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.”

Q&A with Robert H. Cloake

Don’t miss out on Robert H. Cloake’s, “Fear of Missing Out” [in our January/February issue, on sale now!], or on our chat with him, in which he reveals the three separate ideas that became this story, the particulars of his writing process, and what he’s learned from his various careers.

Asimov’s Editor: How did this story germinate?

RHC: In “The Fear of Missing Out,” three things I’d been toying with separately came together in a spontaneous and happy fusion.

First was the idea of a technology for generating an automatic personality that could maintain social activity while the user does other things. I’ve had this speculation on a list of story ideas for a long time, and I like to collect instances from newspapers and history that pertain to or preview it—for example, when someone’s social media account, partially automated, continues to post after they die. Recently I enjoyed what Kelly Robson—as a bit of background world-building in her richly imagined novella, Gods, Monsters and the Lucky Peach—did with a similar idea. Her story made me feel ready to write my own automatic personality story.

After I sat down to do something with the auto-personality idea, I asked myself what sort of character would plausibly get themselves tangled up with such a technology. And I thought of a second idea—Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. It’s on another list I have, this one full of myths and narratives I’ve enjoyed and would like to riff on. So in “The Fear of Missing Out” I ended up creating a reverse Jekyll/Hyde character: one to whom his “natural” personality seems monstrous, while the personality that technology allows him to adopt, and which circumstances increasingly force him to rely on, is the one he and others prefer.

Having these first two ideas, I was immediately reminded of another—of something that’s interested me since I came across it in my graduate school philosophy reading: ego-identity. Ego-identity is the perception most people have of internal continuity and coherence, the identification with themselves that allows them, for example, to recognize their own memories. It seems to me that any story of the type I was dreaming up would necessarily involve a confrontation with the fragility of ego-identity. Many of my favorite bits in “The Fear of Missing Out” explore what the technology under consideration would do to a person’s ego-identity.

Once these three ideas had accumulated, the story practically wrote itself.

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

RHC: Not really. For the most part, my stories are attempts to imagine my way into minds and personalities unlike my own.

I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted.

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

RHC: “The Fear of Missing Out” is an allusion to the expression “FOMO.” I won’t belabor the irony, which should be apparent to anyone who reads the story.

AE: What is your process?

RHC: I work best if I frontload structural considerations, writing down questions and answers to myself about the plot and characters of a story idea until I have a general sense of its outcome, major turns, and central themes. I formulate that conception in a small paragraph of instructions to myself, and sometimes in a scene list or a brief outline, and then I draft straight through the story, secure in the knowledge that I can focus on language because the larger patterns have been sorted. When I make myself take the time to go through this process, generally the stories come out pretty well and don’t need a huge amount of editing. Unfortunately, I often dive impatiently into drafting without having thought through my story, in which case it takes many drafts, and sometimes many years, to arrive at something good. “The Fear of Missing Out” was a smooth experience, because I took my time thinking it through before I started writing.

AE: What other projects are you working on?

RHC: I always have half a dozen stories underway, and I’m also working on a novel—since it looks like we’ll be mostly stuck avoiding social interactions for reasons of public health throughout 2021, I hope to get a lot of writing done.

AE: What are you reading right now?

RHC: For a book club with some fellow speculative fiction writers, I’m reading Tana French’s latest mystery novel, The Searcher. For my own education, I’m reading The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff. And for pleasure, I’ve been reading C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen, as well as a wonderful anthology of Italian short stories edited by Jhumpa Lahiri, and the notebooks and travel journals of the Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet.

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

RHC: I have been a hospital orderly, which convinced me I would prefer a job where I could sometimes sit down. I have been a college lecturer in philosophy, which informs my choice of topics and tendency to push my stories in the direction of thought experiments. And I have been a journalist, which taught me to ignore my literary vapors and get on with the writing.

How can our readers follow you and your writing?

