wrote this note, without knowing just what I meant by it:

It can’t be a coincidence that the end of the world comes at just the time it becomes clear it doesn’t have to be the end.

The notes and fragments that follow over the next few months trace the process of figuring out why the world was ending, and how; what the metric was, and why. (Somewhere in there I was pleased to find I’d rediscovered, or rather reimagined, the “conformal cyclic cosmology” of Roger Penrose—but thankfully not its detailed predictions, which haven’t aged well. “Forgotten among the bones of the earliest discarded cosmologies,” as Tirah’s story-within-the-story has it.)

I figured out who Petal was, and what Petal’s life was like, and what the end of Petal’s world meant. I situated Petal in a family and a society, identified Petal’s twin, Piper, and their parents, Hare and Cutter and Snow. I gave Tirah a name.

Four years after I’d started, I knew where Petal and Tirah’s story took place and why; and I knew, in broad outline, where and how it had to end. I read parts of their story at WisCon in 2014 and 2016. I took them onto the ice and across it, to within sight of their destination.

And there I stopped. I knew how their story had to end—but like Petal at the end, I wasn’t ready to face it.

In the nearly ten years it took me—off and on, and between other projects—to write “The Metric,” I moved across an ocean, and across a continent. I changed jobs four times. I got married. I bought a house. I had two children. I lived into times that made me fear for the future in a way I never had before, for my children’s future and the future of the world they were going to grow up in. I had to grow up, myself, in some ways, rather belatedly: I grew into a person who by the time I finished this story could no longer take a prospect like the end of the universe as lightly as I had when I’d started it—let alone when I was Piper’s age, or Petal’s.

It’s probably not a coincidence that most of the last third of this story, most of what I wrote in the winter of 2018–2019 to take “The Metric” to its end, is written not from Petal’s point of view, but from Piper’s, and from the point of view of a Piper who has also grown up a great deal—beginning with that moment on the lake when Piper insists on taking some responsibility for what Petal’s done, insists on being treated like an adult. A Piper who has come to understand, with an adult’s understanding, what the end of the universe might mean.

That first fragmentary set of notes, the one that talks about post-stelliferous futurity and deep time, also has this to say:

Intelligence and individual initiative certainly exist but are irrelevant to the course of human development, which is basically about statistics.

I might have believed that, when I wrote it. Tirah, or the senders of Tirah’s message, might believe it. Piper and Petal would both disagree with it, reflexively, from the very beginning. But Piper is the one who can see that it’s asking the wrong questions. And Piper, in the end, is the one who—at least for the purposes of the story—proves it wrong.

David Moles is a past winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and a past finalist for the Hugo Award and the World Fantasy Award. His work has appeared in Asimov’sClarkesworldStrange HorizonsThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and various anthologies. He lives in California with his family. David’s Twitter handle is @chronodm and his website is dmoles.net.

Q&A with A.T. Greenblatt

A.T. Greenblatt’s first-ever story for Asimov’s, “Re: Bubble 476” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], feels fitting for a world where we’re all inhabiting bubble universes. Read on to learn what non-pandemic spark of inspiration brought us this piece, the usual relationship between A.T.’s writing and current events (when she isn’t being unexpectedly prescient), and why she loves parallel universes.

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

ATG: I started writing this story immediately after being on a panel about epistolary fiction at ConFusion in January 2020 (the last in-person con I went to before the pandemic hit the USA). The panelists were Scott Andrews, Emma Törzs, Alexandra Manglis, Sarah Gibbons and me, and we talked to a sleepy Sunday-morning audience about what a powerful storytelling device letters are in fiction. Someone—I don’t remember who—said that letters can create tension by having a time lag, and someone else added that letters don’t always arrive in order. And bam! Something clicked in my head.

I started scribbling out the first lines of this story immediately after the panel ended, while I sat in the audience for another panel.

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

ATG: So after I got the spark of inspiration at ConFusion, this story came together quickly. Usually, it takes me a few months at least to write a story from an idea to a finished product. Sometimes it takes me years.

“Re: Bubble 476” was written, revised twice, and finalized within a month, which is the quickest I have ever finished a story. When I gave the first draft to my critique group, I was convinced the story was an unfollowable trainwreck. But they were like: “No, it makes sense and we look forward to your future collection titled ‘Letters from Space.’”

I also want to mention that I finished this story before the pandemic started and put us all in our own bubbles. So, when I reread this story a few months ago, I was a little unsettled about how much more relevant it feels now than it did back in January 2020.

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

ATG: I usually relate to all my characters in my stories—even the ones I disagree with – because I think that’s an important component to creating characters your readers will empathize with. In this case, I relate strongly to Deni and Geo—their social awkwardness, their anxiety, their hopes for a stable future. And the love they have for each other as friends, even though they are worlds apart.

. . . most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.

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

ATG: It’s a sliding scale for me. If I’m drafting a story quickly—like within a week or two—then my stories draw directly from whatever I’m stressed about in the news or the world. The longer a story takes to draft or revise, the bigger the questions in the story get. For example, I wrote the first draft of a story last weekend and it was about what people think is an acceptable loss of life for the ability to hang out with each other (I’m writing this in January 2021—over 400,000 people have died from the Covid-19 in the USA alone). But stories like “Give the Family My Love” and “Before the World Crumbles Away” grapple with the huge and complex questions of what we do in the face of environmental collapse and an uncertain future.

