Q&A with Tom Purdom

Tom Purdom returns to our pages and to a favored locale—an asteroid city—with his action-packed “We All Lose if They Take Mizuba” [on sale now]. Read on for his criticism of ray guns, thoughts on personality modification, and explanation of the powerful quotations employed in this new story.

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

TP: My last two stories in Asimov’s had been relatively low-key affairs dealing with subjects like marriage and job problems. I decided it was time I wrote an action story.

AE: How did this story come to be?

TP: I started with the general idea it would be an action story, and gradually developed ideas. Mostly I wanted to avoid off-the-shelf science fiction elements.

Ray guns are a good example of the kind of thing I tried to avoid. They’ve been a standard element in science fiction since the first SF magazines appeared on the stands. The advent of the laser in the 1960s gave the idea a new lease on life. But I’ve never been convinced they’re an inevitable successor to projectile weapons. What’s their energy source? How do you store the energy?

A gun is actually a very efficient way to transmit energy across a distance. A small amount of explosive propels a bullet that smacks its target with most of the energy it possessed when it left the muzzle. The energy source is compact and you can store it for long periods.

I decided to use lasers but they don’t burn their way through armor. They transmit information in the form of disruptive programs. They’re followed by very small missiles that carry programs that are even more destructive.

I don’t know if anything like that will ever be developed. But it sounds plausible. And it’s more interesting, to me, than one more story in which people kill each other with magic rays.

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

TP: I’ve written several stories set in asteroid cities, so I guess my asteroid stories fit into a common future. Years ago I might have set this story on the Moon. Today I tend to favor the asteroids.

My interplanetary stories assume robots, computers, and bioengineering will continue to advance. A group of twenty or thirty people, equipped with the machines and engineered life forms of the future, could turn an asteroid into a habitat, and profit from the real estate they’ve created. Will that ever happen? I think it’s a possible, completely believable future. Freeman Dyson visualized people living on comets and he was a certified world-class astrophysicist.

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

TP: I used a standard trick. I looked for a phrase in the story that might make a title.

I usually pick short titles like Legacies and Bank Run. This is the second time I’ve opted for a long title. They seem to be mildly fashionable these days. In this case, I felt it summed up one of the poignant aspects of the situation.

“To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them.”


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

This story revolves around two themes that run through a lot of my stories—personality modification and immortality. In the early 1960s, in my first decade as a selling writer, I decided the big advances of the future would be developments in psychology and medicine. Immortality and personality modification are interesting subjects because they would create profound transformations in humans and their societies.

Our personalities are heavily influenced by internal factors like our physiology and external factors like childhood experiences. As our knowledge of the process develops, we should increase our ability to modify it. I can’t predict that will happen, but it’s a great subject for fiction because it raises interesting possibilities. Well-drawn characters have believable motivations. But what if you could choose your motivations. What would you want to want?

Immortality is actually a logical impossibility. You won’t know you’ve lived forever until you’ve lived forever. I use the term loosely. My characters live in a world in which no one has to die. Many science fiction stories assume one-off treatments like an immortality pill. My stories assume the life span has been extended into an indefinite future because of the general advance of medicine. Anything that can happen to you can be cured or repaired, with the possible exception of extensive brain damage.

This means I’m writing about people who know they’re probably going to be alive a thousand years from now. But they’re also intensely aware they’re dependent on an advanced medical system and the civilization that supports it.

AE: How did you break into writing?

TP: I did it the old-fashioned way. I wrote lots of stories, collected lots of rejection slips, and eventually made my first sale. You could still do it that way in the 1950s because there were a lot of magazines that published science fiction and other kinds of fiction.

On my website, you’ll find ten chapters of a literary memoir called When I Was Writing. The first chapter contains a more detailed description of this process.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

TP: My first novel, a 1964 Ace Double called I Want the Stars, is being reprinted by Journey Press, the publishing arm of the Galactic Journey website. Galactic Journey reviews the magazines and books of fifty-five years ago, advancing through time year by year. Last year they got to 1964. The editor liked my book and decided to reprint it. Neither of us think it’s the greatest SF novel ever written, but it combines an action-adventure plot with an upbeat, highly personal view of the future.

I don’t know if that constitutes a project since I didn’t have to do much work. But I have consulted with the editor on matters like the cover art, and I will probably do some video appearances.

On my website, the seventh chapter of my literary memoir tells how I wrote and sold I Want the Stars.

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

For universes by other people, I would choose Ian Bank’s Culture series. But my first choice would be the future that underlies most of my stories. It’s a future in which every human being is far better off than they would be today, in the same way most of us are better off than the people who lived three hundred years ago. It’s not a Utopia. It has problems and conflicts. But it’s better.

I realize there are challenges. Global warming is the most obvious. But I’ve lived through the Second World War, the decades of the nuclear standoff, and massive disruptions in our economic life. I’ve also seen smallpox eradicated and polio defeated in much of the world. The story of the last three hundred years looks like a chart of the S&P 500. Up and down. Sometimes way down. But the long-term trend is up.

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

TP: “Where did you get the quotes in this story?”

I’ve been memorizing poetry since I was a teenager. I’ve taken it for granted all these years and never thought to mention it.

I memorized Patrick Henry’s entire speech when I was in the eighth grade and delivered it to my class. I can still recite the last few sentences. I came across the Frederick Douglass quote more recently and ended up reading a collection of his work that included the complete text of his first autobiography, selections from the second and third, and a good selection from his shorter pieces. It was a real treat. He’s one of the great figures in American history, American literature, and American journalism.

The Macaulay quote comes from his poem celebrating Horatius, the “captain of the gate,” who held a bridge across the Tiber in the days of the Roman Republic.

I encountered the last four lines in a magazine article when I was fifteen. The roll and thunder of it had so much force, for me, that I think it stuck in my head without any attempt to memorize it. Decades later, when I read William Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, I discovered it was Churchill’s favorite bit of poetry.

In 2011 I had a colon tumor removed. The operation went well. My primary care physician, Dr. Robert Rudenstein, spotted a symptom and prescribed a colonoscopy that caught the tumor early. The prep and waiting time for the operation went smoothly, but there was one moment when I found myself slipping emotionally. I was sitting in the little curtained off section where you take off your clothes and put on the hospital gown. I was left waiting, for some reason, for about half an hour. I was all alone. All the other curtained off sections were empty.

Then the Macaulay came into my head. I wasn’t facing fearful odds, and I wasn’t defending anything. But that touch of the old warrior spirit did the job. The moment of panic faded.

To me, that’s an example of one of the great truths about literature. Writers can never know what their words will mean to the people who read them. Macaulay couldn’t have known, when he wrote those lines in the middle of the nineteenth century, that a hundred and sixty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, a seventy-five year old American would receive a helpful bracing. Buck up, lad, says Captain Horatius. But he says it with style.

If you enter the Macaulay on Google, you’ll find some great videos that quote it, featuring stalwarts like Churchill and Dr. Who.

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

TP: I’m not on Facebook, but I have a website I keep up to date: www.philart.net/tompurdom. My literary memoir contains ten chapters tells how I wrote some of my stories and novels. James W. Harris has posted a multi-part series he calls The Tom Purdom Project (!). You can also look me up on Broad Street Review. Enter terms like science fiction, Ray Bradbury, and economic growth in the BSR Search box and you’ll find some essays on science fiction and related matters.