RHC: Come visit me at www.rhcloake.com

Robert H. Cloake is a writer living in Pittsburgh. With a background in academic philosophy, he uses his fiction to explore the ethical and ontological problems of truth, human personhood, and aesthetic value. As a longtime reader of speculative fiction, he believes that the most significant thought experiments take the form of stories. His work has also appeared in Interzone and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Q&A with Avra Margariti

Avra Margariti makes her Asimov’s debut in our January/February issue with the poem “When I’m Thirty I Receive a Box Full of Your Steel Bones” [on sale now]! She took the time to chat with us about the poem’s origins, her projects in progress, defeating writers’ block, and the link between her writing and her future social work career.

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

AM: I’m a big fan of stories that examine the emotional depths robots can reach. Whether those depths are genuine or perceived and interpreted through manmade lenses, I think the humans’ reactions and behavior toward robots are very telling. In my poem, the way my characters treat robots is only an extension of the way they treat each other. 

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

AM: Although a stand-alone, I suppose my poem could be described as a spiritual successor. In the past, I’ve written poems and stories about robots going grape-stomping, engaging with art, experiencing conflicting emotions about their creators, etc.

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

AM: My poem is a study of childhood, and the heartfelt naivety that often comes with it. The title, on the other hand, is the adult’s reality, a painful understanding, a second act hinted at but left unexplored.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

AM: My poem “When I’m Thirty I Receive a Box Full of Your Steel Bones” is my first ever piece published with Asimov’s.

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

AM: I don’t directly name current events most of the time, but I am definitely influenced by them when coming up with plots and characters. I like to fictionalize historic events as well, change the details while still keeping said events recognizable.

The two cornerstones of my future profession are social justice and social change. I want my fictional work to promote and embody those ideals.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

AM: I usually choose a different medium of expression. Unfortunately, I’m not an artist, but I like to photo-edit mock covers for my stories, make moodboards for my characters, or create playlists. Watching a movie or TV show also helps me get out of a writing slump.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

AM: I’m editing a collection of speculative love poems inspired by several patchwork aesthetics. My collection is an homage to curiosity cabinets, medieval bestiaries, circus sideshows, anatomical theaters, haunted houses, and black holes. I’m also in the process of revising my magical realism/alternate queer history novella-in-flash, about a troupe of nomadic clowns and their physics-defying king.

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

AM: Is reversing climate change and making the Earth greener too much to ask for?

AE: What are you reading right now?

AM: I’m mostly catching up on all those amazing SFFH short stories released in 2020. Sadly, I haven’t read as much as I would have liked this year, so I’ve missed a lot of creative and innovative work published by my fellow speculative authors.

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

AM: I’m currently studying to become a social worker. The two cornerstones of my future profession are social justice and social change. I want my fictional work to promote and embody those ideals.

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

AM: I sometimes tweet @avramargariti.

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Vastarien, Glittership, Liminality, Arsenika, and other venues. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.

A Conversation in Progress: Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. and Ray Nayler on “A Rocket for Dimitrios”

Ray Nayler’s “A Rocket for Dimitrios” [in our Jan/Feb issue, on sale now!] follows up on “The Disintegration Loops,” from November/December 2019. Below, Ray offers us a look at the story behind the stories, as he sits down with Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. to discuss the metaphor of the Mojave Desert creosote bush, the human connectome, the importance of curiosity, the constraining and defining factor of “place-time,” and much more.

Some Background (Ray Nayler): In 1996, I entered the University of California, Santa Cruz. I was a transfer student, having spent two years of junior college at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills (a place clearly named by monolingual English-speakers), California. Junior college had been the only option for continuing my education: I graduated from high school with a GPA of 1.86, ranked 400in a class of 440.

I came to UC Santa Cruz from a spectacularly broken home, with parents whose divorce battle, in and out of the California courts, would last longer than their marriage had. They had been getting divorced since I was twelve; when I entered university, it still wasn’t over. When I graduated, it still wasn’t over.

The day before high school ended, the vice principal called me in to his office. “Congratulations,” he said. “You graduated from high school in three years. Quite an accomplishment. I just added up all of your sick days, truancies, and suspensions. You managed to miss a full year of high school over these four years.”