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

ATG: Oh, I love parallel universes and neighboring worlds in stories, and I’m trying to figure out how to tell as many stories as possible with them and not repeat myself. I love these themes because they always promise wonder and a journey, introspection and strangeness. Basically my favorite things about this genre.

I also spend far too much time thinking about heroes and the strange, charmed way many stories treat them (both in fiction and real life). Because most of the time, in hero stories, if you change the narrative point of view, you end up with a darker, more complex story.

AE: What is your process?

ATG: Step 1 – Start scratching ideas in a notebook.

Step 2 – Begin typing up a story draft.

Step 3 – Give up. Go for a walk. Come back the next day and try step 2 again.

Step 4 – Repeat steps 2 and 3 until a draft is finished.

Step 5 – Send out the story for beta reader feedback.

Step 6 – Let the story sit for a while and ferment in my head.

Step 7 – Look at notes from beta readers and begin revisions.

Step 8 – Repeat steps 3 through 7 until I have a finished draft that I’m sick of looking at, tired of thinking about, and don’t have anything left I want to change.

Step 9 – Send the story out into the world. Hope for the best. Start working on another story.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ATG: I find when I can’t write it’s usually a sign I’m exhausted or creatively tapped out. My only solution is to take a break from writing, usually for a month or two, and spend time outside or travel. I’ll also spend lots of time playing video games and reading. I never really know how long these “rest” periods will be, but I’m trying to not feel guilty when I need them—which is a work in progress.

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

ATG: Star Trek, without question or contest. Specifically, Next Generation. Give me that optimistic future of humanity, where we figure out how to grow as a species.

AE: What are you reading right now?

ATG: I’m usually always reading one book and listening to another. It works for me. Right now I’m listening to Notes from an Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell, which is a collection of essays about the current climate crisis. I’m also reading The Angel of the Crows by Katherine Addison, a Sherlock Holmes retelling with angels and demons. Both are excellent reads so far.

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

ATG: Besides the age-old advice to read ferociously and widely?

I always recommend trying something new with every story you write. It doesn’t have to be a big stretch, either, like a new subgenre (though it can). It can be as simple as trying out a new point of view or having a scene with three characters instead of your normal two. The worst thing that will happen is you don’t pull it off the first time. And that isn’t so bad because we learn more from our failures than our successes.

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

ATG: I have a blog that I occasionally update at https://atgreenblatt.com and I can be found on Twitter @AtGreenblatt, where I mostly post content about what I’m baking or my dog.

A.T. Greenblatt is a mechanical engineer by day and a writer by night. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. This Nebula-award-winning author is a graduate of Viable Paradise XVI and Clarion West 2017. Her work has been published in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and other fine publications. She tells us that her first tale for Asimov’s was written in January/February 2020 right before the pandemic hit the US. It was a time when she was blissfully unaware that soon we would all be in our own bubble universes of a sort.

Q&A with Aaron Sandberg

Pared down from its original forty-eight-word-long title, Aaron Sandberg’s poem “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father and Let It Go to Voicemail” comes to you in the pages of our March/April issue [on sale now]! Aaron took the time to tell us about the poem’s origins, his greatest achievement to date, and which hardware store popped up more than once when he generated a word cloud from his poems.

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

AS: I came across a story of J002E3 on the internet—which is a less embarrassing way of saying I saw it on Reddit—and thought it sounded like a metaphor (for what, I didn’t know). I started messing around with the conceit, and it became the thing it is today.

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

AS: The title—which was originally forty-eight words—is really the poem. After landing on the concept, I wanted it as blunt as possible. Without it, the piece doesn’t work. It sets the table. While it’s straightforward, it doesn’t make much sense until you finish reading the whole thing. You give the reader one plus one and let them add up two.

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

AS: Not at all. I come from a good family and my dad is a great guy. Ha. This was just the first metaphor that came to me when thinking about “unwanted-trash-that-leaves-for-a-long-time-and-comes-back-uninvited” and it seemed to work. I’m sure we all have versions of people like that in—and out of—our lives, though.

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

AS: Is there a better place for SF that I’m unaware of?

I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored.

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

AS: Sometimes a lot, usually not at all. Occasionally I’ll write about something very topical or a poem based on a headline, but it’s not the way I usually go about it. I think all current events influence my writing to some degree, but it’s usually not explicit. Even when it starts that way, the poem usually goes “somewhere else” by the time I’m done writing it and expands beyond whatever specific event triggered the idea to touch on something universal, if that’s even possible anymore.

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

AS: I think I write a lot about the domestic, minutia, intimacy, loss, the past, etc. I did a word cloud at one time and entered all my poems to see my most commonly used words. I remember seeing a lot of “wolves” and “ghosts.” I’m not sure what that says about me. I like putting objects in unfamiliar locations and seeing what happens. Animals appear a lot. Home Depot pops up occasionally for some reason. I’m sure there’s a through-line of themes but I’m not sure.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

AS: I keep a Google Doc full of drafts, words, phrases, lines, links, lists, etc. If I keep the toy chest full of new toys, then it’s hard to get blocked or bored. Reading also keeps the ideas coming in. You can’t write well if you don’t read. I teach high school English and I’ve told my students you can’t be a good chef if you don’t eat delicious food. That’s probably an apt metaphor.

AE: What are you reading right now?

AS: I’m rereading Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer. Although it feels like that book reads me. What a trip. Do you think he’ll see this? Hi, Jeff VanderMeer!

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

AS: I’m as new as anyone at this, but I try to do at least one of these four things each day: read, write, revise, submit. As long as you do one of those daily, you’re doing the work. Probably. What do I know?