Tom Purdom started reading science fiction in 1950, when the science fiction genre was just emerging from its pulp magazine period. His first published story appeared in the August, 1957 issue of a magazine called Fantastic Universe. His stories have appeared in all the leading science fiction magazines and various anthologies. In the last thirty years, he’s written a string of short stories and novelettes that have mostly appeared in Asimov’s. Ian Strock’s Fantastic Books has published two collections of his Asimov’s stories, Lovers and Fighters, Starships and Dragons and Romance on Four Worlds, A Casanova Quartet.

The Secret Origin of Poem: Spaceknight

by Adam Ford

“Dog Day Afternoon,” [in our July/August issue, on sale now], is a poem from a suite of 79 poems that I wrote in 2016 in response to a series of comic books published by Marvel Comics back in the 1980s. The series in question was Rom Spaceknight. It ran from late 1979 until 1986. It told the story of a cyborg from the planet Galador who had come to Earth to uncover a hidden race of shape-changing aliens who were intent on taking over our planet as part of a centuries-old scheme for galactic conquest. 

The series was inspired by an electronic toy robot whose creators had commissioned Marvel Comics to write a comic about it, in the hopes that the publicity from the comic would translate into sales of the toy. As it turns out, the toy was spectacularly unsuccessful, disappearing from shelves within a year or so, but the comic went on to run for seven years, growing a dedicated fanbase whose love of and nostalgia for the comic would establish it as a cult classic with a legacy that would last long after the final issue was published. 

The series was written in its entirety by veteran comic book author Bill Mantlo, and largely illustrated by two veteran comic book artists—Sal Buscema and Steve Ditko—throughout its run. This continuity of art and writing is somewhat unusual for the world of comic book publishing at the time. Its resultant consistency of vision may be one of the things that makes the series stand out even after all these years. 

The story of Rom the Spaceknight borrows heavily from the tropes of science fiction B-movies, with elements in its early issues that map neatly onto source materials like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It also draws heavily upon tropes that were well-established at Marvel Comics by the late seventies, such as the hero vilified by the people they seek to protect, existential soul-searching about the personal cost of fantastic powers, and the comic’s protagonist frequently facing off against and/or pairing up with heroes and villains from other comic books published by the same company. 

As a child, I was a fan of Rom Spaceknight. Back in the 1980s, I was buying secondhand copies from the few secondhand bookstores that sold comics in my home town. Those issues went the way of many of my tattered comic books when I moved out of home, but years later, in my thirties, I stumbled across a pile of Rom comics in a dusty book shop in Sydney and my interest in the series was reignited. 

By the time of this discovery I had been enjoying retrospective articles about Rom Spaceknight that I had come across on the internet, reading along with various pundits’ reappraisals and re-readings. After re-reading my newfound Rom stash I was pleased to find that the series still read well, and allowed myself to kindle the flame of an idea about one day writing something on these comics: a series of reviews or maybe even a podcast.

By late 2015 I had finally turned my back on the novel that I had been struggling with for almost 10 years. In quitting that novel I allowed myself to return to my first love of writing, which was poetry. I dusted off a folder’s worth of poetry drafts and set myself the task of working up a manuscript to submit for an impending chapbook competition deadline. I found the process of working toward that deadline invigorating and inspiring. When it was over I thought about what other deadlines I might set myself in order to create new poetry, instead of simply editing and revising drafts. 

Soon after that, I found myself on holiday with my family, my entire stash of Rom comics tucked into my suitcase for a good old holiday re-read. As I read through the comics over that week or so, the desire to write something about what made them special bubbled up again and somehow got entangled with the desire to set myself a poetical task and deadline. This soon crystallized into a statement of intent.

Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each?  That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well. 

Okay, so one poem for each comic in the series. That was 75 monthly issues plus the four special editions that were released as “annuals” (despite the fact that the series had run for more than four years). It all came to a grand total of 79 poems. I just needed a deadline to work toward. 

I had been keeping up with the latest gossip that fans of Rom were sharing online (of course I had) and I knew that there were plans for the comic publisher IDW Comics to reboot the character and start publishing a new Rom comic series in July 2016, with a teaser issue to be released as part of the international Free Comic Book Day event on the first Saturday in May. 

It was mid-January. There were roughly three and a half months, or approximately 120 days, until Free Comic Book Day. If I wrote one of these comic-inspired poems every day for the next 79 days, they would be finished and ready for revising well before the teaser comic’s release date, and then I could piggyback the completion of the collection onto the comic’s release and maybe some of these poems might catch the eye of diehard Rom fans like myself. Even if I didn’t manage to write one poem a day, there was about 40 days’ slack in that deadline. That was plenty of time to catch up if I fell behind. 

To keep myself on track, I decided that I would announce the whole endeavor on my social media accounts, and publicly commit to publishing every poem online as soon as it was finished. The threat of public humiliation would help to spur me onward to completion any time that my passions were flagging. 

It sounded like the most preposterous, arbitrary and foolhardy way to approach writing a poetry collection. If I pulled it off, though, I would have a 79-poem body of work about the angst and whimsy of the life of a comic book cyborg. I loved it. I told my wife, herself a writer, what I was planning. Naturally, the first question she asked was, “Why?” All I could tell her by way of justification was that the idea of creating my very own folly out of science fiction poetry was exciting.

I started work on the afternoon of my decision. I re-read issue #1 (“Arrival!”) and then began scratching out a poem in response, using a red pen and the spiral-bound notebook in which I had been composing my daily to-do lists. I used the title of each comic as the title of each poem, noting over the next few months how many times these titles attempted to confer import with the use of either a faux-literary tone of voice, a garbled quote, an exclamation mark, or all three. I had never written a poem with an exclamation mark in the title before. I liked it. 

I set up a website to house each poem as I wrote it. I used my social media accounts to announce my intentions, document my process and link to each poem as I uploaded it. I soon drew the attention of a number of fellow Rom fans, including the writer and publisher of the forthcoming new Rom reboot comic series. I snagged a couple of mentions and one feature interview on a few comic book podcasts. I got written up on a comic news website. I dedicated a number of the poems to the people who were helping to spread the word and cheering me on.


“Why not write some poems about these comics? I thought. Why not write one poem in response to each?  That might be fun. I had been writing more and more speculative poetry of late—a series of poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg would match that style of poetry well.”


Every day I would carry an issue of the next comic in the series with me and try to find a snatch of time to read it. Every night, after coming home from work, feeding the kids and putting them to bed, I would try to sit down for an hour or so and bash out something resembling a poem that touched on scenes or themes from that comic. Some nights it would be too hard to find the time or energy, which meant that the next night I would need to write two poems, or sometimes even three, to stay ahead of the impending deadline. 

I got good at bashing out something, anything, that might be poemlike enough to get me over the line, reasoning that this was the writing stage, and the editing stage would come later. I played with forms to keep myself interested and engaged. I wrote in fixed meter and free verse. I found that I could write a villanelle reasonably quickly once I’d established the repeating refrains, and that the repetition of the form was a good mimesis of the repetition of the fight scenes in superhero comics. I felt like I was gaining some insight into what it might be like to write a new story every month for six years, just as Bill Mantlo had done when creating these comics in the first place.

I wrote a monorhyme out of desperation one night and discovered that the form’s repetition was more evocative and functional than I had anticipated. I wrote a poem based on the instruction manual from a 1970s Xerox machine that I found online in a database of vintage copier manuals. I stole in its entirety the rhythmic structure—verse, chorus and middle eight—of a pop song that had been earworming around in my head the week prior. I did everything I could to keep the poems coming, diligently uploading them while the ink was still drying on the final stanza and announcing to anyone who cared to listen that I was one poem closer to completion.