A lot of those missed days were suspensions: if you cut school, they gave you a day of Saturday school. But if you cut Saturday school, they suspended you. I never understood the logic: suspension wasn’t a punishment—it was a two-for-one deal. And if I didn’t want to go to school on a Tuesday, I certainly didn’t want to go on a Saturday.

I don’t remember what I said in response to the vice principal; I don’t remember much at all from that hazy last week of high school. I knew almost no one at my school, outside my small circle of disaffected friends.

When I couldn’t escape school, I sat in class thinking of escape. Luckily, I did have a few escapes: there was my skateboard, and there was my writing. I had started writing when I was a little kid, but for those last few years, as I staggered through high school waiting for it to end, I had begun to write more and more. I had two poems published in my high school journal, and carried a notebook with me everywhere.

By the time I got to UC Santa Cruz, I’d had a few stories published in small literary journals, and had started to think of myself as a writer—maybe. I had also been a Dean’s List student at Foothill College. Without the poisonous atmosphere of high school in my lungs, I actually enjoyed education. I was lucky enough to have a few very good teachers at Foothill, who—like my English teachers in high school, and a few others along the way—opened a small window for me into a different world.

But Professor Earl Jackson, Jr. was the one who would throw open the door. Over my three years at UC Santa Cruz, I would take classes from him in detective, suspense, and speculative fiction, as well as an independent study course on film noir and a senior seminar on Plato’s dialogues.

In my senior year I was Earl Jackson’s proxy, with professor-level access to the library, where I sometimes spent twelve to fourteen hours in a single day, leaving only for food. I was working full-time to support myself, and playing upright bass in a band; my life, which had been empty just a few years before, was crammed full. And much of it was filled with learning.

Earl’s extraordinary intellect was central to all of that: I felt, in his detective fictions class in the fall of 1996, when I first encountered semiotics and the work of Charles Sanders Peirce through Earl’s teaching, as if the fog of stupidity spread over my whole childhood had finally begun to clear. Mine was a childhood lived in a California cult of dumb, where shallowness was cool and using too big a word would get you punched in the mouth. Where reading was a dirty habit. Where the only things rewarded were popularity—just another word for dominance over others—and athletic accomplishment in the team uniform.

But here at UCSC was another world, where intelligence and study counted for something. Where the originality of ideas was rewarded. All around me were people who were respected for their thoughts and ideas. For the first time, I felt like I belonged.

It was such a strange feeling that it took me years to even recognize it.

I found Earl again, more than a decade after graduation. By then I was a Foreign Service Officer, posted to Vietnam, and Earl was a professor in Taiwan. I managed to contact him, and he came out to visit me in Ho Chi Minh City, and then in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We have maintained, for years now, a correspondence and a friendship that I treasure.

Earl’s teaching literally changed my life. This is not an exaggeration. It is a straightforward evaluation of a fact. I cannot think of anyone I would rather have a conversation with about my work in science fiction than him. So here is that conversation—or rather, a part of a conversation in progress. Earl and I have been having a conversation for many years about many things, and I hope it will continue for decades to come.

Earl Jackson, Jr: Many years ago, you told me something that has always stayed with me, about the desert. It might have come from your research for your hardboiled detective novel American Graveyards. You told me there were ancient plants in the desert with very complex root systems. The plants died, became extinct, but the tunnels where their roots formed a system remained, like a memory the desert held. I’m sure I’ve gotten details wrong here, and please correct me. But this came back to me reading both “A Rocket for Dimitrios” and “The Disintegration Loops.” It seems when Sylvia engages the loops she is attempting to read a system similar to the one you describe in the desert, except complicated with the affect-effects of memories. Could you speak to this?

Ray Nayler: I remember that conversation like it was yesterday. What I was referring to is the Mojave Desert creosote bush. The bush is not a single, continuous organism, but rather a clonal colony. The original stem crown splits and fragments over centuries into segments, genetically identical to the original, which produce new branches along their outer edge—like a tree trunk with the center rotted away and only the outer tissue producing branches. The oldest known plant among the creosote, nicknamed “King Clone,” may have started from a seed almost 12,000 years ago. Now it is a ring of living plant tissue about 50 feet in diameter, tapped into an extensive system of roots that are both its own, living roots and the pathways of its ancient roots carved out over millennia, which have since died.

