Language Usage in “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots”

by Alexander Jablokov

Far future stories are clearly written in a language we can’t understand, and only incompetently translated into a form of our current speech by an author who is almost never a linguist.

And sometimes there is no exact local equivalent to a concept or usage in that other world. So: do you make up a word, or repurpose one from our own language—in this case, English?

Tempest, City of Storms

My Sere Glagolit stories [“How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry,” July/August 2017 Asimov’s & “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” on sale in our current issue now!] are set in a vast city called Tempest, the City of Storms, the foundations of which were built by mysterious characters called the Architon. The city is inhabited by dozens of species from a variety of worlds and is full of widely variant environmental conditions. Storms and extreme weather conditions are common.

Sere herself is what we would recognize as a human being. She grew up in a somewhat dysfunctional human community, and now makes her living as a detective and problem solver, benefiting from a difficult childhood in which she often spent a lot of time in the company of the offspring of other communities. This past has not made an explicit appearance in any of her stories yet, but will in the future.

Referring to others with minimal judgment

While each of these groups does have a specific name I had to make up, how does the Sere refer to these other species in general? How does she think about all the various beings around her? Thinking of herself as “human” and the others as “alien” might, in some circumstances be the natural solution. “Us” and “others” is a typical dichotomy in history.

But this world is a bit different. It’s not that these groups all cooperate, or even acknowledge each other as equal. Tempest is riven with conflict, sometimes leading to societal breakdown. But they do each have a specific role to play, and face the same physical threats of a city built by others whose purposes are not understood and has dramatic weather conditions that sometimes turn fatal. Everyone is an alien.

So I figured there would be, mostly, a sense of rough equality, of “we’re all in this together.” So for the general referent for all other beings, I chose the somewhat Biblical term “nations.”

I put a version of the earlier Sere story, “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” through the Rio Hondo workshop, a peer workshop run by Walter Jon Williams. The general suggestion there was to use “gentile.” That had a certain logic to it, but I thought its connection to Jews and Mormons would load it with a bit too much referential baggage. But thinking about that baggage led me, finally, to nations.

“Nations” as used by the Hebrews was certainly not a neutral term. They thought other peoples were pretty awful, and existed solely to make their lives miserable. And so its use is not necessarily devoid of judgment in Tempest either. It’s just the term one group uses to describe all of the others in a generic way.

These matters of usage do play a role in revealing something of the social structure and culture of a place.

Speaking without a tongue

But sometimes I do find myself making up words. “Traffiq” is probably the most obvious. I wanted a word for language or tongue that did not refer specifically to that part of the human anatomy: many of the nations lack what we would recognize as a tongue, and sometimes communicate through gestures or other modes.

Why this finicky precision? Once in a story set in a medievalish world that never had Judaism or Christianity (“The Forgotten Taste of Honey”), I wanted to refer to someone’s Adam’s apple, the cartilage around the larynx that is visible in the throat, particularly in males. This gave me pause. They wouldn’t call it that, of course. The etymology of the term is more disputed than you might think, but its source is in Hebrew, through Latin.

I think I finally referred to the “voice box,” which sounds kind of dumb. Why spend so much time on this?

Because a word that carries inappropriate references can really rattle a reader. I still remember coming across the term “input” (as in “did he give you his input?”) in someone else’s medievalish novel, a computer-era term that affected me like a missed step in the dark.

Words carry with them all sorts of history, some upfront, and some more or less hidden. How much attention is the writer supposed to pay to this? Now that I look at my points of sensitivity, I see that at least these two derive from human anatomy. That’s not enough to formulate a rule from, but it’s something to watch.

“Traffic” derives from a Middle French word that means trade or commerce, which seemed appropriate. That French word had a Q in it, so, despite the overuse of that particular letter in making words seem “alien,” I thought it was enough to make clear that the word traffiq did not refer to getting stuck somewhere in your car. Still, it has a slightly orientalizing feel, since Arabic transliteration is the most common place you tend to see Q ending words. There’s always a loose end flopping around somewhere.

Are there innocent choices?

And here you thought “How Sere Looked for a Pair of Boots” was just a fun detective story set in a world with a lot of weird aliens. And it is! But sometimes more goes into light entertainment than you might think.