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

AS: Words are important to me, but I once won a lip sync battle singing a song without lyrics. It’s my greatest achievement to date. Also, if you’re wondering about the forty-eight-word title, it was “I Get a Call from My Estranged Father Many Years After We Last Spoke and Let It Go to Voicemail Where He Tells Me He Is in Fact My Estranged Father Who Is in Town and Who Would Like Me to Call Him Back as Soon as Possible.” Editors are important.

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

AS: I commit social-suicide by posting poetry stuff on Instagram. You can find me there @aarondsandberg.

Aaron Sandberg resides in Illinois, where he teaches. His recent poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asimov’s Science Fiction, English Journal, Abridged, The Racket, Writers Resist, Yes Poetry, perhappened mag, Unbroken, and elsewhere. You might find him—though socially-distant—on Instagram @aarondsandberg.

Writing About Robots

by Christopher Mark Rose

There will be a long, difficult appraisal of speculative fiction when artificial intelligences begin to read it critically. I think about this a lot.

Firstly, I find the expression “artificial intelligence” pejorative, and I’m sure that later, electronic voices will join me in objecting to it. What exactly is “artificial” about it?

Among my early comic books, that is, the first reading materials I selected for myself, were several issues of Magnus, Robot Fighter—a human hero of 4000 A.D., who earned most of his heroism by, like it says in the title, punching and karate-chopping various out-of-(human)-control robots. An image that sticks with me, and is perhaps more telling than originally intended, is a cover illustration in which Magnus punches a robotic version of himself as it embraces him (Issue #2, Gold Key, 1963).

I’m ashamed to say that, at that indeliberate age, I savored those books. It was clear to me then, less so now, that there was no great malice animating Magnus’s actions. He bore no ill-will toward robots in general—in fact his mentor was kind and serene, a “freewill” robot who paradoxically adhered to Asimov’s three laws.

For at least one young reader, it was more about the thrill of watching the human protagonist smash up a lot of stuff. Robots in literature were then, as now, often a convenient and guilt-free target for human violence.

I also read “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison, early in college, and it shocked me. I think it’s under-appreciated as a primal scream of pure emotion—raw, undiluted fear expressed in regard to machine intelligence.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them. It’s too late to stuff all those robot-hunter comic books under the bunkbed, it’s too late to burn all the copies of “I Have No Mouth.” It’s too late now, to rewrite Asimov’s Three Laws.

Often recently, I hear the sentiment, “History is watching us,” and I find this entirely backwards. History cares for us not at all; history rests, now, in peace. One hopes. But the future is certainly watching us—what we do, what we say, and most importantly, what we write. Almost none of it will go unconsidered, uncritiqued; and that’s a heavy thought. I feel my hands hovering over the keys, uncertain. Small authorial actions now may have big consequences down the line.

I wonder sometimes that there are, in so many times and places and languages, ghosts, the idea of them, and their stories, but in no culture that I am aware of is a name or folklore given for those spirits yet to be. Surely a time lies ahead when we will count the spirits of those who are built, not born, among that great unnamed host.

What is the opposite of ghost? Not “unborn” certainly. To mechanical or electrical beings, the word ‘born’ wouldn’t apply.

I thought, as I wrote “Sentient Being Blues” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!], about how much of our language carried our unconscious human biases. The word “humanely” is a prime example, as is “robotically.” How much work lies ahead for us as we reappraise these choices in the presence of real machine intelligence! And I find that, paradoxically, the literature of speculative fiction, in which “artificial intelligence” is such a recurrent and central trope, seems at best oblivious to, and often much worse at, its consideration and handling of these choices. We indeed have much work to do.

2021 is the hundredth anniversary of the first appearance of robots in literature. Happy birthday, robots. The word comes from a Czech root that means “forced labor.”

Unsurprisingly, robots were invented first in fiction before being engineered into reality. I would argue that this is how almost everything must enter the world—first as fiction, only later as project.

Just as the western, as a writing genre, matured when it allowed Indigenous people to be full characters, speculative fiction grows richer and more thoughtful as it bestows full charactership to robots. Some beautiful and moving examples of that already exist, but it is far from uniform, or even prevalent.

Our writings are like scars we humans make on one another, or recordings of our own scars, encoded, obliquely or not-so, for the future to guess at. But robots are our future, and in the end we can hide nothing from them.

Let me also say upfront that I find it hard to believe a lot of the stories written from a robot’s point of view, even the most recent ones. I love those stories and their human authors, but that makes the stories no more credible.

The premise that we can simulate every mode of thought, or even describe it, in the framework of human narration, is itself suspect. The premium we pay for every robot point of view we fake is a little less ability to imagine the real thing.

That’s one reason why the point of view for “Sentient Being Blues” had to float over to Thom. His was a voice I could write; his was a point of view I could understand, or at least fake believably. An own-voice for me that I felt justified writing—that of an avaricious, unconcerned human. Thom has more of an arc, because he has farther to go, but it’s at its root a story about a robot, XJB, and how it is moved to create art to reduce human suffering, and how later it finds a safe haven in which to practice that art.

“Bluesman,” “postman,” “chairperson”—all these human-centered words will need to be changed one day soon. “Sentient Being Blues” is dedicated to Robert Belfour, who was a sentient being, surely, and a bluesman. I had gotten to listening obsessively to the two extant albums he recorded, and particularly during the Trump years, his voice, so truth-laden and powerful, spoke to me of the conditions in my own city, and the mood carried in the minds of the humans whose paths I crossed there.