Eventually I did manage to write 79 poems, although I didn’t get them done in time for Free Comic Book Day. To be honest I hadn’t been expecting to. In the back of my mind there was always the secondary deadline of the July release of the first issue of the new Rom comic from IDW, which I did managed to achieve with some time to spare. According to my drafts folder, the 79th poem in the series, written in response to issue #75’s aptly titled “The End,” was created on 14 June 2016, 155 days after “Arrival”’s timestamp of 13 January 2016. That works out to one poem every 1.962 days, or thereabouts. 

Since then I have been reworking these poems, pleased to have a substantial body of work to play with. Some of the poems were pretty good, if I do say so myself, just needing a tweak here or there. Others have required more substantial revision, and still others I have abandoned as unsalvageable. In October 2016 I assembled my 10 favorite poems into a limited-edition chapbook and hosted a launch at a comic shop in Melbourne, reading all 10 in front of an artist’s easel on which were perched enlarged reproductions of the covers of the comics under poetic consideration. 

Quite a few of these poems have seen publication in journals of both speculative and non-speculative poetry, including Going Down Swinging, FreezeRay Poetry, Strange Horizons, Star*Line and the pages of Asimov’s as well (hence this blog). I have also had the pleasure of recording “Arrival” for an online collection of Australian poetry performances, and of seeing another poem from this suite illustrated by the very talented illustrator Bren Luke. I was even able to use the payment from one of these publications to buy my very own little Rom action figure.

Each of these things has been extremely gratifying. It is always encouraging to find other people who like what you are doing artistically, especially when it feels as perversely idiosyncratic as this endeavor has often felt to me. 

Most recently I have edited a selection of these poems into a 33-poem chapbook that I am currently seeking a publisher for. I have entered it into a chapbook competition that I am waiting to hear about, and am making plans to seek out other publishers if this particular one doesn’t end up being my cyborg poems’ final destination.

In the meantime I am trying to apply the lessons I learned from this project to new writing and new poems. I hope that I have found an approach to writing poetry that can help me to regularly produce a decent volume of work, however rough and ready, on a particular theme, which can then become the basis of something more substantial and well-crafted. 

I know it’s cheesy to tell people to follow their bliss, but if you have something bubbling up inside you that feels as irrelevant and self-indulgent as a pseudo-verse-novel suite of ekphrastic poems about the interior life of a comic book cyborg, and you can’t stop thinking about it, I say just write it and see what happens.


Q&A with Richard Schiffman

An environmental journalist when he isn’t a poet, Richard Schiffman views science fiction poetry as “another flavor of nature poetry.” Below, he discusses this confluence of genres, the word “ecstasy,” and the specific pleasures he finds in poetry-writing and in SF. “Planets,” which draws on the boundless optimism of the Space Age, is his third poem to grace Asimov’s pages [in our July/August issue, on sale now].

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

RS: They call people in my generation “Baby Boomers,” but we might just as well be called “Space Agers,” because we grew up when human beings were leaving the home planet for the first time. It was a hopeful and expansive time that young people today may find difficult to imagine. In rereading over this poem, I realize that it is about that sense of optimism and of breaking free of limits, entering a future that was incredibly exciting and full of previously undreamt possibilities.

AE: What is your history with Asimov’s?

RS: This is the third poem of mine to appear in Asimov’s Science Fiction. Science fiction poetry encourages my imagination to soar in ways that more earthbound themes do not always allow for. For me, it is another flavor of nature poetry, but nature on a cosmic scale. We are parts of something vastly bigger than ourselves. It is both humbling and incredibly inspiring to contemplate our place in the larger scheme of things. That is the great gift of science fiction, to put us in touch with this awareness of something incomprehensibly greater.

AE: What inspired you to start writing? How much or little do current events impact your writing?

RS: I am an environmental journalist who writes about science for the NY Times and other publications. I love doing reporting and feel that a lot of creativity goes into a well-told news story. But when I really want to sing with words, I turn to poetry. Reading it and writing it can put me into an ecstatic state. When I was a kid, I loved the word “ecstasy” and knew that it was something that I wanted to share with others.

AE: What is your process?

RS: Walking and being outdoors in nature helps to get my creative juices flowing. Sometimes I’ll take notes—images, phrases, metaphors—that I later weave into a poem. More rarely, the poem just writes itself full-blown from start to finish, but usually it involves a lot of revising and editing. The final version may end up completely different from what I had in mind at the beginning.

“Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.”


AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

RS: I don’t often get writers’ block. But it can take a while to get into the mood and actually start writing a poem. Having said that, however, not every poem that I write is necessarily a keeper. A thin little poetry book can take years to produce, not because it takes a long time to write the words down, but because it takes a long time to figure out what you really want to say and then to actually say it in the most eloquent fashion. So much of the pleasure of poetry for me is getting the words just right. That can take time. I love the revision process as much as writing the first draft. I can work on a poem over a year or longer before it arrives at its final form.

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

RS: What I have always loved about science fiction is that it allows us to re-envision our life on earth—by imagining how other advanced civilizations have dealt with the issues that we ourselves are facing. Any civilization that has survived through the technological phase of its development without destroying itself or its home planet must have evolved morally and ethically to a high degree. So ideally science fiction can give us some hints about how they pulled that off.

AE: What kind of SF do you like?

RS: I’m not interested in writing that simply transposes our wars, ecological disasters, and social divisions out onto a larger cosmic stage. That’s boring. Science fiction should be a visionary and spiritual literature that helps us to think about how we can outgrow these lethal habits and become more truly universal, tolerant and cosmically intelligent. If it is not offering a vision of a better world, I have no use for it.

Do I think that such advanced spiritual civilizations actually exist? Yes, absolutely, they exist—and as soon as we humans get our collective act together and begin to rise above our provincialism, our aggressiveness, and our speciesist prejudices, we will get incontrovertible proof of this. I had dinner with moon astronaut Edgar Mitchell some years ago, and he said very much the same thing. Other galactic civilizations won’t fully reveal themselves until we are mature enough to merit that contact. But for those who are paying attention, the signs of their presence are already there. . . .

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

RS: My journalism: https://richschiff.contently.com

My poetry: https://www.salmonpoetry.com/details.php?ID=414&a=296

Twitter handle: @Schiffman108

Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist, poet and author of two biographies. His work has appeared in numerous literary journals and other venues including the New York Times, BBC Radio, Writer’s Almanac, This American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily, and many other publications. His poetry collection What the Dust Doesn’t Know was published last year by Salmon Poetry.

Q&A with Ted Kosmatka

Born from toy robots, fairy tale language, and a somewhat erratic writing process, Ted Kosmatka’s newest story, “The Beast Adjoins” [on sale now] taps into the universal emotions of the parent-child dynamic. Below, he digs further into the tale’s genesis, his varied career history, and a work of SF that’s recently gripped him.

Asimov Editor:  What is the story behind this piece?

TK:  I can probably thank my eleven-year-old son for sparking this story.  He’s a great builder of toy robots and spends a lot of his time creating these elaborate, complex figures out of plastic building sets, and they fold up in interesting ways, and have all kinds of strange body plans and moving parts.  One day he was showing me what he’d built, and it was just great, this robot with all these arms and legs, and a little swiveling rib cage that opened up and had another robot inside.  He asked me if I’d written any robot stories.  I hadn’t, really.  So I decided to write one.   