So don’t get me started on my search for an ungendered pronoun to refer to members of other nations, who may or may not have sexes as we understand them. “It” is generally used for objects or animals, not intelligent beings, though that is what I ended up using. I toyed with something like “id,” treated grammatically just like “it,” but as you’re reading you could easily trip over it and think it’s a typo for “I’d,” or, most likely, just think it’s dumb. Sometimes precision has to give way to readability. Particularly when the precision is more imagined than real.

There are enough alternate pronouns being created to deal with societal issues in our actual world that I didn’t want to come up with yet another to deal with a purely imaginary one in a made-up one. Still, “it” does not satisfy me. Suggestions welcome.

From his day job as a freelance marketing content writer, Alex Jablokov has learned to question his clients about what, really, they are after. His detective in this story, Sere Glagolit, is still learning the ropes, though her business is a bit more fraught than producing white papers. She first appeared in “How Sere Picked Up Her Laundry” (Asimov’s, July/August 2017). Alex enjoys Sere, her cases, and her environmentally complex home city of Tempest so much that he has several more stories planned for this world. He is also currently at work on a novel that grows out of the events of “The Forgotten Taste of Honey,” which was first published in our October/November 2017 issue.

Q&A with Lavie Tidhar

Lavie Tidhar is back in Asimov’s pages with his touching story “Neom,” on sale now in our current issue. Don’t miss this poignant story about the passage of time. Read on below for a peek behind the curtain with Lavie’s insights and inspirations.


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

LT: I’ve been visiting the Red Sea for twenty years now (on the Egyptian side), and I was always struck by looking just across the water to the Arabian Peninsula, and that huge stretch of desert along the Red Sea coast is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Then I came across crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS)’s plan to build this sort of cyberpunk utopia called Neom there! I mean it has a promotional Youtube video and everything . . . And I’ve been recently very interested in the idea of future cities, and I knew I had to write about it. If only because I find the idea of a cyberpunk utopia so very terrifying . . .


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

LT: So it came from my interest, I think, in the new Chinese Silk Road, which goes all the way to the Red Sea (and is partly featured in my story “Yiwu”), and from the portrayal of Neom in the promotional material put out by the Saudis. And then, I’ve been interested in robots again recently. I did a conference on AI in Cambridge in England, and I was struck by how AI researchers are still talking about Asimov’s three laws! And also, of course, by the famous act of Saudi Arabia granting citizenship to a robot recently, Sophia (you really can’t make this stuff up!). So all of this kind of came together for me.


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

LT: It’s nominally a part of the wider Central Station universe, where the majority of my straight SF stories are set. And it’s also thematically linked to “Yiwu.” I was kind of hoping to explore more future urban settings in forthcoming stories, but that hasn’t happened yet. I have a few planned . . .


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

Continue reading “Q&A with Lavie Tidhar”

Q&A with Robert Borski

Robert Borski has been contributing to our magazine for close to a decade now, and his latest—and shortest—poem “Eclipse 2017” can be found in our current issue [on sale now].



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

RB: Like almost everyone else in the country on August 21st, 2017, I was watching the solar eclipse, trying not to blind myself in the process, even as, online, a number of my colleagues in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association were uploading their impressions, mostly in the form of short poems. Almost immediately, half a dozen ideas came to me and while I shared a few of them (e.g., “Shady deal nixed/ changeling sun returned”), I held back several, intending to submit them for publication. “Eclipse (2017)” was subsequently accepted by Asimov’s a short while later.

AE: Do you particularly relate to this piece?

RB: Even though I’m nearing 70, I still have a rebellious nature, so if you tell me not to fly too close to the Sun or don’t look back, I’m either going to cheat (does it count, if I use a mirror, to see if my wife follows or if my former place of residence is on fire?) or just outright disobey—even if other auspices (like a total eclipse, perhaps) present themselves. So, yes, Icarus and I could be blood brothers.

Continue reading “Q&A with Robert Borski”

Relax, It’s Just a Story

by Peter Wood


“Salting the Mine,” my current story in Asimov’s, took a couple dozen revisions over ten years. Asimov’s Editor Sheila Williams liked the 2017 penultimate version, but said it wasn’t “alien” enough.