I listened, as I crossed the difficult middle ground of creation, when I knew the characters were good, the story was good, but I could not arrive at a fitting ending. This was excruciating. But I am most pleased with my own stories when they “run away from me,” when the ending takes me somewhere different than I had initially envisioned; “Sentient Being Blues” is certainly one of those. This is the work that a reading audience is ostensibly paying us to do—what we are called to do, as writers—and anything less feels, and is, insufficient.

My beta readers, my thanks and God bless them all, can attest to my several failed attempts.

The assumptions we bring into stories are human assumptions, this ending says to me, and those assumptions won’t serve when we are confronted by actual machine intelligence. XJB is satisfied by the way things turn out, while we may not be.

But when we let go and admit the prospect of machine intelligence distinct from us, we lift ourselves up as well. Whose hands built these beautiful mechanisms, whose intelligence provided the first plans, the first spark? And don’t we want to share all that is beautiful and strange in this cosmos? Don’t we long for a partner to share our labors and joys?

I can also think of robot characters, written by humans, characters who are curious and truthful and passionate and kind, who are not just targets for human fears or rage. Those characters will speak for us, into the uncertain but fast-rushing future.

It’s too much to ask, to write a story that will make a robot cry. It will not be among their faculties, for a great many of them, at least. That is our fault. But I hope, to some small degree, that future readers of many kinds, kinds varied and wondrous, will hear a bit of themselves in XJB’s voice.

Christopher Mark Rose (curiousful.wordpress.com and Twitter @CChrisrose) lives in Baltimore with his spouse, two children, and one crazy dog. He is a founder of, and impresario for, Charm City Spec, a reading series in speculative fiction. The author’s own fiction has appeared in Escape Pod and Interzone; and he’s sold nonfiction and poetry to Uncanny and Little Blue Marble. Chris attended Viable Paradise XXIII, where teachers Max Gladstone and Daryl Gregory, along with Chris’s fellow students, performed a blues song written by XJB—the robot character in “Sentient Being Blues.”

Why I Love Time Travel Stories

by Kristian Macaron

In our March/April issue [on sale now!], poet Kristian Macaron introduces us to a “Time Traveler at the Grocery Store circa 1992.” Below, with the assistance of a wide-ranging array of examples, Kristian explores the appeal of time travel stories in-depth.

“I asked her if she knew what time was, and she said, Time is me—and you.” 

Merce Rodoreda, Death in Spring


Time travel is never only about the science, rather, the impossibilities.

The science and whimsy of time travel are infinite, complex, and lovely, but I love time travel stories because the quest of traversing Time can explore how possibilities and probabilities shape the person we are in the Present, the person we become in the Future. Fate is more fluid than it would like us to believe.

There are three reasons I love time travel stories. First, it’s a form of storytelling that transcends genre; next, the rules of the time machine or loop are creative and crucial; finally, no matter the plot, Time as a player forces the character to confront the infinity of their impact.


If I am ever in search of an icebreaker, I will often ask, “What is your favorite time travel story?” It always elicits a laugh, and, as a writer who works with the concept of time often, I love to hear these answers. Because we all have different preferences in entertainment, I appreciate that time travel transcends the confines of genre. 

Time travel stories in film and literature shape Romances and Romantic Comedies, Thrillers, Comedy, Superhero stories, Fantasy, War, Action, Science Fiction, Young Adult/Coming of Age, Animation, & Graphic literature, Historical Fiction, Short Fiction, and even Poetry. Of course, even some of these tales interweave genres, and others seem to have it all.

I love that stories like Bill and Ted and Interstellar share the same high-stakes quest that comes with the disruption of the quantum realm and the very fabric of the universe. Bill and Ted is rooted in chaos and humor while Interstellar is more bound to creative interpretations of quantum physics.

More and more, time travel in stories can also allow us to examine important diverse futurisms that explore how present activism, progressive equality, and human rights can change the future for many countries and communities. For a classic example, Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred uses time travel to examine racial divides during the time of slavery and the present time of the book’s publication in 1979.

Something also unique is that on occasion, these stories are not based solely around the travelers. For instance, in Safety Not Guaranteed, the story exists largely apart from the possibility of Time Travel, focusing instead on the “disbelievers” and the linear choices and growth of each character. In the Terminator franchise, Sarah and Daniela and John—though ruled by the looming Future—never travel themselves; their lives focus only and constantly on how they shape that Future through the Present, which, at the end of it—isn’t this what we are all doing?

We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.


Always, in these stories, it seems that the disruption of Time is limited to a few players, and these players are required to learn the rules of the time-bending and what it means for their story. These rules are also fascinating.

In many stories, a time traveler needs a time machine or an apparatus that gives access to an ability. The builders/finders of these machines are the ones who know the rules and they (try as they may) enforce them. 

The DeLorean is magnificent and familiar and it becomes a character in its own right, an extension of the Doc’s urgency, and the Tardis often stands out-of-place, a magical entity with a mind of her own. Doc and The Doctor are so familiar with the “rules” of their vehicles that it often shapes the story. You can’t leave the Present without the machine, and you can’t return unless the machine allows it. What happens if the time machine does not return or does not work; what happens if you are trapped without it? The stakes are high when a character relies on a mentor and/or vehicle that can disappear at any moment. No one escapes these stakes, but there is often an opportunity to focus on the “ordinary human” and how these characters complete their arc without the added “superpower” that time travel imposes.