I didn’t really have an idea beyond that at first, just an intention to write something about robots, at some point, but sometimes if you open yourself up to a subject, the story will just kind of unfold for you later when you’re not really thinking about it, and that’s what happened in this case.  Later I got to thinking about consciousness, and the ways observation impacts quantum mechanics, and I realized that those things might have an interesting intersection with the idea of AI, so I started noodling on a beginning to see if it took me anywhere.  I think I originally wanted the story to have a timeless feel to the language, which would maybe make it feel a bit like a Grimm’s fairy tale.  The story went in its own weird direction once I started, and it didn’t end up anything like a fairy tale at all, really, which just shows that I’m either horrible at doing what I intend to do, or that stories have a mind of their own. 

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

TK:  This story is a stand-alone, though now that I’ve written it, I can imagine other stories could spin off from here.  It might be the kind of thing I return to again.  I’m just finishing up a new story that’s actually in the same universe as a story I wrote ten years ago, so you never know. 

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

TK:  I can usually relate to all the characters in a story at least a little, or I have trouble writing them.  There are certain universals that are good to tap into.  As a parent you have a burning fire inside you to protect your children, no matter what.  And as a child, you have this desire to believe that things will be okay no matter how scary they seem.  Both those conditions are things I can relate to, and they provided a kind of pivot for the story to circle.

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

TK:  Titles are tricky.  This one came to me pretty quick, before I’d even finished the first page, which was a nice relief.  There’s nothing worse than finishing a story and not having any idea what to call it.  In this case, the odd word combo just popped into my head as I was writing, and I thought it might make a good handle for the story.  When I told people the name, they didn’t hate it, so that was that.  It’s nice when a title has an interesting juxtaposition of words. 

“I think you just kind of stumble upon your recurrent themes when you write.  I never intend to aim at certain themes, but when you stack all your stories next to each other, there they are staring back at you.  And then you’re like, oh, that’s what I write about, I guess.  The patterns pop out.  I try not to dig into the reasons too much or I might accidentally change something.” 


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

TK:  I read a lot of Asimov’s robots when I was a kid, so sending a robot story to Asimov’s felt pretty cool.  Like coming full circle.     

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

TK:  I think you just kind of stumble upon your recurrent themes when you write.  I never intend to aim at certain themes, but when you stack all your stories next to each other, there they are staring back at you.  And then you’re like, oh, that’s what I write about, I guess.  The patterns pop out.  I try not to dig into the reasons too much or I might accidentally change something. 

AE:  What is your process?

TK:  Whatever the most efficient way to write is, I’m sure I’m not doing it.  I’m pretty ADD and tend to jump around a lot, and work on multiple projects at the same time, switching between novels and short stories.  At some point, I usually find myself staring at the screen, down the home stretch, and I think to myself that I’m finishing the project before I get up from the chair, no matter what.  It’s like a vow.  So then I switch from being pretty scattered to having this almost pathological focus.  That often means that I end up writing all night, at a twelve-hour stretch, and send stuff off as a submission at seven a.m. 

AE:  What other projects are you currently working on?

TK:  On the fiction side of things, I have a finished novel in the hopper now which I’m trying to figure out what to do with.  It’s a far-future post-apocalypse that I spent a couple of years writing. I’m also writing for a video game that I’m really excited about. 

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

TK:  This week, my answer would be that Mars show on Netflix.  I’ve been binge watching that thing, and I’m practically overcome with grief that I was born too soon to get the chance to be a part of something like that in real life.  I love the way they mix real science with the fictional aspects of that SFnal universe.  It’s a tough balance to strike, but they really pulled it off.

AE:  What SFnal predictions do you find yourself thinking about for the future?

TK:  SFnal predictions are tough and I have a tendency to think about the negative. The one bright prediction I’d make, though, is that I think we’ll get out into space in a big way before too much longer. So that’s one positive thing. I’m just young enough that nobody has stepped on the Moon during my entire life, and I’d love to see that change.  I’m also interested in how solar power advances might free us up from the grid.

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

TK:   I’ve done a lot of different jobs over the years, starting with a paper route at age ten.  I detassled corn in high school, and painted houses.  I washed dishes at a truck stop, and shoveled manure in a zoo.  I’ve been a steel worker in the Indiana mills—a job I did for years—and then a lab tech at a research lab, and most recently, a video game writer in Seattle.   All these different jobs have had an effect on me, I’m sure, though it’s hard to say what, exactly.  Work is how I tend to understand the world, so it helps me center my stories, I think, if I know the kind of work that’s being done by the characters.  In some stories, that work might just be survival.  But that still counts.  It’s always job number one.

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

TK:  If folks would like, they can check out my website at https://tedkosmatka.us/.

I have links there to a couple of novels available, if anyone wants to try my longer fiction.

Ted Kosmatka’s most recent story, “Sacrificial Iron,” was a winner of Asimov’s 34th Annual Readers Award. The author returns to our pages with another story set in deep space.

The End of the World and We Knew It

Below, Peter Wood answers the question, “What makes an apocalypse story worth following to the ends of the Earth?” Throughout are many examples you might want to add to your reading list, but first—be sure to check out Peter’s story, “Why I’ll Never Get Tenure,” in our July/August issue [on sale now]!

by Peter Wood

Growing up, nobody liked science fiction in my house except me. My parents had exactly one science fiction book. Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957). I read it in high school and, to this day, still think it’s the best book about the apocalypse ever written.

With a shout out to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Douglas Adams classic (1979).

Both have the world ending in fairly believable fashions.

What makes a great end of the world story? No preaching. Great characters. A plausible enough premise. And a plot that doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.

No idiot plot, in other words. There are a lot of great examples and I can’t possibly begin to name them all. I’ll focus on a few.

In On the Beach, a nuclear war has wiped out the Northern Hemisphere, and radioactive winds will soon eradicate everywhere else. The residents of a small Australia town have, at most, months left. Full-fledged characters make the nightmare scenario all too real. And Shute doesn’t resort to preaching. The scene where a nuclear sub discovers that radio transmissions from North America have been caused by a soda bottle caught in a set of blinds, not survivors, speaks volumes and is a real kick in the teeth.

The movie version (1959) stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Fred Astaire and is rightfully considered a classic. Although snubbed by the Oscars, it is worth viewing still. Just read the book first.

Then there’s Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank (1959). A limited nuclear war cuts off a small Florida town from the rest of the world. Frank, though, presents the day after the holocaust as a rollicking adventure. Yeah, it’s not all peaches and cream, but Frank’s characters seem to welcome the apocalypse. They can finally achieve their potential, unfettered by civilization’s restraints.

I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies.


The oddest take on nuclear Armageddon has to be Robert Heinlein’s Farmham’s Freehold. (1955). The bomb shelter holding tough guy Farmham and his long suffering family gets shot hundreds of years into the future somehow by the force of the exploding nuclear bombs. Don’t ask. He discovers, to his horror, that Black people now run the planet, thanks to the atomic war that largely left Africa alone. Never mind that the new ruling class has apparently had peace for dozens of generations; Farmham wants WASPs running the joint. He finds a way to travel back to the past where his goal isn’t to prevent the nuclear war. He can live with that. He just doesn’t want those uppity Africans in charge. A very racist book that has not aged well.

A plague is also a good cause for the apocalypse. Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague (1912), George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1959), and The Stand (1978) by Stephen King are well known examples.

King’s novel might be my favorite of the plague subgenre. A fatal miscue at a military lab releases a deadly virus that kills over 99% of humanity. What’s not to like? Great characters, a slam dunk premise, and an epic battle between the massed forces of good and evil. And King avoids my least favorite trope of the fictional apocalypse. The characters neither devolve into savagery nor turn on each other. They work together and act pretty damned sensibly in trying to keep civilization afloat.