I can’t argue with that. The first version she saw was basically The Andy Griffith Show in space with the characters wandering around a Mayberry stand-in light-years from Earth. Alien it was not.

But, Asimov’s raised an interesting point. Essentially the magazine said the story wasn’t plausible enough. It hadn’t reached that tipping point where readers could suspend disbelief. You might rightfully ask: Does a speculative story need to be plausible? Well, yeah, it does, but not to the point that the wonder of the tale is gutted.

My story still isn’t exactly believable. The aliens and the faster-than-light drive aren’t feasible, but I think that by correcting the issues raised by Sheila Williams, the story becomes plausible enough.

There is a subgenre of science fiction called mundane science fiction, which advocates only tales that could exist in our current Universe. No aliens. No faster-than-light travel. No time travel. No stories basically outside our Solar System. Only foreseeable reasonable improvements in technology.

I’m not a big fan of mundane science fiction. Under its anal-retentive rules most of the great science fiction just isn’t possible. Take The Martian Chronicles, a literary masterpiece, but complete scientific bullshit. Who’d want to read Bradbury if his characters wandered around a lifeless Mars in space suits instead of a landscape that might as well be 1950 small town Ohio?

Continue reading “Relax, It’s Just a Story”

Q&A with Megan Engelhardt

Megan Engelhardt’s holiday-themed poem suits our November/December issue [on sale now] well. Get to know her and her writing in our newest Q&A.

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

ME: I’ve gone to church my entire life, and my entire life I’ve disliked the song “Silent Night.” A few Christmases ago I was attending our Christmas Eve service and, as always, we sang “Silent Night” with the lights turned off. Everyone in the congregation held a candle, and it struck me that it was worth singing the song to see the individual flames merging together to light up the sanctuary. It was a good feeling.

Then I put it into space.

AE: How did this story germinate?

ME: I wrote this poem all in one go, one wild rush from beginning to end. (I find it easier to do that with poems than with short stories.) It went through several rounds of edits before I was happy with the shape of it, but the core poem took maybe half an hour to get down.

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

ME: I’ve been trying to stop self-rejecting my pieces. Often I’ll write something that I feel good about, but not send it to my dream markets because I decide it’s not good enough. Asimov’s is absolutely one of my dream markets, and I am so thrilled I didn’t self-reject this one!

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

ME: My sister, Amanda C. Davis, is my best critic, biggest cheerleader, and my first influence and inspiration. I love C.S. Lewis and his work. If I could write something half as good, funny, meaningful, or influential as Terry Pratchett, I’ll count myself lucky.

AE: How do you deal with writers’ block?

ME: Sims 3, long showers, and ranting about the problem to my husband, who listens very patiently until I talk myself into a solution. Continue reading “Q&A with Megan Engelhardt”

All Fiction Is Speculative

by David Ebenbach

“Speculative Fiction” is one of those slippery terms that, for better or for worse, writers are always trying to pin down. The results have included elaborate Venn diagrams, massive databases, and unfortunate sentences such as “Like other cultural fields, speculative fiction is a domain of activity that exists not merely through texts but through their production and reception in multiple contexts.” Some people, meanwhile, have suggested that the “Speculative Fiction” label is mainly just a cover that can “allow the more pretentious to believe that their favorite work is a proper ‘literary’ work with no connection to, and thus obvious superiority over, that geeky science fiction or fantasy.”

Why are we so eager to pin this term down? Because otherwise, according to Lynn Reynolds of Liminal Pages we’ll be left with something “so loose that it can be stretched to include all fiction.”

Continue reading “All Fiction Is Speculative”

On “Joyride”

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I did not expect to write “Joyride” [on sale in the November/December issue now]. I was working on a very long novel in my Diving universe. I couldn’t find a way into the novel. By that, I mean, I would start it, and I would write with a lot of enthusiasm, and then, slowly, the enthusiasm would drain. I would get to the point where I couldn’t write any further.

Each time, I would pick different characters and a different starting point in the story. It didn’t matter. As I wrote, the story would falter.

Then Nadim Crowe walked into the novel. In the book, he’s an adult. And in each draft, he would hint at this horrible thing that had happened to him in his youth. This thing had an impact on his entire life.

Continue reading “On “Joyride””