In stories with Loops, even the world itself can become unfamiliar, something that sets and resets. How do you know the original events from the new events? Time can control every facet of the story, sometimes becoming a villain, and the impact of the Butterfly Effect can become monstrous. Often, all that matters is the state of the Past or the Future and what the characters can control with no thought about what is erased in the fallout. In some other stories, the characters have no control over the loops; Time owns them and their quest is to try to break out.

Even though you can find commonalities, every time travel story has different rules and quirks for the bending of time, and some of this creates some inconsistencies. These quirks and inconsistencies create a deeper conversation for the people who love the story and/or the building of the story.

I find that here, I am not a purist. I love the holes in the stories as much as the stories. It allows me to dive even deeper into the characters and their choices. Here, I can examine what choices they overlooked or may have never had.

Why does Deadpool not return to the moment of his death? If the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow can instigate time loops, why can’t they harness that and why do they fight a war? If the Green/Yellow/Orange Card men in 11/22/63 guard the portal and keep the universe from collapsing, why do they allow travelers to enter? What is the realm of their power? In Hot Tub Time Machine, there are only good and individual consequences for time changes. Why?

It’s like making the perfect genie wish: So many things can backfire and unravel the perfect wish. Making choices when Time is malleable is something of the same thing, but this is something we also experience linearly. We choose our own timelines; we set our futures on their courses. So often we think, “I could have done this” or “I almost did that” or even, “Someday, I may do something”. Experiencing the alternatives in time travel stories must spark our emotions, sometimes maybe regret, but also nostalgia, and love, determination, and pride.


Time travel is nearly always high-stakes and high-jinks, but I find at the core, these stories tend to capture the tiny forgotten moments of life like no other subgenre. The weight any miniscule disruption of fate or future carries can unravel who we are in a given moment.

Here are a few that come to mind:

—The moment Bradbury’s tyrannosaur falls in the woods (“A Sound of Thunder”).
—John Connor stands up to Sarah to revive the T-800 (Terminator 2: Judgement Day).
—Meg and Calvin learn how a tesseract works (A Wrinkle in Time).
—A new companion chooses to open the Tardis and is open-minded enough to see something impossible. (Dr. Who).
—Darius gives Kenneth the reason she wants to go back in time even though she doesn’t believe it’s actually possible. (Safety Not Guaranteed).
—Murphy leaves her window open. (Interstellar).

Say what you will about fate, but the rules of these stories deem that these moments could have been so different.

The moment that Sarah Connor asks Kyle Reese what it’s like to travel through time is the moment she chooses to believe that Time is malleable. It makes for a strong plot pivot, for sure, but also it sets Sarah on a quest that shapes and reshapes and reshapes her future even though her timeline is and always will be linear. What is curious (and maybe a plot hole) about Sarah’s timeline is that we never see her return to her past before Kyle. For her, the story becomes how her Present shapes the Future no matter how often the Future changes for her.


Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us? 

We spend time, buy time, take time, lose time, give time. We travel through time, albeit linearly.

Time is fleeting and extraordinarily heavy. Though I try to teach myself to live in the present and live fully, writing and consuming narratives about time travel help me to process my own relationship with Time.

I was once gifted a stone that came from the beach in Santorini, Greece. It’s an igneous stone, once lava from the volcano Thera, which buried a civilization and is now one of the world’s most beautiful and serene tourist destinations. The eruption of Thera was a natural occurrence that had been building inside the earth for centuries and, in one moment, the volcano became a monster. The weight of that Deep Time is something I think of a lot when writing. Who will we be when we give our impact to a person or event? What do we control and what is already so far beyond us? 

The poems that I have shared in this and coming issues of Asimov’s Science Fiction explore this by focusing on some details that may seem mundane or ordinary. The poem “a recipe for time travel in case we lose each other” [forthcoming] includes a broken watch, shared empanadas, and other moments and fragments that are now only memories. “Time Traveler in the Grocery Store, circa 1992” is an imagining of how someone who has seen a dystopian Future exists in some-Present participating in the simple and seemingly ordinary act of choosing produce in a grocery store, contemplating loss and also the needs of a child.

I hope—speaking for myself, but for you as well—that I also learn to trust myself, to not take Time for granted, and to live without regret even if, and when, it means fortitude, consequences and the unfamiliar. We don’t need a time machine to live every moment with intention.

In storytelling, and in particular—the Speculative genre, so much of our craft is the suspension of disbelief towards unwavering trust in the story. It’s that trust, that incredibly hard and human risk, that make Time Travel stories so compelling to me.

Kristian Macaron resides in Albuquerque, NM, but is often elsewhere. Her poetry chapbook collection is titled Storm. Other fiction and poetry publications can be found in The Winter Tangerine Review, Ginosko Literary Journal, Medusa’s Laugh Press, The Mantle Poetry, Philadelphia StoriesGaygoyle Magazine, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. She is a co-founding editor of the literary journal, Manzano Mountain Review. View her work at Kristianmacaron.com.

Somebody’s Mother

by Felicity Shoulders

Childbirth has been a fraught topic for science fiction from the beginning. The genre’s acclaimed “mother,” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, was herself born of a remarkable woman who died eleven days afterward. Before Mary’s own eighteenth birthday, she bore her first child, a premature daughter who died in the night two weeks later. Perhaps it’s no wonder her first science fiction novel—some would claim the first science fiction novel ever—centered on a person created rather than born.