Aside from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), I can’t really think of many examples of this trope that works. Ray Bradbury pulls it off in The Smile. Maybe the Mad Max franchise. Revolution (2012-2014), the abysmal science fiction series, would have us believe that everything would collapse and warring bands would take over just because the power stopped working. Uh huh.

The Scarlet Plague has people just lose interest in reading and learning for no apparent reason. Same with Earth Abides. Neither book justifies why people would do that except to imply that somehow it’s inevitable. This begs the question of how civilization and modern technology ever developed in the first place.

Carmac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) pulls it off. I buy his savages making life unpleasant for everything for three reasons. One, the prose is perfect. Two, the story is kinda allegory and doesn’t need to be taken seriously. And, three, he, like King, balances out the bad guys with good guys who are just trying to raise their families and keep the fires of civilization going.

Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John tells several simultaneous narratives covering from the start of the plague to the survivors trying to cope. She presents a world where people don’t turn on each other just for the hell of it. Aside from a religious cult that rocks the boat, everybody tries to get along. And to her credit, St. John presents the religious zealots as fully developed, sometimes sympathetic, characters with back stories. Imagine that.

I’ll accept almost any premise for an apocalyptic tale. Virus. War. Alien invasion. I draw the line at zombies, though. I don’t understand the obsession with zombies. A world where dead bodies can survive indefinitely without breathing or food makes about as much sense as cars tooling up and down the highways without engines or fuel.

I guess it’s unfair of me to pick on zombies when the science in most of my stories is balderdash. And Phillip Dick’s 1953 apocalyptic novella, Second Variety, has a preposterous plot when you think about it, but it’s such a masterpiece of Cold War paranoia that I don’t care.

I like the take of the film 28 days Later (2002), where survivors aren’t dealing with zombies. They’re fighting infected people who are very much alive, but act like zombies. There’s plenty of idiot plot to go around, but the film at least tries to present a plausible science.

My favorite zombie story is I am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson. The last man of Earth deals with plague victims who have mutated into zombie-like creatures. But they’re not caricatures. They can think and don’t have that Space Invaders death wish of many movie and literary monsters. The hero behaves in a very logical way and, although not an educated man, he painstakingly tries to understand the science of these new humans. Don’t waste your time with the movies by the way. All three versions stupidly ignore the plot of the novella. The Vincent Price version, The Last Man on Earth (1964), comes closest, but the book is still far superior. Charlton Heston at least makes The Omega Man (1971) fun. I am Legend (2007), the Will Smith version, is just insulting, with an ending that undermines the entire movie.

The characters in the novella I am Legend, even the zombies, act like people. They have backstories, flaws, and an inherent logic that made me want to keep reading. I guess that’s what it boils down to. Give me good solid characters and I’ll follow a story anywhere. Even to the end of the world.

Peter Wood is a lawyer in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with his very patient wife. He points out Frying Pan Tower is real and is actually a bed and breakfast. He’s glad he works in the relatively calm field of criminal defense and not cutthroat academia. Some days it just doesn’t pay for a college professor to get out of bed. When Murphy’s Law kicks in, any professor will throw up her hands and admit “Why I’ll Never Get Tenure.”

Q&A with Deborah L. Davitt

Deborah L. Davitt’s poem “Vintage Years” [in our July/August issue, available now], pairs regional differences between grapes with trigonometry, like a good red wine paired with—not dinner, but time. Below, Deborah talks with us about poetic form, choosing between the words “rhyme” and “rime,” the importance of contrast, and the contents of her bookshelf.

Asimov’s Editor: How did this poem come to you?

DLD: This piece is a triolet, a short, rhymed French form that I oddly find myself fond of. When you’re writing form poetry, I like to say that form is your coauthor. You have to be flexible, and you might not get quite to the place you thought you were going, but you might wind up someplace you needed to be. (Yes. Form poetry is Zen navigation, as in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.)

In this case, I started by outlining the form, and came up with the first line: “Rolling it on the tongue like red wine” and then I outlined the remaining lines with their rhyme scheme and some placeholder words that would fit that rhyme scheme.

And then I unfocused my mind a bit and started looking for what would work in the space I had. I knew I wanted to write about time—it’s a common theme for my work, whether it’s history, futurism, or how time’s passage shifts and shapes us. And once I had the wine metaphor, I figured I had to hit the kinds of things that wine-drinkers look for. Color. Taste. Mouth-feel.

I was particularly pleased when I was able to put a word like terroir (the notion that you can taste the environmental difference between grapes grown in one region, as compared to another) in the same line as sine (a mathematical concept that has to do with graphing trigonometry, in an endless pattern of waves), because contrast is one of the biggest tools in my writing toolkit, and I will use it mercilessly when I have the opportunity.

Triolets demand repetition as part of their structure; the first line repeats three times, the second twice, so you have to make them as vivid as possible, and take the opportunity to go for a major turn or shift of imagery in the second stanza.

In this case, I had the word rime as a placeholder at the end of the second stanza, and also rhyme. If I’d aimed for rhyme, the poem could have become a poem about poetry itself, and I considered that briefly, but if I’m going to go meta, I’d prefer to make the whole piece meta. So I focused on rime, an older term for ice. And still thinking about the concept of ingesting time, appreciating it like some exotic cocktail, I hit on rolling it on the palate tinged with entropy. Again, I like throwing old words up against newer ones, the fantastic paired with the scientific.

Because contrast is important. Pairing concepts for new synthesis is important. It opens the mind up, at least a little, to new ideas. Also, it’s fun, which a triolet really needs to be.

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

DLD: Poetry titles usually come after the writing is done. In this case, it was a fun little pun on the notion of a vintage wine, and on the concept of vintage years/clothing, etc., coupled up with the extended metaphor of time as something we drink or consume or appreciate. It seemed to fit!

“Again, I like throwing old words up against newer ones, the fantastic paired with the scientific. Because contrast is important. Pairing concepts for new synthesis is important. It opens the mind up, at least a little, to new ideas.”


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

DLD: As I mentioned earlier, time is definitely a concept I return to again and again. I have a deep love of history and mythology, as well as science and futurism. For me, time is all one piece, and I long ago took to heart the notion that “people who don’t learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.”

So, for example, in my first full-length poetry collection, The Gates of Never, you’ll find poems that focus on mythology and history through the first sections, re-interpretations of fairy tales through a modern lens . . . and then at the end, as we move into the future, we take a tour of planets and moons of our solar system, looking at them both as we know them through science, and contrasting their reality with their mythological names. I was bold enough to tag Alan Stern of the New Horizons project with a couple of my Pluto poems, and he liked them enough to retweet them. So there’s that, heh.

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

DLD: I read science news with great regularity, and take direct inspiration from new discoveries. I find political news and the comments section thereof to be mind-boggling frustrating, and frustration isn’t the best place for me to work from.

I can and I have taken inspiration from other writers, particularly conclusions that I have found objectionable, and I totally can and have written stories as responses/reactions to them. I mean, I have been having a long-form argument with Boethius’ concept that “free will is totally compatible with pre-destination, honest” for . . . decades? But current events are a thing I actively try to avoid including in my work, on the theory that other people will find it as annoying as I do when I read a story in which someone is clearly taking up for a current political cause.

My general feeling is that I don’t want anyone to preach at me—not their politics and not their religion. I should do others the same courtesy that I want extended to me, shouldn’t I?