But there is more to the story: in fact, when the seeds of the creosote initially grew, they sprouted in places where the root systems of Ice-Age trees had been. Those root systems led to deep water, and following them down into that soil made it easier to get to that moisture. So now, when you look at a creosote “forest” (it’s hard to use that term for something that would rarely be more than knee-high), you are looking not only at a series of creatures who may have begun their life cycles before the Mayan pyramids were built—you are also looking at a map of an even older forest, the forest which was there before the creosote came. That primeval forest’s root pathways still inform and nurture the present structure. It is, in a sense, a “ghost forest”—but it isn’t a ghost; it is a history. This scientific fact is fascinating in itself, but it is also a metaphor, to me, for how history “haunts” and shapes the present, which grows within the system that history long ago established. Even an extinct system influences the shape of the present system.

I think in some ways the key to science fiction (I mean science fiction as a subset of speculative fiction) is that it uses science both in its “factual” sense and in its metaphorical senses. The loops in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” function in this way. On the one hand, they are a technological concept, a “novum” which drives the story. On the other hand, they are a metaphor. As a metaphor, the loops address themes of memory, distortion, loss, and haunting.

“I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story.” -R.N.

EJ: Your work is far too complex and draws on far too many sources to be reduced to a single totalizing metaphor. But I think how you have operationalized the natural history of the creosote serves as a compelling transitional metaphor for your work. Not only does it resonate with both the neural systems visited in “Dimitrios”, the method you use regarding the creosote is very productive and I see it across your work. I’m trying to develop this as a question, but it keeps ending in admiration. But here’s one: you use science and biosemiotics to see the world both literally and metaphorically. Could you talk about the advantages of this dual perspective?

RN: I see writing as the building of complex rhetorical machines that change the way we see the world. A good piece of literature should alter the way we see our own world slightly, but forever. As a science fiction writer, I make machines for thinking about the world by demonstrating how it might be otherwise. My goal is to create a machine that offers a glimpse of a different world’s internal workings—the meshing of its gears, the pattern of its structure. That glimpse, I hope, will push the reader to ask questions about the machine of the world they live in, and its underlying structures.

I also don’t think the modernist line drawn between “science” and “philosophy” or “science” and the “humanities” is healthy or valid: like the scientific exploration of the creosote’s structure and the use of that structure as a metaphor for thinking about the world, I see science and philosophy and literature as firmly intertwined, and in fact, they are intertwined. The seed of science took root in an “enlightenment” system that continues to dictate, for better or worse, its shape. Science then informed, through its metaphors, other disciplines, including philosophy. Think of the way Darwin’s (much misinterpreted) scientific theories were rooted in capitalism but then also became a system in which other ideas took root: ideas of social structure, competition, efficiency, and adaptation that were borrowed by Darwin from capitalist, machine, and factory metaphors, and then became themselves “scientific” metaphors used to justify the worst excesses of industrial capitalism. Those “Darwinian” concepts still shape how we think about society today.

The Darwin instance—the metastasis of his ideas about natural selection into a justification for exploitation—is a good example of how misunderstanding and misusing scientific theories, as well as failing to see the flawed systems in which those ideas are rooted, can stunt our discourse. But the creosote example is, for me, an illustration of how nuanced scientific understanding of the world can encourage more complex ways of thinking, and how we can then use the richer metaphors of science as tools for examining our human condition.

EJ: I’m glad you brought up the misuse of Darwin for aggression. It is such a terrible misreading, and unfortunately dovetails with the modern misuse of Descartes. His human exceptionalism, rooted in Renaissance superstition, centered on a cogito rationalized, wanton cruelty against “soulless” non-humans, and a false separation of the mind and body, with the mind depicted as a rational, coherent entity unattached to the physical world. Ironically that Renaissance superstition was actually supported by visual technologies—geometric perspective in painting abetted the idea of a centered disembodied self behind the eyes enjoying mastery of what it sees. Fortunately work like yours de-centers and dispels that false, Cartesian idea of “self.”