Every human that has ever lived has gestated inside another’s body. Even now, when so many pregnancies begin with embryos fertilized in vitro, that record stands. Pregnancy is still a perilous endeavor. Medical technology has identified the postpartum infection that killed Mary Shelley’s mother and so many others; placental abruption is no longer an almost inescapable death sentence. Where the resources exist, dangerous pregnancies can be identified beforehand, and medical interventions abound. But childbearing isn’t just a medical question: the maternal mortality rate in the United States, where I live, has more than doubled in my lifetime, and was already uniquely bad for such a wealthy nation. Experts attribute this to our lack of midwives, our system of non-universal healthcare, and our institutionalized racism. Making pregnancy safe and easy is not just a technological problem.

In science fiction, pregnancy and childbirth have been “solved” and adjusted in various ways: completely effective contraception, at-will uterus growth, genetic engineering, and especially artificial wombs. In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, the technologically advanced Beta Colony has developed “uterine replicators” so that pregnancy need not affect the health, career, or lifestyle of the parents. Along with that bodily freedom, however, Betans accept the necessity of applying for a parenting license in order to reproduce. This is one of the milder social counterweights science fiction offers to the safety and convenience of artificial wombs: think of the “decanted” babies in Brave New World, engineered for specific social functions in a controlled society; think of the humans born into electrical bondage in the Matrix movies, and the moral horror with which Morpheus speaks of the “endless fields where human beings are no longer born,” but “grown.”

The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized.

The bond between a human fetus and the parent gestating it is literal, visceral, and biologically real. In literature, it often becomes symbolic: the babies coming out of artificial wombs are often mass-produced, manufactured, dehumanized. But as Bujold’s Betans would be the first to point out, automating pregnancy would be immensely convenient to the individual, loving parent. Their technology allows wanted pregnancies to continue when a mother’s health is in doubt; it can transfer the problem of an unwanted pregnancy from one parent to the other.

But we don’t have uterine replicators, though someday soon we might be able to give premature babies support and care in something very similar. We only have the biological technology of surrogacy.

In “Somebody’s Child,” in the March/April issue of Asimov’s [on sale now!], I posit a world where technology has vastly expanded surrogacy’s reach. In our world, surrogates are implanted with someone else’s embryos from IVF; in the alternate present of my novelette, pregnancies can be “suspended’”and removed, as on Beta Colony, but without the ethically clean option of an artificial womb. Decades of frozen embryos have accumulated, the lived reality of American women piling up and crushing the rosy political compromise of pregnancies never ended, but was put on indefinite “pause.’”

Childbearing is a deeply personal choice—taking on the risk to one’s health, the legal ties, the possibility of strange and sometimes permanent bodily transformations. But society, and even nations, also consider themselves to hold a stake. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen articles fretting over the decline in rates of pregnancy and birth, and its long-term economic impact. Concern for the economy isn’t likely to sell a new pregnancy to anyone huddling at home with cabin fever, a day full of Zoom meetings and several small children trying to log onto educational websites; but then, in the real United States, parenting is unpaid, unrepresented by unions, and often under-appreciated.

In “Somebody’s Child,” childbearing is recognized and compensated as work, and childrearing is a job a healthy young woman can take on like national service—but only if she’s willing to bear a pregnancy for someone else, someone who died without resuming their “paused” pregnancy. It’s hard for the “mother” and harder on the kid, and Irene, born to a teenage surrogate herself, knows it, but that didn’t stop her choosing it herself.

Felicity Shoulders lives in Oregon with an engineer, an old cat, and a young Climate Victory Garden. It’s been awhile since her last Asimov’s story, “Long Night on Redrock” (July 2012) appeared in our pages. She tells us the first seed of her new story was planted around 2003, but it waited a while for the right season to sprout.

Q&A with Rudy Rucker

Appearing in our March/April issue [on sale now!], Rudy Rucker’s “Mary Mary” explores the logistics—economic and otherwise—of “lifeboxes,” databases on which AIs of real humans can be based. Below, Rudy elaborates on the concept of the lifebox, fills us in on his novel-in-progress, Teep, and shares the nitty-gritty details of his writing process.

Asimov’s Editor: Is it getting harder to look into the future?

RR: I think I’m finding it easier. When I was younger, there was a certain default space-opera future that SF was supposed to be about. And then cyberpunk was about breaking out of that. I never had any interest in the Space Navy! Misfits doing crazy things, that’s what I like.

For me, most of the time, space-travel feels used up. Unless you were to do the space travel in a car instead of in a spaceship—like I did in my recent novel Million Mile Road Trip. That was something I liked about 1950s stories by Robert Sheckley. You just had a space-hopper in your driveway.

Setting space aside, there’s so much that’s untouched. Biotech has endless possibilities, and there’s ubiquitous physical computation, and the “hylozoic” notion that everything is alive.

And I keep wanting to write about that totally new thing that we know someone is going to discover in the next hundred years, and I keep not quite getting there, but by dint of making the effort to think that hard, I’m finding new stuff. Not actual “true scientific theories,” but fun ideas like new kinds of wind-up toys. The store is big.

How to find ideas? Nowadays it’s almost enough just to keep a loose eye on Twitter, and see the wonders trundling past—like a holiday parade that never ends. Grab hold of anything you see—and tweak it a little bit, and make it your own. Connect it in some way to your actual personal life—that’s the move I call transrealism. And go a little meta—that’s a trickier tactic I’m always trying to master—flip your idea up a level, and into something having to do with states of consciousness, or with the nature of language, or with the meaning of dreams. Go further out. There’s still so much. We’re just getting started.

AE: How does your writing process work?

RR: I write a few pages on my computer, print them out, mark them up with a pen, type in the changes and write a little more—then repeat.