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

DLD: I have two other poetry collections and a chapbook out making the publishers’ rounds. I have a bunch of other prose works in progress, but with my son home every day for the foreseeable future due to coronavirus issues, that’s a major stumbling block for my productivity.

That being said, if anyone wants to read my poetry, short stories, novellas, or even my Edda-Earth novels, I have an extensive back catalogue of works, many of which are free to read. Check out www.edda-earth.com/bibliography.

AE: What are you reading right now?

DLD: Oddly, I mostly read nonfiction these days. Articles on archaeology, Bronze and Iron Age history, development of biological robots, advances in technology, you name it, I’ll read it. I have an entire shelf of Terry Pratchett Discworld books that are my comfort food reading; Jim Butcher is a newer favorite I’ve stumbled onto.

Sitting on my coffee table, waiting to be read since I asked for them for Christmas? Horse Soldiers, Spillover (David Quammen on the “next human pandemic,” hah), and Johannes Cabal, the Detective. Goodness only knows when I will shake loose time to read them, but that’s kind of the way all my reading goes. My tastes are wide, varied, and yet also, I’m incredibly picky. A piece can’t have logic holes or I fall right out of the story. It can’t have historical inaccuracies or inconsistencies, or I’ll sit there tearing it apart.

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

DLD: Coin toss between Babylon 5’s, if I could jump forward in time to do so, or Stargate SG-1’s, if I’m limited to current-day. Both are essentially hopeful places, where intelligent people actually make the world better by being in it. And while they’ve encountered terrible risks to the planet along the way, they learn and grow and improve themselves. Even people who were once enemies have a shot at redemption in it.

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

DLD: Elimination of most diseases and senescence. Of course, we’d need commensurate population control and room on other planets to make that work, so . . . almost every positive SF prediction, heh.

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

DLD: I’ve taught technical writing and rhetoric at the college level; I also spent seventeen years as a technical writer for projects ranging from nuclear submarines to the ISS, and then for a major computer manufacturer. Those experiences taught me to prize clarity above all else in my writing—and when I first started writhing a fairly well-received fan fiction back in the day, the sheer raw number of questions I got from readers (literally thousands of emails) taught me again that my job is to convey my thoughts as clearly as possible.

I can’t stop readers from reading into a piece something that they brought with them, out of their own experiences. But I can clearly delineate my world and the thoughts of my characters, so that there are fewer barriers to communication.

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

DLD: There’s my website, www.edda-earth.com. I’m also on Facebook, as Deborah Davitt (deborah.davitt.3) and, more rarely, on Twitter as @DavittDL.

Deborah L. Davitt was born at an Army hospital in Washington state, but spent the first twenty-two years of her life in Reno, Nevada. She graduated first in her class from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 1997, and took her BA in English Literature with a strong focus on medieval and Renaissance literature. In 1999, she received an MA in English from Penn State. Since then, she has taught composition, rhetoric, and technical writing, and created technical documentation on topics ranging from nuclear submarines to NASA’s return to flight to computer hardware and software. Her poetry has garnered her Pushcart and Rhysling nominations, and has appeared in over fifty journals; her short fiction has earned a finalist showing for the Jim Baen Adventure Fantasy Award (2018) and has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show,  Compelling Science Fiction, Galaxy’s Edge, and  Pseudopod. Her critically-acclaimed Edda-Earth novels are available through Amazon. She’s also known for the well-received, 3.5 million word fanfic called Spirit of Redemption that exposed her to a global audience. In 2019, her first full-length poetry collection, The Gates of Never, became available from Finishing Line Press. She currently lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and son.

Marbles, Runs, and Modules

by Sean Monaghan

I have always been fascinated by marble runs. By the way that gravity draws a marble down the channels and through the holes. Interesting enough to watch a single marble career down, and even more fun to have a little train of them clattering and spinning.

I vaguely recall that as a child, I played with some toys that would have been a set of interlinking pieces that I could use to create a huge variety of pathways for the marbles to follow. Plastic pipes and half-tubes.

As with many toys, however, there were limits. The set I would have used may have had thirty pieces, and I would have had to have lifted the marbles to the starting point. I suspect it was one of those toys that fascinated me for a few weekends and was forgotten, to be eventually consigned to the Toy Library or thrift store.

Over time, these toys have become more sophisticated. Dozens upon dozens of channels. Switches that force the marbles into different paths. Conveyors that lift the marbles back to the start, saving poor lazy children the effort of doing the work themselves.

Flick a switch and off you go.

And now, with the rise over the last few years of the “Maker Movement” (which I find amusing—it feels like a resurgence . . . as many “makers” will point out, we used to have to make all our own stuff), marble runs have become more sophisticated and entertaining. Some occupy huge rooms. Some deliver hundreds of marbles into a wide track, allowing them to bump and collide before racing through bottlenecks and dropping into other sections. Some activate flags and the like, almost like Rube-Goldberg machines.

And now, with the rise over the last few years of the “Maker Movement” (which I find amusing—it feels like a resurgence . . . as many “makers” will point out, we used to have to make all our own stuff), marble runs have become more sophisticated and entertaining.

I was fortunate enough some years ago to see Chris Burden’s sculpture “Metropolis II” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which, similar to a marble run, has objects drawn by gravity over a complex track. Rather than marbles, Burden’s work has over a thousand toy cars. They race around a freeway-style track, taking corners at reckless speeds.

The complexity of that work is such that it requires an operator to run (to keep an eye out for jams and so on).

The work is mesmerizing. The movement, the sound, the shapes—twisting and turning—draw the viewer in. I could have watched it for hours. An appointment drew me away, which was perhaps fortunate, or I might be standing there still.

But these things linger.

So to the story, “Marbles” [on sale now]. I have written several stories set in the art worlds of Shilinka Switalla—two of which have appeared in the pages of Asimov’s: “Crimson Birds of Small Miracles” (January/February 2017) and “Ventiforms” (January/February 2019). Miss Switalla creates artworks on a massive scale, and this time around, I kind of really let the kid in me out to play by having the artwork be a marble run larger than anything we could build today (at least to my knowledge).

As with many of my stories, it veered off into its own territory, but the twists and turns and bumps and clatters of a marble run stay with the story throughout.

As an aside, another of my fascinations (and now my expensive hobby) is modular synthesizers.

These electronic musical instruments are composed of modules. Rather than purchasing a large synthesizer with all the buttons and knobs, the user can pick and choose the functions they want. Oscillators and filters and sequencers and so on. These are patched together into a unit that looks like something straight out of a sci-fi mad scientist’s lab. And make sounds that would fit right into Dr. Who and the like.

The modules themselves have wonderful names. Things like “Yep” or “Popcorn” or “Tides.” Yes, you guessed it, one of the most highly-regarded modules is called “Marbles.” It does amuse me to pinch my titles from odd sources.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy “Marbles.”

Stories by Sean Monaghan <www.seanmonaghan.com> have appeared in Analog, Amazing Stories, and at Baen.com, among other venues. Sean lives in provincial New Zealand, which is really just a base for his frequent travels.

The Future of Dating

by Will McIntosh


I love a good romantic comedy. Most of the films I tend to watch on repeat are things like When Harry Met Sally, Notting Hill, 500 Days of Summer, High Fidelity, Sleepless in Seattle, and a hidden gem titled The Giant Mechanical Man.

There are lots of films about love and dating out there, both comedic and serious. The pickings get slim, however, when you try to find a film about the future of love and romance. Not a science fiction film with love in it, one that’s about love. There are a few. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Solaris, Upside Down, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Code 46, and Her come to mind.