Another question for you: When Sylvia goes into Dimitrios, she knows that he was raised a Greek speaker, who then functioned in Russian, German, and Turkish at least. Where did the expectation that she would understand him come from? Since Dimitrios understood the conversations he had, would that understanding in his neural net (if that’s the proper term) be directly transferred as an understood speech to Sylvia independent of the language that had actually been spoken?

RN: One of the mysteries of the loops has to do with inhabiting the neural connectivity that constitutes memory itself. This novella, and the story “The Disintegration Loops,” which is its prequel, are inspired by present-day research into the human connectome: the neural network, which is a massively complex forest (to pick up a metaphor from the first question) of neurons. Being able to map this connectome would provide us with a sort of “wiring diagram” for the human mind, and would be the key, of course, to any sort of “uploading” or “downloading” of human consciousness, as well as having an untold number of other uses. But the hypercomplexity of the human connectome is a major challenge.

The idea is that in the loops, Sylvia inhabits that connectome, and has access to what the dead person had access to—so she expects to understand what the polyglot Dimitrios understands, including languages he understands.

There is a catch here, however: the loops are an alien technology. They don’t function in a way Sylvia or anyone else really comprehends, and certainly not exactly as the human expectations of them suggest. As we see in the story, Dimitrios speaks to Sylvia directly—something a dead man should not be able to do. There is some volition in the network, and suggestions that the sense of Sylvia “inhabiting” the network is not—exactly—accurate. So yes, she should “understand what Dimitrios understands”—but Dimitrios may also be controlling what Sylvia understands, and “narrating” memories to her. In several scenes he is speaking to her directly—“haunting” the root systems of his own connectome.

The loops are also “sticky,” in the sense that they pick up parts of Sylvia’s own fears and memories, and that they “stick” to her consciousness and tangle her experiences with those of the person she is trying to “read.” The loops also deform and decay with each replaying, the way magnetic tape is, over time, distorted and eventually destroyed by playback. So, the system Sylvia is navigating is not only hypercomplex, it is also a system accessed via a technology nobody fully understands. For me, these uncertainties the loops generate are metaphors for uncertainty about the edges of identity, about the wholeness and boundaries of the self.

Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. -R.N.

EJ: Sylvia’s encounter and its consequences suggest so many productive re-visions of first engagement with the unconscious, such as Freudian countertransference and also the re-reading of the ancients on new terms—in other words, honest communion with the dead. I know that when you’re not writing, you set yourself marathon reading tasks. You read all of Shakespeare. Another time you read all of Tolstoi’s War and Peace in Russian. How do your reading projects relate to your writing?

RN: Writing, for me, is a form of listening. I know that sounds strange, as the act of writing seems more related to speech, but for me it is primarily about listening and reading. The goal of writing a good story for my readers provides me with a structure for my exploration of the world—a reason to listen, to attend more closely to what others have said and are saying. I see myself as a researcher whose primary task is to find out more about the world, and our existence on it, so that I can more richly communicate those discoveries to the reader and build them a better story. Writing gives me the excuse I need to engage in massive research undertakings like reading all of Shakespeare, or War and Peace in the original, and gives me a use for that activity—a place in which to put it. An end goal of creation.

But the fact is that I am the kind of person who wants to know everything I can about everything. I always have been. From the earliest age, I was exploring and finding out everything I could about the world—from insects to dinosaurs to Shakespeare’s plays to Buddhism to the ancient Greeks to octopuses to space. I have always followed threads: I was the kind of kid who opened a history book and saw the picture of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition at the South Pole, and then went to the library and found his entire polar journal and read it, thousands of pages, cover to cover. And then read Amundsen’s accounts, and then read about Erebus and Terror, and so on. I was the kind of kid who read a poem by Wilfred Owen in my literature textbook and then ended up studying World War I and the poetry of the trenches for years. I have always been a researcher, communing with the dead and the living, with the honest desire to understand. I want to know how, and why, and how it felt, and where it happened, and how those things fit together into the worlds that others lived in. Writing allows me to then use all of that energy for something productive, but it also just gives me an excuse to carry out the kinds of research projects I would be engaged in anyway.