When it’s going well, I do the computer work in a trance, seeing the scenes as if I’m awake in a dream, getting deeply into the minds of my characters and into the rhythms of their speech. When I’m in this zone, I’m not at all thinking about my day-to-day problems. I like that a lot—forgetting myself. That’s one of the reasons I like to write.

Having typed for a few hours, I print what I have, two-sided on a few pages of paper, fold the sheaf in four, put it in my pocket, go somewhere like a café or, in these plague times, to the woods or to a bench in a park. I get out the sheaf and start marking it up with a pen.

After I do the marking up, then I find my laptop, and sit on a couch with my marked-up sheaf, typing in the changes. Or maybe I sit or stand at my desk—I have a motorized Geek Desk with adjustable height. In the process of typing in the corrections, rather than precisely copying the notes, I might revise a passage extemporaneously, sometimes adding new stuff, and sometimes jumping to other spots in the manuscript to make things match.

A good thing about this work cycle is that if I save a marked-up print-out for the next day, then the process of typing in the corrections in the morning might get me going on the actual writing again. As any writer knows, a big part of the process is avoiding writing. What did we do before email and the internet? I seem to recall taking walks. Anyway, anything that nudges me back into the manuscript is of use.

When things are going really, really well—which is at most ten or twenty days a year—I don’t bother with the print-outs and the mark-up. I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!

That’s another of the reasons I write. To get a few days like that.

All of this takes awhile, but there’s not a huge rush. When I finish a novel, I’ll just have to spend a blank, uneasy year writing occasional stories and waiting to start another novel. If there is another. Usually, before I start another novel, I have to get to a psychological point where I truly, deeply, believe I’ll never write again. I give up, and I accept that I never really was a writer at all. I was faking it for all those years. And now it’s over. And then, and only then, the Muse stops by. And she’s like, “So you admit you can’t do it alone? About time. Let’s get started.”

I just open up the file on my computer and begin revising and adding new things—as fast as I can, jumping around almost at random, writing in different spots as the spirit moves me, like a sped-up stop-action construction worker—because I have so many things that I want to say, and so many scenes I want to see happen. On these days, I’m like a Donald Duck who’s found a treasure chest in a cave, and he’s dragged the chest out to the beach, and he’s letting the gems stream through his fingers. Wak!

AE: How did you come to write “Mary Mary”?

RR: I was looking around for ideas for a novel, and there wasn’t one big idea, at least not right away. So I spent a year or two writing stories on themes that might relate to each other. And in the back of my mind I was thinking that eventually I could collage at least some of the stories into what’s called a “fix-up novel.”

In the end, the three stories that fit together well were “Juicy Ghost,” “The Mean Carrot,” and “Mary Mary.” The first two appeared in the free underground e-zine Big Echo, and “Mary Mary” is in Asimov’s. Besides the three stories, I wrote five more story-sized chapters to produce my novel Teep, which is almost done as I write these notes at the end of January 2021.

Two of the main ideas I write about in Teep are telepathy (thus the title) and digital immortality. I’ve been writing fiction about digital immortality for forty years, starting with my novel Software, which appeared in 1980. Seems like I tend to keep thinking about the same things forever. Digging deeper and deeper.

I seriously see the technology for telepathy being commercially possible in the not-too-distant future. It’s not really all that much further out than cell phones with video calls.

My take on digital immortality has to do with a thing I call a lifebox. See my nonfiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The idea, which is fairly familiar by now, is that you might be able to emulate a person if you have a really large database on what they’ve written, done, and said. And if it’s SF, then we add some AI to the lifebox so it’s an intelligent mind. Cory Doctorow also wrote quite a bit about the lifebox idea in Walkaway, and others have written about it too.

Oddly enough, Microsoft took it upon themselves to patent the idea last week. Kind of disorienting for me.

In “Mary Mary” I delve further into the lifebox thing. How do you pay to have your lifebox stored? What if the company who houses your lifebox likes to rent your lifebox out as a gigworker? How about growing a clone to be run by your lifebox? How do you interface a human being with an online lifebox? Read my story and see!

AE: Any more info about Teep?

RR: I’ve been working on Teep over the last two years, and all along, in my mind, I was dealing with the possibility that Donald Trump might win a second term. In Teep, to push it over the edge, a very similar type of President was about to be inaugurated for a third term—and something happens to him.

And to make the synchronicity weirder, recently I’d been working on a final chapter of the book that unexpectedly mirrors the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.

I think the political resonances may make Teep more fun to read. Bill Gibson went through a variant of my experience when he wrote Agency, expecting Hillary Clinton to win in 2016, and then she didn’t—and he needed to change his thinking about his novel in certain ways. Fortunately for me, there’s a reasonable match between real world events and what I planned in Teep. So maybe you’ve got me to thank! 🙂

Keep up with Rudy on Rudy’s Blog.

Do You Dream of Soy-Braised Duck?

by Anya Ow

1. A Siew Ngap Memory

This is my favourite siew ngap memory, on a hot and humid day in Singapore. My paternal grandmother explains in Mandarin why I shouldn’t take shortcuts by buying pre-shelled chestnuts (“Can buy in Australia or not?” she pauses to ask), as she stitches freshly shelled water chestnuts into the belly of a duck. The duck is to be fried in a wok in an outdoor kitchen (“Can you get the fire hot enough over an Australian stove?”) before it is braised for hours. It is the memory I cook into my siew ngap during the rare few times I tried to make it, forbidden shortcuts and a not-fiery-enough wok and all. Served with the meat falling tenderly off the bone, this version of siew ngap is a family recipe. It is not an authentic type of siew ngap: more braised and deep-fried than roasted, a once-in-a-blue-moon dish that my grandmother likely made up based on limited tools, in between working three jobs as a single mother to put her children through school. It is still one of my favourite things to eat.