In the world of science fiction literature, the pickings are similarly slim. When Orbit Books asked me to expand my short story, “Bridesicle,” into a novel (resulting in Love Minus Eighty), they wanted me to turn it into an exploration of love and dating in the future. When I started digging into previous published SF to see how others had explored how dating and love will change in the future, there was less out there than I would have guessed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s always been plenty of love and romance in SF literature, but it’s often the B story in a novel about some other aspect of the future. SF deserves some credit in depicting who falls in love, with a not too terribly bad record in depicting biracial, same-sex, and polyamorous relationships, but even there, the norms of romance and dating are often (though not always) depicted as relatively changeless and universal.

They aren’t, though. In ancient times, love was sometimes considered a form of insanity. Arranged marriages used to be much more prevalent than they are today, especially in the Western world. When covering love and relationships in my college psychology classes, I have to keep in mind that my students’ experience of romantic relationships is different from my own college experience from just a few decades earlier.

The internet has played a big role in changing how people meet and fall in love. Among other things, it allows people to be far pickier about whom they spend time with, because the internet allows us to customize. Want a partner who loves Goth music, exploring abandoned buildings, doesn’t want children, is Methodist but not a churchgoer, and plays trombone?  No problem (although you may have to be open to traveling).


“SF deserves some credit in depicting who falls in love, with a not too terribly bad record in depicting biracial, same-sex, and polyamorous relationships, but even there, the norms of romance and dating are often (though not always) depicted as relatively changeless and universal.  They aren’t, though.”


Not sure who you’re looking for? Internet dating sites use algorithms to suggest potential partners based on your interactions with the site. Those algorithms are still in their infancy, but the dating websites’ data professionals are always seeking more precise matchmaking algorithms. In the future, those algorithms may become scarily accurate, because dating sites do a ton of research (using their clients’ online behavior as data, without their explicit permission). They know, for example, what sort of opening messages to potential partners garner the most replies. If you want to improve your odds of getting a reply on a dating website, use an unusual greeting like Howdy, or How’s it going, rather than Hi or Hello; never compliment the person’s physical appearance; make a joke at your own expense; be an atheist (seriously, that was one of their findings); and whatever you do, don’t misspell words.

In the future, though, the real action may be in biotechnology. We know that women can smell how attractive a man is at a better-than-chance rate by sniffing a T-shirt he’s worn. Casinos routinely release engineered scents that increase slot machine use by up to 45%. How long will it be before there are fragrances on the market that are bioengineered to effectively manipulate people’s perception of the attractiveness of a potential partner?

In my young adult novel The Future Will Be BS-Free, I speculated about the development of a virtually foolproof lie-detector that uses remote fMRI (brain scan) technology instead of more unreliable physiological indicators. Imagine a future where people’s first interaction with a potential romantic partner takes place in an environment where both are able to tell when the other is lying. Now, that might change dating just a bit.

My story in this month’s issue of Asimov’s,Nic and Viv’s Compulsory Courtship.” [on sale now], deals with some of these issues—matchmaking algorithms and arranged marriages—in an homage to one of my favorite genres—the romantic comedy. I hope you’ll check it out. Thanks for reading!

Will McIntosh (@willmcintoshSF and http://www.willmcintosh.net) lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife and their twins. The author was a psychology professor before turning to writing full time. He is a Hugo award winner and finalist for the Nebula and other SF/F awards. Will has published eight novels and around fifty short stories—in Asimov’s (where he won Reader’s Awards in 2010 and 2013), Lightspeed, Science Fiction and Fantasy: Best of the Year, and elsewhere. In his new story, Will explores the complications that may arise as humans and AIs learn to live together.

Q&A with Derek Künsken

Pictured above: The CEO of Future Affairs Administration in Miao ceremonial dress, and our interviewed author, Derek Künsken.

For “Tool Use by the Humans of Danzhai County,” [on sale now], Derek Künsken did a deep-dive into the eponymous county’s socioeconomic workings. Below, he takes us on a journey through the story’s origins and development, and the questions and unpolished answers that helped him fully realize this setting. Bonus: more photos from Derek’s time in Danzhai County, and a link to his re-read of the X-Men comics!

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

DK: One of my Chinese publishers (Future Affairs Administration, like a sort of Chinese Lightspeed magazine) occasionally does partnerships with private companies to bring scifi authors to see parts of China and then write science fiction inspired by the experience. It’s a bit of a mix of futurism and foresight. Three other western authors, six Chinese authors, and I tour a private sector poverty relief initiative in the mountains of Danzhai County in Guizhou province, one of the poorest provinces of China.

They showed us the new industries they’d been building (eco-tourism and cultural tourism— mostly targeting the growing Chinese middle class), as well as new agricultural initiatives, especially cooperative tea farming, as well as schools, new roads and bridges and so on. Meeting the ethnic Miao people and seeing elements of their culture was the experience of a lifetime and obviously inspired.


Traditional bird cages made by Miao craftspeople.

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

DK: I’d already written a story for FAA on commission after a trip like this (Water and Diamond, also published in Asimov’s), but that had been after touring a high-tech Chinese financial services company. For this one, I felt I’d been given a turn at plate to write science fiction on a real contemporary issue and so I wanted to really think about how technology and society and poverty would interact.

I’ve seen poverty in other places, and I didn’t want in any way to disrespect that type of human experience. So before I left for Danzhai County, I researched everything I could on poverty reports in China. I also spent a lot of time with the Chinese editors and writers, asking a lot of questions about poverty and its drivers in China. I had expected that there might be some reticence in the answers, but my hosts were very frank.

They answered questions about racism, sexual harassment, education, disability, pay gap between women and men, and so on. They also answered all the cultural questions I needed to have answered to have a chance to try to depict the world of Danzhai County as authentically as I could. These had a lot to do with gender, sexuality, family roles, family formation, and generational expectations. No one seemed to try to give me a polished version because the answers I got were often not pretty and were very much in line to what I’d seen of poverty and social problems in other countries.


Rice field way up in a mountain, pictured prior to a meeting with village elders.

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

DK: I trained as a biologist, so I sometimes take unnecessarily evolutionary views of things, in this case, what we mean when we say tool. We’re tool users, and in many ways, we can think about all our tools and memetic knowledges and mental abstractions like language and art as parts of the human phenotype. This idea of the tool as the phenotype becomes very weird and distorted when we think of things like AI and machine learning as tools. When we can make AIs that can think as well as we can, are they still tools, or are we making whole other classes of phenotypes? I don’t know, but I felt that some of the answer was in the idea of what constitutes a tool.

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

DK: I don’t write a lot of novellas so I was a tiny bit worried about finding a home for it, but Asimov’s had published nine other pieces of short fiction of mine, including a novella. And Sheila is an editor I trust with my work. So while the story kept growing, I wrote to ask her how long was too long. When she accepted the story, she had some really important editorial notes that very much improved it.


Authors Bo Jiang, Derek Künsken, and Bao Shu against a backdrop of rice farms. Jiang and Shu have both been translated and published in Clarkesworld as well as elsewhere.

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

DK: A while ago I might have answered this with something a little less examined, but since my book editor named my novel series “The Quantum Evolution series,” I realized that a lot of my work seems to think in evolutionary terms. Humans are evolving right now, as we speak. If we take tools to be phenotypic expressions of our species, in the last century, our phenotype and way of living has changed drastically.