EJ: Your active and roving curiosity energizes your prose; your prose is curiosity in action, while your curiosity as a general attitude toward the world is also a kind of ethics.

RN: I think curiosity is a kind of ethics, in fact. C.S. Peirce said it best: “In order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to think. There follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry.” I think “Do not block the way of inquiry” is a moral imperative. Inquiry is movement toward truth, no matter how far off that truth may be. Reactionary forces have always been, and always will be, blockers of the way of inquiry, who seek to stop the progress of thinking and lock us in an end-state, a state of error that suits their purposes.

EJ: I really admire the alternative history the story is set in. It’s as if you’ve distilled a ’40s nostalgia and superimposed it onto several decades into an accelerated future (thanks to the alien technology) but then turned around and made that a critical nostalgia. Could you talk about that decision and how it imagines domestic and global politics?

RN: There are so many alternate histories in which the Nazis won World War II, for one reason or another. When I was in high school, I loved The Man in the High Castle, a prime example of this genre. The “alternate history” subgenre of science fiction fascinates me, and that mid-century moment around World War II of massive destruction and societal change is also fascinating, as well as being a rich mine of “might-have-beens.”

One of the things I wanted to explore in “A Rocket for Dimitrios” is the idea of power. The question asked in “Rocket” is a reversal of the typical World War II alternate history. Instead of “What if the Nazis had won World War II,” I wanted to ask a more subtle question: “What would have happened if the United States, rather than winning World War II in the way that actually happened, and having to share global power with the Soviet Union, had won it completely, and ended up with the vast share of the world’s technological power (through happenstance, in this case) and become completely geopolitically dominant? What kind of world would that unilateral dominance have created? And what kind of influence would unilateral dominance following World War II have had on the nation, its leaders, and the international system?”

Another question I wanted to ask is something I have always thought about: At some point, people have lived in the “declining” period of an empire—the point at which the empire has passed its peak and has begun its decay. This point is identified retrospectively by historians, often with some (likely spurious) sense of exactitude. But would it have been possible for people living, say, in the declining period of the Roman Empire or the late Ottoman Empire, to have identified that the world they were living in had entered a state of collapse? How would they have known? And how would that knowledge inform their lives and behavior? Where are those “tipping points” and how would we see them from inside history? How can we know when a system has slid into corruption, and how long is a society able to sustain a myth of itself as the “good guys” when there has been a tilt toward authoritarianism?

I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. -R.N.

EJ: Your life in so many different countries and cultures certainly inform your worldview (if that’s a cogent term) beyond superficial “cosmopolitanism.” Could you give an example of an experience in one of the places you’ve lived that has affected your writing dramatically?

RN: At this point, I’ve spent nearly half my life outside of the United States. I’ve lived in Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Azerbaijan, and now Kosovo. I won’t generalize about any of these places, as I think there is an unhealthy tendency for Westerners in general to use the rest of the world, when they travel through it, as an “other space” in which they go out and learn things, and then bring those things back to the West like trinkets to display. But maybe part of my experience in Turkmenistan, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, can provide a good example of something I learned.

In Turkmenistan, I lived with a host family for several months. I have always been a person who enjoys spending time with people, but also needs to spend a good deal of time by myself—reading, processing my thoughts, just being alone. I had my own room in my host family; it was a rule of Peace Corps that volunteers have their own room. I was the only one in the family, in fact, who had my own bedroom; most of them just slept on a dushek, a traditional mattress, wherever they wanted to sleep that night. Quite often they rolled their dushek out in the common area, or if it was hot, outside on the tapjan, a low wooden platform in the courtyard.