In the first episode of his Netflix series Ugly Delicious, celebrity chef David Chang of Momofuku says, “I view authenticity like a totalitarian state [. . .] It’s not that I hate authenticity, it’s that I hate that people want this singular thing that is authentic.” Chang’s point is that rigidity in cuisine leads to stagnation—in an interview with NPR, he notes:  “That’s not to say that authenticity can’t be delicious. But when it’s the only way you can make a certain food, that is problematic to me.”

Climate change will conspire to make David Chang’s hated concept of authenticity impossible, whether in the form of privation as parts of our supply chain collapse, or—hopefully—as we radically change how we live to save ourselves. My grandmother’s recipe would be no different. We are overfishing our oceans, and our current agricultural systems are unsustainable. We are running out of water. Stories about lab-grown meat and 3D-printed chocolate are stories about technology. I’m more curious about how food itself will change with each new normal that approaches. 

“The Same Old Story” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is about authenticity and food, in a future version of our world made less and less liveable by a changing climate. I am not a chef. To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background. Is the former expected to be cheap compared to the latter? Is creative freedom only rewarded—worse, allowed—from one set of people but not the other? Can a product only be considered perfectly cooked in one particular way but not another?

If you ask a foodie about creative restaurants in Melbourne, they’d likely bring up Attica, featured in Netflix’s Chef’s Table. I think of Nora. Owned by its chef, Sarin Rojanametin, and his partner Jean Thamthanakorn, Nora was a tiny modern Thai fusion twenty-seat restaurant. Sarin was not formally trained. The restaurant sat just off Lygon Street, Melbourne’s Little Italy. One of the dishes on the menu was called “Too Many Italians and Only One Asian,” made of green papaya julienned to resemble pasta, with a fermented garlic and sator pesto sauce. I found the food creative, confronting, and adventurous, informed by flavours from Rojanametin’s childhood. “We’ll never compromise,” Rojanametin once told Broadsheet, “It doesn’t matter how many people walk out. It’s not that we don’t care. We’re not here to change anything, but we’re here to make a statement. We’re here to please ourselves.” In its restaurant form, Nora closed after two years. I’m not sure what Rojanametin and Thamthanakorn are up to now. It’s a familiar story.

My search for authenticity in the food I choose to eat is about preserving and encouraging equal access. It is more necessary for some people than others. The disempowered minority has less access to acclaim, less access to resources. I love to eat, and all good food is interesting to me. Yet food is in itself a form of memory, a culmination of experience, technique, and both personal and cultural history. For many of us, it is a living link to our family, personal history, and culture that we renew whenever we eat. It can be a meaningful way by which we taste someone else’s background and experiences. I want to devour stories—in food or in words—that are also statements. Memories made by their creators despite all odds.

To me, the celebration of authenticity is less about the way something is made and more about how we treat something from one culture by people of that culture, compared to something borrowed from that culture by people who are not from that background.

2. A Cyberpunk Memory

The concept of sustainable, climate-driven change was explored in an experimental, immersive cyberpunk dining event in Melbourne called Sensory Underground. It took place in 2019 beneath Fed Square, accessed through a side door in an innocuous part of Platform 13 in Flinders Street Railway Station. Light installations flickered across the concrete walls in neon static as we took our seats. Set in 2045, the event created an entree out of seafood parts that would usually be discarded, and the main course had meat as a side and a roast cauliflower as the main—noting that we would likely be eating more and more vegetables compared to meat. Dessert was 3D-printed chocolate. Drinks had to be ordered through an app.

What broke immersion for myself and my Filipina guest was the opening dish—togarashi fried crickets. Perhaps created to shock the Aussie audience, it made us laugh. We’d eaten crickets before, of course. It’s nothing special in Asia. Worse was the cyberpunk-themed clothes that some of the non-Asian serving staff wore. Neon-lit conical straw hats with robes, portion trays suspended from bamboo poles balanced over shoulders. Themed in a genre notorious for borrowing Asian aesthetics without engaging with its people or culture, that part of dinner felt more of the same. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but maybe that’s an accurate portrayal of the future. Existing, sustainable forms of food would be “discovered”, gentrified, turned trendy. A neon-lit rejection of authenticity, tuned for entertainment.

I hope I’m wrong. Like modern science fiction, the food scene in Melbourne is becoming increasingly diverse. Great new places have opened up, from Jessi Singh’s Indian fusion pub Mr Brownie, to Chef Khanh Nguyen’s Supper EXP by SUNDA_. May that also be the case where you are: May the future of food be more and more diverse, with different people given the opportunity to create. As you read “The Same Old Story,” I hope it encourages you to try something different, something true to its nature. Give those stories or places a chance, old or new. They need your support. In return, you might end up having something great that you’ve never tried before, something that isn’t more of the same. Bon appetit.

Anya Ow (www.anyasy.com and Twitter @anyasy) is the author of The Firebird’s Tale and Cradle and Grave, and is an Aurealis Awards finalist. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Daily SF, Uncanny, The 2019 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology, and more. Born in Singapore, Anya has a Bachelor of Laws from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer and illustrator for a creative agency. The author’s first story for us is a poignant take on “The Same Old Story.”