I also like to think about the life forms that different environments can evolve. I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it’s as easy as saying I learned evolution and now think in those terms. But I think that as you think more and more in certain ways, the easier (and more likely) it is to think along those pathways. I hope that’s not a statement that my thinking is calcifying, but I’m not ruling that out.


AE: What is your process?

DK: I think I prefer to write on spec. That is to say, I think I do because I live in fear of signing a contract and then getting writer’s block and being all stressed about it. I haven’t had writer’s block yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t fear it. I think that’s why I outline and plot out things so much. For my first Chinese-commissioned futurism story, I researched the heck out of the technologies they said they were going to show us, before I even got on the plane. I did the same thing here and arrived with some possible characters and situations and conflicts in mind, ways I thought that technology might affect poverty and poverty reduction efforts. For this story, I finished an outline with a bunch of scratchy scene descriptions and then drafted it in about three weeks.

I trained as a biologist, so I sometimes take unnecessarily evolutionary views of things, in this case, what we mean when we say tool. We’re tool users, and in many ways, we can think about all our tools and memetic knowledges and mental abstractions like language and art as parts of the human phenotype.


AE: How did you break into writing?

DK: Haha. I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of being published described in those terms. We can break into acting or comics, but getting published was collecting fifty rejections in a folder across two novels and maybe a dozen short stories. The fifty-first submission was an acceptance from the venerable Canadian SF magazine On Spec. My second acceptance, a year later, was from Sheila, for “Beneath Sunlit Shallows,” which appeared in the magazine in 2008.

AE: What other projects are you currently working on?

DK: I’m happy to say that Solaris Books liked The Quantum Magician (also serialized in Analog) and The Quantum Garden enough that they bought another three books from me, one of which is finishing its serialization in Analog (The House of Styx) and the two others which I am writing right now, around work and parenting. I think this interview will go up at the same time The House of Styx will be released in ebook and audio. Links here: https://books2read.com/TheHouseofStyx. The hardcover was rescheduled for an April 2021 release.


Traditional (and very spicy) cuisine from Guizhou.

AE: What are you reading right now?

DK: I’m actually terrible at watching TV, so I’m pretty chuffed that in the last six months, I watched all three seasons of Westworld (some of the best science fiction I’ve ever seen in TV/movie form in terms of the examination of the science fictional ideas), and am well on track to get to at least season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Between a day job, parenting, writing, and the pandemic, I don’t have the bandwidth right now to engage with new fiction, so I’m mostly rereading, including a bunch of older comic books.

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

DK: I mostly dwell on twitter @derekkunsken and keep a website at http://www.derekkunsken.com. My first two space opera novels are available everywhere in print, audio and ebook. If you want to see me in full nerd colors, I wax deep-geek over comic books every two weeks at http://www.blackgate.com, where I’ve been blogging for about 6 years. Late last year, I started a complete reread of the X-Men, starting with X-Men #1 in 1963. I’m up to fifteen or so posts so far. You can find them here: https://www.blackgate.com/?s=x-men.

Derek raises his son, reads comic books, and writes science fiction in Gatineau, Québec, but not all at the same time. He was invited to tour a poverty alleviation effort in Guizhou in 2018 to inspire this story, and its publication marks his tenth appearance in Asimov’s. Derek’s new novel, The House of Styx (a Godfather story set in the clouds of Venus), is finishing its serialization in our sister magazine Analog, and will be released in hardcover shortly. His first novel, a space opera heist story called The Quantum Magician, was a finalist for the Aurora, the Locus, and the Chinese Nebula Awards.

Questions About the New Inequality

Herb Kauderer, whose poem “Bicameral” appears in our July/August issue [on sale now], explores some of the new social divisions arising from this pandemic, and asks us to consider what role science fiction has to play as these shifts and rifts come into being.

I am writing this blog nine weeks after my job as a professor was converted—in emergency fashion—to online, due to the Coronavirus threat. Social distancing and quarantines are happening in many different ways and levels. New systems of work and socialization are being developed, and new language is following. For example, many of us are having work meetings and social meetings on visual platforms such as Zoom, Collaborate, Google Hangouts, and Skype. Most of these offer a view where we can see a grid of the webcam views of others in an array of boxes. Soon people in those virtual boxes performed comic actions based on the shape in which they were contained, and such actions quickly acquired the name Brady-boxing after the 70’s sitcom The Brady Bunch, and its opening theme. As the music plays, the large Brady family is presented, each in their own box, but referencing each other. In fact, I propose calling this system of communication Brady meetings and Brady socialization. They are unexpectedly important and deserve a distinct name.

Like many people whose employment was forced to go online (and essential workers in person), I have had to work a lot more hours. In fact, probably sixty-five hours a week. Meanwhile, there are more involuntarily unemployed people than at any time since The Great Depression. As Brady socialization increased there was a period where speakers would assume that everyone now had an excess of free time to fill. Many awkward exchanges caused that assumption to become less common. The other side of the assumption coin followed when employed speakers faced with the loss of spending outlets inappropriately assumed everyone now had spare money. More uncomfortable moments followed causing these assumptions to decline as well. A new etiquette continues to arise, and sociologists are already charting it.

But my experience cannot be subjective, because I have spent a life in science fiction. So have most in my social groups. Social and/or geographic distancing has been a key idea for as long as I’ve been reading. I can’t even estimate how many science fiction stories I have consumed that dealt with some form of quarantine or long-distance exchanges. I might guess that at least two hundred of my published stories and poems have dealt with these phenomena, so I have thought about it a lot, and researched it periodically. Lots of great, and some accurate, portrayals of what it’s like have been produced. Yet those small details, such as Brady-boxing and the new inequalities of time and spending cash, are hard to guess.

Less difficult to predict has been the political squabbling over supplies and what to do. Competition for resources always follows their scarcity. Distrust of science is sadly prevalent among world leaders who don’t know what to do.

I know firsthand the nobility of humanity, so I am sure most with antibodies will serve others. I know with an excessive personal catalog of scars, physical, emotional, and mental, of the brutality of humanity; so I am sure there will be hate and discrimination.


As it turns out, I have had, and recovered from, COVID-19. What was a mild twenty-four hour bug to my young and healthy son knocked me on my back for weeks. I avoided the hospital, but there were days where almost every waking minute was focused on breathing evenly and smoothly. It was a respiratory infection from hell. A dozen people I know have died from it. I tend to take care of myself and stay healthy, and I suspect it made the difference in this case.

This leads to a new inequality: immunity.

And my question to readers is this, what happens when those with antibodies are increasingly free while those without are increasingly constricted?

I know firsthand the nobility of humanity, so I am sure most with antibodies will serve others. I know with an excessive personal catalog of scars, physical, emotional, and mental, of the brutality of humanity; so I am sure there will be hate and discrimination.

I have always believed that an important component of science fiction and science fiction readers is the willingness to focus on tomorrow and beyond while the rest of humanity wonders what’s for dinner. In general, we need to approach the coming antibody inequality with love, practicality, scientific research, and respect for human rights. And we will be opposed. But the power of science fiction is to crowd source solutions before the problem is manifest. Our job has rarely been so important.

Herb Kauderer is an English professor at Hilbert College.  His doctoral dissertation, and both his masters’ theses, involved speculative fiction.  He wrote the indie feature film ‘Beyond the Mainstream’ (2013), and his publications include sixty plus short or flash fictions, and over 1700 poems, many collected into eighteen books and chapbooks.  His poetry has won the 2016 Asimov’s Readers’ Award, been a finalist for the AnalogAnLab Readers’ Award, and received Honorable Mention in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror.  More about Herb and his writing can be found at HerbKauderer.com.