Because I had my own room, I would retreat into it in the evening to read, after dinner. The days were long, full of language-learning and new experiences, so it felt good to get away for a bit. Inevitably, though, I would be there for only five minutes or so before there was a knock at the door. I would open the door, and there would be my host brother or sister, asking me if anything was wrong. Was I feeling well? Did I need anything? I would say no, and go back to reading. Five minutes later, a knock. The same questions. Was I all right? Did I feel ill?

Soon, I came to realize what the problem was: my host family never spent time alone. Their existence was entirely collective: they ate, worked, talked, watched television, read the paper, drank tea—always together. At night they didn’t lay their dushek down in a place where they could sleep in privacy: they laid it down next to someone else in the family and chatted until they fell asleep. They saw my retreat into my room and my shutting of the door as a sign of illness. To them, it was the behavior of someone who must be sad, or ill, or offended.

When I understood this, I had a sort of revelation. I realized that my behavior was sending out signals that I did not understand or intend. I had grown up in North America and I knew what my behavior signaled there, but here in Turkmenistan I realized that, if I wanted to communicate properly, I would have to alter my behavior. My host family wasn’t going to suddenly “understand” why I wanted to be in my room by myself. In their culture, this was the behavior of a person in distress. I was going to have to change the signals.

So I did: I started reading in the living room, near them, next to my host brother while he did his homework. And the other members of the family left us alone, and let us go about our tasks without interruption, content that we were with the group. I hadn’t found a “common language” with them—I had altered my own behavior. I had learned how to communicate properly within their system.

What did I learn from that experience? I learned that individualism, in the firmest Western sense, is a sham. We aren’t individuals; our ability to communicate is collective: it relies on a system of common traditions, values, and background knowledge underpinning all communication. We are totally embedded in that system. When we move to other systems, we must shift our own behaviors to adapt to those systems, if we want to be understood. Learning to communicate in another culture isn’t about “common ground” at all: it is an act of translation. It is seeing ourselves from another perspective, and shaping our signals to the grammar, vocabulary, and syntax of the new context. That sense of communication across cultural divides as an act of translation and of self-alteration has stayed with me ever since, and certainly informs my writing.

EJ: Absolutely (to everything you just said). Learning languages—especially non-Indo-European languages is really a complex of windows not only opening onto the world but traveling into them. And I love how you never characterize your facility with any of these languages as a “mastery”—in fact it’s just the opposite; you demonstrate a multi-plex humility through letting them inform your ways of being in the world.

Another question: Delany contends that science fiction is informed by a priority of the object, and that the subject is conditioned by the object or the object-world. The loops really are a rich and intricate demonstration of this premise. Could you talk about your conception of subjectivity that you illustrate in the story?

RN: I completely agree with Delany, and I would add to that idea: This is a story about how the subject is conditioned by the object world, in the Delanian sense: technology, and who possesses it, alters the historical facts of the world, and we look through that altered lens into a past that is both like ours and changed. But what I am also exploring is the way in which the individual is embedded in history, and how historical positionality conditions us: how our choices are shaped and limited by the opportunities and happenstances of the world-moment in which we live, and our position within that world-moment. I call it “the self in place-time,” playing on the Einsteinian concept of space-time. We inhabit, of course, a position in space-time, as physical beings, but that position in space-time becomes a “place” when it is suffused with human culture and ideology.

Space has a shape that is physical—there are “things” that really exist, both technological and natural, that do not go away when we stop believing in them, and these are the physical elements of the world. But there is also human culture, human political structure, human ideology, which turn “things” into “objects” and turn that “space” into a “place.” A good metaphor for this might be the difference (often uninterrogated) between a “house” and a “home.” A house is a physical structure consisting of materials and constructed in such a fashion as to provide for living. It is a space. A home, on the other hand, is that same space once it has accrued an identity as a “place” in which human beings are carrying out (and narrating) their lives.

Human beings who live in a house suffuse the materials of it with meaning and turn it into a “place.” But that place is also given meaning by its position within human-structured culture. A home in Berlin in 1939 is not the same as a home in Kansas in 1893, though they may be referred to by the same word. And neither one of those homes, even those same physical structures, unaltered, would be the same “home” today. Each place-time provides a different set of constraints and possibilities, and the people who live in them must function within those parameters. So it is with Dimitrios: he is a creature of the place-time that exists when he is thrown into it. How responsible is he for his actions? For the person he becomes? And how responsible are Alvin and Sylvia for their actions? To what extent are they “individuals,” and to what extent are they produced by the place-time in which they are embedded?

EJ: I think this distinction between space and place is very compelling. Could you expand on this?

RN: Okay. Philip K. Dick had a simple, elegant definition of reality which I love: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” I think this is a perfect definition, and it works on many levels: first of all there is the fact that things in the world exist, whether or not we perceive them: Mount Everest is there, in all its physicality, no matter what my set of beliefs is. Even if I did not know it was there, it would be real. It is real, as a thing, even in the absence of consciousness to perceive it. Everest exists in space-time. But there is another level here to reality: Human constructions. These are also reality. They are structures built up of ideology and traditions, structures, like the metaphor earlier of the creosote, seeded into the extinct systems of even older structures. These structures may not be physical, in the strictest sense, but they are real. They are actualities. They don’t go away even when we, as individuals, stop believing in them. They exist in place-time, the world created by the accretions of human culture. Charles Sanders Peirce puts it perfectly: “A court may issue injunctions and judgements against me and I care not a snap of my fingers for them, I may think them idle vapour. But when I feel the sheriff’s hand on my shoulder, I shall begin to have a sense of actuality.”

These actualities define place-time. I can cease to believe in the values of capitalism, but it remains the driving force of our present economic realities. I can fail to recognize that my host family in Turkmenistan cannot understand my actions, but that won’t make my actions intelligible to them. I can deny the importance of nation-states, but they will continue to exert influence on the fate of billions. I can claim that racism doesn’t exist in the United States, or that I am not a racist, but racism will still be a powerful, structuring force in our history and present society—a force that has shaped me and every other person who lives in that place-time. I cannot escape my position in place-time’s mesh. I am “of” the world in which I exist, though I can push against it.

So, what kind of freedom am I left with? I do not think the answer is “none,” but certainly the fantasy individuality of the Western subject is a Cartesian farce. Tolstoy demonstrated this in War and Peace more than a hundred and fifty years ago. He laid it out for us over more than a thousand pages, but we still haven’t absorbed the full measure of that novel and its message.

That is the central question of “A Rocket for Dimitrios.” What, as individuals trapped in the warped grid of place-time, can we do to make a difference? And it’s the question I ask myself every day. It is the question that drives me to keep writing.

EJ: I cannot add anything to that. One of my favorite phrases in English is “a conversation in progress”—this conversation shows just how vital that experience can be. Thank you.

RN: Thank you, Earl. I hope you know how vital your teaching has been to me, and how much you changed my life for the better. And I hope these conversations remain in progress for a long, long time.

Ray <raynayler.net> had his debut as a writer of science fiction in the pages of Asimov’s in 2015 with the story “Mutability.” Since then, his work has appeared in the magazine several times, as well as in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, F&SF, Nightmare, and is upcoming in Analog. His story “The Ocean Between the Leaves,” from the July/August 2019 issue of Asimov’s, was selected for the Year’s Best Science Fiction, Volume 5, edited by Neil Clarke. Ray has lived and worked abroad for almost two decades in Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus. He is a Foreign Service Officer and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. Ray is currently the Cultural Affairs Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo, where he lives with his wife, their one-year-old daughter and their two rescued street cats (one Tajik, one American). In the author’s latest story, Sylvia Aldstatt—first introduced to us in “The Disintegration Loops” (November/December 2019)—now finds death and terror in Istanbul.

Jewish Christmas is Science Fiction

by Sam Schreiber

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

I can relate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just look at the music.

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

But we could.

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

But it could.

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Lora Gray

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

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

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

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

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

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

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

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

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

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

AE: How did you break into writing?

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

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

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

AE: What are you reading right now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

LG: You can find me on my website, lora-gray.com, and on Twitter @LoraJGray.

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

The Next Great Disaster

by Julie Nováková

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The question is not if. It’s when.

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